The brickwork of these old dock workers’ cottages still manage to radiate something rooted and forbearing through the thick masonry gloss of their recent refurbishment. They seem to hang back from the margin of the main road and the commercial brutalities of the rest of the area, everything having been ripped out years ago, replaced with factory units, DIY outlets and scrap metal yards. But the cottages have lasted, still keeping a look-out over the busy quays and sheds below them on the other side, the dark rectangular strips of deep water, and the sea, constantly pressing in on the other side of the harbour wall.
The door to the last of these cottages is open, spilling a light of a friendlier, more domestic hue than the points of fierce magnesium that blaze over the cargo ship fifty feet below, loading timber.
A man is standing in the doorway. Silhouetted as he is, arms folded and feet planted either side, he could be a security guard guarding the entrance to a club. But up close, we see that the stab vest is actually a soft sleeveless jacket, the frown is apprehensive not aggressive, and the arms are folded out of a need for reassurance.
‘He’s just through here,’ he says, letting us in through the tiny hallway and into the main living area, so neatly furnished and colour co-ordinated it feels as if we are walking into a feature in Country Living. But a man is lying on his side on a patterned cream rug, dressed in a white cotton wrap, his head surrounded by a messy red halo of regurgitated mousakka.
He feebly raises his head.
‘The ambulance, John. You’ve had me so worried.’
‘I didn’t want you to call an ambulance.’
‘Just lie still and let them look at you.’
‘So what’s happened here?’
‘We were at a restaurant celebrating a friend’s birthday. Nothing big, nothing wild. We had less than half bottle of wine each, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Then we caught a cab home. We’d only been back a minute or two. John had gone into the bathroom, undressed, and was walking out tying his robe when he took a step or two into the living room and – bam! – he was spark out on the floor, pretty much where you see him now. He was just gray and awful and there was nothing I could do to bring him round.’
‘I was not.’
‘I’m sorry but you were, John. What would you know about it? You were unconscious. Then when he did come round he threw up, and I was so out of my mind with worry I called you.’
John moans from down on the rug.
‘I’m so embarrassed,’ he says. ‘I’ll be fine. It’s just one of those things.’
‘One of those things,’ says Peter. ‘Oh – right. One of those “drink half a bottle of wine and fall unconscious” things? I don’t think so.’
‘I’m so embarrassed.’
‘Let’s have a look at you.’
Rae checks him over, then we help him sit up and re-arrange his robe.
‘Urgh! I can’t believe I did this,’ he says, staring down at the mess on the rug. ‘It’ll never come out.’
‘Who cares about that? The most important thing is that we find out what happened to you?’ says Peter, putting both his hands on John’s shoulders as if he were reasoning with a child.
‘Well I don’t need hospital. What will they do for me there? Oh. I know. See a doctor. Have a CT scan. Find I’ve got a brain tumour. Game over. I know. We both work for the NHS, for God’s sake.’
Rae gives me a look.
‘Let’s not get too carried away, John. But I think Peter’s right. I think you do need to come to the hospital for a check over. It’s certainly not normal behaviour, passing out after half a bottle of wine with no warning.’
He wipes his mouth on the kitchen towel and stares at the result with disgust.
‘Well. I’m getting dressed first.’
Even though we tell him that he’s fine as he is, that he’ll only have to undress again and put on a hospital gown as soon as he gets there, John insists. He spends the next ten minutes struggling to put together an outfit, knocking things over in his search for flip-flops, staggering around trying to push his head up into the arm of his t-shirt.
‘John! Please!’ says Peter.
‘If I didn’t know any better, I’d say John was simply very drunk.’
‘But he’s had the same as me. Absolutely nothing at all. Trust me - this is completely uncharacteristic. When he fell backwards on the rug, I thought he’d died.’
We watch as John bends down to put on a flip flop and rolls backwards onto the sofa.
‘So what do you do in the NHS?’
‘I’m a nurse on an orthopaedic ward, he’s a radiographer.’
Finally, after some firm intervention, John has some clothes on, a mobile phone and a bunch of keys.
‘I don’t want to go,’ he says. But shuffles out anyway.
As I’m driving to the hospital, I catch sight of Rae in the mirror, raising the feet of the trolley up, leaning over and shouting ‘John? Come on, John.’ Then to me, through the hatch. ‘He’s gone off on me.’
‘Shall I pull over?’
‘No. I’m not sure about it. Just keep going and I’ll let you know.’
Further down the road, I can tell from the tone of her voice that John has come round.
‘It’s not funny, John,’ she says. ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this.’
I see Peter’s reflection in the mirror, leaning forwards, his face blurred with anxiety.
When we arrive at the hospital, Rae tells me that John seemed to have a curious kind of fit – not the usual phonus-bolonus, pseudo-fit we often see, but more like a partial seizure. His breathing had changed in character, becoming shallower and faster, and his heart had pounded out an irregular one forty plus.
‘I’m really not sure about this one,’ she says to me in secret, just before she goes to handover.
I wait by the trolley in the corridor. John seems genuinely embarrassed.
‘God. If anyone recognises me,’ he says. ‘I feel so bad about all this. I’m so sorry to waste your time.’
‘You’re not wasting anyone’s time,’ Peter says, pushing the fringe back from John’s forehead. ‘You mustn’t think like that.’ Then he looks at me and says: ‘What do you think it is?’
‘A brain tumour,’ says John.
‘Don’t say that,’ says Peter. He looks exhausted. ‘Don’t say such things.’
Rae comes back with a cubicle number. We wheel him into position.
Just as we do this, John seems to go off again, staring vacantly up into the ceiling, breathing rapidly, his pulse racing.
‘Has John taken any kind of recreational drugs tonight?’
‘No. Never. We don’t touch them.’
A doctor comes over and has a quick look.
‘Mm,’ he says. ‘Let’s do another ECG.’
Later that night we check in on John’s progress.
‘They’ve just gone up to the CT suite,’ says the nurse.
An hour later still, and we’re back in A&E again. I’m sipping coffee out by the ambulance when Rae comes through the double doors looking like she has something.
‘I spoke to the nurse again. They’ve just got bloods back from our mate John,’ she says. ‘He’s absolutely loaded. Half a bottle of wine? Yeah, right – and Oliver Reed had a diet Coke.’