Mr Abbott is lying on the ITU bed, a corrugated tube connecting his mask to the oxygen supply, a tangle of chest leads running out to the ECG monitor, a blood pressure cuff round his arm, a SATS probe clipped to his finger, the ports of a central line dangling from his neck, and a urine catheter running out to a bag on the side of the bed. He is asleep when we roll into the department with our trolley; the nurse wakes him up.
‘Come on, Paul. Shake a leg. We can’t have you lazing around here all day. What do you think this is, a holiday camp?’
He opens his eyes.
‘I’m sure you do it on purpose,’ he says, his dry voice only just distinguishable above all the hushing and beeping and buzzing. ‘What do you do – hide in the cupboard until you see I’ve dropped off, then jump out? You’re a sadist, you are.’
‘Charming. I don’t know why I bother. Just because I wouldn’t give you any of my Kit Kat.’
‘You can keep your bloody Kit Kat,’ he says, then goes to fold his arms. He seems surprised to find that he can’t do it, so lays them down again.
‘Hello, Paul. I’m Spence, this is Frank. We’ve come to transfer you to the other hospital. How are you doing?’
‘Great. Thanks. Bloody marvellous. Who did you say?’
‘Spence and Frank.’
‘There you go,’ says the nurse, stuffing all his notes in a grey plastic bag. ‘I told you they wouldn’t be long. Your own private taxi. How’s that for service?’
We help prep him for the transfer to our trolley.
‘Nice bed you’ve got here,’ I say, looking around. There are two chintzy pictures on the wall facing him – a Thames barge in sail, and a cottage on a country lane. I wonder how long he’s been staring at those pictures, what they’ve come to mean to him.
‘Ready, set – slide.’
‘Now don’t you go complaining too much,’ says the nurse. ‘I know what these guys are like. They’re not nice like me. They’ll fly-tip you in a lay-by.’
‘I only complain when there’s something or someone to complain about.’
But he reaches out to her, and when she puts her hand in his, he squeezes it affectionately.
‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ he says.
‘Paul – you’re very welcome. Get better soon.’
We wheel him out.
‘And don’t come back!’ she says.
It’s difficult to chat to Paul on the ambulance. The motorway falls away beneath us like a river in flood, and the wind booms around the metal sides of the truck.
‘I suppose you’re retired now?’ I say to him.
‘Retired? Oh god, yes. Years ago.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I was an engineer. Telecoms. I was the guy they use to send in when no-one else could sort it out. I’d pitch up, they’d point me to a big room full of wires and relays and transformers, all higgledy-piggledy, and they’d say “There you go, mate. Get cracking.” And do you know what, when I walked out of that room, everything’d be back in its place and the air would be humming sweetly. And that’s what I did for a living.’
‘It was good. I went all over the world. Japan, Africa, the Middle East. Always the same thing. “There you go, mate – sort it out.” And I would.’
He pauses, and struggles to adjust his position on the trolley.
‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m all right. I just get a bit – sore, you know?’
I reposition the mask on his face and tuck him up again.
A moment passes.
‘D’you know – there was a woman in the bed opposite me,’ he says. ‘Not good. Not good at all. I’ve no idea what was wrong with her, but it wasn’t good. She’d cry quietly to herself. Felt like hours. I could hear her, especially when it was quiet and the visitors had gone. She had lots of people come to see her. You could tell it was bad because they didn’t say much, just sort of hung about. And when they went she’d cry quietly like that. The nurses did what they could, but it was awful.’
He turns his face to look at me, and his eyes are shining.
‘I couldn’t do nothing,’ he says. ‘What do I know about any of that? All I could do was lie there and listen.’
I hand him some tissue. He wipes his face and blows his nose, then re-settles the mask on his face.
‘And that was the worst thing. I had no idea what was wrong. I couldn’t do nothing. I just had to lie there. And listen.’
The ambulance rocks from side to side. He closes his eyes to compose himself.
We turn off onto the slip road and take the exit towards town.