The next day, one of the nurses told me I had some more visitors and I craned my neck with anticipation as the clattering footsteps echoed down the corridor. The hammer came down and my emotions hit the bell, but on seeing three familiar faces from the unit turn the corner, those same emotions crashed to ground with a sickening thud (and kept on going).
“Christ” I said involuntarily.
“Well, that’s a nice greeting” said one of the nursing assistants, cheerfully.
“What brings you here?” I asked knowingly.
“Oh, we felt like a long run out in the car, and this was a good excuse” he answered with disarming honesty.
“We had a dump on the way here” said Sidney.
“Pardon?” I said.
“We had a bump in the car, but no damage done.”
”How are you, Steven?”
“Well, I’m due to go on home leave soon, but my wife’s decided to divorce me so it’s looking a bit awkward.”
“Bloody Hell Steve” he chuckled. “Never mind though, there’s always a bed for you at the unit.”
“I thought he looked as shite as a sheet” said Sidney.
“Still, you’re a dark horse really Steve. I never thought you’d screw the system like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“A nice few months on the sick, most of it recuperating in the pub.”
“But this is real sickness.”
“Ha! Ha! That’ll be the day. God, you’re a droll bugger. How do you keep a straight face?”
“Change the subject will you?” I said, feeling a strange anxiety creeping up on me.
“Oh, well, things are pretty much the same at the unit, with plenty of new initiatives, zero movement, lots of sickness and….”
“Are you still doing the charity walks?” I said, noticing for the first time that all the staff were wearing Telly Tubby costumes, beautifully co-ordinated with Pearly King top hats and antique red noses, dating back to the early din period of charity mindlessness.
“Oh, no Steve. Charity walking is so yesterday. We’re into charity hawking now.”
“Yes. It’s dead simple. We all dress up and stand around spitting at each other’s boots for an hour while people queue up to watch. It’s an absolute riot of 21st century fun.”
“Ha ha ha ha” we chuckled.
“Well, as long as you’re having fun, that’s the main thing” I said. “And it’s all for charity, of course.”
“Have you heard about Cecilia, by the way?” interrupted the other assistant.
“She died in hospital last week.”
“Yes, she was in a coma you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
“There’s one hell of a stink going on about it. But at least you’re well out of it.”
“Yes” said Sid “There’s a big noise coming down from hindquarters…er….headquarters, to sort it out……”
“I need a cigarette now” cut in a familiar voice.
It was indeed a familiar voice with a familiar question, but for some reason it sent a seismic shock wave running up my back. The tribulations of the last few months seemed to hurtle back into full view, and my numbness vanished. The future opened up nightmarishly around me and a sickly phlegm filled my throat. The air crackled and hissed, and an old enemy returned; refreshed.
“I need a cigarette now! Now! Now! Now” Hettie suddenly howled.
“We’d better be off Steve. See you soon. Sorry it’s all a rush.”
“Wanks very much” said Sidney, pointing at me.
“We’re buying a new house you know – I can’t wait to put down a deposit.”
“Home is where the fart is….”
I wasn’t really aware of the squad departing, and after a while I wandered down to my room and sought the refuge of bed. My head hammered, but sleep seemed to arrive instantly, and I twisted away into a dreamscape of schoolyards, fruit machines, sickly sweet smells, and sadness. I saw my mother’s white face accusing me from the shadows, and the sagging shell of our old house with its cluttered rooms and grates with ashes. I ran through endless streets of rain and sorrow, panting and terrified, until at last a yellow light appeared above a varnished door, and I saw my children looking silently down. I shook the bolts, and circled the house, finding a narrow view inside – where familiar thighs gripped a half-known man, and convulsions merged with spider blackness.
Then all around a pink sea span with hypnotic swirls of crimson, and a bright red sunset appeared before me.