Gangsters

by Stuart Mark

Twenty eight ancient radiators line the corridor, the painted steel vertebrae of the hospital.

At number eleven the dread is waiting for me, as if the squeak of my soles against the antiseptic linoleum has betrayed my presence.

"He's dead, your Dad. Bed's empty," comes the whisper inside my head.

Between seventeen and eighteen, passing the doorway to the television room, I tramp through the ridiculous blare of the Rangers game and allow it to gift me a momentary lapse of purpose. Andrew will no doubt be there; season-ticket fidelity. I would wonder if he's missing us.

Archie MacPherson's manic commentary shouts after me but I'm well past caring about the offside rule and continue towards Dread's prophecy.

At the end of the corridor I can see into the little ward. There are four men; two huddled under the blankets, splayed eyes like scared children, one snoring as if in pain and Dad.

Wilson wriggles on my hip as I stare at the bed. Dad does look dead but that's what sleep seems to do to them all at this age.

Bad judgement, Dread.

I drop a Red Cross parcel from the Tesco's bakery counter at the bedside. Dad is the colour of looks-like-rain and his ominous skin clings to the exaggerated relief of his features. I need to see him move.

Just to be sure.

"Dad."

It only takes the lightest touch to open his eyes and, as I wait for his confusion to subside, I try to distract Wilson from his relentless surveillance of the world long enough to say 'hiya' to Granda. Dad is staring wildly while Wilson makes erratic attempts to grab the closest part of his body.

Finally, "Oh Hen. It's yourself!"

Yes. Myself.

He lifts a heavy arm and allows Mr Parkinson to shake it at Wilson. "And here's my wee namesake." Wilson catches his finger and the arm stills. They grin at each other for a moment until Wilson becomes distracted by Dad's catheter bag, poking out from his right trouser-leg. The colour reminds me of barley-sugars and I actually salivate; bodily waste tends to lose all power of repulsion when you have a baby.

Dad's hand returns to his side and resumes its rhythmic, unconscious rub. The sound reminds me of a master-carpenter performing a meticulous finishing sand and I'm loath to speak over it.

"How have you been keeping?"

"Not bad, Hen." This is his precursor. "My back's bloody agony, right enough." I plonk Wilson on the bed and hover my arm within grabbing distance. "Have you put on weight?" and before I can answer, "What happened to your hand?" I'm suddenly aware of the strapping.

"Just a wee accident," I say, applying the answer to both questions. "Are the painkillers not helping your back?" I mean to be dismissive and then wonder if I've been too much so.

"I canny take them things, they make me sick as a dog."

"Do you want me to see if the nurses can maybe give you something else?"

He screws up his face, slowly. "Eh?"

I bend as close as Wilson's safety will allow. "Do you want me to speak to the nurses?"

We stare hard at each other for a long time until I decide that he still hasn't heard me. I'm about to repeat the question when its answer comes.

"There's no point. These bloody pills are all as bad as each other and the wee lassies are only following orders. And as for big Montgomery, I think that Doctor knows more about bugger-all than ten men."

I fight the impulse to sigh and make a mental note to speak to the nurses anyway, behind the martyr's back. Wilson makes a controlled flop towards the edge of the bed and freedom so I transfer him to my knee.

"He's a handful, sure enough."

I roll my eyes. "Can't leave him alone for a minute,'' and then to Wilson, "Look, here's your Granda!"

Wilson makes a phonetically vague protest and tries to grab the plastic tumbler on Dad's bedside cabinet. I realign him towards Dad but there are just too many slightly more inanimate but vastly more interesting objects around.

"The wee fella disnae know me, Hen. Disnae see me often enough. I'm just a stranger to him."

When he first came here, I used to argue these digs but debate is difficult with someone who, I swear, uses deafness as a weapon. Now I let him have his weekly grump, even though it still hurts, because it's a technicality. I can't visit more often, especially not now.

Dad looks to the ward door. Then so do I.

"Andy not with you, Julie?"

"No." I hope Dad might wonder why I'm avoiding his gaze.

"These bloody nose hairs are getting out of control," he decides. "Do you think you could maybe bring a wee pair of scissors next time and give them a trim?"

Maybe I wasn't flat enough. 'If God had meant us to read between the lines, books would only be half as thick.' Dad never said that. It was one of Andrew's gems. Seems particularly apt, though.

I nod and smile what I hope is my noblest, bravest smile. Then I think, stuff it.

"Andrew and me have split up."

"Eh?"

I would rather not have to say that again and I'm definitely not going to shout it. I bend close and allow Wilson to grab Dad's nose as I hiss into his hearing aid, "Andrew's left. We're not together anymore."

Again, we stare at each other but this time, I know he understands.

"I see." he says.

Do you?

"So who's idea was this?"

He makes it sound like something we came up with because we were a bit bored, a conversation piece for parties and hospital visits. I want to tell him why this has happened but, on reflection, there seem to be so many reasons, intangible and elusive. Hours of argument, days of silence. Tempers lost as easily as an unguarded toddler.

We chose our marital weapons early on, nagging for me, absence for him and then a new baby in the house turned our many battles into a war. I used to think of Wilson as our little catalyst but I was kidding myself; he will be changed by all this. Then, of course, there was the eruption of hatred that made Andrew's absence permanent but I don't want to bring that up. Besides, there's always the chance Andrew might pay a visit when he knows I won't be here. Dad loves their ersatz football arguments and Andrew's one of the few male visitors he gets. I don't want to spoil that.

"It was my idea."

"Did he do that?" My wrist again. In a sense, I suppose he did but I'm not about to admit that my husband walked out because I punched him. It's not something I'm proud of.

"No Dad. It was an accident, really."

Worry seems to weigh on Dad's brows and I wish I hadn't mentioned anything. He's staring past me again.

"Time to go to the toilet, Robert," shouts an auxiliary from the snoring bed opposite. She's shaking its monochromatic occupant from his slumber.

"This'll mean trouble. He hates getting woken up," whispers Dad.

"What are you wanting?" croaks the grey man.

''Time to go to the toilet, Robert," repeats the auxiliary, same tone, same volume.

"He's the top man, here," says Dad. "That lassie will be sorry."

"What do you mean?" I ask. All three of us are rapt by the unfolding battle of wills but Wilson is the only one laughing at the rumpus.

"I've already been to the toilet," says Robert.

"He runs the hospital," Dad says.

"C'mon now Robert. Time to go to the toilet," the auxiliary says with detached brightness. "We don't want to have another accident, do we?"

"But he's a patient, just like you," I say but I'm beginning to wonder if I'm missing something really obvious here. "How can he run the hospital?"

"Are you deaf, you stupid woman? I've just told you I've been!"

"It's the gangsters! He runs them. He's the big boss!"

I glance at Dad while they stare at each other, the grey man incensed, his eyes wide and young, and the auxiliary maintaining a practised, deadpan patience.

The other men in the ward glance at the confrontation, probably trying to remember if Robert has been to the toilet recently.

"Time to go the toilet, Robert," says the auxiliary as if she has just arrived at the grey man's bedside.

"For goodness sake!" But the grey man is standing and allows the auxiliary to take his arm.

"Time to go to the toilet." The auxiliary shuffles her charge away.

I look into Dad's eyes. ''There's no gangsters here, Dad."

"Don't you believe it, Hen!" This is the most enthusiasm he's shown for months. "One of his Henchmen got me in the corridor during the week, there."

"Got you?"

"Aye, young boy it was. Had me up against the wall. He said I'd been grassing to the nurses. I'm no grass, Hen. He was going to chib me but I tripped him up with my walking stick and ran away."

I can't believe what I'm hearing and a part of me is refusing to accept the implications of this story, wondering if there's any truth to it.

"Did you tell any of the nurses?" I can't look at him now and make a show of fixing Wilson's dungarees.

"That's a waste of time. They're all useless; too scared of rockin' the boat"

Of course.

I realise how stupid I'm being. He couldn't run if his arse was on fire. He can't even walk unaided. In fact, I'm surprised he hasn't told me he's been kneecapped.

"The only way I've managed to survive this long is because I'm in the same ward as him. I think he's willing to tolerate me as long as I don't make any trouble and he knows I'm pals with big Montgomery. He's scared of the Doctor. I can see a right barny coming. They both want to control this place."

I want to tell him that there aren't any gangsters, that he's just mixed up but I can't find the words or the nerve. It's as if confronting this delusion will push him deeper into it. I feel a hand on my bandaged wrist and force myself to look at him.

"Did one of them hurt you?"

My sigh is weary, resigned. "No Dad, it was an accident. Remember I told you when we were talking about me and Andrew."

"Oh aye. Andy," he murmurs. "Is he not with you today?"

My throat contracts and I can feel emotion gather around my eyes. I blink to push the tears back and bounce Wilson on my knee with more vigour than he probably would have requested, was he able to talk.

"No Dad, not today."

I wish that I hadn't mentioned anything about the split up. I only wanted to talk things over with a captive audience; tap my lifelong source of reassurance and hear that everything is going to be all right.

I remember the nurses telling me about side effects when the dad's disease tightened its grip a couple of weeks back. They started playing around with his drug combination but I thought 'slight confusion' meant forgetting what day it was or maybe even getting my name wrong, not finding himself in the middle of Lock Stock.

"Is there not any way you could smuggle me out of here, Hen? They want a tenner a week off me for protection."

"You need to stay here Dad, because of the Parkinson's, remember? Anyway, I heard that Robert's getting moved to a home next week," I lie. Thought glazes his eyes. "Did I tell you this wee monster took his first steps during the week?"

Dad smiles eventually. "That's grand, so it is. He'll be kickin' a ball in no time at all." He screws up his face at Wilson who rewards him with an exquisite giggle.

"And I'm sure he said 'Mum' this morning."

"Your first word was 'Dada'."

Dada. I wonder what that word will mean to Wilson and I'm suddenly compelled to contact Andrew and beg for reconciliation for the sake of our son, to protect him from all the social punishments that await the product of a broken home. But, no. Better to do this now than have Wilson exposed to the fallout of our hatred for years to come. I just have to be strong for him.

And for Dad.

"Thanks for bringing me up, Dad." The words are out before I've had time to consider their intention or their consequence.

Dad looks at me as if he's just realised where he is and I can see my old Dad in his face, the man I used to live with.

"You don't ever have to thank me for that, darlin'."

"I won't abandon you."

"Och, I know that!"

Then it's time to go. I get our things together and hold Wilson to Dad's mouth for a wet kiss.

"I'll see you next week," I say, as always.

Dad nods. "I think you've done the right thing. I never really liked that boy," he says. It takes me a moment to understand what he's talking about. "Don't worry. It'll work out for the best."

"We'll see," I say but I already know.

I kiss him and walk out of the ward, passing Robert on his way back from enforced ablutions. He nods and smiles at me, completely unaware of his own notoriety.

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