Frank steps up to the bank of flat buzzers and presses number ten. We wait a while, and then just as Frank steps up to press again, a voice crackles something unintelligible, the lock thrums, and we push the door open.
From outside there is nothing to give away the fact that this is a care in the community hostel, but inside the institutional roots of the place are apparent. Along with the pin board covered in departmental posters and leaflets, illuminated exit signs fixed above every doorway, fire extinguishers hanging on brackets and a large grey alarm console winking over the stairway, there is a functional air about the hallway, a brisk, sanitary aura that smacks of observation and control.
A cadaverous man in a jacket suit and trousers – but not from the same suit – steps out of his flat and confronts us in the hallway.
‘Who’re you here for?’ he says.
‘Number ten? Ah. Upstairs. Is he going to die?’
‘Let’s hope not. Thanks for your help.’
He studies us as we climb the stairs, but when we look back down to wave he hurries inside his flat.
The door to number ten stands open. I knock and push it open further.
The room is filled with cigarette smoke. Our patient, Michael, sitting bare-chested on a low stool in the middle of it all like a sumo wrestler in a steam room, nods for us to come in.
‘It’s a bit smoky, Michael,’ I say to him. ‘Are you able to come out here and talk to us? Only it’s the beginning of our shift and we’ll absolutely stink of fags if we spend much time in here.’
‘The window’s open,’ he says. But the yellowing net curtains hang straight down, the nicotine equivalent of stalactites.
‘Still – if you wouldn’t mind.’
He sighs, stands and walks out onto the landing. I sit him down on the stairs.
‘So what’s the problem, Michael?’
‘We were given the call as an abdo pain. Do you have any pains around there?’
‘This morning. But it’s gone now.’
‘Any other pain anywhere?’
‘Any unusual feelings? Sickness? Dizziness? Shortness of breath?’
A fog bank of fag smoke is sliding out of the flat towards us.
‘No. I feel okay.’
‘So what’s the main reason you wanted an ambulance tonight?’
‘Like I said. I’m depressed.’
‘And is this a new thing?’
‘No. I’m always depressed.’
‘Are you on medication for it?’
‘Yep. These.’ He pulls out a scrip, a comprehensive list of anti-psychotics.
‘You see, Michael, the best person to talk to about these feelings of depression are your doctor. They know you. They’ve got all your notes. If you saw an out of hours GP tonight, they’d be hard pushed to give you anything you’re not currently taking – and they’d be loathe to do that, anyway. My advice would be to get some rest tonight and see your GP in the morning. How does that sound?’
A young woman is coming up the stairs. Dressed in a tracksuit top with the hood pulled over her head, she has a stealthy, predatory hunch to her. In this harsh hallway light I expect to see a Nosferatu shadow thrown against the wall. But half way up towards us she stops and calls:
‘Mickey? Are you all right, Mickey?’
‘Yeah. I’m fine. Listen – Leila. Come up here a minute, can you?’
She pads cautiously towards us. When she puts down her hood, her face is a disconcerting mix of ages; she has the eyes of a young teenager, but the skin and hair of a woman in her thirties.
‘Leila? If I give you this money, will you go to the shops and get me some Chinese chips and a bottle of lemonade?’
‘But I want the change. You can’t keep the change.’
‘I won’t keep the change.’
‘You promise you won’t keep the change?’
‘I promise I won’t keep the change.’
Frank looks at me. His face is impassive, but I can feel the power of his impatience trembling in my pen.
‘I’ll just finish this paperwork and we’ll be off.’
‘Yeah. Okay,’ says Mickey, scratching the sparse black hair between his breasts.
Leila leans in to study the two of us.
‘I dated Frank Sinatra. Do you know Frank Sinatra?’
‘Frankie. Oh yes,’ says Frank.
‘What’s your name?’ She squints at his name badge. I can see that he wants to cover it up with his arms, but he reluctantly pulls aside his jacket so she can read it.
‘Frank!’ she says. ‘Frank Sinatra!’
I’m writing as fast as I can.
‘Do you know anything about the shooting in the pub at the end of the road, Frank?’ Leila says to him, moving even closer.
‘No. What shooting?’
‘There was a man shot there.’ She leers horribly and puts two fingers to her temple. ‘Right through the brains. Dead.’
‘Oh. When was that?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says, suddenly dropping her fingers and her tone. ‘Ten years ago? Can I see you again?’
‘Just sign here,’ I say to Mickey, and he takes my pen
‘I’m sure our paths will cross,’ says Frank, picking up the bag and turning to go.
‘But who do I call?’
‘The usual numbers,’ says Frank, helpfully, and starts off down the stairs. I tear Mickey off a copy of the patient form and follow on. At the bottom of the stairs cadaverous man steps out again.
‘What’s happening now?’ he says.
‘Nothing,’ says Frank. ‘Everything’s fine.’
‘So how much does an ambulance man get paid?’ says the man, as Frank hauls open the door.
‘Not enough, mate’ - and he is in the truck with the keys in the ignition before I’ve shut the door behind me.