More an ululating cry than a name.
With a name like that you’d expect a Southern American dowager cooling herself beneath the frangipani with a cheroot and a banana daiquiri. What you get is a crazy old nurse - piratical eye patch, wide-brimmed hat - hunched on a mobility scooter, hooking at the scenery with a nicotine-dipped finger.
The latest job Control sends through to us is to Ella’s address. Before Rae even acknowledges receipt, she calls up the dispatcher.
‘Can’t she be dealt with over the phone?’
‘The line went dead, so I’m afraid we’ve got to attend.’
Ella Mae lives in a house that must once have been part of the old chapel next door. Perhaps a sexton lived here, simply and devoutly, rising with the sun every day to oil the pews, dust the books, water the stone planters and wash the steps. But the chapel has long since surrendered its prayerful space to mezzanine floors, sofa beds and plasma screen TVs. And if the adjoining house ever maintained a quiet devotion, that energy has been abstracted now into something altogether more fallen, more tragically human.
The stone planters are filled with lurid plastic flowers and wired bees, fragments of mirror, twirling seaside windmill sticks, dolls and damaged plaster birds. There are notices taped to the glass in the door, written in a cramped and furious hand, threatening actions, offering warnings, describing on-going litigations. Amongst the notices are random postcards faded with age: Puffins on the Gower Peninsula; Greetings from Hawaii. Public safety announcements from the national press. Black and white photographs arching back from the glass as they curl in on themselves.
Rae raps on a glass pane.
‘She gets exactly one minute.’
But Ella Mae has been staking out the door. The filthy net curtain that hangs behind all the paper in the window is immediately hooked aside, and her gaunt face looms out.
‘Who is it?’
‘The ambulance, Ella. Open up.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Well that’s exactly what we’d like to know from you. Open the door please.’
We hear a crash as she reverses her scooter.
Rae turns the handle and pushes the door aside.
A caustic fug of smoke envelopes us.
‘Put your cigarette out, Ella. We’re not coming in until you do. In fact, not even then. We’ll stand here in the fresh air whilst you tell us why you called the ambulance.’
It’s difficult to understand her when she talks. Even if her false teeth – glitteringly grey and black, like the scales on a mackerel – actually fit her mouth; even if she hadn’t ripped up her voice with an unbroken chain of cigarettes stretching tip to tip from VE day to this knock on the door; even if she hadn’t drunk a bottle and a half of vodka tonight, her thoughts are so whirled around and mixed into each other it’s almost impossible to follow what she is saying. The only thing you can do is let your mind roam freely through her speech, picking up odd scraps of sense and laying them down jigsaw-style until a pattern emerges.
‘So nothing new has happened tonight?’
This seems to be the case.
‘We’ll be going then, Ella Mae. You know you’re not allowed to do this. You know you’re wasting time and stopping someone else from getting help, someone who might really need it. You used to be a nurse. You should know these things.’
But Ella seems to be saying that there is someone else in the house.
Someone called Musketeer.
‘Do they need our help?’
Ella nods as if we were idiots, then reverses further into the living room, a space so junked she really could do with a bucket on the scooter, like a mini-JCB.
‘Hello?’ shouts Rae, then we wait and listen. ‘Hello? Anyone there?’
After a pause, which Ella takes advantage of to light another cigarette, Rae says:
‘This is ridiculous. Ella. We’re off. Please don’t call again.’
But just as we turn to go, we hear it.
A faint call from deep inside the house.
‘Hello? Anyone there?’
That call again.
Ella sits puffing on her cigarette, staring at us triumphantly.
‘Musketeer,’ she says.
We brave the smoke and follow the scooter-width track through the junked up space of the living room out to the hallway. Incredibly, there is an elderly man nesting in a space he has made amongst all the books and magazines that completely obscure the bottom of the stairs. He is wrapped in a blue quilted sleeping bag.
‘Hello,’ he says.
‘Are you Musketeer?’
He smiles and tries to smooth down his wild, white hair.
‘Don’t listen to her,’ he says, then mimes someone sipping from a glass. ‘All night,’ he adds as a rider. ‘Crazy.’
‘So you’re okay, are you?’
‘I’m fine. Just trying to get some sleep, you know?’
Ella has made it through to the hallway, too.
Now she is saying there is something in the bathroom, too.
We look at Musketeer.
‘Oh, there is,’ he says, with a simple smile. ‘Take a look for yourself.’
This is the furthest either of us has made it into Ella’s lair. The light doesn’t seem to work here. I hold my torch up and we take careful steps towards the bathroom door, a slide-aside affair, half off its tracks and revealing an awful looking cavern beyond. I push the door more firmly aside.
The bathroom is as junked as the rest of the house.
I prod around with the torch throwing ghastly shadows against the walls until Rae finds a light chord and snaps it on.
There is a foetid smell coming from the bath.
We go over to it.
For a moment it looks as if there is someone in there, hiding under a clothes horse that has been dumped across the top and then covered with rags. But when I reach down to touch it, the shape is revealed as a bundle of filthy clothes.
‘I want a report made of this,’ says Ella from the hallway. ‘An official report.’
From his nest back in the hallway, Musketeer gives a low, appreciative laugh.
‘I’ll never get to sleep at this rate,’ he chuckles.