These are the thin and early hours, when your spirit pools, leaches from your heels, runs off down the drain and leaves you cracking your jaws with enervation. Even the streetlamps lean. As we pass along the street I watch whole building frontages thin, the glass in their windows spreading outwards, infecting the brick, until great horizontal lines of bodies are revealed, asleep in mid-air. We splash beneath them, the ambulance dutifully steering itself, along and up to the young guy over by the phone box who is leaning out into the road and hailing us like a cab.
We pull up.
We get out.
‘Hello,’ Rae says. ‘What’s up?’
‘Well I went to Camden, knocked around there for a bit, fell asleep on the train and ended up in Birmingham. When I was in Birmingham I went to the toilet and amongst some needles and cans and shit on a little shelf I found a sachet of pink pills, about sixty of them. I thought they were ecstasy, so I put them in my pocket. I came down here to see a friend. We had a bit to drink – let’s see: Jack Daniels and coke, about ten of those, half a bottle of vodka with orange juice, and then I helped him finish off a bottle of port at his flat. Then he went out and I felt a bit down, like I wanted to kill myself? Then I remembered the pills. So I swallowed them.’ He looks at us. ‘But I regret it now. That was about half an hour ago.’
‘Why did you take the pills?’
He looks at her, frowns, then says: ‘I couldn’t find a razor.’
He pushes up a sleeve of his raincoat and displays a sequence of angry cuts up his arm. ‘Otherwise that would’ve been my preference.’
Rae straightens. ‘Do you have a blade on you now?’
‘No. Like I said – I couldn’t find one. I must admit I am feeling a bit strange.’
He has a lumpy, scrunched-up look about him, as if the laptop bag hanging from his shoulder is filled with the heaviest substance in the universe. His greasy black hair lies in spikes across his forehead, and the t-shirt beneath his raincoat is artfully torn in places. There is a raw, thimble sized hole in one of his earlobes.
‘Let’s get on the ambulance and talk a bit more about these pills,’ says Rae. I slide the door open for them.
‘Thanks,’ he says, sighing and settling himself down in a chair, placing his laptop neatly on his knees like a commuter. ‘I don’t think they were ecstasy, though.’ He retches a little, and does a dyspeptic little pardon-me mime by tapping his fist lightly on his chest. ‘They certainly don’t feel like ecstasy.’
At the hospital, I park up and walk round to the door. When I slide it open, the man is in mid-monologue.
‘…I’m just crazy, me. I like to get out and about and have adventures. I like to take off and go wherever – I don’t care where. I didn’t want to call you people out because I know you have your work cut out for you, what with people dropping down dead or jumping off buildings and the rest. But I didn’t know what else to do. I feel so stupid and I’m very grateful.’
I help him off the ambulance. He steps down with the exaggerated care of Neil Armstrong stepping off the Lunar Module.
‘There!’ he says, readjusting the laptop on his shoulder. ‘Made it!’
Rae goes on ahead whilst I walk with him. We pass behind the back of another ambulance, its door open. There are two of my colleagues busy in the back, tidying up. The patient stops and looks in.
‘Hiya!’ he shouts. ‘I thought it was you! Last time I saw you, you were oiled up and naked between two Turkish hunks! Well – got to go. See you later!’
‘That’ll get some rumours started,’ he says, turning away. He smiles smugly, closing his eyes, and I have to steer him away from walking into a post.