My agency has been lately sending me to work at the hospital canteen, where I am usually put on the tills at midday. I was first introduced to the theme of the following story right in the middle of an exceptionally hectic lunch service.
I was running back and forth, to and fro, with four bowls of soup on each arm and forty different coffee orders all roaring in my head, when a voice from above, or somewhere beside me, said “excuse me?,” and everything came to a stop.
She was a slender and very beautiful young lady, about seven feet tall and with sunglasses resting in her silver-blonde hair. “Excuse me, but I suffer from gout,” she declared happily. “I will need to speak to the head chef, to tell him what I can eat.”
Gout? I noticed that the lady was holding a tiny squirming dog aloft in both hands like a trophy, and, for a moment, I must have looked just as baffled as this poor creature.
I shook my brain back together again. “Certainly madam. The head chef will be delighted to speak to you.”
She was one of those posh ladies who always sound slightly stunned. Her voice pronounced everything with awful languid clarity. “I cannot eat any purines because they inflame my ankles. I cannot drink coffee or eat red meat or spinach or tuna or mushrooms. I’m not allowed to drink any beer.”
The head chef was smoking in the car park and I had to call him on a walkie-talkie.
“FUCK’S SAKE NOT ANOTHER ONE!” I had twirled the little knob on the walkie-talkie too far and this was broadcast at ear-splitting volume to most of the canteen. “TOAST WE ONLY DO TOAST.”
The lady gazed at me in incomprehension. “The head chef confirms that we do have a gout option,” I told her. “Shall I radio to the kitchen to have it prepared?”
We might have some sachets of Marmite in the attic, I brooded. I then wondered whether Marmite contained “purines.” At every dinner party this lady ever went to, every item of food would have to be approved in this way. The nervous hosts would meet in the kitchen to chuckle with relief. Thank heaven, she can drink the mineral water!
If you arrange it on a bone china platter and garnish it with chives and parsley, toast looks sufficiently luxurious. Anyhow, there was enough fuss and inconvenience to appease this lady’s gout lord demon for the day, and the crisis was over.
Within a week, we were fending off at least six gout sufferers every service and it soon became apparent that our organisation would have to formulate a standardised gout policy, with new printed menus and another round of staff training. The management arranged a general meeting. Unfortunately, it turned out that because we all have shifts at different times of the day, the only time that we could get everybody together was at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.
The meeting was as subdued as a funeral. The older agency workers were in their Sunday best; the younger looked bleary-eyed and still stank of the Cowgate. This Hogarthian ensemble was introduced to one Manie Halliburton, who was the President of the British Gout Society. She had been invited to speak to us because accreditation from the BGS was inexpensive and these things usually impress the customers. Our head chef had spent the previous afternoon on the internet and he had come up with a gout menu. He suggested that we should put a little ankle logo beside gout-suitable items on the existing menus, and he had assumed that Mrs Halliburton was merely there in a spirit of encouragement. But she had other ideas.
She was a square, very squat woman who looked both unconfident and peevish. She began to explain that gout had come to be wrongly viewed as comic, and that she was working to overcome this stigma on behalf of the “gout community.” She thought it highly likely that we had accepted Dickens’ immature jokes as medical fact. Perhaps we still believed that gout sufferers were cranky port-slurping magistrates with sore feet? Gout was, in fact, a debilitating condition which could ruin lives. We wouldn’t laugh if only we could see how…
“But these people are just malingerers,” I heard myself say. This took me by surprise because whenever I think that I am about to utter something which will get me into trouble, I always count to ten. Today, however, I was too quick for myself. “Seriously, I have met more of your “community” over the last few days than Dickens did during his entire lifetime. They are the same fashionable timewasters who consumed Soya milk ten years ago and Gluten-Free bread five years ago and Superfood salads before Christmas!”
Mrs Halliburton’s milk-coloured face was now a ghastly mottled pink. Her voice leapt from tetchy to squeaky-shrill. “You obviously don’t understand,” she lamented. “I hear what you are saying but I don’t think you understand the issue. You don’t know what it feels like to wake up crying with agony, as thousands of gout sufferers do, because your ankles are so inflamed.”
“I think you’ll find that this gout doesn’t even exist!”
Everybody else at the meeting was glancing about with mild alarm and waiting for our bickering to end, until the head chef felt obliged to intervene. “That’s enough, Biggy,” he said patiently, but in a hard, somewhat alien sounding voice. “You’ve had your say and now I think we should listen again to our guest.”
The gout lady looked unexpectedly triumphant. “He has decided that gout doesn’t even exist! I think we can all see what sort of a person he is!”
I resolved to march out, believing this to be the best way of saving face, but on standing I was immediately wobbling, as if barefoot and on a bright hard pebble of pain. For a second I noticed that whilst Mrs Halliburton was flouncing about with her nose thrust in the air, she was making strange, vigorous hand signals behind her skirts. Next, I had frozen like a man who has stepped out into a roaring, ice cold wind. I was taking great bites and then I had bit and bit and bit until everything had leapt up to nothing.
I woke up in bed in an unfamiliar room, swaddled amongst immaculately clean sheets. In a second I had taken it all in. My foot was suspended in front of me, encased in a plaster cast the size of a cooked turkey. I could feel only the faintest trace of it.
I saw that my phone had been left on the bedside table and after an indefinite period of stretching, it finally jumped into my hand. I called the agency. Nobody was there and so I next called the hospital canteen.
Renata, my fellow agency worker, answered. “Biggy. What’s up?”
“Renata, what day is it?”
“And where am I?”
“Upstairs or downstairs. Somewhere in the main building. I’m sure that your doctor should really tell you first, but you’ve contracted sudden, chronic gout.”
I was fuming when I put down that phone.
“I refuse to believe it!” I yelled at the doctor when he arrived.
“I see that you’ve heard the news. That only leaves me to tell you about the diet.”
“Never. I’m not cutting back on a single molecule of alcohol.”
However genial they pretend to be, no doctor ever has a sense of humour at the bottom of it all. “You’ll find that gout is an excruciating condition. You’ll quite go off beer, I assure you.”
“Who said anything about beer?” I snarled. “I was talking spirits.”
The doctor looked startled, as if it was rare for a patient to be clever enough to catch him out. But before he could reply the head chef had popped his head around the door.
“Hullo Biggy. Very unfortunate to hear about your condition… especially given, well, what you were telling our meeting.” It then occurred to him that it would be sensible not to excite me, and so he skipped ahead. “Just called to give you this get-well card from the team. We’ve all signed it.”
I stared at the thing in outrage. There was an inept cartoon of a kitten in a hospital bed and the caption, “Together We Can Get to Grips with Gout.”
“We got a thousand of them free with the new printed menus,” the head chef explained. “Mrs Halliburton also gave us the number of a special 24 hour gout helpline.”
“Out!” I exploded. “This is impossible! I am not suffering from this fatuous illness! It doesn’t exist!” The doctor nodded at the head chef and they both scurried out of the room as I began to rattle the bed and the whole thing began to dance on the spot. I was roaring like a lion. Yet the next moment my phone struck up with a little chime. An unfamiliar number.
“Mr Tycienski. I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been poorly.”
“Mrs Halliburton,” I growled thickly. “How can I help you?”
There was an unexpected note in her voice which quite stopped me in my tracks – one of genuine friendliness. She gave the impression that she had privately made an effort and that her quarrel with me had been buried in a remote place that only she knew, and without a marker. Any new argument between us would have to begin again with completely new materials. For this reason, I played along with the premise that I was really suffering from her imaginary illness. And suddenly I was very interested in what she was saying. Her organisation ran a health spa for the gout community. Everybody who was diagnosed with gout in Scotland received a voucher for a complimentary week. The villas were wee, but there was room enough if I wanted to bring along a partner.
I put down the phone with considerable surprise. Within three minutes, I had gone all the way from wanting to throttle this humbug to agreeing to a week’s holiday at her health spa. Of course, I knew that this holiday would mostly please my wife.
The villas looked like chalets; in fact the whole health spa would have resembled a decommissioned seaside holiday camp, except that the loneliness of its setting, ten or so miles down the coast from Dunbar, meant that it could have never feasibly hosted millions of holidays. As Polly wheeled me around the villas, I pictured a crew of swarthy workers ram-raiding the perimeter fence of Butlins and quickly loading up a truck with chalets. They would screech off whilst families stood about bewildered in their pyjamas…
A remote concrete hut watched over the villas from high above the sand dunes and this housed the spa facilities. Compared to the desolation of the villas, the hut seemed to hum imperceptibly with life. I sensed that there were people secreted inside our neighbouring villas, but they never appeared to show their faces. I would sometimes spot the occasional fellow resident ahead in the distance, scuttling along a sandy path, to or from the hut.
Polly and I explored the hut on the first morning and we came across a modest cafeteria. Polly stamped her feet and I knocked about in my wheelchair and then we daringly rang a labelled bell and a wizened dinner-lady emerged, gazing at us vacantly. Her lasagne was cold; the coffee was black water.
In the mornings, Polly would wheel me out on to the sand dunes, where I would watch the sea whilst she trotted off for a walk. One morning, I spun around suddenly in my chair to see somebody coming down the beach.
It was same lady who I had first encountered weeks ago in the hospital canteen. She still had the sunglasses in her hair and she was jigging the same squirming little dog.
“Good morning!” I called. I was surprised that she did not recognise me and then I realised how odd it would be if she did.
Her name was Melissa and this was her eighth trip to the camp. The facilities were amazing. She drawled out this last word in her languid, posh voice and I shuddered.
I remarked that it was strange to meet somebody like her at this camp. She was so George Street and the camp was so sub-Dunbar.
Before she could reply, my phone struck up. The lady signalled that it was quite alright to answer it.
Polly was whispering to me in a strained, excited voice. She was trapped.
Yes, she had been coming back down the beach when a black man had walked out of the sea. Not, you understand, in the manner of somebody who was paddling or swimming. He had walked out head first, at a steady pace, as if straight off the floor of the North Sea.
He had incandescent eyes and all of a sudden Polly had taken fright and bolted back to our villa. She had barricaded the doors and she was now hiding, apparently behind the fridge.
I explained to Polly that there was nothing that we could really do to help her. We could not phone the police with such a story, as in this stretch of the country they generally turned up at great expense, in a helicopter. There was also the problem of my mobility…
At this point, Melissa intervened. She had heard scraps of our conversation and she volunteered that the black man was probably Andre. This was the camp nutritionist and he was a really awesome, really amazing guy.
“There you go,” I said to Polly. “You’ve been frightened by a wet nutritionist.”
Melissa offered to wheel me back to her villa for lunch and since I had no other means of going anywhere else, I assented. She dragged me backwards through the sand whilst I shook helplessly in my chair. Her villa turned out to be identical to ours: bare, draughty, and strewn with a few, forlorn personal effects.
Melissa wheeled me into the kitchen, where she languidly extracted a chopping board from the dishwasher. She began to languidly dice a cucumber. Sitting back in my chair, I surveyed the kitchen table with astonishment.
There were huge bottles of German beer; thick beefsteaks coated in a creamy mushroom sauce; a garland of sausages; and slimy mushrooms nestling in a casserole dish.
After a while, I had to say something and so I began to collect together as casual a sounding voice as possible. “What a party!” I remarked in a sort of thin shriek, indicating to the table.
“Oh yes, those are Andre’s special foods,” Melissa replied.
“I see that he doesn’t suffer from gout. That lot would launch a gout sufferer into space.”
“Would you like some Soya spread with your cucumber? I’ll fetch you a napkin.”
Presently Andre walked into the kitchen. He was a black man, completely naked, and with a long shining penis which glided down past his knees.
He did not even look in my direction. “You have the special foods? The special foods for me?” he barked at Melissa.
Melissa whimpered and sank to the ground, prostrating herself. Her eyelids fluttered fantastically.
Andre climbed on to the table and squatted amongst the dishes, cramming steaks into his mouth and tearing at them with his teeth. Melissa writhed on the floor as mushroom sauce spluttered down the black man’s chin. Her tiny dog was hissing, arched back in terror. Andre was so engrossed in eating and drinking that I could wheel myself right up to him and retrieve his penis in my hand without him even noticing. As I expected, it was colder than the skin of a reptile. I immediately veered back into the shadow of the open door.
“Minion!” Andre barked, once he was sated. “On to the sands to dance!”
“Master!” Melissa panted.
Outside it was growing alarmingly dark for midday. People were traipsing out of their villas in their coats and hats, joining the little paths which led up to the sand dunes.
I was clattering along in my wheelchair, past one villa and then another. I could sense what was happening on the beach. There was no music, and in fact no sound at all, as the gout sufferers commenced their strange, silent dancing. The massively vivid sky above them flickered and groaned, as dire as a cathedral.
A thought struck me when I reached my own villa and I left the wheelchair at the door, which I shut behind me with a clap. Polly looked up at me.
“We’re going out for dinner,” I told her. “We’ll find a pub somewhere in Dunbar. I want a good steak and ale pie, washed down with more ale.”
[Previously on Tychy: “Trams to the Slaughter.”]