I gave my name to reception. Two women I didn’t recognise were sat behind the desk.
‘O-kay,’ the woman with dark hair said, ‘and is this a recurrent complaint or something new to you?’
‘Both,’ I said.
‘So it’s not the itchiness?’ she said, a file open in her hand.
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘That was just the start. It’s been downhill since then. Problems all over, inside and out. And now it’s at the knee. My left knee isn’t right. There’s a prickly pain in it — like that,’ I said and I wiggled my fingers around.
‘Make a note,’ said the dark-haired woman to the second woman, who chewed gum and typed into her computer for a bit.
I removed and unscrewed a ball of paper from my pocket, and started to read out the list of potential problems with my knee, namely tendinitis, bursitis, fractured bones, fibrillated cartilage, torn meniscus, torn ligament, iliotibial band syndrome, and much more, but before I’d really got going, the dark-haired woman’s eyebrows climbed up her forehead. She threw the file to one side and strode out from behind the desk through a pair of swing doors.
The second woman stopped typing, looked up from her screen.
Behind me, just appeared, a man was cradling something small in his hands. His face was sweaty and pale. The thing in his hands was a short red stump, that looked just like a human thumb. A severed thumb, but whose? I counted that the man had both of his.
The second woman typed like she was trying to kill the keyboard. ‘We’ll be right with you,’ she said to the man with the thumb.
‘What about me?’ I asked them both.
The man opened and closed his mouth. He really was pale.
‘This man is a priority,’ the second woman said. ‘Take a seat and someone will be with you soon.’
‘Soon?’ I said, but I knew it was no use.
I took my bad knee through to the waiting room, looked for a chair to sit.
It was half-empty, with the usual sad acts, grey faces, klutzes, junkies, and invalids all awaiting their turn. I recognised a few faces, but I didn’t have time to get involved in anyone else’s trouble; I was worried about my knee. The pain seemed to come from the inside, somewhere I couldn’t see.
I was massaging my knee cap when an old guy grabbed my arm.
‘What was happening out there?’ he said.
‘There was a man had a thumb.’
‘Yep,’ I said. ‘A cut off, bloody thumb.’
‘Why’d he have that?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t ask. But I do know he jumped the queue. He’s just a cheat,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t even his thumb.’
‘Not his thumb?’ The old guy frowned and let go of my arm. ‘Won’t they figure that out?’
‘I tried to tell them. But they wouldn’t listen.’
‘You can’t talk to these people.’
‘You’re telling me. My ex-wife was a nurse.’
The old guy nodded. ‘Bet she smelled good,’ he said. ‘If you don’t mind me saying.’
I looked at him. He was small, well-seasoned, probably older than I’d first thought. His mouth was like a baby’s, empty and wet.
‘What you in for?’ I said.
‘The standard,’ he said. ‘A short back and sides.’
He nodded again, folded his hands on his lap. ‘I’ve been coming here to have my hair cut ever since the wife died.’
I’d had, in my time, too many conversations with old men about their dead wives; down the pub, pints in hand, they had gone on and on, and every one, bar none, left me miserable, shaken, in bad shape; I mean, really out there, close to gone; I couldn’t go down there again.
‘How long you been waiting?’ I asked.
‘Oh, quite some time,’ he said. Then he squinted at me. ‘Have you got a brother?’
‘No brother,’ I said.
‘That’s a shame. You remind me of someone, and the man I’m thinking of was a very good man. Never knew where he ended up though.’
‘It’s just me and this bad knee, I’m afraid.’
The old guy twiddled his thumbs, which I didn’t think people did in real life. I thought it was just a thing they said they did, for pretend. Yet round and round his thumbs went.
I said to him, ‘I tell myself, “Next time bring the paper,” but I always forget.’
‘I’ve not read a word since the wife died,’ he said.
After that, I rubbed my knee, tried not to look in his direction. The pain was a burning now, constant, steady, dead centre of my knee. It was at work where it had started up, in the office, after lunch. On my computer I watched numbers come and go, all day, with my help, and increasingly without it, big numbers turned small, bad became good, the amounts changed, up and down, and I was there to see it all; my computer brought me numbers and my body brought me pain. But did anyone care? My line manager told me to take it to HR, but HR informed me it was a case for Occupational Health, but Occupational Health was just a number you could dial to listen to a robot try to diagnose you down the phone. ‘Press 158,’ the robot said, ‘followed by the hash key if you have the sensation of something floating in your knee.’ Press this key, press that; it took hours. And after I’d pressed an indeterminate amount of keys, the robot would thank me and shoot me right back to the start.
The old guy stood up; they’d called his name. Off he went through the blue double doors. Calvin is what I think they’d said.
From the waiting room you could go in only one of two ways, either back to reception and then outside, or on into triage, through a big pair of swing doors painted glossy, wipeable blue. What happened was, the doors would swing open quite dramatically, in this very important-feeling way, and a doctor would appear and call out your name. It was the order in which the names were called that no one seemed to understand.
I went back to reception.
The dark-haired woman had returned to the desk.
‘How am I doing?’ I asked.
‘In what way?’ she said.
Back in the waiting room, it was much busier than before. I didn’t get how all these people had arrived without me seeing them go by. Yet there they were, tons of them, I couldn’t deny it. I’d just found a free seat, when a doctor came out from the doors and called out my name. I put my hand up and went over, but when I got there the doctor was calling out a different name.
I went back to my seat, but it was taken. I explained to the man sitting there about the pain in my knee, and he lifted up his trouser to show me the tent peg jammed through his calf. The peg stuck right in the muscle and came out the other side. It looked like a kebab. His sock and his shoe were crusted with blood.
On sight of the leg, the woman opposite crumpled in her chair; gradually she slipped down onto the floor. I crept away, stepping over two sets of crutches, a cast foot, a walking stick, a bike helmet, a beer can, and a guide dog’s behind. I found a wall to look at while staff circled the woman and then took her somewhere else.
Beside the wall a vending machine offered refreshments at an inflated cost. I would not normally be suckered by those things, but the inside of my knee was like a naked flame; tongues of pain licked up my thigh to my pelvis and groin, and hot drips fell behind my shin. I wanted simplicity. Eat, drink, shit, sleep, that sort of thing. The top row was energy drinks, but they’d been loaded with the labels facing the wrong way. It was impossible to tell what flavour was which can. Not that it mattered. They all tasted the same.
Someone said, ‘You look like you have a lot on your mind,’ but they weren’t talking to me.
A small queue had formed behind me so I picked out something green. And as I gulped it down, a fleck began to wriggle in the corner of my eye. I was used to floaters and flashes but this seemed different to that. I turned in the direction of the fleck and saw Moses. He waved at me and smiled.
‘I have been trying to catch your attention,’ Moses said.
I went over, shook his hand.
The thing about Moses was he only had one hand. Another thing was he liked to dress smart but never wore shoes.
‘What you in for?’ I said.
‘My wife,’ Moses said. The stories of Moses’s ailments always started with his wife. ‘My wife is scared. She say there is something bad on my back.’
‘Bad like what?’
‘She not say.’
‘Haven’t you looked?’
‘How can I look in middle of my back?’
‘She didn’t tell you?’
‘Of course she did. That is why I’m here.’
‘I could take a look, if you want me to. I don’t mind.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’
I nodded respectfully and stared at his stump. It interested me, the space that wasn’t, but had been, a hand. It looked hard and knobbly, and not unlike a knee. As if reading my mind, Moses folded his arms, tucked the stump up inside a pit.
‘You know, you’re lucky to have someone in your life, watching out for you,’ I said.
‘I am,’ he said. ‘I know.’
‘What was it the last time? Your ear?’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘my wife saw something in my ear. She said it was very dangerous.’
‘What was it?’ I said.
‘I do not know. And by the time I arrived at the doctor it had disappeared.’
He shook his head, as if disbelieving his bad luck.
‘And you,’ he said. ‘What is up with you?’
I tried to, but couldn’t, think of my left knee. I couldn’t think of my left foot, left thigh, left hip. It was becoming impossible to consider each part as separate from another. It was all one area known vaguely as ‘leg’.
‘It was my knee,’ I told him, ‘but now it’s all over, spreading, getting worse.’
‘That does not sound good. Have you thought about cancer?’ Moses said.
I put the empty can between my feet. ‘I hope it’s not cancer,’ I said.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Cancer is a devil.’
‘I just need to be seen. I’m so tired. I’ve been here for hours.’
Moses laughed. ‘This place,’ he said. ‘We are lucky they don’t make us pay rent.’
‘I need a piss but I can’t miss my turn.’
‘Listen. I will tell you an important story,’ Moses said. ‘My brother is a good man but life is hard for him. He think it difficult. One day my brother is on a boat and he feels so sad, he not himself, so he jump off the boat. Into the sea. But he cannot swim! He is in the sea and the boat is going away, leaving him. This is the end for him. But he is floating. Without meaning to. He is swimming. It is natural to him. He is lost in the sea and he find out he can swim. And then later another boat come along and pick him up. They take him back to the shore. He has to go to our mother and our father and tell them what he has done.’
I waited to hear what happened next.
But Moses said, ‘You know what I am saying? There is nothing more painful in this world than a shot in the foot.’
‘Someone shot your brother in the foot?’
‘That is not what happened,’ Moses said.
I wanted to tell Moses a story in return. But could only think of the time I killed a dog on Easter bank holiday weekend. It was this bastard Jack Russell we looked after for next door. I came home a bit late, a lot drunk, and as I was trying to be quiet, it started making all this fuss. So I gave it a little kick, and it keeled over and died. I thought it wasn’t coming back, but then it started to whine. I put my hands on its throat, wanting to shut the thing up. I didn’t want it to disturb the sleepy peace of my home. But my wife and young son came downstairs just as I was wiping my wet hands on the rug. She made me dig a hole in the garden, behind the shed, to bury it in. A full grave. I dug it in the rain. But the rain was heavy, the hole kept filling in. There was more and more mud, and when I managed to get the dog in there, the mud brought it back up. Ruined my marriage, that dog.
I said to Moses, ‘I once accidentally pissed on a stranger’s grave. It was meant to be my dad’s grave, but there’d been a dispute about the payment and he was in a different plot, so I go down the cemetery one night, not knowing he’s been moved, and I’d drunk a lot of beer because I was upset and I wanted to give him a full shower, but I got the wrong grave. The grave I pissed on belonged to a war hero, I found out.’
‘The Crimean,’ I said. ‘It made the local paper.’
Moses made a face a bit like a smile and rubbed his head with his stump.
‘Do you think I’ll get better?’ I said.
‘Yes, yes,’ Moses said.
Then he stood up, because the doctor called his name.
I went to reception again.
‘How much longer do I have to wait?’ I said.
‘Remind me,’ the dark-haired woman said, ‘is this a recurrent complaint or something new to you?’ and the way she said it, the question felt like a test. It had been my knee that brought me in, but was it really something new? The burning was now in my stomach, and at the base of my back. Soon I’d be engulfed. Would they prioritise a pre-existing condition over something new? I couldn’t answer with both, that was my mistake before. It could even be this was part of the treatment process. They needed me to admit to an all-over condition, a complete holistic overview. If the whole became better, then perhaps so would the knee. I looked to the dark-haired woman for help. Her eyes were glassy and her wayward brows were penned on. She looked at me, but not at me.
‘It’s me,’ I said. ‘I’m not right.’
The second woman typed into the computer again.
The dark-haired woman said, ‘It could be a couple of hours. We are currently experiencing an especially busy time.’
‘I’ve waited hours.’
She tilted her head, smiled. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. But I assure you we’re doing everything we can.’
She turned away, walked into the office behind the desk, and closed and locked the door.
‘I don’t find her very helpful,’ I said.
The second woman did not look up from her screen.
She said, ‘How can we help you if you won’t help yourself?’
I said, ‘I’ve been thinking much the same,’ but by the time I said it I’d already walked away.
Back in the waiting room, things had really gone to pot. It was heaving with the clumsy, the stupid, the casualties of life. It was loud. There was hardly room to stand. People groaned and yelled like sheep. A man was knocking on a wall as you would a door. A woman flashed human bite marks up her arm. Two lads, kids really, chucked a small shoe back and forth, over people’s heads. It was a child’s shoe, although no children were around.
A voice said, ‘What’s your problem?’
‘Busy bits,’ came the reply.
Another voice said, ‘It’s all fine until it’s not fine at all.’
‘I know the feeling,’ someone said.
It was like a Friday night down at the King’s Head. What day was it? What time, in fact? I’d lost track. The waiting room did not have windows. My phone was out of battery and I couldn’t stand to wear a watch because it became obsessional, checking for the time. Who in their right mind wanted to be reminded of the time? I mean, the waiting room itself had fallen into minor disrepair. One of the lights flickered, the floor tiles were uneven, even cracked, and on the ceiling were ever darker patches where the paint was discoloured. I was surprised it was allowed in a hospital, but supposed they had better things to do.
The pain advanced. My chest lit up with every breath. My insides curled like burnt leaves. I felt like I did not belong in my body, could not live there anymore. I was being pushed away, forced from myself. I wondered if it was possible for a person’s insides to be so completely changed that outside and in could no longer co-exist?
I saw Calvin’s face, across the room. He looked deep in thought, miles away. I elbowed my way to him and made us both a little space.
‘Back already?’ I said.
He looked at me for some time, like he was searching my face for something that he’d lost. Then he leaned close to me, got his empty mouth to my ear.
‘Need a haircut, don’t I?’ he said.
And it was true, his hair had grown quite long. White tufts of it jutted out above his ears.
‘That was quick, wasn’t it?’ I said.
‘Was it? That’s normal for me. Since I was a small child my hair has grown quick as weeds,’ he said, mournfully it seemed. ‘I feel sorry for them.’
‘Oh, I know you,’ he said. ‘Wait now. Don’t tell me. I think I knew your brother. Good man, with a bad knee. Unlucky bloke all in all.’
I didn’t have the heart to disappoint him. And maybe I did have a brother. Who could be so sure?
‘So what’s the matter with you?’ he said.
‘You ought to have that looked at.’
‘Aren’t we all.’
He had a walking stick with him I hadn’t noticed before and he rocked back and forward on it with his arms on the handle, looking not unlike an old gravedigger resting on his spade.
I told him, ‘I don’t want to die.’
‘It’s no biggie,’ Calvin said. ‘I’ve been dead before. It must have been in eighty-one or eighty-two. I fell out of a moving bus, into the road, and must have landed very badly because I woke up in the hospital two days later and they informed me I’d been dead. For a whole two minutes I was medically dead.’
‘Is that different from being dead dead?’
‘Nope. It’s the same.’
‘What did it feel like?’ I said.
‘How would I know? I wasn’t paying attention. I was dead. But later, after being dead, when I was alive again and in the hospital? That part was just like being asleep. Of course my head banged like nobody’s business, but if they hadn’t told me that I died then I never would have known. It’s not one of those things you can know without somebody telling it to you.’
‘Yeah?’ I said; it was lot to take in.
Calvin put a finger in his ear. Took it out, looked at it. ‘Of course my wife’s been dead a lot longer than I ever was,’ he said.
‘Can I tell you something?’ I said, a little keenly I suppose, but I couldn’t bear to hear of his dead wife. Because if I did then I’d start to think of my own. Who wasn’t dead. Who was still certainly alive. She was out there somewhere, in Liverpool, in fact. Relocated; remarried; no doubt still using the same type of shampoo. I could see her coming out of the hot shower, half-woman, half-steam, smelling, as she ever did, of coconut milk — and with that the pain flashed through me, head to toe, as if it could not stand to be forgotten.
Calvin said, ‘I said I’m all ears.’
‘You know what they call us?’ I said.
‘The doctors. The nurses,’ I said. ‘They call us “frequent attenders”. Not to our faces, but to other doctors and in their notes. That’s what they call people like us. They talk about us like we’re an illness of our own.’
‘I’ve been called worse,’ Calvin said.
At that moment a young boy stumbled from out of the crowd and into my arms. I held him for a second before setting him properly on his feet. He weighed nothing, it seemed to me, but even though I’d let him go, I could still feel him there.
‘Get off me,’ the boy said.
‘Sorry, son,’ I said.
‘I ain’t your son,’ he said, and I saw that he was right. They were close in age, but this boy had a birthmark round his mouth, the skin of it near-white with scars. His face was pale. His eyes were blue or grey or both.
‘Give me a quid,’ the boy said, ‘for a cup of tea.’
He stuck out a pale upturned hand.
I took out my wallet and wondered what it was for, this odd little leather pouch, with a few notes, a few coins, a bank card, driver’s license, loyalty cards, some receipts. It was more or less all I had left. I turned the wallet over several times, but the answer never came.
I handed it to the boy.
Snatching it to his chest, he looked at Calvin, then at me. He opened the wallet and held the driver’s license up against my face. He looked at me, then at the license. He read the name off it and laughed.
‘You’ve changed,’ he said.
Even before I could respond, the boy disappeared back into the crowd. It had become impossible to see people as separate from each other; the waiting room was one body, bound by pain. I had the sensation of something floating in my head.
‘That your boy?’ Calvin said.
‘No,’ I managed to say, ‘I don’t think it was.’
‘Never mind. The past’s a dead end.’
‘And the future?’ I begged him.
‘Don’t start,’ he said.
He rocked on his stick, perhaps marking time. Over the crowd came a sound.
‘That’s me,’ Calvin said, but it hadn’t seemed like his name. He staggered off into the throng, in the direction of the doors. ‘I’ll see you after, with the others,’ he called back. ‘They’re already there.’ His voice was clear and high above the noise, as if it came not from an empty mouth, but from an opening in the sky.