Tuesday, April 29, 2008

travelling companions

‘Thanks for coming.’
Standing in the open doorway of the caravan, in the thickly shadowed darkness of this derelict office forecourt, the man looms above us like an urban warlord, big hands reaching down to us, glints of metalwork in his mouth, ear and lips, a roughly-worked, stubbled head. A dog – the magician’s familiar – jumps down with a muscled thump and sniffs us thoroughly.
‘Don’t mind him. He’s okay. Watch yourself as you step up. I’m afraid it’s all a bit – temporary.’
He helps us into the caravan as we step up using the lorry tyre that’s been put there.
Even by the light of the solitary candle you can tell that Kat is exhausted. She sits with her legs drawn up on the bed-shelf, stroking her pregnant belly with one hand and her forehead with the other. Just along from her on the shelf a child is sleeping in a nest of duvets, towels and such. You can just make out a messy heap of hair on the pillow. The dog follows us in, jumps up beside the little boy, sighs heavily and curls up.
Kat tells us that she went to stand up and felt a tearing pain in her right side. She’s never had anything like it before; it made her vomit, and cry out. It lasted for about an hour, full on, nothing helped. It’s fading now. She tells us that she’s twenty two weeks pregnant, everything’s going well, but she did have a difficult time of it with her last pregnancy. Non-identical twins. But just as she went into labour they discovered that one of them had died, so they delivered by emergency c-section and found that there had been a problem with one of the placenta.
Although her initial obs are normal, I tell them that – with all she’s said about the pain and her past medical history – it’s inevitable I’ll be recommending a trip into hospital for a check up. She says she’s okay to walk out to the ambulance. We help her up.

This interior seems insanely bright and organised; Kat quietly grips the arms of her seat as we lurch off the site, but she is as safely stowed as all the clinical stuff that surrounds us. Despite her scavenged clothes and matted hair, she has the resonantly clear complexion and expression of a child.
‘I’m tired,’ she says. ‘I want to settle down and find a flat, but it’s not happening. They say I’ve got to go back home to my parents, but there’s nothing there for me. I don’t want to stay with Mike, though. I don’t know how I ended up there.’
She pauses, staring into the window and the reflection that stares straight back at her.
After a moment she says: ‘He’s nice enough, and he’s great with Jez, but – I think I’ll miss the dog more.’

Monday, April 28, 2008


Eleni, the ninety three year old Greek-born resident of these flats, sits on the floor, propped up against an armchair with her withered legs drawn up. Her cream dressing gown is patterned with splotches of blood. She looks across at us as the warden, James, shows us into the room, and she raises a hand feebly in acknowledgement.
‘Ninety three and steady on her pins,’ he says, proudly showing off his favourite, but in the pause that follows no one could be in any doubt that times have moved on.
‘Then again, she has started falling over a little bit these past few weeks.’
She tuts, and shakily tries to pluck away some hair sticking to her face.
‘Eleni has cerebral atrophy,’ says James, ‘which means she has difficulty remembering things sometimes. And her English was never that good to begin with.’ He steps aside with a red-faced flourish. ‘Over to the professionals. I’ll go and make a few calls.’
‘No hospital,’ she snaps up at us, grumpily.

It seems Eleni has fallen over in her little kitchenette sometime in the last three hours, an event born out by the dried blood on her face, and the way the wound’s edge has curled back on itself. She has knocked a sixpenny sized hole into her head just above her left eye; beneath the congealed lumps you can just make out the dull glimmer of bone.
‘Toilet,’ Eleni says, gripping my hand. ‘Bring me.’
We give her a quick assessment for other injuries, then ask James to bring the commode over so we can lift her straight onto it. I give her a few moments privacy to relieve herself, then start in with the cleaning of the wound.
‘This will need a trip up to the hospital, I’m afraid,’ I tell her. She narrows her eyes at me and hisses. ‘This is a nasty wound, Eleni. We can’t just treat it here. It needs some specialised attention.’
Eleni seems to whince more at the prospect of a trip up to the hospital than my dabbing clean of the area. I do what I can, then tie a dampened bandage to her head. From where we stand around her we can see into the kitchenette, the smashed plate of food on the floor, cold ratatouille mixed with blood and a pair of broken glasses on the top like some tragic garnish.
James comes back into the room.
‘I’ve spoken to Henry,’ he says, bending close-in to Eleni and speaking loudly. ‘He’s going to set off right away, says he should be up the hospital by close of play today.’ James rubs her shoulder affectionately then straightens up and says to us: ‘Her son, Henry. Well – I say son – he’s seventy odd himself. He’s a consultant at a hospital somewhere up north a-ways. He’ll be retiring himself, soon.’
We move with Eleni out of the room, and as I wait for James to open the door, I notice a beautifully framed, formally posed photograph on the wall – a young nurse sitting down, and a young man in a uniform standing behind her, one hand on her shoulder, the other by his side. James catches me looking at it.
‘Eleni’s husband. Flight lieutenant Frank Clements. Shot out of the skies over Alexandria in forty one.’ Then to Eleni: ‘See you soon, Trouble,’ and leads us all to the lifts.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

a slow drive out

‘Apparently you’ve got a transfer to Southview for us. A patient Beauregard?’
The charge nurse suddenly looks up at me with a thousand watts of attention. Worryingly, she stands, walks around the desk, grabs me by both shoulders and holds me at arms length.
‘God. Jesus. Yes. Thank you so much. Now then. She’ll tell you she’s injured but she’s not. She’ll tell you she’s been in umpteen traffic accidents but she hasn’t. She says she can’t move, but even though she’s perfectly mobile, please, please, please treat her as if she can’t and pat slide her slowly onto your trolley. She’ll throw herself on the floor if you don’t. She’s had all her medication – don’t listen to her. Her brother Ken’s with her and he’s okay, so follow what he says. She’s taken everyone’s name in here, threatened us all with the police, so don’t worry about that. She’s very volatile and she may well try to pinch or slap you, but I don’t think she needs a police escort. Ken seems to have things in hand. Follow him. Strap her into the trolley. Drive slowly. God. Thank you so much for taking her off our hands.’
‘Is this a compulsory section?’
‘No – it’s voluntary. But best not talk about it overmuch.’
The charge nurse leads us to a cubicle with all its curtains drawn. She gives me a preparatory over-the-shoulder look – one part showman, two parts executioner – then draws the curtain back.
‘Ah. There you are. Look. I’m really not at all comfortable. My legs are swelling up. I have dangerous sensations in my arms and my back is an utter nightmare. Why aren’t you giving me the medication I need? Why are you torturing me like this? I don’t think you can be aware of the extent of my condition.’
Mrs Beauregard reminds me of one of my primary school teachers. She has the same high manner, the same great jowls of indignation, but behind the lenses of Mrs B’s thick glasses, her eyes seem painted and flat.
‘This is the ambulance crew who have come to take you to the other hospital we talked about.’
Mrs Beauregard scans us vaguely, then plucks at her blankets.
‘That’s all very well – and I’m happy to meet you – but this isn’t addressing the central question. I am suffering. I am in considerable pain. And you don’t seem in the least bit interested to do anything about it. I know what your name is and I know what you’re up to. I’ve taken note of everything that’s happened here today, and I shall be contacting the police, my MP, the papers. It pains me to say it but your career is effectively over.’
‘Obviously you are entitled to say whatever you like about the treatment you’ve had from us today. I’m confident that it will show a proper level of care.’
The charge nurse introduces me to Ken, who is sitting surrounded by bags on a hospital chair. As he stands up, it seems inconceivable that he is related to the woman in the bed. The vigour of his handshake, the warmth in his eyes, even the care evident in his closely-trimmed white beard – whilst her illness has leached something intangibly connected from Mrs Beauregard, her brother looks at us with a grounded smile.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘Thanks for coming so quickly.’

Despite taking as much care in the transfer from the hospital bed to our trolley as we would for a critically injured patient, Mrs Beauregard provides an awful soundtrack of yelps, shrieks, urgent instruction, threats and pleadings.
‘My back! My back! Good God Alive! You’ll paralyse me! Don’t you care? Can you be so cruel?’
Once we have her on the ambulance trolley, and Ken collects all the bags together ready to go, Mrs B gives us some more information.
‘I don’t know if you’ve been made aware,’ she says, placing her hand on my arm, ‘about my eye condition? As a result of the last road accident, my retinas have become detached, and pressure has built up dangerously behind the eye. It’ll be in my notes. Is it in my notes?’
I look across to Ken and he raises his eyebrows.
‘Let’s have a look at that on the vehicle,’ I say to her. ‘The sooner we make a start, the sooner we’ll be there and you can have a rest.’
‘No. You don’t understand. Why should you? The nursing standards here are execrable. No. Listen to me – and do not move until you have this perfectly understood. My eyes are in a fragile state. The slightest wrong move and I will be plunged into darkness. I cannot be subject to any untoward movement. I cannot be driven above twenty miles an hour. Any faster and I will jump out of the vehicle. Do you understand? I shall go blind.’
Ken puts the bags back down and steps over to his sister.
‘Dorothy,’ he says, stroking her forehead. ‘Dorothy. Try to relax. This is an experienced crew. They know what they’re doing. Let’s just get going and make the best of it.’
‘I hope they do know what they’re doing,’ she says, releasing my arm. ‘If they do, it’ll be a first.’

The journey to Southview is an extended version of the transfer from bed to trolley. Mrs Beauregard instructs and screams and threatens and reaches across to slap me, whilst Ken does what he can to pacify his sister. At one point, in an effort to introduce some rational understanding of her situation, I decide to see if Mrs B knows where she is going; this is supposed to be a voluntary admission, after all.
‘Dorothy? Do you know much about Southview?’ But when I glance at Ken, he shakes his head discretely. I decide not to pursue that particular line, and settle back into my seat.
‘How can you be so cruel?’ says Dorothy, fixing me with a watery stare. ‘When I first saw you I thought you seemed kind, but now I see you for what you are. A cruel and petty man.’

At Southview we are faced with a practical dilemma. The trolley will not fit into the lift, and there are no chairs. Mrs Beauregard can barely interrupt her monologue of threats to think about the problem, so I leave her with Rae and Ken and set off to muster some help from the ward.
The psychiatric nurse who comes down with me listens to my description of Mrs Beauregard with a battle worn air of detachment.
‘We don’t need a chair,’ she says. ‘Come on. We’ll do this quickly.’
I’m encouraged; she seems a formidable ally, with her pile of henna red hair and her orange lipstick, a vivid specialist who’ll know how to trot this one out.
Unfortunately, back down in the lobby, it appears she has no magic formula. We’re left to wrap Mrs Beauregard in blankets, slide her onto the ambulance carry chair, and wheel her up to her bare little room, all within a storm of sound that echoes about the resoundingly empty corridors.

Whilst the psychiatric nurse and an orderly settle Mrs Beauregard into her room, Ken steps outside and thanks us for our help.
‘Don’t worry about anything she said to you. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just her illness.’
For the only time that night I’m able to ask him a little about the situation. He tells me that he has two sisters. The eldest sister is already in a special unit; Dorothy started showing similar symptoms about a year ago, but this is an acute deterioration. In neither case can the doctors pinpoint an organic cause, and there’s no history of it in their parents or other relatives. Ken lives abroad, and flew back yesterday to oversee things.
‘Good luck with everything,’ I say to him as we gather up our chair and blankets. ‘I hope it all works out.’
He waves to us from outside the room, steps back inside, and the door closes on Dorothy’s booming complaint.

We wait by the security door to be buzzed out.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

baby bird

The girl is star-fished on the sofa, asleep, but there are several details in the room that undercut the peaceful image. Two policemen make room for us as we come in the door, the radios on their shoulders emphasising their darkly official presence; the other detail is the two raddled looking women, one in a puffa jacket with her arms folded, the other in a dressing gown smoking a cigarette. She gives us a thin smile about one degree cooler than murderous. The next thing I notice – initially as a winy smell, then as slipperiness - is that the laminate floor we’re standing on is awash with vomit.
‘Paula came back with her mate, Francie. They went upstairs for a couple of hours, then Francie left. That was it, as far as I was concerned. Then she came downstairs, and she’s like this.’ Paula’s mother takes another drag on her cigarette. ‘I can’t understand it. What’s wrong with her?’
‘Francie came home about an hour ago and she seemed absolutely fine. Went to bed early. Zonko. Good as gold.’
It looks as if the two women have been dragged together in the wake of their two thirteen year old daughters, but the cigarette smoke coming from Paula’s mum looks like steam escaping from an overheating boiler, and from here, between these two policemen, it certainly feels as if this particular teen-parent coalition is set to blow.

I go over to Paula and try to rouse her. With one little shake of her shoulder she suddenly sits up. She opens her eyes, and though the pupils are massively dilated, she doesn’t seem to register anything. Then she opens her mouth, stretches out her tongue, and lets out a dreadful, mewling scrape of a noise, sounding in her distress like a baby bird chewed by a cat. She doesn’t respond to any questions, just shakes her head from side to side, and spits little white saliva-balls into the air.
‘It’s pretty obvious that Paula’s had a fair bit to drink tonight, but do you think she might have had some drugs?’
‘No. She’s a good girl,’ she says, looking at Francie’s mum. ‘She’s never done anything like that.’
‘Francie is on Ritalin, for her behaviour problems,’ says her mum helpfully. ‘Could Paula have taken some of her medicine?’
‘It’s possible. I’d have to look it up in the BNF. But whether she’s taken that or something else, she’s in a pretty poor state and I think she should go into hospital for a doctor to have a look at her.’
‘I’ll put some clothes on.’

Getting Paula onto the vehicle is a problem – essentially an exercise in how to handle an uncoordinated, uncooperative, stinking mess that screams horribly and spits a great deal. The spitting we control by putting an oxygen mask on her; the rest we look to cover with some discrete blanketing and a speedy removal to the safety of the trolley. Once on the vehicle and in the recovery position, her screams gradually subside again into a slack-mouthed sleep. She breathes slowly and heavily. Despite having vomited many times there are still traces of pearlescent peach lipstick on her lips, but the mascara round her eyes has pretty well all run off and down her cheeks in thin, dark rivulets.
I open the back door to tell her Mum that we’re ready to go. She scrunches out another cigarette and hauls herself up the step.

‘Kids’, she says.


When we’re cleaned up and ready to go at the hospital, we get another job immediately. The house next door to the house we’ve just been to. Thirteen year old girl, drunk, acting strangely.
No need to consult the satnav. We’re there in record time. The police have gone, but the mother in the puffa is standing outside to wave us in. She looks closely in at the cab to see who the crew is, and visibly flinches when she sees it’s us.
‘Well – it finally caught up with her,’ she says as we walk down the path. ‘I found two bottles of Lambrini they’d thrown out of the window into the garden.’
Francie is sitting with her head in her hands at the bottom of the stairs. She doesn’t have the enthusiasm to look up as we approach. But at least she hasn’t been sick, and doesn’t look as if she’s going to scream. When I get her to open her eyes, they’re much less drugged.
‘What did Paula take that you didn’t?’ I ask her.
Francie just shrugs, and drops her head back into her hands.
‘You won’t be doing her any favours by not telling us. We’re not the police. We just want to know so the doctors can figure out the best course of treatment for her.’
No response.
Her mum pokes her in the shoulder.
‘You speak to the man. It’s the least you can do.’
Slowly, Francie looks up at me, a wasted puppet with one string left uncut.
‘Four e’s,’ she whispers. ‘But I didn’t like the look of them.’

Thursday, April 10, 2008

third time lucky

An elderly woman with a vigorously red face and a manner as sensible as her jacket greets us as we come out of the lift. ‘Thankyou both for coming so quickly,’ she says. ‘This way.’
She leads us into a flat so cluttered it is like we are walking into a gigantic box of junk. Piles of magazines, newspapers, cartons of medicine, books, bundles of paper, frameless pictures, empty frames, broken frames, equipment parts – all in stacks on either side of a hallway that was narrow to begin with. In fact, the only surface vaguely free in the flat is the ceiling; the walls are a patchwork of photos and crudely written lists with phrases underlined such as: don’t forget Wednesdays or check pocket for keys.
‘I’m Stephanie. I’m a visitor from the Salvation Army,’ says our guide, leading us through the maze of rubbish like a native with a machete. ‘I’ve started coming to see Emily every week, just to help out with shopping and whatnot. A bit of company. Poor Emily’s not herself today. I’ve not seen her this confused before. I don’t suppose she’ll want to go to hospital, but she’s not coping here on her own. Anyway – see what you think. She’s through here.’
We pass a curling photograph on the wall by the kitchen doorway: a thirty year old woman in a bird’s nest hairdo and tight sweater, posing with her arms around a young boy in front of a black clapperboard house. They both squint confidently out past the photographer, from a blazing forties sun into the foxed half-light of the present.

Emily is sitting in a partially collapsed chair, the enthroned Queen of Decay. Scoliosis has rounded her posture so that she can hardly look up as we say hello, but she tries, lifting her hand slightly.
‘Hello Emily,’ says Rae, picking out a route so she can kneel down in front of her. She touches her hand and smiles. ‘It’s the ambulance, Emily. What’s happened?’
‘Thankyou for coming, dear. I don’t mean to be a nuisance,’ she says. ‘I think the problem is I just need a poop. I haven’t had one in four days and I’m rather sore.’ She pats her abdomen, which does look swollen.

We give Emily a check-over, and then set to persuading her to come with us to hospital. She tuts, rubs her good eye, then suddenly leans forwards.

‘When I took this flat on – some thirty years ago – as soon as I walked through that front door I could sense it. Something was not right. I simply knew that the person who had lived here before had not died a natural death. So I said to the managing agent – a rather smarmy man with damp hands – I said “How did the former occupant die?” He said he didn’t know. So I said “Well, I’m almost positive it was not a natural death.” He muttered something along the lines of “That’s not the sort of thing we go around telling our clients”. But. When I came back to the flat I met a man on the stairs, a man who used to live on the top floor. I asked him about the woman who lived here, and he told me her name was Dabb. Mrs Dabb. And when I asked him did he know if Mrs Dabb died a natural death he said..”

At this point Emily assumes a stage-Cockney accent, widens her eyes, and leans so far forward that Rae has to put both hands against her shoulders to stop her falling out of the chair.

‘.. he said “Nah, she did not. She tried twice to kill herself. Then it was third time lucky.’

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

man on the verge

The man on verge of collapse is sitting on the steps leading up to the block entranceway, taking contemplative draws on a cigarette beneath the harsh utilitarian lighting. He is dressed in a little black leather jacket, white shirt undone half-way, smart black trousers and leather shoes. He looks about fifty, a squashy, sagging melon of a face, hair as black and slick as his jacket. He looks like Walter Matthau after some bad news.
‘Ambulance,’ I say as we approach, although presumably he can tell by the logos and writing on our jackets. Drag on the cigarette. ‘My name’s Spence, this is Frank. Can I ask your name?’
When I ask him what the problem is, he makes a vague, open-handed gesture around his middle and his chest, and grimaces.
‘When did this all come on?’
‘Three month. One month. I collapse this morning. At the centre. They took me to the hospital. I wait hours and hours. This, then that. I see fifteen doctors.’
‘Fifteen doctors. Paper and paper and paper. No good.’ He mimes tossing paper aside, then takes advantage of this unexpected momentum to reach for a bottle of Gaviscon, which he tries to drink, but finding it empty, lobs into the rhododendrons. ‘No good.’
Seeing the Gaviscon wakes us both up a bit. It’s been the silent witness at too many heart attacks to ignore. But speaking to José it seems clear that he is not symptomatic, and that his problems are more alcohol related.
‘How much have you had to drink tonight, José?’
He shrugs. ‘Two litre? Not so, anyway.’
‘And tell me what happened at the hospital? How come you ended up back here? Did you discharge yourself?’
He shrugs again. ‘Fifteen doctors.’
‘Do you want to go to hospital now?’ I ask him.
‘Yes. I don’t want collapse on my own.’
‘Well let’s go, then.’

On the vehicle we both give up trying to spell his name; he pulls out a wallet as big and squashy as its owner. Behind a laminate screen on the inside of the wallet is an old, full length photo of José, dressed exactly as he is now. He tugs out his EU driving licence from underneath it to show me his name.
‘Are you working at the moment, José?’ I say, sounding more like an immigration official than an ambulance man, but only making conversation whilst I write down all the patronyms.
Again the José shrug. ‘A little. Some week yes, some no.’
‘And you’re going to a centre for help. Is this a place to get help for your drinking?’
‘Yes,’ he says. He leans forward, and looks around the ambulance. ‘I see eh-spiders.’

At the hospital I’m describing my patient to the Charge Nurse when the ward clerk comes over. She says that José was in this morning, caused havoc, falling off trolleys, arguing with staff, wandering off. Eventually he disappeared altogether. But they didn’t think there was anything wrong with him much, apart from stomach ulcers, and a little … she taps her head.

We help him onto a trolley in good view of the nurses’ station. He thanks us for our trouble, and settles down.

Fifteen minutes later, when we’ve had a coffee and are getting ready to go again, Frank comes back out to the ambulance to say that José’s already fallen off the trolley.


Two and half hours later we get details of another emergency call. José’s address. We query it on the radio. Control says that it sounds like the same man but they can’t be sure as he’s difficult to understand. This time he’s presenting with a stroke. We’re duty bound to attend.

At least we don’t see him smoking a fag when we turn into the block courtyard. He buzzes us up to see him. There is no recognition when he answers the door. The only difference to his appearance is maybe one button more undone on his shirt, and his shoes are off.
‘José,’ says Frank. ‘Why are we here again?’
José makes the open-handed sign of sickness over the same area, vaguely his stomach and chest. ‘No good,’ he says.
‘They told us on the radio that you were having a stroke.’
‘Yes. Yes. Eh-stroke.’ He makes the same gesture over his stomach.
‘José – you are not having a stroke,’ says Frank, in the steely tone of a stage hypnotist. ‘I know what a stroke looks like. You are not it.’
‘No. In fact, I have to say José, you look really well.’
José brightens. ‘Really?’
‘Really. So please. Don’t call us out again tonight. It’s busy, we’re tired, and there are genuinely sick people out there who need us. Do us all a favour. Go to bed, get some rest. In the morning, go and see your Doctor.’
‘No stroke?’
‘No stroke. And José?’
‘If you call us out again it won’t be so funny. We’ll call the police.’
‘Oh. Okay.’
‘Goodnight, José.’
As he closes the door I notice the phone in his other hand, and wonder how long before he taps the golden numbers again.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Midnight, and the night is heavy and black and tasting of rain. The elderly woman is sitting as described in the message: on a bench in the middle of the courtyard of the C-shaped block of flats. Beside the bench is a scrawny tree, and under the tree is a cat’s scratching post, some scattered cat toys, and a box of other pet junk. A black cat races from the bench across the courtyard and into some bushes. I give the woman a wave as I come in through the gate. With her bucket-shaped suede hat pulled down to the bridge of her nose, and with the collar of her quilted jacket zipped up under her chin, when she turns to look at me it’s like the turret of a tank swivelling round to meet the enemy.
‘Hello. My name’s Spence, and this is Rae. We’re with the ambulance.’
No reaction.
‘Can I ask your name?’
A firm whisper: ‘Mary.’
‘Mary - someone overlooking the courtyard has rung 999 because they were worried about you. They said you’d been sitting here for hours.’
Mary draws her arms in.
‘Do you mind if I sit down and have a chat? Just to make sure you’re okay?’
She shrugs, so I sit down. Rae hugs the clipboard to her and stands in front. The wind swings the empty bird-feeder in the tree from side to side. Tiers of windows rise up on the three sides of our curious little group. It feels as if we’ve arrived at the dark centre of a community of lights and curtains. Some people out on a balcony, watching us. Are they the ones who rang?
‘I’m not going back in my flat.’
‘Why not, Mary? What’s wrong?’
‘It’s infected. It’s got a virus. I’m not going in.’
‘Are you well in yourself, though?’
‘Apart from what the virus has done to my arm.’ She pulls up the sleeve of her quilted jacket and shows me what looks like a couple of flea bites. ‘The doctor gave me betnovate cream for those, but he doesn’t understand what’s really going on. It’s not safe.’
‘So what’s the story with the virus?’
She looks straight at me, and her eyes seem small and afraid.
‘I’ve been taking samples. I found traces. I took it all in a jam jar to the Town Hall, and now I’m waiting for them to get back to me.’
‘Traces of what?’
‘Stuff. A worm. All white and pointy. Stuff. It’s in everything. The walls, the carpets. The water.’ She turns back to face front again, gives herself a determined hug. ‘I’ve had enough. I saw the council this morning, but they didn’t seem to care all that much. I need a new flat. I’m not going back in there. I’m spending the night out here. My son will tell you.’
‘Where’s your son now?’
‘In the flat.’
‘Mary – it’s more than likely going to rain. You can’t stay out all night.’
‘I’m all right. I’ve got my thermals on. These boots.’ She kicks a leg forward to show us.
‘If we drove off now and left you sitting on this bench – well – we’d worry.’
‘I can’t help that.’
‘How about you come on to the ambulance, we can give you a little check up, then maybe go to the hospital? It’s nice and warm there. They can look into this virus thing, maybe do a blood test, make sure you’re okay. And in the morning things will be clearer, and someone can advise you the best way to proceed.’
‘No. Thank you. I’ll just stop here, if that’s okay.’
‘Do you mind if we go and have a quick word with your son?’
‘Be my guest.’
We walk across the courtyard to one of the entrance doors, and buzz her number. We are let in to a harshly-lit hallway, then over in one corner a door opens and a thin, middle-aged man with a scrubby beard steps out. His eyes seem edged with red, as if he hasn’t slept in a long while.
‘Come in,’ he says, attempting a smile.
The flat is dark and seems quite empty. It is papered with a heavy pattern of giant poppies on a dark blue background. Two toy lovebirds hang on a perch in front of the kitchen curtains. The son talks to us in the narrow hallway.
‘She’s bad tonight. She’s been going around putting these up.’
He hands us a cluster of handwritten signs, a shaky scrawl in thick red pen:
Quarantine. Keep out. Serious virus inside. Government informed.
Rae asks: ‘Is she having any psychiatric help?’
‘She has been to the doctor’s, when she started hearing voices, and he did offer to put her on some medication. But she didn’t want to take it as she said it would interfere with her osteo-arthritis. The trouble is, whenever she does go to see anybody, she seems absolutely fine and reasonable. It’s when she gets back here she flips. The other day she threw a load of stuff out - the microwave, the kettle, mugs and shit - because she said it was all infected. It’s mad. The thing is, I’m not here all that often. I work on the fair, and I’m away travelling a lot. I’ve only just got back from a few months off working a new ride up. And then I get all this.’
He gives us a tight-lipped smile. ‘It’s absolutely crazy and it is getting worse. My girl friend doesn’t want to stay here, that’s for sure.’
When we ask him if he thinks Mary is a danger to herself or to anyone else, he shakes his head. ‘I don’t think so. Maybe. She was throwing stuff around yesterday. I don’t know.’
We tell him that we’ll try to persuade Mary to come to hospital with us. He follows us back out to the bench.
Mary refuses to come on to the ambulance or to go to hospital. I try another tack.
‘Cal was telling us about the time you went to the doctor’s about the voices you were hearing, Mary.’
‘What about them?’
‘Well – I was just wondering – do you think this business with the virus might be something like that? Something that seems very real, but is maybe just happening more in your head?’

She stands up as if the bench is suddenly red hot, snatches up the blanket she was sitting on and kicks the basket of cat-things. A tin bowl and cat biscuits scatter around us.
‘I told you what I wanted but that’s not good enough for you, is it?’, she yells. ‘You simply won’t let me do what I need to do. You’re a bully and you won’t stop until you get your fucking little way and have me back inside that flat. Will you? God.’
‘Mary – I…’
‘Get out of my way!’ She turns to go, sees Cal, spits: ‘You! You traitor! You can fuck off, too! I’m not interested any more. Leave me alone!’
She strides through us all, slams open the front door, then we hear muted screams of frustration from the flat.

Cal follows her inside. We call the police. When they arrive five minutes later I tell them what happened and the concerns we have, but we realise now she has gone inside the flat there isn’t much they can do. Cal comes back outside to speak to us.

‘She’s gone into her room and it’s fairly quiet. I think she’ll be okay. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get her to come back to the doctor’s so we can see about getting her a psychiatrist or something.’

We leave him to have a chat to the two policemen, then go back to the ambulance. I get Control to phone me back on my mobile so I can tell them what happened in some detail. The Dispatcher is particularly taken with it all; she laughs quite a bit as she types pointy white worm into the notes.