Piggy-back

He shivers awake. Sand has collected in the folds of his skin and rubbed him raw. He must have had a heavy night. Stag night was it? Some stupid drinking game? That would account for the filthy taste in his mouth, like ashtray dust washed down with car engine juice. He should know better by now, him a married man and all.

He hopes he hasn’t been in a fight. If he has, he hopes he didn’t hurt anyone. His eyes won’t open. Eyelids seem to be stuck together. His feet inside his boots are clammy like a pair of dead fish. It’s a funny beach where you wear your boots, he thinks. A memory flits like a ghost across the screen of his mind. Not a beach but a vast stretch of sand, like a beach without the sea, but it’s strange he can hear surging waves, moaning.

Seagulls are screeching. It’s a hungry sound as if they’re about to swoop. They do that sometimes. Big buggers nowadays, seagulls. Killed a dog in St Ives or somewhere, pecked a hole in his head. They snatch the sandwiches out of the picnickers’ hands; snaffle ice creams from under their noses. They’ll have him if he doesn’t watch out, lying like a cored apple on this smelly beach. They sound like screaming children.

And who did that to his heart? Pulled it up his tubes and stuck it in the back of his throat, where its fat pulsing makes it hard to breathe. It’s one thing to paste somebody’s eyes up for a joke but yanking their heart about, that’s not on. It’s dangerous. Is the taste in his mouth the black blood from his own bitten heart?

‘You alive buddy?’

Who’s that? Is someone talking to him? ‘Me?’

‘Thank God, you’re alive. Do you know where we are?’

Funny, you don’t usually get Yanks in Ibiza. ‘You lost then are you, mate?’

‘Ssh. Someone’s coming.’

Footsteps approaching and the murmur of voices. You can’t hear people’s footsteps on a beach. And another thing. That’s not Spanish. That’s something else, that is. Guttural sounds. He’s heard that before. He tries to swallow the lump in his throat, but it’s stuck fast. Someone pokes at his stomach and uncovers a whole new area of discomfort, not to say pain, no, don’t say it, save that word for the bits that really hurt, like his right foot for example. He’s been wounded, that must be it, shot in the foot maybe. They’re in a hospital. Hospital, any hospital, that’s a good place to be when you’re wounded. Hippocratic oath. That applies everywhere doesn’t it? Like the Geneva Convention. Oh oh oh! Help, he thinks, help. The footsteps move away. ‘You still there?’ he hisses into the hot air. ‘Hey you!’ He raises his voice a fraction.

‘Yeah, I’m still here. My name’s Joe.’

‘I’m Sam. Am I badly injured?’

‘You look in good shape. Real good.’

‘Why can’t I open my eyes?’ A scraping noise is followed by a thud. ‘Joe, what happened?’

No answer. Silence, apart from those seagulls. Sam pats his pockets to find a hanky but has no saliva to wet it. He sucks in his cheeks trying to gather some, not swallowing, working his jaw and managing a globule of spit. He scrapes at the congealed lashes and stretches his eyebrows up to his hairline to drag his eyelids apart until one eye blearily half-opens. He sees a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling above. He shifts his weight and turns to look over to his right, the direction of Joe’s voice. A line of metal beds stretches away, each containing some tattered remnant of a human being, some of them groaning. On the pallets laid out on the floor against the opposite wall bloodied children are crying.

The bare mattress on the empty bed next to his is stained rusty red. On the floor between lies a shuddering bundle of clothes. It looks like a uniform. A door bangs at the other end of the room and indecipherable but important-sounding male voices ring out. One of them seems to be English but as a collective tremor ripples through the ward, Sam knows this is not good news.

Three soldiers have stopped at the first bed. They are looking at the patient, a white-faced boy with a bandage over his eyes, and listening to a man in a suit who is flapping his arms and speaking in an urgent whisper. A gesture from the most decorated of the three in uniform silences the suited one. There is a gun in the soldier’s hand. The bandaged boy swivels his head wildly from side to side but he stills when the metal touches his temple. Sam turns away. When he looks back, the boy’s head is lolling and the soldiers have moved on.

The suited man, a doctor perhaps, is more subdued as he explains the second case. That one is spared but the third is dispatched without questions. Sam starts rubbing his other eye. Joe said I looked fine, he reminds himself. Survival of the fittest. Joe, where is Joe? He looks back down at the heaving bundle on the floor. That is Joe. Got to get him up.

When Sam swings his feet down, a hot knife of pain stabs up his right leg and he gasps. He drops to his knees and shuffles, genuflecting his way over to Joe, who is in a crumpled facedown huddle. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our, let it not be yet, sweet Mary, not yet.

‘Joe, wake up mate. You’ve got to get back on the bed.’ He shakes the limp hand. ‘Come on. Help me a bit here.’ The hand clutches.

‘That’s it! Slide your knees up under you. You can do it!’ Sam looks quickly around to see if anyone has noticed them. A man with one trouser leg flapping is barring the soldiers’ way to a bed where a child, eyes open on to nothing, lies absolutely still. Sam puts his hand on Joe’s bed and uses it to lever himself up to a semi-standing position, with the other man’s back resting on his thighs. He braces himself, slides his arms under Joe’s shoulders and heaves him upright momentarily before skewing him sideways. Joe grunts as he hits the mattress. Fast, fast, pray for us sinners. Sam catapults himself back to his own bed.

His nostrils flare into an involuntary sneer of rejection as the butcher-shop stench crawls up the hairs inside his nose. He sucks in air through his mouth but he can still taste it, as if he’d taken a greedy gulp of a raw hamburger. Sweetbreads, he thinks, sweetbreads laced with an added sweetness. He gags as he inhales. Fresh vomit. He waits for his panting chest to quieten, fixes his slitty eye on the ceiling and breathes the putrefaction. This is how a 60-fags-a-day man feels. You can kid yourself you’re still alive but the cancer’s coming. It’s coming all right.

W

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