It’s no surprise Dave Leopold is in the meat trade. He looks like a generously stuffed pork sausage someone has dressed in gym slacks and a blond wig, and then inked on a face – a terrifying hybrid of startled and hostile, the eyes perfectly round, touching above the nose.
He is waiting for us in the ward lobby.
‘Have you come for me?’
‘Are you Mr Leopold?’
‘You’ve come for me. And I won’t be needing that for starters,’ he says, nodding at our trolley.
‘We haven’t been told much, Mr Leopold. Other than you have a bowel condition and you’re being transferred to a specialist unit…’
‘You haven’t been told much? How is that any good? How is that prioritising my situation? Eh?’
A nurse comes over to us.
‘You don’t need a trolley,’ she says.
‘They didn’t give us any details, so we thought we may as well bring it up. It’s a long...’
‘Never mind. Here are his notes. Goodbye, Dave. Good luck.’
She drops the package of notes onto the trolley and turns smartly about.
‘Shall we go then?’ says Mr Leopold, grasping the handle of his tow-along suitcase. ‘Or shall we stand around talking here all day?’
‘Don’t mind me,’ he says, settling in to his seat on the ambulance. ‘I’ve got a wicked sense of humour. Love it or leave it. It makes no odds to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve had this shock, but I’m looking at life very differently now to what I used to. What’s the point in worrying about all that stuff? I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s important to have enough money. You’ve got to have food on the table and clothes on your back. It’s like I’ve always told my daughters: Learn your lessons at school. Get your Maths, your qualifications. Then you can fuck about. Then you can get out and learn what life’s all about. Listen. I’ve been round the block a few times. I’ve worked hard all my life and I’m good at my job. Bloody good. I can tell you the inside out of the business. There’s no one who knows more about burgers than I do. And I promise you this. If you taste one of my burgers, you’ll come back for another. And another. Because that’s who I am. It’s what I do. But it’s like I said. You’ve got to get your priorities right.’
‘Ready to go?’ calls Rae from the cab. ‘The traffic’ll be bad this time of day, so it might take a while.’
‘Great,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘Just you worry about the road, Rae. I know what you women drivers are like.’
I can hear what Rae says clearly enough, but Mr Leopold settles back on his seat and folds his arms.
‘Don’t mind me,’ he chuckles. ‘I can’t help it. I’m like Marmite – love me or hate me. That’s just the way it is. Listen. I had the Consultant come on his rounds this morning. Everybody else on the ward is groaning away on their beds, you know, can’t do this, can’t do that. But my view is – use it or lose it. I’ve never been one for complaining. So I’m sitting there reading the paper beside the bed, which is all nicely made up. Anyway, the Consultant comes round, posh voice, shiny shoes, and he looks at me like this, right? And he must think I’m visiting or something because he checks his notes then he says: Is there someone in this bed? So of course, what do I do? I put my paper down, stand up, lift the sheet and look under it, then get down on my hands and knees and look under the bed, then I stand up and I say to him: No. I don’t think there’s anyone in this bed. I mean – what a question! What does he expect! So he goes all red, mutters something or other, turns round and walks off. What an idiot! He was asking for that! I know what my wife’ll say when I get home. She’ll say – Dave! What are you playing at, upsetting the doctors like that. But if someone asks me a stupid question I’ll give them a stupid answer. That’s just me. I don’t care who you are, mate. You could be the Queen of England. A joke’s a joke, and if you don’t think it’s funny, that’s your lookout.’
If you plotted a graph of my interaction with Mr Leopold, it would start high enough, but show a rapid decline over the hour or so it takes to transfer him to the other hospital. Less than half way through the journey and I’m avoiding eye contact, making only the barest conversational response. But Mr Leopold doesn’t need any input from me. He’s the social version of the air plant, spiking and flowering, apparently on nothing.
‘I didn’t say goodbye to anybody on the ward. Well, what’s the point? Do you know who they were? I’ll tell you. Junkies and Gypsies. But hey, it’s a free country. More’s the pity. So when they said I was being transferred today, I snuck out first thing and I’ve been waiting three hours in the lobby with my suitcase. And that’s what they call priority treatment, is it? Never mind. We’re here now. Why’s she going this way? Oi – Rae! That’s a boy’s name, innit? Rae? She’s ignoring me. Well if she doesn’t want my help, that’s her lookout. I’m not going to stress myself about it. I don’t do that anymore. That’s one reason I ended up with this problem. I suppose you get a lot of stress in your line of work, do you?’
‘Take me, for instance. I used to get really stressed, but not anymore. I’ve cut that out of my life. Now if I go out I’ll get a taxi from the restaurant or wherever back to the hotel because I don’t want the hassle of town night life, you get what I’m saying? I’ll get back to the hotel and put my feet up and watch it all kick off below me. Not that I can’t handle myself. I can handle myself pretty well, thanks very much, as you can probably tell. I used to do power lifting before all this. I may be short, but I’ve got big hands. Take you, for example. Say you got it into your head to corner me in the ambulance. Well I’m here to tell you, doesn’t matter what you think you can or can’t do, mate, I’m coming out of there. Do you know what I’m saying? I’d be away and you’d be lying there on the floor, and that’s a promise. Or take my house, for example. I’ve got a lot of very valuable gear in my house, not least the van outside. That’s thirty grand right there. So say you’re walking past and you say to yourself ‘Hm, I like the look of that’ and you think you’ll have some. Well, listen. If you broke into my house, I can promise you it’d be the last thing you ever did on this earth. And you don’t think I’d get away with it? Listen. I’d take that baseball bat off of you, I’d smash your head in, then I’d wipe my prints off and put it back in your hands so it look like you done it. Yeah? She should’ve gone left here. You should’ve gone left, love! Never mind. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’