Even though it is late there is still some light left in the sky, a watery smear of slate gray at the vanishing point where the coastal road becomes the horizon. A ripple of blue marks a spot just down from there. It swells with definition as we get closer, and then separates. A police car, with its scene lights illuminating a group of four on the pavement: a woman and a policeman sitting on a low wall; a woman and a policeman standing. Frank parks the truck. I jump out and walk over to the seated couple.
‘Hello. My name’s Spence.’
The woman is sitting with one leg hooked over the other, bouncing the foot about, resting forward on the knee, using it as a smoking prop. Steve, the policeman beside her, seems professionally relaxed. He is studying his hands, turning a wedding band round and round whilst the woman blows out smoke and smiles at me despite her eyes. I feel like I’m interrupting a couple having a discussion about the state of their relationship at a party.
‘I’m fine,’ she says, tapping off the ash from her cigarette. ‘Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with me.’
‘Okay. Good! But you know, the message we were given was that a woman had tried to throw herself under a car.’
She laughs bitterly.
‘Oh for goodness sake. This is ridiculous. Look – I’ve had a bit to drink. Obviously. I’ve had a bad day. People do. Things were getting a little bit on top of me. I tripped on the pavement and I found myself in the road. And that – is – it. That’s all. What have I done wrong? Where’s the crime in that?’ She takes another pull on her cigarette and squints at me through the smoke.
Steve straightens up. Some policemen are burdened by their own equipment, but Steve seems lighter, more adaptable. He has the quiet self-possession of a craftsman who would only pick up a tool exactly when he needed it.
‘Hilary. We’ve been called, these ambulance guys too, because you threw yourself in front of a car. It was only your friend here that stopped you from succeeding, as well as that other guy who came over to help. They had to wrestle you to the ground. Do you remember, Hilary?’ He looks at me and says as an aside: ‘Amazing, the guy helping like that. Don’t know where he went to.’
‘But I’m fine.’
‘You’re not fine, are you, though? You’ve got to admit, none of this would look fine to a reasonable person. I mean, we all like a drink. But we don’t tell the person we’re with we want to die and then throw ourselves into the road.’
‘But really. Honestly. It’s a misunderstanding.’
‘No, listen to me, Hilary. What we’re all here to do now is figure out A, what happened and B, what we need to do next. Our main concern is you don’t do yourself any harm tonight. We need to get that sorted. So - as a first step - I suggest we get off this wall, go onto the ambulance and have a chat in private, out of the cold. Okay?’
Hilary flicks her cigarette out into the road and watches where it lands. Then she leans forward to tap the side of her boot.
‘I’m fine. Really. I twisted my ankle a little, that’s all.’
Steve gets to his feet. I take one step forward to help her up. At that moment she suddenly sprints off to the side, snapping away like a dog after a stick, her handbag slipping off her shoulder and flying up, her coat opening out like wings. Steve is ready for her, though. He intercepts her in one stride, and scoops her into his arms. As soon as he has hold of her she gives up, and when they’ve both found their balance, slowing down like a couple after a drunken waltz - she stands neutrally. Steve releases his hold. She repositions the strap of her bag onto her shoulder.
‘Let’s not be silly about this, now.’
‘I don’t want to go on an ambulance,’ she says, with the glittering tones of someone explaining a faux pas. ‘I want to go home.’
‘Come on, Hilary.’
He leads her to the truck. We sit her in a forward seat, and then take up positions around her. After the damp road the ambulance smells aseptic, anonymous. The light’s too bright and the trolley creaks when the two policemen sit on it. Hilary’s friend leans forward and touches her on the shoulder.
‘You so need help, Hillie,’ she whispers. ‘I’ve seen you bad, but not this bad.’
‘And what do you think they’ll do for me at the hospital? Hey? What would they do for me? You know exactly what they’d do for me. They’d say: let’s sober you up and see how you are. Let’s keep an eye on you and keep you waiting for fucking hours. Let’s give you some diaze-fucking-pam and send you home at five in the morning. There’s nothing they can do for me. I’ve been there and done that. God knows I’ve been there and done that. There’s nothing anyone can do for me. I lost my licence because of the last time. Six months. How did that fucking help? I just want it all to end.’
And more awful than the tears that run down her cheeks is the polite smile she dredges up from beneath it all.
‘I manage a large business,’ she says. ‘I’m fine. Really. I just need to go home, get some rest. I’m always like this when I drink. I’ll be fine in the morning.’ She pats her face with a wad of tissue. ‘I’ll go to work and no-one will know.’
Martin, the other policeman, is standing at the back of the ambulance. He takes a notebook out as if he’s going to write something down, but then stuffs it back inside his jerkin. Hilary’s friend sits absolutely still.
Steve says: ‘I’ll be perfectly honest with you, Hilary. Going home tonight is not an option.’
She makes a gasping noise as if he’s punched her in the stomach, but he says: ‘Just hear me out, Hilary. It’s not an option and I’ll tell you why. Our first responsibility is to see that you don’t hurt yourself. We all care about you here. There’s no way any of us would say “Okay Hilary, off you go” if there was a real chance you’d put yourself under a car or throw yourself off a cliff, or whatever.’
‘You just don’t want it on your conscience,’ she sniffs, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands so vigorously it’s like she wants to rub them clean away.
‘It’s nothing to do with consciences, Hilary. We’re doing our jobs, and that’s it. So. The options are: you go with Spence and – who is it? – Frank, here, to hospital, and get assessed by the medical team there, or I arrest you and take you to the cells. What’s it going to be?’
‘I’m fine. This is ridiculous. I just want to go home and go to bed.’
‘Hospital or the cells, Hilary?’
She drops her chin and whispers: hospital.
Steve tells Martin that he’ll be riding up in the ambulance, and that he should follow in the car. With a timid inclination of the head, Hilary’s friend agrees to come along, too. Whilst I put a seat belt on Hilary, Frank puts the step up, shuts the door and gets into the cab to drive.
We move off.
I ask Hilary her last name. She mutters a reply, seeming more interested in picking fluff off the front of her coat. When I ask her to speak up, she raises her chin slowly and looks at me, a wide and watery look that doesn’t see me at all, but rather seems to suddenly process the fact that the ambulance is moving.
And in one movement she unsnaps the seat belt, throws open the door and makes to leap out. But Steve is already behind her, both arms around her shoulders. I grab her round the waist, and between us she screams and kicks and pushes out the door whilst the ambulance lurches to a halt, but she’s slight and drunk and desperate, and we keep her on board. I can see the reflection of the blue lights of the following police car flicker up, guarding us from the traffic.
When Martin appears at the door, Steve simply says: ‘Cuff her.’ And then: ‘Let’s do this sensibly, Hilary. Arms in front, please. And then a nice, calm walk out to the car.’ He begins to explain what will happen to her – how she’ll be taken to the cells, stripped, searched, assessed by a doctor.
As Martin unclips the cuffs from his belt, Hilary looks round at her friend and shouts: ‘I hope you’re proud of yourself.’ But her friend says nothing in reply. Instead, she stares fixedly at her hands and wets her lips with her tongue.
Then Hilary seems to weaken. She shrinks back into her seat as the black and silver bracelets clack and snap round her wrists.
Martin produces a tiny key on an extendable line, and locks the cuffs into place. He gives them a little jangle for security and comfort.
Hilary looks straight at me. Her face is radiant with despair.
‘I was only going out for a drink,’ she says. Then she presents her hands out to me, gently wagging them backwards and forwards, as if to say: ‘Happy now?’
Martin stands to the side of the door, Steve moves up behind her, and I make room for them all to leave. The night gathers in around the doorway, thick and cool with the threat of more rain. She stares out into the darkness for a moment, sighs, then glances back at me.
‘Have you any idea,’ she says, pleasantly, ‘any idea at all - how difficult it is to kill yourself?’