A tall guy vigorously kitted out in active leisure wear waves over to us from the kerbside up ahead. We pull level with him. He smiles as I climb out of the cab.
‘So this is what happened,’ he says. ‘Gerry and me found this guy lying face down in the middle of the pavement. He smells quite a bit of drink, and I guess you’d say he may well be intoxicated. I don’t think he’s hurt himself, but you’re the experts. Anyway, he wanted to go back in his flat. This one, here. So we helped him up and inside, and – well – that’s it. I hope we did the right thing in calling you. I hope it isn’t a waste of time.’
He touches me on the shoulder, generating such a voltage of goodwill I’m sure I feel a tingle there.
He leads us up some stone steps and into a warm and neatly prepossessing hallway. The door to the ground floor flat stands open, and we follow him in.
‘The ambulance are here, Gerry,’ he says to a similarly tall and waterproofed man, with a smile as invigorating as his friend.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he beams, then stands aside, and with a magician’s sweep of his arm says: ‘And this is Jim.’
Jim sits slumped forwards on the edge of a sofa. With his beany hat pulled low over his brow, his chin buried in the folds of his jacket, his hands hanging between his knees and his shoulders rolling down after them, he seems like the illustration for a grimly modern tarot card: The Beaten Man. He has a bottle of white wine by his leg; when I introduce myself and Rae, he picks it up and takes a long pull.
‘Please don’t drink any more just now, Jim.’
‘You can’t stop me.’
He puts the wine back down, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and resumes his position.
The first helpful guy looks across at me brightly.
‘Well. I guess you won’t be needing us any more,’ he says. ‘Good bye Jim. Nice to have met you.’
Gerry taps Jim on the shoulder. ‘We’re going now, but we’re leaving you in the capable hands of these lovely people.’ Jim looks up, bewildered. ‘Good bye, Jim.’ He holds out his hand. Jim shakes it. They leave, shutting the door behind them with a barely audible click.
‘Jim? Do you mind if I take a seat?’
He gestures vaguely to some collapsible chairs over by the sash window. I put one up for me and one for Rae.
‘Great. Now then. Tell me what’s happened today?’
Between periods of silence and the occasional, choking sob, the fragments of Jim’s story are laid out before us.
He has a drinking problem. He had an appointment today at the Alcohol Abuse Centre, but missed it. He has been drinking since this morning, went out to the corner shop first thing, came back, drank some more, then fell over in the street on the way back to the corner shop for another bottle.
Like an incriminating exhibit in a courtroom, there is an unopened pot of coleslaw (with bacon pieces) on top of today’s paper on the cluttered table in front of the sofa. I imagine Jim shuffling round the shop, coming to just sufficiently to pay for the wine, the newspaper and the coleslaw at the till, and then staggering out.
Jim says he has an American girlfriend who had to leave the country a few months ago when her visa ran out. He says she tried to kill herself last week. Jim can’t cope with any of this anymore. He knows the drinking isn’t helping, but he can’t stop.
He gestures to some bar bells over by the far wall.
‘I’m fit,’ he says. ‘I’m really fit for my age. I go to the gym. I work out. But now. Well – now I’m just whacked out and done for. I’ve let everyone down. And I’m embarrassed, with you lot being here.’
He takes another swig from the bottle.
‘Jim. I really must insist that you don’t drink whilst we’re here. To be honest it makes me feel stupid – the fact that we’ve been called out to you because you’ve had too much to drink, fallen over in the street, can’t get yourself up, and yet here you are carrying on. I’d be failing in my job if I let you do more of the thing that’s caused the problem.’
‘It’s the same as when we’re called out to people with breathing difficulties who want to spark up a fag. It makes a mockery of us being here. So please don’t do it. If you carry on drinking, we’ll just have to go.’
‘You can’t stop me drinking,’ he says. But at least he doesn’t make a grab for the bottle.
‘Okay. I just need to take some information,’ I say. ‘How old are you?’
The same age as me.
‘And what’s your date of birth?’
It’s so unusual to come across someone with the same birthday as me that for a second I almost say it out loud. But I hesitate, and the hesitation seems to jump from me like the flash from a camera, lighting up the studio flat, the bar bells, the pot of coleslaw (with bacon pieces), the beany hat, the bottle of wine, the sprawl of letters from the Alcohol Abuse Centre, the unopened utility bills.
I want to shake his hand and say fancy that, born on the same day, the same year. I want to ask him what time he was born and where. I want to swap notes on the journey so far. But I worry that if I do tell him, me sitting here with a clipboard in my lap and a biro in my hand, Jim with his head down, irresistibly reaching out again now for that bottle of wine – well, I'm worried that it just won’t help at all.