‘Is that a bird in the corner?’
‘A blackbird. Or a rat. Could be a rat. Something.’
I go over to check, cautiously moving junk around.
‘No. Nothing here.’
‘Oh. I thought I saw something.’
I put the junk back.
‘Do you think you might be hallucinating?’
‘No, no! I definitely saw it. This place – I don’t know. Sometimes things just come in the door.’
I don’t know what to think. Steve’s had a recent history of infection, and he certainly doesn’t take care of himself, with his heavy drinking, his poor diabetes control, and the general state of his flat. But despite all this his obs are normal, and – so far at least – he’s been pretty rational. And he’s certainly right about the place. A tenement block you could use as a film set for the roughest quarter of New Orleans, with a dark, central courtyard, an old tree in a ruined brick planter, and all around rising up six storeys a crumbling iron fire escape.
‘Anyway. I wouldn’t go to hospital, Jim. Not even if I was dying.’
‘Oh? Why’s that?’
‘My son! I haven’t seen him for ten years and he turns up yesterday.’
‘Wow! That’s great!’
‘Yeah. He’s off with his mates the other side of town. I ‘spect I’ll see him later.’
There’s a map of the world pinned to the wall above Steve’s bed. He tells me about his life as the skipper of a yacht, sailing the world, navigating the oceans through a haze of booze, smoke and other substances until unexpectedly running aground on a reef of detritus in this godforsaken flat.
‘I’ve been through storms like you wouldn’t believe. End of the World type storms. Did you know hurricanes give birth to tornadoes?’
‘I’ve seen it. The Devil’s spawn. Evil snakes, twisting you into knots. I was always lucky, though. I’ve got a strong stomach. And a strong grip!’
Later that day, back at the hospital, his blood results come in – as bleak a set of figures as the worst severe weather warning. I book him an ambulance to go to hospital, and then call him to give him the news.
‘I won’t go without seeing my son,’ he says.
‘Can’t you call him on his mobile?’
‘I haven’t got any credit on my phone, and he’s left his at home.’
‘I could call his landline and leave a message.’
‘He lives in El Salvador.’
‘Still, I could try…’
He gives me the number, but the number’s unobtainable.
I ring Steve back and tell him what I think.
‘The ambulance are on a two-hour response,’ I tell him. ‘So there’s time. I’m not going to stand the ambulance down, Steve, because your blood results are so out of whack I couldn’t be responsible for that. Fingers crossed your son turns up between now and then. But your health’s the most important thing.’
‘I don’t care about that,’ he says. ‘I’m not going anywhere till I’ve seen my son again.’
A little later I ring the hospital to check Steve went in. There’s no record, so I ring him to find out what happened. When he answers the phone he sounds loud and emphatic, like he’s speaking in the middle of a storm. I wonder if he’s been drinking.
‘No, Jim! He didn’t show up!’ he bellows. ‘But even if he had I couldn’t possibly go now.’
‘It’s all these kids.’
‘What d’you mean? What kids?’
‘All these seven year olds! Their mums’ve just dumped them on me. And it’s kinda weird, Jim – you know? Because they’ve done that thing kids do these days. They’ve painted their faces yellow and black. Fierce stripes, y’know! Like wasps…!’
I ring ambulance control again. Get the response time upgraded to immediate.