Do we owe it to ourselves to keep in good health? Do we owe it to the society that protects us? I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question until I saw him: a large and lumpy man.
I could describe him from the top down, but that wasn’t how I came to him. As he sat himself into the nearest chair to the door I saw him as formed from the bottom up, as emerging from the ground on which he sat, and merging with the strong metal chair legs. His feet, large and long, were also wide and fatty. Folds of effluent flesh seemed desperate for release from the confines of his sweaty trainers, leaving his ankle skin darker and mottled. I thought of skin infections and yeast, and of ulcers soon to come.
His legs were large in girth, but were nothing when compared to the dimensions of the man’s torso which eventually tapered again to narrow shoulders and a comparatively tiny skull: a skull wrapped in generous waves of adipose tissue. There was no denying it: this man was large. I give no value judgements. He was large, but so am I. Perhaps a few stages down the line from him, but certainly I’m no longer the skinny wretch who used to be called ‘The Cambodian’ at high school.
But the thing that fascinates is not his size. That’s almost incidental, almost symptomatic. It’s like the freakshow poster for a rather dull event – completely irrelevant to what really matters. What fascinates, what entices and draws my eyes and prevents any kind of release, is the mouth. The man’s mouth is of a size I don’t believe I’ve ever before seen. I’m guessing it’s an efficient fuelling device.
He speaks to me, but not in friendship, or out of interest in who or what I may be. He speaks to give me his order, and as he voices his words I back away. Hot, festering sewage smells emanate from a mouth of scanty yellow-brown tombstone teeth. The smells linger when he shuts his mouth after saying ‘Full English. Chips. Syrup sponge’.
‘No problem, sir,’ I said, ‘would you like a drink with that?’.
‘Bottle of Coke,’ he said. ‘Litre.’ I marked it onto his order. ‘No problem,’ I said. ‘We’re offering free side salads today, sir. May I bring one for you.’
As he shook his head, gathered dandruff fell like oily, sifted flour onto his jacket’s shoulders. I nodded, half expecting my own shoulders to fill with the same, but they were clear. I know because I checked as I walked to the counter. I lifted my hand up to my mouth and cupped the outgoing breath. It was OK but I popped a mint in anyway.
Dave, our chef pointed at the clock. ‘What can I get you, sunshine?’ he asked. ‘Today’s lunchtime special?’
‘No,’ I said, looking back at the full English Breakfast man. ‘I think I’ll have a tuna baked potato with plenty of salad. And orange juice.’
‘OK,’ said Dave, ‘side of chips too?’
That feeling, you know that feeling when you see something of yourself in another, and it’s something you don’t like one bit? That feeling was creeping down onto me and pushing me into a place of guilt, of revulsion, of fear. Dave passed me my potato. ‘You ok?’ he asked. ‘You’ve been standing there staring at the wall for five minutes. Not how I’d choose to spend my lunch hour, sunshine.’
I took the plate and sat on the table reserved for break-time staff. I could see the man. I guessed he was younger than he looked. I watched as Sarah served him his Full English, and noted how he devoured it. I could smell his clothes, his breath, his body, and Sarah backed away as I had. He’d eaten and drunk his order before I was half-way through mine, and he’d already put his money onto the table and got up to leave.
But as he took his first step, his right leg crumbled and he tumbled onto the floor. Sarah rushed to his aid, as did Dave, but they could not lift him. I joined them, somewhat reluctantly, but even with my newly honed gym muscles, I couldn’t add any useful pulling weight. ‘Are you alright, sir?’ I asked, but he was silent, his head resting on the fancy lino, now stained with blood and vomit.
‘He’s clearly not alright,’ sneered Sarah.
I called an ambulance. We closed the café. There was no other choice, as the man’s body blocked the doorway. He’d brought down the brightly coloured ribbon insect curtain too.
As we waited, I sat with him.
‘It’s OK, ’ I said as I held his hand, stroked his face, and cupped my own nose and mouth with a tea towel to blank out the great ape smell emanating from his form. How could something so huge also be so frail?
‘They will be here soon. They’ll look after you in hospital.’ I spoke, but there was no real tenderness. He was a hindrance. I wanted to get on with my job. I was kneeling in the doorway of the café and was being stared at by every passer-by. And it was beginning to rain.
But as I touched him a little more I realised something important. He was many things, but at the heart of it, he was just a man. And I was just a woman. It wasn’t ‘here but for the grace of God,’ – it was something warmer and deeper that was drifting over me and seeping into my bones like a healing ungent. He was a man in pain. He was unwell. He was addicted. He was possibly unhappy. Perhaps lonely. Mentally ill? Unable to cope? Perhaps he struggled to communicate? Perhaps he had learning difficulties. Perhaps Prader Willi Syndrome or undiagnosed Cushing’s Syndrome. Perhaps he was homeless. Perhaps food was his only comfort?
How dare I judge him? How dare I? How dare I lose my humanity to this terrifying extent. How dare I make him responsible for all his life’s errors? How dare I consider myself so highly over him that I treat him this way?
The paramedics arrived and it took six burly men to hoist him onto a stretcher, then into the waiting ambulance. As he left he was coming round, and he told them his name. ‘Alan Edmunds,’ he said.
Two days later I visited Mr Edmunds in hospital. He had been admitted to the general medical ward with a huge number of chronic medical conditions. He’d been bathed, and his teeth had been brushed. His hair had been brushed too, and he was wearing crisp, clean striped pyjamas. He wasn’t looking well, but he was certainly looking better. Brighter.
Alan thanked me for looking after him. We had little to say to one another, and many of the 20 minutes I was there were passed in silence. I left, also in silence, knowing I wouldn’t visit again.
But, then again, I just might. He needed a friend, and that’s something we can all do for someone, no matter how humble and inadequate our own means.