Tuesday, June 30, 2009

who had what

The brickwork of these old dock workers’ cottages still manage to radiate something rooted and forbearing through the thick masonry gloss of their recent refurbishment. They seem to hang back from the margin of the main road and the commercial brutalities of the rest of the area, everything having been ripped out years ago, replaced with factory units, DIY outlets and scrap metal yards. But the cottages have lasted, still keeping a look-out over the busy quays and sheds below them on the other side, the dark rectangular strips of deep water, and the sea, constantly pressing in on the other side of the harbour wall.

The door to the last of these cottages is open, spilling a light of a friendlier, more domestic hue than the points of fierce magnesium that blaze over the cargo ship fifty feet below, loading timber.

A man is standing in the doorway. Silhouetted as he is, arms folded and feet planted either side, he could be a security guard guarding the entrance to a club. But up close, we see that the stab vest is actually a soft sleeveless jacket, the frown is apprehensive not aggressive, and the arms are folded out of a need for reassurance.
‘He’s just through here,’ he says, letting us in through the tiny hallway and into the main living area, so neatly furnished and colour co-ordinated it feels as if we are walking into a feature in Country Living. But a man is lying on his side on a patterned cream rug, dressed in a white cotton wrap, his head surrounded by a messy red halo of regurgitated mousakka.
He feebly raises his head.
‘Who’s this?’
‘The ambulance, John. You’ve had me so worried.’
‘I didn’t want you to call an ambulance.’
‘Just lie still and let them look at you.’
‘So what’s happened here?’
‘We were at a restaurant celebrating a friend’s birthday. Nothing big, nothing wild. We had less than half bottle of wine each, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Then we caught a cab home. We’d only been back a minute or two. John had gone into the bathroom, undressed, and was walking out tying his robe when he took a step or two into the living room and – bam! – he was spark out on the floor, pretty much where you see him now. He was just gray and awful and there was nothing I could do to bring him round.’
‘I was not.’
‘I’m sorry but you were, John. What would you know about it? You were unconscious. Then when he did come round he threw up, and I was so out of my mind with worry I called you.’
John moans from down on the rug.
‘I’m so embarrassed,’ he says. ‘I’ll be fine. It’s just one of those things.’
‘One of those things,’ says Peter. ‘Oh – right. One of those “drink half a bottle of wine and fall unconscious” things? I don’t think so.’
‘I’m so embarrassed.’
‘Let’s have a look at you.’
Rae checks him over, then we help him sit up and re-arrange his robe.
‘Urgh! I can’t believe I did this,’ he says, staring down at the mess on the rug. ‘It’ll never come out.’
‘Who cares about that? The most important thing is that we find out what happened to you?’ says Peter, putting both his hands on John’s shoulders as if he were reasoning with a child.
‘Well I don’t need hospital. What will they do for me there? Oh. I know. See a doctor. Have a CT scan. Find I’ve got a brain tumour. Game over. I know. We both work for the NHS, for God’s sake.’
Rae gives me a look.
‘Let’s not get too carried away, John. But I think Peter’s right. I think you do need to come to the hospital for a check over. It’s certainly not normal behaviour, passing out after half a bottle of wine with no warning.’
He wipes his mouth on the kitchen towel and stares at the result with disgust.
‘Well. I’m getting dressed first.’

Even though we tell him that he’s fine as he is, that he’ll only have to undress again and put on a hospital gown as soon as he gets there, John insists. He spends the next ten minutes struggling to put together an outfit, knocking things over in his search for flip-flops, staggering around trying to push his head up into the arm of his t-shirt.
‘John! Please!’ says Peter.
‘If I didn’t know any better, I’d say John was simply very drunk.’
‘But he’s had the same as me. Absolutely nothing at all. Trust me - this is completely uncharacteristic. When he fell backwards on the rug, I thought he’d died.’
We watch as John bends down to put on a flip flop and rolls backwards onto the sofa.
‘So what do you do in the NHS?’
‘I’m a nurse on an orthopaedic ward, he’s a radiographer.’

Finally, after some firm intervention, John has some clothes on, a mobile phone and a bunch of keys.
‘I don’t want to go,’ he says. But shuffles out anyway.

As I’m driving to the hospital, I catch sight of Rae in the mirror, raising the feet of the trolley up, leaning over and shouting ‘John? Come on, John.’ Then to me, through the hatch. ‘He’s gone off on me.’
‘Shall I pull over?’
‘No. I’m not sure about it. Just keep going and I’ll let you know.’
Further down the road, I can tell from the tone of her voice that John has come round.
‘It’s not funny, John,’ she says. ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this.’
I see Peter’s reflection in the mirror, leaning forwards, his face blurred with anxiety.

When we arrive at the hospital, Rae tells me that John seemed to have a curious kind of fit – not the usual phonus-bolonus, pseudo-fit we often see, but more like a partial seizure. His breathing had changed in character, becoming shallower and faster, and his heart had pounded out an irregular one forty plus.
‘I’m really not sure about this one,’ she says to me in secret, just before she goes to handover.
I wait by the trolley in the corridor. John seems genuinely embarrassed.
‘God. If anyone recognises me,’ he says. ‘I feel so bad about all this. I’m so sorry to waste your time.’
‘You’re not wasting anyone’s time,’ Peter says, pushing the fringe back from John’s forehead. ‘You mustn’t think like that.’ Then he looks at me and says: ‘What do you think it is?’
‘A brain tumour,’ says John.
‘Don’t say that,’ says Peter. He looks exhausted. ‘Don’t say such things.’
Rae comes back with a cubicle number. We wheel him into position.
Just as we do this, John seems to go off again, staring vacantly up into the ceiling, breathing rapidly, his pulse racing.
‘Has John taken any kind of recreational drugs tonight?’
‘No. Never. We don’t touch them.’
A doctor comes over and has a quick look.
‘Mm,’ he says. ‘Let’s do another ECG.’

Later that night we check in on John’s progress.
‘They’ve just gone up to the CT suite,’ says the nurse.

An hour later still, and we’re back in A&E again. I’m sipping coffee out by the ambulance when Rae comes through the double doors looking like she has something.
‘I spoke to the nurse again. They’ve just got bloods back from our mate John,’ she says. ‘He’s absolutely loaded. Half a bottle of wine? Yeah, right – and Oliver Reed had a diet Coke.’

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

sea breeze

The night has rolled on, thinning to a scrape of heels on concrete, a shriek in an alleyway, bass notes spilling from a passing car. The pier has closed finally, shutting down its multicoloured circuits for the night, leaving just a workshop window illuminated, tucked beneath the dark boardwalk. There’s a barely discernible silhouette moving about in there, like an ant caught in a light box. Meanwhile, the moon leans down low and bright, scrying our fortunes in the polished black surface of the water.

Karol is sitting in a wheelchair by a tall, open window that overlooks the sea. He grips the armrests, leaning forwards with his chin up, his face whiter than the net curtains, breathing like he’s just been running a race.
His wife is holding on to one of the rear handgrips, either to keep herself upright or her husband in the chair, it’s hard to tell. She smiles at us as we haul our gear into the room – her smile, like her hair, thinning and untended.
‘Can’t you help him?’
Karol is a cancer patient of a year or so, the tumours slowly metastasising from where they first laid root in the right lung, creeping on through the rest of his body despite the drastic treatments called down on them. He manages his condition at home and at the local hospice, with a bottle of Oromorph to supplement the other pain relievers when things get too difficult.

The problem tonight, though, is that Karol is hyperventilating. He nods to say he understands what that means.
‘Don’t - leave me - until I’m better,’ he says.
‘We promise.’

I coach his breathing to bring it back down to a normal rhythm. He gradually relaxes his grip on the chair. His wife comes round to sit on a facing stool.
‘All day he’s been worrying that the cancer will stop him breathing,’ she says, rubbing his knee. ‘The doctors are happy with the way things are at the moment, and everything seems to be holding, but now and again Karol gets a bit – well - worked up.’
‘I think I tripped out on all the meds,’ he says, his breathing levelling out and his shoulders relaxing. ‘I grew up in the sixties. You’d think I could handle that.’ He laughs, but then his face seems to slacken again with a dreadful kind of existential sweat.
‘The walls just seemed to be bearing down on me,’ he says, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘I just couldn’t seem to get my breath.’
‘That’s why we came to the window,’ says his wife. ‘The ozone.’
‘It’s got to help.’

I make a phone call to request a home visit from the out of hours doctor. Karol could do with some lightweight sedation tonight, to see him through to a visit from a Macmillan nurse in the morning and a thorough-going review. A trip to A&E would only make things worse.

‘Karol is an artist. He did all these paintings,’ she says. ‘Look.’

We scarcely noticed them as we came into the room at first, but now things have calmed down we’re able to take in our surroundings. There are huge, square canvases hung around the room, vigorously painted, intensely coloured images of pelicans jostling on flaming yellow and blue beaches, a naked woman reclining on a leaping zebra, a cascading forest of orchids and tigers. And then, just by the door, an abstract canvas, the biggest of all of them, strung from ceiling to floor – a massing cloud swirl of ochre, burnt earth, carmine and terracotta.

‘I tried to get down how it felt to be told I had cancer,’ he says. ‘How it feels.’

We all look at the painting, as the net curtains gently bow and snap in the cool sea breeze.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

vera the bog mummy

‘She’s in a terrible state,’ says the caretaker of the flats, a man as square and brutally constructed as the building itself. ‘Absolutely terrible. No one had seen her for a couple of days, and I had a key, so…’
The lift springs to a halt and the doors slide back.
‘I expect you’re used to these things, but – er – it’s going to be one hell of a job for you.’
‘You’re not selling it, particularly’ says Frank.
We follow the caretaker over to a battered blue door that shows signs of having been kicked in a few times in the past. He knocks on it twice.
‘Vera? It’s Barry again, with the ambulance.’ Then to us: ‘Not that she’ll understand any of that, of course.’
He pushes open the door.
‘She’s under the table in the living room.’

As we stand in the doorway a dreadfully grey and foetid smell billows out around us and on into the pine fresh chamber of the hallway.
‘I told you it was bad,’ Barry says. ‘Poor thing. She’s been bad with the drink before now, but nothing like this.’
‘Hello? Ambulance!’ I say, and we step inside.

Three thousand years ago the early Northern Europeans, in an effort to buy off their gods and make the harvest work that year, would sometimes lead a person out onto the marshland and cut their throat. Then they would lay the body in a shallow grave, cover it with peat, walk away and evaporate into Time. But the body would be drenched in the aseptic waters of the sphagnum moss, would be drawn down into the deepening bog, that black and anaerobic world – until, shockingly, its tanned leather face is suddenly squinting back up into the sunlight again, another bog mummy for the museum, tucked up on its side, with a long dream of suffering playing across its flattened face for everyone to see.

But now - if instead of taking your bog mummy and carefully lying it in a presentation case, you dress it instead in a torn floral nightie, drop it down on some lino and slide it under a chipped white Formica table, and instead of respectfully placing its grave goods alongside it you scatter round the withered feet a half dozen empty bottles of cheap supermarket vodka, and instead of installing a clinical de-humidifier you take a bucket of cold urine and faeces and slop it generously all over your specimen – this is how you will come to see Vera as we see her now, groaning and wailing beneath the table on the other side of the room.

‘I told you,’ says Barry. ‘How on earth are you going to move her?’

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

miss claudine, in the hospital, with the hat

If I was an alien visiting the earth, on a mission to sample the prevailing emotional flux of humankind, this would be my favourite time to touch down - the evening rush hour, when the bright weight of the day’s business eases up, and the sky deepens and pulls away, and people mass in the streets, following their routes and thoughts, but somewhat changed by the day that’s gone, roughened by all the compensations and accommodations they have had to make in order to keep these routes and thoughts running clear and in the right direction. And as the light changes, the bridges of stone they strode across so confidently that morning seem to have been replaced by something less certain, bridges of sticks, or black glass; in any case, they make their way home, back to the places they have strengthened to dream in safety, and close their doors against the night until the next day comes rolling around.

Claudine is led out of her house by her husband, Ed. A social worker stands on the pavement, clutching a manila envelope, flanked by two policewomen. Claudine looks as if she had been expecting to be led out onto the lawns of some lovely country estate. She is wearing an elegant lilac dress tied at the waist with a broad ribbon, plaited white shoes, Onassis sunglasses and a floppy cartwheel hat. She could be a Duchess, slightly cut on Madeira wine, paying a little too much attention to her feet as she is led out to greet her guests.
‘I don’t need an ambulance,’ she says, pushing her sunglasses back up her nose and smiling indulgently, first at Frank, then at me. ‘I’m not ill.’
‘Now, Claudine,’ says Ed, releasing her arm and putting both his hands on her shoulders. ‘We spoke about this. Remember? It’s just the way these things are done. You’ll be more comfortable in the ambulance, and there’s lots of room for everyone.’
‘Why? Who’s coming? Where are we going?’
‘To the hospital, Claudine. And I think a policewoman and – Spence – here, in the back with us.’
Ed looks around at us all to check that this is right. The policewoman nods.
‘I’ll follow in the police car,’ says the social worker. ‘I’ve got the papers.’
She clutches the envelope to her with such a self-conscious grip on the authority of what it contains, it reminds me of the ‘murder cards’ envelope in Cluedo, the one that sits in the middle of the board holding the weapon, the place – and the murderer, Miss Claudine, her smiling head stuck on a plastic counter. Except in this version of the game there has been no murder. In this sullied, real world version of the game, Claudine gets to be sectioned.
‘I was born thirty eight years ago next Wednesday,’ she says pleasantly, as I offer my hand to help her into the ambulance. ‘Thirty eight years since I was tucked up inside my Mother. I wish I could go back there now.’
She sits on the chair, and as I show the policewoman to her seat, Claudine slides right down and pulls her hat over her face.
‘You can’t see me,’ she says. She is charming, like a ten year old showing off to a bunch of stuffy relatives. ‘I’m invisible.’
Ed sits next to her and encourages her to put a seatbelt on.
‘No,’ she says, then: ‘Where are we off to?’
‘To Southview, to the hospital, Claudine.’
Frank slams the door shut.

As we ride along, the policewoman asks me questions about my shift patterns. Claudine listens in, frowning.
‘Who are these people?’ she asks Ed.
He straightens her hat.
A darkly thin man in his early forties, Ed is exhausted, someone inexplicably split from the normal run of things, like a man who fell asleep by a mirror and woke up to find himself trapped on the other side.
‘I haven’t slept in five days,’ he says to me. ‘Because she hasn’t.’
He says his mother has taken their children.

At Southview, Frank parks up and comes to the side to the open the door. The social worker and the other policewoman stand to his side. Ed gets out first, then turns to offer up his hand to Claudine. She steps out and looks around her.
‘My goodness,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing.’
We all walk along the pavement and into the foyer. A patient is standing over by the security desk. She has roughly cut ginger hair and a congested face like a plumped up cushion. When she sees us come in the door she pulls out her iPod earplugs and hurries over.
‘How are you? I’m fine. I’m always fine. Traffic all right? Made it here, anyways. Could’ve been killed, mate. Bang. Squashed. The roads. The roads are so dangerous these days. It’s a wonder there’s anyone left alive. Anyways. People know you’re coming? People know you’re here? Shall I ring? I’m Katy but I ‘spect you knew that already. I know what your name is. I can read it on your shirt! They don’t let you have pets in here. I had a dog. His name was Rufus….’

Claudine politely steps to one side and then carries on over to the Coke machine. She takes off her hat and glasses, kneels down on the floor, and peers up into the hole where the cans roll down.
‘Amazing,’ she says.
‘We’ll take her from here,’ the social worker says. We watch as Ed helps Claudine to her feet again, and then they all walk off down the corridor towards the secure ward, Katy talking incessantly at their backs, the leads of the earphones in her back pocket trailing down left and right behind her, like a spindly white tail.

Monday, June 15, 2009

dookey revisité

The paramedic car has its hazards flashing, but we know exactly which house we need.
‘I haven’t been to Stanley’s for a little while,’ I say to Rae.
‘No. Perhaps he hasn’t been well.’
As I park the ambulance behind the car I wonder whether this might be the one time I visit the man and find he actually needs some help.

Although there is already a paramedic on scene, when we ring the bell there is the usual schtick about who we are and what we’ve come for.
Who do you say you are? The ambulance?’ As if an ambulance was the last thing anyone could have expected, despite Stanley having made the call not ten minutes ago, and despite the fluorescent bulk of one of our colleagues right there on his sofa, surrounded by kit. But finally – heroically - he buzzes us through into the hall, where we wait another couple of minutes by his flat door.
‘I’m just getting my keys,’ he says finally, pressing his mouth to the gap. ‘Now where are my trousers. The keys must be in the trousers.’
CJ the paramedic lets us in.
‘All right?’ he says, wearily. We follow him back into the sitting room.

Dookey, Stanley’s springer spaniel, flies over the back of the sofa to frisk us for affection, driven to heights of ecstasy never before seen in a dog.
‘Dookey!’ growls Stanley like some grumpy old stage manager somewhere off in the gloom. ‘Decorum!’
CJ gives us an exhausted look.
‘Just this shift and I’m nine days clear,’ he says. ‘Count them.’
Dookey licks him clean in the chops.
‘Yeuch! Anyway, guys, listen. I know this is one you’ve maybe come across before. But the story is, he rung up with DIB. He’s sounding a little bit crackly and his SATS are a touch low. So that and his previous means it’s inevitably a trip down the old choky. Sorry and all that. I have done some paperwork for you, though.’
‘He won’t go,’ says Rae, making a blue glove ball and tossing it for the dog, who almost demolishes a sideboard of antique glass in his eagerness to retrieve. ‘Oops.’
‘Well, he assures me that this time he means business.’
‘I definitely do,’ says Stanley, dragging himself into the room by the buckle of his belt. ‘I’ve never felt so rough.’
He looks slack and grey, but then his smoking and his reclusive lifestyle means he would never make too many demands on a palette of healthy colours. He regards Rae and me with disappointment.
‘Haven’t I seen you before?’ he says.
‘Come on, Stanley. We’re taking you to the hospital, apparently.’
‘Yes. I need to go. I’ve never been so ill. I just can’t get my breath.’
‘Have you had a cigarette recently?’
‘I may have had a consolatory puff or two. Look – this is not easy, you know. You really shouldn’t make fun of me like this.’
‘We’re not making fun of you, Stanley. We’re just trying to get the full picture.’
‘Yes. Well. The full picture as you say is that I’m not breathing at all well, and I’m quite possibly dying. You know how I feel about my darling Dookey, but even she cannot keep me from my appointment with the doctors at the hospital tonight, because I’m afraid that if I stayed here I would expire and that would be that.’
‘So let’s go, then.’
‘Look. Don’t rush me. I’ve simply got to find my keys.’
‘Keys are in the door,’ says Rae, turning Dookey onto her back and scrunching her fingers around on her tummy.
Incredibly, they are, right there in the lock.
‘Oh. Fine. Well then. I just need my shoes. Dookey! Un peu de l'étiquette s'il vous plaît.’ Then he turns to me and says:
‘Where is your chair?’
‘I don’t think you need a chair, Stanley. You’re moving about like an antelope. Let’s try a walk out to the vehicle, shall we?’
‘I don’t care for your tone,’ he says, ominously. Then after giving Dookey a series of instructions in English and in French, he shuffles out with us into the hallway.

Stanley lives on a road with a crow’s view of the city. It lies spread out before us, a thousand points of light below an ink blue sky.
‘What a night!’ I say, offering my arm.
‘For you, perhaps,’ he says with a sniff. ‘For me, a vision of hell. I’m not enjoying this, you know. And I most certainly will not manage those steps.’
‘Let’s just have a go and see. If you can’t, we’ll have a rethink.’
Stanley pulls his arm out from mine.
‘Really. This is ridiculous. So you’re refusing to take me to hospital.’
‘Not at all. If you need to go, we’ll go. But I’m not carrying you in a chair, Stanley. You don’t need it.’
‘Then I’m not going.’
He turns round and marches back inside, slamming the door behind him.

The paramedic joins us over by the ambulance.
‘That went well, then.’
‘He’s just an arse.’
‘Why wouldn’t he come?’
‘He insisted on a chair.’
‘Oh well. No doubt he’ll call back in a second or two. I’d wait here if I were you.’
I talk to Control and they stand us down from the job. Just a minute later, though, we get it back again. Control ask us to give him a severe talking to.
‘Tell him it’s you or nothing,’ they say.

When Stanley answers the door and sees me standing there, his mournful expression drops a clear foot.
‘You!’ he says. ‘You’re the one who refused to take me to hospital.’ Then he notices Rae and says: ‘But you, my dear. You have been the epitome of helpfulness and humanity throughout this entire ordeal. You I don’t mind.’
‘Stanley. This is your last chance. Either you walk out to the ambulance with us now and we take you to hospital, or you find some other way to cope with your illness tonight. We’re not a taxi service. We’re not here to answer to your every beck and call.’
‘Don’t be cruel,’ he says. ‘I’ve never been so ill.’
But he seems to lose a measure of haughtiness, takes my arm, and allows himself to be led out of the flat and down to the vehicle.
Dookey watches us go from her lookout behind the window.
I half expect her to wave.

Friday, June 12, 2009


The bungalow looks as if it has been dropped from a height. It sits back from the road at the bottom of a steeply sloping bank of earth, clustered around with massy black shrubs and plants, the steps leading down through them illuminated by the sickly glow from half a dozen solar mushrooms. The front door stands open, spilling a brighter light.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
In through the front door and we find Jenny, clutching at the edge of a card table and bending forwards to catch her breath.
‘Let’s sit you down,’ I say to her, taking her hand. She shakes her head and waves me off. ‘Come on. Have a seat and then we can see what needs to be done.’
There’s something about the way she holds herself, something posed and practised, that does not seem right. But for now I carry on trying to persuade her she should take a seat and talk to us.
Suddenly she straightens and says: ‘I’m not going to hospital. My dog, you see.’ Then she turns and leads us down a stubby wooden staircase into a sunken lounge filled with the oppressive fug of cigarette smoke and long closed windows. A dog as ungainly as the house hauls itself up from its nest by the fire to check our trouser legs.
‘Maisy,’ says Jenny, turning and flopping down into the chair. ‘Maisy, Maisy, Maisy. What would I do without you?’
The TV is playing quietly in the far corner: Paul Giamatti swimming underwater, examining strange objects, looking for something.
Maisy prods me with her nose to elicit some fuss.
‘Tell us what’s been happening, Jenny.’
‘I’m an old crone,’ she says. ‘But I used to be a lifeguard. I saved fifty three people from drowning. Fifty three. I got a certificate.’
She has a strange way of talking, starting confidently but the power quickly draining from her words until she trails off into a dry mouthing. She is like an asthmatic tragedian, worn through by repetition, the banal horror of everything.
‘I have a part-time husband. He’s away most of the time. A consultant in computing. I’m here on my own. But I’ve got you, babe. Maisy, Maisy, Maisy. Look at you now. You dear and lovely little thing.’
She may have been little once, but food and lack of exercise have done for her. She has ballooned into a piece of furniture with only a touch more animation than the sofa we currently sit on.
‘Have you been drinking, Jenny?’
‘Drinking? No.’
She has. There are no bottles or glasses around, but it wouldn’t take long to find them.
‘I know I shouldn’t smoke. It’s killing me. Killing me.’
‘And when was the last time you had an ambulance?’
‘A long while. Ages ago.’
Paul Giamatti has broken the surface of the water now: a hotel swimming pool by the look of it. What’s he doing?
Maisy has moved on to Rae, who musses her ears and rubs noses with her.
There is a heavy oak mantelpiece that runs along the far wall. Ornaments and trinkets have been placed along it, a measured distance between them. A drunken, ceramic pig in a sailor suit, one trotter draped over the edge; a brass lizard with an S-shaped tail; an abstract leaping antelope in ivory; a wedding photo in a fussy gilt frame; a pottery hedgehog.
‘I’m an old crone,’ says Jenny, leaning forward in her chair, staring at me with her jade green eyes, absently turning her wedding band around and around. ‘I know I’m nothing to look at now. But I used to be quite a catch.’

Thursday, June 11, 2009

released back

Two shadowy figures are standing on the cycle path that runs around the park. One of them waves, so Frank spins the ambulance round in a u-turn and we pull alongside the kerb. I lower the window.
‘Did you call the ambulance?’
‘You gotta do something about my ear, man.’
‘Okay. Let’s get you in the back.’
‘Come on.’
‘Just a second.’
He hardly waits for me to slide back the door and put on the light. He takes a big step into the ambulance and sits down on the trolley.
‘No. Don’t sit there. Sit on one of these chairs.’
‘Why? I just want you to sort my ear out.’
‘Do as the geezer says, Jay.’ And then to me. ‘He’s all right, really. It’s his birthday today.’
‘Really? Well, happy birthday Jay.’
‘Whatever. Just fix my ear.’
Now the lights are on I can see exactly who I’m dealing with. Jay and his friend are both still young, but their twenty years of life resonate around them like twenty strikes of a big black gong marked ‘Trouble’. The neatest thing about them is their insectivorous stubble. Neither of them look straight at me when I talk, but off to the side, as if they are used to covering all eventualities.
‘So what happened to you, Jay?’
‘My girlfriend smashed a glass on my head.’
‘Were you knocked out?’
‘What do you mean, was I knocked out?’
‘Well – just that. Did you lose consciousness?’
‘She’s a girl. Fix my ear.’
‘I need to know all the facts so I can treat you.’
Jay’s friend sits right on the edge of his chair like an excited child.
‘Don’t give him a hard time, Jay. He’s helping you, man. He’s here to help.’
‘Do you have any neck pain?’
‘Okay. Turn your head and I’ll see where all this blood is coming from.’
His only injury is a small cut just up from the root of the ear. It must have happened some time ago; the blood has congealed, lifting off his cheek like a papery, wine-coloured residue when I rub it.
‘It’s a minor cut,’ I tell him. ‘You don’t need to go to hospital. You just need to keep it clean so it doesn’t get infected.’
‘I haven’t got nowhere. How am I supposed to do that?’
‘I don’t know. How do you normally clean yourself up?’
He turns to his friend. ‘Listen to this.’ And then back to me. ‘I’m going to bounce you off the ceiling.’
‘Really?’ I toss the bloodied gauze pad into the bin.
Frank unfolds his arms. ‘Okay, mate. I think it’s high time you went on your way.’
The friend stands up.
‘Come on. Don’t listen to Jay. He’s just upset because his girl whacked him. He’s a good kid, not at all violent. He kept the bullies off me all through school.’
‘That’s nice. But I’ve done all I need to do here. Your part of the deal is to clean yourself up.’
‘How rude is that?’
‘It’s not rude, Jay. It’s just the way it is.’
‘Give me some more wipes.’
I want to say to him: What’s the magic word? But I give him some wipes in silence. He snatches them up, and then the two of them jump off the ambulance.

We watch them slouch away back into the shadows.

Once when I went fishing with Dad we unexpectedly hooked a pike. It thrashed furiously amongst the reeds until he cut the line and let it splash back into the water. It was only up for a second or two, but it seemed to hang there forever, snapping its body from side to side, fixing us dispassionately with the chill black button of its eye.

Dad shut and pocketed his knife, then sat back down on his fold-up chair.
‘I’m glad I’m not a fish in this particular stretch of water,’ he said. Then he drew his old canvas fishing bag to him, and slowly and methodically set about tying another hook to the line.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

learning the language

‘We think she had got up in the early hours to use the commode, and then just collapsed backwards. We haven’t moved her. We thought it best we didn’t.’

Hilda is lying on her back across the bed, neatly lain out with her mottled red feet set shoulder-width apart on the floor, her knees crooked at the edge of the mattress, her arms along by her sides. With her hands bunched into fists, her mouth sagging open, and with her fine white hair spread around behind her head like a makeshift halo, Hilda looks like a spirit singing a loud and apocalyptic note in the wilderness. But the power has gone and the music has faded, along with the last images she played out above her on the blank white screen of the ceiling. There’s nothing in the room now except a body on the bed, a collection of family photos on the sideboard and walls, and the four of us – the Warden, the policeman, Frank and me.

Frank goes over to Hilda and makes the official confirmation of death. There is a polite exchange of paperwork.

‘I should’ve finished an hour ago,’ the policeman says. ‘Do you mind if I have a seat?’
The home warden plumps a cushion for him on a white wicker chair.
His radio squawks, so he silences it.
The Warden tells us a little more about Hilda, then adds: ‘Who wants a cup of tea?’

When she comes back a few minutes later we’re all talking about Hong Kong.

‘My eldest sister went out there for a few months and now ten years later she’s only just thinking about where to go next. She loves it.’
‘I have a friend who’s just gone to China. He’s married a Chinese girl and he’s looking for work but I think he’s finding it tough. Where do you start with the language? And the writing – it’s just a sequence of lines.’
‘I’ve still got a little bit of school French. At least with that the words and sounds are recognisable. But Chinese? Where do you start with Chinese?’
The tea the warden made us is strong and reviving.

Through the window just above the bed I watch a man come out of his house across the road, stretch his back and then pick his way carefully down the wet stone steps of his garden to the road. He doesn’t pay any attention to the ambulance.
‘I think property is expensive in Hong Kong.’
‘Well, it’s so crowded. It’s going to be pricey. But there’s absolutely no crime over there. They don’t tolerate crime. You can go out without any kind of worry at all.’

The policeman takes another sip from his mug.

‘The relatives are on their way. I think they should be here in a little while.’
‘Would you like us to make Hilda a little more presentable on the bed?’
‘If you could.’
Hilda is small and frail. With the policeman controlling her legs, Frank around her middle and me with her arms and head, it’s a simple move to put her back into bed with her head on the soft white pillows and the quilt tucked up to her chin. I smooth down her hair and manage to close her eyes, but although we experiment with different pillow combinations we don’t succeed in closing her mouth.
‘Don’t worry. That’s better,’ says the Warden.
She looks out of the window, and then at the little silver watch on her wrist.
‘I do hope the Coroner’s men don’t get here before the relatives.’
‘No,’ says the policeman, putting his mug on the sideboard, then thinking better of it and picking it up again. ‘They don’t like to hang around.’

Friday, June 05, 2009


Tyra is lying on her back, half in and half out of the en-suite bathroom, a tastefully arranged study in suicide, her head turned to the left, her glossy hair spread around her on the black and white tiled floor, her left arm crooked up so the fingers of her left hand can brush against her cheek, her other hand curled delicately in the lap of her flower-patterned lycra trousers. Her knees are drawn up half way, balanced inwards, one against the other.
‘She took an overdose and cut her wrist. She wanted to kill herself.’
James, ‘not her partner, just a friend’, a pale and sharply anxious man, bristling with angles like a geometric theorem made human, adjusts his thick black glasses and paces about.
‘Help her. Please.’
I step into the bathroom and squat down beside her. Even this small disturbance makes her eyelids flutter.
‘Tyra? Open your eyes, Tyra. It’s the ambulance.’
She holds herself quite still.
‘Tyra. I know you’re not unconscious. Please open your eyes and tell me what’s happened this morning.’
There is a light swipe of blood on her trousers just visible beneath her hand. I lift it up and see that Tyra has scraped at her wrist with a safety razor, but the wound is ineffectual, nothing more than a graze.
‘Is this the only cut you made, Tyra? Please talk to me. It’s silly otherwise.’
Suddenly her eyes flip open and she looks at me.
‘I didn’t want anyone to find me,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to wake up.’
‘Let’s sit you down on the bed and have a chat about what’s happened.’
James buzzes around behind us. As I offer my hand to Tyra to help her stand up, he squeezes his way in beside me and tries to take her under the shoulders.
‘Thank God I found you!’ he says.
His assistance actually makes it more difficult for Tyra to stand and leave the bathroom. Rae takes him aside.
‘What pills has Tyra taken?’ she says. ‘There are some empty packets here.’
‘No. Those are mine,’ James says. ‘She took some of these ibuprofen, and these – the amitriptyline.’
‘How many of each?’
Tyra is sitting on the bed, looking off into a corner of the room as if this is a socially awkward scene she would rather not have to endure.
‘As many as I could,’ she sighs. ‘I didn’t want to go on living.’
‘We need to know as accurately as possible how many you took of these pills, and when you took them.’
‘I don’t know. I wanted to kill myself. I wasn’t concerned about the time, was I?’
‘Roughly though.’
‘An hour and a half. Ten of the ibuprofen and one or two of the amitriptyline.’
‘Are the amitriptyline pills your own?’
‘No. My mum’s.’
The simple use of the mum word has a powerful effect on Tyra; her wide black pupils swivel four stops into focus.
‘Please don’t tell her. Oh my god! They won’t tell mum, will they, James?’
‘You’re twenty one,’ he says watchfully from the end of the bed. ‘You don’t have to tell anyone anything.’
Meanwhile Rae has fished another empty packet of pills out of the little wicker waste bin by the dresser.
‘What about these?’
And as unexpectedly as Tyra was energised by the thought of her mother, a simple mention of James’ wicker bin seems to sting him into a rage. He unfolds his arms and drops them down by his side.
‘I fucking hate ambulance people. How dare you go rooting around my personal stuff? Insinuating all kinds of shit. How dare you!’
He stomps around the room, leaves, comes back, leaves again. He reminds me of a furious house dog, conflicted by the need to protect and the need to run away.
‘James. Calm down for us, could you? It’s not helping. I don’t understand why you’re getting so worked up.’
‘No. You wouldn’t, would you? I can’t stand this fucking attitude. You come up here with your sniffy looks. You pry and you poke around. Who do you think you are? I won’t fucking stand for it. Sorry, Tyra, but it just makes me furious.’
‘Well you won’t be able to come with us to the hospital if you don’t moderate your language and behaviour, James.’
I sound like a school teacher. I feel like one.
‘Go and stand outside.’
He does. We hear him crashing about and swearing in another room. But after a moment he sidles back in to give Tyra her mobile, and help lead her down the stairs to the ambulance.
As we open the door to step outside, she puts her hand over her face.
‘I don’t want anyone to see me,’ she says.
But it’s half past four in the morning. There really isn’t anyone.

On the ambulance, Tyra sits in a seat, chewing a nail and staring through the slats of the window. James hugs himself in a seat just in front of her.
‘Who’s your doctor?’ I ask.
She smiles without looking at me. ‘I don’t go to doctors,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t know.’
‘Is that your home address?’
James sighs.
‘Yes it’s her home address.’
‘Do you know the postcode?’
‘Yes, I know the postcode. I live there, don’t I?’
‘Could you tell me what it is then?’
He snips it out, then reaches over to stroke Tyra’s hand. ‘It’s okay,’ he says. And then to himself: ‘These fucking interrogations.’
‘James. Remember what I said about your language and attitude? These are simple questions I have to ask so Tyra gets the correct treatment. Okay? If you carry on like this you won’t be allowed in to the hospital.’
‘I’m sorry. I just don’t appreciate your tone.’
Tyra looks at me. She looks as if she is stifling a laugh.
‘But I want him there with me.’
‘Fine. But you must behave.’
The ambulance bumps along.

Once we have wheeled Tyra into a cubicle, we look for sanctuary and coffee in the reception office. As Zoe taps in the details, we cradle our drinks and mull over the job. Suddenly Rae clamps up, and I realise that James has come to the window.
‘How can I help?’ says Zoe.
James looks across at the two of us sitting on our swivel chairs. I nod at him, but he turns his attention back to Zoe without acknowledgement. After a pause, he adjusts his glasses, and says quietly:

‘The nurse says I need to book a blood test.’

Thursday, June 04, 2009


The old man has rotten rabbit’s teeth, two opposing clumps of greasy yellow-black fragments that bow outwards at a poisonous angle. And from here it seems that - more than drink, fags, diet, or any of the other depravations a person of seventy endures - the thing that really seems to have blasted these teeth to the root is the bad language that passes across them.

‘Bring me that bastard Tony Blair,’ he screams. ‘I’ll bite his balls off.’

It is two in the morning. The man is lying on his side on the broken up tarmac of an estate car park, his knees drawn up to his stomach against the cold, his right arm pillowing his grizzled head.
‘Fuck you! And fuck your fascist state! Tell that Tony Blair I want him here, now. I’ll bite his cock off and spit it in his face.’
Rae drapes a blanket over him.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘You’re a kind person.’

The man and woman who made the call are standing at a safe distance over by a wall.
‘He lives up in one of those flats over there. Is he going to be all right?’
‘Hm. Not sure. But thanks for calling.’
‘Yeah – I bet,’ she laughs. They walk off, and the old man seems to react to the change in his audience.
‘I’ll tear his eyes out and stuff ‘em up my arse!’ he screams. ‘Murderer! Murderer!’
Then he whimpers, and rests his head back down on his arm.
‘Just kill me, fellas. Just put a pillow over my head and smother me. I don’t want to live any more.’
‘First things first,’ says Rae.
We both squat down at angles and distances he’d find difficult to strike or kick. ‘What’s your name?’
His head bobs up again.
‘Fuck you! Cunt! That’s none of your business. Leave me alone. Or kill me, and then leave me alone.’
‘Come on. We’re only here to help. You’re lying on the floor, cold and wet. Tell us your name and then we can talk like civilised human beings.’
‘My name? You want to know my name? Well, fuck you. My name is Tony Fucking Blair.’
A police car turns up the ramp into the car park.
‘Who the fuck is that, now?’, the old man says, raising his head and sniffing blindly.
‘It’s the police – erm – Tony.’
‘They’re going to beat me up and kill me.’
‘No they’re not. They’re here to make sure you’re okay, just like we are.’
‘Fuck off.’

We stand up and when the two PCs come over we tell them what we’ve found so far. The police man takes a few steps away to talk on his radio; the police woman squats down beside the old man. The lights from our torches reflect brightly off her neatly tied blond hair and pressed white shirt. She could be an angel come down to see what life is like on Earth, persuaded to wear a stab vest and cuffs.
‘Hello sir,’ she says. ‘My name’s Ella. What’s yours?’
‘Simon Larkinson,’ he says, meekly.
‘Hello Simon. What seems to have happened to you tonight?’
There is a pause. Simon pants quickly and quietly, like an exhausted animal.
‘I’m cold,’ he says.
‘Well no wonder. Lying on the ground like this. Let’s get you somewhere warm where we can talk properly.’
‘Okay then.’

I fetch the trolley from the ambulance.
We all work together, stand him up and settle him onto it.
As I’m strapping him in he looks up at me.
‘Did you see that fillum?’, he says, with a delicious shudder that runs from his scalp to his boots. ‘”Venus”, I think it was. Peter O’Toole. A great actor, there. And not much older than me.’
And then satisfied with that, he seals his lips around those dreadful teeth, tugs the blankets up to his chin, closes his eyes, and suffers to be manoeuvred onto the vehicle with the graven resolve of a newly beatified priest.

It doesn’t last.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


‘I’m well battered, me.’
Jaime is ticking with coke. Everything about him – his sudden, drawn smiles, the way he laughs and dabs at his swollen face with a beer towel, the way he ducks and changes direction as each new thought comes to him – every beat of him seems tapped out by a frantic chemical metronome.
‘I only came down here ‘cos I heard it was a chilled out place, and now look at me. I’d have stayed where I was if I’d known. Jesus.’
Jaime has the bony, drawn out face of a young deer. He comes out of the club foyer, blinking and scanning the early morning streets like he’s stepping out of a forest into a clearing.
‘My mother’ll just die,’ he says. Then: ‘Where’s Cal? I want Cal.’
‘Cal’s just talking to the security staff. Come on to the ambulance, Jaime. We need to check you over.’
We lead him up the back steps and sit him down. There is a fug of smoke and booze about him that rises up gently into the astringent glare of the ambulance.
‘I was doing a line or two in the toilets, like. Everything was fine, everything was lovely. A wee drink or two, you know? A night out, that’s what I’m saying. You know what I’m saying.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘Well, we’d gotten friendly with these guys. They bought us two a drink, we bought them a drink. Fine. Lovely. I went to do some coke in the toilet. They were there. I gave them a bit. Fine. Lovely. Then back upstairs one of them says to me did I want to come outside for a ciggie? So I says okay, right enough. So I follow him outside, he leads me round by the bins, then before you know it he has me by the throat up against the wall and he says “I kill people for a living”. So I says okay, fair enough. And he says “Give me all your drugs” and I says that was all I had, there, you saw it, I shared it with you, that was everything.’ He looks up at me as if I’m the guy in the alley, then looks down again as the moment passes.
‘So then some other guys turn up, and they throw me on the ground, start jumping up and down on me like I’m a kiddie trampoline, screaming they were going to kill me. Then they took my wallet and went. I had a hundred pound in there. All my cards. Oh my god. My mum’s going to kill me. And my little bro sick, too.’

Rae carries on cleaning his wounds. I step back outside.

Cal is waiting. A tall, lean black kid, he leans against the side of the ambulance smoking with self-possessed economy, blowing out a thin line of smoke, studying the police car as it turns down towards us from the top of the street.

‘Did you see what happened?’
‘Did I see what happened? No. Mate. Listen to me. If I’d seen what happened, it wouldn’t have happened. D’you understand me?’
‘Do you think Jaime was knocked unconscious?’
‘I have no idea about that. You’re the doctor. I think he must’ve been, yeah. He was well battered.’
‘He’s going to need treatment up at the hospital. Are you coming with him?’
Cal takes one more drag on his cigarette, then flicks it away up the alley. Before he goes up the steps onto the ambulance he turns and leans into me, angling his head past my shoulder as if he were about to give me a hug.
‘Things would’ve worked out very different if I’d have been there,’ he says in a low voice.
I give him a couple of encouraging slaps on the shoulder, and leave my hand there in case I need it.
‘It’s a shame he was on his own,’ I say, sounding to myself strangely flat and out of key, like an extra in a film suddenly given a line. ‘I’m sure Jaime wouldn’t have got into trouble if you’d have been there.’
‘No, mate.’ He looks me full in the eyes. ‘I would’ve stabbed the guy.’