Street names, synonyms for illness, difficulty, death. Shorthand scrawls for a pratfall in a swimming pool, an entrapment, a G5 in the lobby. Have I been here before? I’m sure I’ve been here before. If not here, then somewhere.
Tour guides on the Big Black Seaside Tour of Misfortune.
‘People don’t like to see us, Frank.’
‘Maybe we should change our uniform.’
‘Did you ever see pictures of the stuff they wore during the Black Death? A big black cape and a leather beak stuffed with herbs.’
‘I’d wear it.’
It’s late afternoon, my birthday, and I think the fog in the streets has invaded my heart.
‘If I don’t get a coffee in the next ten minutes I’m a dead man.’
I have been here before. Except the geometrically dour council block is surrounded by scaffolding. It coalesces out of the mist like a grotesque puzzle toy, a musical box. I imagine giant hands ripping it from its foundations, turning it over and over, eventually finding the pressure points and the whole thing springing apart to reveal – what? A dancing angel? Or a woman spinning round and round with a bottle of vodka?
There are tyres tracks on the triangular grass verge out front; probably from the last ambulance that parked here, probably yesterday. Getting out in slow motion. One small step for man, one giant waste of time. Reaching for the bell. And the long pause. I’ve definitely been here before.
Sandra is waiting for us on the sofa. She is a stop-motion, grey clay animation of a lonely drunk. Her cigarette burns in a different time zone. The flat is cold and poorly lit, a scattering of ripped bills, energy drinks, a plasma TV with teeth marks, the wretched galley kitchen a stub corridor to hell.
We spend time.
A pain in her side she’s had for a week. Hasn’t called the doctor because he’s shut, hasn’t any credit on her phone, can’t get there, doesn’t have the number, other reasons. She just wants reassurance she’s all right. She doesn’t want to come to hospital.
Ticks in boxes. Scrawled assessments.
‘We’ll log this call with your doctor so he knows what’s happened. What’s your number?’
She hands me the phone. After a while going through various menus I hand it back.
‘I can’t find it, Sandra.’
The walls of the flat are darkening damp and bare, except for a small cluster of family photos, framed. The oldest one, a baby in a frilly white jump suit lying happily in front of a two year old who has one hand on the baby’s head, as if she’s taking its temperature, or like a stall holder proudly describing her most valuable offering.
‘Which one’s you, Sandra? The baby or the girl?
Outside the fog is thickening. It runs noiselessly around us, shifting and cooling and flowing through, magically on and down to the barest atomic matrix of existence, where everything is everything, and anything is possible, where a man can stand still and be a lamppost, and a lamppost can go into a petrol station for a coffee.