I can imagine this crowd foraging through bargains in a Church hall. They have the same good-humoured competitiveness, the same restless sense of purpose. It is a disparate mix: mothers, office workers, middle-managers and students, all dressed militia-style in a haphazard kit of army surplus jackets, scarves, disposable charity shop t-shirts and good boots.
The two policemen shut the holding bay door behind us with a clunk and survey the scene.
‘Her name’s Marge. She’s been arrested under suspicion of trespassing and criminal damage. She’s sitting over there, in that corner,’ one says.
We follow him through to a middle-aged woman sitting on the bench that runs the length of the bay. She has her right hand wrapped up in a dirty white t-towel and held up in the air. She smiles pleasantly at us. I expect her to say: ‘How much for this?’ but instead she says: ‘I’m so sorry to bother you. It’s all a bit embarrassing.’
‘Well, there’s a fair bit I have to be careful telling you, apparently. But the gist of it is that I was climbing over a fence and hurt my finger. A friend of mine who’s a nurse did a makeshift dressing because we didn’t have time for much else. And the police called you when I – erm – got here because they were very sweet and they thought I’d better have it looked at. I’m sure it’s nothing.’
We help her up and lead her back through the crowd to the ambulance parked outside. A few people pat her on the back, wish her well. A young guy in a jacket sprouting all over with badges punches the air and cries out ‘Go Margie! Go Margie!’ but no-one joins in. The unexpected silence closes over him, and the door slams shut behind us.
With the patient sat comfortably on the ambulance, the two policemen waiting just outside, I set to work unwrapping her hand.
‘I’m a bit squeamish,’ she says, tugging off her woolly hat and shaking out a hedge of steely grey hair. ‘It doesn’t hurt though.’
In fact she has no sensation in her hand at all.
As I work my way through the extemporary bandaging, Marge tells us a little more.
‘We were at a laboratory that experiments on animals. Breaking in, actually. I mean, here we are, chatting like this, and there are dogs just the other side of town with disinfectant being dropped into their eyes. Did you know that? Disinfectant. You have to do something.’
She loosens the scarf around her neck.
‘Anyway. I was climbing over this horribly pointy fence and I got caught up. It was tricky and of course I’m not the world’s most athletic commando. I think I must have slipped back and got my hand caught. So I hung there for a moment until lovely Jake hoiked me up from below and someone else worked my hand free. We didn’t have time to hang around – no pun intended. We had to get in there and – well – complete the mission. Which we did. Hurrah.’ She smiles at me. ‘Down to it, yet?’
The inner layers of the dressing are crusty with dried blood.
‘How long ago did this happen would you say?’
‘I don’t know. Three, four hours?’
‘We’ll have to soak this lot off.’
‘Sorry to be a nuisance.’
I fill a bowl with saline and she dips her hand in it. A cloud of red slowly spreads outwards into the water. After a moment or two we ask Marge to hold her hand back up, and then with a large syringe filled with more saline I unwrap the inner layers, gently hosing underneath to loosen the dried blood and release the skin caught up underneath.
Rae is poised next to me with a large, damp gauze.
Marge looks off to the side.
The dressing comes away.
In the brief instant before squirts of blood arc delicately into the air and Rae leans in with a dressing, I catch a view of the injury: Marge’s ring and middle fingers have been partially de-gloved, the flesh and skin of both ripped at the root and slid upwards.
‘How is it?’ she says.
‘It’s quite a serious injury,’ I tell her. ‘And the delay hasn’t helped. We need to get you to hospital as soon as we can to get it repaired.’
‘It hurts a bit now.’
I clean the area as best I can, re-bandage the wound and put her arm in a sling. I tell the policemen waiting outside that Marge needs to go to hospital right away, and we’ll be driving on lights and sirens. Whilst they make arrangements, Rae jumps out and goes to the cab to call the job in .
‘It’s really quite a deal then,’ Marge says quietly. She rubs her nose with the back of her good hand and looks clear into me.
‘I’m a piano tuner,’ she says.