Days passed in a shuttle of discomfort. My skin went to war with my body. Blisters appeared round the skin in my hands, soles of my feet and toes. Painful and itchy—all at the one time. Momentary, heaven of scratching. The hell of spongy skin which became cracked and made it painful to touch anything. Reduced walking to a miserable bent-backed hobble. Lifting a brick. Working as a brickie. More chance of Blind Bobby giving you the right change after buying a round. But the college was good with me. Put me on nine-tenths pay; after six months half pay. Then fell back on the largesse of the state: statutory sick pay.
Pinned all my hope on the science of creams and lotions. Antibiotics. Quackery of soda on my skin. Cold tea leaves. Miracle cures of cold baths. Hot baths. Nothing worked, but more misery. Spent more time in the GP’s surgery than I did in my house, which wasn’t a bad thing. At least the Health Centre was warm.
After another month got itchy red eyes that never stopped running. That’s not the technical name for it. Dr Dryden asked if I wore contact lenses. Told him to fuck off. Told him a lot more than that. He’d run out of ideas. Tried to wrestle my frame from a hard chair. Whatever the opposite of walked away with your head held high was I finally managed.
Myra held the swing door open for me as I made my halting escape from the Health Centre onto Kilbowie Road. Had to make a special effort to raise my head and look at her. ‘How yeh been keeping hen?’ I asked.
‘Sorry Jim, I didn’t recognise yeh.’ She bit off the end of the sentence.
Young woman pushing a buggy got between us. Red wooly hat and shock of hair and a jumping bean and glow of a young child strapped safely in and staring solemnly at me in passing. Neither sympathy nor shock on his chubby face. Just interested in my body flaking away. Reminder of the joys of life. Myra let go of the door. She remained inside of the glass bubble with grey carpets and busy lives.
Begun to hobble away. Frosty outside. Bracing myself for the steep hill. Heard the clatter of feet. No cars on the road. Couldn’t have turned quickly if I wanted to. Funny how when your body aged forty years your mind does too. Feared the worst. Not that I’d anything worst stealing Myra slipped her arm through mine and I winced.
‘Sorry,’ she said.
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘I’m alright.’
Whiff of her womanly cleanliness put me in a further strop. Felt like something that crawled along. Unshaven. Wore an old black Crombie. Knew I stunk like something you scraped off the lavvy pan. Turned my head slowly. Her cheeks pink and healthy and her eyes warm. Tried to jerk my arm free, but couldn’t. ‘I’m alright.’
She gripped my arm tighter. ‘Thought I’d help you get down the road.’
Stopped and stooped, stood on the pavement nearly falling over and felt smaller than a coat button. My voice lacked the authority I used to have, but I made up for it with the bite of added spite and aggression. ‘I don’t want you help. Fuck off! Just fuckin’ leave me alone.’
Expected her to be angry. But she stood her ground. ‘I’ll just walk along beside you for a bit. If you don’t want my company that’s fine. But it’s a free country.’
Could hardly power away from her. Took a step or two and heard her shuffling along beside me. Walked on. She walked on. Felt stupid. I grinned and allowed her to catch up. Could hardly do otherwise. She was grinning too.
Told her I’d make her a cup of tea when we got up the stairs. Top flat, tucked into the right. Had a bit of a problem with the key in the door. She took it off me and let us both in. After coming out of the open air the hallway smelled as if it had been dipped in cat’s pee and I didn’t have a cat. She didn’t ask too many questions about the state of the living room. Mouldy unwashed clothing lying piled up on the couch and the chair facing the window, bottles and cans playing at soldiers on the carpet, detritus of takeaways, mainly rice and chips, which even bluebottles had given up on adding a spark of colour. ‘Sorry about the state of the place,’ I said. ‘Kept meaning to clean it up.’ Slumped into the nearest chair.
‘I’ve seen worse,’ she said, kindly. ‘Where’s your kettle?’
‘It’s through there.’ Found some relief mauling and itching the inside of my hands. Didn’t want to glance up to watch her face when she pushed open the door through to the kitchen. A clean cup would have been a rarer find than a da Vinci. Heard cold water running. The slop and knock of cutlery clashing together. Pots and frying pans hitting like swords.
She came back through and stood at the shoulder of the chair. ‘Thought I’d put the kettle make a cup of tea on and do a few dishes.’
Held my hands up. The palms bled the stigmata of a watery liquid. ‘I’m all out of Fairy.’
‘The kettle’s not working,’ she said.
‘I’m all out of Powercards.’
‘What were you going to do, sit there and rot?’ There was a nip of anger in her voice.
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘Unless somebody comes up with a better plan.’
‘You’ll need to pull yourself together.’
‘Take your self-righteous shite and goin’ fuck yourself with it.’
‘Ok Jim.’ She put her hand on my shoulder. ‘I was just trying to help.’
Tried to turn my head to look at her, but couldn’t manage it. Began to weep. Great gullets of air entering my lungs. Head dropped to my chest. Body shook like a bell. After a minute felt her arms going around me and holding me.
‘There, there,’ she said. ‘Let it all out.’
‘I’m all right,’ I said, waving her feebly away.
Her hand was on my knee. Then she stood up. ‘We’ll get you down to mine and get you in a hot bath and cleaned up. That’ll make you feel better.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, sniffing. ‘But I don’t think anything will make me feel better.’
‘Seems to me that you’ve been sorely tested,’ she said.
‘Cursed more like,’ I replied.
She considered this, her hands falling into a praying position under her chin. ‘Makes no odds. We both know who is responsible.’
‘Charlie,’ I said. ‘Whit makes you think he’s responsible?’
‘You’re forgetting,’ she said. ‘I’d a daughter to him. Whatever you’re suffering, multiply that by a thousand.’
Was my turn to apologise. ‘Sorry. But whit difference does it make? He went to ground after the trial. Nobody knows where he is. Even if we did, whit could we do?’
‘I’m not sure, but I know somebody that knows where he is and what he’ll want.’
‘Holly, my daughter. She’s not far. Lives in Paisley. About five miles as the crow flies.’
‘Im no’ a crow,’ I said. ‘Not even got a drivin’ license. Can we just get the train?’