This area of town has been struggling for some years now. Of the surviving shops on the main drag, only a newsagent slash off licence and a tatty convenience store survive to filter-feed the meagre streams drifting along the pavements, but there’s not much business to be had. They open early, close late, then bolt down shutters so battered with graffiti they make the shops look like embattled settlements on an angry planet, violent paint storms descending every night.
Control tells us to stand off whilst they clarify the job, something we’re all too happy to do. Eventually they give us the nod, and we pull round the corner into view.
A woman is standing on the pavement, smoking. She grinds her fag out underfoot when she sees us, and waves us over. Rae climbs out of the cab, and in the moment it takes me to grab a torch and lock the vehicle, the woman is talking close-in to Rae as if they’ve known each other for years.
‘His name’s Michael. He’s a lovely boy, smack head, obviously, but you can’t have everything. We’re worried about him ‘cos he’s taken a load of methadone – his eyes are like this…’ (she rolls up the forefinger and thumb on each hand and holds them in front of her eyes like tiny spectacles, then speaks in a robot voice: I can not see you. I am a smack head.). She drops the voice, the pretend specs, carries on.
‘…then he’s well grouching out. Every now and then he’ll slump forward and stop breathing, and we’ll have to give him a poke. Hey, Michael,’ she acts out for us, ‘don’t die on us mate! Keep it going!’ She smiles at us, affectionate as a holiday camp entertainer on speed. ‘Ahh. Anyway – thanks for coming. I suspect you have better things to be doing. Bank holiday and everything. Eh, Spence?’ she says, giving me a dig in the shoulder and checking my name tag. ‘My name’s Lilly, but you can call me Lil. If you like. Or not. Anyway, he’s this way. Okay with dogs?’
She leads us into an abandoned shop, permanently boarded up but the door pushed through. There is no light; our flashlights pick out elements as we thread our way through the junked space – the old counter still standing at one end, polystyrene tiles hanging from the ceiling, wires and rubble, a pool table with a game half played – then up some wormy stairs. As soon as we touch on the first tread, some savage barking erupts above us.
‘Clancy! Cindy! Shut it!’ she yells overhead into the darkness, but it only seems to make them worse.
‘You are okay with dogs, aren’t you?’ Lil asks us. ‘They’re – how shall we say – enthusiastic? But they won’t do you any harm. Not whilst I’m here, they won’t.’ She gives a strange, low-down laugh from her belly, and with a slap on the shoulder we carry on in.
Clancy and Cindy are waiting at the top of the stairs, driven into a paroxysm of aggression by the numbers of feet coming towards them and the waving torches.
‘No! NO! Don’t you dare!’ Lil shouts at them. But the only thing that actually helps is when she grabs them by a collar apiece as they make an early lunge for our throats.
‘In you go!’ she says, hurling them both like bowling balls into a side room and slamming the door shut. She smiles at us in the gloom. ‘Just through here.’
She leads us into an oppressively smoky room lit only by a camping hurricane lamp. The light from this plays across a bare-chested man in his late fifties, sprawled on a mattress with a can of lager resting on his belly and a fag rising and falling to his slack face. He has long hair and a moustache that could be a set-piece from a fancy dress shop, over in The Sixties section. He raises the can in acknowledgement. Nearer the lamp and more thoroughly illuminated is a younger man, arms either side on the armrests of the easy chair, slumped forward with his baseball cap over his face.
‘Michael,’ says Lil, giving him a shake, then even louder ‘Michael!’ When he doesn’t respond she knocks off Michael’s cap, turns to the man on the bed and throws it at him. ‘You toss bag. You said you’d keep an eye on him.’
‘I did. He’s alright. Michael – come on now, son. Play the game. The ambulance is here for you now.’
Michael gives a jerky nod then sits up, just like someone falling asleep on a train and catching themselves awake one stop too late.
‘Shit. Sorry. Yes. What?’
‘Michael. The ambulance is here.’
‘Well what do they want?’
‘I called them. We’re worried about you.’ Lil turns to us again. ‘I had a friend like this – in just this state. In and out, in and out. Then she was out and out. I mean she was dead. That wasn’t so long ago, either.’ Back to Michael. ‘You little shit. You’ve taken way too much methadone and you’re going to croak on us.’
Rae sits down with Michael. She explains that everyone thinks it best if he come to the hospital so the nurses there can keep an eye on him. She says that the worry is that if he’s left to his own devices, he might well pass out and the opiates reduce his breathing to nothing.
Michael soaks up the concern with a drug-fattened detachment. He does agree to come in with us, though. Lil retrieves his cap from the man on the mattress, and between us all we manage to get him out to the vehicle.
At the hospital, we put Michael into a chair, and whilst Rae goes over to the desk to talk to the charge nurse, Lil and I stand either side of him.
‘Now you tell these good nurses everything. Don’t hold back. They don’t mind about the drugs – do they Spence? Look at Spence. Does he look like he cares? He doesn’t mind a bit. Do you Spence?’
I tell them that I don’t mind. I say we’re not the police. We’re just need to know exactly what’s been taken so we can take the right action.
‘See what I mean?’ she says to him, standing over him with one arm round the back of the chair, like an over-interested aunt. ‘It’s all good stuff.’
Lil straightens up and looks around, watches Rae at the desk for a bit, then looks at me and smiles.
‘So – are you two always together, then?’
‘Mostly. We change around sometimes.’
‘Are you – er – are you an item?’
‘No. I’m married with two little girls.’
‘Ah. That’s nice. Nice that you’ve got two little girls. And nice you feel able to tell me all these personal things. Some people wouldn’t. With some people it’s like – whoa!’ – she flattens both hands out in front her, like a wall. ‘But no – I appreciate that, Spence.’
She looks around her a bit more, straightens Michael’s cap, then says: ‘I didn’t know if you were gay or not. Not that that matters. Who cares? Not now. Not ever!’ She pulls off his cap again and gives it a tap against her thigh. For the first time I notice that Michael has a bald patch on the top of his head, like a monk.
‘It’s nice to get the whole picture, once in a while,’ says Lil.
Rae waves us over, and we wheel Michael into a cubicle.