Hardly any of the flats in this block seem to have numbers on their doors, and the landing light clicks off too soon again. Who lives here? Sprinters? But we can hear a big-footed voice behind the door, and when Rae calls out ‘ambulance’ it stops, there is a pause, and then the door opens.
‘Blimey! Hello, Steve’, she says to the bulky policeman, and then: ‘I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’ I stand behind her, nodding and eyebrow raising like a hapless comedy stooge. But what can she mean?
‘Hello, Rae! How are you? Haven’t seen you in a long time!’ He steps back for us to come in, looking in his black leather gloves and body armour, and with the harsh bed-sit light haloing his bony head, like an estate agent from hell.
We go in.
As well as the usual squalid leitmotif of cans and bottles, over-spilling ashtrays and thrown clothes, there is a folk guitar smashed on a rug in the centre of the room, an electric guitar and a practice amp junked in a corner, the poster of a naked woman draped in a python curling off the wall above a portable TV, and sellotaped to the door of a kitchen cupboard, a faded, oddly colourized photo of a smiling old man demonstrating a folk guitar in a sunny garden. On the sofa in front of the smashed guitar sits the patient, a bare chested young man, fixed in a pose of readiness. His right hand, still clutching a little tuft of rolling tobacco, is placed on his right knee; on his left, a slashed and bloody forearm. A younger man stands on the other side of the room, next to the second policeman. Whilst the patient is half-naked, lean and furious, his friend is bundled up in a parka and woolly hat. His glittering eyes flick about as he tries not to cry.
The second policeman – a tall, pale figure who looks as if he was issued with a moustache at the same time as his uniform, speaks.
‘Guys, this is Mal. Mal has cut himself tonight - as you can see - and we wondered if you could tell us whether he needs to go to hospital or not?’
‘I do not want to go to hospital. I want to go to Southview.’
‘You know we can’t take you there just like that, Mal,’ says Steve. ‘You know how it works.’
‘I’m going to do something terrible if I don’t get some help.’
‘One step at a time, Mal,’ says the second policeman. ‘Guys – over to you.’
As the two policemen move closer to each other to chat about stuff, Rae goes to kneel down next to Mal. I fetch out some saline and some swabs from the dressings bag. She asks him the usual health questions as she cleans his arm. He is as immobile as ever. The patient’s friend moves over to the door.
‘Is he going to be alright?’ he asks.
‘Yep. But this middle cut will need stitching.’ She dumps the bloody swab into the bowl of red water and asks Mal if he meant to kill himself when he did this. He snorts. ‘If I meant to kill myself I would be dead now,’ he says. ‘But I was interested to see what would happen if I made the cuts downwards rather than across-wards.’
He looks over to the two policemen.
‘Take me to Southview.’
‘Mal. As I’ve explained – lots of times – that’s not the way it works, mate.’
‘Take me to Southview.’
‘Calm down, Mal. First things first,’ says Rae. ‘You need to have a stitch or two at the hospital.’
Mal looks at her as she stands up. ‘My eldest sister is marrying her boyfriend next week,’ he says. ‘The same boyfriend that abused me for years.’ The statement is curiously flat, as if even he doesn’t believe it.
As we pack away our things ready to go and the policemen discuss logistics, Mal says: ‘You haven’t asked me what I cut myself with.’
Steve looks up: ‘Okay, Mal. Tell us. What did you cut yourself with?’ and turning to the second policeman adds: ‘I just assumed it was the glass over by the sink.’
‘Nope,’ and then ‘I cut myself with a razor.’
Mal does not move. ‘You haven’t asked me what I did with the razor.’
‘Mal – what did you do with the razor?’
‘I’ll give you three guesses.’
‘Threw it in the sink?’
The second policeman takes a step forward and looks around on the floor. ‘Dropped it on the floor?’
I notice a kinder chocolate egg on the cushion next to him on the sofa, so I say: ‘You hid it in the kinder egg.’
Mal smiles at us, but his eyes remain unchanged.
‘I’m still holding it.’
In the time it takes for me to look down at the tobacco in his hand, Steve has crossed the room, grabbed his arm and is shouting at him to drop the blade, drop the blade. Mal drops it. Steve plants his big black boot on top of it, then orders Mal to move to the other end of the sofa. When Mal does this, Steve picks up the blade and throws it across the room.
‘You idiot,’ he shouts. ‘Right. Enough fucking around. Let me tell you what’s going to happen now, my friend. And I want you to listen very carefully, because if you do not do exactly what I say, you are going to find yourself in a world of pain. Do I make myself clear?’
Mal re-collects himself on the sofa with much the same expression as before.
‘Take me to Southview. I’m telling you…’ he says.
‘No. I’m telling you. So shut up and listen. No more tricks. No more cute shit. We’re here to help you and you take the piss. You put my colleagues in danger and I am not having that. So not another word.’
From his dirty brown sofa at the centre of the universe, Mal looks around him.
‘You,’ he says, nodding at the second policeman, ‘you’re new to the job, and he’s showing you the ropes. You,’ looking at Rae, ‘you cleaned my arm; you want to help me. You,’ he says to me, and then pauses. I unfold my arms. ‘You’re some kind of nurse,’ he says. ‘But you,’ to Steve, ‘I know exactly what you are and what you stand for.’
‘Do you? Do you really? How fascinating,’ Steve says. ‘Now I want an end to this bullshit. I want you to get your shoes on and something on your top. And then I want you to walk down those stairs like a lamb, my friend. I am not in the mood.’
The only move Mal makes is to touch his cut arm absently. A small trickle of blood starts to run along his forearm again as he disturbs the edges of the wound.
‘I could lose it now and take you out,’ he says, staring at Steve. ‘I can’t take you all on, but I can certainly take you. I could be on you before anyone could do anything about it. I could rip your throat out.’
‘Come on, Mal,’ says Rae. ‘This is silly.’
Steve puts his gloved hand out to her. ‘No, no, Rae. It’s fine.’ And then back to Mal: ‘I’m not scared of a little prick like you. You child. But I’m warning you. Don’t be saying any of this.’
‘I’ve got a hammer and I’m going to smash your fucking skull.’
The second policeman steps forward.
‘Where is the hammer, Mal?’ – but before he has finished the question, Mal has launched himself out of the sofa, scrabbled on all fours across the room, pulled a hammer from a pile of clothes – but then the second policeman lands on top of him, and then Steve, too, and they all desperately wrestle for control in a heap up against a filthy divan. The second policeman twists Mal’s arm behind him, forcing him to drop the hammer; he throws it away from them, and it lands on the floor with a sickening clunk. Now Steve has Mal’s other arm and manages to twist it out behind him; eventually they handcuff his hands behind his back, then strap his legs together. With Mal trussed and subdued, they release their hold, stand up and get their breath. Steve puts a call out for a wagon to transport. Rae leads the friend outside, who is crying now.
‘Sorry you had to see that,’ Steve says to me, attempting a smile.
‘Uncuff me so I can have a cigarette,’ shouts Mal. ‘If I don’t have a cigarette I’ll really lose it.’
‘No you won’t. I’m going to be telling you what you can and can’t do from now on.’ says Steve. ‘And at the moment, no cigarettes.’
Mal’s tone changes. ‘Please don’t take me to the cells,’ he says. ‘I can’t stand to be on my own in there again. I won’t make it out alive.’
‘You should have thought about that before you tried to brain us with a hammer, mate.’
The second policeman straightens his uniform. ‘Maybe if you co-operate we can think about favours,’ he says. ‘But we have to see that you’re genuine. We can’t afford to take any more risks.’
Ten minutes later we are standing in the room waiting for the wagon and reviewing our options. Mal lies face down on the floorboards, sporadically tensing and testing the cuffs and straps, breathing noisily like a captured animal. The rest of the room is quiet around us; it has easily absorbed the violence of the last five minutes.
Mal’s wound still needs stitching, and that’s something that can only be done at the hospital. He seems to calm down markedly over the next ten minutes, answering questions rationally enough, and making assurances with what seems like a genuine desire to keep to them. With those dark flights of stairs in everyone’s thoughts – carrying him down would not be easy - the policemen agree to reposition his cuffs so he can smoke a cigarette before he goes.
Ten minutes later, Mal hobbles down to the ambulance. There is a police wagon parked with its hazards on behind us, and a group of policemen stamping their feet to keep warm, chatting on the pavement. The second policeman goes over to them to let them know what’s happening. Mal is shivering, but it seems more with fear of what’s to come than the bitter cold.
‘Please – I beg you – don’t take me to the cells.’
‘One step at a time, mate,’ says Steve, strapping him into the ambulance seat and sitting down next to him. He takes his gloves off and stuffs them inside his stab vest. ‘One step at a time.’