A full moon sharp as a security guard’s torch shines on us as we sip coffee and swap war stories round the back of the parked ambulances.
Kaz, the new SHO – a short, powerfully built Asian doctor who takes hungry bites of his cigarette every time he puts it to his mouth – crosses and uncrosses his legs, and points to us enthusiastically.
‘You guys. I don’t get why you guys don’t wear stab vests. All the crazies, all the druggies – you get it as bad as the police. I don’t know why you don’t get issued with something like that.’
Watching him endlessly shifting position, munching his way through cigarettes, it strikes me he’s probably bald because he doesn’t sit still long enough for any hair to grow on him. He speaks loudly, briskly to purpose, even his leisure time set at the same pitch as his life in the A&E department.
Suddenly Mel, who has been standing quietly to the edge of this group of ambulance and hospital staff, speaks up.
‘I wish I’d had a stab vest the other day. The whole thing really shook me.’
There is a pause as we try to imagine Mel shaken up. Although she has the physical demeanour of a sporty nun, there is something about the way she carries herself – a quietly hard-edged economy – that makes you think of professional killers, assassins, samurai for hire. She wears her long brown hair scraped back in a swordsman’s ponytail, and her silver rimmed glasses glimmer in the unearthly light.
‘It shook me so much I could hardly use the radio.’
She gives her pony tail a little flick, rearing slightly at the memory, then tells us the story:
“We got a call to a man, short of breath, Category A, the full monty. And then on the way we got a follow-up saying they couldn’t get anything out of the guy, he was struggling so much he couldn’t talk. And then the line had gone quiet, so this was now a query collapse.
“We hauled up outside this house, dead of night, everything dark, front door open but looking like no-one home. On a social housing street, nothing too awful. So I took a torch with me just in case, Bill took the resus bag. I knocked on the door. ‘Hello? Ambulance?’ No reply. Flicked the hall light but the power’s off. I really didn’t want to go in – I was getting a bad feeling about the whole affair, but this was a guy who was maybe breathing his last so I thought I’d go in a bit further. Nothing. No-one. Flashed the torch around. No-one in the kitchen, no-one in the sitting room. No-one in the little back room. So then I thought I’d take a look upstairs. Bill was right behind me, thank God. He asked me if I wanted to call the police and I said something like: ‘Let’s just see what we’ve got”. Like an idiot. So I crept up the stairs shouting: ‘Ambulance. Hello.’ All the doors on the landing standing open. None of the lights working. I thought: I really don’t like this. But then I thought: maybe there’s someone very sick who needs me. So I had a quick look into the bathroom, the toilet and the two bedrooms. Nothing. Everything quiet. We both went back downstairs, stood outside in the garden looking up at the house and wondering what we were going to do next. Bill got back to Control. They said the line was still live, and they heard us shouting in the background. They reckoned that the guy was on the floor somewhere. But then they also said they couldn’t be sure, but just before the phone went quiet it sounded as if there were some inappropriate words said, nothing distinct, they couldn’t be sure. But maybe this is a hoax. They said the police would be round as soon as possible, stay put in the meantime.
“But like an idiot I thought I’d better go back into the house one more time to make absolutely sure. I suppose I just didn’t want to look stupid when the police arrived and we all went in and found a poor guy lying dead on the bedroom floor. Maybe the lights blew and he had a heart attack trying to change the fuse. So we went back inside.
“This time I was a bit more thorough. I even opened some cupboard doors downstairs, looked behind the kitchen counter. Then we went upstairs. I went straight up to the first bedroom and stepped inside. I flashed around by the bed, on the floor. And then I had this horrible sick feeling, and I turned around.
“There was a naked guy standing behind the bedroom door, staring at me with his cock in his hand.
“So I screamed – which I don’t think I’ve ever done before – shouted for Bill to get out, and we both ran down the stairs three at a time and back out into the garden again. The police turned up right then and all piled inside. They found him masturbating up in the bedroom.
“It took me ages to calm down after that one. I think that’s the most danger I’ve been in since doing this job. It was horrible. I was shaking so much, when I eventually got on the radio to control I could only talk like this: Hello…. Control…. this is …. Mel. I just couldn’t get the words out. They were sticking way down. In here.”
“And to think I could have turned out to that one alone, on the car. Stab vest? These days I feel like I need a suit of fucking armour.”