little red mathematician

‘I must say everyone’s been so nice’ says Anthony, staring down at me with his arms folded as I clean the blood off his toes. ‘For the most part. And even then you can see why they might be a bit off. Pressure of work and all that. The hospital was absolute bedlam, of course. People coming and going at all hours of the day and night.’
‘I don’t think they’re very restful places, hospitals.’
‘No. I spent three weeks trying to escape. And it was always the same thing. We’ll tell you when we think you’re ready to be discharged they’d say. We’re just waiting on this result or that review. And on and on it went, absolutely without end. Until one morning a nurse appeared and started shoving things in a bag and said I had half an hour before the transport arrived.’
‘That must’ve been a shock!’
‘I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a dream. I had such odd dreams in hospital, you see. I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. I had one particularly vivid dream about bicycles.’
‘Bicycles?’
‘Red ones. Growing out of the ground, like trees. What d’you suppose that means?’
‘I don’t know. It sounds kind of stuck.’
‘Well I suppose so. I was ready to start tunneling my way out with a spoon.’
There’s a knock on the door.
‘Ah! That’ll be June!’ he says, pushing himself more upright on the chair, dragging his cast leg back on the stool. ‘You couldn’t let her in, could you?’

When I open the front door I’m met by a small elderly woman dressed entirely in red. A red tartan shawl with darker red patches and golden thread; a red blouse fastened at the neck with a beetle brooch; a red corduroy skirt; red stockings, and shiny red patent leather shoes. She’s carrying a wicker basket with the handle looped over her arm, and the basket is draped with a white cheesecloth square.
‘Cake!’ says June, smiling at me as innocently as if I was a wolf dressed in a nurse’s tunic. ‘For the invalid!’
I can tell by the way she marches round the corner and into the flat that she’s been here many times before.
‘Helloooo!’ she calls ahead. ‘Only me!’

Anthony makes the introductions when I follow after her into the living room.
‘June is my oldest friend. The best mathematician I know. And I know a few.’
‘Oh now!’ says June, but she doesn’t deny it, giving me a broad, red-lipped smile instead.
‘We’re going to celebrate Anthony’s release with a lovely morning eating cake and talking algebra,’ she says, resting the basket on the table.
‘Well don’t mind me’ I say. ‘I’m all done with the foot. All that’s left is to write up the notes and I’ll leave you to it.’
I pick up the folder and click my pen. ‘And I promise I’ll only chip in if I hear you say anything completely outrageous about the theorems.’
‘Theorems?’ says June, suddenly serious. ‘What d’you mean? What theorems?’
‘Only kidding,’ I tell her. ‘I struggle putting the right number of shoes on in the morning.’
She looks at Anthony, they both laugh, and she sweeps off into the kitchen to divide up the cake.

5 reasons not to be flat

1   At the hospital. I’m walking up the slope to the pathology lab when I pass three bricklayers building a wall. I feel sorry for them; it looks such hard work, especially in this hot sun. They’re wearing fluorescent tabards, bare chested underneath, hard hats, filthy trousers, scuffed boots. Their deeply tanned skin is covered in a fine layer of white dust, almost but not quite concealing their tattoos. The first two bricklayers are middle-aged, grizzled, grim-faced. The one higher up the slope is much younger, in his twenties, I’d guess, a silver chain round his neck, his helmet pushed back on his head, his long, sweated hair spilling out all around. Suddenly he stops, straightens, lifts his head and starts to sing:
Young hearts…run freeeee….never be hung up… hung up like my man and meeeee…duh-du-duuuhhhh
Then wiping his forehead with the back of the trowel-holding hand, he bends back down again and carries on working

2    A woman stops me in the corridor approaching the path lab. She’s brisk, focused, in a pressed blue suit with a visitor’s badge pinned to her lapel.
‘Can you tell me how to get to A and E?’ she says. ‘I’m lost’
‘Yeah. It’s not where you think it is. I mean – because the hospital’s built on a hill, A and E is actually below us. So you’ve got to go down. A bit of a warren, I know. But follow this corridor round, you’ll come to some stairs. Go down the stairs a floor and then follow the signs.’
‘Why do these places have to be such bloody labyrinths?’
‘I know! It’s so confusing. But you should be okay. Just follow it round, go down the stairs and eventually you’ll see it.‘
‘What – the minotaur?’
‘Oh? So you’ve met the consultant?’
‘No,’ she says, shaking her head and re-shouldering her bag. ‘But maybe you should call ahead and let him know I’m coming.’

3    Portia’s sunglasses. Round, turtle-green frames, purple-tinted lenses. When she’s wearing them she reminds me of an electron microsopy image of a rapt and fabulous insect.
Happy. Smiling. Scarlet lipstick.

4    I’m chatting to Maude over the fields. She’s telling me all about her labrador Suki’s latest health problems – a flare-up of her arthritic paw. Front left. That’s why she’s on the lead, Maude says. ‘We’re just going for a stretch around the park, then it’s back home for some R&R and Andrew Marr. I’ve booked her in for lazer treatment first thing Monday, physio and massage and the rest of it. Poor thing!’
Suki is sitting at my feet staring up at me with a doleful look. You think you’ve got problems her eyes seem to say. You should try being me for a change. Meanwhile, Lola is racing round and round, showing off, demonstrating the advantages of healthy paws.
An elderly man with a collie approaches. The collie takes off after Lola, whilst the man comes over, looking furious, holding out a handful of sweet wrappers.
‘Look at this!’ he says. ‘They make such a mess!’
‘That’s Saturday for you,’ says Maude.
‘The council should give all the dog walkers grabbers,’ he says. ‘Grabbers! And sacks to put it all in!’
‘And a wage’ I say. The man frowns.
‘What d’you mean, a wage?’ he says. ‘I don’t want money. I just want a clean park.’
‘I was kidding about the money,’ I say. ‘Maybe you should put the grabber idea in the suggestion box.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, turning to go. ‘Or maybe next time I should find someone with some influence to talk to.’

5    At the pub with Kath and a couple of friends for a drink and something to eat. For some reason we all go for the same thing: beetroot burgers, humus, fries, and four pints of beer (okay – three pints of beer and one of cider). For starters, we have two portions of fried tofu in chilli sauce. We skip dessert. We have more beer, then four espressos (okay – three espressos and one cup of earl grey tea).
We get the bill.
‘Why don’t we just split it down the middle?’ I say.
They all look at me with the same expression – meaning (I’m guessing): Well – d’uh!

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