The fog lifts from the tops of the buildings leaving them stranded in light rain. By the time Dermot gets back to his close he spots pedestrians coming towards him and the flash of green and gold Corporation buses spotlight the middle of the road. Climbing the stairs it seems strange to him that there’s awkwardness in his legs because of his hand. A door swings open when he draws near to the second floor landing, and wee John, Jaz’s dad, eyes him from the doorway. He has on a vest and trousers. A belly like a chip pan sits on the buckled belt. Work boots are on his feet. A wedge of receding hair, more flabby neck than head, and unshaved cheeks and chin complete his unkempt appearance. He points an accusing finger at Dermot, his arm tattooed with an anchor and RFC a graffiti scrawl below it in Indian ink.
‘My boys in hospital cause of you,’ he says. ‘Concussion. His mother’s up to high-dough about it.’
They stare across at each other. He is marking his territory, a mangy lion pissing against a bush. A son appears at his back. Then another. Older brothers of Jaz, with different, but similar hair and etch-a-sketch faces.
Dermot thinks of them as silly wee boys, but dangerous as wee snakes, unless defanged. And with his hand being the way it is, he knows he is defenceless as a worm. John eyes flicker, a slight gap, waiting for an answer.
‘Away to fuck, John,’ he says. ‘Did you see the dog? And member he’s tooled up, hit my boy, and he beat up a wee lassie that’s no’ even at the school yet. Whit the fuck yeh want me to dae, kiss him on the forehead?’
One of the boys in a blue shirt wandered away up the hall and his brother in a denim jacket follows him with a swagger.
‘Aye, I’m heart sorry about that,’ says John. ‘I’ll have a word with him. It’s that other boy, Rab. Every time he goes out with him he seems to get into some kind of trouble. He’s a good boy, really.’
Dermot nods at him. ‘Ah, well, John, we’ve all got our crosses to bear.’ He hears their door shutting as he climbs the stairs.
He lifts the pint of milk from the doorstep. The boy is still in bed when he gets in. He sticks the kettle on for himself and gets the Kellogg’s Cornflakes out of the cupboard, hoping for a new start, to be father and mother to him and to make him some breakfast. The little milk left on the windowsill overnight in the bottle has turned. He drinks it rather than waste it, knowing his son wouldn’t and doles out a bowl of Cornflakes and a cup of tea for himself.
His son seems surprised to see him leaning over him in his room. ‘Whit is it?’ he says. And his hand searches for Angela. ‘Where is she?’
‘Her mother came for her last night.’
‘But you said you’d need to get the cruelty man in. She’d get a new father and mother.’
‘Aye, but it’s no as simple as that. She said she was sorry and it wouldnae happen again.’ His son’s forehead knits into disbelief. And he throws in, ‘the wee lassie wanted to go home. You cannae keep a child from its mother.’ He pats the side of the bed. ‘Hurry up and get up. I’ve made you breakfast.’
‘You made me breakfast!’ Another thought comes to his son. ‘How come you’re no’ at work?’
Dermot holds up his arm. ‘Sore hand, I need to go to the doctors.’
His son gives it a cursory glance, and jumps out of bed. He shivers with cold and gets quickly dressed into his school clothes, and kicks on his shoes. The door is left ajar as he nips down to the toilet on the first landing.
When he comes back into the living room Dermot hands him the bowl, and sits in the chair opposite, watching him eat. Cornflakes weighed down with sugar and fresh milk.
His son glances over at him. ‘Whit happened to Blodger? he asks, chewing and swallowing.
Dermot thinks for a second, looking into the fire. ‘The cruelty man came and took him away.’
His son’s face shows he believes him but doesn’t believe him.
‘Hurry up, or you’ll be late for school,’ Dermot nods to the loose change he usually leaves on the mantelpiece for school dinner. He’s added an extra bob for sweets.
His son leaves the plate and counts the money with his fingers. ‘Thanks Da,’ he says, with a cheeky grin. And he’s running, clattering, down the lobby.
Dermot has a wash and puts on clean dress trousers and white shirt for his visit to the doctor. Shaving with his left hand is awkward. He splashes on some Old Spice to finish.
Before he goes to the doctors he nips into Maisse’s at the bottom of the stair. It’s not really a shop, more a place where old woman gather like cobwebs in the corner of a dingy room to natter. Maissie is about eighty, wee and squat and lives behind the counter, where she sells tobacco, newspaper, sweets and bottles of ginger for the kids.
‘A pack of Senoir Service and a box of Swann Vestas,’ he says to Maissie, searching in his left pocket for fifty pence.
‘That’s 27d and 21/2 d for the matches.’ Maissie’s not quite mastered decimal currency. Although she doesn’t wear glasses she dispels the rumour she is going blind, between ringing up the change and passing his cigarettes and matches by remarking on the way Dermot is dressed. ‘Where you aff to the day? The seaside?’
‘No, the doctors.’
‘That’s terrible.’ She waits for more – gossip is a big part of her business.
‘Aye, I hurt my hand at work,’ Dermott holds his hand up and she squints at it. ‘And I’m going to the doctors.’
‘What doctor’s that son?’
‘Dr Fleming’s practice, just beside the plots.’
‘Oh, aye, he’s a great doctor. Very clean. Smokes a nice cigar. And the nap of his suits. Great quality.’
The bell of the shop rings and old women wearing a hat bustles in ‘Ena,’ says Maissie. The medical panegyric ends with Dermot sloping out of the shop yesterday’s news.
Dermot has a fag in the waiting room as he waits for his turn to see the doctor. The practice is in the ground floor of a tenement block. Bashed up wooden chair line the wall with a variety of ailments and patients. A child sitting on his mother’s knee flings out a barking cough. It starts and finishes and starts again, as she hangs monkey-like from her shoulder looking about. An older man, bent backed, and reeking, sits in the corner with a few seats to his left and right. And a pretty girl with freckles looks over the top of a romance novel. Dermot’s already been examined by the receptionist, Agnes, a wee Highland woman. She has given him the kind of third-degree Maissie would have been proud of, checking if he deserves to have a walk-in appointment with one of her doctors.
‘Dermot Connelly,’ the receptionist shouts with the pleasant lilt of her voice rising. When his names called he’s surprised. He’s not used to his proper name being called and it takes him a second to get up and follow her into the doctor’s surgery.
Dr Fleming’s surgery is where one of the back bedrooms would be in a tenement flat; the walls a battleship grey, but it has all the usual paraphernalia of medicine: desk, filling cabinet, and a coal fire behind the grate. Dr Fleming, a ruddy-cheeked man, contrary to what Maissie said, smokes a tipped cigarette. An overflowing ashtray sits on his desk next to a phone and a copy of the British National Formulary, the binding coming apart.
‘Please sit down,’ says Dr Fleming. His accent is that of a BBC newsreader. He nods at the chair in front of his desk while scanning what Dermot takes to be his file. Satisfied, he looks across at him. ‘We’ve not seen much of you,’ he remarks.
‘Eh, aye, I’ve been pretty healthy up until noo,’ Dermot says apologising for not being ill.
‘And what can I help you with now?’ Dr Fleming’s swivel chair squeaks as he sits back in it.
Dermot stretches his arm and puts his hand on the desk like a trophy. Dr Fleming stubs out his cigarette, bows as he leans across. His touch, surprisingly gentle, as he manipulates his fingers, but Dermot can’t help wincing and crying out in pain. He sits back in his chair to pronounce judgement. ‘The proximal and middle phalange of your index and middle fingers seem to be dislocated and your ring finger badly bruised. Your little finger is also distended.’ He looks across to see if Dermot understands. ‘That’s only my humble opinion, of course, I’ll write you a note and you can take it up to The Western to get it X-rayed and to see a specialist.’
‘Whit about my work?’ says Dermot.
Dr Fleming holds a finger up. ‘Remind me, what is it you work as again?
Dr Fleming laughs. ‘You’ll not be delivering coal for a while, I can assure you.’
‘How long will I be out for?’
‘Hard to say, perhaps three months, but perhaps longer, ligament damage and you might get rheumatics. In fact you probably will.’ The thought seems to cheer him up. ‘You may never be able to deliver coal again.’