The alerter sounds. Somehow, twenty thousand leagues asleep, I manage to raise my wrist up in front of my face: the dial reads four thirty. Asking me to get up out of this chair is like asking an Egyptian mummy to unwrap itself. But I find myself upright. Rae is there, too, rubbing the feeling back into her face. A moment later we’re back in the cab reading the notes: fifty five year old male conscious breathing assault minor cut to face.
A sickly, sulphurous yellow mist drifts across the ambulance car park. It matches our demeanour perfectly. We pop minty chewing gum to help our mouths form words. We set off for the given address, a seedy little hotel near the front.
The Standard would once have been aptly named, a shabby but discrete ten bedroom hotel reeking of scandal and Shake ‘n’ Vac. But the town’s image has undergone something of a moral re-fit; now the hotel stands on the corner of a main thoroughfare, a superannuated beacon for old-school STI’s, handily placed between a lap-dancing club and an all-night diner, the principal attraction of which seems to be an underage staff who wear short skirts and wave pom-poms at the traffic.
We shuffle up the stairs and knock on the door. We wait. We knock again.
Eventually an interior door opens and a lumpish figure appears at the end of the lobby. He stares at us, makes a peremptory wave-away motion with his hand, then turns to go back.
We knock again.
He pauses, even leans forward slightly in a crude ‘who the hell are you?’ mime. Then shuffles right up to the door.
Rae says: ‘Ambulance’
He raps with two knuckles on the sign hanging on the door: No Vacancies. Then turns to go.
Rae knocks again. When the man turns back to the door, she pulls the material of her jacket straight so the ambulance emblem is clearly visible. She taps it with two fingers and mouths ‘Ambulance’ again. He reaches for the catch and opens the door.
‘Sorry. Sorry,’ he says. ‘I thought –can’t they read?’ He raises his eyebrows and adds: ‘So what’s the problem? What do you want?’
‘We had a call to this address. Room number four. A man has been assaulted, apparently.’
‘Room number four? There’s no-one in room number four. So that can’t be right. A man assaulted? Well. I own this establishment and I can assure you that if a man had been assaulted in room number four, I would certainly know about it. Room number four? There’s no-one in room number four.’
The owner is the product of forty years of dinner plates and optic prods. Five foot seven up and about the same out, he utterly fills the narrow little lobby. Swinging his hammy knuckles like an insouciant ape, he retreats before us.
‘Look. Let’s sort this out. Come in. Come in. I’ll set your mind at rest, officer.’
He wheezes and puffs in a slack-cheeked way back down the lobby, through another glass door. There are framed letters on the wall, yellowing letters of endorsement from long dead under-secretaries. He leads us to the foot of a steep pile of stairs. Suddenly, there is a man standing on the first landing with a phone in his hand and – tellingly – a small cut on the side of his head.
‘Jeremy? What are you doing up? You’re not in room four, are you?’
Jeremy – a man of about the same age as the proprietor, but as gaunt as he is inflated – holds both his hands out to the side, like a religious martyr appearing to his followers.
‘I don’t want the ambulance,’ he sighs. ‘I didn’t ask for them. I am not hurt.’
‘But who’s in room four, then?’
Jeremy lowers his arms and says in a rather flat way: ‘I don’t know. It’s not me.’
‘I think we’d better get to the bottom of this. There might be a dead body in there for all I know. It’s far too early in the morning for crap like this.’
‘Well I didn’t call the ambulance.’
‘Who did you call?’
‘The police. I had a little – incident – last night, and I was simply calling for advice. I think they must have got the wrong end of the stick and called the ambulance on my behalf. But I don’t need you. I’m fine. I’ve got a little graze on my head, but it’s nothing. I can cope. Honestly. Thank you, but I don’t want you.’
Rae puts her hand up, to stop him talking if nothing else.
‘If we’re not needed here then – fine,’ she says. ‘That’s absolutely fine. We’ll be on our way.’
‘Just wait here a second,’ the owner says. Jeremy retreats back up the stairs and the owner trudges up after him. We hear a door unlocked, a light goes on, some whispering, then a moment later the owner’s face appears mooning down at us from above.
‘I told you – there’s no-one in room number four,’ he says. ‘Sorry to have troubled you. Lock the door on your way out.’
We make our way back outside. A couple of lap dancing girls are being shown into their cab by a bouncer. They seem washed out, partially erased in this drizzly, early morning gloom. But one of them throws Rae and me a return look as she lowers herself into the car, and I realise she probably thinks exactly the same about us.