We pick our way up to the battered front door through a tangle of rusted bike frames, boxes, nests of frayed rope, cans, bottles, food cartons, broken kitchen units - surely the high-water mark of some catastrophic flood. Frank presses the bell, and the loud clatter of it activates a monstrous dog, raging in a room deep within the house. It’s followed immediately after by the shouts of two men, so incoherently excitable they could be two cavemen trying to coral a bear. The barking is eventually muffled, there’s a couple of victory shouts, and then the front door is pulled open with a judder that almost puts the frame in.
A cadaverous man in parka and jogging bottoms looks us up and down.
‘Ambulance,’ says Frank, pleasantly. After a pause, he adds: ‘Are you the patient?’
‘Me? No. I’m Scott. You want Tony.’
The man stands aside, and Tony staggers towards us from the interior gloom.
‘Thanks. Thanks for coming. Thanks. I wondered when you’d get here. Do you want me outside, or shall I just sit down here. Woah! Almost went! Don’t want to make things worse, do I? Where shall I sit? On the floor? I’d never get up! Hey! I’d never get up! Do you ever feel like that? I bet you do. Who are you anyway?’
‘Just slow things down a bit, Tony. Have a seat – here.’
Frank sweeps a pile of newspapers from off the third stair up, and helps Tony to sit there.
Tony sits blinking in the hard light from the garden, flicking his head about like a chicken looking for grain. His right eye is grossly swollen and purple, but he doesn’t seem aware of it.
‘What happened to you?’ says Frank.
‘Me? Why? What happened to you? I’m okay. I’ve had a bit to drink – I admit. Why beat about the bush? It’s what I do. It’s who I am. I like to drink – have to, actually. Don’t I, Scottie? Scottie?’
He reaches out, grabs Scott by a pocket, and almost pulls himself off the step and onto the floor.
‘Scottie here’s my best friend. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for Scottie. Don’t worry about the dog, by the way. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’d bite off its head and rip it to pieces – hah! We locked him up for you. They told us you were scared of dogs.’
‘We’re not scared of dogs, Tony, but we’d rather they didn’t get in our way.’
‘Fair enough, squire. I know what you mean. I used to be scared of dogs, but Scottie showed me how to treat them. Didn’t you Scottie? You showed me? You stand there – grrr! Show them who’s boss. Fuck – what’s the matter with my eye?’
‘I don’t know. Have you had a fall at some point?’
Tony starts jabbing at his eye whilst Scott props himself up against the balustrade.
‘He fell over yesterday. Wasn’t knocked out, everything seemed fine, but this morning when he got up his eye was out here so I called you lot.’
‘Have you had anything else other than alcohol, Tony?’
‘Me? Yes. I have. I had some cornflakes.’
Scott sighs. ‘If you mean drugs, no he hasn’t had any drugs. We don’t do drugs. He’s just – always like this.’
‘Okay. Well. Let’s get you out to the ambulance and have a good look at you, Tony.’
‘I don’t need an ambulance, friend. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with me. Fuck – why can’t I open my eye? What’s wrong with my eye?’
‘You’ve had a fall and it’s become very swollen, Tony.’
‘Where’s the mirror? I’ve got to see this.’
He jumps up and staggers over to the hall mirror, a filthy smear of glass on the opposite wall. Next to the mirror are two large and blurrily pixellated photographs of a man staggering around in an alleyway.
‘Fuck! Fuck! I look terrible. Why are you showing me this? Why? What are you doing to me? Is this how I’m going to look the rest of my life? Christ – I’m a monster. Scottie! Look at this! Have you seen this? Jesus.’
‘Come on, Tony. Mind your step.’
Tony buzzes around the ambulance like a fly in a bottle.
‘Guess what my daughter’s name is? Go on – guess.’
‘I don’t know. Hayley?’
‘Evelina Stephanie Pattendale. Evelina Stephanie Pattendale. ESP. That’s why I called her that. ESP. Because that’s how we communicate.’ He taps his head and grins. ‘She’s not here though. She’s at college doing biochemistry. Gets it all from me. I know what you’re thinking. I’ve not always been such a fuck-up. I used to work in the industry. Yeah? But I can’t help having a drink. Where’s the harm in that? It’s a big enough world. Christ – my eye! What are you going to do about my eye?’
‘Just leave the dressing alone, Tony. The doctors will take care of it at the hospital.’
‘Hey. Do you want to hear a joke? This is fantastic. I love this joke. Evie told me this a while back. I love this joke.’
‘Go on then.’
‘I thought you were going to tell me a joke?’
‘Okay then. Be like that. Knock, knock.’
‘Sam! You know!’
He leans forward, creased at the waist with a strangely silent kind of laugh. Then he straightens back up again, suddenly serious, glancing about the ambulance with his one good eye. He starts asking questions like a hyperactive child: ‘Why is that yellow? What does that button do? How old are you?’ It’s impossible to talk to him; he is on to the next question before I can answer the last. At the hospital it’s the same, except when he’s in the chair and I’m wheeling him into the department, he seems unable to resist saying whatever comes to mind, utterly lacking that vital, social margin between a thought and its expression.
We pass a young man handcuffed to a prison officer, smoking.
‘Hello mate. What’ve you done? Hey? What’s your crime? He looks bad. A right handful.’ The prisoner cuts him with his eyes.
Just inside the automatic doors, a junior doctor stands at reception waiting for notes.
‘Hello, baby. You look great in green. Doesn’t she look absolutely fantastic! Yeah – and you know it.’
The doctor flushes and frowns as we pass.
I try to dampen down his behaviour, but nothing I do or say makes any difference. Everyone within range of that one good eye is a target, his tracer line of inappropriate free-association rattling off around the department.
‘Cubicle eight,’ says Frank, striding back towards us.
Tony looks up.