The window of the All Night store is heaped with a selection of goods you can expect to find inside. Jumbled and incoherent, it looks like the window dressing equivalent of a supermarket dash, a bored employee given sixty seconds to swipe as much as they can from the shelves and throw it in the window. And if this is a representative sample, what’s mostly on sale in this shop is beer and spirits. Dusty pyramid piles of bottles and cans rise up precariously against a background of dessicated celebrity magazines, boxes of sanitary products and a toy ambulance standing by in a yellowing plastic bubble. The whole scene is back-lit by the strip-lighting from within, and a purple neon sign that flashes on and off throughout the night and day: 24… Hour… Off… Licence.
Next to the store is a battered black doorway. It stands open to reveal a cavernous hallway with letters on the floor, as if the postman had thrown them there, too scared to go any further. A flight of stairs rises steeply upwards at the back of the hall. We step inside and walk up.
Short stubs of staircase switch back on themselves seemingly without logic, following the hidden architectural demands of the shop underneath. But eventually they lead us up to a large sitting room where two men hang back against the far window and a young blond girl lies motionless on her back on a wide, dark green tartan bed.
‘Help her, man. She gone. I think she dead.’
‘Yeah. Help her.’
The two of them have an enervated watchfulness about them, like husbands on a shopping trip outside a changing room. The difference between this girl being alive or dead is another tedious distraction.
‘She owe us forty quid.’
I can see from here that the girl is not dead. She’s not even unconscious. Her breath rises and falls evenly, her pulse beats in her neck and tummy, and her eyelids flutter as she resists the urge to sit up and look at us as we come closer around the bed.
‘What’s her name?’
‘I don’t know, man. We only met her tonight. At a club. Y’understand?’
‘So what can you tell me about her?’
‘Nothin’. She say she want coke. We come back here and get her some. She put it up her nose then gets well freaked and crashes out on us, man. What’s the matter with her? I swear no more. Last time.’
‘Anything other than coke?’
He tips his head back.
‘It doesn’t make any difference to us. We’re not the police. We just need to know what she took so we can figure out what’s the matter.’
‘Ya listen ta’ me. Nothin’. A little bit a’ coke, vodka and the Bull. Thassit.’
‘The name on her credit card is Christina,’ says Frank, holding her shiny black purse.
I call her name, and when that doesn’t work, apply some painful stimuli. When she opens her eyes she starts to cry.
‘What’s happened to you, Christina?’
‘I don’t know,’ she sniffs. ‘I want my mum.’
‘I want my forty quid.’
‘I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll go down to the ambulance, check you out there and then decide what we’re going to do. Okay?’
She nods, her bottom lip clenching upwards as she cries, making her look like an eight year old caught in her older sister’s party clothes.
‘Come on. Take my arm.’
The second guy steps towards us.
‘What about our money?’
‘We just need a few minutes to ourselves on the ambulance, then we’ll let you know.’
The two men study us as we lead Christina down the stairs. She goes barefoot, hanging onto my arm, with Frank following behind carrying the response bag and a pair of black stiletto shoes.
‘Who are those men?’ I ask her as I wrap the blood pressure cuff around her arm.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t like them. I was with some friends at a club. We got chatting to them. They said did I want some cocaine, so I said yes. We all started out together but somehow we got separated. I ended up in their flat. And when I took the cocaine, it made me feel bad. I felt all choked up and panicky. Then I must’ve collapsed. And when I came too they were standing over me, staring down, and I was scared.’
Frank gives her a roll of tissue to wipe her face. She looks at us.
‘Please don’t tell my mum.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Then it’s up to you whether you tell her or not. But I think you should come with us to the hospital and give yourself space to think about what to do next. I don’t think you’re safe here with these guys.’
She blows her nose.
‘Frank? I think we’re about ready to go. And if you see the guys outside…’
‘Yep. I know,’ he says. ‘Leave it to me.’