A girl waves to us from the front door and waits for us there, jiggling impatiently from foot to foot and sucking on a cigarette, watching whilst we haul our bags out of the truck.
‘Come on! He’s upstairs,’ she says, flicking the cigarette off into the garden and hurrying inside. As we cross the threshold the contrast between the crystalline Sunday morning and the muted interior is awful; the air seems to have congealed into a fatty grey smog that barely stirs as we move through it. We pass an empty room – snapshot of a mattress on the floor, rucked grey sheets, bottles – then up into another where a skinny man is lying flat on his back. His t-shirt is pulled up and I can just see from here some trembling movement in his abdomen as he makes tiny efforts to breathe. The woman kneeling beside him sits back on her heels and pushes her beany hat up to look at us.
‘He’s breathing some, but not much,’ she says. ‘He’s injected heroin.’ But his pinpoint pupils and the marks on his arm are clear enough.
I take an airway out of the bag and put it into his mouth whilst Rae hooks a BVM up to the oxygen.
‘When did he inject?’
‘Not long ago. I’m not sure. I wasn’t with him.’
Rae hands me the breathing kit and I start supporting his feeble respirations. She puts together a syringe of narcan – the drug we use to reverse the effects of opiates – pinches up the skin of his upper arm, and jabs him.
‘He wasn’t breathing at all when we found him. He was all horrible and blue. We got him going again, though. I had to give him the kiss of life. I only know how to do it because my baby died and I did it on her.’
Both the girls look sickly, but the one in the beany hat has a truly awful complexion, scooped out and hollow like a teenager raised in the dark. Around us the room is trashed, cans standing on the bare floor where they were placed, clothes in tangled corners, carrier bags of foraged food in various stages of decay – a rotten room junked, every human comfort or effort of control subordinated to the needle.
‘Is he going to die?’
Rae gives him another dose of narcan. Gradually his breathing quickens enough for me to stop bagging him; in another minute or two he moves his head slightly from side to side and starts to gag on the airway. I pull it out. Suddenly he opens his eyes.
‘Hello. It’s the ambulance,’ I say. He stares up at me and frowns, then makes an effort to sit up. We help him. He leans against the bed.
‘Wow,’ he says, then ‘Who are you?’
The woman in the beany hat stands up.
‘We saved your stupid life, you bastard,’ she says, then pushes out of the room and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
‘What’s the matter with her?’ he says, jerking his thumb in her direction like he’s sitting with friends in a pub and someone has just caused a scene.
‘What do you think?’, the other girl says. ‘She lost her baby and now you go off on us.’ She follows her out of the room and starts trying to talk to her through the bathroom door.
‘I don’t even know them,’ he says to us, rubbing his face.
He tells us, without a hint of irony, that he doesn’t do heroin and this was his first hit. He says he doesn’t want to go to hospital, even though we tell him that the effect of the narcan is short-lived, and he might well go unconscious again. Rae completes the paperwork, he signs to say he refuses further treatment, and we pack our kit away. We leave him propped up against the bed.
Back out in the hallway, the bathroom door is open and the first girl is sitting on the side of the bath hugging the second.
‘He says he doesn’t want to go to hospital,’ I say.
‘He’ll still be at risk for a few hours, so you might keep an eye on him. Give us a call again if anything happens. Apart from that…’ I shrug. The first girl makes an effort of a smile.
‘Thanks for coming so quickly,’ she says.
I tell them I thought they did a good job getting his breathing back. I tell them they probably saved his life.
‘Like he cares,’ she says.
We see ourselves out.