If I was an alien visiting the earth, on a mission to sample the prevailing emotional flux of humankind, this would be my favourite time to touch down - the evening rush hour, when the bright weight of the day’s business eases up, and the sky deepens and pulls away, and people mass in the streets, following their routes and thoughts, but somewhat changed by the day that’s gone, roughened by all the compensations and accommodations they have had to make in order to keep these routes and thoughts running clear and in the right direction. And as the light changes, the bridges of stone they strode across so confidently that morning seem to have been replaced by something less certain, bridges of sticks, or black glass; in any case, they make their way home, back to the places they have strengthened to dream in safety, and close their doors against the night until the next day comes rolling around.
Claudine is led out of her house by her husband, Ed. A social worker stands on the pavement, clutching a manila envelope, flanked by two policewomen. Claudine looks as if she had been expecting to be led out onto the lawns of some lovely country estate. She is wearing an elegant lilac dress tied at the waist with a broad ribbon, plaited white shoes, Onassis sunglasses and a floppy cartwheel hat. She could be a Duchess, slightly cut on Madeira wine, paying a little too much attention to her feet as she is led out to greet her guests.
‘I don’t need an ambulance,’ she says, pushing her sunglasses back up her nose and smiling indulgently, first at Frank, then at me. ‘I’m not ill.’
‘Now, Claudine,’ says Ed, releasing her arm and putting both his hands on her shoulders. ‘We spoke about this. Remember? It’s just the way these things are done. You’ll be more comfortable in the ambulance, and there’s lots of room for everyone.’
‘Why? Who’s coming? Where are we going?’
‘To the hospital, Claudine. And I think a policewoman and – Spence – here, in the back with us.’
Ed looks around at us all to check that this is right. The policewoman nods.
‘I’ll follow in the police car,’ says the social worker. ‘I’ve got the papers.’
She clutches the envelope to her with such a self-conscious grip on the authority of what it contains, it reminds me of the ‘murder cards’ envelope in Cluedo, the one that sits in the middle of the board holding the weapon, the place – and the murderer, Miss Claudine, her smiling head stuck on a plastic counter. Except in this version of the game there has been no murder. In this sullied, real world version of the game, Claudine gets to be sectioned.
‘I was born thirty eight years ago next Wednesday,’ she says pleasantly, as I offer my hand to help her into the ambulance. ‘Thirty eight years since I was tucked up inside my Mother. I wish I could go back there now.’
She sits on the chair, and as I show the policewoman to her seat, Claudine slides right down and pulls her hat over her face.
‘You can’t see me,’ she says. She is charming, like a ten year old showing off to a bunch of stuffy relatives. ‘I’m invisible.’
Ed sits next to her and encourages her to put a seatbelt on.
‘No,’ she says, then: ‘Where are we off to?’
‘To Southview, to the hospital, Claudine.’
Frank slams the door shut.
As we ride along, the policewoman asks me questions about my shift patterns. Claudine listens in, frowning.
‘Who are these people?’ she asks Ed.
He straightens her hat.
A darkly thin man in his early forties, Ed is exhausted, someone inexplicably split from the normal run of things, like a man who fell asleep by a mirror and woke up to find himself trapped on the other side.
‘I haven’t slept in five days,’ he says to me. ‘Because she hasn’t.’
He says his mother has taken their children.
At Southview, Frank parks up and comes to the side to the open the door. The social worker and the other policewoman stand to his side. Ed gets out first, then turns to offer up his hand to Claudine. She steps out and looks around her.
‘My goodness,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing.’
We all walk along the pavement and into the foyer. A patient is standing over by the security desk. She has roughly cut ginger hair and a congested face like a plumped up cushion. When she sees us come in the door she pulls out her iPod earplugs and hurries over.
‘How are you? I’m fine. I’m always fine. Traffic all right? Made it here, anyways. Could’ve been killed, mate. Bang. Squashed. The roads. The roads are so dangerous these days. It’s a wonder there’s anyone left alive. Anyways. People know you’re coming? People know you’re here? Shall I ring? I’m Katy but I ‘spect you knew that already. I know what your name is. I can read it on your shirt! They don’t let you have pets in here. I had a dog. His name was Rufus….’
Claudine politely steps to one side and then carries on over to the Coke machine. She takes off her hat and glasses, kneels down on the floor, and peers up into the hole where the cans roll down.
‘Amazing,’ she says.
‘We’ll take her from here,’ the social worker says. We watch as Ed helps Claudine to her feet again, and then they all walk off down the corridor towards the secure ward, Katy talking incessantly at their backs, the leads of the earphones in her back pocket trailing down left and right behind her, like a spindly white tail.