Wednesday, August 20, 2014

yo grandma

Luisa has lived in the UK ever since she married just after the war, but her Italian accent is as strong as ever. A frail, beautifully turned-out woman in her nineties, she is as perfectly maintained as her hair, the long, fragile strands of which lie expertly coiled and kept in place by a series of elegant metal grips.
Once the ECG is done and we establish that Luisa needs to go to hospital, she quietly gathers a bag of things together, turning down all offers of help. Finally she reappears in the doorway, wearing a smart black coat and sensible shoes. I offer to carry her bag but she graciously declines, electing instead to hold onto my arm as we head for the front door.
‘My bitches,’ she says.
‘Sorry, Luisa?’
‘My sweet little bitches.’
‘The carers, do you mean?’
‘Carers? What – no! These bitches.’
She lets go of my arm, stretches a hand out to the fruit bowl and squeezes one of the peaches there.
‘We must eat them today.’

Sunday, August 17, 2014

the chair

Elsa has slowly been sliding off the kitchen chair ever since the carer left at five. Without the strength in her legs to push herself up, eventually she pressed the red button on the cord round her neck. We let ourselves in with the key from the key safe.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
‘Never mind that. Git me up! I’ll be on the floor in a minute if you don’t get a move on.’
‘Okay. Do you have any pain anywhere, Elsa?’
‘Jes’ git me up. Why are you standing there asking these stupid questions? I’ll fall on the floor and it’ll be your fault.’
‘We won’t let you fall, Elsa. Can we help you up by the arms? Do you have any problems there?’
She turns to look at Rae with her eyes closed.
‘What’s he saying? I can’t make out a damned thing.’
‘He wants to know if you’ve got any pain anywhere.’
‘I will do soon if you don’t get a move on.’
‘Where do you want to go once we’ve stood you up?’
‘Go? I’m not going nowhere. I’m not going up the hospital. I’ve had enough of them.’
‘Okay. Let’s stand you up and see how good you are on your pins. Use the zimmer, Elsa. Take a good grip – no, no, not on me. On the handles of the zimmer. The zimmer, Elsa. Like you’ve been shown.’
‘Help me! I’m going to fall!’
‘You won’t fall, Elsa. We won’t let you go. We just want to see how mobile you are.’
‘Ooh – fetch me that bowl quick, won’t you? I’m going to wet.’
‘Shall we walk you to the toilet?’
‘The bowl! I want the bowl!’
‘But how are you going to use it?’
‘If you just shut up for five minutes I’ll tell you. Put it on the floor and I’ll stand over it.’
‘You’re going to wee standing up?’
‘On the floor. Go on...’
Reluctantly I put the bowl on the floor. Elsa shuffles forwards, only just managing to open her legs sufficiently to straddle the bowl.
‘It’ll never work,’ I say. ‘It’ll just run down your legs.’
‘No it won’t. Watch. Stand back a little or you’ll get splashed.’
She lets go of the zimmer to hitch her ancient housecoat above her knees – and would instantly have toppled backwards if I hadn’t been there to grab her by the shoulder.
‘Don’t let me go!’ she yells. ‘I told you!’
‘This is very unsatisfactory, Elsa’
‘I don’t care what it is, I’ve got to go wee. Here it comes. Watch out.’
She stares ahead with bovine insouciance as a sudden rush of urine splatters down into the bowl.
‘At least it missed your legs,’ I say.
‘Told you’
‘Have you been going more often?’
‘What’s he want now?’ says Elsa, as Rae passes her some kitchen towel to wipe herself dry.
‘Your toilet habits. Are you going for a wee a lot? Does it sting at all?’
‘No. Now get me back to my chair.’
‘I don’t think you’re safe to be left here tonight,’ I tell her.
‘I’m not going to the hospital. I only got out the other week.’
‘What were you in for?’
‘I banged my head. Falling off the chair.’
‘There’s a discharge summary here,’ says Rae, pulling it out of the back of the care folder. ‘Says she had a subdural.’
‘It’s just not a good chair to spend the night in, Elsa.’
‘Why not?’
‘It’s got no arms, for one thing.’
‘Oh I don’t care about that.’
‘But if you fall asleep, there’s nothing to stop you rolling out and cracking your head again. Or breaking your hip.’
‘I’m not going to hospital.’
‘Can’t we help you into bed, at least?’
‘No. Why would I want to go to bed?’
‘Because it’s safer and more comfortable.’
‘Just put me back in the chair and leave me alone.’
The chair is a perfect fit with the rest of the flat, which looks like it was furnished from a skip. I’m sure when the chair was in the furniture catalogue sometime in the sixties, the padded plastic seat and back rest would’ve looked charming and colourful. Fast-forward fifty years, though, and gobs of yellowing foam are spilling out of numerous tears, and the white, tubular legs are pitted with rust, splaying at the seams. I wouldn’t put a cup on it, let alone a woman in her eighties.
‘It’s not safe,’ I tell Elsa as I help her start the laborious business of turning her round.
‘Well I’m not asking you to sit in it, am I?’ she says.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Hilary was heading home, drunk, when she stumbled over a kerb, landed on her arm and broke it.
As we pull up in the ambulance she’s propped up against a telephone junction box, leaning forwards, her left arm and her long, blond hair hanging down in front of her.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry,’ she slurs, lifting her face approximately in our direction. ‘Mr Ambulance people. I know you’ve got better things to do. I’m sorry to take your time, okay? But I’ve been well and truly fucked over by this stupid kerb and I don’t know what to do it hurts so much.’
We help her on to the truck and settle her on a seat.
‘Don’t cut the jacket,’ she says. ‘The fucking kerb’s not getting that as well. I’ll take it off. Okay? Just wait!’
She makes a couple of drunkenly ineffectual moves, then slumps forward again.
As gently as we can we ease the jacket off, then gauge the extent of the injury and splint the arm.
‘How was your night, then, Hilary?’ I say as I work. ‘Apart from breaking your arm?’
She squints up at me through a haze of alcohol and hair.
‘That’s outrageous,’ she says. ‘I can’t believe you just said what you said.’
‘You’re right. That was outrageous. What was I thinking?’
She stares at me some more. Eventually she says: ‘This just gets worse. You’re not even hot.’
I make a Soprano-style Ohh! and we carry on immobilising her arm in silence.
Finally we help her over on to the trolley and do what we can to buffer her with bags and blankets for the journey. When she’s reasonably comfortable, Rae jumps out and goes round to the cab.
Just as we move off, Hilary squints at me again.
‘I can’t believe you said what you said,’ she says. ‘Out- fucking-rageous.’
‘Never mind. Least said soonest mended.’
‘What? Oh – and a c**t as well, apparently.’

Thursday, August 14, 2014


The sky’s a hard, ceramic blue, and the late afternoon so hot and close the park reached capacity long ago, filled with Frisbee throwers and skateboarders and people sleeping on the grass or drinking on the benches or just sitting looking around, while those still hurrying purposefully from work flow in an unbroken stream to the station, or stand staring down at their mobile phones in lines at the lights, waiting for direction, pedestrian or otherwise.
A man dressed as Super Mario in blue dungarees, red neckerchief and flat cap runs through them all, one arm working like a piston, the other bent up with his hand flat on his cap to hold it on. Suddenly he stops and leaps up, scissoring his legs. A builder leans out of his van in the queue of traffic and shouts something I don’t catch. Super Mario does though; he waves his cap in the air, shouts Wa-hoo!  then carries on running.

You could say that Ella’s been drinking to celebrate the sunshine, like everyone else in the park. Actually, she celebrates most days that way, the only difference today being not the weather but the fact that she fell over when she finally made it home, cracking her head on something solid in the kitchen. Her family called the ambulance.
Ella has already put herself to bed. When we prod her sufficiently to get her to talk, she sits up suddenly and irritably, beats a bunch of pillows, then peers out at us all. I think I recognise her from somewhere. The corset, the wide, painted smile, the smudged makeup, the deranged peak of her hair. Surely it’s Ursula from The Little Mermaid?
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask her.
She leers at me, rolls over, and pats the bed beside her.
‘Come here and I’ll tell ya’

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

working the turntable

Eddie hadn’t been feeling all that clever since he got up. Still, he always makes the best of it. He got himself ready for the usual Tuesday morning jaunt to ASDA. His niece picked him up at ten. He didn’t tell her how he felt. (He didn’t want to worry her. She’s got enough on her plate). She dropped him back just after lunch. He watched a bit of TV. Had a nap in the chair. When he woke up it was four o’clock. He did a quick shufty round the bins in the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, took a bag full out into the yard. That was when the chest pain started to come on strong. He struggled back to his chair and took his spray. His neighbour Gill comes round every teatime to help him work the microwave. She found him still in the chair, grey around the gills, a bit tearful. She phoned for the ambulance.
‘Has the spray helped?’ I ask him as we blanket him up in our carry chair.
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘What do you think?’
‘Let’s get you out to the ambulance. We’ll do an ECG and then take you down the hospital for some more tests.’
‘Oh no. Really? I’ll be fine. I just need a rest, that’s all. I’ve been overdoing it lately.’
‘You might be right, Eddie, but we’re worried it might be your heart. That’s why we need to look into it. I know it’s a nuisance, but better safe than sorry, eh?’
‘I’m in your hands,’ he says.
‘You’ll be all right, Eddie’ says Gill, leaning in and kissing him on the top of his head. ‘Back before you know it. I’ll call the gang and let them know.’
Eddie clasps her by the hand and his eyes fill.
‘You old silly,’ she says, giving him another kiss. ‘Come on. Let’s be having you.’
We wheel him out.
The sun is so bright after the muted light in Eddie’s flat it’s hard to keep my eyes open.
There’s a gang of kids sitting on the low wall that runs along the front of these flats.
Where’s he going?
What’s happened?
Is he dying?
‘Ssh now!’ says Gill, following behind us with his bags.
Eddie does his best to smile and wave. The kids jump down off the wall and run on ahead to the ambulance. They stand either side of the tail lift in a cheeky guard of honour as Eddie rises up on it. He carries on waving, even when he’s inside and can’t see them.
The tail lift clatters shut.

* * *

‘I’m pretty good normally. I take care of myself, you know. I don’t need much. Mind you, I’ve got some good friends and neighbours. I dunno what I’d do without them. It used to be just me and Cheryl, ‘course, but she died three years ago and it knocked me off my feet a bit. I’ll never get used to it. I met her the day after I come out of the army, when I was wondering what I was gonna do with myself. So just goes to show. We got married a year later. Sixty-five years it would’ve been come Christmas. Sixty-five years.’
He rests his head back on the pillow and stares up at the ceiling of the ambulance as we bump along through the traffic.
‘Are you okay, Eddie? How’s that chest pain?’
‘Say what?’
I reach over and touch him in the centre of his chest.
‘How’s the pain now? Has it eased off at all?’
He shrugs, then carries on talking.
‘I was fifty year on the railway,’ he says.
‘Doing what?’
‘On the turntable to start with. Switches, signals. Bit of everything, really.’
‘It must’ve kept you fit.’
‘A life on the railways – nothing better. Funny, ‘cos when I was in the army I didn’t think anything of it. You know, trains.’
‘I think they should re-nationalise the railways.’
‘Well - it’s complicated’ he says. ‘It’s not what it was. They made a lot of changes, and it’s not always easy going back. Anyway, I never worried about any of that. I just took ‘em in, turned ‘em round and went back home for my tea.’
He shifts his position a little, looks back up at the ceiling, and grips the handrails either side of the trolley. He shakes his head, like someone trying to clear his thoughts, or struggling to bring to mind where something might be that’s now unaccountably gone.
‘All right, Eddie? Soon be there,’ I say, glancing through the hatch at what I can see of the road, then glancing at my fob watch.
‘Oh?’ he says, still looking straight up. ‘Where’s that, then?’

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

blue plastic

There is nothing and no-one out in the street tonight, certainly no Intoxicated female, collapsed outside number thirty-two. We’ve played our torches around the scene, over fences and flower borders, recycling bins and bad concrete statuary, over the cold forms of parked up cars on verges and brick-paved drives, but so far, the only sign of life has been the flash of a cat’s eyes before it disappeared beneath a gate.
We’d knock on the door of thirty-two – a wide, nondescript building, the kind that long ago traded looks for space – but it’s so late, we wouldn’t want to chance it. If there was someone needing our help here, surely they’d be on the lookout? Surely they’d be at the door waving us inside? And anyway, this ambulance is so noisy, I’m surprised the whole street hasn’t come out to beat us to death with their slippers.
We call Control and ask them to get back to the caller. They tell us the line has gone out of service.
‘But the caller said the woman had collapsed in the street? outside number thirty-two?’
‘That’s all we have.’
‘Well she must have walked off, then. There’s no sign of anything or anyone needing our help.’

They stand us down.

Just as we’re driving off down the street, Rae says: ‘Here we go.’
She’s looking in her wing mirror. I wind the window down and look back.
Adnan is run-skating after us in his flip-flops, one hand holding his bomber jacket together at the front, the other swinging out for balance.
Rae stops and lets him catch up.
‘Come!’ he says. ‘Wife.’
When he turns round, the back of his jacket reads: Planet Hollywood
Rae backs up the little distance we’d travelled whilst I call Control to let them know we’ve found the patient.
Adnan is waiting for us at the open door of the nondescript house. He frowns at me as I finish talking on the radio and put it back in my pocket.
‘Ssh please,’ he says. ‘No wake the house.’
We follow him inside.

There are no notice-boards or fire panels, no exit signs or any of those formal touches that would mark it out as a hostel or refuge. Definitely some kind of temporary accommodation, though; the air is thick and stale, and even if I can’t hear anything, there’s a pressure of silence around us that feels like people sleeping.
‘Here. Please.’
Adnan opens a door that has a small padlock and clasp on the outside, and shows us in to a small, dimly lit room with a double bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers with a TV on top, and a low table with a kettle and a couple of mugs.
Helga is lying on the bed, the duvet and sheets rucked up around her.
‘She go out and drink very much,’ says Adnan, ‘Then she come back and take pills. She says she want kill herself.’
I look at the pill strip. Four missing.
‘You’re sure this is all she’s had?’
He shakes his head.
‘But of course.’
They’re a strange couple. Adnan is a stooped, lean Middle Eastern guy with a frown in the centre of his forehead as precise as the crease in his jeans. With her yellow hair in two plaits, her make-up smudged, her spindly legs in a pair of wrinkled, stripy tights, dungaree shorts and mismatched shoes, Helga looks like some kind of  alternative Swiss clown, exhausted after a night’s performance.
‘Helga? Helga? It’s the ambulance. Will you sit up and talk to us?’
‘I want to die,’ she moans, rolling over and pushing her face into a pillow. ‘Too much problem. Go ‘way’
Adnan sighs and reaches down as if he’s about to put her over his shoulder and jog to the hospital.
‘Hang on a second, Adnan. Can I just ask – are you a relation?’
‘Yes. Her husband.’
‘Two weeks’ says Helga. ‘To stay in country. For money.’
Adnan shakes his head and backs off towards the door.
‘Helga? We need to find out what’s been happening tonight. We got a call to someone collapsed in the street. Was that you?’
She nods.
‘I help inside,’ says Adnan. ‘We go to hospital now?’
‘Just a minute. Helga? What pills have you taken tonight?’
She wobbles her head about in an effort to focus, and eventually taps the strip I’m holding in my hand.
‘Just these? Any others?’
‘No. I want sleep. Too much trouble.’
‘Did you take these pills to hurt yourself?’
‘I not want to wake up.’
‘I think you do need to come to hospital, Helga. These pills won’t have caused you any harm. What I’m worried about is your low mood, and the reason you took the pills. If you come to the hospital and sober up, you can talk to someone about how you feel. Okay? Ready to go? Come on.’
We help her up. She walks a little raggedly. When she stops at the door to wait for Adnan to open it, she swivels round and gives me a lopsided smile. I half expect her to pull a bunch of flowers out of her sleeve.


At the hospital, Eddie the triage nurse tries to get the story.
‘So you wanted to kill yourself?’ he says.
Helga finds the vomit bowl next to her and puts it on her head.
‘You like hat?’ she says.
‘Put the bowl down, Helga and talk to me seriously. This isn’t funny. It’s very important we understand what’s happened tonight. The ambulance crew tell me you took some tablets with the intention of hurting yourself. Is that right?’
‘What is that? Plastic chair?’ she says, looking over the side of the trolley.
‘Yes. That’s a plastic chair, Helga.’
‘Is blue. Is blue plastic chair.’ She squints at Eddie. ‘Like uniform.’
‘Nurse uniform blue, plastic chair blue. You blue plastic nurse.’
Eddie sighs and clicks through the rest of the triage screen.
‘What are we going to do with you, Helga?’ he says, filling in the boxes.
‘This is right, mister blue plastic nurse. What we do with Helga?’
She flops back down on the trolley and puts the vomit bowl over her face this time.
‘Ah! Poor married Helga. Is much, much problem.’

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

hair o'the dog

Gary doesn’t want to open his eyes, let alone get out of bed.
‘Come on, Gaz’ says his girlfriend, pulling the duvet back and slapping his legs. ‘The ambulance are here. It’s embarrassing’
‘I don’t think this is at all right,’ says Angela, his mum. ‘I’m sorry if I’m wasting your time but I’m really worried. I’ve seen him hung over before, and he’s always grumpy. But this is something else.’
‘Grumpy?’ laughs his girlfriend. ‘That ‘ain’t the half of it! Come on, Gaz! Hell-o in there!’
He groans and pulls the duvet back over himself, and falls instantly asleep.
‘This is embarrassing.’
She laughs and leaves the room. ‘Good luck with that!’ she says over her shoulder.
Angela sits on the edge of the bed.
‘This is wrong,’ she says. ‘He was out last night. Got into some trouble or other and ended up banging his head on the pavement. They took him to the hospital, but the first I knew of it he was turning up here in the early hours and going straight to bed. Wouldn’t talk to me or nothing. I only got the story from the police, who came round later to get some details. They said the CCTV showed him taking quite a crack – but anyway, that’s for later. What do you think? Is he going to be all right?’
‘What did the hospital say about the head injury? Did he have any tests or anything?’
‘No. I think he discharged himself.’
Everything about the story is worrying. Gary’s had a lot to drink, taken MDMA, fallen and knocked himself out, discharged himself from hospital before being examined, and now he’s hiding under the duvet, breathing hard, flushed in the face, rousable only with significant pain and sliding back to sleep the instant you leave him alone.
‘He absolutely has to come to hospital,’ we tell Angela. ‘No question. It could be he’s just hungover, but on the other hand we can’t rule out a significant injury to his brain.’
‘Oi!’ she says to Gary, pulling the duvet off him again. ‘You’re going down the hospital. Now.’
He groans and curls up in a foetal position.
‘I can’t,’ he mumbles. ‘My head hurts. Leave me alone.’
‘We’re not going to leave you alone, Gary,’ we tell him. ‘Come on. We’ll let you rest on the ambulance. The sooner you get down the hospital the sooner they can start to make you better.’
‘You’re going’ says Angela. ‘Put these on.’
She throws a pair of jogging bottoms on top of him.
Angela turns him on his back and starts putting the trousers on him herself.
‘Jesus Christ,’ she says, hauling him about. ‘You’re twenty-one, Gary. I thought I’d left all this behind.’
Gary lets himself be dressed. We keep the momentum going by helping him stand and start walking unsteadily to the hallway. We’re relieved we won’t have to think about carrying him out. The house is cluttered, the stairs steep and narrow. Gary is huge, too – over six feet tall, heavily muscled and covered in tattoos – skulls, daggers, names in gothic script.
‘No,’ he moans. ‘I just need to sleep.’
‘You’re going down the hospital,’ says Angela, ‘so just shut it and keep walking.’
Between us all we guide him down the stairs.


I make the blue light ride to hospital as smooth but fast as I can.

Later that afternoon the resus nurse calls me over to a computer screen.
‘Do you want to see the CT of that guy you brought in?’ he says.
Whistling a song by Bastille just under his breath, the nurse casually scrolls up and down through the scanned transverse slices of Gary’s head, the intimate structures and folds rolling in and out of focus, the gyri and sulci, the rooted orbits of Gary’s eyes filling and falling away again like strange, alien blooms. Here! says the nurse, stopping to point out the faint line of a fracture, and Here! the milky white florescence of a bleed.
‘On his way to Neuro as we speak,’ he says.
‘Thank god we didn’t just write it off as a hangover.’
‘Hangover?’ says the nurse, switching off the screen. ‘It’ll take more than a hair o’ that particular dog to make him better.’