The driver announced that Hainault was the last station. The car was empty save for him and a foreign-looking bloke sitting at the other end. It had taken him ages to make it that far all the way from East Putney. Transport is a bitch on Sundays — engineering works, limited service, delays, replacement buses. He was quite late, at least half an hour. He stood up with the bag hanging from his shoulders, and waited by the doors until the train stopped.
He had never been in Hainault before and it sounded exotic to him. He got his mobile phone out and shot a picture of the station sign. He walked towards the exit and realised the other guy was still sitting inside the carriage. Perhaps he hadn’t understood the driver’s message; he himself had found it pretty hard to figure out: bad speakers plus accented English. Henry walked towards the train and knocked on the window.
“It’s the last station,” he said.
The guy looked at him and smiled; he remained seated. “The train stopped here,” said Henry.
“Sorry?” said the guy.
“The train stops here,” said Henry and made a finishing gesture with his hands, whatever that sign might be.
“Oh… Thank you,” said the guy and stood up. “Is this Hainault?” “Yes.”
“Thank you very much,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” Henry said and kept walking out of the station. He could hear the other man behind him. Soon Henry was out of the exit and the man was out too.
As soon as he left, Henry got the cigarette he had rolled on the replacement bus from Stratford to Leyton and lit it up. It was raining, so he stayed under the bridge just opposite the station and enjoyed a smoke. They would probably ban him from smoking for the rest of the weekend, so he was determined to enjoy a cigarette even if it meant arriving even later. He looked for the map and tried to figure out if he was supposed to walk towards the right or the left. He looked towards the left and there was nothing significant in that direction. Then he looked towards the right and saw the train guy disappearing into the distance, covering his head with what looked like a folded newspaper or a magazine. Henry thought he would give the right a go. He rearranged the map to make sense with this decision and told himself north was that way and not the other. He puffed away and soon finished his cigarette. He went back into the station to get a free copy of Metro to cover his head from the rain.
New North Road. Little houses on one side — they all look the same. Suburban transit cutting the landscape. Shops on the right side. Dry cleaners. Nail studio. Bakery. A tanning shop. Auto parts. After a while every single house, every single shop, becomes the same. Pet shop. China Chef. Before or after? Another dry cleaners or the same? They melt, they merge into a single über-shop, a mix of each and every one in the street: dry nail bakers auto tanning Chinese takeway offlicence.
And then it all disappears and it’s little houses, all the same, on each side of the road, an über-house as well. Typical English suburban landscape, the land of the least imaginative urban planners in the world. Or the most sadistic. Or perhaps it’s just that the eyes get used to the cityscape, that the eyes simply stop seeing — they lose interest. In the gas station on the other side of the road, the furniture shop, the sofas lying on the sidewalk. The eyes can only see the little houses and they all look the same, regardless of their subtle differences. Different pebbles and garden dwarves at the front, different curtains, different hedges with the same shades of green. And the same rain bathing everything. Big contrasts are needed to avoid automatization. Like a big empty plot of land, for example.
Henry folded the soaking map and put it temporarily in his pocket. He took his mobile phone out and pointed the camera at the entrance. “Lock the gates on entry and again on leaving or lose your plot”. He found the phrase amusing — lose your plot. The plotless people working their plots, scarecrows, a tiny shed with some tools hanging out of the door and a discolouring St George’s flag hanging from a broken window — amusing. Miles away from East Putney, yet the same galaxy and the same city. He put his phone back in his pocket and got the map out, unfolded it, covered his head again with the newspaper and kept walking. He stopped seeing again. He took a left at Lime Grove, walking on autopilot. Then Chestnut Grove, then Manford Way to the right. Eyes that see again — he spotted the light blue building straight away. Folded the map, put it in the bag and kept walking until he was standing in front of the building.
Automatic doors and then a flight of stairs. It was already ten fifteen when he walked into the waiting room. He went straight to the receptionist. She was speaking with a skinny man; the man asked if the fact that the lights had stopped blinking in the holter monitor meant it had stopped working. She said that it was supposed to be that way; he sighed with relief and joked that he thought he had broken it or that he was dead. She laughed; he laughed. She said something; he said something. They said goodbye and he left.
“Yes?” she said to Henry.
“Good morning. I have an appointment. I’m afraid I’m a little bit late.”
“No problem. We’re running a bit behind too.”
“What’s your surname?”
“How do you spell it?”
“P. E. Y. M. E. N.”
“Can you confirm your date of birth please?”
“Eighth of March, nineteen seventy five.”
“And the first line of your address.”
“Sure. Nine Winchelsea Close.”
“Right. You need to complete this form. The nurse will call you in a few minutes. Have a seat.”
The waiting room was empty save for the foreign-looking guy that Henry had seen earlier on the train. He was working on his own application form, or writing something, oblivious to Henry and the world. It could have been called a coincidence; it was certainly a coincidence (in the proper sense of the word) that both had been on the same train, at the same time. It was a coincidence that both were in need of medical exams and that someone in the NHS had determined that both were to be seen in the same place, round about the same time.
Yet Henry wasn’t surprised to see the foreign-looking man in the same waiting room. What else would bring someone to Hainault on a rainy Saturday morning but a disease or an ailment? Hardly a coincidence, if you think about it. One meets people on the train all the time. Not a coincidence at all. Henry started filling the form to stop thinking all this bullshit.
The usual sort of questions. Allergies, operations, how many cigarettes, how many alcohol units, diseases. On the back page the funny form with the sexual preference questions. Race: other white, black this, black that, any mixed background, any other background, prefer not to answer. Please fill in this form with a ballpoint pen and block capitals. Yes, form. The medical apparatus loves races, genders, numbers and block capitals. It gets high on disclaimers. You’re already ill from the moment you stamp your signature, you accept your illness, or the possibility of it; your prospective ailments get commodified, labelled; you enter the statistical underworld of the dying, the suffering. Regardless of your health. Shortness of breath, shortness of breath. What does the foreign-looking guy suffer from? What does his application form say? Henry signed his name and crossed his legs.
There wasn’t much to see in the waiting room and the windows were a bit far from where Henry was sitting. He could only see some clouds in the distance. Apart from the foreign- looking man on the other side of the room there was only a NHS poster on a wall, close enough to Henry to allow for an evasion from the place. “Your choice of treatment: a nurse or a policeman”. Still, a magazine rack would have been much better. Henry got his mobile phone out and tried to connect to the internet: the signal was poor; he entertained himself reading old text messages. He deleted a few and realised he hadn’t answered some of them. He turned his mobile phone off and decided the best option was to stare at the clouds.
The room was messy and small. Plenty of medical equipment scattered everywhere — cables, screens, cardboard boxes piled in a corner, a stretcher, horrible plastic chairs like the ones you come across at ice-cream parlours in the Mediterranean coast, no windows. Henry’s bag was on the floor and his jacket hung from a chair; he was sitting resting his naked arm on a padded support. One of the nurses, a foreign-looking middle-aged woman with dyed dark hair (almost blue) was measuring his blood pressure. The other one, blonde, under thirty, was staring at the computer screen. Or maybe she was a doctor, doctors are normally blonde.
“Your results didn’t come up very well,” said the blonde. “That’s why we asked you to come back and repeat the tests in- house.”
“So it is my heart, then.”
“We can’t be sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well. It seems as if your heart stopped several times during the twenty-four hours you were wearing the holter.”
“Yes.” She looked at a thin printout. “You see,” she said pointing at it, “it stopped here for a minute. Here for half a minute. Here again for a minute.”
“Really? Can I see?”
“Pressure: normal,” said the other nurse. “One hundred and fifteen, eighty.” The blonde nurse typed away on her keyboard, then approached Henry with the printout.
It was a typical electrocardiogram — earthquake-like doodles and several flat lines.
“That’s not possible,” said Henry. “The thing must have been broken.”
“We can’t be sure,” said the foreign-looking nurse.
“I would be dead!”
“I’m afraid that we need to repeat the test,” said the blonde. “We need to be sure that it’s not your heart that’s giving you the breathing problems. It’s the protocol.”
“That day I didn’t have any symptoms,” said Henry.
“That’s very strange,” said the blonde nurse. “According to the holter you pressed several times to indicate that you were short of breath. These panic alarms coincide with the moments when your heart stopped beating. Look.” She pointed to another printout: it was similar but apparently different.
“I don’t remember any shortness of breath. I’m sure I didn’t have any episodes, actually.”
“Maybe you forgot.”
“Did the letter we sent mention that you needed to stay interned for twenty-four hours?” asked the foreign-looking nurse.
“Yes, it did. But it didn’t say that I was dead. Or that I should be dead!”
“Look, Mr Peymen. If you don’t want to repeat the test you’re welcome to go home. But your GP won’t be able to diagnose you if you don’t comply with the studies he requested.”
“Can’t we repeat the same study? I would prefer to do it at home again,” said Henry smiling at the blonde nurse.
“I’m afraid, Mr Peymen, that we can’t. There’s a long waiting list for the holter. It’s only twenty-four hours anyway. You will leave tomorrow with your results. Before you realise it you’ll be on the Tube. It’s for your own good.”
“OK,” said Henry.
“Great, Mr Peymen. You need to fill these forms now.”
A room with two privacy cubicles, or whatever they might be called. Useless window on one side, dettolised floors, walls and furniture or the smell of MRSA and fear cutting the air. No plants, no sign of life or health, or death, for that matter.
The foreign-looking nurse led Henry to one of the cubicles; she closed the curtain and stayed outside. Henry undressed and put on stupid-looking prison issue light blue pyjamas, then sat on the bed. He could overhear a conversation, maybe taking place in the other cubicle — a man and a woman, some other poor bastard. He looked around: no TV, books, magazines, nothing to hold his attention. Just the curtain encircling the bed, a fluorescent light pulsating above, and a machine squirting cables by the side of the bed, on a wheeled stand.
“Can I come in?”
She went to the machine and pressed a button — the thing released a loud beep. She pressed some more buttons and then played with the cables. She moved the machine closer to the bed. Pressed more buttons.
“Right. Lay down, please.” Henry laid down. “Unbutton your shirt.” He did.
She pulled the machine even closer and looked at Henry’s chest. Got one of the cables, removed the protection from the electrode’s adhesive surface and glued it to his chest; her hands were cold but soft. She repeated the operation five times and her hands got warmer in the process. Then she checked the cables one by one with a slight pull — they were all firmly installed. She seemed satisfied with the cabling and went back to the machine and activated a lever. The machine made a different sound and a screen turned on. Up and down disappearing to the left, green lines of different heights. The machine was working and he was alive.
“That’s it,” she said. “You can lie down now.”
“Thanks,” he said. “What should I do then?”
“Just lie down,” she said.
“Yes! Don’t you like sleeping, resting?”
“Actually, I could use both,” he said.
“Great! See? It wasn’t that bad!” she smiled back at him.
“True. Will I get food, or anything to drink?”
“At noon. Would you like anything to drink meanwhile?
“No, I was just asking.”
“What about the toilet?”
“It’s just outside your room.”
“Can I go with this thing?”
“Yes, it’s got wheels. Just be careful not to drop it or accidentally remove the cables. Try to rest: it’ll be good for you.”
“No, that’s all.”
“If you need anything urgent just hit the panic button.”
“Oh, one more thing.”
“You can’t use your mobile phone here. It would interfere with the equipment.”
“There’s no signal in this area anyway.”
“Right. See you later.”
She turned around and disappeared through the curtains. Henry stayed a bit longer sitting on the bed. Then he leaned on his back and stared at the fluorescent tube. Only twenty-four hours but half a lifetime.
The first minutes passed quickly. Enforced leisure is strangely satisfying. They care, the NHS loves me, I’m being looked after. And after this realisation the fantasies of having a nurse give you an enema or intervening perversely in your body with a thermometer or some other scientific instrument of medical inspection that will give you equal amounts of pleasure and pain. Not because you really desire pleasure and pain at this particular moment, or need an enema, or because you like having people fidgeting with your arse. Just because it happens in porn flicks and because you saw too many; just because it’s your right as a patient to finally have someone playing with your arsehole. Good old welfare state, looking after your arsehole. Welfare state — one big family walking together as one. Obey, for obedience brings acceptance and acceptance brings peace of mind and maybe someone to play with your orifices. After just a couple of minutes the wet dreams vanish into the air. The true face of stasis and boredom fills your gut — restlessness. A disease all too familiar to the human race, the main occupation of those in a state of detention. Restlessness, the fear of constant paralysis that makes you take in as much as possible, think as much as possible, change your position in bed as much as possible — the perverse fantasies recede and the eyes loiter from one place to the other, looking for something worthy of attention. Your ears too, and your nose. The sound of your own heartbeat. Your eyes, the curtain rails. Your nose, a strange smell — uncannily resembling shit — far-away shit, some toilet or someone who shat himself or the memory of shit — it’s everywhere, perhaps arising from the mattress or your pyjamas. Lie on your left side, just to look at something more or less familiar on the other side of the room. The little white plastic rings that hold the curtains on the rails (who makes these?). Ears, another noise in the room; eyes, some spots on the curtain and to the right; ears, what’s that noise? The damned beat of the fluorescent light. The electric sound, static, everywhere around you. A high-pitched hiss, audible only to beasts or those in hospital beds. Electricity, life support gear. The sound of hospital bugs plotting your slow and comatose death. And it’s twenty-four hours – what the fuck are you supposed to do for twenty-four hours in bed with nothing to keep your attention, not even an enema.
Henry looked around once more. I should have asked her for a magazine, he thought, and then fell asleep.
Muzak playing softly from a portable stereo in a corner. Lights. Cables. Props. Medical equipment.
“Now, see if you can spread a bit more… that’s it. Move your right hand just a little bit, I want to get the speculum,” the director said. He got the camera a bit closer and snapped a couple of times; flash covered the room. He took two steps back. “Good. Put your feet together… but I want to see the speculum, don’t show me the soles… yes… like that,” he snapped a few more times. “Ping, move the brolly to the left, I’m getting some shadow here.” Ping stepped forward into the cubicle and moved the umbrella to the left. He stepped out. “That’s it.” The director snapped a few times. “Let me get a couple more, just to be on the safe side… stay still…” he snapped. “Great.”
There were about ten people in the room: the director, the main actress, Ping — the three of them shooting stills for the cover. The camera guy was taking a break, talking to the make- up girl. The two other actresses, wearing robes and slippers, were talking about last night’s X Factor. A guy at the back, an actor wearing a white doctor’s apron, was fiddling with his dick, trying to keep it hard or building up sperm for the money shot. The other actor, dressed in a green male nurse uniform, was reading a copy of The Telegraph, sitting on a stretcher next to the oxygen tanks. The rest of the crew, a couple of young boys around twenty — one the sound guy, the other the director’s assistant — were checking their mobile phones.
More snaps. Wider. Close up. Macro.
“Right, Brenda. We’ll do the gaping shots now.”
“OK,” said Brenda.
“Huan Li,” he said, “the juice and The Geezer, please.”
The make-up girl stopped chatting to the camera guy and went to her little suitcase. She looked inside and got a small white pot and a giant black dildo. She put a pair of latex gloves on, got a bottle of spray and sprayed the thing. Then she cleaned it with baby tissue. When she was done she took the dildo and the pot to Brenda.
“Do you prefer this on your ass or on The Geezer?” she asked.
“On The Geezer,” said Brenda.
Huan Li opened the pot, got a handful of lube and spread it from top to bottom on The Geezer. She passed it to Brenda.
“Take your time,” said the director.
“Thanks,” said Brenda.
The director walked towards the catering table and closed the little curtains behind him.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” he said, speaking against the fabric.
“Yep,” said Brenda from inside the cubicle.
He sat on a stool next to the table and started going over the photos.
“Mr Tibbott,” said the assistant.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I’m fine, Linnane. How are we doing with the schedule?”
“We’re running a bit behind,” said Linnane. “We’ll need to nail the money shot. I’ll try to book the room for tomorrow, just in case, but only for a couple of hours.”
“Great. I’ll be finishing soon. Is Harvey ready?”
“He’s warming up,” said the assistant and pointed towards Harvey, wanking against a wall.
“Perfect. See that he doesn’t overdo it. I don’t want him going too red. He’s quite pink already; he’d fuck up the whole palette. And don’t let him come,” he said.
“I’ll see to that,” said Linnane and walked towards Harvey.
Mr Tibbott continued checking the pictures, sometimes stopping at one and pressing buttons, other times pulling a face, once or twice laughing. Then he left the camera on the table and just sat there on the stool, with his legs crossed, tapping away with his fingers.
A couple of minutes passed. No much sound from inside the cubicle other than the occasional rattling of Brenda’s heels against the stretcher or the floor. Mr Tibbott checked his time.
“How are we doing?” he asked.
“Nearly there,” said Brenda.
Two more minutes elapsed. “Ready,” she said finally.
Mr Tibbott got the camera from the table and put the strap around his right shoulder. He opened the curtain and walked into the cubicle. Brenda was sitting on the stretcher, slightly tilted to the left, with The Geezer all the way up her arse.
“It’s a big boy!” joked Mr Tibbott.
“Yes!” said Brenda, trying to smile.
“Move over here,” he said. She moved closer to the end of the stretcher. Mr Tibbott took the camera to his face and looked through the viewfinder. He pointed the camera towards Brenda. He touched some buttons.
“Ping,” called Mr Tibbott. “I’m getting too much white.”
Ping stepped into the cubicle.
“Would you like a filter?” he asked.
“What could go with this?”
“I’d say some yellow.”
“Hm… Not sure. We’d lose the prophylactic ambience,” said Mr Tibbott. Ping didn’t get it. “I want white. But this is too white. It’ll burn the image,” he said.
“Right. I’ll move the brolly, then,” said Ping. He walked over to the umbrella in the corner and pointed it subtly towards the other wall — ten or fifteen degrees. He stared at the umbrella and then in Brenda’s direction. “Try now,” he said. Mr Tibbott pulled the camera towards his face once more. He pointed at Brenda. Pushed buttons.
“You are a genius, Ping! You are the Chinese Vittorio Storaro!” he said.
“Thanks,” said Ping and walked out of the cubicle without complaining about being called Chinese or asking who Vittorio Storaro was.
“Right love, let me see…” said the director, letting the camera hang from his shoulder and crouching before Brenda. She tilted even more towards the left and slowly pulled the dildo from her arse until it was all out. Her anus was dilated, close to the diameter of a half-pint glass. Mr Tibbott inspected the hole. Got closer. Further. “Huan Li!” he called. “We’ve got some debris here.”
The foreign-looking nurse woke him up when she opened the curtains; she was carrying a tray of odourless food. Two aluminium containers, a sealed glass of water, one small piece of bread and a tiny pot with some kind of baby food that must have been the dessert — a tray like the one you get on a plane. She looked slightly different now, more familiar perhaps, or maybe it was the fact that she was carrying a tray, or that she was entering the cubicle instead of leaving, in which case she couldn’t have been more familiar: she would have been different.
“Good afternoon, Mr Peymen. Your lunch.”
“Good afternoon. Thanks.”
She moved the table closer to the bed and placed the tray on top. Then she moved the table even more, until it was over Henry’s torso. He got up with some difficulty, missing the table by a couple of millimetres.
“What’s on the menu?” he tried to be funny.
“No idea. Probably boiled vegetables and beef,” she said, not trying to be funny.
She left and closed the curtains after her. He thought that he needed to achieve a vertical position on the bed to be able to eat comfortably. He knew he could achieve this by pushing one of the buttons on the bed’s remote control. He felt that it would be too lazy or a bad omen to do so; instead he stretched his body upright against the back of the bed and arranged the three pillows behind his back — that was straight enough.
He removed the lid from one of the containers and placed the crumpled piece of aluminium on the side: boiled vegetables, she was right, carrots, broccoli, a couple of potatoes and something that looked like parsnips but could have been almost anything. He opened the other container: beef, boiled beef (if beef can be boiled), no sign of spices, oil, garlic, salt, colour, or taste — just a piece of pale meat with a couple of green things adorning it, probably parsley. He moved one container to the side and then the other, hoping to find salt, or a sachet of olive oil, or anything to add some flavour to what he already knew would be tasteless, but there was nothing there. He felt a sudden impulse to throw the tray into the air, outside the cubicle. The machine beeped, one, two times, quite loud. He decided against allowing his rage to mount. He got the fork and stuck it into a carrot. It wasn’t that bad – it did at least taste like a carrot. The broccoli also tasted like broccoli and the potatoes like potatoes. The thing that looked like parsnip tasted like something other than parsnip, which was a good surprise. He went for the meat and it tasted like nothing but at least it didn’t taste badly. When he finished with the main course, to call it somehow, he went for the pudding. He dipped the spoon in the yellowish matter. No trace of sweetness or any flavour. He ate it all out of boredom. And then he opened the water container and drank it all in one go, and that was it: no more food, no more pudding, no more water.
Henry pushed the table and sat in the bed with his legs hanging to the side. He stood up — his back was hurting and his coccyx too. He moved closer to the heart monitor and inspected the buttons: nothing he could make sense of. He checked the stand, pushed the machine slightly and the whole thing moved. Going to the toilet would be easy. He sat back on the bed and decided to wait for the nurse to try to scavenge some more food, water, tea, a magazine, anything.
Huan Li removed the debris from Brenda’s arsehole with a cotton bud. It was a swift and pretty easy operation for her; not so much for Brenda who had to concentrate on maintaining the dilation or risk some more uncomfortable minutes with The Geezer. Soon the area was clean and Huan Li walked out and the director walked in carrying his 5D.
“Done,” said Huan Li.
“Thanks love,” said Mr Tibbott. He closed the curtains behind him.
Huan Li left her briefcase next to the table and threw away the cotton bud in a waste bin half full of cupcake liners, Kleenex and betting slips. She removed her latex gloves and threw them into the same bin. She checked her mobile phone. Then put it back in her pocket. There was tea and coffee and she chose a cup of coffee. Milk, one sugar. She stirred the light brown substance, had a sip and sat on a stool.
There were lights flashing inside the cubicle. The director directing and the actress modelling. Yes, that’s right — heels together please — a bit more to the left — turn around, look at the camera, that’s it — look at me — fuck me with your eyes — right — now crouch — right — spread a bit, I want to see your leather ring — yes — like that — wait a minute — get The Geezer back in, I’m losing the gape… Huan Li had another sip from her cup and checked her mobile phone again: still pretty early. The waiting game is the hardest game to play. She looked around, yawned. Magda filing her nails, Stacy reading a magazine, Ping chatting to the sound guy, the camera guy and the other actor. “I don’t think The Revenant will make it on time, a good film, but it won’t make it on time, maybe next year,” said one of them. Harvey was staring at Huan Li. He smiled, she smiled back. He approached her in his doctor’s costume, wanking with slow and long strokes, smiling a very friendly smile.
“Hey,” he said.
“Can you get me a cuppa. If I stop stroking now I’m fucked.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Do you make a good cuppa?”
“I can try,” she said smiling. “Milk?”
“Yes, please,” said Harvey.
She put a teabag in one of the plastic glasses, then the milk, and finally poured some water. “Sugar?”
“Nope,” he said.
She stirred the cup and passed it to Harvey who took it with the left hand and struggled to take a sip without spilling some of the brew.
“Great tea!” he said.
“Thanks,” said Huan Li and sat back on her stool. “Where did you learn to brew like this?”
“My fiancée is English,” she said.
“Really? I didn’t know.”
“Never hear of it.”
“It’s a small town.”
“I thought he was Chinese,” he said.
“He’s half Vietnamese and half British.”
“Ah. Anyway, I saw you put the milk in first,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s the secret. Otherwise you burn the tea,” she said and had another sip from her coffee. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“So… When are you shooting?”
“I think in a couple of minutes,” he said.
“Will you need make up?”
“I don’t think so. It’s only the money shot.
“Ah, OK. What about…? Would you need some base there?”
“Why? Is my dick getting too red?”
“I don’t think so. I’m just asking. Let me see,” she said and got her face close to Harvey’s dick. He thought for a moment of jokingly coming on her face but then realised it would get Mr Tibbott — and Huan Li, of course — pretty mad.
“For a minute I thought it would be a good joke to come on your face!” he said.
“I’d tip this coffee on your dick,” she said and laughed. Harvey laughed too.
“Stay put,” she said.
She inspected Harvey’s dick: as usual for a redhead everything in the scale of reds — pale pink scrotum, pink trunk, redder glans.
“I think it’s fine. Just touch yourself gently. And closer to the balls if you can.”
“Thanks. I will,” he said and walked away with his tea.
She sat back on her stool and got her mobile phone out. She was bored. She started playing Angry Birds.
“Do you have a magazine? Anything I can read? I didn’t bring anything,” said Henry to the foreign-looking nurse while she was loading his tray on a trolley.
“I’ll have a look in the office,” she said.
“Thanks, that would be great. Have you ever thought of being an air stewardess?” he asked.
“Yes. An air hostess. You’ve got the height.”
“No. I’ve never thought about it.”
“I wonder if they get good money.”
“No idea,” she said. “Can I get you anything else?”
“You can’t have coffee, Mr Peymen. We don’t have coffee on the menu.”
“Shame,” he said. “I thought I smelled coffee.”
“Can’t be. There’s nobody drinking coffee here,” she said.
“Just an impression…water then. I guess whisky is out of the equation.”
“Right,” she said and started pushing the trolley.
“Do you mind leaving the curtains open? I want some natural light.”
“If you don’t mind I don’t. I’ll get you some water and a magazine,” she said.
She left. He crossed his arms behind his head and stayed for a while looking at the fluorescent light flashing above. When he got tired he sat on the bed. Finally he took courage and decided to go for the toilet. The stand moved smoothly over the resin floor. Soon he was getting out of the room, though not without being tempted to spy inside the cubicle next to his. But he didn’t spy; he just left. The toilet was at the end of a corridor with big windows on one side and small doors on the other. There were some chairs scattered about the place, plastic white chairs. Not much going on, nothing to see but a couple of posters: “Wake up to rape; Who’s at risk? Everyone is at risk”; “Smoking kills” — nice thoughts. Not much going on outside either, but little houses, some low tower blocks, trees, and clouds that looked like plastic houses, tower blocks and trees. Henry reached the toilet and pushed the door — it was closed from the inside; he sat on a chair and waited.
Van Morrison. Yes. Van Morrison coming from the toilet. “Beside You”. Nice track. Or was it the door next to the toilet? He stood up, got hold of the stand and got closer to the toilet door. Yes, Van Morrison’s “Beside You”. The song stopped abruptly. He went back to his chair. And the song started again, the chorus. It went on for a few seconds and then it stopped again.
“YES!?” said a loud female voice from inside the toilet. “I’m in the loo… in the loo! Gosh! Tell him to wait. I’ll be there in a minute.” A toilet flushed. “Fucking hell!” A tap ran and then stopped running. Hand dryer and then the door opened and Huan Li rushed out. She didn’t say hello and neither did Henry. She didn’t even see him. He watched her disappear towards the end of the corridor, then got up and pushed his heart monitor into the toilet. It smelled like shit and there it was, Huan Li’s telephone forgotten on top of the Dyson Airblade Hairdryer; he pocketed it. Then he looked at his face on the mirror. He pissed and flushed and didn’t wash his hands.
When he left the toilet he thought for a minute about whether to take the phone to the nurse’s office. He decided he would give it to her after checking out the pictures and text messages — anyone in his position would have done the same. He walked to the middle of the corridor and then into his room, into the cubicle. The curtains closed behind him. He sat on the bed next to a copy of the Evening Standard magazine and got the phone out of his pocket. He pressed a few buttons and nothing happened. Then some other buttons, a greenish light and a message in a foreign language that told him something he couldn’t figure out. More buttons: more of the same. No clue as to what was happening on the phone; it wasn’t a familiar model. He stood up and decided it was better to take it to the nurse’s office and he did.
“I think he’s handsome,” said the blonde, native-looking nurse or doctor to the foreign-looking nurse when Henry left the office.
“Yes. He’s a bit strange,” said the foreign looking nurse. “Do you mean gay?”
“Not really gay. I don’t know… strange.”
“Strange like what?”
“Like strange,” she said.
“I think you think too much, Iwona. He’s Dutch — the Dutch are like that.”
“You always say that.”
“What? That the Dutch are strange?”
“No, that I think too much. I still think he’s strange. Being Dutch or whatever.”
“You must be developing something for patients. Some kind of traumatic aversion to them.”
“Yes. You might be right.”
“It’s the job.”
“Anyway. Have they finished shooting in 334?”
“No. The producer asked if they can keep the room for the rest of the day. And tomorrow too.”
“What did you say?”
“I said that I had to check it with you.”
“Aren’t the Germans using 334 tomorrow?”
“No. They are shooting in X-rays.”
“Tell them it’s fine then. The usual rate.”
“The usual rate?”
“Yes. The usual rate.”
“They’ll want a cut. He was already insinuating that.”
“I think so. But I didn’t say anything.”
“No cut. They should have booked the two days in advance. The rules are clear.”
“In any case, tell them that we can do a cut on today’s hours. Actually, tell them the rest of today is half price.”
“And take the phone with you. It’s that Chinese girl’s, has to be.”
“She’s Vietnamese. Could be the other’s, the other Asian.”
“Whatever. And don’t forget to knock before.”
“Going back to Mr Peymen…”
“When he walked in today I though he was one of the gay actors shooting in 442!”
“Ha! Ha! You’re mean!”
“No, I’m not! He looks so tidy. He looks like the guy that was shooting here last week.”
“He was blonde!”
“He’s the brunette version of that boy.”
“I don’t think so…”
“Anyway… I bet you fifty quid that Peymen is gay!”
“He’s not gay! He was flirting with me!”
“No, he wasn’t!”
“Yes, he was!”
“What did he say to you?”
“He said that I could be an air hostess. That I had the height, the looks and the manners to be one!”
“Get off it!”
“Really! He said it!”
“Gosh. That’s so cheesy!”
“I think it’s cute.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“Yes, jealous. You’re jealous that he hit on me and not on you.”
“Iwona, the guy is as gay as they come!”
“I don’t think so. Really. Why don’t you go to his room and see for yourself?”
“Perhaps I’ll do that.”
“You should do that. He might not flirt with you, though…”
“SEE! He is gay!”
“He likes brunettes!”
“How do you know?!”
“It’s a hunch.”
“God Iwona… you’re full of shit.”
“You are so rude sometimes, Claire.”
“Oh, come on. I’m only joking.”
“Yes. Here’s the file for 447,” said Iwona and turned around to face the computer.
Brenda was spread over the stretcher. Harvey was wanking on the side while the director and assistant inspected him from close up. Ping was holding a yellow filter in front of the umbrella. Then a sepia filter. Then a greenish one.
“It’s useless,” said the director.
“No?” asked Ping.
“I can’t tell the difference. Can you tell Linnane?”
“Nope. Looks all the same to me.”
“That’s all I can do from here,” said Ping. “Post-production?”
“We can’t risk it,” said Linnane. “We’ll be tight…”
The director thought for a couple of seconds. Brenda was still spreading and Harvey still wanking.
“Huan Li!” the director cried. Nothing happened. “Huan Li!” he cried again. “Where the fuck is she? Been gone for ten minutes. Go get Huan Li, will you?” he said to the assistant at the exact moment that she ran into the cubicle holding her briefcase.
“Yes, Mr Tibbott? How can I help you?”
“Where were you?”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I was in the toilet. Sorry.”
“How can I help?”
“This is too red,” he said, pointing towards Harvey’s piece.
“Have a look,” he said.
Huan Li crouched in front of Harvey and had a look. Indeed, it was pretty red.
“Yes,” said Huan Li. “It’s red. I told you to wank a little lower,” she said to Harvey; she didn’t sound angry.
“Sorry,” said Harvey. “I was getting sore. I’ve been wanking for hours.”
“What can you do?” asked the director.
“Tricky,” she said.
“What do you mean?” asked the director; the assistant nodded in agreement.
“I could apply some base; but it could get muddy. It depends.”
“I see. What do you mean it depends?”
“Are you going in?”
“Ideally: yes,” said the director.
“Pink or stink?” asked Huan Li.
“Then it’ll get muddy if I apply the base now.”
“I see,” said the director. “I only need a couple of frames of stink,” he said. “I can edit the rest cutting from the other scenes. It’s a short one.”
“It may make it worse anyway.”
“I would put the base on only for the money shot.”
“Perhaps he can go all the way?” said Linnane. “So we won’t see the red.”
“It’s a long dick, Linnane…”
“You won’t see the red with the movement,” said Ping. “I can mellow the white a bit. It’ll lose in sharpness but it’ll work.”
“I’d do that, Mr Tibbott,” said the assistant. “Shoot some from the side, all the way in. Then we can copy and paste from William’s scenes, from behind. And make up Harvey’s dick for the money shot.”
“It could work… How’s your arse, Harvey?” asked the director.
“I mean, is it red too?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me see,” said Huan Li. Harvey turned around and lifted a foot and rested it on the stretcher. “Spread a bit, please; that’s it.” She grabbed one cheek with one hand and opened a bit more. “I think it’s fine, Mr Tibbott. You won’t be able to tell his ass from William’s.”
“Great. We’ll do that,” said the director. “Thanks everyone.”
Brenda was still spread on the stretcher. Harvey was still wanking.
When the foreign-looking guy was startled by the other foreign-looking guy it wasn’t clear to him whether he’d been sleeping on the train or daydreaming. What was clear was that he was already in Hainault and that he was running late. All of the sudden Hainault and no clear recollection of the train journey. Satori in Hainault. Maybe not a Satori necessarily but a sudden realisation. Or just waking up. Still, he was running late.
He made his way to Hainault Health Centre pretty fast. It was raining a bit; not much but enough to make him walk faster. He didn’t pay much attention to the landscape — the place had stopped being exotic the week before. He just walked in autopilot –– now without the weight of all the lights — and soon he was sitting in the waiting room.
Many hours had passed since then. A whole day that was reaching its end. One more scene and then home to the kids.
At some point, after returning the mobile phone, Henry fell asleep. He had this dream where he was Darth Vader, his body pierced by cables, his head masked. But instead of the deep Darth Vader voice he had a high-pitched one. And he was naked and very thin and pale. It wasn’t a dream with a clear narrative. Just a dream about being this naked, thin, Darth Vader. Or perhaps there was a narrative that was hidden to him. He didn’t know. Then he stopped dreaming. He woke up a few times but fell asleep again. Boredom, in and out from a semi-deep sleep. Heavy breathing, a couple of snores every now and then that would lift him out of the depths. Sweat, one of these very sweaty siestas, cold sweat wetting the sheets, shivers. He must have woken up completely by seven o’clock in the evening and cleared the sweat from his forehead; he was confused. The lights were off; it took him a while to get an idea of his surroundings. For a couple of minutes he was still feeling like Darth Vader. Then, the sound of a door banging in the distance, and a female voice brought him back to the room in Hainault Health Centre, to the cables glued to his chest, to the sweaty smell of the hospital sheets. There was a long way to go and not much to do. He thought about having an insomniac evening, about walking around the empty corridors, about the cubicle next to his. And for a few seconds he thought that the best thing to do would be ripping off his cables and running away. Then he remembered his heart condition (or non- condition). He would have to wait, have some patience and be a patient, get this shit sorted, let them realise that there was nothing wrong with him. Get an appointment with the psychiatrist and get diagnosed with some psychosomatic illness, possibly panic attacks. Then things would return to normal.
He felt a sudden pang of sadness, the violent realisation of being alone in the world. What would happen to him if he died here? Nobody really knew where he was, nobody would find out for a couple of days. He would probably end up as an anatomy lesson guinea pig corpse. Students would open him up and stitch him back again and laugh about the cables piercing his body, his stupid black Darth Vader’s mask. They would play jokes with his dick. They would slice his dick off and place it in someone else’s pocket. They’re always doing things like that, medical students, always desecrating bodies and playing with amputated members. He wouldn’t even have a name any longer. Perhaps they would even call him Tiny Vader, Vader Eunuch, Darth Farinelli.
Change the mindset, change the mindset. Jolly feelings, change the mindset. Perhaps call the nurse, chat her up, ask her for some water, another magazine, anything to kill time. Drink water or get up and walk to the window, and stare toward suburbia — perhaps catch the raising smoke from a fire, see a plane passing by, any event that would give the impression of being in a world and not isolated, stuck nowhere, in a non- existent room. Outside, some disaster happening outside, a terrorist attack, a nuclear accident, anything that would reassure him, make him feel protected inside the womb of the NHS. All that darkness, those stupid curtains, those machines. He rolled in bed, from left to right, from right to left. Then he covered his face with the sheets and felt like he was dying: a horrible impression; he had to act. He sat, sweaty, about to press the red button to call the nurse when the machine started beeping: a deafening beep, unlike anything he had heard before. Flashing lights.
He let himself fall on the bed.
Brenda was lying on her back. Harvey was on his knees, wanking, aiming at her belly. She was doing noises, calling him names. Harvey was sweating like a pig, jerking his dick up and down with violence. The director was filming with his 5D and Linnane was standing behind the director, peeking at the camera’s LCD screen. There was tension on their faces — a dense atmosphere. Faked moans, stinky air: a mix of male and female genital fluids, sweat and tobacco breaths, tension.
“I can’t come!” shouted Harvey finally and he dropped to the side and lied on the stretcher, still wanking.
“Do you need more time?” asked the director.
“I think I broke something,” he said.
“Let’s see…” said the director. “Can you leave us alone, honey? Ping? Linnane?”
Brenda got up and left, Ping as well; Linnane walked after them.
“Do you want to have a seat, Harv?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
“It’s the last shot, mate. One good nut and we’re off to the pub. Drinks on me tonight.”
“It’s not working, boss.”
“Do it for the team.”
“I don’t want to let anyone down, boss. But it isn’t happening.”
“You need to get your shit together, Harv. Think of someone else. There’s nothing broken there, mate. It’s Brenda. She’s a rag, I know. But you are a pro. You have to wank like a pro — nut like a pro.”
“Well. It’s one of those days,” said Harvey.
“Do you want me to call any of the other girls? Get them to give you some head? Get you there?”
“I’m sick of fucking them, boss.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
“Get Huan Li.”
“She won’t do that. You know…”
“She doesn’t need to do anything. Get her to stand over there,” he said and pointed to the corner.
“I’ll see what we can do,” the director said and left.
Harvey stayed lying on his back. Wanking, watching the fluorescent light.
A couple of minutes later Brenda, Ping, the director and Huan Li walked into the cubicle.
“Right,” said the director, “just stand there for me, please.”
Huan Li walked to the corner while Ping measured something with some device and Brenda laid on the stretcher.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” he said.
“I’m ready,” said Harvey, getting up.
“Linnane!” shouted the director.
“Coming!” shouted Linnane as he ran into the cubicle. “Money shot. Take seven!” he said and banged the clacker.
“Filming!” shouted the director.
The fake moans started once more together with Harvey’s epileptic shakes. He knew he was going to make it now; he couldn’t take his eyes from Huan Li, shaking almost imperceptibly in the corner, staring back at him. The whole world shaking up and down. An earthquake. He knew he was going to make it.
The nurses were standing by the side of the bed. Claire, the blonde nurse that could have been a doctor, was writing on her pad. Iwona, the foreign-looking nurse, was holding Henry’s wrist.
“The machine can’t be wrong, Mr Peymen,” said Claire. Iwona nodded.
“Well… it has to be wrong. I’m not dead. That thing is faulty.”
“Even if the machine was faulty the stethoscope can’t be lying,” said Iwona.
“We can’t register your heartbeats,” said Claire.
“Ladies, I’m not dead. Can’t you see I’m not dead? This is a mistake.”
“Well… we can certainly see you show signs of life. But we can’t register your heart.”
“I’m feeling fine, really. Can you make those lights stop, please?”
“Are you experiencing photophobia?” asked Claire. She wrote on her pad.
“No. They’re just pissing me off. Turn them off, please…”
“Any other symptoms?” asked Iwona.
“Like what? I told you I’m feeling fine!”
“Listen, Mr Peymen. There is a problem here. Can’t you see? There’s clearly a problem,” said Claire.
“You must feel something… please cooperate.”
“I feel nothing!”
“Numbness?” asked Claire.
“No, I don’t feel anything. I’m fine.”
“I think he’s dead,” said Iwona.
“Don’t be stupid,” said Claire.
“I’m not dead! I’m feeling fine!”
“You look sweaty, Mr Peymen,” said Claire.
“I was taking a nap.”
“Do you always sweat when napping?”
“Did you see a tunnel with a light at the end?”
“I think I’ll go home,” said Mr Peymen.
“Sir, you can’t leave like this,” said Claire.
“Well… this is just stupid,” said Henry.
“We’re trying to help you, Mr Peymen,” said Claire.
“I think you aren’t listening to me,” he said. “There’s no way I’m staying here. I’m going home,” he said and sat on the bed.
“Mr Peymen!” cried Claire. “You can’t leave in this state! Iwona, call security!” Iwona ran out of the room. Henry stood up and pulled the cables from his chest. The machine made an even louder noise and started flashing once more.
“I’m off,” he said.
“You can’t leave like this!” Claire cried.
“Yes, I can,” he said. “Look: I’m doing it.”
He got to his bag and searched for his shirt and jeans.
“You need to be seen by a doctor,” said Claire.
“I just want to go home,” he said.
Henry decided he wouldn’t waste time getting changed and put the jacket over the pyjamas. Iwona ran back into the room. “I can’t find Wally!” she said, all red. Henry sat on the chair and started putting his shoes on.
“He must be with the crew,” said Claire and Iwona left again.
“Bye. Thanks for everything,” Henry said while he stood up.
“You’re going nowhere,” said Claire.
“If you don’t move, miss, I’m afraid I’ll have to move you out of the way myself,” he said.
“I’ll have you arrested,” she said.
“Fuck off,” he said and opened the curtain somewhere else and walked away.
“MR PEYMEN! COME BACK!” she cried.
He didn’t look back. Not until he was out. Manford Way. It was a cold night. Not a night to wander about in pyjamas.
Ping finished wrapping some foam around one of the lights. He sellotaped a bin liner bag around the head and put the stand inside one of his bags. He closed the umbrellas and bagged them too. No one from the rest of the crew offered him any help — they were all dying for a drink. Not that he cared much, not that he cared about anything at all. He didn’t care about being the last one there, alone in that place. But he was feeling sad, empty.
Two bags and the umbrella — he should be okay to take the train. No need to call a cab; he wanted to get out as soon as possible, get rid of the gloom by playing computer games with the kids. I need to use this sadness to fuel a career move, he thought. Perhaps go into commercials. Or try to break into television, or perhaps just pack all his and his family’s shit and fuck off back to Hong Kong. London is a crooked place: the weather is shit, the people are shit, money is shit, housing is shit, health services are shit, transport is shit, food is shit. Everything is shit in this place. Yes, perhaps he should just do that, fuck off back to Hong Kong. He would mention the idea to Julie tonight; she had always wanted to try her luck in Hong Kong. English people are always looking for the first available excuse to leave their shitty island.
When he left the building he realised he had left his jacket upstairs. It was a cold night and he didn’t want to go back. He shivered all the way to the Tube.
This story is part of the short story collection Dysfunctional Males, published by La Casita Grande