There was rain last night, but the sky cleared by mid-morning and Ken thought the park looked dry enough for a kick-about. His twenty-year-old son Rio was staying with him for the weekend, so they both got dressed in their Man United gear and headed out.
It didn’t last long.
When Ken dropped the ball to punt it out, his left leg slipped from under him and he landed flat on his back. And even though the ground was soft, still it was enough of a jolt to aggravate an existing weakness, and he lay there, groaning, unable to get up.
Jill, the paramedic first on scene, has already given him as much morphine as he can take, topped up with Entonox, which Ken sucks down in workmanlike bursts, like a diver negotiating a hazardous wreck.
‘Please help my Dad,’ says Rio.
‘We’ll do our best.’
Even though Rio looks like any other urban twenty-year old – buzz-cut hair, low-trousered slouch, mobile phone permanently in his hand – there’s something different, a blunt and unfocused quality that makes you take a little more care of him than you otherwise might.
Jill says she thinks the trolley will just about make it over the grass. With a scoop stretcher, we should be able to lift Ken up without disturbing him too much, and take it from there.
‘Other than the pain he doesn’t have any concerning symptoms, no neurological deficit or anything,’ she says. ‘The mechanism of injury wasn’t all that, so all in all I think we just have an exacerbation of chronic back problems.’
Ken groans, toots on the Entonox.
‘Almost there,’ she says to him, patting him on the shoulder. ‘We’ll soon have you off this wet grass.’
‘Is he gonna be all right?’ says Rio.
‘Yep. He’s going to be fine.’
Rio feels a text arrive, and turns round to answer it.
It’s a long ride to the hospital. Ken is as comfortable as we can make him, supported with blankets and pillows, only groaning when the bumps in the road are deep enough to shake through his generous buffering of analgesia.
‘Why’s he making that noise?’ says Rio, licking his lips.
‘It’s still painful for him, but he should be fine.’
‘Yeah? But that’s not wot I aksed you. I aksed you why he’s making that noise.’
‘He’s got some pain in his back, and he’s feeling all the bumps and shakes.’
‘So why does the ambulance shake like that?’
‘It’s these god awful roads, Rio. It was a hard winter, and they got broken up. These ambulances weren’t all that comfortable to begin with.’
He stares at me with his mouth half open.
‘It’s the weight distribution. It’s got a heavy tail lift on the back, so that makes us see-saw…’ I do the motion with my arms. ‘And then we’ve got some big gas cylinders on the right, so that makes us rock from side to side. And then of course it’s quite a tall cab, so...’
‘…so all in all, what with the terrible state of the roads, it makes it a rougher ride than we’d like.’
He looks upset.
‘But don’t worry. He’s perfectly safe, and I think the pain-relief is helping.’
‘If something happen to my Dad, yeah, I’d go fucking special.’
‘Yeah, but nothing’s going to happen, Rio. You’ve got to help your Dad by staying as calm as you can.’
‘Cos’ it’s my Dad, yeah?’
‘Absolutely, and of course you’re worried. But it’s all going to be fine. The fall hasn’t affected his spinal cord or anything. It was soft earth, not concrete. And quite low down. Honestly, Rio, it’s all going to be fine.’
‘It’s my Dad, you get me?’
‘And we’re taking care of him.’
Rio settles back into his chair and starts thumbing through his phone.
We pass the next mile in silence.
‘Do you often play football with your Dad, Rio?’ I ask him at last. He answers without looking up.
‘Yeah. I come over sometime and we go out, like. Football and dat. I’m proper hectic, innit. What team d’you go wiv?’
‘Me? No-one really. When I was younger I liked Arsenal, but that was a while ago.’
‘Yeah. Charlie George.’
‘What the fuck is Charlie George?’
‘A cool footballer with sideburns who used to play for Arsenal in the seventies.’
‘Charlie George? What kinda name is dat? It’s like two names.’
‘I never thought about it.’
‘I support Man You.’
‘Yeah. They’re sick.’
‘You’re right. They haven’t been winning much lately.’
Rio looks at me, his eyes perfectly small and round.
Luckily, Ken interrupts with a groan, slowly letting the Entonox mouthpiece drop to his side.
‘What’s he doing that for?’ says Rio.
‘He’s resting. It’s pretty tiring, being in pain.’
‘Is he dead?’
‘No. Just resting.’
‘How can you tell?’
‘You can see him breathing. Look.’
No-one could miss it, the great curve of his belly rising up and down.
‘He’s fine, Rio. Don’t worry. We’ll be there in a minute.’
‘What will they do?’
‘Well – the doctors will take a look at him. They’re the experts. They might X-ray his back, I don’t know. But they’ve got all the equipment they need to figure out what the problem is. And then they can think about how to treat it.’
‘What d’you mean, treat him?’
‘It could be different medication. It could be a referral to physiotherapists to give him exercises that might help. There are lots of things they can do, Rio. As soon as we get to hospital they’ll start helping your Dad to get better.’
‘Cos I don’t like this.’
‘No. I know. It’s not nice.’
‘I don’t like this at all, ya get me?’
‘No. I think you’re handling it very well.’
‘I said I think you’re handling it very well.’
He rubs his hands on his knees and bites his lip, and the rest of the journey he rides in tortured silence.
The transfer from our trolley to the hospital bed is as smooth as we can make it. I try to involve Rio as much as possible, even though he gets in the way and makes things more difficult. It’s a relief when Ken is safely across, and officially handed over.
Rae says goodbye and wheels our trolley out of the cubicle. I’m just about to follow her when Rio says ‘Hey!’ with such an aggressive bark, his right hand drawn back over his shoulder, I can’t help flinching a little. But then I realise he just wants to do one of those street handshakes. We bump fists (which I fluff, of course), then he throws his left hand round my back and draws me to him.
‘Safe, man,’ he says, slapping my back. ‘Safe.’