Fiona’s face is doughy, like an under-cooked cake; her cheeks sag beneath the weight of her eyes, moon-sized through drink and pills. She sits on the ambulance chair, her arms folded too carefully, staring back at me as I ask my questions.
‘How old do you think I am?’
She pushes her hair back from her face, then adds with a coquettish simper: ‘I have to have a cigarette – but not here, of course.’
Her words are as puffy as her face.
‘That little bitch. She wrecked my house.’
She starts to cry, but before I have torn off a wad of tissue paper to give to her, the crying fit passes. She smiles at me as she takes the tissue.
'They hate me at the hospital, you know', she says.
Six months earlier, we are pulling up outside a terraced house in a part of town that crews sometimes mispronounce in a French accent, irony at the awfulness of it.
Overdose / Poisoning. 42 year old woman. Overdose on medication. Cat B.
I climb out of the cab and go to the front door. It’s lying open, and there are no lights on inside. A CD is playing, skipping and repeating one line at full volume. If I had been watching this drama on TV I would have thought: crude psycho scene - too many clichés. But here? I put my response bag and the clip board down so both hands are free, and nervously I edge forward into the house.
Nearer to the living room and the noise gets louder. I flatten myself against the wall and push the door fully open so that it bangs against the wall, in case there’s anyone hiding behind it. Nothing and no-one. I move into the room, with Rae behind me patting on lights whenever she feels a switch.
Brutally illuminated - a woman lying on a sofa, raising her head to see who's coming in.
Leather jacket and black bra. Silky black chemise. Remains of a takeaway on plates, on her. It slides to the floor as she hauls herself into a sitting position. I turn the music off. The silence and light are as shocking as her trashy red lipstick. She wipes her nose with the back of her hand, and then says:
‘What do you want?’
‘Someone called an ambulance. Was it you? Or is there anyone else here?’
‘They’ve gone out.’ She starts fumbling around for a cigarette, and finding a bent one in her pocket, stuffs it in her mouth. It’s all too pathetic to quite believe.
‘Someone reported that you’d taken an overdose. Is that right?’
She laughs once, Swanson-style, and the cigarette tumbles out of her mouth. She tries to catch it and almost falls off the sofa. It’s amazing to think how wired I’d been coming into this house just moments earlier.
I start to ask Fiona exactly what she’s taken and when, but at my change of tone she suddenly stops floundering around on the sofa.
‘I’ll tell you all about it,’ she says to Rae, touching her on the hand, her eyelids narrowing weightily, ‘but I want him out of the room.’ As I hand over the clip board to Rae, Fiona announces in a stage-whisper: ‘I was raped last year.’ And she leans back, straightens her slip over her knees, and looks at me accusingly as I leave the room.
I walk out into the hallway and pace about. Look at my watch. We’ve already been here quarter of an hour, and it could be a lot longer. Bubbling flowered wallpaper, jagged tears, brown stains. A print of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen promenading along the front. An old News of the World dumped at the foot of the stairs. I check my watch again, and just as I do, a slight, quick figure bundles in through the front door and starts shouting at me from the depths of its upturned hood:
‘What the fuck is going on? What are you doing here?’
I guess this is the daughter. Her boyfriend is staring in from outside. He is thin and pale, dressed in a white tracksuit; the weight of all the chains around his neck seem to be slowly bending him in half. He talks constantly into a mobile phone, and watches me.
With as much calm authority as I can manage, I tell the girl that we are the ambulance, and that we are here to help her mother. But before I can go on to ask her for some information, she barges past me and on into the living room, where she pushes her mother back onto the sofa and begins shouting at her.
‘What the fuck have you been doing?’ she shouts.
It looks as if she’s going to hit her, so I grab her shoulders and move her backwards. She spins round on me.
‘Take your hands off me,’ she spits. And then ludicrously, starts shouting for help. Her boyfriend wanders in, still on the phone, and with no change of expression.
To Rae: ‘That’s it. We’re going.’
To the girl: ‘We’re here to help your mum but you’re getting in the way. We’re going outside to call for the police, and they’ll come and arrest you.’
The word ‘police’ has a magically subduing power on her. She eases off, and says: ‘No. Don’t do that. I promise I won’t do anything else.’
‘Go and sit on the stairs in the hallway,’ I say, immediately realising that this is ludicrous, like saying go to the naughty step. But I’m committed to following through with it. Amazingly, though, it does seem to be working. She goes out of the room, gathering her boyfriend to her, and they both sit on the fourth step up.
At first it looks as if the girl is going to cry. Her boyfriend – his phone away now – hugs her to him like a big white insect. Her shoulders start shaking. When I go closer to them to say a few, more conciliatory, words, I realise she is laughing.
The only thing I want to do now is leave the house as quickly as possible. I nod to Rae as I re-enter the room. ‘Definitely time to go.’
‘Do you recognise me?’
Fiona stares for a second, then waves the air in front of her. ‘You could be anyone,’ she says.
The ambulance sways along.
We pick her up from the Police Custody Suite on the outskirts of town. After we’d been buzzed through its heavy security gate, we park in one of the receiving bays and climb out of the vehicle. A policeman is standing there, smoking a roll-up.
‘All right, fellas,’ he smiles. ‘Come for Ms Ferrero?’
He drops his fag to the ground and grinds it out.
‘What a pain in the arse. How many times? Anyway – I’m sure you’ll recognise her. What happened was – she was arrested after a domestic disturbance, and charged with assaulting her daughter. When we got her here she says she’d taken an overdose of ibuprofen – about twenty, 400 mg. Apart from that,’ he shrugs and laughs, ‘she’s not as bad as last time.’
We follow him to a thickly painted green steel door.
‘Last time she shoved her mobile phone and her house keys up her cunt.’
‘How much longer?’
Fiona smiles at me.
I ask her what line of work she’s in.
‘I’m a tipster,’ she says, pushing her hair away from her face again, and then, after a lofty pause, ‘Don’t you know what a tipster is? A tipster finds things out, and then rings the news desk to tell them all about it.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘I had a big splash last year with It’s a dog’s wife. Horrible title, but I can’t help that. All about a man who kept greyhounds in the house, and his wife got fed up with them lolling all over the furniture, so she divorced him, and the dogs were cited in court. Did you ever read it? It was everywhere. And once I was on a train and I saw a helicopter crash onto a tractor in a field. And another time, my brother in law, who’s a taxi driver, heard something very juicy about the royal family that I couldn’t possibly tell you – yet.’
The ambulance pulls into the A&E car park.
She frowns. ‘Is this it?’
Then she says: ‘Do you know the great thing about hearing voices?’
‘You hear voices?’
‘Yes. I do. I hear voices…’ she wiggles her right hand in the air above her head. ‘And they tell me to do all kinds of things. Cut your arm, Fiona. Bang your head against the wall, Fiona. Swallow these pills.’
The door opens. Rae smiles and looks inside. ‘Chair or walking in?’
I ask for a chair. As Rae goes to fetch one, Fiona leans forward, conspiratorially
‘But the great thing is – the wonderful thing is – I’m not responsible.’