I only recognise The Excelsior when we pull up outside. A dour Edwardian façade, it has all the allure of a ruined mausoleum with en suite and satellite.
‘I remember this place.’
But it wasn’t the place I remembered. There had been a woman in a back room, flat out on a pull-down. As we worked on her, the frowsy woman who shared the room had taken a call on her mobile: this isn’t a great time – seriously, it’s not a great time – then she’d sighed, turned round and lowered her voice – blue eyes, blond hair, big tits – fifty - a hundred. She was right about the blond hair. I could see it hanging on the back of the door along with her wrap. But she was fine. She arranged a time and said goodbye before she jabbed the phone off, right back with us with all her friend’s dates and medications off pat.
An old man waves to us from the porch, his paisley pyjamas gaping dangerously at the fly. As I get out of the truck I nod over to him.
‘Are you the patient?’
He bats the air. ‘Me? Oh no! Though it’s true I have had need from time to time.’
He laughs, coughs. Digging over a tub of gravel.
‘You get on inside in the warm. We’ll be there in a second.’
Up the stairs, and the old man is standing half in, half out of the reception office. The ghastly strip-light of the lobby highlights the old man’s nose, his filthy moon glasses folded into it, like a fence subsumed by an oak.
‘Come on in, boys,’ he rattles. ‘Pete’s through here.’
He turns and leads us into the office where a middle aged man sits quietly on a swivel chair.
‘Pete! I know you!’
‘Do you?’ he says, mournfully.
In the pause that follows I try to think of a way of saying: Yes. The last time we met you, were lying at the bottom of Prince’s Hill, shivering in a leather thong, saying how insulted you were they suggested you used Viagra.
‘Yes. It was a while ago, though,’ I say.
But in fairness, no-one could forget Pete, certainly no-one who had seen The Wizard of Oz. But if Pete looks uncannily like the cowardly lion, you would have to think times had fallen off since the witch melted. In his skinny black leather jacket and dirty jeans, he could be the cowardly dealer lion in the substantially re-written modern version, The Wizard of Ounce, growling ‘Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!’ when a flying monkey offers him less than twenty-five for a third.
‘What’s the problem tonight, Pete?’
He strokes his legs.
‘I can’t move ‘em,’ he says.
‘How did you get down to reception?’
He thinks about it. ‘Walked.’
‘I couldn’t carry him,’ says Harold, the old man. ‘I’m ninety-three myself. I’ve had pig valves, balloons, god knows what. I’ll be lucky to see Christmas.’
Pete looks at him.
‘I don’t need carrying,’ he says.
‘I’m just saying,’ says Harold. ‘I’m not the manager. The manager doesn’t stay overnight. I look after things till he gets back in the morning. I’m not – official.’
We turn our attention back to Pete. Apart from his rather lean appearance, his face is tanned and he sits in the chair with his legs planted confidently apart.
He taps his right hip. ‘I’m waiting for an operation,’ he says. ‘But it’s not too bad.’
We check him over, everything’s fine. Of everyone in the room, Harold is the one who needs most attention, but he’s quite happy to watch from the corner of the office, idly turning a little brass horse over and over in his hands.
‘The manager’s back at seven he says, placing the horse back down amongst the chaos of papers and letters on the desk. ‘I’ll fill him in.’
We can’t find anything new going on with Pete, but he insists we take him to hospital.
He squints up at me.
‘Will you be bringing me back?’
‘No. You’ll have to get a taxi.
‘A taxi? How much’ll that set me back?’
‘Early hours – about fifteen quid.’
‘But if you really think your problem can’t wait till morning, the money shouldn’t figure, should it?’
‘And the rest,’ says Harold, chuckling horribly, hauling himself up. ‘Well if there’s nothing more you gentlemen require, I think I’ll take myself off to bed.’