I feel like I’m standing in the lobby of a giant wasp’s nest. It is the thin end of the morning, and a girl in dirty sweats and a sports bra is stinging everyone within range.
To me: ‘You take her in! You’re taking her in, aren’t you?’
To her mum: ‘You’re fucking going with them.’
To me again: ‘You’re fucking taking her.’
She hauls on her mum’s arm, which has become melodramatically floppy again. The son, markedly less reasonable than his sister, has focused both eyes on me; they merge dangerously either side of his nose into one single eye of hate.
‘You fucking do something for my mum’, he says, and takes a drag on his cigarette.
We should have realised this was going to be difficult. The block of flats is well known, and an early hours call to an overdose here is not a happy prospect. Our spirits are eased, though, when we pull up in the street and see a police car already there.
‘That’s something, then,’ I say to Rae. We sort out the bags to take up, lock the vehicle, and then make our way into the courtyard. I can hear shouts from one of the balconies that overlook the courtyard, but I ring the flat number and we wait for a response. Nothing. We ring again. A face looks down on us from a parapet above and shouts down:
‘What do you want?’
‘Someone called for an ambulance?’
(Muted sounds of swearing and bargaining.)
‘Could someone let us in, please?’
‘I can’t leave my Mum.’
‘Well – someone’s got to let us in, otherwise we’re stuck down here.’
After waiting for a reply that doesn’t come, I call up, helpfully – ‘…and – er - we won’t be able to do much.’
‘I can’t leave my Mum,’ he shouts down again. I look at Rae and she looks at me. But just before we buzz again to make a full and final offer, someone else releases the door, and we go on up.
The concrete stairwell has the welcoming smell of concrete stairwells the world over. The echoes of our progress upwards add to the ominous screams and bumps from the seventh floor. And still – despite all our experiences in the past – we are assuming that the police are on scene. I haven’t even got my radio on me. We are the equivalent of a sleepy but doomed vanguard blundering over the top of the trench.
When we emerge onto the balcony, my error is horribly plain. There is a man standing by a woman on the floor. He is holding her hand, so that her arm is up to him at full stretch. Aggression spikes out of his head like cartoon lightning.
‘You fucking help my mum,’ he says to us.
Three others come out of the flat – unshepherded by police. They swarm around us on the balcony, saying things like: ‘She’s dying’ and ‘Bitch’ and ‘She needs her stomach pumped out.’
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘My name’s Spence and this is Rae.’ God knows this introduction never sounded so lame, but in difficult situations it sometimes helps to follow the script. ‘What’s happened?’
I can see that the woman’s ABC’s are fine: she’s breathing and talking and moving her head around. When I go closer to her I can smell the alcohol. There are no signs of violence, and in the sickly light of the emergency overheads she seems a normal colour. I speak as firmly as I can to the man.
‘I need to speak to your mum on her own, if that’s okay. I just need to find out what she’s done and how we can help. Okay?’
Amazingly, he drops her hand. He pulls a mobile phone out of his pocket and walks off with a grunt. In a speed-dialling second I overhear him say: ‘It’s my mum. She’s taking a load of pills and she’s going to fucking die…’ The others follow him back into the flat, which is an enormous relief to us.
We sit her up and help her lean against the balcony wall. We make out that her name is Sandra, and she’s taken all her medication for pain relief because she didn’t want to go on like this. With the rest of the family temporarily back in the flat, I ask Sandra as firmly as possible if she’ll come down to the ambulance with us, as I think she needs to go to hospital. I don’t actually know at this point if she does need to go; my main concern is to get us away from this environment.
‘Fuck off,’ she drawls. ‘Fucking leave me alone.’
We hold a hurried war cabinet over her head: Rae agrees to go back down to the ambulance and call for urgent police back-up, just in case we really can’t persuade Sandra to come down to the vehicle. Other than that, it’ll be a question of withdrawing as best we can if things get worse. Rae exits just as one of the women comes out, obviously the first man’s sister, sharing his one-eyed intensity. Her hands are cupped around a mess of bottles and packets.
‘She’s taken all this,’ she says, and throws them on the floor. Walks off again.
I poke through the medication. There’s everything here, from iron tablets and senna to dihydrocodeine and zopiclone.
‘Sandra – what have you taken tonight?’
Sandra makes a curiously delicate gesture with her finger: ‘Those – those – all of those.’
At this point, the whole family tips back out onto the balcony.
I gauge the distance between me and the stairwell door. But before I can begin to try to reason things through – incredibly – two policemen come striding along the balcony from the other direction.
‘Right,’ one of them says, ‘What’s going on here?’
Only later, when the family has been corralled back in the flat and the mother is on her own in the kitchen do I find out quite how lucky we’ve been tonight. The police were here at another flat on something quite unconnected. They heard all the fuss and eventually came out to see what it was about.
In a private word out on the balcony one of the policeman asks me if I think Sandra’s in danger. I tell him that her obs are fine, that I don’t believe she’s taken as many of the drugs as we’re being told, and that much of what’s happened tonight is due to alcohol and melodramatics. But as a rider to that I have to say that without a blood test…
Back in the kitchen Sandra still refuses to travel to hospital, even though I explain to her that we think she needs medical help. Her son shouts in at the door that we have to take her, but the policeman explains to him that if she doesn’t want to go, we can’t force her. Sandra signs our form to say that she’s staying against our advice, and once it’s witnessed, we go to leave.
‘Bye,’ I offer to the family as we excuse our way past them in the hall. Their silence is appalling.