On standby at our regular cliff-top haunt. The sea is a great curve of smoky grey glass glittering below us and out to the edge of the world. We are at the top of the sunniest day so far; we sit slumped like coastguards filleted by the heat as squadrons of seagulls waggle their little orange feet, zooming up on the cliff thermals. Dog walkers nod and smile or sneak disapproving looks, or both. We know that many of them think we’re hiding out here to avoid work. I wonder if we should have a sign to put in the cab window: On Standby. Ring this number for more information. Rae yawns, again. I worry that if I yawn, too, I’ll actually dislocate my jaw. I check my watch – incredibly, it’s only been fifteen minutes.
The terrafix suddenly beeps with a job: voluntary admission to a psychiatric unit further along the coast. I write the address and Mrs Dacre on my sheet as Rae hauls herself into consciousness and puts the ambulance into gear.
The satnav hates this area. You would think by the way it gets the layout so completely wrong that the residents sneak out at night to re-arrange the one way systems and dead ends. But then, there is so little to do here, it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true. So we ignore the crisis of arrows on the screen, and I direct Rae in using the map book.
We pull up outside what must be the house, working on the assumption that the numbers are following a logical progression. It’s impossible to visually check that this is the house we want, though, as it is surrounded by a hedge so impenetrably tangled it seems not to have been grown, but conjured by a vengeful witch. Luckily there is a gap that suggests an entrance. We walk through it, and suddenly the house rises up in front of us, a dirty, doomed hulk, its guttering clogged with grass and its windows obscured by ragged curtains. A scatter of desiccated plant remains hang out of pots stacked either side of the concrete stairs that lead up to the front door, a slab of wood artfully distressed with what could only have been an axe.
‘Nice,’ says Rae.
‘No, you knock. It’s your patient.’
I step up and knock. Wait. Knock louder. Look through the letterbox. Inside, a small hallway crammed with cardboard boxes, seed trays, telephone directories and – worryingly – a chain saw. Rae has a look, too.
‘Psychopath,’ she says, expertly.
‘It looks quite new. Maybe they bought it for the hedge.’
‘Or the next visitor.’
The heat of the day seems to have no power here in the lee of this hedge. A chill seems to settle around our shoulders.
‘We’d better just have a look round the back,’ I say.
‘Great,’ says Rae. She makes a lame, slasher movie-style face. ‘Yaah!’
‘I’m not worried. Are you worried? I’m not a bit worried.’
We walk around the side of the house, Hansel and Gretel style.
The only thing that makes the back door slightly more prepossessing than the front is the enormous chocolate coloured cat draped over an abandoned washing machine. It barely opens an eye as we crunch up to it from round the corner.
‘Hello,’ says Rae, offering the cat a sniff of her outstretched hand. The cat opens the other eye. ‘How did you get out here?’ There is a small window open on a latch above us, but surely the drop is too high (and the cat too round) to have made use of it. ‘Who’s a cheeky thing, then?’ she carries on, but the cat has seen and heard enough. A disgusted shiver runs through it from its whiskers to its tail; it hauls itself up and off the washing machine, and lumbers off into the undergrowth.
I knock on the back door, a resoundingly official rap, but again, no reply. ‘Ambulance’, I shout, but it’s looking hopeless. I notice that there is a small gap to the side of the curtains hung across a window to my right, so I step over some rubbish and peek inside. In the gloom I can make out a mattress on the floor, some heavy black furniture – is there a foot in that trainer…?
And suddenly there are two eyes staring straight into mine.
I start back and almost fall over. A face in the window, tangled hair, beaky nose, frown.
‘Hello. Mrs Dacre? It’s the ambulance. Can we have a word?’
Her expression does not change, but she drops the curtain. A few seconds later and the back door rattles as some bolts are drawn back. It opens, and a thin woman in her early forties steps hesitantly into the light.
‘What do you want?’
Apart from her bushy hair she is dressed cleanly, and talks in a well-modulated voice. Whether in another context she would strike me as perfectly normal, I don’t know. But here, in this house, and with our instructions, her reticence feels more like the synthetic, outward shell of something altogether more volatile.
‘Are you Mrs Dacre?’
‘Does Mrs Dacre live here?’
‘Oh. Is she in?’
‘You see – we’ve been asked to come here to take Mrs Dacre to, er…’
For some reason I baulk at using the word ‘psychiatric’.
‘…a hospital appointment.’
‘She doesn’t know anything about that.’
‘And you would know? If she knew? About the appointment?’
I really want to ask this woman quite plainly if she is, in fact, Mrs Dacre. But this is supposed to be a voluntary admission, and I would guess that pretending you were not the patient amounts to a refusal to travel.
‘I would certainly know. And I can tell you quite categorically that she doesn’t know.’
‘Okay. Well. It’s a mystery.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘In that case – sorry to have disturbed you.’
She nods once, grimly acknowledging the disturbance, then retreats back behind the door. The bolts clunk to.
I call Control to tell them what happened. The dispatcher is nonplussed, says he’ll get back to me. After a while my phone rings. He tells me that the social worker will be contacting the patient to make other arrangements, and that we can return to base.
‘Lovely cat,’ says Rae, nosing the ambulance back through the maze of streets and out on to the main drag. I have a vision of Mrs Dacre pushing it out of the tiny window with a broom handle.
‘Imagine getting that call at night, though.’
I wind down the window, and warm air floods the cab.
‘Honestly wouldn’t bother me,’ I say. And yawn.