We are an extemporary group of five, rattling upwards in a bleachy lift – me, my partner, the chaplain third-manning with us and two police officers. The chaplain is carrying our dressings bag. He hugs it to him, emanating goodwill. Ellie is carrying her clipboard, I’m pulling on my gloves.
Ellie asks the policeman: ‘So what do we know?’
‘Called in by a friend. This is a twenty two year old male, history of self-harm, apparently sticking pins into himself tonight. Why, I don’t know. Maybe it’s some kind of voodoo ritual. God knows..’ he sneaks a look at the chaplain ‘… God knows I can think of better things to do with my time, but there you are. You probably know more about this sort of thing than we do.’
The chaplain, lean and quiet and dark as a Mafioso hit man, smiles and nods. The female police officer leans in to her colleague and whispers something to him. The lift careens upwards. It really does stink, and I’m glad we are not going all the way to the twentieth.
The lift crashes to a halt and the heavy metal doors slide open. The police lead on; as a joke, we push the chaplain out next.
But the door to the flat is right by the lift and the police are already banging on it, so we quickly draw on a professional mask of concern. A voice from the other side asks who is it.
‘The police. Could you open up please so we can have a word?’
Bolts. Chains. It swings open to reveal a boyish man in a faded black rock and roll t-shirt, boxer shorts and bare feet - a washed out yawn of a man whose reactions seem as woolly as his tangled brown hair.
‘What’s all this about?’ he says, wanly, then takes another toke on his spitty cigarette. His forearms are as covered in horizontal scratches and scars as the bark of a wild cherry tree. ‘What do you want?’
‘Would you mind if we came in and had a chat? We’ve had a call from someone to say that they were worried about your safety tonight.’
‘Who was that, then?’
‘Can we come in and talk about it?’
He considers us all for a second or two, then seems to lose interest. He lets go of the door, turns and slouches back inside; we follow him through the sparsely furnished flat into the front room. He resumes his place on the battered leather sofa, fitting the deep indentation there perfectly. There is a laptop propped open on an upturned crate in front of him, playing David Gray’s version of Say Hello Wave Goodbye. The ash tray is so full it spills over onto the disks and detritus that surround it. There is a bamboo blind tilted downwards across the main window; from behind it on a ledge, a tiny black faced kitten peers out at us, her fierce yellow eyes electrified with interest.
The man does not so much stub his cigarette out as bury it.
‘Was it Abby?’
‘Abby’s your girlfriend?’
The kitten suddenly jumps down onto the floor between us all. For a moment it stops where it lands in an intensely spiky attitude, front legs splayed out, shoulders at forty five degrees, staring and twitching – then bowls out between us and off through the hall.
‘She was my girlfriend.’
‘So what’s been happening tonight?’
The man seems to notice the chaplain for the first time, and frowns.
‘Don’t worry. I’m just along with the ambulance crew as an observer’ he says, gripping the dressings bag as if he wished it were bigger. Despite our uniforms, belts, blue gloves and radios, the police officers’ panoply of cuffs, batons and sprays – never has a simple collar of starched white fabric marked someone out so profoundly before. He may as well be dressed as a giant rabbit.
‘Have you hurt yourself tonight?’ asks the female officer, bringing us back to business with a flip of her notebook and click of her pen.
‘No. No more than usual. It’s not a problem. I just like to let blood, that’s all.’
‘How do you do that, then?’
‘With one of these’
He produces a syringe.
‘I draw a load out. Most nights. It’s no big deal. It’s something I have to do’
It’s just a kitten’s leap between the man on the sofa and the five of us here on this side of the room, but it feels more like a chasm. He stares at us with the syringe extended before him like a sacrament, his eyes glittering dark against the pallor of his skin.
‘Don’t look so worried. It’s normal for me’ he says.
The police ask us to check the man over, something he submits to with a bemused, slightly martyred air. He tells us about his CPN, how they try to help, but can’t really, as he’s never agreed that he does need help. He’s been in to hospital before with various infections. He’s anaemic. Ellie asks him if he has anyone he can stay with tonight.
‘Just the cat. My girlfriend left me months ago. I don’t know why she’s calling you’ He watches the BP cuff expand around his arm. ‘I haven’t seen my little girl in ages.’
We ask him what he intends to do tonight.
‘Take things as they come. I don’t know – improvise. I have no plans’
His blood pressure is low to normal, but he’s otherwise okay. He refuses hospital. We leave him to finish his interview with the police and let ourselves out.
‘I hope that cat didn’t go out the front door,’ says the chaplain. But we agree that the man didn’t seem concerned about it, so we let it ride.
Instead of taking the lift I suddenly sprint off down the stairs, and the other two try to catch me. It’s fourteen floors up, and I’m breathing hard as their heavy steps gain on me. The chaplain is singing the theme from Starsky and Hutch. Ellie throws her gloves at his head. Our laughter echoes up and down the stairwell.