I met Carl in the city hospital's casualty department. He hobbled into the waiting area shortly after I had been abandoned by my wife to the mercies of the health professionals, such as they were.
I had broken my leg falling from a ladder while re-routing the satellite dish cable across the front wall of the house. Somehow this was my fault, she implied, forgetting that she had been the one who argued that me paying hard-earned cash to a spiv tradesman was a waste. She had her reasons, of course - if anyone was going to be spending my executive bonus on pointless fripperies it should be her. The house is one of the big ones on the hill, set back from the road with broad gravel drives. Apart from the cleaner and the gardener, we didn't mix with the lower orders on the sloping streets around us.
Carl was unexceptional in appearance at first glance, but something about him caught my eye - he was aware, watchful; his quick gaze around the room absorbed both geography and population; he headed over on his crutches and sat down next to me, groaning and tutting. He pointed at my leg.
'Snap! Or should I say snapped?'
I nodded silently.
'No worries,' he said, 'at least we'll jump the queue. Triage, you see.'
I was surprised by his elaborately French pronunciation of the word, and must have shown it, for he went on.
'I've knocked around
all over. I can order a beer in ten languages, swear in more. Life skills.'
He sat back, grinning in pleasure. I realised he was cleverer, and more thoughtful, than he looked. I glanced at his injury. He shrugged.
'War wound. War of the bloody sexes, that is. Fell down the stairs while retreating under heavy fire - verbal mostly, a few shoes. Caught me off-guard. A shame to my profession.'
'Bouncer, or bodyguard, depending. I'm useful.'
He emphasized the final word to imply some unstated code, somehow managing to convey his judgement that I was, in those terms, useless.
'You must make a bit,' he added.
'I do quite well, yes,' I replied coldly.
'I can tell, you see,' he continued, steadfastly ignoring my tone. 'It's my radar. A scientist of the street, that's me.' He looked me up and down. 'So: winter ski tan, expensive watch, casual clothes with ironed creases, deck shoes. Simple.'
'And my accent, of course.'
'You'd be surprised - accent's a difficult one. These days, especially. It's not so much deliberate gentrification, it's how we absorb what we hear - from kids, TV, music, mates. And in any case, accent is about class, where you came from; it's nothing to do with profession, or trade, or current status. Although,' he paused, considering, 'if your parents were poor, you'd have designer-label casuals, some gold rings or chains, maybe some tattoos.'
There followed a pause as we both looked around the room and silently classified its occupants.
The sign was still showing a three hour waiting time, but it wasn't long before I had been checked, X-rayed and partially encased in plaster. Carl followed me out, and when he herd me order a taxi, he asked to tag along. He only lived a couple of streets away, on the far side of the great social divide. It would have been rude to refuse, so we travelled home together, and I left him outside his house, tottering up the steps on his crutches.
The days that followed were a bit like Rear Window, as I was trapped upstairs with little to do. But it was more like watching Rear Window on continuous repeat. It is surprising how little there is on TV when it's your only option.
The practice nurse at the surgery pronounced herself happy with my progress, and a few days later an appointment card arrived from the physiotherapy department at the hospital.
When I arrived there, I saw Carl in the waiting room. A moment's reflection established that this was no more than logical - similar injuries, on the same date, would have treatment programmes that run in parallel.
He greeted me enthusiastically.
'I'm an old hand here,' he said with a hint of ownership. 'A regular, you might say. My body gets a bit of punishment, even when I'm dishing it out.' He cracked his knuckles. I asked how he as managing.
'I'm not working - I can't. You have to have at least the threat of force. I do some security work - watching the CCTV. Bores me rigid, though: I read a lot.'
We were called through to the clinic together, greeted by an impossibly young and petite nurse. We soon found that she was stronger and more forceful than she looked, as she took us through a long routine of exercises and performance measurements. Carl seemed to lose a little of his self-assurance, and retaliated by a stream of innuendo and banter that she steadfastly ignored. After half an hour we were exhausted, muscles aching.
'Now this is important,' she said. 'If you just sit around for the bones to heal, you'll be facing months before you rebuild your muscle tone. You need to keep active, even while the plaster's on - that way, you should be fully recovered in a matter of weeks.' She handed us a card. 'Here's an exercise schedule.'
As we hobbled out, Carl suggested we meet up to walk around the neighbourhood, and I agreed it sounded like a good plan.
We made an odd couple, as we circled the streets, clanking on our crutches. It was an eye-opener for me to explore the intimate geography of the housing estate, its passageways, lock-ups, desolate parks, and glass-strewn playgrounds.
'Look,' he said, in a back alley, pointing up at a row of high garden walls. 'You can tell when they were robbed by the age of the protection.'
I looked along the variegated barriers - barbed wire, anti-vandal paint, cameras, lights, locks and chains.
'It's defending your patch, see. Round here, the public spaces are no-man's-land - even villains have right of way. So all you can do is look after your own territory. It's something of an arms race, too - thieves are lazy bastards. You don't have to make your property completely secure - just harder work to break into than your neighbours.'
Over time, our walking speed increased, and Carl's commentary shifted to the people we saw. We developed a contest - he would spot a pedestrian, and I would try to work out how tough they were. He relished these opportunities to demonstrate his superior knowledge.
'Nah, not him. He's not ripped, just fat. No stamina, see. Keep him arguing for a couple of minutes and he'll be puffing for air.'
'What about him?'
'See how he's walking - rocking from foot to foot, with his upper body straight. Boxer. Yeah, I wouldn't fancy taking him on.'
I learned a lot about tattoos, too - prison, gang, sailor, biker, fashion.
'That's gone to pot. I tell you, there was a time when they were like a badge for hard men. These days any sulky teenager can get some Chinese gibberish on her arm. Ditto for piercings. That's without mentioning the gays.'
He spat the word out as if he'd never heard of diversity training, let alone had any. He wouldn't have lasted long in an office, as I realised when I returned to work on light duties. It was strange to contrast the dull complacency of my staff of middle-class graduates with his eager curiosity and energy. As I sat watching the rain spatter the window, the phone rang. To my surprise, it was Carl.
'Michael, mate, I need a favour,' he panted. 'I'm back at Casualty. Can you bring my bird in? She's stuck at home.'
I picked her up from outside their flat. Stella sat silent and prim in the passenger seat as I negotiated the streets and threaded through the traffic. I parked and she dashed ahead of me into the hospital. I followed after locking the car, and was directed through to the cubicles.
He looked terrible. He now had an arm in plaster, and his chest was dappled with purple and black bruises. His face was criss-crossed with black ridges of dried blood where cuts had been stitched. Carl nodded weakly to me, his movements restricted by a neck brace. Stella patted his healthy arm.
'Christ, love. What happened?'
'I'm alright,' he whispered, 'never you mind.'
After they had chatted for a while he sent her off to get a cup of tea.
'Cheers, mate,' he said.
'No problem. Someone caught you out?'
'Squaddies.' He winced. 'Three of 'em. You got to be careful with them - they know how to fight, and they don't hesitate.'
'What was the problem?'
'They didn't like my attitude,' he replied dismissively.
'Are you going to report them?'
'Nah, keep the filth out of it.'
'How bad is it?
'A few weeks off work again, I reckon. They keep saying that they're worried about my brain, but people have been telling me that for years!'
He chuckled softly. I heard the door open behind me. 'Nothing to her, mind,' he said, putting a finger to his lips.
Stella said she could get home under her own steam, and I left to return to work.
So I wasn't there to witness Carl's dramatic deterioration, the rush of the nurses, the clatter of equipment, the flimsy privacy of the screens, the bleeps and shocks, the 'bad news' and 'we did our best.'
From File Under Fiction
(C) Martin Locock 2017