When Tom entered the room, he found Lincoln reading a golfing magazine. There was no sign of Atalaya or her desert sorority. An Anglo nurse squeaked hither and thither on the shiny floor, changing the old man's saline drip with studious efficiency.
"Listen," Lincoln said, putting his reading material aside and taking Tom's hand in his own. "You must've maxed out your credit card getting me in here – and there was no need – my insurance'll cover it."
"I thought, I mean – given that you're a Tayswengo, it'd be part of the payback."
The old man laughed. He certainly looked frail, and there was a thick dressing taped to his now shorn head, but his hand continued to gently pressure Tom's, and his eyes twinkled with amused affection. "I'm not Tayswengo," Lincoln said. "Don't get me wrong - I love Atalaya, she and me... well." He shook his head on the snowy pillow. "We're soul mates... I wish, I wish I'd met her 20 years ago..."
Except for the fact that she'd then have been minus-two, Tom thought – then checked himself, for the old man was being so sweet, he felt craven for not having come to see him before.
He cleared his throat and indicated the supermarket bag he'd put on the bedside cabinet. "I brought some fruit, magazines and candy. I got a selection, 'cause I don't know what you like."
"Thanks." Lincoln smiled but made no move to look in the bag. "Don't get me off the point, young man, this is important. You probably think – or you've been told by that tight-ass Adams – if you lay out for my medical bills, it'll play well with the Intwennyfortee mob, but it ain't that way at all..." He tailed off, and Tom realised that even this short speech had exhausted Lincoln.
He made to disengage his hand from the old man's, while muttering, "I don't want to tire you out–"
But Lincoln gripped Tom's hand tighter. "I'm inquivoo, see, nothing I say or do counts for any damn thing any more. Thing is" – he looked at the door through which the nurse had exited, as if he suspected she might be eavesdropping – "you're nothing until you've had the cut." His hand tightened still more, his voice grated up the scale. "The cut, Tommy boy, the cut – you gotta have it! Now, Tommy boy, now!"
Lincoln's insistence on "the cut" – whatever that might be – jarred Tom, as did his bad-mouthing Adams. On leaving the hospital, he finally followed Martha's advice and called the embassy, which was in Capital City, 5,000 miles to the south, across the desert heart of the crumpled island-continent.
After holding and holding again, being transferred from this clerical assistant to that secretary, he finally spoke to a junior attaché. To begin with the woman's chirpy tone was as redolent of home as a ball-game commentary. "Uh-huh, sure, I see," she interjected as Tom explained his predicament. He tried not to sound as if he had misgivings concerning the Honorary Consul, but the attaché still picked them up. "Look, Mr Brodzinski," she sighed. "I appreciate that you're in a pretty lousy situation, but there's not a lot we can do from way down here. Adams is the man on the spot, and he has the full support of the Ambassador. He's sent us a report, and he's confident it can be settled without any jail time."
"If I were you, Mr Brodzinski, I'd go with him on this one. Should anything left-field emerge from the prelim' hearing, either someone from my department will come up or, if the judge permits it, you can fly down here for a meeting.
"One thing's for sure, sir, and that's our mission: we never, ever, leave our citizens out in the cold. Citizenship is a sacred bond for us – you should appreciate that. No matter what one of our own is accused of, he remains exactly that: one of our own."
Out in the cold. What a ridiculous expression, Tom thought, as the cell phone slipped between his sweaty fingers.
But then, as Tom tried to convey the absurdity of a mere accident being treated as a crime, the attaché's manner changed abruptly, her tone becoming clipped. "See here," she said. "I'm not in a position either to judge your intentions or even to know exactly what it is you did. One thing I do know is that Mr Lincoln is an elderly man, and a very sick one. Another thing I know for a fact is that cigarette smoking is both personally and publicly injurious–"
"I was giving up!" Tom spat into the cell. "It was my last goddamn cigarette!"
"I'm going to have to stop you right there, Mr Brodzinski." The attaché's prissiness was shot through with menacing self-righteousness. "Embassy staff have the right to undertake our work free from the threat of physical violence or verbal intimidation. I'm going to have to terminate this call immediately, as a direct result of your speech acts. I suggest you cool off and pay a little more attention to your own responsibilities, rather than seeking more victims for your dangerous hostility."
Later, sitting on his corpse of a bed at the Entreati, it occurred to Tom that this conversation had been a sickening replay of the butt-flick itself: an unthinking ejaculation into the attaché's ear, followed by a massive overreaction.
Musing in this way brought Tom Brodzinski closer to the essence of what had happened to him. Standing on the balcony of the Mimosa, convincing himself that this would be the last acrid dug he'd ever suck, Tom hadn't been considering his, his family's or indeed anyone else's health; he hadn't plotted the steeply rising curve of medical expenditure against the slowly declining one of chronic disease. No.
Tom now realised, with mounting horror, that his carelessly discarded cigarette butt had flown on its – perhaps fatal – trajectory powered by one fuel alone: a tank of combustible pride. He was Doing the Right Thing – and for that alone should be accorded the uttermost respect.
So the butt had described its parabola and hit its target, creating a minor entry wound, a tiny blister. But oh, the exit wound! The massive, gaping and bloody exit wound, through which the butt had sped on, fragmenting into scores of smaller butts, which were now hitting his children, his wife, and causing terrible collateral damage.
Tom ate at the cafe on the 'nade. It was empty, and they served him an underdone burger, still frozen at its core. Too cowed to complain, he nibbled its edges. The waiter stood at the 16-metre line smoking and looking out to sea: the last of the cruise ships was sinking into the horizon, and above its fo'c'sle reared a mile-high genie of gibbous thunder cloud, struggling to escape from the tropical night.
In that night, Tom dreamed he was staying in the roach motel. It was fully booked, and the other guests, who wore zooty batik t-shirts and tinted shades, tickled him mercilessly with their antennae. It was a relief when the warder of this plastic prison bent down to pick it up and empty them all into the sea. Tumbling end over end, Tom looked up to the quayside and saw the giant Swai-Phillips, his grey Afro coruscating like the corona of the eclipsed sun around his dark impassive face.
© Will Self, 2008
'The Butt' by Will Self (Bloomsbury £14.99) is published on 7 April
About the author
Will Self has written six novels and several novellas and story collections, and is also a print and broadcast journalist. He lives in London with his wife and four children.Reuse content