I’m surprised to see Andrew curled up in a duvet cover on the pavement, as I thought he’d gone to stay with a friend in Hastings.
He looks awful. He tells me that his chest is hurting and that someone pushed him over. He is wearing shorts and a shirt I’ve never seen before - they suit him, but are spotted with dried blood. Is the blood from being pushed over? I ask. “Yeah, I’ve cut my elbow.” I offer him a puff on my Ventolin, as I know he’s asthmatic, but it doesn’t seem to help with the pain in his chest. “I don’t think it’s asthma – it’s a sharp stabbing pain,” he says.
“Can you get me a hot pasty, please?” I offer to buy him fish and chips instead. I know, we’ll eat them in the park, I say. He struggles to get to his feet groaning with the effort. Not even the prospect of chip shop chips cheers him up. He shuffles to the park a few feet behind me with his head hanging like a deflated party balloon.
On the way, two policeman shout Andrew’s name and ask to speak to him. He seems on friendly terms with them and they both do ‘fist bumps’ when he’s given them his new phone number. It’s not charged up I tell the tallest constable next to me. “When will he charge it?” I don’t know. I’m not his mum, I’m just buying him a hot meal, I say.
Andrew is clearly in pain and hasn’t touched his steak and kidney pie, which is most unlike him. I decide to dial 111, when he lies on the ground and says his chest is killing him.
Soon we’re in an ambulance on the way to hospital, with a student paramedic asking Andrew lots of questions. Andrew’s shirt is open where they’ve had to do an ECG and I notice that he is all valleys and hollows. His skin hangs loosely on him, as though it once fit but has now gone baggy. He is clearly malnourished. As he lies back and closes his eyes, the cigarette that was tucked behind his ear, falls and comes to rest in the ledge of his collar bone.
We arrive at A&E and ambulance doors make a noise like a Star Trek sound effect as they open. The trainee paramedic makes a joke about it. He and the female ambulance driver are kindness personified. They couldn’t be more friendly and as they wheel Andrew into triage, the paramedic says he will get Andrew a sandwich.
I really wish he hadn’t put this idea in Andrew’s head, as it means I have to spend the next three hours, listening to him ask every passing nurse and orderly to find him sandwiches.
After a series of blood tests, ECGs, the trauma of cannula insertion, a steak pie, a packet of Pringles, two cups of tea and a packet of ginger biscuits, Andrew is ready to be wheeled into Majors. We’re told that he will be seen by a nurse shortly, but we spend so long sitting there in the darkened cubicle that I feel I’ve entered a parallel dimension. The dimmed hush of the ward and the slowness of hospital time is so otherworldly that I give up even thinking of going home and how I will get there.
Andrew has a chest x-ray while eating a cheese sandwich. He has an insulin injection while eating a tuna sandwich and then eats two yoghurts and drinks another cup of tea. I help myself to one of his wine gums, as Andrew tears off the ECG stickers from his chest, taking a quantity of chest hair with them. Like a bikini wax, I say and he laughs. “I’ve no idea what one of those is, but I’m sure you’re right.” His innocence frequently amazes me.
The doctor informs us that Andrew will not be spending the night in hospital as his chest x-rays are clear. Andrew’s main concern is that he missed out on getting a sleeping bag from the homeless drop-in centre this evening, due to us being here. He only has a thin duvet cover and some cardboard to sleep on. I am disgusted by a system that will discharge a sick person to sleep in a shop doorway, although I don’t blame the medical staff personally. Fortified by this outrage, I walk up to the linen closet, steal two hospital blankets and stuff them into Andrew’s holdall.
I stand in the foyer as we wait for a taxi back to town, occasionally popping outside to look for our cab. The air is chilly and clear. I check my phone and realise that it’s nearly midnight.
In the foyer, Andrew has sought out a fellow homeless person. I’ve noticed that he gravitates towards them and today he asked me how many I’d seen in town. I suppose they are his tribe.
“He’s waiting for a lift,” Andrew says, nodding towards a tiny bejewelled man sitting a couple of seats away.
The dapper man has the air of a cowboy, due to his black, country and western style clothes and large crucifix around his neck. He has many silver rings on his tobacco stained fingers.
Do you like Johnny Cash, I ask him and he says he does. Thought you would, I say.
But the silver haired man isn’t well enough for banter. He is trembling and coughing.
“I’m an alcoholic, sixty-years-old and I’ve lived for one year on the streets,” he tells me. He has prostate cancer and various other ailments.
I’m glad he has at last been given a place in a homeless shelter, but I wonder how long he’s got left. The A&E staff nurse brings him a collection of boxed tablets, “eight of these, 2 of these…” she lists his dosages and tells him a lift is on its way. His fingers shake as he tries to roll a cigarette.
Our taxi arrives and Andrew wishes him luck as we say our goodbyes, but I am too haunted to look at him. What if this is Andrew's future?