‘You’ve never owned a hat, have you?’
‘You ever own a hat? Ever wear one?’
‘I’ve worn one. Yeah,’ said Jim. His face was bent to the right, eyes frowning above a closed mouth. He shifted in his chair, and the small front wheels eased to move his knees and open face towards Roy. Jim waved a rollie in the air to secure his padmate’s attention. The younger man nodded then angled himself foward from the top bunk to reach. Weak sunlight lit the top of his head before he leaned back onto the bunk.
‘Have you heard of a kopi? Before you ask what, it’s a cap with flat top and a peak like this.’ Roy pointed in the book he held out to a black and white shot of a white man with a 45 record in his right hand.
Jim let his shoulder lead and leant in to glance at it. ‘Sounds African.’ A story was brewing. ‘Our David used to live in Rhodesia back when it were white rule. Had fellas waiting on ’em from what I remember. Coloured blokes. They’d’ve had ’em on, wouldn’t they?’
‘And shorts and sandals,’ Roy grinned. Smoke from his slim burn spanned the short gap between the bunks and the battered wheelchair. A unrequested pillowing hammock.
Readying his lungs, Roy sucked at the roach. Jim waited to continue to be sure of his attention.
‘He’d have come in if he was still going.’ Roy nodded his understanding but slumped a little more. ‘He’d be disgusted, he would. When my mum was sick, none of ’em saw her. None of ’em helped us out.’ The fag flitted from Roy’s knuckles to his neighbour; tired with the effort, Jim’s talk paused. ‘Only David came and was there for her.’
And you, thought Roy. He imagined it was always and only Jim – the dutiful and home-bound son. The older man had swapped his sheltered flat for a pad of the same given his reluctance to deal with the cuts and flow of life outside on the landing or the wing as a whole. His enlarged eyes and red pallor showed a man little seen. One who’d not yet learnt how shitty family could be, one who had been busy fending off local enquiries about his property.
Before the London Olympics woke the British public to the plight of its disabled citizens, pro-active toe-rags had swanned in on saps like Jim and leeched away.
That computer isn’t right for you Jim lad. I’ll fill it full of illegal images and let you take the rap. I’ll move in your gaff as well and fuck everything out for some profitable green.
The light of mid-morning had changed shifts with its grubbier cousin. Jim was nearly swallowed up in the dark pad.
‘It took our Elsie two week to pick up the phone.’
A budding pile of dimps sat on the table next to him. Hunkered in his chair, he sought and stripped each papered seam.
‘All them lot knew how bad she were.’ Black ashened burn was being rapidly discarded. Bits of roach was scanned before his browned fingertips tossed the waste away.
‘Should have seen her in the bed. S-she’d shrank. Were in pain. Lying down on bed.’
He looked up at Roy. ‘She kept turning a bit, from one side t’tother. The drugs were powerful ones.’
‘No bugger else’d hold her hand apart from me. Her knuckles were knots.’
A gate clanked shut past the exercise yard beyond their window as Jim looked to his lap, his hands sweeping the dimps back inside their baggie before they went into a drawer. Roy breathed a last life into his rollie, sucked it dry before it died head-on in the fish can ashtray; a backwards ‘r’ alongside others.