The first sensation was of numbness from the neck down combined with a tremendous ache in the glands at the back of the head and nape. Prior to this was a complete blackout. No feeling, no pain, no distant voices of hospital staff and, mercifully for a devout agnostic, no shining light or choir of angels. In fact, if I were a believer in some eternal after-life, I would have considered myself, as Carlyle, ‘to a certain extent bilked’ by the first sight of my new horizon.
As I struggled to open my eyes, I appeared to be lying in the foetal position in the lee of two metal dustbins sited in an alleyway between a public house and a row of new brick-built houses. Looking at me across a bundle of shabby blankets was a glossy black Labrador, his deep brown eyes watching me intently. For quite a while, perhaps ten minutes, I could not move and remained paralysed and helpless, my eyes locked on the dog. He also seemed curiously still, as if in silent empathy.
I experimented at first simply with the motion of my eyelids. Closing and opening them seemed to be as much as I could manage and I started to suspect a stroke. But why deposited unceremoniously in an alleyway? As far as I was aware, my medical bills were paid up and although I know in theory that they often discharge seriously ill but penurious patients, I could not believe they would have done so in this instance. There is usually some foundation or other that allows at least a few days grace. But then, how long had I been unconscious and in what mental state? For all I knew, I could have discharged myself, wandered into the street and suffered some sort of episode in a remote part of the city. In which case, I felt I had better try and get to my feet and seek help before the snow that I could just about perceive on the pub windowsill at the corner of my vision, started to work on my extremities.
When I did begin to move, it was my fingers and my torso that first felt the damp of the thawing snow beneath me. What I had first thought were a shapeless bundle of covers, turned out to be another sleeper, his face obscured by a woollen hood, his breath sending cloudy messages into the freezing air. As the sensation returned to my legs, I began to shiver uncontrollably and felt certain the movement would waken my slumbering compatriot. But he remained insensible and I smelt a sour alcoholic odour from him, mixed with the sweat and urine combination of the long unwashed. It was almost a relief, as I knew stroke victims often lose their sense of smell. But movement was returning and despite the cold, I felt euphoric and foolishly happy that I was going to be able to walk around on my own two feet.
The first effort was profoundly painful as I levered myself up on one arm. The cold air razored the damp of my clothing and forced a deep shuddering breath that would have seemed impossible only an hour, a day or a week ago. Cramp turned the screws on my elbows and shoulders as I laboured to inch around on the palms of my hands to a more comfortable sitting position. Blinking with the effort, I stared comically at the great army boots I seemed to be wearing on the two inaccessible peninsulas of my feet. As I looked them over, it occurred to me that I could remember little about the immediate past. I knew I had been in hospital and I knew I had been there some time. Memory and detail were largely absent, although I was angry with the staff for having somehow allowed me to be in this state.
Another quarter hour seemed to find me in a much-improved condition and I was ready to try standing up. As I did so, my boots scraping noisily on the cement, the sleeper grunted and cocked a bloodshot eye in my direction. He yawned and sat up, seemingly unsurprised to find me standing above him. He had dark eyebrows that almost met in the middle and the same dark brown eyes as the dog.‘Feeling better?’His accent was unmistakably Spanish and I hesitated before answering, as my throat seemed dry and clogged with phlegm. Turning aside, I spat into one of the bins and cleared my throat with a rattling cheer. ‘Yes. Yes, I think so.’Good. I was really worried about you, man.’He patted the dog, which opened its mouth as if laughing and then suddenly raced off. The sleeper laughed and tossed a cigarette butt after him. ‘Fair weather friend, eh? He get warm from us then he bugger off, isn’t it?’I reached out a hand to the rim of the nearest bin and held myself upright, swaying slightly with the effort. I shook my head slightly to try and relieve some residual dizziness and my companion cocked his head to one side in a concerned fashion. ‘You OK, Lewis? You still sick?’I contemplated the question for a moment and then smiled, my lips feeling stiff and unfamiliar. ‘No. No, I think that’s all finished now.’I held out a hand. ‘I’m Eric. What’s your name?’The Spaniard looked at my hand as if it were a dead flounder and frowned. ‘You still got the fever. We got to get you hospital.’I withdrew the hand and ran it over my chin, which seemed to have been a stranger to the razor for some time. He sounded like he was from the north. Barcelona, perhaps? I searched my memory for forgotten phrases. ‘Molt de gust de conèixe'l. Com es diu?’He looked mildly surprised and stood up, revealing a bizarre outfit of army surplus trousers and a lumberjack style shirt. ‘I din’t know you speak Catalan, Lewis. You OK?It was then that I saw the box like contraption above the door of the pub behind him. At the centre was the unmistakable double ellipse of a camera lens.