There is a huge man sleeping on the steps of the grand office portico. He needs only bigger ears and a pair of claws to make a passable grizzly bear, but instead of a log he rests his arm across a filthy tote bag.
‘Please. You have to help him,’ says the young girl at my shoulder. Her boyfriend, his arms behind his back and his hands pressed compliantly into his jeans back pockets, grins shyly and lifts his eyebrows. ‘She didn’t know what else to do.’
So now five of us – me and my partner Jack, a policewoman, the girl and her friend – stand in a semi-circle around the man, whilst hundreds of Saturday night clubbers press on around us through the streets on their great nocturnal migration from the bars to the clubs.
‘Did you see anything happen to him? Did he fall? Was he attacked?’
‘No. We just saw him lying there. He could be dead. No-one gives a damn. Do something.’
She seems narcotically strung, scratching from side to side in gorgeous boots, pale and brittle. I would very much like to have them away from the scene, partly in case the man reacts badly to being woken up, but mostly because I would prefer only to have to deal with one unpredictable and not two.
‘Well thank you for you help tonight,’ I say to her. She waits for something more. ‘I don’t think there’s much else for you to do here. Thanks very much. It’s okay for you to go.’
The boyfriend seems relieved but the girl isn’t satisfied. She allows herself to be drawn off to the side, where she stands and waits and studies us.
Mindful of a swipe from the sleeping man, I chose the least vulnerable position, lean in and give him a humane shake. ‘Hello. Ambulance. Can you sit up and talk to me, please?’
It’s like calling down a well. My voice seems to echo somewhere deep behind his face.
‘Ambulance. People are worried about you, mate. Sit up and talk to me. Are you hurt or sick in any way?’
I increase the stimulation and it comes back with a vague twitch of consciousness.
‘Open your eyes for me.’
He snuffles, gives a torpid sneer.
‘Open your eyes.’
They lever open a crack, just enough for me to see that he hasn’t had any smack, and just enough for him to throw a line around his tormentor.
‘And who the fuck are you?’
‘It’s the ambulance. Sorry to wake you. But people see you lying there and they wonder if there might be something the matter.’
He re-seals his eyes.
‘No. Come on. We’ve come out to see you. The least you can do is talk to us.’
‘Go a fucking way’
The policewoman enters the ring.
‘Mate. You need to get up and be on your way. You can’t be sleeping here tonight. This is public property.’
The eyes are back on.
‘And who the fuck may you be?’
‘I’m the police, mate. And I’m telling you that you need to move on.’
I can sense the young girl rearing off to my right. This isn’t what she had in mind when she called for help. Her friend has his arms around her shoulders, but it’s like throwing a bridle on an unbroken horse. They exchange some urgent, low level conversation.
‘Leave me alone.’
‘Sorry. We can’t do that. If we leave you alone, all that will happen is that someone else will call an ambulance, and we’ll be back where we started.’
Cued by her line, I cut back in with my rudimentary patient assessment.
‘Just to be clear – is there anything wrong with you? Are you hurt or sick?’
‘I’m fucking sick of you.’
The policewoman looks up and down the street. Her back-up is in the takeaway getting snacks.
‘Why don’t you do us all a favour and go to the park, or something?’ she says.
He leans upwards towards her, the dangling thread of saliva on his lip gleaming dully in the overspill light from the shop next door.
‘I can’t go to no fucking park. I’ve got an asbo there.’
‘Well can you go to the beach?’
‘I can’t go to no fucking beach. I’ve got an asbo there.’
‘Can’t you go to a hostel tonight?’
‘They’re full. I got no where. The fuck you care.’
‘Well I think we’re all sorry that you’re in such a strait, but the simple fact is that you can’t sleep here.’
‘Go the fuck away. Leave me alone.’
Three policemen are coming down the street towards us, each with a little white plastic bag of food. They chat and laugh together, fluorescent with comradeship and purpose. The policewoman seems to grow slightly.
‘We don’t like to insist,’ she says, ‘But we can’t go anywhere until you co-operate.’
The young girl suddenly pushes between us all. Even the man on the steps pulls back.
‘This isn’t what I wanted,’ she wails. ‘This is not what I wanted. It isn’t fair. Can’t you take him to a shelter or something? The hospital? You can’t do this. He has nothing. Can’t you see? He needs help.’
The boyfriend steps back in and leads her away again. She has her mobile phone out and is frantically tapping in some numbers. I wonder who.
The man is on his feet now. He leans down precariously to gather his bag up.
‘Fucking cunts’ he breathes. ‘What do you care?’
Then he sees a man in crutches on the other side of the street.
‘Oi’ he bellows.
The man in crutches raises one, and they begin a slow shuffling progress towards each other through the late night crowd; it parts as smoothly and easily as repellent opposites to let them.