We’ve been told that an ambulance car will be making a first on this severe respiratory distress. The satnav blue-lines us into a wide avenue and there we see it double parked a way up ahead, blue lights flashing. I drive up, park behind it, we climb out of the cab and go up to the front door of a detached Georgian house, its front garden built for speed with an unkempt clump of ornamental grass and a dump of slate chippings. The rack of buzzers by the battered front door testifies to the minute sectioning of this place into flats. The building has an air of slow, expedient ruin about it, like some grand family falling through hard times and scandals to a pragmatic accommodation with the modern age.
We are buzzed in to a musty hallway, original black and white tiling jarring with the notice board, fire extinguisher, alarm console and the casual scattering of letters above the radiator. With all the health & safety notices, contact numbers and house rules pinned up everywhere, it looks as if this may be some kind of hostel, but it’s not one either of us has been to before. We go up the stairs and in through the door marked ‘3’.
We step into a rancid atmosphere of nicotine and old sweat, and then: ‘Hello chaps,’ says Ray, the paramedic. He is standing with his stethoscope draped around his shoulders, his legs spread like a compass, scribbling observations down on his clipboard. Slumped on the bed in front of him is a half-naked young man who would not be out of place chesting walruses on an ice flow. His swollen breasts hang across his belly, a great, veined appendage that pushes his arms and legs apart and makes him look in danger of exploding. He raises a padded hand to stroke his Fu-Manchu beard, and nods at us.
‘More troops’ he says.
‘This is Henry,’ says Ray. ‘Henry has had a bit of chest infection for the past few days. Hasn’t seen his doctor, felt worse today, called us in. As you can see, he’s talking in complete sentences, his sats are fine, no chest pain or anything like that, I’ve listened to his chest, it seems clear, but Henry says he’d like to get some expert advice on all this. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to stand you down.’
Ray is brisk, with a kind of deadly clarity that only Henry seems impervious to.
‘And I can reassure you that he’s walking out to the vehicle.’
‘I’m sorry to call you people out,’ says Henry, starting to gather the vast black acreage of his t-shirt to him. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’
We take in the bedsit whilst Ray finishes off the paperwork.
‘Are these your paintings?’ Rae asks Henry, nodding at the canvases brutally nailed to the walls. Each one is roughly covered with a smear of yellow, red and brown acrylic paint.
‘Yep. They’re my dreams.’
At one side of the room, opposite the kitchen with its nightmarish dump of dirty pans and pizza boxes, propped up casually against an old Laney amp, is a Gibson Les Paul guitar. Its beautiful, bright cherry finish is even more striking for the awfulness of its surroundings.
‘You play guitar?’ says Rae.
Henry half closes his eyes. ‘A little.’ He begins hauling the t-shirt over his head.
Above the guitar, on a cleanly swept, little blue votive shelf, there is a clip frame: a photo of Carlos Santana.
Later that night – one sprained ankle, one hyperventilation, one threatened suicide, one imminent birth and one collapse query cause later - I’m wheeling the trolley back outside to the ambulance when I notice a little grey triangle of plastic on the tarmac.
I nudge it with my boot. Unmistakable. A plectrum.