A man is lying on his side on the pavement outside the Beauty Clinic. A girl in a starched white coat stands over him, half in the shop and half out, both arms folded, absently sucking a red nail, staring out above the morning crowd as it flows around him. Suddenly she sees us approaching and waves enthusiastically.
‘What’s going on?’
‘This guy, he came staggering along the pavement. For some reason he stopped just there, knelt down in the doorway and then just sort of – went to sleep.’
The only thing more striking than the brilliant white of the girl’s coat is the contrast between her and the figure at her feet. Her face is so symmetrical, so carefully painted with foundation, blusher, lipstick, mascara, her eyebrows so perfectly cropped, every individual strand of her hair shining with product, she could have stepped fully formed from the head of an advertising executive. The man, on the other hand, is the brutal, unadorned animal, corrupt and cast down, his shaven and sun-burned head pitted with crescent scars, his battered face slack with drink. Lying at her feet like that, curled up on his side, he looks like the husk of something she sucked the vitality from to achieve her transcendent being.
‘What’s the matter with him?’
‘I don’t know.’
I crouch down by his side, discretely pinch his shoulder and shout in his ear. ‘Come on. Wake up, mate. You can’t lie here.’
He bats my hand away.
‘Leave me alone.’
There’s a cut to his voice that makes us all a little more wary.
‘Shall I leave you to it, then?’ the girl says.
‘Absolutely. We’ll get him on the ambulance out of your way.
‘Thanks, guys,’ she says. She really means it.
He wriggles back down in an effort to get comfortable again. Shoppers almost fall over us, frowning in a confused kind of way, only finding alternative routes at the last minute.
‘Are you sick? Have you hurt yourself?’
He motions for us to go away.
‘Come on. Let’s sit you up. Then we can have a chat on the ambulance, in private. This is no good, mate. Honestly.’
Finally, we persuade him to stand up, and help him on to the ambulance. He drops himself down into a chair and starts rubbing some life back into his face. A tall, lean man bulked out with several layers of track suit tops and t-shirts, he looks as if he put on his entire wardrobe before he came out.
‘Aren’t you hot in all this?’
He drops his hands.
‘What do you want from me?’ he says.
‘We just want to reassure ourselves you’re okay. You lay down on a pavement in the middle of the morning. People were worried. That’s all. Let’s do a few checks, then if everything’s okay you can go on with your day.’
He sits back in the chair and stares into mid-air.
‘I don’t care what you do,’ he says. ‘Only do it quickly.’
Whilst Rae helps him bare an arm for the blood pressure cuff, I start writing out the sheet.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Tomasso. T tango, O oscar….’
‘And your address?’
‘Sardinia? Is that where you’re living now?’
‘That’s where I’m from.’
‘So what’s your address now?’
He gives us a postcode only, each letter phonetically again. When I ask him exactly where that is, he starts talking quickly in Italian.
‘I don’t understand you, Tommaso. I wish I did, but I don’t. You have to talk English.’
He closes his eyes and pulls his chin back as if I’ve insulted him.
‘What do you think?’ he says eventually. ‘What do you know?’
‘We’re just trying to understand what’s going on with you today, Tommaso.’
He straightens in the chair and struggles to put his arm back through all the sleeves.
‘I am a sniper,’ he says as he does it. ‘Do you know what that means? Do you know what it’s like to lie on the ground for twenty four, thirty six hours, not moving a muscle, for just one shot?’
‘Yep. That sounds difficult.’
‘You get bitten to pieces.’
‘Scorpions. Tah! Tah!’ He makes little stabbing movements in the air with a finger that make us both lean back a little.
‘Look here, my friend,’ he says, giving up on the jacket and bending down instead to roll up a trouser leg. There is a cluster of tiny scabs running up just over the sock line, like old bed bug scars.
‘Nasty,’ I say.
He drops the trouser leg and shrugs.
‘I’m a sniper. It’s what I do. But let me tell you. You walk a hundred miles, you lie down, you wait for days, you take your shot … (he smacks his hands together) … Tah! Then you wait whilst the rest of the unit clears out. You guard their back. Only then can you think about yourself. Only then can you take your chance and escape.’
He resumes his struggle with his clothing. I help him in to the last track suit sleeve. ‘But I love my country. I am a proud man. You – you don’t know what it means to fight for your country.’
Finally he’s done, and sits still in the chair.
‘Well. All your observations are fine, Tommaso. I don’t think you need to go up the hospital.’
‘Hospital? No way. Six hours on a plastic seat. For what?’
That's got to be the quickest comment I ever had. I only posted a few minutes ago!
Tommaso was only a bit drunk - he certainly didn't need the hospital. I thought it was funny, though - one minute he was talking about how he'd lay in wait for a day and a half or whatever to shoot someone, but a few hours to see a nurse? Unthinkable.
Even though you can sit in a chair, and they don't have scorpions running around.
Thanks v much for the comment x
He has a point. Would I rather lie in wait and shoot someone, or hang out in A&E of an evening....hmmm?
On a side note, there has got to be a good way for communicating 'I'm not going to hospital' (even when not completely with it or a bit tachy).
I use a mobility aid that wont go in an ambulance, and have (mostly night time) seizures. I'm told I say 'no' to going to hosp even when not completely with it, but that doesn't seem to make much difference to where I end up (without aforesaid mobility aid, thus taking up a trolley meant for sick people and needing to work out how to get back to it afterwards).
no scorpions? youse've obviously got better cleaning contractors at your a&e than we do.
Fiona - I agree. You'd have to be sick to want to go to A&E...
Tanni - Some people carry laminated cards with info about their condition and contact numbers you can call for advice (if the situation allows). But I don't suppose anyone could ever really carry a note that just said don't take me to A&E, because if the crew think they need to go for whatever reason, and the person's not in a position to do anything about it, they'll inevitably end up there. Which is a pain, but better safe than sorry.
Paul - There's been a toilet with an out of order sign on it in minors for weeks. I'm sure it's probably a nest for something gigantic and fabulous...
Thanks for the comments :)
your description of the contrast between the girl and the man at her feet was very striking, beautifully captured.
fascinating as always.
thanks for sharing
I think it's like being lucky with a photo - if you see a vivid image it'll pretty much write itself. Thanks for the lovely comment, Martine!
Sniper! * gasp *
Awesome story. I especially like the imagery you put forward with contrast between the white coat "carefully painted foundation," and the unadorned animal, corrupt and cast down.
I wanted to ask you what type of books do you read? Authors? Titles? Genres?
It was a pretty startling contrast. Sometimes things happen at work and you think: perfect! I can use that. But then sometimes it's frustrating because the image is so unusual it would identify the incident, and I know I can't use it.
I don't really read genres as such. At the moment I'm reading Travels with Charley by Steinbeck (lovely book), but then I've got a Jim Thompson lined up for afters...
Awsome story man.. i really like it :)
thanks Sean. You know, that's the second 'sniper' who I thought maybe hadn't actually been a sniper. I wonder what it was about that particular job description that appealed to them? :/
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