The girl is star-fished on the sofa, asleep, but there are several details in the room that undercut the peaceful image. Two policemen make room for us as we come in the door, the radios on their shoulders emphasising their darkly official presence; the other detail is the two raddled looking women, one in a puffa jacket with her arms folded, the other in a dressing gown smoking a cigarette. She gives us a thin smile about one degree cooler than murderous. The next thing I notice – initially as a winy smell, then as slipperiness - is that the laminate floor we’re standing on is awash with vomit.
‘Paula came back with her mate, Francie. They went upstairs for a couple of hours, then Francie left. That was it, as far as I was concerned. Then she came downstairs, and she’s like this.’ Paula’s mother takes another drag on her cigarette. ‘I can’t understand it. What’s wrong with her?’
‘Francie came home about an hour ago and she seemed absolutely fine. Went to bed early. Zonko. Good as gold.’
It looks as if the two women have been dragged together in the wake of their two thirteen year old daughters, but the cigarette smoke coming from Paula’s mum looks like steam escaping from an overheating boiler, and from here, between these two policemen, it certainly feels as if this particular teen-parent coalition is set to blow.
I go over to Paula and try to rouse her. With one little shake of her shoulder she suddenly sits up. She opens her eyes, and though the pupils are massively dilated, she doesn’t seem to register anything. Then she opens her mouth, stretches out her tongue, and lets out a dreadful, mewling scrape of a noise, sounding in her distress like a baby bird chewed by a cat. She doesn’t respond to any questions, just shakes her head from side to side, and spits little white saliva-balls into the air.
‘It’s pretty obvious that Paula’s had a fair bit to drink tonight, but do you think she might have had some drugs?’
‘No. She’s a good girl,’ she says, looking at Francie’s mum. ‘She’s never done anything like that.’
‘Francie is on Ritalin, for her behaviour problems,’ says her mum helpfully. ‘Could Paula have taken some of her medicine?’
‘It’s possible. I’d have to look it up in the BNF. But whether she’s taken that or something else, she’s in a pretty poor state and I think she should go into hospital for a doctor to have a look at her.’
‘I’ll put some clothes on.’
Getting Paula onto the vehicle is a problem – essentially an exercise in how to handle an uncoordinated, uncooperative, stinking mess that screams horribly and spits a great deal. The spitting we control by putting an oxygen mask on her; the rest we look to cover with some discrete blanketing and a speedy removal to the safety of the trolley. Once on the vehicle and in the recovery position, her screams gradually subside again into a slack-mouthed sleep. She breathes slowly and heavily. Despite having vomited many times there are still traces of pearlescent peach lipstick on her lips, but the mascara round her eyes has pretty well all run off and down her cheeks in thin, dark rivulets.
I open the back door to tell her Mum that we’re ready to go. She scrunches out another cigarette and hauls herself up the step.
‘Kids’, she says.
When we’re cleaned up and ready to go at the hospital, we get another job immediately. The house next door to the house we’ve just been to. Thirteen year old girl, drunk, acting strangely.
No need to consult the satnav. We’re there in record time. The police have gone, but the mother in the puffa is standing outside to wave us in. She looks closely in at the cab to see who the crew is, and visibly flinches when she sees it’s us.
‘Well – it finally caught up with her,’ she says as we walk down the path. ‘I found two bottles of Lambrini they’d thrown out of the window into the garden.’
Francie is sitting with her head in her hands at the bottom of the stairs. She doesn’t have the enthusiasm to look up as we approach. But at least she hasn’t been sick, and doesn’t look as if she’s going to scream. When I get her to open her eyes, they’re much less drugged.
‘What did Paula take that you didn’t?’ I ask her.
Francie just shrugs, and drops her head back into her hands.
‘You won’t be doing her any favours by not telling us. We’re not the police. We just want to know so the doctors can figure out the best course of treatment for her.’
Her mum pokes her in the shoulder.
‘You speak to the man. It’s the least you can do.’
Slowly, Francie looks up at me, a wasted puppet with one string left uncut.
‘Four e’s,’ she whispers. ‘But I didn’t like the look of them.’