the story of Old No.7

Before I go up to the first floor I stop by the warden’s office.
‘Pete? He’s what you might call a colourful individual,’ says the warden. ‘He’s certainly done a lot in his life, what with his boxing and his business interests and his running around. I’m not so sure about the Krays, though. You have to take a lot of what he says with a shovel of salt. But y’know – we’re all worried about him. Pete’s always had a short fuse, but he’s gotten a whole lot crankier. The carers are having to double-up.  For safety – y’understand? God knows he’s got a lot on his plate, poor bastard, what with his eyes and his back. We take his meals up and try to rouse a bit more of a spark in him, but.he’s retreated to his room these last few weeks, and short of dragging him out by the feet, there’s not a lot else to be done. It’s like he’s given up.’
‘They’ve sent me round to take some blood this morning.’
‘Yeah? Well good luck with that!’ says the warden, shaking his head and leaning back in his office chair. ‘My advice? Keep it simple. Don’t fuss. And wear a tin hat.’

Pete is standing waiting for me in the doorway to his flat. A tall, pale, withered figure, dressed in boxer shorts and a string vest, he peers out at me as I approach along the corridor.
‘What took you so long?’ he says.
‘Sorry, Pete. I stopped by to have a word with Gerry.’
‘What for?’
‘Just a quick hello. He’s a nice guy, isn’t he?’
‘If you say so. Anyway. What’ve you come for? I’m sick of all these people barging in all hours of the day and night.’
‘It must be annoying,’ I say. ‘But I suppose it’s just because people are worried about you. They want to make sure you’re okay.’
‘What people?’
‘Carers, nurses. The usual.’
‘Well, I’m fed up with it.’
‘So how are you today, Peter?’
He shrugs, but lets go of the door handle and turns to walk back to his armchair.
‘Just be quick,’ he says.
‘I promise I won’t keep you long.’
He settles back into his chair as I get my things ready.
‘What are you? Some kinda nurse?’ he says.
‘Nursing assistant.’
‘Ah!’ he says. Then after a pause: ‘In Spain you’d be called a practicado.’
‘I like that. Practicado. That feels about right. So – how come you know Spanish?’
‘Well I should do. I lived there ten years. I had a bar on the Costa del Sol.’
‘Wow! That sounds great. Hard work though, I expect.’
‘See that bottle up there,’ he says, pointing to an ornate glass bottle on the top of a shelf of sculptures and photographs. ‘That’s a traditional Spanish whisky, about a million per cent. So spicy it’ll blow your tits off.’
‘I bet.’
‘I haven’t touched it in over twenty years. Don’t suppose I ever will now.’
‘You know – the worst drunk I ever got was on an American whiskey. Something called Wild Turkey. I was knocking it back because it was so smooth and easy. And I was thinking This is all right! This is great! And the next thing I knew, I was lying flat on the floor with my eyes going round and round, like the red spot on one of those old electricity meters.’
‘American whiskeys are the best,’ he says. ‘Have you ever had Jack Daniels?’
‘Yep. Love it.’
‘D’you know the story behind it?’
‘Was it something to do with the Civil War? Or was that Colonel Sanders?’
‘No! He was the chicken man, you numpty. What I mean is – why’d they call it Number Seven?’
‘Don’t know’
‘It’s because his first batch was just seven barrels, and they all come loose in a storm and rolled down the mountain, and the only one they never found was this number seven. And it’s still out there now. So if you went and found it, you’d be a millionaire.’
‘I’ll just take this blood and then I’ll be off.’
‘Ye-es, mate. I’ve lived all over the world. Spain, Italy. America. I’m no good now, though. I mean – look at me! And then have a look at me on the beach.’
He nods over at a bookcase as I tape a wad of gauze to his arm. Shaking the vials of blood, I go over to the picture. A young man in his twenties, doing that greased-up, muscle-man thing of leaning forwards whilst flexing his arms and shoulders, smile-grimacing into the lens.
‘You look quite a prospect.’
‘Wha’d’ya mean, prospect?’
‘I mean you look handy.’
‘I could take care of myself, don’t you worry.’
I sit down to write the vials up when he says, in a surprisingly shaky and vulnerable change of tone: ‘What d’you suggest I do about all this, then?’
‘About what, Pete?’
‘About all this what I feel. I’m no good any more. I’ve got pain the whole time. I can’t hardly see nothing. The doctors have run out of ideas.’
He licks his lips and then adds: ‘Do you know what irony is, Jim?’
‘What – d’you mean it’s ironic you were so fit and now you’ve got all these health problems?’
‘No. The irony is – a few years back everyone wanted to kill me, and now that I’m properly fucked and want to die, they all want to keep me alive.’
‘I’m sorry you’re feeling so low. It’s not surprising, though, given all the things you’ve got to put up with.’
‘Yeah, well,’ he says.
‘I can refer you on to our Mental Health nurse. She’s really good – and she can start figuring out ways to help you feeling better again.’
‘If you think,’ he says.
‘Good. I’ll speak to her when I get back to the office.’
I’m just putting my stuff away when he leans forwards and says:
‘Have you heard the one about the two psychiatrists in Chicago?’
‘No. Go on.’
‘So there are these two psychiatrists in Chicago, both working in the same building, nodding to each other when they pass in the lobby. The first one’s always bright and cheerful, dressed nice, expensive hat, big cigar, whilst the second one, he drags himself around looking shabby and down at heel, with a face like a smacked arse. So anyway, eventually, this second, sad psychiatrist, he can’t take it no more, and he stops the first one in the lobby, and he says: I don’t get it, mate. We spend all our time listening to the same old dreary problems, none of which we can’t do nothing about, and yet there you are with this big smile on your face. And the first one, he turns round, and he says: ‘Who listens?’

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