Finally she found the room. Truly they’d banished him and as she pulled up a chair beside the bed and took out the patient’s file from her folder, she had the question in her head, if this man is dangerous, why am I here alone? Quickly she assessed the situation. She was heavier than him, if not taller, and she’d not had surgery. He was on heroin but that didn’t make him depraved, only desperate and, she added to herself, deceitful question mark. Why the question mark though? She had his file. “I’m Kerry,” she said. “I’m a dietician. Are you aware of the work of a dietician, Mr Webb?”
“It’s putting cucumbers and stuff on your skin, right?”
“No, it’s eating.”
“What am I thinking of? Beautician.”
“But you’re beautiful. A beautiful dietician.”
It was past seven in the evening and car-lights were coming on in the carpark below the window. Everyone going home. There was a bruising wind, hustling rubbish and leaves into corners, lowering grey clouds to the north. You couldn’t see the lights of the Hutt. She could go home soon; it made her feel vulnerable to think of it. “Thank you but we’re here to talk about this little problem you’ve got.”
She referred to the file in an effort to break his gaze, which was almost leery. He was older than she’d expected though his birthdate was here. She felt examined, as with a few of the more senior consultants. “Kidney stones. I have some literature here that I’ll leave with you.”
“Literature? What is it, Dickens? Balzac? Tolstoy, did
he write on kidney stones?”
“Tells you all about kidney stones, how they form, what we can do about it and so on.” She put the brochure on the bedside table. “The doctor’s probably told you already about the chances of recurrence. Higher in males than in females.”
“Is that unfair or what?”
“There are, however, a few things we can do to minimise the chances of getting them again.”
“Excuse me, Kerry? Do you have them too?”
“Because I thought you said ‘we’.”
“Unless there’s somebody else here. There is nobody else here, is there, or really within a mile of this bed.”
She wasn’t sure whether this had more of the quality of a threat than a complaint. “I’m sorry, Mr Webb. Of course.”
“Thank you, Kerry. Please go on.”
She looked again at her notes. Her cellphone was in her bag which was in her office about two miles away. “Can I ask you, Mr Webb, if you’ve had kidney stones before.”
“One time I thought I had them.”
“But I was badly impaired at that stage of my life. Turned out I was lying, pretending to have them.”
“I see. But this time . . .?”
“You want to see?” He was pushing the sheet away, lifting his gown.
“No, that’s fine, Mr Webb.” Like the hull of a boat, he was covered in ribs.
“Listen,” he said. He drew himself up. This was the longest conversation he’d had with a woman in the vicinity of a bed in months yet he had a strong urge to get rid of her. Perhaps he needed the bathroom; he couldn’t feel his bowels properly or his bladder, and had already peed himself the previous night. Decidedly, he was yearning and burning and he could no longer aim it in her direction. Anyway, he found her, in the end, pretty rather than beautiful. Her looks were, once studied, sort of exhausted. He was exhausted. The blonde hair in a bun, the white blouse tucked into the pants with its hide-and-seek bra. He couldn’t get an erection until she left. Some delicacy, he remembered, had stopped him mentioning to the surgeon his haemorrhoids. “What I got to do is, depending on my type, whether the stone was uric acid or calcium oxalate, there are some adjustments I could make in my diet. Basically, they don’t know why the stones form but there’s studies that show some link with water intake, so I’ll drink more of that, and indications of links with calcium-rich dairy foods, red meat, tea, coffee, depending on the type of stone.” He reached out and grabbed the brochure, passing it back to her. “I’ve read the literature.”
Kerry took the brochure, grateful and ashamed. “You’re obviously well informed. Once we get the lab results back, I can get in touch with you again for the menu fine-tuning if that’s required.”
“To be honest, Kerry, I’m not so big on cooking, you know.”
“So normally what do you eat? Lots of fried food? Takeaways, that sort of thing?” She was writing on her clipboard but doodles only – even he could see that. Her anxiety – unprofessional, unhidden – depressed him. She was afraid of him but not that much. The dangers he represented were fantastical, shadows of dangers. She couldn’t rid herself of them, yet they meant nothing. At the far end of the corridor – he couldn’t walk further than to the bathroom – was the nurse’s station. At night he’d looked down there and seen the light and almost wept like a child in a dark house. It hurt to fart and this alone, with its comedy, saved his life, protecting him from everything. “If I break wind, I can leave,” he said to no one. Then he looked at the dietician. “What do I eat? Is that the question?”
“On a normal night, say.”
“On a normal night, or a good night?”
“See if it was a good night, that’s different, you know.”
She couldn’t meet his eye and didn’t care that she showed him this either. He was the one who was fucked, not her. She had a car in the carpark, a home to go to. And though such things didn’t go very deep with him, he registered a feeling of loss.
“But just regularly,” she said, “what would it be?”
He leaned himself forward, which hurt. “I’m going to answer the good night thing first, all right? What I eat on a good night. I like the shaved stuff.”
“Ham?” She was closing the folder, storing the pen. If only she could get out of here without hearing something awful.
He felt the dressing on his wound pull, or the wound itself. “Ham? No, no, no,” he said. “Pussy.”
Jamie’s dietician stood up and walked out. He heard her shoes accelerating, though at no point did she break into a run.
The letter the hospital sent to the address Jamie supplied was returned “not known here”. Inside it informed him that his kidney stone was a uric acid stone and that he should therefore cut down on red meat.
By the time the letter was back with the hospital, Jamie was on his way to Timaru, where his brother, Don, the chemist, and his sister, Penny, the doctor, still lived. The Magic Kingdom.
On the ferry, then hitching down the island, he knew this was the lowest thing he’d done. What did they say about dogs fouling their own backyards? He’d not been back in however long it was – another decade – though Don had seen him in Wellington a few times and Penny had tried to contact him. He still had her letters somewhere. Dear Shithead, Because I know you won’t answer this or probably even read it or even get it (where the fuck are you!), I can tell you everything.
When the milk tanker dropped him off at the cheese factory turn-off, he had the sense to pause his journey in a barn. The rusticity was novel. Every minute he was woken by the factory siren. In the morning they were spraying whey onto the paddocks around the factory. The smell stood in for, and in fact banished, breakfast. Walking along the road he found himself giving a wave to the bloke in the sprayer, who responded with a salute. Like all salutes, it contained a faint irony.
Jamie hitched into town and went to the house not of his good brother or his good harmed sister but to the flat of someone whose name he’d been given in Wellington, who admitted him with a shrug. Douglas. Douglas was in a mink coat. He wasn’t queer, only cold. In actual degrees it was twenty-nine in the room – there was a digital thermometer fixed to the wall, its wires running out through a hole to the outside, where it was twenty-six. There wasn’t a window open in the place. The litter of old takeaways, newspapers, tin foil and used tissues failed to disguise the violence of the carpet, which was lime. The rubbish seemed not so much dropped and lying there but suspended on the surface, as if on a jelly. A lot of this rubbish turned out to be mail – there were heaps of identical-looking envelopes everywhere, and cast-off handibags and boxes.
Resting against the wall was a single ski pole. “The fuck’s that for?” said Jamie. It was, somehow, a deeply offensive object.
Douglas went over to the pole and picked it up as if for the first time. “Skiing,” he said. He wasn’t joking. There were mountains, Jamie had forgotten. Even when it was hot, there was snow. The South Island had always been escapist in this way.
They stood in the living-room. Jamie had got some speed off the tanker driver. In the grate of the open fire and around the tiled hearth, cigarette butts – hundreds of them – made their own finger sculptures. He felt beckoned. On the windows, a yellowish substance coated the light coming through – the congealed exhalations of many afternoons and evenings. This room lacked mornings. There were no curtains. Douglas, in the mink coat, retreated somewhere, returning a moment later to snatch up a box of tissues from the floor. In a sort of horror, he pointed to the kitchen before leaving again. Already Jamie knew the chance of finding any food in there was negligible. He felt, as he took a seat on the cushionless sofa and moved a pile of ash with his toe, perfectly at home.
Damien Wilkins’ most recent novel, Nineteen Widows Under Ash, is reviewed on p20.