‘I’ve definitely been here before.’
Rae tries to remember for what as we walk up the concrete steps of the housing block. We had turned off the blue lights before we entered the estate, but the road had seemed to shiver like a tripwire; even before our bags were out, we were the multi-eyed focus of this stack of lighted windows.
On the second floor landing a door stands open. Just inside, a tall young kid of about seventeen, dressed in white trainers, a baggy white tracksuit, and a Nike baseball cap tilted up on his head, waits in the narrow hallway, cradling his right hand.
‘She’s in there, in the bedroom,’ he says. ‘And I’ve busted me hand.’
He turns, and leads us down the hallway. For a second I wonder if he’s injured his leg, too, but I realise that the stiff-hipped shuffle is a ghetto-style swagger. He shows us in to a room at the end.
‘Jayne. It’s the ambulance.’
A sickening wail rises up from a mattress on the floor. Jayne sits huddled up under the duvet, pressing herself against the wall. She holds the duvet up to her mouth, her hands either side like a tucked-up child, looking off into the shadows on the far side of the room. Her greasy hair shines dully in the light from the bedside lamp. Her face has the yellowy off-white colouring of old ivory, and her eyes are circumscribed by darkness. In front of her on the bed is a washing up bowl holding a slop of vomit, sopping tissues and a cider can. Beside the mattress is a cluster of vodka bottles. The rag rug is seeded with butts.
Rae says brightly: ‘The last time I was here you were just about to have a baby.’
The boyfriend leans in: ‘Yeah, mate, yeah. Taken into Care last month.’
‘She’s necked all those,’ the boyfriend says, gesturing with his one good hand to a scattering of empty packets. I pick them up: fluoxetine, co-dydramol, paracetamol. ‘She also drank some bleach.’ He hands me a container of Harpic toilet cleaner. The swan-necked spout reminds me of the mouthpiece of a saxophone. I imagine putting it to my lips.
‘I’m not going to no fucking hospital. I’m not. Just leave me alone. I want to die.’ Jayne’s mouth gapes open with the grief of it all; threads of saliva quiver from tooth to tooth.
‘You’re fucking going,’ shouts the boyfriend, leaning over her, jabbing the air in front of her face with his bad hand. Then he winces emphatically.
‘God. Fuck. I won’t do that again.’
He laughs, then holds out his hand to me.
‘What have I done? Is it broken? I suppose I should’ve taken these rings off. My fingers feel like they’re going to explode.’
He has a ring that says DAD and another – a gold sovereign in a silver setting, distorted from the trauma, whatever it was. His fingers have swollen up around both of them.
‘Sorry – what’s your name?’
He looks at me. The acne around his nose and mouth seems of a piece with the naïve clarity of his eyes. But there is something else about him, a twist of violence glinting below the surface, that makes me guarded and alert.
‘Johnnie – we’ll look at your hand in a moment. The first thing we’ve got to do is deal with Jayne.’
‘Of course. Yeah – go on, go on. You do what you’ve got to do. And you – you listen to them. They’re professionals. They know about this shit.’ His tone steps up to almost a shout. ‘Cos I’m not losing you. There’s no way you’re doing that to me.’
‘Mate – let’s be calm. You’re not going to help, otherwise. Just stand over here with me and let Rae see what’s what. Come on.’
He lets me steer him over to the other side of the room. Whilst Rae kneels down to talk to Jayne, I ask Johnnie to start gathering some things: shoes, a coat, a mobile phone, any prescriptions Jayne might have. The distraction works. He forgets his anger, and submits to the task with puppyish enthusiasm.
‘Don’t ask me where she put her trainers. Where did you put your trainers?’ he calls out. Then snorts: ‘Women.’ The word seems wrong from him, too adult, like the sovereign ring on his hand.
‘So tell me what happened to you?’
‘Shit. Some guy came to the door. An intruder. I don’t know. Never seen him before. A skinhead. I asked him what the fuck he wanted but he didn’t say nothing, he just tried to push past. So I battered him in the face. Like anyone would, fighting for their life, you know? I mashed him up proper. He fell backwards into the hall, and then he ran off. Look at this. It’s fucked, isn’t it? I’ve broken my hand, haven’t I? Christ – I can’t even turn it over.’
‘Did you call the police?’
He laughs. ‘The what? No mate, I don’t need no po-lice. They’re no good.’
‘Anyway. Those rings will need to come off, Johnnie. They’re cutting off the circulation.’
‘I can’t do it, mate. I promised my Dad I’d never take this off.’
‘Well I think your Dad would understand. And a good jeweller could repair it.’
‘Yeah? Hey – here they are. I’ve got your trainers, babe.’
He snatches them up and we both go back to the mattress.
Rae has persuaded Jayne to come to hospital. We help her to stand up, dress her in a parka coat and trainers, and walk her out to the vehicle between us. Johnnie follows behind, giving us an excited commentary on the skinhead in the hallway, what he did to him, what he will do when he finds out who he is.
‘No one does that to me. Especially not tonight, not with all this.’
We make Jayne comfortable on the stretcher. Her obs are good. Although she doesn’t tell me outright, I know that Rae doubts the number of tablets taken, the story about the bleach.
‘Here. Look at this,’ says Johnnie, carefully rolling up the sleeve on his injured arm. There is a tattoo of a girl’s name in elaborate, copperplate style - Melissa – with a date. ‘That’s when she was born,’ he says. ‘They let me cut the cord and everything. Fuck me, it was tough. That whole time - it was amazing. The way the head came out looking one way, then turned, like that…’ he does a comical, stiff necked turn to the left, ‘just like someone was inside, moving her. But of course they weren’t. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.’ He cradles his damaged right hand in his left, then says in a different, quieter voice, half to himself and half to Jayne: ‘We’ll get her back. I promise you. We are definitely going to get her back.’