THE Old Man leaned in.
He looked at Robin, who glanced up from his pint, anxiously.
There it was, that baggy, pitted old face; the familiar cut mark on the forehead.
“Hallo Leon…” said the Old Man.
Robin sighed. This again.
“You what, mate?”
“It’s me,” said the Old Man, smiling hopefully, clutching his chest, “you remember, Anzio…?” He wobbled a bit, vibrating to an uncertain rhythm.
“Yeah, you said that last time and I still don’t have a clue what you’re on about.”
Robin smiled at his friend across the table as if to say ‘Help me – I’ve been clobbered by the Pub Bore.’
“You were there, Leon, in Anzio… I thought you wouldn’t make it. I’m so glad you’re here, you old bastard… How did you get here?” The Old Man’s dentures flopped around a little as he spoke.
“I don’t know who you are,” said Robin, lying. He knew the Old Man’s name, he knew who He was. “I’m sorry… What’d you want?”
“I’m glad you asked,” said the Old Man. “I’ve got something to tell you…” he sniffed, “something… fishy.” He placed a hand on Robin’s shoulder. Robin shrugged it off.
“Sorry, I’m not… please don’t…”
The Old Man wasn’t offended. “Of course, no… you wouldn’t understand…”
A strange expression flickered across his face momentarily.
“We are, after all,” he looked up, “all fragments of a greater consciousness housed in pillars of flesh.”
There was a moment’s silence then he looked back at Robin.
“What… is that what you wanted to tell me?” said Robin, finally.
“Oh no,” said the Old Man, who turned his back and began walking away. “That’s just something I heard off some gnostic geezer. No, I mean something… really fishy.” He laughed to himself and padded off to a dark, discrete corner of the Hospital Tavern.
‘Something fishy…’ Robin thought about it. He was curious, finally. He had to ask.
The Old Man had been following Robin around for a while it seemed.
Robin was an ambulance driver. Being an ambulance driver gave him the distance paramedics didn’t have. From his seat he was familiar with the harsh, downbeat side of Hackney, but at a remove, out of reach. It hadn’t touched him, until now…
It was a routine kind of emergency, such as they exist. They’d been called out to a low-rise block of flats off Morning Lane. It was near the end of a long shift.
An old man had had a fall in his home, a routine emergency. Fourth floor.
They’d be some time, the paramedics, so Robin thought he’d get out of his seat, shake out his legs and finish the coffee he’d been nursing.
The Old Man came out on a stretcher.
What kind of fall had it been? A bloody, bandaged head; head wounds always looked bad and old people almost always got head wounds when they fell.
For a moment the man in the stretcher looked bewildered but he quickly clocked onto Robin.
“It’s you. Oh My God it’s you.”
Suddenly demented, wide eyed, the Old Man pointed at him with a sodden finger.
“Yeah, it’s him all right,” said Scott one of the paramedics carrying the Old Man. “Come on, let’s get you inside. Open the doors, will you?”
Robin opened them.
He had seen a lot of things in the line of work, Robin.
ou had to take it in your stride, you had to.
That finger though, that bloodied finger, it jabbed at him for days afterwards.
Why did the Old Man recognise him, and why did Robin care, what had shaken him so?
He started seeing the Old Man about town, usually through the window of his ambulance. The Old Man would be sitting at bus stops, toddling through parks and so on. The instants started to mount.
Occasionally the Old Man would notice Robin and the same mad eyes would light up. Robin would always drive on. One time though Robin saw Him get onto the 242, he was there, on the upstairs monitor, waving his freedom pass at the driver. By this stage Robin was quite unnerved. He stayed on the bus, past his stop, waiting for the Old Man to get off, just hoping He wouldn’t notice him.
The instants started to mount.
Robin was with his Wife and Daughter. The three of them were clothes shopping in the Kingsland Centre when, as if from nowhere, He appeared.
“Fancy seeing you here, Leon, it’s been a while. Cor blimey, it’s not like the old days. Things have changed so much. Do you remember, in the 1st Division? No, tell a lie, it was the 56th Division by that point. Do you remember coming home…? I’m not sure. Some of us didn’t come home. They flooded the marshes, didn’t they… the Germans. The marshes, you remember the marshes, Leon…? The explosions, oh, it was terrible. We had to get to the mountains, yes, the mountains, before we lost the element of surprise. Do you remember, lost in the marshes…? flooded they were, and explosions everywhere, pitiless lottery, bodies bobbing in the marshes, dead they were… I… Anyway… where was I…?”
The Old Man stopped and clutched for something. No, he’d lost his thread. “Never mind,” he said, “there’s always time… I must remember more.”
He patted Robin on the back, then waddled away as stealthy as he arrived.
From then on it seemed the Old Man was seeking Robin out with his war ramblings, always calling him Leon. Repeated encounters meant what began as uncanny evolved into a nuisance. Each time He wanted to tell Robin something but could never quite remember, until that is, He saw Robin in the forecourt of his station washing his ambulance down.
“Leon…? Leon..? Is that you, Leon…?”
Robin looked up from his work. He knew that voice. It was Him, the Old Man.
“It is you. Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude but… I can’t stop. Here, something occurs to me, Leon… You were dead… Yeah, I saw it.”
It seemed to Robin that the Old Man was almost smiling.
“You were, killed, by a shell,” He said. “It was in the marshes, the Germans had just flooded them, you see? We were advancing under fire. We had to find a way through… You were twenty yards away from me. You turned to look in my direction, then you opened your mouth and then… BANG!”
(Cont. next column)