The drunk who has fallen down a flight of stairs at the hostel is propped up against the railings outside. He folds and unfolds his arms, wipes his face with rough hand-strokes, shakes his head and mutters; he seems to be scolding himself with the asocial carelessness of drunks the world over. As Eric, the paramedic in the response car who we are backing up, walks across to us, I notice three scaffolders in the front of their lorry cramming sandwiches into their mouths and laughing, this whole scene an unexpected mid-morning cabaret.
‘Jim has had a drink or two this morning,’ Eric tells us. ‘He’s fallen down about six stairs and banged his head. He wasn’t KOed, C-spine seems fine, no back pain, so I don’t think he needs boarding, but he does have a little skin-flap on the top of his head that needs seeing to. No other injuries, no medical conditions other than a touch of asthma. He’s a bit down on his luck by the sound of things. He’s living in the hostel, estranged from his wife, doesn’t see his children, has a stormy relationship with his mother, blabbedy-blah-blah…’ Eric looks over to the patient and waves. ‘Apart from that – all kosher, all yours.’
When I go up to Jim and introduce myself he snaps off a volley of swear words.
‘Easy, mate,’ I say to him. ‘We’re here to help you.’
‘I know. I’m sorry,’ he says, with surprising clarity. ‘I’m just cross with myself. It’s so stupid. Stupid.’
We help him into the ambulance, dress his wounds and set off for the hospital.
Walking through the automatic doors at A&E, Jim’s mobile phone rings. He pulls it out and looks at it.
‘It’s my mother,’ he says, ‘I’d better answer it.’
So we back-track a few steps to allow him to use the phone just outside.
‘Hello?’ he shouts. ‘Yes, mother. Yes, yes.’ Then he looks at me and nods. ‘I’m just at the library researching the Picts. Bye.’
He snaps it off and then struggles to put it back in his pocket.
‘She’d only worry,’ he says.
Inside, I wait with Jim whilst Rae goes to handover to the Charge Nurse. There is no chair to sit him on, so we both lean against a cupboard.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask him.
‘Me? Oh, well..’ he trails, folds his arms and looks down at his shoes. Nearly topples forwards.
‘The Picts?’, I say, when I’ve re-centred him. ‘Isn’t that why the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall?’
Jim smacks his lips together as if he’s just tasted something unusual, and frowns.
‘Well, yes, you see, it’s so interesting,’ he booms. The other ambulance cases just ahead of us - a red and rather inflated looking woman; a young girl slouched over a vomit bowl – and the technicians with them, all look up.
‘They’re quite a mysterious bunch, the Picts. There are so many theories about where they came from originally –Scandinavian? Did they come over in the early Bronze age? But they certainly dominated northern Scotland from very early on. That’s where I’m from – around Fife,’ he says, taking off his glasses. ‘Look how filthy these are.’ He tugs out his vest and begins cleaning them. ‘Oh yes, I had a lovely childhood. Bliss. My father was one of the first people ever to have a camper van. It was so unusual, if you passed another on the roads you’d pull over and chat. Sometimes we’d just throw some food and clothes into the back, jump in, and drive and drive until the road simply ran out. Then we’d stop there for a few days.’
He puts his smeary glasses back on.
‘Did you know the last person to speak Cornish – Dolly Pentreath – died in 1768. Mousehole, I think.’ He looks around him. ‘Lost languages. So interesting.’
Rae waves to us, so I lead him to his cubicle.