I take the large green nylon rucksack, Frank takes the wicker Moses basket and a couple of carrier bags stuffed with clothes, books, coats. The mother, a frail young woman who holds herself perfectly upright in the way that dancers or medicated people do, blows her nose into a chequered handkerchief. The father picks up the child’s car seat with their twelve week old son bundled up in a fleecy white baby-grow.
‘I never know which way to carry these things,’ he says. His eyes are sore and red.
We decide that over the arm, like a basket, might be easiest.
We make our way to the lifts, along a quiet, aseptic yellow corridor hung with brightly coloured kites and aerial fish that stir gently as we pass. A couple of porters struggle in with an incubator. We hold the double doors open for them, and they hold them open for us. We pass through.
Outside the sky is low and blurry with snow. It falls steadily; at times it feels as if we are actually flying upwards through it. Everyone but the woman hunches over as we pick our way over to the ambulance. She moves through the snowflakes as if either they or she were not real. Frank helps stash the luggage in a safe place. We load the child seat onto the trolley and make it fast. I swing the passenger seats into position and sit the family down. Frank takes up position in the jockey seat, and I go to the cab. The traffic noses around us irritably.
‘It’s always a battle, leaving this bit of the hospital at this time of day,’ I hear Frank say in the back. But I bully out a path. A security guard stops an oncoming van; he waves, I wave.
It feels later than it is. The city is impatiently sloughing off another day of work. Cupped in the freezing hands of the snow storm, people are hurrying on to the next place on well lit buses, along slushy wet streets, swinging shopping bags, queuing at cash points, talking on phones. Everyone is heading somewhere. I follow the main road out of town, moving and stopping and moving forwards again a hundred times in five minutes. A bus brakes to leave a gap for me. He flashes me on.
The windscreen wipers slop to the left, scrape to the right, marking out the miles. I follow in the wake of the red lights in front of me. I try to get better reception on the radio but there is too much interference so I turn it off. I steal one of Frank’s mints and try to keep it going for as long as I can, but I forget almost immediately and only remember again when it’s all crunched up. The other side of the central barriers is an unbroken chain of light, but it’s not as busy our way.
The ambulance fizzes along. We could be a ship flying through space, the flakes in our lights the stars we rush amongst. But then the storm lifts. It has a leading edge that suddenly announces a clearer run. The dark motorway cedes to well lit city streets, and the traffic thickens. Buildings cluster up either side, and there are great crowds of people surging forwards at every opportunity. I haven’t driven around here in a few years, but I used to live in town, and the old routes - the lanes to take, the cute little nicks and tucks, the sense of where things lie – it all comes back to me with a nostalgic tug. Then, after twenty minutes of city driving, I’m pulling onto the ramp that leads up to the A&E department.
We help the man, the woman and their baby down from the ambulance. The man takes the baby in the car seat on his arm as before, whilst Frank and I shoulder the rest of the bags. The woman looks as if she may be sick, so we give her five minutes in the toilet just inside the entrance. When she comes out, we lead them through some heavy black rubber doors and pick up the coloured indicators for the children’s hospital out back.
The sound of a piano being played drifts towards us as we walk along a corridor. I recognise the tune; eventually I think of the words that would be sung here: Hold my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise. The music grows in volume, we turn a corner and find ourselves in the preserved foyer of the old hospital. There is a baby grand at one end. Under its raised lid I can see the face of a tortured looking guy, dividing his attention between the sheet music and the actions of his hands. He rocks about on his stool knocking out the melody with his right hand and rolling in a bunch of other notes with his left. The song resounds over everything, over the heads of the white alabaster scientists on their plinths along the edges of the space, around the dark marble pillars and the tessellated floor. An elderly man is sitting on a wooden pew with his eyes closed, both hands resting on the crook of a walking stick upright in front of him, his cream trilby hat angled back on his head. On a table next to him, a couple of young executives are shuffling through papers and examining spreadsheets. Everyone else is hurrying on in all directions. We follow the signs to the children’s wing, and pass through.
We follow the colour coded lines on the floor along a corridor lined with a series of preserved tiles illustrating scenes from children’s books. One of the panels shows Little Red Riding Hood. She is standing by a fat and twisting oak, her basket slung over her arm, talking to a wolf. He is standing upright, dressed in a sheepskin coat and flowerpot hat, supporting himself on a staff, with his front paws draped over the grip. He reminds me of the old man in the foyer. We can still just about hear the music drifting back from there towards us. The father shifts the weight of the baby seat on his crooked arm.
‘Nearly there,’ says Frank.
He leads us up to a set of doors that open onto a lit pathway and up to an automatic glass cylinder that opens to admit us.
The new children’s hospital is built around a cavernous foyer, its vaulted space a web of white tubular steel and glass. We walk to the central lift bank, looking around us like country mice. The lift zooms us up to our floor, disgorging us efficiently onto a mezzanine. A nurse intercepts us, leads us with a warm handshake past units and rooms to a station where a more senior nurse takes over. She accepts the paperwork and shows the couple to a neat little cot, discretely stood about with complicated machinery. She takes the little baby out of the child seat and puts him into the cot, stripping him down, as we shake the couple’s hands and turn to go.
On the way back to the ambulance I ask Frank what the situation was with the baby.
‘PKD. At that age, there’s nothing to be done. Palliative care only, I’m afraid.’
Outside we stand behind the ambulance so Frank can have a cigarette.
The city has never looked so big, so energised, so renewing. There is another massive block going up. There are cranes half way up the cylindrical building, illuminated with a warm orange glow that seems to draw its power not from the ground but from the belly of the snow front, massing darkly above us.
‘We’re going to get some of that on the way back,’ says Frank. He blows out a quantity of smoke as we both look about us, and the smoke turns and thins to nothing on the chill night air.