Saturday, May 30, 2009


This hardware shop is a skewed triangle of a building, dropped into the space left at the end of a row of irregularly shaped terraced houses. It sits there like a darkly painted brick from a child’s toy, the right shape for the right hole, glass fronted, crudely lettered in white paint, with an old fashioned, white and black striped awning already wound out despite the early hour, thrumming and spattering beneath a sudden fall of rain.
There is a policeman sheltering under it.
‘All right, guys?’ he says.
We expect him to lead us straight into the shop, but instead he waggles his fingers confederately. We all huddle up under the awning.
‘Just so you know, your man Patrick inside is not unknown to the police. In fact he’s due in court in a couple of days on a fraud charge. So his story this morning – two heavies mugging him for the float and making him take drugs – well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. But I would think it’s a classic case of Jackanory.’
‘We’ll bear it in mind.’
The policeman answers a call on his radio. ‘Yeah – LOB,’ he says, and waves us on. We make our way inside.

The shop is dark, despite a couple of yellowing strip lights precariously tacked to the ceiling and an angle-poise on the worn wooden counter. Even the shadows reek of oil. There is another policeman standing propped against some steel shelving with his arms folded. To his left, up against the counter and slumped on an upturned bucket, is a man in his sixties, dressed in a tight brown jersey and brown trousers. He is a study in dejection, the vee of his legs like an open drain for the energy pouring from his hands and his downturned face.
His eyes and mouth remained zip-locked.
‘It’s the ambulance, Patrick. What’s happened to you this morning?’
‘Come on, Patrick. Tell these good people what you told us.’
Patrick raises his head but his eyes remain closed. He talks quietly, in a voice as dessicated and brittle as the fly husks on display with the cans and things in the window.
‘When I opened up this morning, two men pushed their way into the shop. They demanded money. When I said I didn’t have any, they hit me over the head with a piece of wood, then forced me to swallow some tablets. I don’t know what they were. They said they might do me some good.’
The policeman holds up a plain wooden stake.
‘This is what they’re supposed to have used.’
‘Is that right? Is that what they used, Patrick? Where did they hit you?’
‘Across my forehead, and across my arms.’
I look more closely at his face. The only marks I can see are a few speckled scabs of eczema. There is no evidence of any violence.
Patrick’s eyes remain closed.
‘Were you knocked out, Patrick?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Did you fall down?’
‘No. I kept my feet.’
He suddenly opens his eyes and looks at me, but it is a two dimensional expression, curiously fixed and unexpectant. I feel as if I’m being scrutinised by a mannequin.
‘It’s happened before. They’re always doing it. They demand money to leave me alone. They’re drug dealers. The police know about it but chose not to do anything, I don’t know why. I’ve been left to cope on my own.’
We give him a check over, which he suffers to happen with the same, flat expression of sufferance.
‘Everything seems fine, Patrick. How do you feel in yourself?’
Rae goes into the back of the shop to see if she can find some examples of the pills Patrick says he was forced to swallow. The chain-link fly curtain swooshes behind her with a rattle.
The first policeman comes into the shop from outside.
‘How are we doing?’ he says, and when I tell him he folds his arms and says: ‘Okay. Look. In the spirit of openness, Patrick. What I suggest is that we say nothing more about this. You know and I know that this is nothing more than a diversionary tactic to get you out of appearing in court. But that’s not going to happen, is it? Let’s be realistic.’
‘You tell me. You seem to know everything.’
‘Well I don’t know everything, Patrick, but I know a fair bit about this. And this is a big waste of everybody’s time. Where’s the evidence of a struggle? Where are the witnesses?’
‘I don’t know. You tell me.’
‘I will tell you, Patrick. They don’t exist, Patrick. So what I suggest is that we drop the pretence and say no more about it. It’s a generous offer, Patrick. Let’s forget the whole thing so everyone can go about their business. But if you carry it on, I can tell you now it won’t do you the slightest bit of good. In fact, it can only make things worse. So what do you say?’
Patrick resumes the position he was in when we first came into the shop.
I touch him on the shoulder.
‘From the ambulance point of view, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you, Patrick. But our protocol is that if you want us to take you to hospital, we will. Is that what you want to happen?’
Without looking up he says: ‘I was attacked this morning by two men.’
‘Well then we’ll go to hospital. Come on. Let’s go out to the vehicle.’
At first he seems poised on the edge of a pseudo-fit, dropping his arms down by his side, tipping his head back, working up some tremors in his legs.
‘What are you doing, Patrick?’
He hesitates, gives up on that idea, stands up.
‘Let’s go,’ he says.

Outside, his shop assistant rolls up on his bike with a juddering squeal of brakes.
‘Patrick! Has it happened again?’, he says. ‘Two men pushing their way in, demanding money?’
We all look at him.

Is that a wig?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

safe little dogs

On the driveway of the block of flats there is an elderly woman standing half in and half out of a car, one hand on the open door and the other fiddling with a bunch of keys.
‘Is it for Richardson? Flat forty?’ she says. ‘Have you come for my daughter, Jane?’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m her mum.’
‘Yep, we’ve come for your daughter.’
There is a little boy in the passenger seat. He studies me through the dirty windscreen.
‘I’ll just go straight up the hospital and see you there,’ the woman says, getting back into the car.
We hurry on inside.

The lift descends and opens. Two woman like hyper inflated character balloons bustle and jostle each other as they struggle out of the lift with a couple of bichon frises.
‘Morning,’ I say to them.
They all look horrified.

We let them pass, then carry on up to the fifteenth floor.
The lift door opens onto a man so consumptively thin he could hide behind a cane.
‘Hurry up, guys. She’s really done it this time.’
He leads us through a stark and dirty flat into a galley kitchen where his ex-wife Jane is lying on her back, blue lipped and unmoving.
‘I think she took some heroin,’ he says. ‘I just nipped out to the shops to get some things in. I was only gone a minute. Do you think she’ll make it?’
I set to work clearing and securing her airway, using a BVM to breathe for her, whilst Rae draws up some narcan to counteract the effect of the heroin.
‘I was here about four days ago, same thing,’ says Rae. ‘She’s pushing her luck.’
‘There’s some dodgy gear about,’ the partner says. ‘I told her not to take it on her own.’
‘Can you fetch us her list of medications please?’ Rae asks him. As soon as he’s gone she says: ‘Exactly the same last time. Only then the little boy was in the sitting room on the couch, watching the whole thing. I reported it to social services, but I haven’t heard back yet. Did you see him in the car just now?’
‘Was that him?’
‘Yeah – with the grandma. I’m not happy about this. I wouldn’t mind betting they called the grandma over to make it look as if she had the kid the whole time.’

The partner comes in again with a scrip.
‘How’s she doing?’
‘She’s making some effort to breathe for herself now. It shouldn’t be long before she’s up and talking to us.’
‘Thanks for coming, guys.’
‘No worries.’

Jane sits on the edge of the sofa, smoking a roll-up. Mike, her ex, paces about anxiously.
‘Please don’t tell the social,’ she says. ‘I’ll lose my boy for sure.’
‘We’re worried about the way things are at the moment, Jane. Not just for you, but for Josh, too. What happens if you take an OD like today and he gets left on his own? What would he do? How would that be for him?’
‘But he doesn’t stay with me. He stays with his Grandma.’
‘He was here when this happened to you just the other week, Jane. It was me who brought you back from the dead then, too.’
‘I am grateful, and I’m sorry. But please don’t tell the social. They’ll get the wrong end of the stick and I’ll lose little Joshie. I don’t know what I’d do if they took Joshie away.’
She starts crying, dragging fixedly on the cigarette between sobs.
‘The boy’s okay,’ says Mike. ‘His grandma takes good care of him.’
‘You can see our worries, though, can’t you? You can see how it looks to us?’
‘Yeah – of course. But please – don’t tell the social.’

Jane refuses to come to hospital, even though we explain that narcan has a short half-life, and the effects will wear off soon.
‘I’ll be with Mike,’ she says. ‘I’ll be fine.’
She signs our release papers, and we leave. As soon as we’re back in the cab, we request some off-road time to fill in a Vulnerable Child form back on base.

The two women we passed in the lobby are exercising their dogs on the slopes in front of the tower block. They play out spools of line to let the dogs wander on the grass, chatting watchfully as the white woolly heads bob up and down, like miniature sheep, grazing.
‘They must shampoo those dogs every day,’ Rae says.
‘And blow dry them.’
I imagine the dogs standing patiently in an aluminium sink, suffering jug after jug of warm, cleansing water to wash the suds and the dirt away.
Good, clean, safe little dogs.

I wonder which floor they live on.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

coping strategies

‘Let me begin by telling you a little bit about myself.’

The HR manager’s words drift out across the room of paramedics with the enervating creep of carbon monoxide. Everyone sprawls, a green slew of bodies scooped up from the big Trust pond in a bucket marked: Continuous Professional Development and tipped into this conference room. The programme today will cover Equality, Diversity, Coping with Stress and Listening Skills.

She smiles with political levels of resilience, and continues.

‘I’ve been a manager all my working life, after completing a degree course in Business and Economics. I worked five years as a senior HR manager with a large department store, enjoying the challenges of that position enormously. The retail world is fascinating, fast-moving, pretty demanding, and I loved it.’

She scans her audience. She reminds me of the robot Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. She has the same smooth metal styling, the same bulletproof purity of purpose.

‘But when the business was subject to a takeover, I was forced to evaluate my position with the in-coming regime, and actually found I didn’t much want to work for them. So I took voluntary redundancy and started a new business. In fact I ran away to Guernsey and opened a Bed & Breakfast. I enjoyed that challenge enormously, but anyone will tell you that running your own business is probably one of the most stressful things you can do. So after three years I’d decided that I’d explored everything that particular arena had to offer, and was ready to come back into a more formal place of work. So I joined the ambulance service, and have been here now as senior HR manager for about twelve months or so.’

She lifts her visor to gauge the level of interest.

‘But enough about me. Let’s go round the room and learn a little more about each other. I want you to tell us your name, where you’re from – and one thing you did this weekend that you really enjoyed.’


Jeannie is sitting on the bed with both hands resting palm upwards in her lap, the backs of her fingers and her red-painted fingernails lined up and resting against their opposite number, thumbs on top and relaxed, a neat arrangement of studied calm. The soft underside of her arms are turned upwards, and where Jeanie has striped across them with the kitchen knife, the skin stretches apart like a torn stocking.
‘Jeannie – it’s the ambulance. My name’s Spence and this is Rae. I can see you’ve hurt yourself, but what we need to do before we come any closer is to make sure you’re not going to do anything to hurt us.’
She looks across at us with a curiously tender expression.
‘I wouldn’t hurt you,’ she says, and smiles.
‘I just need to get that knife out of the way, though.’
I pick it up by the bloodied black handle and toss it across the room.
‘Any other weapons?’
She gives a shake of the head.
‘Where are the police?’ she says.
‘They couldn’t send anyone at the minute, so we thought we’d come in anyway and see how you were.’
‘That’s nice.’
Her bedsit is a compact world of light and dark, order and disorder. The rucked-up bed that Jeannie sits on is an island in a sea of magazines, food cartons and tangled clothes, but above the squalid brown horizon of all this, neatly tacked-up across the institutional magnolia walls, Jeannie has an array of baby photos, laid out in a grid.
‘My brother’s child,’ she says.
On a pile of books in one corner, there is a red plastic hamster cage.
‘And that’s Aiko. It’s a Japanese word. It means Little Love.’


We’ve been put into small groups and asked to think about all the things we do to cope with stress. We are to write them in a list, and then share what we have when we all come back together. The manager drifts between the groups. She comes and sits with us.
‘Show me what’s top of your list,’ she says.
We tell her that meeting back on base, sitting with our colleagues in the mess room, talking about the jobs we’ve done – this is one of the most helpful things. They’ll have come up against the same jobs, we say. They’ll have a view on it.
‘Unfortunately as you know the move is away from ambulance stations as such, so let’s just put that idea to one side and think about what other mechanisms you have to cope with stress. I see here you’ve written sport down. Good. Sport’s a good one. Doesn’t it create endorphins, or something? Is that right? You’re the experts.’


I clean Jeannie’s arms with a gauze pad soaked in sterile water. The new wounds overlay older wounds, where the skin has knitted back together in a tangle of puce coloured scar tissue.
‘I’ve had a few grafts,’ she says.
I bandage her arms up right and left.
‘One or two of these need attention at the hospital, Jeannie. Plus I’m not happy leaving you here alone. Will you come with us to the hospital? You’ll be able to talk to someone there.’
‘I think I’ve done enough talking,’ she says. ‘I’m all talked out.’
‘But you will come with us?’
‘If you want.’
She puts on a heavy brown woollen jacket, and roots about for her keys.
‘I’ll have a tidy up tomorrow,’ she says. ‘See you later, Aiko.’


The HR manager stands alongside a flip chart and explains how stress works.
‘I spent some time with the Samaritans,’ she says. ‘They deal with this stuff all the time, and they have a really interesting way of explaining the equation of stress, if you like – and it’s a diagram that I found really useful. I’ll draw it for you.’
With a fat black marker pen she squeaks out a more than wedge, then two parallel lines cutting down across the middle of it.
‘This end of the wedge you might call extreme happiness, or euphoria. The kind of feeling you have when you first fall in love, or look at a newborn baby. This end – the thin end – you might call despair, depression, suicidal thoughts, when you feel you can’t carry on. Of course, no-one could live either absurdly happy all the time, here at the euphoric end of the spectrum, but by the same token, nor could they live constantly in the pits of despair. So what happens is, people live mostly in the comfort zone, which is here, in the middle. Neither too happy or too sad. And what happens is that their emotional life is a series of little adjustments, sometimes this way, towards happiness, or sometimes this way, towards despair. It’s a constant battle to maintain the status quo here in the middle, the comfort zone.’

She taps the marker pen in her hand and gives us a sly look.

‘Now – here’s a story for you. A man rings up saying he wants to kill himself. Okay. Fine. The Samaritan is trained to deal with this. He says something like: ‘What’s happened?’ And then the man turns round and says he wants to kill himself because his toaster has broken. What do you make of that?’

Frank puts his hand up.

‘Has he got a grill?’


These pavements are the town’s arteries and these people its blood cells, pulsing through town, bustling and jostling beneath the high midday sun.
Jeannie sits with me in the back of the ambulance, staring out through the window as we rattle on towards the hospital.
A woman and her partner cross the street with a buggy.
‘You should see my brother’s baby,’ she says. ‘She’s such a cutie.’


Day Three of the course runs to a close. The HR manager thanks us for our participation and wishes us luck in our careers. She packs away her folder and pens as we make for the door. Outside in the hotel car park the spring air flaps around us, its heady blue flavours cut with pine bark chippings, softening tarmac and chip fat drifting out from the kitchen windows.
I say goodbye to the others and climb into my car.

Never has it felt so safe, so musical, so mine.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

moving to fiji

A police car is parked outside the all-night pizza place, a small group of people standing outside. We walk over. A middle-aged man with a bloodied face is talking to a couple of officers. I wait just to the side whilst he finishes what he has to say, then introduce myself.
The man gives me a slantways look.
‘I don’t need no ambulance,’ he says. ‘I just want to go home.’
‘Let’s have a chat on the truck, clean you up a bit and see what the damage is, then we’ll decide what to do next.’
‘Okay. Fine. Whatever.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Is that a police question?’
‘No. It’s just a "what’s your name" type question.’
‘What’s your name?’
Spence? Whatever kind of name is that? What’s your first name? Pound-Shilling?’
He smirks, then hawks some blood out onto the pavement.
‘So are you going to tell me your name?’
‘Oh. Yeah. My ‘name’. It’s Murphy. Okay? Easy one to spell.’
The policewoman gives me an apologetic look, then says to Murphy: ‘Just behave and go with these people. We’ve got all we need and we’ll be in touch.’
‘Great. Be in touch. I know what you mean.’
I help him into the truck. Rae shows him to a seat.
‘Tell us what happened.’
‘Life, that’s what happened, Henny Pen. I was just swapping banter with some kids in the pizza place, they went mental, I got a battering. This one guy, he just kept punching and punching me. As hard as he could, working his fist right into my face. I haven’t had a beating like that since I were a kid. For what? For talking like a normal human being. For being human.’
He gives his swollen face some exploratory prods with his finger, and winces.
‘I don’t deserve that. No one does. I know I can be a bit mouthy sometimes, but I’m a decent bloke, at the bottom of it all.’
I start to clean his head up with a saline-soaked gauze swab.
‘Were you knocked out, Murphy?’
‘It’ll take more than those chimps to put me down.’
‘Well you’ve got a deep cut just here that’ll need glueing. And I think you might need an x-ray to rule out any facial fractures.’
‘No mate. I just want to go home and sleep it off.’
‘That’s not something we’d recommend, Murphy.’
He stares at a bloody tissue in his hands.
‘D’you know what, mate? I’ve had just about enough of this western world.’
I rip open some fresh swabs.
‘I don’t know there’s anywhere that’s free of this kind of stuff,’ I say. ‘I was brought up in the country, and we had our fair share of after-pub violence.’
‘Yeah? Well – there’s always Fiji.’
‘Yeah. Fiji.’
‘Is that a good place, then?’
‘I have not the slightest idea.’

He grunts, smiles crookedly, then offers up his right palm, american style. I smack it.
‘Good one,’ I say.
He relaxes his hand back down onto his lap and then stares at it, like it just operated on its own accord. Then he sighs wetly through his nose and spits some more blood into a tissue.
I carry on cleaning him up.
Suddenly he says: ‘I can’t bear that my kids will have to see me like this tomorrow.’
And he starts to cry, shaking apart in the chair with sharp little jerks of his shoulders.
‘My kids love me,’ he chokes. ‘I am loved. I am loved. I don’t deserve this.’
We clean him up as best we can, and when we’re done, we take him to the hospital.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

don't call me ruby

Mrs Elswick is stretched out on the bedroom carpet between the second of the two single beds and the wall. She is neatly arranged; someone has put a pillow under her head and a duvet on top. She lies there looking up at us, her jaw springing up and down like a ventriloquist’s dummy on the back seat of a car.
‘I fell off the edge of the bed,’ she chatters.
Frank checks her over. There are two community responders in the hallway talking to Mr Elswick, a worn and rounded man with a habit of staring fixedly then blinking twice as an afterthought. He is standing in front of a long wall mirror; the effect is of someone split down the middle.
‘The very same thing happened yesterday,’ he says. ‘I just don’t know what to do.’
‘We’ll have a chair please, Spence,’ says Frank.

Out on the truck we run through our medical shtick.
‘We’ll be coming at you from all angles,’ says Frank, hauling out the ECG leads. ‘Like a pit stop at the Formula One.’
‘Ooh yes,’ says Mrs Elswick.
‘I’ll do your tyres,’ I say.
She doesn’t hear me.
Frank towers above the scene, his hands working with the easy autonomy that comes with repetition. If I looked into his eyes now I would catch him slouched back with his feet up on his brain’s console, flicking through a magazine.
‘Erm - one of the community responders told me not to call you Ruby,’ he says, peeling open the ECG dots, flipping the clear plastic circles into a vomit bowel and sticking her up. ‘Why’s that, then?’
‘Ruby’s my middle name,’ says Mrs Elswick, her jaw working up and down.
‘So what do you like being called?’
Frank switches on the ECG monitor and feels her pulse.
‘I don’t get it. We’re not to call you Ruby, but it’s your middle name, and it’s what you like to be called.’
‘I’m missing something.’
Mrs Elswick rolls her eyes upwards in an exaggerated expression of teacherly despair, but any fine motor function is difficult whilst her jaw springs up and down as it does.
‘My middle name’s Ruby, but my Father said I shouldn’t ever use it. He said it was a tart’s name.’
‘What nonsense,’ says Frank, poking a thermometer in her ear and sniffing at the result. ‘Now - rhubarb. That’s a tart’s name.’

We are all laughing when I open the door to Mr Elswick.
He blinks up at us, twice, with great precision.

Monday, May 11, 2009

who will be there?

‘Are you the man who stole my chairs, my carpets and my pictures?’
‘No. My name’s Spence and this is Rae. We’re from the ambulance.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yep. Your neighbour, Sheila, has called us because she’s worried about you.’
‘Every last stick of furniture gone, the carpets, everything. It’s an absolute scandal. Are you sure it wasn’t you?’
Margaret leans forward and scans me with eyes so ancient they carry only a memory of blue. She is sitting in her coat, buttoned up, ready for the off, her battered old brown handbag clasped on her lap. Sheila is standing next to her with one hand on her shoulder, as if she is posing for a plate photograph.
‘She’s not herself,’ she says.

Out on the ambulance, Margaret settles into the seat and brightens.
‘Are you taking me home?’
‘Where is your home, Margaret?’
She gives the address we have just led her out of.
‘Do you know why we’re here today, Margaret?’
‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ she says, drawing her handbag closer to her. ‘All I know is that some man came and took my furniture and he had no right to it. I think it was you. I think this is all part of your stupid game.’
‘The reason Sheila called us out was that you don’t seem yourself. She says you’ve been very confused these past few days.’
‘Confused? My dear, I was fifty years in the government. I think you’ll find I know precisely what day of the week it is.’
Her eyes bore into me, two topaz stones set in a weathered mask.
‘And I want my furniture back.’

Later in the journey she asks me again where we are taking her.
‘To the hospital,’ I say. ‘You need to see a doctor.’
She pauses. A confusion settles on her, then lifts, then settles again.
‘Will my parents be there?’ she says. ‘My elder brother Jeremy?’
‘How old is Jeremy?’ I ask her, as gently as I can.
‘Forty,’ she says.
Then she looks at me, and smiles, as the ambulance floods with time.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

scoot the merciful

The notes tell us we will be met.
As we push through the revolving doors into the hotel lobby there is a fierce haircut of a man in white shirt and red waist coat standing in the centre spot of the circular parquet floor, his legs apart and his hands lightly clasped in front of him. He makes no gesture of recognition, or sign of any kind.
It hardly needs saying, but: ‘Ambulance.’
Without moving anything other than his lips, he says:
‘This way.’
Then with a lean limbed economy, pivots and strides off up the main staircase.
‘So what’s happened here tonight?’
‘They tell you.’
‘Okay. Good.’
He leads us onto the first landing where a young girl is lying in the recovery position. A select audience of hotel staff have lined themselves up in order of seniority along the opposite wall, from Chamber Maid to Manager. I could be a detective entering a murder scene. I should be saying: ‘Nobody leaves until I say so,’ but instead begin with the usual: ‘What’s happened?’
The Manager, a Praying Mantis in a stripy three piece and shiny shoes, steps forward.
‘My security staff were alerted to a disturbance in room 44, this lady’s room. People had heard loud voices, crashing noises, and so on and so forth. My staff had to force their way into the room, found this lady on the bed and her partner in the bathroom. When they helped the lady out of the room, she complained of feeling dizzy, so they assisted her to the floor, which is where you find her now.’
‘And did anyone call the police?’
‘I am assured they will be here soon.’
I kneel beside the patient. A heavy set girl in her early twenties, her age weighs more heavily in her face than it should. She seems embarrassed rather than distressed, reluctant rather than unable to talk. No apparent injuries. We sit her up.
She puts one hand to her face as if she is trying to remember something, then suddenly stands up decisively.
‘Let’s go to the ambulance,’ she says.
The manager and his staff almost applaud.

The ambulance sits outside the hotel, a cosy box of light amongst the feral noises of a Saturday night, flowing round us, moving on.
Leila says he’s attacked her before. Last time with a knife. Leila shows us a tiny scar just underneath her chin. Tonight they were arguing, she doesn’t remember what about. He grabbed her, threw her against the wardrobe, bruised her arms where he held her, scratched her breasts. She tells us this with a muted attention to detail that would seem casually conversational were it not for the context.
There is a knock on the door.
I let a policewoman on board.
‘Could one of you go back up and have a look at Ken, the other party? He’s had a bash to the head and an eye injury.’

En route to the hospital. Leila is back at the hotel being questioned by the police, Ken is on the ambulance, a head wound from an ashtray and an eye that’s been poked with a fingernail.
‘This is shit, man,’ he says.
The policeman riding with us says nothing. He looks exactly like the guy who met us in the lobby at the beginning. How could that be?
He smiles.

I hand in the paperwork at reception.
‘Is Scoot still there?’ I ask Zoe.
‘Yeah – come on.’ She opens the door and lets me in.
Scoot is exactly where he’s been all night, bundled up in blankets beneath the desk in the storeroom.
‘Hey Scoot. What d’ya say, what d’ya know?’
He looks up, gives my hand a sniff, then grants a dab or two of his head.
‘I dunno, Scoot. People, ay?’
Suddenly Scoot looks up, as if he is listening to a command from far away. But then he relaxes again as the impulse fades, gives a jaded smack of the lips, and settles himself back down amongst the blankets.

Scoot the Merciful at peace again, the fluorescent lights of the A&E department burning on through the night around him.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


A&E reception stands guard over the entrances to the Walk-In minors, GP out of hours and major zones. It is a foursquare, plexiglass temple to Admin Kali, the multi-tasking Mother of Process and Information, Creator of Record, Taker of Number, Keeper, Caller, Confessor. Zoe and Claire are two of her acolytes. I imagine they were free administrative spirits haunting a grove here on this hill a thousand years ago, and the hospital was built around them. Now they are caught within these walls, and the years have stacked up, and the ambulance crews come and go, endlessly bowling in through the magic doors with snow in their hair or rain on their shoulders or sunshine on their backs, a relentless train of pilgrims wheeling past the windows, surrendering their paper tributes, bothering them for pens.

Today as Rae and I hand in our patient report form Zoe stands up and smiles.
‘Come round and have a look at what we’ve got,’ she says. ‘You’re going to love it. Come on.’
She slides the hatch closed and then comes round to let us in through the security door.
‘Have a look in there,’ Zoe says, pointing in to their little storeroom.
Under a desk there is a dog curled nose to tail in a nest of blankets. It looks up.
‘His name’s Scoot.’
Scoot is a Springer Spaniel, a ragged brown and white scrap of a dog whose black eyes seem to make up four fifths of his body. His expression is so desperately mournful even Disney would have blushed. It fells us both, bringing us to our knees beside the nest.
Claire appears in the doorway behind Zoe.
‘What do you think of our new assistant?’ she says.
‘He’s so-o-o cute,’ says Rae, mussing the dog. ‘I want him.’
‘Well what he wants is another Cheddar biscuit,’ says Claire. She produces half a packet. It makes its way along the line to Rae, who taps one out and presents it to the dog. But Scoot’s either eaten his fill or he’s too overcome with depression – a condition which, judging by his expression, he has learned to live with. He gives the biscuit a disappointed sniff and then plumps himself back down again.
‘How did you get Scoot?’
‘He came in with a woman who’s taken an overdose. Nothing too serious, but they’re keeping her on CDU for a little longer. It’s not worth calling the RSPCA ‘cos she’ll probably be discharged tonight. So we offered to look after him. And he’s no bother at all – are you? Are you?’
Scoot raises his eyebrows in our direction, then carries on staring at his front paws.
‘Trouble is, we’ve just heard matron is coming on at seven, and she’ll have us all taken out and shot.’
‘She never comes in at that time!’ says Claire, kicking the door frame. ‘Why now? It’s so typical of her.’
‘I don’t think even Matron would mind about Scoot, though,’ says Rae. ‘I mean, look at him!’
We all look at him.
Scoot gives a professional sigh, and wriggles down further amongst the blankets.

Outside, a crew wheels past the serving hatch with a man strapped and groaning on a spinal board.

Rae places the cheddar biscuit next to the vomit bowl filled with drinking water, gives Scoot a last, loving fuss, then stands up. Her knees give an audible crack and she staggers slightly.
‘You’re worse than me,’ says Zoe, offering her one of the biscuits. ‘You’re falling to bits.’
‘I don’t think I’ll do anything else tonight,’ says Rae, snapping down the biscuit in two bites and smacking the crumbs from her hands. ‘I think I’ll just curl up under the desk with Scootie pie. And if Matron comes in and makes a fuss, well then I’ll just have to bite her bony butt. We don’t care, do we Scoots? We don’t care.’

But the dog is already asleep.

Friday, May 01, 2009

two old friends

Geoffrey is the very ambassador of punctuality. If he says he’ll be there at nine he’ll be there a minute before, pressed, polished, clipped, buttoned, straight-backed and smiling, a crisply folded newspaper under his left arm, his right reaching out for the measured handshake that will fade on the ninth stroke of the clock.

Which is why James knows something is wrong.

Usually the two of them catch the bus into town early every Saturday and stay until lunch, but James needs to pick up some shoes that have been re-heeled and Geoffrey needs to organise a present for his granddaughter’s wedding. So they arranged a special mid-week trip. Geoffrey was to call round for James as his flat is nearest to the bus stop.

The two flats – economical, sensible, self-contained – stand as well-appointed symbols for the position in life both men have reached. Retired professionals – James from the print trade (high-end catalogues and diaries for museums and art galleries), Geoffrey from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and latterly the Civil Service – James has been married and divorced with one son in Australia, Geoffrey has two daughters at either ends of the country and a wife laid to rest in the local churchyard. Both men have been retired so long the memory of their working lives hangs in the air as abstracted and strangely coloured as the gilded photos on their walls. Shopping trips, bridge parties, family excursions, the Horse and Hounds and the Ten O’clock News - this is the comfortable currency of their lives now, and they spend a good deal of it in each other’s company.

But today is different.

James stands with the phone in his hand, picturing the little iron and glass table in the hallway the other end, hearing exactly the sound the phone would be making on it, every unanswered ring another reason why Geoffrey might not be able to answer: he’s forgotten the appointment and made other plans, he’s been called away on urgent business, he’s ill. But like little waves running out to a bigger, more destructive mass, the conviction grows in him that the reason Geoffrey is not answering is that he has collapsed on the floor.

James hangs up, then after a moment presses the green button again and dials 999. But then before that call is answered he replaces the handset in its cradle. He should go round himself and see what the problem is. Maybe he is the one who has got things mixed up.

He hurries round to his friend’s flat. He checks the windows from the road as he turns up the path. The curtains are open in the lounge. He walks towards it as quickly as he can, strides up to the door and knocks brightly three times. No reply. He knocks again, a different pattern, not his usual, and presses the bell for good measure. After a little while he walks round through the curved red-brick arch and checks the bedroom window. The curtains are still drawn there. On an impulse he knocks on the window, too, but immediately feels foolish. As he walks back through the archway he pulls out the spare key that he has been turning absently round and round in his raincoat pocket. He puts it into the lock and opens the door.

‘Hello? Geoffrey?’

The silent interior draws him in. He looks into the lounge. Empty. He looks into the bathroom. Empty. He comes to the bedroom and steps inside.

Geoffrey had been sitting up in bed with a breakfast tray on his lap, reading the newspaper. Now he is sprawled face down, his glasses squashed cruelly into his face, one hand stretched out and over the side of the bed, a GTN spray on the carpet a few feet away. The contents of the tray – a hard-boiled egg, a slice of toast, a glass of juice and a cafetiere of coffee, are scattered around him on the counterpane. James reaches out and gives his shoulder a little push. It might as well be wood.


When the ambulance arrives, James watches them park down on the road. He waves as they look up towards the block so they know which entrance to come to. They collect their bags from the back of the truck, slam the door and make their way up to him. When they’re within hailing distance he says:

‘I think he’s gone.’

One of them says: Can you show us where to go?

He’s not altogether sure he can.