Beneath the cold black early morning sky this high street has a blasted look. Saturday night has machined a path through town, leaving in its wake a trail of burger cartons, kebab wrappers, cans, bottles, club flyers, heels snapped off at the root and people lying in doorways. But by the time the sun has risen all traces of the evening will have been erased; the street cleaners have emerged to put things right. They move methodically along the pavements, singly, and in twos and threes. They pack it all away like drones.
There is a man standing at a telephone kiosk in the high street, leaning away from the perspex booth with the phone cable stretched out tight and an aluminium crutch dangling from his other arm. When he sees us pull over he replaces the receiver, grabs the crutch back into play and limps quickly across the road to intercept us. A taxi is forced to stop. I get out of the cab and wave an apology to the driver. He shrugs, and then raps his fingers impatiently along the top of the steering wheel as the man moves across his path.
With his Russian cap jammed low on his head and the collar of his combat jacket turned up, the man looks drawn in and contained, as if this were dangerous territory, and nothing should be left exposed. As he comes towards us he mutters spittily, his teeth clamped together, spiking out looks from side to side.
As he gets closer I hold up my hand, palm up, just like that image of a human being NASA scientists engraved on a plaque, the universal sign of good will tacked onto the side of a satellite and sent out into space.
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘What’s the problem?’
The taxi accelerates past.
‘I have fit, more bigger fit, another come. You take me, soon. You help me. God fucking damn these people. I take my pills, they not work. I fall down, I hurt myself little bit, here. I live like pigs and you, you don’t even care to help when I tell you what problem is. You think you know better.’
‘Just try and calm down, okay? First of all, can I ask your name?’
‘Tell me this. Tell me that. Gil. Now. Good. So now you have name. You tell me your name. What matters this bullshit? You get me in and you take to hospital. Here. I give you ‘scription, you give to doctor. Last time they never did give ‘scription and I not get good medications. All you fucking bastards.’
‘Listen to me, Gil.’ He stands in front of me, swaying from side to side, grinding his teeth. I think I recognise him, but it’s early in the morning and this whole roadside confrontation has come on me unexpectedly, more like a waking dream than a real experience.
‘Listen to me, Gil. No! Listen! I want to help you. That’s why we’re here. But you are not coming on this ambulance if you don’t calm down and ease off the aggression. Do you understand?’
He flicks me a look and gestures to the side door of the ambulance with his crutch.
‘Come. We go now.’
‘Do you understand what I’m saying, Gil?’
‘Come now.’ But he seems cowed, less certain.
Rae is next to me. For a minute we both watch Gil without doing anything. We stand there, a tight little triangle of disaffection, as the sweepers advance towards us along the pavement.
‘Okay. That’s better. You can come on board, and we’ll take you to hospital. But you must behave, Gil.’
He grunts as Rae opens the door and the perforated metal steps hinge outwards and down. He shuffles towards them, hops up all three with surprising agility, and plumps himself down on the first available seat.
‘Let’s just head straight off,’ I tell Rae. She nods and slams the door to behind me.
Gil wriggles about on the seat, fussing with his coat and his crutch, grumbling and mumbling and grinding his teeth like some dyspeptic old goat re-working a belly of bitter grass.
But the jolt as the ambulance moves away off the pavement suddenly brings him back to his furious monologue.
‘I have fit and fit and fit and medications no good no more. I give you ‘scription, you give to doctor. Last time he say get lost someplace. Last time them fucking bastards. I have hip replacement. I have pain here, here, here. I have no place to live, nothing, no damn nothing. I have fit and fit…’
I put my hand on Gil’s shoulder, and he flinches.
‘Gil. Calm down,’ I say. ‘We’re helping you, okay.’
The hospital is five minutes away.
He doesn’t turn to look at me so much as insinuate his eyes slightly off to my right.
‘I know you. I know you think clever.’
‘I’ve never met you before, Gil.’
But I think I have. I know I have.
‘I see what you do. But listen to me. I give you ‘scription and you give doctor. You tell doctor give me medications.’
He pulls out a tattered scrip and unfolds it.
‘You take now.’
He holds it out to me. His nails are bitten right down, his fingers leathery with neglect.
Two minutes from the hospital.
‘I’ve written them down on my form,’ I say to Gil, handing him back the scrip. ‘You’d better look after this now. For safe keeping.’
He stares at the paper.
‘What means this?’
‘Have it back. I’ve written down all I need. I think you’d be better off looking after this.’
He moves his eyes from the paper slowly up to mine.
‘You wouldn’t want to lose it,’ I say.
He turns in the chair, snatches the scrip from my hand and shakes it in my face.
‘You think you better. You think you easy clear. I know what you do. Well all I say is I hope your son fall like me. I hope your family and your fucking son get put on the street, live like pig. I see your family. I make sure. They go there. I meet with them soon, my friend.’
The ambulance pulls up onto the hospital forecourt. I stand up and move to the back. As we slow and park and I jump out, just as Rae comes to the door.
‘Call security, Rae. He’s being aggressive and threatening.’
She hurries inside to reception. I stand there looking in to the vehicle. Gil sits hunched forward on his seat, muttering and stamping his crutch on the floor of the ambulance. Just by chance, a policeman comes outside. I nod to him and he walks over.
‘What’s up?’ he says.
Five minutes later, Gil is backed up against the A&E railings, shouting ineffectually at the policeman and two security guards who’ve been rousted from their office. One of the guards detaches himself from the group and comes over to us.
‘Who the hell is that?’ he says.
‘I recognise him now. I brought him in about a year ago. He got aggressive then, really nasty for no apparent reason, threatened me and the staff, got thrown out by security.’
The shouting stops and we look back over. Gil is stamping off down the ramp out of the car park, waving his crutch and throwing curses backwards over his shoulder. The policeman comes over to join us whilst the remaining security guard makes a call on his radio.
‘I explained to him he’d be arrested if he carried on like he was,’ he said. ‘Anything wrong with him you could figure out?’
‘Nothing obvious – apart from the obvious,’ I say.
‘Steaming drunk of course. Whack job. Anyway – he’s off, I’ve passed his details, and I finish in ten.’
‘Thanks for your help, mate.’
The policeman smiles and holds up his hand.
‘No problem,’ he says.