Ailsa ward had a peculiar feel to it. I felt stranded between Wullie the Pole not being there, and him being there, lying unconscious on top of his desk. Most of the workday was about repetition, nothing much happening, a kind of grey dullness that found its way into the corners of my work life, and made changing a light bulb in on one the communal toilets a source of resentment, at being asked to do everything, and excitement for the opportunity to do something different. But I’d no internal map to work out my position on the Wullie the Pole issue. That made my nervous, but what made it even worse was trying to think of some explanation if anybody visited Ailsa ward.
I went through a couple of scenarios in my head. With a voice swinging between sarcasm and innocence I imagined myself saying to James Munn: I hadn’t noticed Wullie the Pole was drunk, then (breathlessly) he suddenly feel asleep and I’m just as surprised as you. But I thought that might tax my acting abilities a bit too much. James Munn would know that I was lying, but wouldn’t be able to prove it. On the bright side, the onus would be on Wullie the Pole’s deficiencies and not mine. But knowing James Munn, he would probably ask me why I hadn’t phoned him to tell him about this, or ask his advice. Even although he seemed to live in a different planet, the other scenario, that Scotty from Star Trek had beamed Wullie the Pole down, not dead, but drunk, wouldn’t, I thought, appeal to him.
The phone rang. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I jumped back, as if it threw off an electrical charge. I knew it was my fault for thinking about what I’d say if someone phoned. I let it ring and ring, hoping that Wullie the Pole would answer, but he flapped at it with his big hands as if it was an arm clock, without looking up. When the phone stopped ringing he seemed to settle back down, but his Leviathan yawns stabbed into the desk.
The phone rang again. I knew it was James Munn, because that was one of his traits, ringing and ringing again if he didn’t get an answer, refusing to recognize how busy we were, and when that didn’t work, walking over to the ward for a personal visit, even when he didn’t have much to tell you, or simply to ask some daft question. Nobody liked that kind of behaviour, but he seemed oblivious to it.
‘Answer the phone boy,’ Wullie the Pole said raising his head cautiously, as if testing its ability to stay attached to his shoulders.
I picked up the telephone receiver with equal caution, holding the receiver up to my ear, and waiting for James Munn’s Oxford accent to drill into my head and find residence.
‘Hallo,’ said the voice on the other line.
I pulled at the telephone, sliding it across the desk and away from Wullie the Pole, and stretched the cord as far as it would go before answering, hoping that he would once more fall asleep. His head was still down on the desk, but I was sure his ears were still open, and that he was listening to every word.
‘Hallo,’ I said cautiously.
‘It’s me,’ she said simply.
I knew who it was. I just wondered why she was calling me when I was at work. But when I thought about it I realized that because we didn’t have a phone at home, Gillian’s only other option was coming to my house again and I didn’t want that. I listened to her breathing on the other end of the phone, but I didn’t know what to say.
‘I can’t really talk just now,’ I tried to whisper into the phone.
‘If you can’t really talk,’ said Wullie the Pole suddenly sitting up ramrod straight as a schoolteacher, ‘then why are you talking?’
‘I need to see you,’ she said.
‘Ok, ok,’ I spluttered out, ‘I’ll come up to your place later,’ and I flung the phone down.
‘Wullie the Pole watched me, with the familiar indifferent look on his face. ‘Was that a personal call?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said, ‘it was a colleague.’
He made some kind of hrumphing noise from the back of his throat, and scraped his chair back whilst getting up, and pushed past me as if I wasn’t there, and sure- footedly made his way out of the office. I didn’t know how a man could go from being stinking-fall- down- drunk to what seemed like perfectly sober in the space of ten minutes. If anybody else had told me about it I’d have called them a liar.
Wullie the Pole kept yawning when he came back into the office. He’d been in the kitchen and pilled two plates with cold meats, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, raw onion and bread. He’d a little dish of HP tomato sauce that he dipped his bread into to create a Polish smorgasbord. His big yellow teeth rhythmically chomped there way through the dishes he’d prepared whilst he eyed me like a fat kid that didn’t like sharing. He made another hawking sound with the back of his throat. He looked at the waste paper bin and I thought he was going to spit into it, but he swallowed the bolus of food, and sniffed a few times.
‘I’ll go and check on the patients,’ I said.
Wullie the Pole moved his head slightly, to show that he’d heard. ‘Wait boy,’ he said. ‘Has anybody said anything about anything?’
I wasn’t sure what to say. ‘About your mum?’ I asked tentatively.
‘Yes,’ he said.
I thought for a moment he was going to cry. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, but wasn’t sure if I sounded sorry enough.
‘Thanks,’ he said, looking away from me and at the desk. ‘You know I don’t have anything of hers, not a photograph, not a letter,not a slip of paper with her name on it. Nothing. There’s only this place… the place,’ he looked around him, as if he was looking for something; looking for the right words, ‘which slanders the man that I was. That I’ve become And I can’t even get back; not ever. I can’t go on a ship and go back for her funeral’.
He looked at me to see if I understood, but my face just got redder and redder, as I couldn’t thing of anything to say. I just wanted to escape from the office.
‘That life has been cut out of me,’ he said, his eyes holding mine. But a tremor passed through his body and he sob escaped from his lips. Then tears appeared at the corner of his eyes and rolled silently down his face. He made no attempt to wipe them away. ‘Go boy; leave this place, before it swallows you up. There’s nothing for the likes of you here.’
‘Sure,’ I said, as if I knew what he was talking about.
He took a deep breath. ‘Just leave your keys,’ he said, ‘I’ll let you out’.
I walked in front of him trying not to smile at being let out early. I held my hand up in the foyer, as he short-sightedly looked for the same key to lock me out that had locked me in Ailsa ward. My arm came up slowly; a wave or an acknowledgement, I wasn’t quite sure which. ‘I’ll be back early tomorrow,’ I mouthed, but I wasn’t sure that he’d heard me. I watched him trudging back to his office and I thought I heard the phone ringing.