Read by Greg Page
This bag, officer? How did I come by such a fine bag?
It’s a doctor’s bag, officer. Classic design. Opens at the top, surprisingly capacious. I got it off Richardson, officer. It was his bag.
Richardson? Now I first met Richardson either in contemplation in his cosy place beneath the flyover or in the lovely park by the river with the views over the bridge or possibly in the Dove or the Ship. I can’t remember exactly because at the time I had an acute case of alcohol poisoning brought on, I believe, by a bad pint served me at one of those hostelries, and my memory of the subsequent events was permanently affected.
He was a fine fellow, but he took unkindly to us calling him ‘Doctor’ because he said that he was not thus qualified, and qualifications were important, the mark of the professional, and if he had his life again he would strive to obtain them in the first instance and profit from them, and in the second instance he would encourage any youth into whose circle he should happen to venture to do likewise and with all the vigour that their tender years allowed them. This speech he gave more than once. Often, in fact.
It was our habit, when the rain held off, to occupy a bench in the park and survey the activity on the river and by way of entertainment to make remarks of a personal nature about passers-by. I might say of a skateboarder: ‘I don’t think he went to a very good school.’
Richardson taking in the angle of the skateboarder’s hat – which was, of course, reversed – might well concur: ‘You can see it in his bearing – the subtle things.’
‘I fear that he won’t amount to much,’ I’d say.
And Richardson would merely sniff at that, the matter being now beneath him. On this occasion, his attention had shifted to a lady pushing a pram, one of our regulars as we called them.
‘She’s putting it on a bit,’ he said.
‘Waddle waddle,’ I remarked. I always endeavoured to make Richardson laugh.
‘Time to lay off the pies, darling,’ enjoined Richardson. And there followed an altercation, as was not uncommon; for it sometimes happened that conversation intended to be private between us was intercepted by prying ears, and many people do not like to hear a frank assessment of their particular failings.
Richardson was ill. He had a type of gangrene of the arm, starting at the elbow and extending to his wrist, entirely wrapped in bandages that he got changed fortnightly by appointment at the Hammersmith hospital. This was necessary because the dressings became hard and encrusted with the yellow pus as thick as egg yolk that Richardson assured me existed beneath them, and the arm emitted a smell of pure ammonia for reasons of which he was not allowed inside any of the pubs along the riverbank.
The summer last, his condition deteriorated. The change in him was marked. His face became drawn and sallow. His skin was afflicted by open sores and strange dark scabs which peeled at the edges, but which would not detach. His hair, which had been full and luxuriant, fell out in clumps. His breath was rasping and wheezy, especially when he smoked. It was no surprise to us when his visits to the hospital became weekly and then every second day. It was plain that he was dying and quickly, but he would not hear of it and railed against us and accused us of jealousy and told us that we should be ashamed.
Eventually he did not return from the hospital at all, and I took it upon myself to visit him. I had some inconvenience in gaining entry to the building because a uniformed gentleman at the door took offence at me and barred my way. Even when I persuaded him that I had genuine business on one of the wards, he insisted that I first discard the can of beer that I was carrying to fortify myself against the possibility of grief and that I stub out my cigarette. This having been done, I was accompanied like a common criminal right to Richardson’s bedside, and the impudent fellow, heady with the power bestowed by the embroidered badge on his starched shirt, insisted on staying in the ward for the entire duration of my visit.
Richardson could not contain his delight at seeing me. ‘They’re all shits in here,’ he declared, making several heads look up sharply, which manoeuvre being clear indication that they were none of them quite as ill as they were pretending to be.
‘Don’t distress yourself,’ I counselled.
‘I won’t last out much longer,’ said Richardson suddenly.
‘Don’t be a fool,’ I told him, though it was obvious that his prognosis was sound. It was an effort for him even to move his head, and his skin seemed to have shrunk into his skull, and his lips were dry and bloodless.
‘Take my bag,’ he said, and with tremendous courage he pointed to the cupboard beside the bed. ‘It’s a good bag, and I’ve looked after it as well as I can. There’s a bottle of leather cream and a rag inside it. It must be applied weekly – a small dab rubbed in thoroughly. Then spit on the rag and rub that in too. That’ll keep it waterproof and looking spick.’
‘Come on, old chap,’ I said. ‘You’ll be right as rain and out of here by next Wednesday.’
‘Take the bag,’ he said. ‘You’re a fine friend, and you’re a decent fellow. I don’t want this bag going to some hoi-polloi who won’t polish it properly.’
So I took the bag, and within a day Richardson had died. The hospital couldn’t contact us, so we weren’t informed about the funeral arrangements, and as a consequence I understand that the ceremony was very sparsely attended.
That’s how I came by the bag, officer. I’m no doctor, sir, not like Richardson. Myself, I aspire to be a writer. I keep my scribblings in the bag. Look, here they are. I hope one day to find an understanding and discerning soul who will publish them. A pen and a wad of paper, sir, and I’m the richest man alive.
Put your heart at ease, officer. This bag was not acquired by common theft, but was given to me as the free and final action of one of the noblest men that ever lived.
(c) Tom Heaton, 2017
Tom Heaton's work has been published or performed by Dream Catcher, Liars’ League and Shaker Productions, and is forthcoming in Confingo. He has written scripts and worked on story development for numerous videogames.
Aged six, Greg Page was cast as Joseph in his infant school nativity. Somebody put a tea towel on his head & he became someone else. He hasn't been himself since. A critic recently compared Greg to the late Sir Alec Guinness, saying: “Sir Alec Guinness was a much better actor.”