“Oh I didn’t join the dating app to meet a man,” Caroline said, in between munching her way through a large mouthful of Duck A L’Orange, the most expensive item on the menu. I noticed some black sauce hovered on her lips before a large pink slab-like tongue emerged to sweep it away. “I just joined to meet sexy men who’ll wine-and-dine me in expensive restaurants. How about you, Peter? Why did you join, Ummmm?”
“Well, I am looking for a relationship actually,” I admitted, not really caring whether this fat awful woman liked me or not, or if she thought I was the sad pathetic worm I probably appeared to be. I was intrigued by the size of her tiny mouth and how it was possible for her to shovel such vast amounts of food into it. “I don’t have any hobbies, and since my divorce I’ve been very lonely. I just want to meet someone nice to spend time with. Does that make me sound like a wimp?”
“No, no not at all, it’s actually very sweet.” She slid her glasses along her nose and stared at me critically. “Um, now, don’t be offended, but can I give you just a teensy bit of advice? Have you ever considered getting a toupee? Because being totally bald, as you are, is fine if you’re very handsome, but I’m afraid you haven’t exactly got the looks of Yul Brunner, have you? Or even Bruce Willis! And if you can manage it, a nice beard would cover up your weak chin. Women don’t like men with weak chins. Have you ever thought of trying Botox injections?”
I reflected on the past couple of weeks and some of my disasters with Second Time Around, the dating app that promised to offer ‘introductions to like-minded people who want a meaningful relationship in later life’. Marjory, my first date, was anorexically thin, yet attractive in a willowy, skeletal, haunted-castle kind of way. But she had an aversion to looking into my eyes, or meeting my gaze at all. However many questions I asked her, she always answered in breathy monosyllables, looked up briefly, and looked down again, so that in the end I relapsed into silence, filled only by the tap of her long fingernails against her phone, that she stared at continuously. When I made my excuses and left, she just looked up briefly, nodded and gave a half smile and went back to staring at her screen.
Fiona, the second lady I met was completely different in every way. She breezed into the restaurant and started talking. And talking. And talking some more, in a rather grating Scottish accent that set my teeth on edge. “Och, you know my husband was terrible, he never listened to me,” I heard her repeat several times, sniffing and smirking, looking a bit like a large, ugly horse, perhaps because of her prominent front teeth that seemed to flash luminously in the pub’s bright lighting. “In the evenings I’d talk to him, tell him about my day, and he just kept on turning up the television, as if he was trying to drown me out. What was your name again, dear?”
“Peter,” I reminded her.
“Aye?” she gazed at me, silent for a couple of seconds. “I knew a Peter once, dull sort of chap he was. Ended up drowning in the Firth of Forth. He had this large tattoo of a rhinoceros on his bum, and do you know what happened one day? He once dropped a carrot into the goldish bowl and my wee sister said. . . .”
“I SAID, YOU CAN TAKE ME OUT AGAIN IF YOU LIKE.” Chubby Caroline brought me back to the present, having finished her main course, and was now licking her lips, gazing greedily towards the waiter who was carrying our desserts. I’d been so revolted by watching her eat that I’d hardly managed a bite. “Do you fancy taking me to the Ritz next time? The Dorchester’s menu is quite boring really. Or how about trying that new Gorodon Ramsay place across the river?”
“Actually I won’t have a free evening for a while.” I racked my brains for excuses. “You see as a devout member of the Jehovah Witness movement, I’ve agreed to give a series of lectures about Christ’s mission on earth.”
An hour later I was walking to the Tube station, wondering why London always seemed such a cold and lonely place. My marriage had certainly not been made in heaven, but even the rows and trouble was better than this lonely hell.
That’s when I heard the man moaning.
“Ooooh, Oooh God! Help me! Help me!”
The shouting was coming from a doorway, and as I got closer, I saw a man in a sleeping bag, mouth open, his face red as he yelled, his body arched in agony.
As I whipped out my phone, dialled 999 and sat down beside him, I saw that up close he was probably about my age. But the raggedy beard and wrinkled face and bloodshot eyes made him looked much older.
“Where’s your pain?” I asked him, in response to the operator’s question to me.
“My guts,” he managed to groan.
I told her.
“And can you breathe okay?”
“Yeah,” he grunted, “Just that AAAAAGH!”
I was told to loosen his collar and belt and try not to let him move around too much, and I answered all her other questions.
“Thanks mate,” my new friend managed to say. “When you’re living like this you become invisible. Lots of people have just walked past, assuming I’m drunk or mad. Oh thank goodness, the pain’s subsided a bit.”
“Paramedics are great, in my experience,” I tried to reassure him. “They take charge of it all. They always seem to know what to do.”
“Funny thing,” he went on, hardly listening. “I’m probably going to die soon, living on the streets, like a rat. Yet only a few months ago I had a flat, a family, a job and a life. Then my divorce came, and I had these mental troubles, lost my job, then the whole world came crashing down. And now looks like I’m going to die like a dog out here in the cold!”
“You’re not going to die, pal,” I assured him, desperately sorry for his plight and wishing I could do something more to help.
But he was wracked by another terrible bout of pain, and instinctively I reached out and held his hand.
“Squeeze my hand,” I told him. “As hard as you can.” It was a trick my father had taught me once, for conquering pain. “Concentrate on squeezing, that’ll take you mind off it.”
So he did. He squeezed so hard it hurt, but I hope it helped him.
Then, thank goodness the ambulance arrived. When they’d loaded him on a stretcher, they turned to me.
“We’re taking your friend to hospital get him checked out,” the nearest man said. “What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. I just came across him and saw he was in trouble.”
“Good for you, mate, nice one. We’ll take him away then.” He turned away.
“But what about his sleeping bag?”
“Sorry, but It’s probably crawling with fleas, we couldn’t put that in the ambulance.”
I picked it up and shook it, and a family-sized biscuit tin fell onto the pavement. I opened the lid and saw a couple of fivers and some papers and photos. I realised that even if I gave this to the paramedics, they’d not be able to look after it for him, and in a busy hospital it would soon go missing.
“Can I come with you?” I asked them on impulse, clutching the tin in my arms. I’d resolved to buy him a new sleeping bag and keep his treasure safe.
They looked surprised. “Yeah, sure you can if you want,” the other paramedic said. “But there’s really no need.”
The thought that not a single soul cared whether he lived or died upset me a lot, and I wanted to make sure he kept his possessions, such as they were.
Once we were in A and E, to my relief they whisked him off along a corridor, and when I asked a nurse if I could wait to see what was happening with him, she told me I was welcome to wait, but there wasn’t much point, because since I wasn’t a relative they wouldn’t be able to tell me anything.
So I went back to the waiting area, and opened the tin. That’s when I saw the scrap of paper, on which was scrawled. ‘If anything happens to me, phone Sarah,’ with a phone number.
“Hello?” said the girl’s voice when I’d dialled.
“Hi, is that Sarah?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she sounded wary. “Who is this?”
I explained why I’d phoned and when I described my new friend, she told me that it was her father, Jim Harrison, and she’d leave straight away, but that the journey would take a couple of hours and she’d meet me there.
Waiting in A and E on a Saturday night is a strange kind of hell in one way.
In another, it’s really very interesting.
Everyone is unhappy, either because they’re in pain or discomfort, or they’re accompanying someone who’s ill. Everyone’s wrapped up in their own personal little hell.
Opposite me was a young woman. She was on her own, and crying to herself.
“Excuse me,” I asked her, “but is there anything I can do to help you?”
“I’m just so worried,” she told me. “I rushed in here straight from work because I was feeling really really shit, and my dog’s at home and he hasn’t been fed or been out for a run since early morning. In my rush to get here, I left my phone.”
“Goodness,” I handed over my phone. “Phone anyone you want.”
“Oh, thanks,” relief flooded her face as she dialled. “Yeah, Dad, go in and feed Billy and let him out, would you? Yeah I’m okay, don’t worry about me, I’ll call you again when they tell me what’s wrong. No, I’ve got to wait and see what they say. . .”
But after she’d hung up, she began to cry again. “Now I’m desperate for the toilet, but they might call my name and I’ll miss the doctor.”
“You go,” I told her. “Tell me your name, I’ll listen out and explain what’s happened.”
“Thanks again.” She hurried off.
She came back and chatted to me for a bit, but I told her no need to be polite, just rest, and let’s not talk. She smiled and closed her eyes. Eventually her name was called and she went away.
Then, after a long wait and confusing phone calls to discuss how to find each other, Sarah arrived and I told her all I could about her father, and she thanked me over and over again. She went to the desk and after she’d talked to them, she came back and explained to me that he’d had acute appendicitis, they were operating, and I’d most probably saved his life. Before handing over Jim’s tin I’d been able to slip in a £50 note, which I hoped would be enough for his new sleeping bag.
As I was leaving, tired out, but feeling strangely elated, a man smiled at me. A large box of packaged sandwiches and water bottles was strapped around his neck.
“Fancy a sandwich, mate?” he asked. “Or water?”
“Thanks, but no,” I resisted the urge to take one of the appealing looking packages, since I’d hardly eaten at all that night. “They’re for patients and relatives, it wouldn’t be right.”
“Didn’t I see you talking to that young girl earlier, lending her your phone?” he asked, moving closer.
“Yes, that was me.”
“Thought I recognised you.” He moved even closer and smiled again, a conciliatory smile, as if he was sharing a secret. Then he nudged me with his elbow and winked. “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”
“One of us?”
“I can always recognise a fellow sufferer. Someone with a conscience, who sees folk in trouble and wants to get stuck in and help. Most folk don’t realise how far a kind word or a smile can go when you’re scared and desperate, like most of these poor beggars waiting here. That’s why I joined the hospital volunteers. We hand stuff out to the people who are stuck here, there’s a hospital radio station that needs DJs and folk who help out on the wards, the medics always need notes and things ferried around the place, there’s no end of things need doing. Met my girlfriend Cynthia here, she plays the piano in the entrance area whenever she can. We do the little things that make all the difference to people, that the doctors and nurses ain’t got time to do. It’s lovely really, you make a lot of friends, you soon feel part of a team. I’ve got my own problems, but you can’t get wrapped up in your troubles when you’re thinking of others, can you?”
“Well, I’ll certainly think about it,” I told him, excited for the first time in weeks. “Thanks very much.”
“See you, mate.”
Just a phrase. Everyone uses it, don’t they? It doesn’t mean you’ll actually see them again.
Or does it?
On the way home I got a text from a woman called Sharon, from Second Time Around, asking to meet me again. She’d been very attractive and had actually been the only halfway friendly person I’d met, and our date had been spent with her pouring her heart out about her monster of an ex-husband, yet when I’d suggested another date, she just said she’d get back to me.
And now she had.
I really enjoyed our evening, she said, You seemed such a nice guy, such a good listener. . .
So finally things were looking up.
But as I got on the Tube train, I remembered how disinterested she’d been when I’d started to tell her about myself. And the coldness in her expression when I left the waiter a hefty tip, how she’d frowned and protested that service was already included in the bill. About how if a waiter needed more money he should get a better job.
I deleted her text. Then, I took a strange delight in holding my finger over the Second Time Around App, and then selecting the option to ‘remove app from device’ when it appeared.
Then as the train rumbled along, I googled St George’s Hospital, and looked at their Volunteer Services section, and made a note of the phone number.
Suddenly life seemed a whole lot better. . . .
(image courtesy of Laurent from Pixabay)