The early hours, thick and blue with the threat of more rain. The storm never did come, and these showers have done nothing to clear the air. I feel cut out of the sticky atmosphere, a jigsaw shape man forcing a path through the picture.
We see our patient. She lies curled on her side in front of a department store window and its display of partying mannequins. They hold their gorgeous poses, plastically fabulous, perfectly removed from the life on the pavement just the other side of the window.
Three taxi drivers from the rank opposite point in the woman’s direction. With the ragged groups of clubbers laughing and pushing each other, the street cleaners making a start on their rounds, the rough sleepers arranging their nests in shop doorways and the delivery drivers leaning out of their windows, the whole scene is like some epic Dutch canvas, each component part a drama in itself, but somehow contributing to the drift of attention that leads the eye across the road and beyond the taxis to the woman lying on the pavement, lit by the shop window.
‘It’s Sonia,’ says Rae.
Sonia is a regular caller, her MO being pseudo-fits and feigned unconsciousness.
‘Hello Sonia,’ I say, squatting down beside her and lighting up her face with my torch. ‘It’s the ambulance.’
One of the taxi drivers – maybe the one who called – takes a few steps closer and leans in.
‘You know this lady?’
‘Yes. I’m afraid so.’
‘What’s the matter with her?’
‘Actually nothing. She just does this now and again.’
‘Why? Is she crazy?’
‘You’d have to ask her.’
He turns and walks back to his colleagues. One of them laughs. Some clubbers shout encouragement to us. I think they want to see some ER action. But instead of masks and tubes and cylinders, I just give Sonia a discreet squeeze.
‘Come on Sonia. We know you’re not unconscious.’
She opens her eyes and looks at me.
‘What are you doing down there?’ I ask her. ‘People are worried about you.’
‘I’m sleeping,’ she says. ‘Fuck off.’
‘You can’t sleep here on the pavement like this. People think you’re sick or hurt.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Well you should care, Sonia. If you don’t get up and find somewhere a bit more sensible to sleep, we’ll get the police running.’
Her eyes widen and her mouth tightens into a scowl that reminds me of Popeye when he’s reached the fighting point.
‘If you’d had four cans of lager, four cans of cider and a half bottle of vodka, you’d have trouble standing up and finding a nice place to sleep.’
‘You’re absolutely right about that, Sonia. I’m a notorious lightweight. All I’m saying is that you have to find somewhere a bit more out of the way to sleep it off. You’re not getting a ride up to the hospital. We’re going back to the ambulance now, and I’ll tell the police that you’re here. So you’ve got about ten minutes before they arrive.’
‘Okay. Bye then, Sonia.’
We walk back to the ambulance.
A group of three clubbers making for the taxi rank step aside as we pass. One of them, a radiantly blond young woman who looks as indestructible as one of the mannequins in the window, shakes her head and frowns at us. I want to tell her that the woman we’re so callously leaving on the floor is very well known to us, that she’s drunk, abusive and a disproportionate drain on public resources. But I don’t say anything. I simply grimace and nod and pull off my gloves with the shamefaced snap of a cut-price surgeon hurrying away from his latest crime.