Gary is standing outside the pub, arguing with a woman, waving his stick in the air and almost being carried over backwards by the rucksack on his back. She sees the ambulance first and steps to one side to wave us over. He stands where she left him, planting his stick back down on the pavement and blinking owlishly in the harsh midday sun.
‘He’s soiled his-self’ she says as I climb out of the cab. ‘The taxis don’t want to know.’
‘Okay. Are you a relative?’
‘A relative?’ She tips her chin up and laughs like a crow. ‘A relative?’ But then the humour of it leaves her as suddenly as it came. ‘I’m a friend,’ she says. ‘If that.’
We walk over to Gary.
‘What’s happened?’ I ask him.
‘What’s happened? I’ve shit me-self, mate, that’s what’s happened. Look at me. What a state. I stink. It’s disgusting. What’s wrong with me?’
‘I don’t know, Gary. Have you vomited at all?’
‘Only the usual brackish whatsits every morning, like. But this – oh, it’s disgusting. The taxis took one look at me and drove off. That’s not very nice, is it?’
‘Let’s get you on the ambulance and see what’s what, shall we?’
‘Urgh,’ he says, walking like an old cowboy beside me, a dreadful dark stain spreading across the seat of his jeans and down each leg.
The Easter throng magically parts around us right and left.
Frank has placed a line of inco pads down the trolley; Gary manoeuvres himself delicately into position.
‘I’m not in trouble, am I?’ he says, hauling each leg up individually. ‘What are they going to do to me? I was only there yesterday.’
‘I say – what were you up at the hospital for yesterday? Incontinence?’
‘No, mate. I fell over and cut me face.’
Behind the filthy oval panes of his glasses I can see scuff marks and steri-strips around one of his eyes.
‘Was that drink related, too?’
‘I’m a diagnosed alcoholic. It’s all drink related, mate.’
‘How much have you had today?’
‘I just went in for a quick half and then this happened. They wouldn’t serve me any more and threw me out. I hope they don’t charge me for the chair.’
His friend leans in at the door to say goodbye.
‘See you later, Gary,’ she says, drawing her lips back and exposing a landfill of rotten teeth. ‘Look after him,’ she says, and slams the door shut.
At the hospital, the air in the department is bright and relaxed. There is a sparkle of freshness about the place, a dreamy vista of empty beds, cleaners wiping surfaces with a Tai-Chi level of focus, a domestic wheeling a trolley of coffee, tea and perfectly aligned biscuits – the only thing lacking is birdsong, and a line of cherry trees scattering white blossom as I walk down the corridor to the desk. The charge nurse is chatting pleasantly with her colleagues and a couple of young doctors; they all look up and smile as I approach.
‘What have you got for us?’ she says.
The further I get with my story, the darker their collective expression grows. I feel as if I have committed a terrible error of judgement, like a leper trying to interest them in a new sandwich round. There is a shocked pause after I finish my handover.
‘Side room one,’ says the charge nurse finally, screwing up her nose as she spins my board round to get the surname. I want to reassure her Gary didn’t touch the board.
‘Where did you say you found him?’ she says.
‘In a pub on the high street.’
‘God,’ says one of the young doctors. ‘Which one?’
We load Gary onto the bed in the side room. He puffs and blows, his slack red cheeks flapping in and out beside the dreadful aperture of his mouth.
‘I stink,’ he says. ‘What’re they going to do to me?’
‘I don’t know Gary. Make sure you’re okay.’
‘Look at me.’
‘I know. It’s just the way it is.’
‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘I think it’s probably drink related.’
‘But I only had a half a lager.’
‘Did you have anything this morning?’
‘Well I had the usual but that was it.’
‘What’s the usual?’
‘Thirteen cans. But you see – I’m a diagnosed alcoholic.’
‘Anyway, Gary. Here’s your stick. The doctor will be with you shortly.’
In fact, things are so quiet that the doctor goes into the room as we’re outside cleaning the trolley. The door to the examination room is propped open with a chair and I can overhear the consultation.
‘Good afternoon to you. I’m Doctor Enderby.’
‘Hello, Doc. I was only up here yesterday,’ says Gary, pleasantly.
‘Oh yes? And why was that?’
‘I fell over. I’m a diagnosed alcoholic.’
‘Okay. I see. Mm. And can you tell me what has happened to you today, please?’
‘Yes I can. I’ve shit me-self.’
We wheel our trolley out through the automatic doors into sunshine.