The sky is a hard crystalline blue dome, the sun so bright that when I shut my eyes, the inside of my skull feels lit up. We are straight out on our first job this morning, singing along to the radio, slapping time on the dashboard, doing the hand-jive, flying off above the waking town and out to the sticks to an Overdose/Poisoning. Even the job sounds straightforward. We have everything we need. All is well.
The street we want is part of a development laid out in the thirties with a logic even the satnav seems happy with. Vividly displayed beneath this glittering autumnal sun, it’s apparent that the developer must once have travelled somewhere hot. Returning home with his sketch books, he attempted to graft a hundred acres of white-arched, flat-roofed, bougainvillea brilliance onto the scrubby native downland. Eighty years later, the villa-style bungalows have slowly lost focus, drifting from the rustic Mediterranean ideal, their simple lines silted up with pebble dashing, crazy paving, plastic gnomes, PVC sun porches, corrugated plastic car ports, barbecue sets, clematis, privet and conifer trees.
But parking is easy. Taking only the clipboard, we walk through the gate of the bungalow we want. To the side of the sun porch is a plaque that says: Willowfern, picked out in a storybook, Celtic script. I ring the buzzer and we both wait.
Eventually a woman opens the internal door and then reaches over to open the porch door. With her red face and her thick, squared-off physique, it’s as if she has struggled out of a compactor to answer the door.
‘She’s in the bedroom,’ she says. We follow her inside.
‘Who’s that? Who’s there?’ Another female voice, anguished and thin, from the room immediately in front of us.
‘Hello. It’s the ambulance. I’m Spence, and we’ve got Rae here, too.’
‘I didn’t call an ambulance. I don’t want an ambulance.’
I ask the first woman in a whisper what their names are, and then say: ‘Karen called us. She was worried about you. Gill, do you mind if we come in and have a chat? Nothing will happen that you don’t want to happen. We just want to see how you are.’
Gill makes a noise that we take as a muffled kind of assent, so we go into the bedroom.
She is standing over by the window. The room is stuffy, a long-nighted fug that makes you want to throw the windows open and breathe. Gill stands staring at us, her eyes wide with the kind of electrified poise you might expect to see on the face of a deer, startled, ready to run.
‘Hello, Gill. Sorry to barge in on you like this.’
I’m aware of Karen nudging Rae behind me, handing her a fist of empty pill packets. Rae starts to sort them like-with-like. A collection of pain, BP, anti-depressant meds.
‘Karen is worried that you may have taken an overdose of these things,’ I say. ‘Is that right?’
‘Leave me alone. Please. I just want to die. I’m no good. It’s time I took myself off. I’m sorry if you’ve been called out unnecessarily, but I don’t need you. Will you please just go.’
‘Well, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we turned around and left, knowing you were distressed like this, and taken an overdose. We can’t really just go, can we Gill? We’d worry that something would happen to you.’
‘Something will happen to me. I want something to happen to me.’
‘But Karen doesn’t. Karen wants you to be okay, as we all do.’
‘She doesn’t understand. She’s better off without me.’
‘Leaving all that aside for the moment, would you come out to the ambulance so we can do your blood pressure and such? I promise we won’t rush off anywhere or do anything you don’t want us to do. But seeing as we’re here, we may as well find out a little bit more and see if there’s anything we can do to help. Will you do that?’
It’s like trying to coax an injured animal out of the bushes and into a cage. I have to make continual adjustments, shifting the tone and direction of my words to perceived changes in hers, in an effort to tempt Gill out of the bedroom and onto the ambulance. Rae joins me. Between us we make her the focus of a fragile crossfire of compassion; eventually, after about twenty minutes, she shuffles out between us.
She insists we leave the door of the ambulance open. She sits, and later as she talks, her fingers clench and unclench around the arms of the chair.
‘My father didn’t love me. I let him down. Like I let everyone down, eventually. It’s just how I am. My eldest daughter won’t speak to me. I don’t have any friends any more. I’m always hurting Karen. She deserves better. I’m hurting her now – look – but what can I do? It’s been going on far too long and I’m tired and I just want it all to finish. I’ve tried and tried but there’s nothing more to be done. I know you’re doing your best, and I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time, but please, just leave me alone to die. It really is for the best. I’ve thought about the options, God knows I’ve thought about what might be done to help, but I’ve driven everyone to the edge now, and I’ve reached the point where I know for a fact that nothing can be done. The only thing is for me to go away for good. So please just leave me alone. Don’t blame yourself. It’s me. I’m selfish. Useless. I’m a burden to everyone who knows me.’
She is rigid, her face taught and resolved, as if she is perched on a chair high above a black vortex, looking for the correct sequence of thoughts to release her grip and let her drop with the pull of it, deep down and away, feet first.
The ambulance suddenly feels chilly and I want to shut the door. Instead I ask Gill if she’d like a blanket round her shoulders.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, she asks me if I have any children.
‘Two girls,’ I tell her, ‘three and seven.’
She smiles. ‘I bet they keep you busy.’
I put the clipboard to one side.
‘You know, I took Chloe – the eldest one - to a Brownie outward bound adventure camp thingy last weekend. She’s had sleepovers at friends before, but this was a much bigger deal – two nights away, sleeping in a dormitory. When I took her there, blimey! It was like dropping her off in the monkey enclosure at London Zoo – all these hyperactive girls leaping about between bunk beds. But really I think I was more nervous about it than she was. Anyway, the whole weekend we didn’t hear a thing. We kept wanting to call and find out how it was going, but our neighbour had had kids on the same course and she said they preferred it if you kept off the phones unless it was urgent. So we sat on our hands, thinking how strange the house felt without her. Definitely quieter. But of course she was absolutely fine. Hadn’t missed us at all. Had a great time. I’m so proud of her. She’s so plucky – much pluckier than I was at her age.’
Gill pulls the blanket around her. She suddenly seems weightier, more defined.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask her. ‘You know they’re very good at the hospital. We could make you comfortable there, no fuss, get you someone to talk to, get someone to look at what you’ve taken, see what needs doing.’
‘Okay,’ she says.
The trip into the hospital was smooth. Rae is such a good driver it’s like being on a train. And with the doors shut, the heater kicking on full and the sun leaning in through the slatted windows, it really warmed up nicely.