As I turn on to the estate, the late night sky – for so long pregnant with the coming storm – begins lighting up with diffuse flashes. The horizon is closing down on us, and a few fat drops of rain begin to fall.
Rae looks out at the block of flats, raps her pen on the clipboard.
‘I’m not sure if I’ve been here before or not,’ she says.
As I back the vehicle up there’s a deep rumble of thunder. As if working to some melodramatic script, a police van followed by a police car appear around the corner. They park either side of the road. We all get out and convene on the grass verge. Everyone is relaxed, chatty, excited by the prospect of the storm. Some confusion about who called who. They say our ambulance control requested police back up; we were told the other way round, also that the police had already attended once today. News to them. But after a minute or two of pleasantries we become aware of the face looking down at us all from an upstairs window.
‘Best go up, then,’ says a young policeman.
‘What can you tell us about this one?’ asks Rae.
‘There’s been police out to this address a few times in the past – none of us, though. Domestic disputes, suicide threats, blah. The woman, Shelley, she’s a notorious drunk, apparently. Arrested a couple of times for public order offences. An on going situation, as they say.’
We all stand outside the main entrance to the block, but before anyone can buzz, the door opens and Shelley is there, a tired looking woman in her late twenties, a heaviness about her face and eyes as if there’s some cruel spiritual gravity being exercised on her. Even her yellow hair seems burdened, her whole body exhausted by something she has no power to change.
‘Come in,’ she says flatly, turns, leads the clumping pack of fluorescent jackets and squawking radios up the stairs. An elderly man peers over a balcony at the top.
‘Everything all right, Shell?’
‘Yeah. Go to sleep, Ron’
‘I’m here if you need me.’ But he stays out on the landing to watch.
She stops outside her front door and pushes it to go inside, seems confused that it doesn’t give. Then she says: ‘It must have shut when I opened the main door. I don’t have any other keys.’
She kneels down in front of the door and tries to push her arm through the letterbox to reach the catch.
One of the policemen says: ‘Don’t get your arm stuck, love. We’ll have the fire brigade out, next thing you know.’
‘It’s not a strong lock,’ she says, standing up slowly by pushing up on her knees. ‘You only need flip the catch and it’ll open.’
‘Here. Let me try.’
A policewoman extends her baton, pokes it through the letterbox and rattles around.
‘Don’t drop your baton in there, for God’s sake. We’ll never hear the end of it’
The atmosphere is practical and helpful. Even Ron offers the use of his flat, and he’s thanked politely.
Another policeman steps up, levers the bottom of the door with his foot, then pulls out a laminated crib sheet and tries to work open the yale by inserting it along the doorline.
‘Suspect skill you’ve got there, mate’ says another.
‘Poacher turned gamekeeper’
The card bends but the lock holds.
Suddenly Shelley says: ‘Actually – I’ve just remembered there’s a spare under a stone outside’
She excuses herself past the little crowd, hurries back down the stairs, and returns a moment later holding a key.
She lets us all in. We follow her into a sparsely furnished front room, two simple leather sofas, a table and two chairs, an expanse of laminate flooring, a large photo of a grinning toddler with curly hair in a plain wooden frame on the wall. Shelley sits on the sofa beneath it; we sit on the sofa facing her, and the police all crowd in the doorway.
There is a pause. The dim light in the room is shockingly augmented by an occasional flash of light from outside. A sudden rattle of hail against the windows.
Rae rests her clipboard on her lap, and leans on it.
‘Shelley. My name’s Rae and this is Spence. Why are we here tonight?’
Shelley turns her tired grey eyes on her.
‘I’m having bad thoughts.’
‘What bad thoughts?’
‘I don’t know. Like I want to kill myself.’
‘Have you done anything or taken anything tonight that might cause you harm?’
The policewoman standing at the doorway unfolds her arms, pulls out a notebook.
‘Shelley. Can you tell us a little bit about your domestic situation?’
Shelley pushes her hair back from her face and looks at her.
‘My domestic situation? My domestic situation is I’m fucked and no-one’s interested. My domestic situation is that the fucking police don’t give a shit.’
‘Now – Shelley. We’re not from this locality and this is the first time we’ve met you. So you’ll have to bear with us and give us a little more information.’
There is a sudden and dangerous change in the emotional orientation of the room. With only these few words having been spoken, Shelley has locked on to something. She seems suddenly galvanised with a thrill of dark self-absorption, as if everything up to now – the storm, the 999 call, the meeting of the emergency services outside and getting locked out of the flat –that this was just a process of gathering or preparation for the main event. She speaks loudly, emphasising her words with a level rocking of her head from side to side like a street rapper, making hard angles in the air with her hands, tipping backwards and forwards on the sofa. It seems as if she is now fully possessed by her grievance.
‘Well - how about this for some information. He was here giving it all that. Shouting out down in the street how I was a fucking prostitute. He was down the pub telling his mates if they got a thousand pounds together they could come round here and spit roast me. But no one’s interested. I tried to get the police to stop him and they ended up sending him a letter. A fucking letter! I said to the police that the next time he comes round here I’m going to stick a knife in his eye. And then I’m going to hang myself from the banister. I told the last policewoman that - and the cunt laughed. She fucking laughed. I said I hope it’s you that finds me swinging there, darling. I hope it’s you that has to push past me to get to my kid…… I can’t bear these thoughts that I have. I swear I’m going to kill him and me. But no one takes me fucking seriously. No one’s interested.’
The hailstones against the window suddenly stop and the room is utterly quiet.
The policeman who tried breaking in with a laminated card pushes to the front. He takes his hat off and asks if he can join Shelley on the sofa. She looks away, but doesn’t refuse. So he sits down next to her.
‘Shelley. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. But one thing I can tell you is that I take people as I find them. I don’t know the first thing about your problems because I’ve never met you before. But all I can say is, you seem genuine enough, and I’m willing to help you as much as I can. But you have to help me, too. You have to tell me what’s going on, and I’ll tell you what I think should happen next. Okay? I can’t speak for those other police you saw. The police is like any where else. You get wankers in all walks of life – the police is no different. I know you get wankers in the police, Shelley, because I’ve worked with some of them. But if you’re willing to calm down and tell me exactly what’s been going on, I’m willing to do what I can to help. How does that sound?’
I glance at the policewoman by the door. She has put her notebook back in her jacket and shifts her weight onto her other leg. Her face is utterly impassive; I can’t make out if she approves of her colleague’s intervention or not.
Shelley looks at him.
‘You want to know how that sounds? I’ll fucking tell you how it sounds. You’ll do exactly what everyone else has done. “Poor Shelley. She’s a fucking nutter. Her life’s a joke and her ex was right to dump her. Shelley’s a drunk. Shelley’s a fucked up bitch. She deserves everything she gets. Yeah - I’ll listen to what she has to say, I’ll scribble something down in my pathetic little notebook, then I’ll go away and have a good chuckle and write him a letter. A fucking letter!”
‘No. Shelley. You’re not listening to me. You need to calm down and try to help us’
‘Help you? Help you? What help have you ever given me? The last policewoman to stand there turned round and laughed in my face. And then turns round and says they’ve sent my useless cunt of an ex – the low life who breaks into houses and sells drugs, who goes round telling people I’m sleeping with a black man, and taking heroin, telling everyone I’m a crazy slag, shouting up at my window from the street, with all the kids in the neighbourhood gathered round, laughing – my ex gets a letter. He hasn’t even got an address! How’s he supposed to get a letter?’
‘What do you want to happen tonight?’
‘I want you all to piss off.’
Rae makes to stand up.
‘Shelley. I’m very sorry that you’re having all these problems and I do hope you get them sorted out. But it seems to me that it’s more of a police matter. So we’ll go now, and give you a bit more room.’
Back out on the landing we start to explain our position to the policeman waiting there, but suddenly there is the sound of shouting and crashing furniture, and he rushes inside to help them.
Rae is writing the job up out in the ambulance when we see her carried out, cuffed and struggling between four of them. They put her into the van, and after a little while, drive her away.
Fierce cuts of brilliant white lightning, now, ripping across the sky, coming to earth somewhere. Rain booming on the roof. The air smells crystalline, electrically charged. I tell Rae that I vaguely remember reading about how a crooked piece of glass is formed every time lightning hits the ground. Now that’s something we’d both like to see.