Freighter's Lane may once have served the river that gently meanders a hundred yards at the end of it, when barges toted their agro-industrial cargoes to and from the English Channel, but now its metalled surface is pitted with deep holes; the few, expensive self-build houses off to the right all have four-wheel drive cars, and the dog walkers from the nearby village pick their way carefully.
S. drives the ambulance at a dead slow pace. The chassis rocks from side to side, and the equipment in the back shifts precariously. We are looking for a caravan where an elderly woman has fallen to the floor, query cause. So far all we have seen is an abandoned car chassis lying in a ditch, but S. has a feeling that there is a caravan site at the end of the lane.
Halfway along a driveway opens off to the right, leading to a substantial bungalow in a landscaped garden. Next to the driveway, set back amongst the trees, is a pristine antique caravan, picked out in Lincoln green, with large wooden wheels, a curved roof and a stable door carved with rustic patterns.
'Wow', I say, pulling on my gloves and jumping out of the cab, 'Now that's a caravan.' I climb up the three steep wooden steps and knock on the door. No reply. I try the door, but it's locked. I peer through the little porthole window. Empty. But it strikes me as odd anyway that an elderly woman would be able to live in this. Surely it would be difficult for her to get in and out.
'I didn't think this would be it,' says S. 'I'm almost sure there's a caravan site at the bottom of the lane. I'll head that way, if you get on to Control and ask for more information.'
By the time Control answer, we've made the end of Freighter's Lane, which terminates at a post and rail fence and a stile to the flood plain. We can see a caravan site off to our right, but access to that must be via another roadway. The sky is a vivid blue wash above us, and the air has a salty tang. It's great to be out in the country.
Control tells us that we are definitely in the right lane. They say that they will try to get back to the person that called us, a person out walking, but in the meantime, could we take one more close look back along the lane.
As S. reverses, the ambulance swaying precipitously each time we hit another crater, we notice in the mirrors a man waving to us. It looks to be someone from the bungalow we had passed earlier on, the one with the caravan in the grounds. As we draw alongside him we wind the windows down.
'Hello chaps. I bet you're looking for Mrs Meadows.'
I tell him about our search for an anonymous woman on the floor of a caravan that we can't locate. I tell him that I had a look in the caravan by his driveway as I thought that might be it. The man laughs, and the laugh seems to resonate caustically beneath the rest of what he has to say.
'I can absolutely guarantee that you won't believe me when I tell you where Mrs Meadows lives,' he says. 'We've all been trying for years to get her to move, to get something done. But she's very stubborn - well, crazy, actually. But you see the problem is, no-one seems ready to say that she is actually crazy, and of course that wreck is her registered address, so the whole sorry business drags on. I went as far as buying her a mobile home to live in. I cleared a site here, set it all up. But she wouldn't move and she wouldn't move, so eventually I had to have it taken away. Everyone's worried about her. The neighbours have been very good. We all take her food now and again. But at the end of the day - what can you really do?'
'So - where is she?'
He tells us that Mrs Meadows lives in the abandoned car that we passed at the top end of the lane, the one in the ditch. She has lived there for twenty five years, firstly with a husband, who had mental health problems and who disappeared a little while ago, and latterly with a number of cats. She used to be able to walk to the local shops until a few months ago, but now she is dependent on bags of food dropped off by passers by.
We use the man's driveway to turn around, and drive up the lane to Mrs Meadow's residence.
It is a desperate place. In the nineteen fifties it may have been identifiable as a caravanette, but now it is a blackened hulk. There are jagged, head-sized holes in the sides where rust has flaked away the metal, but the interior is dark and unreadable. What would have been the cab is lodged under a thick bush of blackberry thorns and filled with a sludge of detritus; the upper curve of the steering wheel is just visible, rising like the helm of a ship from the slime at the bottom of the sea. The whole thing is tilted into the waterlogged ditch at an angle. Around the back of the wreck where the door would have been there is now a filthy orange bathtowel strung across. I knock on the metal to the side and call out 'Ambulance. Mrs Meadows?'
I hear a voice inside.
'Can I come in?', and I pull the rag aside.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust not only to the gloom, but to the sodden chaos, a full minute before I can disentangle the animate from the inanimate, the human from the animal, the humanity from the neglect. Mrs Meadows is lying on her right side, her shape moulded around on all sides by a foetid morass of damp and unthinkable matter - a black tide of waste that fills this tiny space on a falling diagonal, from the back to where I now crouch, wondering what to say. Mrs Meadows seems able only to lift her head to see who I am, and to wave a small red plastic torch with her left hand. I count five cats at various points on the slope, one filthy white cat fastidiously licking a paw to the left of her head. There is a mulch of sodden cat biscuit boxes around Mrs Meadows' feet, and a shopping bag with some items for her, some buns, and a bottle of squash.
'Are you okay, Mrs Meadows? What's happened?'
She replies in a gently modulated whisper. If I shut my eyes I could imagine I was being invited to take tea with her in a cottage garden.
'Thank you so much for coming. I'm actually fine. It's not me at all, it's my cats. I'm desperately worried about them. You see I can't get about as much as I used to and it's really not fair on them.'
'Okay. Would you mind if I came a bit closer and gave you a check up?'
S. came to the opening just behind me. I heard him whince.
'No. No thank you. I'd rather you didn't touch me or come near me, thank you. I'm perfectly well. I simply want you to do something about my cats. Now - I have the number of a rather good animal shelter here somewhere.' She feels blindly with her left hand in the pocket of her coat, which is shinily filthy. She pulls out a scrap of paper and waves it out to me. The nails on her hand are curved and yellowed claws. I take the paper. It has the number of a cat rescue project written on it.
'Could you ring that for me and have them take my cats away? It would be such a weight off my mind.'
'Mrs Meadows,' I begin, 'There are lots of people very worried about you. We're very worried about you. These - conditions. They don't seem - all that good for you. And winter's just around the corner. What will you do? How will you cope?'
'Yes, yes. I know all that. But look. What I really want to know is - are you going to do something about my cats?'
'Let me just consult with my partner,' I say, withdrawing outside.
S. shakes his head. 'We can't just leave her here like this,' he says. 'No way. I've never seen anything like it.'
Back in the cab I call Control on my mobile phone. I tell them how shocked we both are. I tell them that I think Mrs Meadows should be taken into care - by force, if necessary. I cannot believe that this situation has been allowed to continue for a week, let alone a number of years. As I talk I have a dreadful image in my mind of her hand on the little red torch in the darkness.
But it seems that this is a formally registered address, so any forcible removal would have to be conducted via GP, mental health and social services. Control finds out that a recent assessment of Mrs Meadows' mental health had been made and she was found to be competent. Although I try to argue that the extremity of her living conditions must surely be interpreted as evidence of mental incapacity, Control are bound to say that these are questions for the mental health team in that area.
There is nothing more we can do.
I complete the paperwork. Mrs Meadows has refused treatment. All we can do is write a report highlighting our concerns.
And to notify the cat warden.
I have no doubt the cats will be re-homed immediately. This is no place for a cat.