There are half a dozen people gathered outside the house. A spread of ages, the oldest in her sixties, the youngest a toddler on his scooter, but all of them with the same hard-edged stare. A guy of about twenty, bare-chested, his t-shirt hanging from the belt of his jeans, a rawness to him like an animal that’s been skinned then jumped back up to have its revenge, leans in as I pull up in the car.
‘He needs a scan, mate. You need to take him to hospital and get him looked at properly.’
‘Hello,’ I say, as friendly as I can manage. I decide not to pause to write down the arrival time; a clipboard is not going to improve things here.
‘Where’s the patient?’ I ask, stepping out of the car. I hear the question taken up and passed around the crowd in giggles and whispers.
‘Through there, mate. On the sofa. He had a fall last week, yeah? He needs a head scan.’
‘Are you a relative?’
‘A relative? I’m his son, mate.’
‘Okay. Can I ask your name?’
‘Okay, Kevin. Lead on.’
The rest of the crowd separates and I follow Kevin along a narrow hallway into the front room.
Barry is sitting on a black leather sofa, his arms behind his head and his legs stretched out onto the sheepskin rug in front of him. The crowd shuffles in behind and spreads itself about the room, leaning against the door, draped over the arms of the opposite sofa, or standing with folded arms in front of the patio doors.
‘Quite an audience,’ I say. ‘I’ve got stage fright.’
‘We’ve got to keep an eye on you, luv’ says an elderly woman, stretching her gums as affectionately as a Great White.
‘All right?’ says Barry, yawning.
‘So what’s been happening then?’
‘I don’t know. I just don’t feel right.’
‘In what way?’
‘Do you have any pain?’
‘Shortness of breath? Dizziness?’
He shakes his head.
‘Let me just put this thing on your finger,’ I say, attaching the SATS probe. I’m glad of these gadgets sometimes. It makes it look as if something’s happening. ‘Now then. Tell me about this fall you had, Barry.’
He sighs, then tells me he fell over coming back from the pub a week ago. He went to hospital, was discharged the same day, but then went back the day after that. Some more tests, more observations, but nothing found. He was feeling increasingly drowsy, so went to see his GP, who diagnosed a UTI and put him on antibiotics. But the drowsiness persisted, the not-feeling-right.
I take his observations, whilst the rest of the family chip in with comments and advice. An elderly dog appears, his paws slipping and clacking on the laminate floor. He noses the air in my direction, his one good eye as black and round as a Webcam. He collapses down in an untidy heap at the feet of the elderly woman, who I now realise is probably only about fifty.
‘Well – everything checks out,’ I say to Barry, putting the clipboard aside.
‘I’m telling you – he needs his head scanning,’ says Kevin.
‘I can understand why you’re worried,’ I say, ‘but the doctors at the hospital won’t do a scan just because you ask. You’d have to go private for that. But what they will do is take a close look at all your Dad’s signs and symptoms, and make a judgement based on that.’
I turn back to Barry.
‘You’re not showing anything that might make me worried about a head injury,’ I tell him. ‘The drowsiness is probably as much to do with the UTI as the fall last week. But that in itself was a shock to the system, and it’s quite natural you feel out of sorts.’
Kevin has opens a can of beer and drinks half of it straight off.
‘Don’t mind him,’ says one of the others in the room. ‘He’s only having a drink ‘cos he’s wound up about going away in a couple of days.’
‘No I’m not,’ says Kevin. ‘I’m drinking ‘cos I want to stop myself killing someone.’ And he walks out.
‘Ignore him,’ says someone else. ‘He’s got problems. He doesn’t mean it.’
I turn back to Barry.
‘I’m more than happy to take you back up the hospital, Barry, if that’s what you want. It’s just I don’t think it’ll achieve much. You’ll end up on a trolley for a few hours, then referred back to your GP. I think you could save yourself all that and get yourself down to your local surgery instead.’
‘I have got an appointment later today,’ he says. ‘It weren’t me what called you.’
‘Perfect. All right then. I’ll finish writing the form out, then you can take that to show the doctor as record of everything I found.’
Kevin comes back into the room and sits down just to my right. After a moment he lifts a butt cheek and farts as loudly as he can. The others in the room laugh and nudge each other. To mask my increasing unease, I say: ‘You should blame the dog, Kevin. They’re good for that.’
He stares at me.
‘I’m not going to blame the dog,’ he says. ‘She’s done nothin’ wrong. She’s a good girl. Why would I blame her for something she didn’t do?’
‘Fair enough,’ I say. ‘Almost done here.’
Kevin stands up.
‘Where’s that eighty quid?’ he says, looking around.
‘What eighty quid?’ says Barry.
‘I had eighty quid in cash on the table.’
The table behind me.
‘You’ve dropped it somewhere,’ says someone.
‘Have a look round,’ says someone else.
He stands up.
‘Can I move your bag, mate?’ he says quietly.
He moves it, flipping the lid at the same time to glance inside.
I’m tensing myself for the accusation, but he seems to shy away at the last minute; instead, he crashes around the rest of the room, increasingly angry, getting the others to stand up, slamming things aside on the TV unit. The only one not disrupted is the dog, who scarcely lifts its head.
‘There,’ I say to Barry. ‘Here’s the form. Give that to the doctor – it’s a record of what I found today. Okay – happy?’
‘Delirious,’ says Barry.
‘Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.’
I stroll through the room, easy as a pantomime horse through a lion enclosure.
I throw my bag in the car.Drive.