Sunday, July 22, 2007

partially blind

The rain is finally coming down after a night of menacing flashes out over the sea. Thursday night clubbers are clustering under awnings and in doorways trying to escape the downpour as it scours the pavements. They watch us, giving us whistles and claps, as we jump out of the ambulance and patter squealing over to the old apartment block.
Above the entrance is the name 'Adastra House' picked out in modish black letters; an intricate pattern of bars criss-cross the upper half of each double door. Many of the stained glass panels are missing, replaced by pieces of crudely fixed wood and cardboard. Most of the black and white floor tiles are still in place, with a bouquet of bleach and a finish of urine and dirt.
'Art Deco', says Rae.
'Uh-huh,' but the architects of this doorway to the modern age must surely have had higher aspirations than us.
I ring the bell for Flat 54, wait, and then a young voice tells me to push. Inside, the lobby is deeply shadowed, its curved mahogany desk untended.
We ride the battered brass elevator to the fifth floor. Out along the corridor, each flat door has the stump or more of a cute little electric lamp, many of which are still working. And at the end of this dingy landing-strip, by the furthest door, a woman is standing watching us with her arms crossed.
My first impression is that she has something bulky strapped onto the left side of her head. But when I get closer, I see that where her right eye should be is a ghastly swollen mass. Her left eye is fine and proportionate, but her right is like the cartoon of a sad and sleepy eye thinly scribbled onto the side of an ostrich egg.
'I'm Spence and this is Rae', I say. 'Can we go inside for a minute?' Although as soon as I've said this I wonder whether the assailant is still around. As we follow her in I put my response bag fully onto my back to free up my hands.
'Is the person who did this to you still here?'
'No. He called the ambulance and then went.'
Rae says: 'That was nice of him.'
'Have you called the police?'
'He said I'd better not.'
She stands hugging herself. The stale air stirs in the flat like an alcoholic gruel around the jumble of her furniture and belongings. It would be impossible to tell if a fight had just occurred here; no doubt it always looks like this.
'I can't find my work keys,' she says. 'I absolutely have to go to work in the morning.'
She studies me with her good eye. 'Do you think I'll be able to go to work in the morning?'
'Let's just take this one step at a time,' I say, reverting to cliché reassurance. 'What's your name?'
'Tell me what's happened to you tonight, Claudia.'
Claudia starts to cry, clear tears from her left eye and blood stained tears from her right. She tells me she is twenty four, but has the physique and demeanour of a sixteen year old girl.
'Do you know the person who did this to you?'
'My boyfriend.'
'Has he done this before?'
'Not really. He's punched me once or twice, but not hard. Pulled me around by my hair. But he isn't really like this.'
'So tell me what happened.'
'We'd been drinking. Not much. We had an argument, it got out of hand, and he punched me.'
'Were you knocked out?'
'Well, I woke up in the bath. The shock of it - I didn't know what happened. This terrible bang. Then I found myself in the bath looking up at him. And he was saying "My God, your eye", and then he called for an ambulance, and went.'
Rae gives me a look, nods towards the door.
'Claudia - you need to come with us to hospital to get your eye sorted out right now. And that's not the only reason we should go, because to be honest I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the person who did this to you could walk in that door at any time.'
Claudia flinches. 'Oh - you'll be fine. He's really not - that way.'
'Well, excuse me for being blunt, but this is a man who has just punched you in the face as hard as he can. I think it's fair to say he absolutely IS that way.'
Claudia starts to cry again.
'Help me look for my keys,' she says.

Out on the ambulance we try to gently open her right eye to gauge the injury, but it's closed too tightly now. Claudia tells us that he doesn't wear rings, so maybe there isn't a cut. But there is obvious damage here, and the swelling will have to be relieved as soon as possible.
Claudia lies quietly on the trolley as we take her blood pressure and other observations. There is a knock on the door. Rae opens it cautiously, and a policeman looks inside.
'Hello' he says, taking his hat off and tucking it under his arm.
Claudia sits up.
'Who called them?'
'It's okay,' I say, easing her back down. 'Our Control always sends the police along in these situations. But you know, Claudia - I'm glad they're here, for lots of reasons. Despite what your boyfriend says, I think the police should definitely get involved.'
She seems to accept this, and relaxes back.
The policeman pulls out a notebook.
'This is Claudia,' says Rae. 'Claudia's been assaulted by her boyfriend tonight.'
'You can say that again,' he says, but Claudia is thinking about other things and doesn't seem to register this.
'I absolutely have to go to work tomorrow,' she tells me.
'Where do you work?'
'I run the desk part-time for a hotel. I've got the keys. I'm a student at the moment - business and finance. But I need this job, and I had a lot of time off at the end of last year.'
'What happened to you last year?'
'I fell out of a window.'
I look at her. The policeman momentarily stops writing. I hardly dare ask, but do, anyway.
'Did you fall, or was your boyfriend involved somehow.'
She smiles up at me. 'Well - you know.'

Monday, July 09, 2007

the game

Fred has been lying on his back on the kitchen floor since he tottered in from the sitting room at ten o'clock this morning, tripped and went down. It is now just after five; his wife came back from an epic expedition into town, found him stretched and helpless, and called the ambulance.
Fred's right leg is lying a good inch shorter than his left and turned slightly outwards - a good indication that he has a fractured neck of femur. The morphine is helping him cope with the pain. It needs to. We will be moving him outside to the ambulance shortly, and it will inevitably aggravate his injury.
'But once we've got you on the vehicle the worst will be over and we'll be on our way to getting your leg sorted out.'
'Will you be needing these?' his wife says, standing with his cardigan in one hand and his slippers in the other. 'I'll be following up later with Rene.'
Fred is ninety four years old, a powerful man blasted by long years and late-stage Parkinson's. In his crumpled white shirt, black braces and trousers he looks like a preacher laid out by the hand of God.
'Thanks for coming,' he says.

On the trolley, easing tentatively away from the horrible pain of the move, Fred comes to himself sufficiently to be able to chat to me. He struggles to make his words clear above the noise of the ambulance and the depradations of accident, illness and age; he rests between phrases, and stares up through the skylight to the sky rushing above us. I piece together this war story:

Fred was the youngest child of a family of six. His parents owned a big garage, and Fred, along with his five sisters, picked up light engineering skills. When the war began, Fred's sisters found work in the new aircraft factory whilst Fred joined the RAF. He became a flight engineer, mostly on Lancaster bombers, stationed up in Lincolnshire. He was twenty-five.

He lasted the entire war, flying seventy missions across Europe. In all that time he crashed just twice, once mid-way when they limped back to the strip in tatters, the young tail gunner dead, and once on the very last mission when the plane was skewered by a German fighter, thirteen millimetre shells ripping through everything but him. The whole crew was wounded, and Fred had to land the plane on his own - the one and only time he took the controls. He managed to ditch safely in the sea, and they were all picked up by a naval frigate.

'I bet the others liked flying with you,' I say to him, adjusting the blood pressure cuff on his arm and taking a final reading before we turn into the hospital. 'I bet they thought you were lucky.'

'Nah,' he says, clearing his throat. 'It's a game. It plays itself out, and there's nothing you can do. One time I was supposed to crew up with a pilot to test a new Mosquito they'd delivered, but I was late coming back from a meeting and he took some other poor fucker up. That one crashed.'
He shrugs, and whinces.
'Will my wife know where to find me?'
I tell him I think she will.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

on time

At six in the morning the alerter wakes us. Daylight has slid across the world again, low and grey as an aluminium lid, and found us simmering by the TV.
We finish at seven, so we offer to take the job in place of the six thirty crew. They wave us off.
N. smacks his palms, says: 'This should sort us out nicely.'
I climb into the driver's seat and read out the details of the job: Seven Acres Taxi cabs. Woman fallen. Greater than sixteen feet. Status unknown. I wonder whether she's fallen off a ladder or something, and then I wonder what she may have been doing up a ladder at this time of the morning. But you never know till you know, and anyway I am so tired it makes no real difference to me.
As we turn out of the station and head up the road, another message comes through: Patient fallen from cliffs. Lying on walkway beneath. Police on scene.

This is a suicide.

I know the cliffs here very well. Before we moved it used to be one of my favourite fossil hunting places. I would spend hours with the dog stalking and chipping out sea urchins, bivalves and brachiopods amongst the chalk falls and pools. Eighty five million years ago these cliffs were the chalky ooze at the bottom of the sea, lain down at a knuckle's depth every thousand years or so, a slow calcareous rain of microscopic planktonic shells. And then the waters receded, the land rose, was carved by glaciers, picked at by tides and frosts. About sixty feet at this point.

It's still early in the morning, and the scramble to get to work has only just begun, so in no time at all we've passed the taxi offices and are heading up to the car park at the cliff edge. We can see a police car there. The officer there tells us that a man walking his dog found the woman this morning and made the call from the taxi office. The policeman thinks she may still be alive. There is vehicle access to the undercliff walkway, but there's a barrier across the driveway at the moment and a council official coming with a key.
We debate whether to walk down with our gear but the policeman tells us that the woman is about half a mile along from this spot, so it will take us a while. I go back to the ambulance to fetch out a pair of bolt croppers, but just as I'm figuring out how to cut through the padlock the man arrives with a key. We drive down the steep path to the walkway, and then along to where we can see two figures leaning over something on the floor.

The woman is lying on her left side, one leg and one arm drawn up underneath her, as if she were slowly trying to get up. Her tangled hair obscures her face. One shoe has come off and is lying off to the right. There is a discrete halo of blood beneath her head. I kneel beside her, give her a gentle shake, but I quickly see that she is not breathing.
We need to roll her over. N. supports her head whilst the rest of us take a section of arm, leg, hip. We turn her. Immediately it's apparent that the woman's head is lopsided and wrong, pressed in along a line from the crown to the ear. There is little blood; what there was seems to have been caused by the pieces of gravel that have been pushed into her skin. Her eyes are half open, the pupils wide and fixed. Her nose is squashed and her mouth puckered up into a grotesque expression of disdain. I feel for a pulse at her neck but I know she will not have one. She is vaguely warm, though. As N. pulls the defibrillator from the bag I reach for my scissors to cut away her clothes. The first layer is a heavy coat with easy buttons, so I decide to undo those first. Beneath this coat, pinned to her cardigan, is a note: Please do not try to revive me. Sorry. I cut around the note and we attach the pads. But we do not really need the machine to confirm what we can readily see for ourselves here on this concrete walkway with the sea shouldering in on another high tide and the seagulls scrawling through the morning air.
We turn the defibrillator off. I fetch a blanket from the vehicle to cover her. She stares up and beyond us all to the top of the cliffs, as if she's seeing where she came from for the first time.

N. completes the paperwork.

The policewoman tells us about a car she went to that had driven at the cliff edge so fast it ended up on its roof in the sea.

The coroner's van arrives.

We finish on time.