An hour into the shift and I’ve found my nerve; I don’t even flinch as a full scale air assault tears up the air close by. I was twitchy when I started work tonight, but now I hardly notice the continuous barrage of cracks and whooshes and bangs. Chemical vapours glaze the air like burnt sugar. A misty rain begins to drift down past the street lamps as we jump out of the ambulance at the incident address, but it’s late and thin, and won’t be enough to dampen the last few tonnes of powder being touched off in parks, driveways, gardens and allotments all across the city, and beyond.
Parked up ahead of us is a police van and a couple of squad cars. The block of flats that we’ve been called to rises above the vehicles on top of a dark, grassy bank. The block is ablaze with lights, and the people out on their balconies are motionless silhouettes against them. It’s not just the fireworks and the police cars that have brought these people out for a better view. As we walk towards a group of flak-jacketed policeman for some information, we can hear screams.
‘Follow your ears,’ one of them says. Another helps us along with a gesture to the steep concrete steps that lead up to the flats. They resume their relaxed conversation.
At the top of the steps the screams increase. We stand aside as four policemen emerge from a doorway, carrying between them a struggling woman, her rage as glittering and iridescent as any firework I’ve seen tonight. Her arms are vipered behind her back to her legs. It’s an effort for her to raise her head at all, but now and again she manages it, not to see where she is being taken, but to avoid wasting her sparks on the pavement.
We let them pass, then carry on into the block.
A policewoman meets us on the stairs just in front of the flat we need. She is relaxed, snugly buttoned in to her jacket, her glossy hair neatly tied back. She speaks in warm, quiet tones. If you shut your eyes and ignored the radio, she could be an estate agent greeting us at the door to a property with an awkward history.
‘Hello guys. Thank you for coming. I don’t know what you’ve been told about this one.’
‘Just that a one year old child had been assaulted.’
‘Okay. Fine. Well. Let me fill you in. The mother – she doesn’t live here any more – you may have seen her just leaving? Well, apparently the mother came round to see her ex. She was already quite drunk at that time, and had a little more to drink here. I’m afraid she has a history of instability, and in fact became more and more aggressive tonight, threatening violence to x, y and zee. Then at some point in the evening it appears that she pulled the child out of its cot, gave it a slap across the face and then – well, the house was in uproar, we were called, etc. So we got you guys in just to check the child over to make sure it’s okay. Okay?’
She smiles, gives her pony tail an encouraging little flick, then leads us through a boxy hallway smelling of spilled beer and damp coats, and into the sitting room.
There is a young man in a red football shirt and track suit bottoms, star-fished on the dirty brown sofa. He waves cheerily as we walk into the room, then carries on staring at the blank TV and sipping from a can of lager. Just over by a bookcase of DVDs there is an anxious looking young woman in a parka. Her face is as white as her hands, which she kneads in front of her. Out in the adjoining kitchenette, another policewoman is talking to a man, who, when he sees us, excuses himself and strides in to say hello. He holds out his hand for me to shake.
‘Hello. God – thanks for coming. Sorry to get you out like this. It’s all so stupid. I’m sure everything’s okay, but you know best.’
A small, trim man in his late thirties, he wears the same football shirt as the man on the sofa, but unfortunately in his case it only serves to intensify the stressed scarlet blush that has him by the neck and face. A pattern of old scars stand out on his cropped skull, mapping traumas weathered so far. But despite all the blows that life has rained down on his head, he still holds his shoulders and back with only the slightest protective curvature you sometimes see in boxers; a man blasted by life, getting by nonetheless.
He shows me over to the corner of the room and a large, blue playpen. In the pen, a toddler is sitting propped up on teddy-bear patterned pillows, sucking contentedly on a milk bottle.
‘This is Niles. Niles is a bonza baby, a strong wee lad. His mother and I don’t live together any more, but I let her come round now and again. She has her problems and you have to keep an eye on her, but I thought it was okay and under control. Anyways, she came round tonight, pretty smashed. Stupidly I let her in. One thing led to another. I think she just wanted to get at me. She didn’t know what she was doing. She grabbed Niles by the hands, pulled him up – like this – out of the cot. Dumped him on the sofa and before we could do anything she’d given him a slap around the head.’
The man on the sofa shuffles over to make some room. I look at Niles and he looks at me. He has a small red mark above his right eye. I lean into the pen, lift him up and out, and sit down with him on the sofa. He’s only one, but his strength is startling. Now that he is free of his little prison, he ditches the bottle and begins a concerted break for freedom.
‘Hang on, Niles! Whoa! Well, I’d say his motor functions are intact.’
Rae helps me undo his babygro so we can give him a thorough check over. It’s like trying to examine a tiger cub: he writhes and kicks and grabs whatever he can in his effort to break free, but his expression remains bright and happy. I pass Niles back to his Dad, who waggles him in the air and makes him laugh. Then he lies him on the floor to put the babygro back on.
‘I’m not letting her round again,’ he says, expertly guiding Niles’ arms and feet into the outfit. ‘I’ve tried and tried but that’s enough. God knows what’ll happen now.’
I finish the paperwork, collect a releasing signature and stand to go. He reunites Niles with his bottle, then shakes my hand again. The policewoman at the front door touches me on the shoulder. ‘Everything okay? Great.’
We step outside, and suddenly the sky is ripped with a spray of little green stars.