There’s no way of driving the ambulance into the multi-storey car park, so we drive round the side, take out the bags we think we’ll need, lock the vehicle, and set off up a ramp heading for the fifth floor.
It is utterly deserted. The barriers are down, the last car driven through an hour ago. All sense of human warmth has gone from the place, withdrawn now to the safety of lenses in high corners. Our footsteps echo away into the shadows. Level through level, zone through zone, the building rises up like an empty temple. Incense of piss and oil. God knows what happens on the roof.
I have a resus bag in one hand and a big flashlight in the other. I flick the light on and off, appreciating the action, and the weight.
We follow the signs - an energetic green figure sprinting towards a doorway. We move with much less enthusiasm. I lean against the heavy fire door.
Opening up the concrete stairwell, I release the booming sound of aggressive voices a few levels up. And like rain pattering down from a thunder cloud, sparkling droplets splash down into the puddle on the floor in front of us.
I look at Frank and he smiles. I gently close the door, turn round and we head back outside.
We’d only been inside the car park for a few minutes, but now the night air seems crisp and invigorating. Frank gets on the radio to call for police attendance. I put the bags back into the truck in case we need to make a quick getaway, but I keep the flashlight in my hand.
‘Five minutes,’ he says.
I prop myself up against a wall to wait. Frank rolls a cigarette. Clubbers pass on the other side of the street, laughing, pushing each other, having a time of it. The smell of Frank’s tobacco threads the air.
Then an emergency exit door from the car park is flung open and a man steps out.
‘He’s gone and smashed me fookin’ radio!’
I push myself away from the wall.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say. ‘Who’d want to do a thing like that?’
‘Are you here for that nutcase? Are you gonna take that fuckwit away?’ he shouts, ignoring me.
Under this street lamp the man seems leached of colour, as if earlier in the day he’d been thrown into a boiling wash along with his clothes. His hair hangs in limp coils around his face; his eyes, couched in puffy pale skin, flick nervously from side to side. He has a kit bag squashed under his right arm, and in his left hand there is half a radio.
‘Look what he did. Honestly. With a crowbar!’
‘So who called the ambulance?’
‘I don’t fookin’ know. You’ve got to take him in, though. He’s up there, smashing his head against the wall. I hope he fookin’ dies.’
‘Well – we heard there was a bit of a commotion, so we came back outside to call the police.’
The man pulls his radio back in to himself and grips his kit bag more firmly. ‘The police? Well I’m off, then.’
And he starts off on a brisk walk along the road.
At that moment, somebody else crashes out onto the street through the door: a man as dark with dirt as the first was clean. He stands in the middle of the pavement, gasping for breath with his hands on his knees, staring up at us. Seconds later he is almost knocked into the road by a woman in a baggy, multi-coloured jumper, her extensions flying around her like snakes around the Medusa. She launches a kick at him, which he sidesteps. She tries to slap his head.
‘You cunt!’ she shrieks. ‘You left me there.’
Then she sees us.
‘Finally,’ she says, pushing her face clear of all the hair, pulling her jumper down. ‘He’s just behind us.'
Radioman has changed his mind. I notice him walking back towards us down the street.
The emergency exit swings open again with a bang, and this time two men stagger out, the tallest one with his right arm slung round the neck of the other. He leans his weight on him, dragging his feet. From where I stand I look for signs of a head wound, but I can’t see any blood, bruising or swelling.
As if suddenly embarrassed to find himself out in the open, he pushes himself clear of his friend and stands up straight, swaying precariously from side to side.
‘I don’t need no hospital,’ he says.
‘Are you the patient?’
‘Are you hurt?’
The guy who was supporting him comes over to me, stands right in front of me and puts his face so close to mine that I have to take a step back.
‘He was losing it big time up there, mate. He was banging his head against a brick wall. You have to take him to hospital.’
His mouth is glistening black, as if he’s been eating liquorice. ‘He’s been abused since the age of five. You have to take him to hospital.’
Before I can say anything, Radioman is back.
‘What are you going to do about this?' he shouts at them all. 'Are you going to buy me a new one?’
The black mouthed man takes a step towards him.
'No. I’m going to shove the half you’ve got left up your arse.’
A police car pulls up and two policewomen climb out. One of them immediately attracts the attention of Radioman, who, glad of an excuse to withdraw, goes to wave his ruined plastic carcass at her. The other policewoman walks into the centre of the group. She puts her hands out, palms up.
‘Right. You - be quiet. And you. Please. Now then.’ She smiles at me. ‘What’s going on?’
I briefly tell her what the call was given as, what we found when we got here, and why we felt there may be some danger in hanging around inside.
‘So who’s been smashing things up?’
‘Me,’ says the patient, leaning against the car park wall, zombie-eyed. ‘I need help, man.’ He makes an ineffectual pass at banging his head against the wall, but frankly I could do better. Frank flicks his cigarette away. A little cascade of red sparks marks the spot it reaches in the middle of the road.
At this point, Radioman seems to find a new energy; he comes striding back into the group, windmilling his kit bag in the air and furiously blowing out his cheeks.
I take myself away to stand next to Frank. We look on, check our watches, fold our arms. The row grows in intensity, a cartoon quarrel, with no apparent centre or destination.
Suddenly, a young woman comes drifting along the pavement. She is about eighteen, slim and poised, her hair neatly caught up in a wide rainbow band, her shoulders bare above a strapless black dress, no shoes on her feet. I make as if to stop her, but there’s something about the way she approaches that makes me hesitate. I watch as, without the slightest deviation, without even seeming to register the existence of the squabbling gang in front of her, she pads towards them. I watch as they fall silent, separate, dissolve harmlessly away, all without a gesture or a shove, to let her through.
And she passes.
There is a pause as her figure diminishes.
The group hangs in confusion, like startled swimmers in the wake of a ghost ship.
Then, finally, she is gone.
After a moment or two the group shakes itself, closes back in on itself - and the whole damned thing starts up where it left off.