Any more calls to this hostel and they could usefully introduce valet parking for the ambulances. I swim through the late night traffic and we’re out of the cab even before the caller has hung up. He stands lookout at the end of the flagstone alley that leads to the side entrance, and waves his arms Help style when he sees us.
‘There’s a guy on the floor just up there,’ he says, breathlessly. ‘I think he’s cracked his head. My girlfriend’s with him.’
‘Lead on, Macduff,’ says Frank.
A young woman in a tiny club dress and white jacket has taken off her heels to crouch down by the side of a man squashed against the hostel wall. Her right arm is around the man’s back whilst her left hand strokes his face.
‘Come on!’ she says, leaning in closer, the party sparkles in her crimped blond hair twinkling in the beam of Frank’s flashlight. ‘Some amazing people are here to take care of you now, Jim. Jim? The help you need has come, darling. But don’t worry. I’ll be here. I’m not going to leave you.’
She looks up at us, but hangs on to Jim.
‘He’s hurt and alone. I don’t know what to do. Please do your best.’
The man who led us down the alley stands slightly back from his girlfriend. The hostel warden is leaning against the doorway, taking in the cool night air through a cigarette.
‘All right, gents?’ he says, considerately flicking the ash downwind. ‘I think Jim must’ve taken a tumble outside. He seems okay, but you’re the boss.’
Jim has a small cut and swelling above his right eye, and the blood has run down the side of his face.
The contrasts between the blinding sweep of Frank’s torch and the deep shadows and pools of darkness in the alleyway are marked, but even so you can figure by the shine of Jim’s coat and the dull glint of the bottle next to him that he’s a street sleeper with a drink problem.
‘He needs the best medical attention – and plenty of hugs,’ the woman says, giving Jim another squeeze. Frank looks at me. We’re quite prepared to touch Jim with our gloves on, but hugging? We’d need to be suited up like Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak.
‘Let’s have the trolley out, Spence,’ says Frank.
I know he wants to get Jim away as quickly as possible – for the woman’s sake as much as anyone.
When I come back with the trolley, she’s still giving Jim affectionate rubs on the arm and strokes of the face.
‘Be careful,’ I say to her. ‘He’s got blood on him.’
‘Oh I don’t mind about that,’ she says. ‘I just want what’s best for him.’
She gives him another squeeze, radiating love with as much chemical intensity as the product in her hair. Her partner is less committed. He hangs back from the scene, flipping his phone as if there were other calls he’d like to make.
We help Jim onto the trolley and rattle back up the alley to the ambulance.
‘You’re in the best, most expert hands the city can employ,’ she says. ‘They really are angels from heaven. I know you’re going to be fine, Jim. You’re going to be absolutely fine.’ She has a hold of his left hand, but he tries to pull it away and pillow his head. Like an irascible old terrier, Jim has had enough fuss and just wants to curl up for a while.
We load the trolley onto the vehicle. The woman wants to come on, too, but I stop her.
‘Thanks for your help,’ I say. ‘Do you want some alcohol gel for your hands?’
‘No. Thank you. I just want to know what I should do next?’
‘I think you’ve done as much as anyone could. We’ll take him to hospital and get him checked over. But he seems fine. Just a minor head injury. They often bleed quite a bit.’
I notice a long, diffuse smear down the right side of her jacket.
‘I’m afraid you’ve got blood on you.’
And for a moment something sudden and new seems to drop down around us in the night, like an unexpected scene change in a play. She stares at her hands. I give her some alcohol gel. Whilst she rubs the liquid between her fingers, her partner touches her on the shoulder.
‘Come on,’ he says.
She studies him silently for a moment, then turns back to me.
‘Can I send flowers?’ she says.