After work my luck doesn’t change. On my way home I slide on a wet standing stones in the burn, and batter my knee off a submerged rock. I juggle sideways against the current and a black Weegin on my right foot slips off and floats away before sinking a few feet downstream. I limp towards sunken leather, and wade with the upturned trophy in my hand towards the bank. On terra firma, sandwiching my foot into a submarine-coloured shoe, I squelch home, like an old sea-dog, favouring one hip rather than the other, wetter than Ahab but with dim whaling noises coming from me. Nobody in our street spots me, but as the kitchen is mum’s crow’s nest, I try to light a fag before I get inside, at the back door. But my matches are soaking and my fags soggy.
‘That nice girl was down to see you.’ Mum says, springing away from the wooden table where she is sitting at the table sorting through a basket of washing, fishing for odd socks. She’s so keen to tell me even though I’m dripping onto the linoleum she doesn’t seem to notice.
‘That nice girl.
The only girl that had ever come to the door, for me, was Maureen Hargreaves. And that was yonks ago, and stopped when we were about seven and became uncomfortable with having a best friend of a different sex, not that we would ever have mentioned sex.
‘Was it Maureen Hargreaves?’
‘Don’t be so daft,’ says Mum, a note of exasperation in her tone, suggesting she was unlikely to forget a girl’s name that lived in the same street. ‘She told me her name. Very proper.’ She emphasises the last word and her head tilted upward and she looks down her nose at me. ‘What happened to you?’ she asks giving me the once over.
‘Fell in the burn.’
Mum starts laughing. ‘What did I tell you about taking that shortcut?’
‘I know.’ Bounding up the steps to run a bath I shut out her good humour and practice scowling to make myself more interesting.
‘Put your wet clothes in the wash basket,’ follows up the stairs.
But I nip into my room first. I lift the lid on the record player, find the spindle and inject some vinyl. One spin and practiced index finger triggers the release mechanism. I don’t need to look. The stylus lifts and lowers the needle onto the dark bump and grind of the track lines.
Al Jolson’s, ‘Mammy, how I love you, how I love you, my dear old mammy,’ blares out and I couldn’t agree more. I own a spanking new record player, but had to borrow a thirty-three LP to give me something to practice with.
The bath takes the whole of history to reach a level quarter-full. Dosing bathwater with poofy, smelly, bath salts takes the edge off washing, and I take the plunge. Shaking myself like a drowning kitten I’m out of the bath before I’m properly in. The water is bollock freezing a level slightly above the burn. But at least I’ve a warm towel to dry myself. Perusing the options on the rusted window sill I splash Christmas on in the form of Hi Karate.
Music jazzes up my room. Silence when it comes with a click is sweeter. A clean pair of denims lies on my bed and a new shirt that looks suitably old hangs in the cupboard. With my new clobber on I get ready for my big night. I dash back the way I’ve come towards the hospital, but like an old man I take the long road.
I vaguely know the charge nurse in Morrison Ward, Dan Lodge, to see. He’s a big man with big sideburns and a squarish chin that is purple and shiny. He looks at me glumly when I buzz to get in. He’s on back shift, doesn’t finish until 10p.m., and I know how he feel. He knows I’m here to see Mary and after the initial grunting ‘hi-yas,’ he points his chin in the direction of the day room. Morrison Ward is a gun-metal grey tip, with dormitory type beds running along the walls and the smell of the lavvy rushing to meet you at the door. But it’s set out in much the same way as the more familiar Ailsa.
It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is on the telly, innuendo and jungle humour, too much fun for many of the residents lined along the far-away wall; I’m a far more interesting prospect. As I make my way through the dayroom a fat woman bursting out of a crimson blouse grabs at my hand, taking an inordinate interest in my personal hygiene, sniffing me up and down. I gently prise her fingers away, cupping my other hand over my nose, the sour smell emanating from her telling me I don’t want her to get any closer. Mary is sitting on a chair so far from the telly she might as well be a corncrake hiding in the long grass. Her specs slide down her nose and she’s idly kicking her legs, reading a book. I can’t see the cover, but all she ever seems to do was read. I imagine her to be some kind of book rat.
‘What are you doing here?’ she says looking over. A red and black fringed shawl is draped over her shoulders. The chair creaks as she gets up and leaves a pucker where she’s been sitting. She takes off her specs, and leaves them on the wooden arm of the chair, and places the book face down on the seat to keep her place; her eyes drowsy and wary.
‘I came to see you,’ I say.
‘Why?’ She looks along the line of chairs grabs my wrist, huffing, drags me away from the other patients, checking behind her that we’re not being followed. We find a space in the corridor near where the kitchen tables are stacked, and far enough from the fade of canned telly laughter to talk.
‘Because you came to see me.’ I look down at her feet and see she’s got men’s brown sandals on and one of the leather straps is bust.
‘What do you mean?’ Her head drops and she nips at the bridge of her nose where her specs have left a reddish mark.
Now I’m here I’m not sure why I’ve come. Mary looks older, washed out and unwelcoming in the ward in a way she doesn’t outside— ‘You came to see me earlier, at my house?’
‘Never.’ Her face contorts and her body slopes away from me like a pulled string and, although nobody is listening, we’ve taken to whispering at each other.
‘Well, we could go out, then?’ I feel weary as though I’m back at work and have to justify myself.
‘What’s that thing you’ve got on?’
She leans forward sniffs around my head and chest, cheeks puffed out in exasperation. ‘That stink? Pansy Potter perfume.
‘Great isn’t it?’ I hop from foot to foot, trying to brazen it out. ‘It’s that Hai Karate. Everybody in the know wears it.’
She grabs my elbow and pushes me along the corridor. ‘Maybe we should nip outside. That way I’ll be able to breathe.’ Her smile sweetens the deal. ‘Give me a wee minute until I get a jacket – and a face cloth to bung over my nose.’
The kitchen door is left open, I take a quick gander. Soggy teabags, gravy and grease playing battleships in the sink and an open tub of Stork with a knife stabbed into it and a trail of breadcrumbs on the work surface and an overflowing grey metal dustbin in the corner and the stink of fish. But I don’t hang about.
I stand waiting for her at the door. Outside the ward it’s chilly and dark, the sleety rain has let up, but she’s got her hood up and we crouch together almost touching as if it hasn’t and we’re picking over something to say. I take a step away from her as I search my pockets for my fags. We take a short-cut, nip down the curve of the stairwell, towards the lights on the road, more for something to do than to go anywhere special.
I’ve got a fag in my mouth, and am slightly ahead. She starts prodding my back, with steely fingers. They’re the kind of fingers that should be giving recitals on a piano; not needling me to keep ahead of her. It starts off as a joke, but it plays out fast, but she keeps doing it.
I grab her wrist, but she’s too quick, her hood falls down, she squeals and arches away and pokes me in the chest. My nostrils flare, I ponder poking her back in her bony little no chest.
‘What age are you about five?’
Mary blows a raspberry sound, speckling me with spittle, and laughs with a gaping mouth in my face.
I take a deep breath, shake my head and snigger too.