We were in Abbotsbury Close for the longest time, me, Gonz, Coffer and Prof. Don’t ask me how long because one thing I could never do is count time. Long, short, something in between, is all I can say. We shared places before. We were used to one another. We got lucky in Abbotsbury Close. Comfy, too comfy. It took next to nothing for them to turn us out. We were on the footpath with none of our stuff and they were already hammering planks around the windows. Five rough, strong men with gold teeth, hard hands and heavy boots: they knew what they were doing. We didn’t stand a chance.
‘It’s not fair,’ I said, as we slunk away. ‘We were nicely settled.’
‘All our things,’ Gonz said.
‘My old blue dressing-gown,’ Prof said.
‘If Coffer had been there instead of gone out we might’ve had some chance,’ Gonz said. As if!
‘They must’ve been watching,’ I said. ‘We must’ve got careless.’
We prowled around in search of an empty, keeping an eye out for Coffer. It wasn’t going to do him any good to stumble into gypsies in the middle of the night. We ended up in the porch of Our Lady of Victories and settled in there, heart-sick.
‘In the morning,’ Prof said, ‘we’ll go around to Bayswater. Get food and a wash. Then we’ll make a plan.’
‘I’d like fried bread,’ I said. ‘With sausages, bacon and two eggs.’
Although, in all honesty, food comes in second to the satisfaction delivered by a slug or two of the hard stuff, no matter how ravenous you’d be. And the hit is so much stronger when you’re hungry.
We didn’t sleep much, not used to being so exposed any more. Prof coughed and wheezed in the dark, Gonz occasionally moaned ‘Fuggin’ gypsies’. Though it was only September, a chill came down on us that seeped into the marrow. By daybreak we were stiff as corpses. I went around the side for a leak and when I got back it was clear they’d been talking. One thing I’m never wrong about is when people’ve been talking.
‘So, when are we going to Bayswater?’ I said.
Gonz looked at his shoes. Prof tilted his head to one side and showed his few remaining teeth.
‘Whitechapel,’ he said. ‘Better facilities.’
‘You know I can’t go there,’ I said. ‘Not after the last time.’
‘They don’t turn anyone away.’
‘You did lose the head completely,’ Gonz said. ‘They have a place to run. You can hardly blame them.’
‘Yeah. Helping you rebuild your life with dignity.’ I tried a smile to take the sting out of it but I knew my mouth wasn’t making the right shape. ‘I’m going to look for Coffer,’ I said, pride kicking in. ‘We’ll find ourselves another place.’
Leaving them there in the porch and setting off on my own I half expected them to shout after me that they’d come to Bayswater, only joking about Whitechapel. But they didn’t. I took one look back as I went. To any stranger they’d seem an odd pair. Prof knows everything and can do nothing. Head in the clouds. Gonz knows nothing but he can pick a lock, change a lock, bypass a fuse-board, coax a few coins from smartly-dressed women and such like. He can spot an easy target at a hundred paces. They’re a perfect match. Like a married couple: different, but necessary to one another. Hand and glove.
It made no sense to go down Abbotsbury Close but I couldn’t help it. I thought I might find Coffer asleep under a bush along the way but there was no sign of him. I don’t know what I’d’ve done if the gypsies came out. I wouldn’t’ve got far with the ache in my belly and thoughts of a feed of spirits driving me to distraction. What I’d’ve liked was to firebomb the place, with them inside. If only I had a firebomb, and the balls to do it. So long since I’d been this hungry. So long since I had to rummage in a bin in order not to fall in a weakness. I must have gone soft, is what I was thinking.
I carried on into the park. The sun was properly up now and it had the sharp, sad feel of those days before winter comes. Not the season to be without a roof. I rested on a bench a little way from the gate. This not being my usual time of day, it was an eye-opener to see the amount of people out running, walking, crossing the park with briefcases, more with babies in buggies and kids by the hand. Pet dogs strutting their stuff for adoring owners. Being a dog wouldn’t be the worst fate in the world. Although Prof says rats are the master race. He says they’ll outlive us because they’re just so much smarter. I think he envies them for their teeth as much as anything. It’s terrible when you lose your teeth.
As I sat there, I felt the old weight pressing down, the thing that pins me to wherever I am and won’t let me up. Nothing short of a bunch of gurriers can shift me when that comes on me. I’d like to sleep. I’d like to drift off, away from the gypsies, away from Prof and Gonz gone off on me, away from the reminders that stick onto me like cobwebs: more feelings than memories. All I’ve failed at. The desperate, on-going run of it. Forget is what I’d most like to do. Prof has a word for it: oblivion. But you don’t get that on the NHS.
When I did eventually move I went slowly, every bit of me aching, forcing one foot after the other. People coming towards me gave me space. I didn’t have to look to know that no eye met mine. I started thinking of porridge: the way we had it at home with the brown sugar and a splash of cream. Then birdsong made me look up. The branches were too thick to see where it was coming from but I went on looking and walking. After porridge it was schoolbags on backs and a race to the car for the front seat. Then I was falling. Something hard against my forehead.
I’m not sure if it’s the sounds or the smells reach me first but I know instantly where I am. Head throbbing, I open my eyes to a glare of cleanliness. I could have done without this: in bed, wearing green paper. There’ll be questions, rounds of them. Does it hurt? Where does it hurt? How badly does it hurt? How did it happen? What day is it? How many fingers? The hopeless well-meaningness of it. I’m tempted to tell them: Life sucks, is all there is to it. Usually, I don’t say that because it does no good to make them mad, I’ve noticed. Usually, I have them laughing. That’s something I can do. You’re a hoot, they often tell me. And that soothes me for a bit.
They come with their clipboards, two of them: a headscarfed girl and a black man. They’re quietly-spoken, respectful. Her accent isn’t too bad but I can’t make out a word of what he says. New to it, obviously. I tell them I’m a bit hazy about what tests I’ve had and when. The last time? Don’t ask me about time, I tell them. They write everything down. The headscarf is silk, I bet. Nice colours. Money there. But she’s young: plenty of time for things to go wrong. Although I have to say it’s unlikely, looking at her. Some people you just know are always going to be sorted, short of a tsunami coming.
Next I get trolleyed off for a brain scan.
‘You gave yourself quite a whack there,’ a friendly doctor with serious acne tells me. They get younger and younger.
The scan is negative.
‘So I can go now?’
‘You’re suffering from concussion. Plus, we’re waiting on blood results. You’re a bit jaundiced. We’ll get you back to the ward and organise some tea and toast for you.’
They hold a conference about me in the corridor. They always do that, just at the edge of earshot. It never takes long. Nothing good comes of it. It used to happen at school, teachers at the classroom door or in the head’s office: What’s to be done about him? And my parents late at night, thinking I was asleep: What are we going to do with him?
An older doctor leads the team back to my bed. Shepherd with his flock. Frowning at his sheaf of notes, he says he sees I’ve given my address as Abbotsbury Close. He looks straight at me, much as to say that’s the least likely thing he’s heard in a while.
‘Until yesterday,’ I say.
‘I haven’t any place yet.’
He jerks his head at the team. See? Like I said.
‘We’ll keep you under observation for another twenty-four hours,’ he says. ‘And organise somewhere for you to go when you’re discharged. Short-term, that is.’
‘If I could have the tea and toast,’ I say, ‘I’ll be moving on. I’m fine now, just a bit hungry.’
‘The blood results won’t be back until tomorrow. We’ll have to see those before we can discharge you. You may need treatment.’
‘What I need is my clothes,’ I tell him, a shake coming in my voice.
‘I insist,’ he says, ‘that you remain overnight. We have a duty of care. We can’t let you go today.’
I swing my legs out and stand on the floor, leaning against the bed.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘I’m perfectly all right. I am. I’m not staying in.’
‘Well, we won’t be responsible,’ he says. He flings it out like a curse, his mouth going tight and mean. Then he turns on his heel, followed by the sheep in a straggly line. They hate losing, doctors do, I’ve noticed.
A ward orderly comes: own best customer in the kitchen, judging by the number of spare tyres on her. She angles the bed-table around and puts a tray on it. There’s a pot of tea, a jug of milk, a bowl with sugar. Four slices of toast, four little squares of butter in foil wraps. I take my time eating, putting off the moment when that hole opens in the middle of me and I get half crazy for a drop of something. If I pick the right place I could make up to a fiver before the offies close. Time was, I didn’t mind facing into a shelter or an outreach team or a hostel. Not today though. Too much of a gap between me and explaining myself. That’s what comes from being settled. You go soft. The Underground will have to do until I find another empty. Although without Gonz and his magic touch with locks it could take a while. And everywhere you go there’s gypsies. I’d like to know where Coffer is. He’s not reliable but two is better than one.
Before I get my clothes back there’s a form to sign. I have to get out of here no matter what, so I sign.
‘There you go.’ I hand the form to yet another doctor. ‘You’re off the hook now, even if I get eaten by giant bugs between here and the front door.’
He doesn’t even smile.
They think they know what’s best for you. They think they have the answers to everything.
After waiting ages, I press the bell. I tell the nurse who comes along that I’ve signed the freedom form and I’m ready to go only for the clothes.
‘Yours are in a state,’ she says. ‘Will you take something from the ward?’
‘Dead man’s clothes?’ I say.
‘Not so far as I know.’
She comes back with a whole new outfit. Not brand new, obviously, but clean and not mine.
‘Will you put them on for me?’
Put them on for her. It wakes me up to her accent and her voice: a softness.
‘Irish?’ I say. It’s out before I can rein it in.
‘Galway. A few miles outside Salthill. And you?’
‘Never been to Salthill.’
‘But where are you from?’
‘Whereabouts? My brother lives in Waterford.’
‘It was a long time ago.’
‘Don’t you go back?’
‘No reason to, really.’
‘What happened you?’
She’s standing by the bed waiting for an answer. She’s not the first to ask. What I usually say is: I wasn’t lucky enough to meet a gorgeous girl like you, was I? That makes the young ones go beetroot. I usually tell them I got one doing-over too many, and that my parents had no clue. I don’t ever mention how I came across trouble like a dog comes across bones. They’d harden up at that. Just the clueless parents, the way I never got the hang of school, the bullying. They believe it, take it all in. They nod their heads. Maybe I had a hope that something in the telling would bring a tear to someone’s eye, cause a turnaround. I don’t know. Now I’m a juggernaut going downhill. There’s no turning.
She’s young, only a trainee, by the look of her. Young and innocent. And still a bit tender. She’d be a fine warm hault. It wouldn’t stop there, of course. I’d want to go all the way. So often I did it when I was half cut. The waste. I look at her properly: good legs, sound tits, straight teeth, freckles across the nose. Her life ahead of her. Some man she hasn’t even met will see something in her he’ll want more than anything he’s wanted before. And he’ll get it. And not be grateful enough. And she’ll be disappointed. I’ve had women like her in the past but if I had one now I’d never let her go. I’d be so grateful. Nothing to lose, I take the risk of looking right in her eyes. They’re blue, with little flecks of brown, the whites so white. Perfection. I wonder what life has in store for her.
‘Things go wrong,’ I say. ‘Who ever knows why?’
‘There’s a programme for getting people back home. All paid for by the Council. You’ve only to apply.’
‘Do they have time-travel? ’Cos boats and ’planes won’t do it. I’ll tell you, love: home is long gone.’
She shakes her head. I can see she’s thinking I must be proud or stubborn or something along those lines. She imagines the same small country that bred her and wants her back is holding its arms open for me. You need a bit of living behind you to understand how home can be gone.
‘It wouldn’t do you any harm to apply anyway, would it?’
‘What’s your name, love?’
‘Well, Orla, I need to get dressed now and take myself out of here. See, there’s friends waiting for me.’
She brightens up at that, pulls the curtain around the bed and says she’ll see me before I leave. I shut my eyes to tuck into my memory her name, her smile, the sound of her voice, those blue, clear eyes. I unfold the dead man’s clothes and get ready to go.