You couldn’t mistake Ralph for anyone else, even at a distance, even in his disguises.
A short figure with round shoulders and an innocent, flat-footed, music hall kind of waddle, he’s always dressed incongruously, heavy things in summer, light things in winter. I’ve seen him in a Rod Stewart reject nylon bomber jacket and a kilt; a red frock coat and flip-flops, and a two-sizes too small, canary yellow t-shirt with a baseball cap from USSS Nimitz.
The early hour is the first clue. Half-past five is Ralph time.
Patient is waiting by the side of the road with his bicycle.
‘I’ve been assaulted,’ he says as we pull up.
‘Who, what, where, Ralph?’
‘I was just coming out of the club when out of nowhere this guy throws a paper cup and it hits me on the back of the head.’
‘That’s not very nice.’
‘No. It wasn’t very nice.’
‘Were you hurt?’
‘I don’t know. That’s why I called you.’
‘Did you fall over? Knock yourself out? That kind of thing?’
‘No. I just come out of there, got on my bike and went home.’
‘You went home?’
‘Yeah, and then I come out again. What do you think? Will I be all right?’
‘A paper cup? I should think so. Do you want us to have a look?’
‘Nah. If you think.’
‘It’s half-past five in the morning, Ralph.’
‘You went home, and then you came back out again?’
‘I was worried.’
‘So you’ll be all right now, d’you think?’
‘What are you going to do? Go home again?’
‘Nah. I think I’ll just ride round for a bit.’
‘Aren’t you cold?’
‘I’ll warm up.’
He grabs his bike – cow-horn handlebars, springy seat, fucked brakes – scoots twice to get going and wobbles off round the corner.
The next time I go to him it’s a little more worrying. The same time of day, early morning, with the sky just starting to lighten and a fresh wind coming in off the sea. I recognise his bike lying up on a grass bank, opposite a wholesale fish market. I think for a minute he’s been run over, but I can’t see any cars, any figures sprawled in the road.
One of the porters waves to us from the front gate. He’s smoking a fag, looking glad of the opportunity.
‘It’s nothing,’ he says, taking one last drag and then flicking it away. ‘Funny little fella.’
Ralph is in their office, cradling a mug of tea.
‘Oh – hi!’ he says, looking up.
If it wasn’t for his Hitler moustache and middle-aged skin tones you’d think he was about twelve.
‘How are you doing, Ralph?’
‘Oh, so you know him?’ says the manager.
‘What happened this morning, Ralph?’
‘I was assaulted.’
‘Oh? I’m sorry to hear that. Who by?’
Ralph shrugs. ‘I don’t know. I didn’t get a good look.’
‘Bit of both.’
‘What did they assault you with?’
‘They pushed me off my bike.’
‘Did you hurt yourself?’
He shrugs again.
‘Ralph came in and said he’d been attacked,’ says the manager. ‘That’s why we phoned you guys. Sorry to waste your time.’
‘No! Not at all! It’s very nice of you to do it. Come on, Ralph. Shall we go onto the ambulance and let these people get on with selling fish?’
‘Don’t worry about that. That’s all done,’ says the manager, shuffling some papers together into a neat bundle and dropping them in a tray. ‘We’re just clearing up. You got to get up a bit earlier than that if you want a nice bit of plaice.’