Melvin answers the door in his pants. He’s quite a sight. Wild white hair sweeping back from his head, a long, ginger-white goatee to match; perfectly round gray-blue eyes, and the kind of ravaged and rangy body you might see trotting alongside your jeep on the Serengeti.
He doesn’t speak. He just stands there, staring at me, one hand on the door, one hand adjusting himself.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘My name’s Jim. From the Rapid Response Team. I’ve come to see Helen.’
He smiles suddenly, a wide, gummy affair, but makes no other sign that he’s understood what I’ve just said.
‘Here’s my badge’ I say, holding it up.
He glances at it, then carries on staring at me.
‘Is it okay if I come in and see her, d’you think? Helen?’ I pause. ‘Is she in?’
He opens the door wider, still holding on to it, which I take as an invitation to come in. It’s a squeeze to get past him, though, especially with all my bags. The hallway is so tiny there’s barely room for the two of us. I’m expecting Melvin to make some room, but he doesn’t.
‘I’ll take my shoes off,’ I say, struggling in the cramped space. ‘It’s a bit wet outside.’
‘If you don’t mind,’ he says, suddenly animated, as if the last minute or so was just a technical glitch. ‘We’ve had so many people in and out.’
‘No worries,’ I say. ‘I bought these shoes ‘cos they’re easy to slip on and off. There! Good! Okay! So – shall we go through…?’
The sitting room is swelteringly hot. The gas fire’s on all-bars, and the air ripples above a free-standing radiator (all of which explains the pants). Melvin hops over to his chair and goes through an athletic, sitting down routine, involving him taking his weight on his arms, raising his legs, lowering himself slowly, then folding his bony arms and legs and smiling with a self-satisfied leer.
Helen waves me over.
‘Ignore him,’ she says.
The examination is straightforward. Everything’s fine. Helen’s recovering well and she’s happy to be home. I tell her we’ll be discharging her from our service, but that it’s easy for us to come back if anything changes.
Melvin watches the whole procedure with intense interest. Whilst I’m writing up the notes, he starts talking again.
‘I played a lot of football,’ he says, as if I’d asked. ‘A lot of football. But it did my head in. Have you heard that before?’
‘D’you mean sport and head injuries? I think I heard something.’
‘It’s the big leather balls. Laces down the middle. I played centre forward. I was heading it all the time.’
‘I suppose it wouldn’t do your brain much good. All that shaking. Like boxers.’
‘I did boxing, too. And rugby. You bang your head a lot in rugby.’
‘You certainly do.’
‘But football was the main thing. I did all the trials. I played semi-professionally for years. One game I scored eleven goals. This guy comes up to me after, and he says How’d you do it, Melvin? How’d you score all them goals? And I says to him What goals? I don’t know what you mean, mate. The ball comes to me, something happens, it’s in the net. That’s it. It’s a natural thing, like breathing. They sent me to Germany.’
‘This German coach, he runs over to me. He leans in … like this … and he wags his finger in my face… like this … and he says You! You’re the man with all the goals. You’re a professional. You shouldn’t be here. So I says to him Mate! What goals? I don’t know what you’re talking about. The ball comes over – it’s on my head – it’s in the net. That’s it. It’s got nothing to do with me.’
‘How’d he take it?’
‘How’d who take what?’
‘The German manager. How’d he take hearing about all the goals?’
‘He could see,’ he says. ‘He knew what he had there.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘I came back, didn’t I? Got a job in a laundry. And here we all are!’
‘Just ignore him,’ says Helen.