The access road that leads down to the hostel is only a shallow incline, but the snow is so thick I park at the top. The last address we went to was a similar gradient, and the only way we made it back up was by tacking like a yacht. It took us half an hour.
Rae fetches out the yellow bag, I lock the truck up, and we both scrunch down the slope.
The air is brittle and white beneath a silence so deep it is as if the snow is a drug that has put the whole world, its people, their pets and machines, into a deep hibernation.
Ours are the only tracks in the snow. The yellow path lights illuminate a sequence of tall chain-link fences, site safety notices, arrows and logos. The old hostel is being replaced by a spread of chalet blocks. Some look finished and occupied – at least, the scaffolding is down, there are potted plants in the entrance hallways. Other parts still need to have roofs put on, but the snow has puffed over the slats, rounded off the gaps, giving every block the look of a Swiss mountain chalet.
The path leads us round and down to a long, green portakabin. There is a light in the grilled window, and a notice on the door giving the office hours and the numbers to ring in case of emergency. Rae knocks on the door and we wait.
There is the sound of a chair being scraped back, resounding footsteps, a chain rattling off its track, and then the door cracks open. A man looks out at us, holding the door partially closed for as long as it takes him to register our uniforms, our yellow bag, then he relaxes and nods and opens the door fully.
‘We’ve had a call here. One of the residents.’
‘This is The Hostel? 21 Ashington Grove?’
‘Would you mind if we came in for a second. Out of the cold.’
We stamp the snow off our boots and step up into his office.
There is a small portable TV up on a filing cabinet. The Superbowl is playing, the commentary rattling out through the tiny speakers. The night manager turns it down, and then stands looking at us. There is a drowsy, overstuffed feel to the air, the smell of sugared coffee and biscuits, oil-filled radiators, computer printers. There are two large pin boards feathered over with notices, lists and scraps of paper, but the rest of the room is bare. There is an open text book on the desk by the window, and a phone.
‘We had a call here to an overdose. Any idea who that might be?’
‘No. But I wouldn’t necessarily know. The new blocks have their own phones, so it’s probably someone over there calling for themselves.’
‘How many blocks are there currently occupied?’
‘Five or so.’
‘Would you mind if I used your phone to call our Control, then? They’ll have to ring the caller back and get some better directions.’
‘Be my guest.’
I go over to his desk and tap in the number. The text book beside it is ‘Business Management Systems’.
‘This looks heavy going.’
‘Great if you can’t sleep. Terrible if you need to stay awake.’
He looks at Rae.
‘Would you like tea or anything?’
‘That’s very kind of you, but..’
There is a fuzzy cheer from the TV; the commentator is reaching superlative meltdown. The night manager studies the screen intently, but turns the volume down one more notch.
Control picks up the phone just as there is a knock on the door. Rae stands aside, and the night manager goes over to open it. He exchanges a few quiet words through the gap, then opens it fully.
A man walks up the steps. His anxiety is so profound it seems to be an animal thing quite separate from him, hurrying ahead into the room, riffling off into the corners of the office, checking for danger. The man is about thirty, desiccated and pale, his jeans and jacket hanging off him like the skin on last year’s fruit.
‘Are you the patient?’ I ask him. He nods, then abstractedly raises a hand to his mouth and starts gnawing on a thumb.
I turn back to the night manager. ‘That solves that one, then,’ I say. ‘Thanks for your help.’
He looks at the patient, gives him a narrow, assessing smile, then reaches over to the TV to turn the volume back up. There is another loud cheer as we leave the portakabin; the thunk of the door closing behind us emphasising the still and quiet of the night.
We all scrunch our way through the snow, back up to the ambulance.
‘I’m sorry we’ve got a little bit of a walk. We didn’t want to risk getting stuck driving down here. Anyway - my name’s Spence and this is Rae,’ I say to him. He walks by my side, as close as a spooked dog. ‘Can I ask your name?’
‘So what’s happened tonight, Pete? We were told you’d taken an overdose of something. Is that right?’
‘Yeah. That’s right.’
‘What have you taken?’
‘Two times three hundred milligrammes Amisulpride, four times eight milligrammes Clonazepam, two times three seven five milligrammes Venlafaxine.’
‘And are these medications prescribed to you?’
He nods sharply, once. ‘I’m a schizophrenic,’ he says. ‘Since I was eighteen.’
‘And when did you take these pills?’
‘And how are you feeling now?’
He gestures across the front of his chest. ‘I feel tight across here. But that might just be anxiety. I get that as well.’
‘Any other strange feelings?’
‘I feel like I’m going to fly away. I don’t feel – connected.’
Pete has a disconcerting habit of looking straight in front, talking, then glancing out of the corner of his eyes without moving his head. He talks quickly and quietly, and he holds his mouth slightly open when he finishes a sentence, giving everything he says a naïve, astonished quality.
Rae has the door open and the step down ready for us. Pete scuttles on to the truck and sits down on the furthermost seat. We stow the bags and shut the door. The ambulance feels overly bright and closed in. Pete seems to shrink back from the perceived pressure of it.
‘I just need to do a few simple checks. Then we’ll get off to the hospital.’
‘I don’t want to go to hospital. Do you think I really need to?’
‘To be honest, yes, I do, Pete. It doesn’t sound as if you’ve taken a terribly dangerous dose, but I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how these tablets might interact with each other. Plus there’s the reason you took them in the first place. It’s worth going in just to get to speak to someone about that.’
‘How am I going to get home?’
‘There are ways and means.’
The reality is that he’ll have to find his own way back, which, in the early hours, and in this weather, is by no means an easy task. But Pete sits back in the chair.
‘I haven’t seen my brother for six years.’
‘He doesn’t want to know.’
Pete flicks me another look, then peels another tiny piece off his thumb. His face is narrowed and pale. He has a feral twitchiness about him; his scalp and chin bristle with short black hairs.
‘Do you think mental illness runs in the family? Do you think my brother’s mentally ill?’
‘I don’t know, Pete. I think there is often a tendency for these things to crop up more than once in a family. But I really wouldn’t like to say. I hope not, anyway.’
He stops chewing his thumb and stares directly at me. I hold his gaze for a second, but the intensity is such that I am forced to look away.
‘Have you ever done anything like this before?’ I ask him, using the clipboard as a diversion.
‘Two weeks ago. I took sixteen times five hundred milligrammes Paracetamol.’
I write that down.