All day I have been aware of the coming storm. The clear blue skies seem unusually clear, suspiciously blue. Are the birds quieter than normal? Where is the cat? I am morbidly drawn to each on-the-hour news bulletin, sipping tea by the radio and mentally flipping each hard phrase into My Little Well of Doom: damaging gusts, stay away from the coast, no journey unless absolutely necessary. Not a great career decision, to find yourself working a night shift at an ambulance station by the sea with a hurricane approaching. I lather up some morbid fantasies involving scaffolding, buses, planes, a tanker or two, rolling out catastrophes like a scriptwriter on Casualty, with me as a lovable but expendable technician, my last seconds captured on a camera phone from the pier, a blurred figure on the shore, his flapping fluorescent jacket the last little bit of colour beneath the wave.
I put together a packed lunch, though, just in case I live long enough for a break.
Our first call is to a frequent flier. Not one I’ve been to before, so I am pleased to tick her off the list. Control tells us that they have tried to avoid sending anyone out to Joy, but she has told them that she has had a fit, so we are duty bound to attend. Consequently, we find ourselves huddled amongst some bins as Joy fiddles around with the locks on her back door. Eventually she tells us that she can’t remember how to open it.
‘Can you remember how to lock it?’ Frank shouts to her above the wind.
‘Well do the opposite to that and you’ll be fine.’ He looks at me. He’s impassive, but his moustache looks like it might spark.
She fiddles with the locks some more. Nothing happens.
‘You’ll have to break in,’ she says.
‘Joy. We are not going to break in, darling. Come round to the front room and pass us the keys through the window.’
We make our way to the little front garden and wait. At least it’s not raining. Frank warns me: Don’t agree to look at her chinchillas. A light goes on. We see her shuffle into the room, and then begin sorting through some papers on a sofa, obviously forgetting what the mission was. Frank reminds her with a sharp rap on the window. She jumps, then shuffles over to us and moves the curtains aside. Her face is bleach white and blank. A frail woman of about fifty, in teddy bear PJs. She smiles out at us.
‘The keys, Joy?’
She drops the net curtains and shuffles back out of the room to the back door. We wait. Eventually she comes back into the room with the keys. Frank has to perform a brutal little mime to make her see that the window is on a latch and needs undoing. Finally she manages to spring the window and pass us the keys. We march round the back again and open the door – mortice, then yale – and go inside.
It looks as if the place has been methodically randomised, with papers and medicine bottles on the floor, cushions on the table and cutlery on the stairs. Joy is standing waiting for us in the doorway between the kitchen and the sitting room.
‘I used to be a ballet dancer,’ she says, helpfully. I can see several empty bottles of strong cider in the sink, but Joy’s breath makes the check redundant.
‘Joy – Just take a seat for me, please.’
I clear a chair for her and she sits down.
‘Why have you called an ambulance tonight? What’s happened?’
She pulls up her right pyjama leg. ‘My foot’s swollen.’
It is slightly fuller and redder than the left, but nothing awful. She can obviously weight bear, and doesn’t seem in pain.
‘Is there anything else the matter?’
‘No. Just my foot.’
Frank shows me a referral letter he’s found - a foot appointment the next day.
‘You’re already seeing someone about your foot, Joy.’
‘Yes. Yes. You’d never believe I used to be a ballet dancer, would you?’
‘Joy – when are you due to see your CPN next?’
‘The day after tomorrow.’ She stretches out her bad foot and taps a calendar lying on the floor by the chair. It carries a glossy photo of a ballet dancer with her leg up on a barre.
‘Joy – you know you shouldn’t be calling out the ambulance when there’s nothing really wrong, don’t you? Whilst we’re here with you, someone else might have fallen down and hurt themselves, or had a heart attack. Wouldn’t you feel bad if you’d stopped them getting the help they needed because we were tied up here?’
She nods and bites her lower lip, looking about twelve. Then she brightens.
‘Would you like to see my chinchillas?’
Our second call is to transport a Section 131 voluntary admission to a psychiatric ward in a hospital about twenty miles from our home base. I’m the attendant in the back with Geoff, a scooped-out man in his thirties who took an overdose the previous night, one of several in recent months. Geoff sits crouched over in the seat, guarding himself like an abused pet, taking up as little room as possible. I try to put him at his ease, but he’s crouching at the edge of any normal interaction. The journey seems to take years, the noisy wind outside the ambulance emphasising the tense silence inside. When we pull up outside the ward and help Geoff out of the back, there is a black coated figure standing flat against the wall, trying to smoke a cigarette. We can barely keep our feet. Inside the ward, a member of staff leads Geoff away.
The night roars on.
A couple of genuine falls, an assault, nothing taxing. A chest pain that turns out not to be cardiac, but centred on the liver. Then a final call at half past five. A woman waves us round to a side entrance as the wind clatters on around us scattering bins across the road. She says: ‘Thanks for coming. Awful weather!’ and then in to a well-lit room and a man sitting on the edge of his bed with his legs apart and his blown-out belly hanging pregnantly between them. It is what it appears to be on first glance: gross fluid retention associated with ascites. The man is massively distended – so much so that his diaphragm cannot work properly, making breathing difficult. Despite his condition the man is quite sanguine about it.
‘Excuse my directness,’ he wheezes, ‘but I can’t move without messing myself. Have you got any pads?’
We help him out to the vehicle. As we make our way past some rose bushes in his front garden – and in my early morning torpor - I imagine him snagging on a thorn, bursting and whooshing up into the storm, his dressing-gown cord snapping and coiling behind him like the tail on an enormous kite.