the prisoner

‘You can catch all kinds of things from an animal,’ says Alan. ‘Cats. Dogs. You name it. They’ve all of them got something, some sort of disease. I’ve had them all, of course. Not the disease, I mean the animal. I used to race pigeons. I spent a lot of time with pigeons, one way or another.’
‘Talking about pigeons. I saw this story the other day about this guy who was renovating an old house. And when he started taking the chimney down to put up a new one, he found the skeleton of a First World War messenger pigeon stuck up there.’
‘How’d they know it was from the First World War?’
‘I don’t know. It had a little hat and goggles. Anyway, the thing was, there was this message round its leg, in a little brass cylinder, but no-one could read it, because you had to have the codebook the other end.’
‘Incredible birds, pigeons. Do you know how much prize money I got from my champion bird, Megan?’
‘How much?’
‘A thousand pound. That was a lot of money in them days.’
‘It’s a lot of money now.’
‘Poor thing,’ he says. ‘Probably got lost in a storm or something.’
He adjusts his nasal specs, the clear plastic tubing passing in loops and coils from the oxygen cylinder in the corner of the room, up over his lap, to curve backwards round his ears, over the front of his face, terminating in two tiny vents under each nostril.
‘It doesn’t half make your ears sore,’ he says.
‘Maybe you could put some padding there, to stop it rubbing.’
‘Anything rubs if you wear it long enough.’
‘Just hold still whilst I take a reading…’
I’ve wired Alan up to the ECG. He sits on the edge of the bed in a neutral pose, his hands palm up on his legs, cables running from his chest and his limbs.
‘There! All done! You can relax.’
‘It’s all so frustrating. I used to be so active. I played football for years. Swimming in the sea. I smoked, of course, but everybody did. You didn’t think about it. I’m surprised they didn’t give the kids a pack of cigarettes with their bottle of milk at break-time.’
‘They were pretty relaxed about the whole thing.’
‘Even doctors used to smoke.’
‘Still do.’
‘Not during an examination.’
‘Well – it’s a stressful job. You only need look at the news.  Right. I’ll drop this off at the surgery and the doctor’ll be in touch.’
‘You think?’
He tears off the ECG dots, sticks them all together in a clump, hands them to me, then buttons up the front of his shirt.
‘It all happened so fast,’ he says. ‘One minute I was okay, or sort of, and the next I was flat on my face at the Bowls club. I said to them, I said Can you just take me home? but Janice was there, and she used to be a nurse, and she said Alan, we can’t just take you home because your lips are fifteen shades of blue. So now here I am, the Prisoner of Zenda. Or thereabouts. If Zenda was the name of some fancy new disease.’

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