Harry is being transferred to the main hospital for his operation. He doesn’t want to go; it’s an emotional farewell. He puts on a brave face as we wheel the trolley out through the ward and down the corridor, but the great downwards arc of his moustache and his deeply hooded eyes give him an exaggeratedly mournful expression. Everyone there – his fellow patients, the nurses, cleaners, even the doctors – they all seem happy to see him off. They wave and shout things out. Take Care, Harry and All the best, mate and Good luck with the ol’ whasisname.
Outside in the lift he hugs his bag.
‘They’ve been so good to me here,’ he says. ‘Couldn’t have asked for more.’
It’s a forty-five minute ride, a routine journey, nothing to be done, the end of another long and busy day. I’m dangerously comfortable on my chair, the ambulance rocking gently from side to side as we hush along the road. Everything about me is folding inwards and downwards, an irresistible, gravitational collapse. At this rate, when we get to the other end and Rae opens the back door, all she’ll find is an empty uniform draped over the seat, and a trickle of warm sand from my boots.
I blink hard, sit up straight. Take a lungful of air.
When I breathe out, it’s like the deflation of a balloon character.
I rub my face for the tenth time, fold my arms, and smile across at Harry.
He smiles back.
He’s a sweet old guy, no doubt about it. But he hasn’t got his top plate in, so his mouth is loose and squashy. He speaks in a monotonous, rounded kind of whisper, hard to make out against all the background noise, and it’s difficult to lip-read because of the overhang of his moustache. And then, when I can make out what he’s saying, it seems to be nothing more than lists. And when he says each item on the list it’s accompanied by a little shrug of his shoulders, like a machine giving a little puff of smoke.
‘All right, Harry?’
‘Did you get something to eat?’
‘Oh yes. The food was good there. Very good. They do very good food there, I must say. Yes. No complaints about the food.’
I stare at him.
‘What kinds of things?’ I say, pathetically. ‘What .. erm... what do you like to eat?’
‘Oh – all sorts. I like pretty much everything. Pies. I like pies. Your steak and kidney. Chicken and mushroom. Leek and potato. I like a good pie. Shortcrust, flaky. Shepherd’s pie, so long as the mash isn’t lumpy. I can’t stand lumpy mash. It makes me sick. Pretty much all pies, basically. Fish pie. Fish pie’s nice. So long as it’s not too fishy. I don’t like tuna. Tuna’s for cats. Cod, of course. With chips. Haddock. and chips. Plaice and chips. Kippers. Then there’s sandwiches. I like a good sandwich. Cheese and tomato. Cheese and pickle. Ham and tomato. Ham and pickle. On white bread, though. Not brown, or wholemeal. Brown bread plays havoc with me plate. Then there’s paste, of course...’
‘Paste? What – you mean like Shippam’s?’
‘Shippam’s, that’s it. I like Shippam’s. Crab paste, salmon paste. Beef. I like a good paste sandwich...’
‘Never had that. No. Don’t like Chinese food. Don’t like Indian food. Rice, pasta - none of that old muck. Just good old plain English food. Potatoes, I like. Cabbage. Runner beans. Fruit. I like a nice bit of fruit. Apples I like. Bananas. Plums. Pears. Grapes. Red grapes. White grapes. Red more than white. Oranges. Tangerines...’
The ambulance slows to a stop. We’re at the back of a queue a thousand miles long. I feel like throwing the doors open and running off into the night. Starting a new life somewhere. A cave in the hills. Tattooing myself with leopard spots. Living on seaweed.
But instead I say: ‘So what did you do before you retired, Harry? What line of ... erm ... work, were you in?’
‘Painting and Decorating,’ he puffs. ‘Started when I was fifteen. Stopped last year on me sixty-fifth birthday. And it’s been one long round of illnesses ever since. First I had the right knee done, then I had the left. Then my back went and I had to have that dug out. Asthma, prostate, cataracts...’
Desperately now: ‘What was it like, painting and decorating?’
‘Painting and decorating? Well – I liked it.’
‘Oh yes – hard work. Very hard work. But you get used to it. I started off mixing the paint, carrying the ladders backwards and forwards from the van. Odd jobs, you know. They kept me busy. Next thing they got me rubbing down, sanding woodwork, filling holes, cleaning and scrubbing. Preparation. Tidying up. Making tea. Then there was the putting up of the pasting tables, preparation of the glue, pasting the paper. I loved that, pasting paper. On the walls, of course. And the ceiling...’
I close my eyes.
For a horrifying second I think I must have fallen asleep.
The ambulance is bouncing along quietly. Did we turn off? God I hope so.
I rub my face.
Harry is staring at me mournfully, his arms still folded.
‘Tired?’ he says.