The cold has really come down tonight, a mantle of frost unpinned from the sky and draped across town. Cars, bushes, people – everything and everyone seems fixed and brittle. Even the amber light from the streetlamp hangs in the air like a breath.
Outside the police station a young woman is lying on a low wall, her pale face resting on the pillow of her right hand, a jacket draped across her body. A man stands with his arms folded, staring at his shoes, then briefly at the ambulance as we approach. There is a police woman with them, speaking on a mobile phone. She waves with the other hand as we pull up at the pavement beside them all.
‘First off, they don’t speak a word of English. I’ve got the translation service on the line, and I’ve managed to get the basics. They’re asylum seekers. Set off from Iraq the end of October, travelling in the backs of lorries and so on, via Turkey, apparently. She’s pregnant – don’t know how much by. He’s with her but not sure to what extent. She’s got pain, been sick a lot. I was coming back to finish my shift when I found her lying on the wall, him standing like he is. And that’s it so far.’
‘Did you get their names?’
‘Yep. She’s Amina and he’s – Hafiz, is it?’
Hafiz looks up, looks between us all, then looks down again.
‘I’ll keep the translation guy on the phone as much as you need him. He said not to worry.’
‘I know! They only recently gave us the cost code for it.’
I squat down beside Amina and touch her wrist. Beneath the refrigerated light from the street lamp she seems pitifully reduced, her nose a sculpted blade, a smudge of oil on her cheek. She gives a mewling cry like an injured cat, and draws her legs up further.
‘First off we need to get her on the ambulance and into the warm. Whilst we do that, can you get the translation guy to ask Hafiz how long Amina’s been unwell and what she’s been complaining of? We’ll get all the other stuff when we’re on board.’
It seems Amina can stand. She allows me to take her by the arm and after a moment to ready herself, she stands and moves soundlessly over the pavement, floating up the back steps of the ambulance as insubstantial as a bundle of clothes magically carried on the air. Hafiz shuffles close behind.
Another two police officers arrive, and the first police woman stands with them to give the story so far.
Amina curls up onto her side on the trolley, making a protective nest of it. Even without the language difference, Hafiz would be difficult to reach – he sits on an ambulance seat, studying and picking at his grimy hands, looking up only when it seems he might be expected to do something. There is an air not of defeat about him, but of an exhaustion thickened over days and weeks into a mute shell of acceptance. Diesel fumes hang around him, cut with sweat and dirt and scavenged nights in the cold.
I roll up her sleeve and go to put the blood pressure cuff around her arm.
‘We’ll need the paediatric one, Rae. How old is she?’
The police woman comes on board and hands me the phone.
‘Hello? Sir? Yes, please - for your requests. I will do whatever I can for you.’
‘Can you ask Hafiz how old Amina is? I need her date of birth, and her past medical history.’
I hand the phone to Hafiz.
As we run though our tests I think how much I would love to know the cost code for this translation service, the simple sequence of numbers that would summon up a translator for any language, any time of day or night. Easy as rubbing a lamp. What would we have made of all this without it?
‘Hello? Sir? Yes. Amina is sixteen years of age and Hafiz is seventeen years of age. Amina has been pregnant for approximately twenty weeks. She has no previous medical experiences. Hafiz says they are a couple but they are not married, if you understand. This is why they asylum seeker from Kirkuk, Iraq.’
Rae examines Amina’s abdomen.
‘She could well be twenty weeks. Her abdo’s a bit quiet, though, and she’s sensitive RIF. Definitely malnourished, dehydrated.’
‘Her temperature’s up, too. Hello? Mr Translator?’
‘Can you ask Amina how she’s feeling?’
I hand Amina the phone, but she doesn’t take it, and doesn’t speak when I hold the phone to her ear.
‘Never mind,’ I say to him. ‘I’ll hand you back to the police woman. We’re off to the hospital. Thanks for your help.’
‘Not at all, not at all. Goodbye, sir. Good luck.’
The police woman finishes the call as we make sure Amina’s comfortable and offer a blanket to Hafiz.
‘I’m off duty now, but these other two’ll follow you down,’ says the police woman, excusing her way past Hafiz and picking her way out to the back door. ‘All right?’
When she has stepped down to street level, she turns and gives the phone a victorious shake in the air before stuffing it back in a pocket. Then she stands still for a moment, and the other two police officers move in either side, and the three of them look into the truck - this crowded, brightly-lit box by the side of the road, late on a freezing night on the second to last Saturday before Christmas.