Coming back from the washroom, Figgis slung his towel over his shoulder and peered at his two fellow patients as he made his way through the ward door by Glover’s bed. He looked at what Glover held in his hands, a book of some kind.
“Might have known! You dirty pervert!” Figgis said.
Glover placed down his book guiltily and bristled his moustache. “What on earth are you talking about, Figgis?”
“That, you’re reading. Didn’t know this hospital had a pornography section in the library.”
Hushing him, Glover whispered. “It’s called erotic fiction, Figgis, and would you lower your voice? I found it in Dr. Thorpe’s office.”
“I might have known he’d be reading it!”
“What’s it about, Archie?” Norman said from his bed.
“Oh, you’d be too young to understand the complexities.”
“Don’t you go near that filth, Norman,” Figgis said. “Only for dirty perverted old men.”
“Figgis, it is not perverted. It’s erotic fiction! There is nothing wrong with reading about healthy sexuality.”
“Not if you’re a middle-aged woman whose husband’s playing away. You should be at the back of a railway platform, buying naughty rags from a seedy old git with no teeth. This is just disgusting, in plain sight in an NHS hospital with the maternity ward above. And in front of an impressionable man like Norman.”
“Ignore him, Norman. This is a coming-of-age story about a shy, young man thrust into the arms of a sexually experienced older woman.”
Norman sat to attention. “Is it? Can I borrow it after you, Archie?”
Figgis shook his head. “Slippery slope, Norman.” He walked to Norman’s bed and looked down at what the man was reading. “What’s that, Famous Five, Dan Dare?”
“No.” Norman held up the cover. “I found it in the library. It’s called ‘Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman’.”
Glover smiled. “Ah yes, the stories by E.W Hornung. I read those as a boy. Gentleman thief, cricketing hero. Ladies adored him. Faithful companion at his side. I was often likened to the character when I was at school.”
Figgis climbed back into his bed, resting his head on the pillow.
“Were you, Archie?” Norman asked.
“Was he ‘eck as like!” Figgis snorted.
“I was, Norman. I was known as the Raffles of the upper sixth, though I will admit I never stole from my fellow man.”
“Well, I like Raffles already,” Norman said. “He’s dashing and daring, and Bunny his sidekick, is wonderful too.”
“What’s it about?” Figgis asked.
“A gentleman thief who steals jewels from rich people aided by his friend,” Norman said.
“What, does he give it to the poor like Robin Hood?”
“What does he do with it?”
“He keeps the funds,” Glover said. “He has a reputation and a lifestyle to uphold in society.”
“Oh, does he now? Not a grafter then eh?”
“He works hard to acquire it though,” Norman said. “He’s very clever.”
“He only steals from rich people,” Glover said. “And never from his hosts, he’s a gentleman.”
Figgis laughed. “Of course he only steals from rich people! How many poor folks do you know what have diamonds floating about in the tin bath?”
“Well, he is a gentleman and you can’t help but admire him.” Glover turned away and glanced out of the window.
“No wonder you admire him! You lot stick together. If he was a peasant, caught red-handed in a lady’s jewellery box, you’d lock him up and then ship him off to Botany Bay, but because he looks good in a suit and comes from good stock and can bowl a ball, well, you’re ready to award him with a knighthood!”
“I don’t make the rules, Figgis, I just abide them.”
“So, you think he’s wrong, Fig?” Norman asked.
“Wrong? Nah. Don’t really care either way if I’m honest. If already wealthy people want to pinch from other people who never earnt any of what they have, then I say good luck to ‘em.”
“There’s always more to a story than the surface layer,” Norman began as he flicked through the pages. “I mean, these stories aren’t just about crime and escape and dazzling jewels, they’re also about the relationship between Raffles and Bunny.”
Figgis and Glover exchanged glances.
“Oh yeah?” Figgis’ eyebrow rose.
“I mean,” Norman began as he sat up, ready to enthuse on the stories, “I’m only a bit way through but these men are devoted to each other. Oh, to have someone like that in your life.”
Glover snorted. “I wouldn’t get too attached to the characters if I were you, Norman.”
“What?” Norman frowned. “Don’t tell me that, Archie, I’m going to worry now!”
“Just a friendly warning.”
Norman placed down his book. “Archie!”
“You’ve spoilt it now,” Figgis added. “Here he is trying to immerse himself in classic literature, picturing himself as a dashing and dangerous amateur thief and you’ve shattered his dreams.”
“I’m not spoiling anything if it was written in the Victorian era, Figgis.”
“Not to him, mate. For him it could’ve been written yesterday.”
“I haven’t said a word. If the boy can’t read a book without worrying that the characters may have a tough time then he should only be reading children’s fiction. I mean, they’re criminals, what do you think might happen to them, live happily ever after? Knighted by the Queen?”
“Criminals now, they were gentleman to you five minutes ago!”
Norman folded his arms. “Oh, be quiet, Archie. I just want to be swept up in it, not knowing where the path will take me. They’re my friends now.”
Figgis and Glover laughed.
“Weren’t there a telly version of it, a couple years back?” Figgis suddenly said.
“Was there?” Norman’s interest was further piqued. “Mother didn’t let me watch television late in case I saw something with curse words and undressing. Was it after the watershed?”
“Can’t remember,” Figgis said, “but Edie was a fan.”
“The lead was played by a very dashing man, Norman,” Glover said but Figgis cut him off.
“-Don’t tell me, everyone thought you looked like him?”
“Well, I see the resemblance. We could easily play the same character on television.”
“There was a fair-haired fellow too,” Figgis said, “handsome lad, looked a bit like you, Norman.”
“Really?” Norman sat proudly, cuddling teddy. “I’d love to play Bunny. I always thought I could’ve been a good actor.”
Figgis and Glover laughed again.
“Don’t quit your day job just yet,” Glover said.
“I haven’t got a day job!” Norman placed a bookmark into the page of his book. “Well, I’ll not let anything ruin this adventure for me. I’m invested now. I hope I don’t die before I finish.”
“In this hospital, you never know,” Figgis muttered. “Let me have a read of that, Norman.”
“Don’t lose my page.”
Norman passed the book over and he and Glover watched as Figgis flicked through the pages, stopping on one and reading a few lines. “Blimey, and I was judging your erotic fiction, Archie.”
“What do you mean, Roy?”
“Didn’t know a bloke could use so many words to describe another bloke’s physical attributes.”
“They’re just forever friends,” Glover said, irritated by the assumption. “A chap can compliment another chap’s features.”
Figgis laughed. “Can they? When was the last time you described my athletic figure, my clean-shaven features, my eyes like a luminous shining star?”
Glover thought for a moment. “Well, if you had anything like that.”
“Would you ‘eck as like. I think Norman’s onto something. I think these two are sharing more than jewels if you know what I mean. It’s all a cover, if you ask me, one crime presented to shield the other.”
Norman smiled. “That’s what I wondered about.”
“You don’t need to be Holmes to detect this other crime they’re committing,” Figgis said.
“What rot!” Glover grumbled.
“Literary criticism is open to interpretation, Archie, but you’re wrong!” Norman said.
Figgis laughed. “All that fancy education and you can’t see what us two simpletons can.”
Glover snorted. “Subtext at best, if you look deeply enough.”
Figgis slapped the book hard. “Subtext? It’s all there in the bloody text, mate. No reading between the lines here.”
“You’re mad, both of you,” Glover said, “he’s a cricketer.”
“So what?” Figgis replied. “So, I suppose there’s never been a queer one with a bat in his hand? Where do you think they coined the phrase ‘bats for the other team?’”
Hugging teddy, Norman smiled. “Well, I don’t care what or who they are. Raffles and Bunny are my idols. They are flawed humans and every bit as real to me as though I knew them in person.”
“Steady on Norman,” Figgis said. “If bed pans go missing, we’ll know you’ve got a taste for thieving.”
“It’s nothing like that,” Norman said. “Didn’t you ever identify with a book character, Fig?”
“Not really. When was the last time you read a book about a lorry driver stuck in a hospital bed?”
“Well…never,” Norman said. “But you must’ve had childhood heroes.”
“Of course. But gives you the hump in here. Reading about other people having adventures and money when you’re stuck in here waiting for fish followed by semolina and a ticking off from matron.”
Silence filled the ward as Norman began to make a black mask for teddy out of crepe paper. As Glover took out his mirror to admire himself, Figgis looked around and whistled.
“Mind you,” he said, leaning across to Glover and snatching his book away. “Can’t hurt to have a little peruse of this.”
“I thought you said it was filth?”
“It is but I can’t get down to the railway station, can I?”