I am driving my daughter to the nurse, for a jab that will delay the onset of mouth-foaming should she pick a fight with a rabid dog on her trip to Africa. We wait at a red light on the way to the surgery. Beyond the traffic lights, on the opposite corner, two narrow upstairs windows have compost bags for black-out blinds. Between the plastic and the glass, blotch-leaved tomato plants wither in the glower of the sun.
Below, two red stripy poles hang outside the blind-shuffled windows of a barber’s shop. A young girl – looks the same age as my daughter – pushes herself off from the barber’s door-frame and onto the street. She is wearing tight black jeans and a big red sweatshirt with just do it written across the front, and she is swaying. The girl attaches herself to a passing man, steadies herself on his arm, talks as they cross the road. He doesn’t reply, and when they are back on the pavement, he pushes her away. As she totters down the side-road, he stands on the corner, hands on hips, watching, and when she stumbles into a cluster of bins, he shouts. She turns round, the lights turn green, he holds out his arms. I drive off, not knowing if his arms were spread in exasperation, compassion, or acceptance of a proposition.
The receptionist tells us to take a seat. My daughter sits, and looks fiercely at me. She knows I have issues with sitting in waiting rooms; it seems to me like surrender.
I stand next to her.
Let’s sit at the back then.
I sit in the middle of the back row, and she stomps to join me.
Why couldn’t you just sit at the front?
When we came last week, that chair had urine on it.
People are going to think you have serious problems upstairs if you carry on like this. Especially when you wear those ridiculous shades.
We sit in seething silence until her name is called.
That evening, as I am driving my son home from rugby practise, we see an old man clutch the wall, fall to his knees and lie down on the pavement.
My son and I look at each other.
Do you think he’s ok? I ask.
He’s still looking at me as I stop the car.
What should we do? I ask.
My son looks back to the distant lump on the pavement.
Should we check? I ask.
Yes, he says.
I turn the car around and drive back. As we pull up, a man and his son walk round the corner. They look at the old man, who is now curled up, hands tucked under serenely sleeping head.
Alright Derek, says the man.
Do you know him, is he alright? I ask.
We all know him round here. Derek, you alright mate?
Derek opens an eye.
Are you alright, Derek? I ask.
He sits up.
Am I alright? he asks. No I’m fucking not alright. Shall I tell you for why, shall I?
Anyway, always nice to see you Derek, says the man with his son, but we’re a bit late for.
They walk on.
Are you sure you’re okay? Should I ring an ambulance?
Yes, ring the fucking ambulance, I want them here, and the fucking police too, get them all here, I’ll tell them fuckers. I’ll tell them all, the fuckers.
As he speaks, he moves closer to the car, to the open window where my son is sitting.
Glad to see you’re feeling better Derek, take care, I shout as I wind up the window. I drive off and in my mirror I see him settle down to sleep again.
We drive in silence for minutes, until my son says we did the right thing, Mum and we smile and he tells me about the awesome army guy who made them run ten times round the pitch and do a hundred press-ups.