Tuesday, July 21, 2009

sleeping it off

The early hours, thick and blue with the threat of more rain. The storm never did come, and these showers have done nothing to clear the air. I feel cut out of the sticky atmosphere, a jigsaw shape man forcing a path through the picture.

We see our patient. She lies curled on her side in front of a department store window and its display of partying mannequins. They hold their gorgeous poses, plastically fabulous, perfectly removed from the life on the pavement just the other side of the window.

Three taxi drivers from the rank opposite point in the woman’s direction. With the ragged groups of clubbers laughing and pushing each other, the street cleaners making a start on their rounds, the rough sleepers arranging their nests in shop doorways and the delivery drivers leaning out of their windows, the whole scene is like some epic Dutch canvas, each component part a drama in itself, but somehow contributing to the drift of attention that leads the eye across the road and beyond the taxis to the woman lying on the pavement, lit by the shop window.
‘It’s Sonia,’ says Rae.
Sonia is a regular caller, her MO being pseudo-fits and feigned unconsciousness.
‘Hello Sonia,’ I say, squatting down beside her and lighting up her face with my torch. ‘It’s the ambulance.’
One of the taxi drivers – maybe the one who called – takes a few steps closer and leans in.
‘You know this lady?’
‘Yes. I’m afraid so.’
‘What’s the matter with her?’
‘Actually nothing. She just does this now and again.’
‘Why? Is she crazy?’
‘You’d have to ask her.’
He turns and walks back to his colleagues. One of them laughs. Some clubbers shout encouragement to us. I think they want to see some ER action. But instead of masks and tubes and cylinders, I just give Sonia a discreet squeeze.
‘Come on Sonia. We know you’re not unconscious.’
She opens her eyes and looks at me.
‘What are you doing down there?’ I ask her. ‘People are worried about you.’
‘I’m sleeping,’ she says. ‘Fuck off.’
‘You can’t sleep here on the pavement like this. People think you’re sick or hurt.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Well you should care, Sonia. If you don’t get up and find somewhere a bit more sensible to sleep, we’ll get the police running.’
Her eyes widen and her mouth tightens into a scowl that reminds me of Popeye when he’s reached the fighting point.
‘If you’d had four cans of lager, four cans of cider and a half bottle of vodka, you’d have trouble standing up and finding a nice place to sleep.’
‘You’re absolutely right about that, Sonia. I’m a notorious lightweight. All I’m saying is that you have to find somewhere a bit more out of the way to sleep it off. You’re not getting a ride up to the hospital. We’re going back to the ambulance now, and I’ll tell the police that you’re here. So you’ve got about ten minutes before they arrive.’
‘Fuck you.’
‘Okay. Bye then, Sonia.’

We walk back to the ambulance.

A group of three clubbers making for the taxi rank step aside as we pass. One of them, a radiantly blond young woman who looks as indestructible as one of the mannequins in the window, shakes her head and frowns at us. I want to tell her that the woman we’re so callously leaving on the floor is very well known to us, that she’s drunk, abusive and a disproportionate drain on public resources. But I don’t say anything. I simply grimace and nod and pull off my gloves with the shamefaced snap of a cut-price surgeon hurrying away from his latest crime.

Monday, July 20, 2009

curtain call

There is a dense strangle of vegetation either side of the track that leads up to the allotments; ferns and nettles, cow parsley, brambles, buddleia, bindweed and spindly grey willow – only the backwards and forwards of vans and cars keeps the track clear. Just a week without a visitor in these fertile days of warm sunshine and drenching rain, and the track would be completely lost.

Now, there are two cars stopped at the far end of the track one behind the other, their drivers out and leaning over a man lying on his back across the path. The people look quite content. The man is breathing, the sun is shining, the ambulance has come quickly. A woman in huge wrap-around shades smiles at us as we approach.
‘No rush,’ she says, and begins rolling a cigarette.

The man on the ground has long ropes of tangled hair and his jeans are ripped in several places. He seems as wild as the vegetation around us; in fact, you could easily believe some strange plant at the margin had just come into fruit and spilled him onto the track. When I lean over him and lift his eyelids, his washed grey eyes have pupils so pinpoint and alien he must either be a fallen woodland divinity or a user smacked out on heroin. Either way we decide to give him some Narcan.

The magic works.

Within five minutes he is sitting up, apologising, politely telling us his name is Marshall. He says he doesn’t want to go to hospital, but we persuade him to come onto the ambulance so we can move out of everyone’s way and have a chat. He only agrees to come on board if we promise we’ll leave the door open. We help him to his feet, up the little side steps, reverse back down the track to a passing point, and the other cars move on.

‘I’m not a user,’ Marshall says, almost falling off the chair as he rolls up the sleeves of his shirt to prove it. ‘I haven’t got a Roger Rabbit.’ Although there are only a couple of needle marks in one arm, both wrists carry stripes of scar tissue testifying to another kind of history.
Suddenly he says: ‘I’m gonna be sick.’
Before I can grab a bowl he has stumbled back down the steps and, leaning against a rough wooden fence by some compost heaps, empties his stomach onto the ground.
‘Sorry,’ he says as Rae hands him some tissues. ‘Sorry about that.’
We tell him we’d like him to come to hospital so someone can keep an eye on him. The Narcan will wear off. He’ll fall unconscious again. Maybe no-one will find him. He could die.
‘Don’t care if I do,’ he says. ‘I’ve had enough. I’ve tried really hard but I just can’t seem to get anywhere.’
He frowns at us, as if before this point we were strange, translucent figures of green who are only now beginning to take on a human form.
‘I’m a poet,’ he says. ‘Would you like to hear one?’
So Marshall stands by the fence, suddenly taller and more centred. He starts in on his poem, leaning into the lines, jerkily moving his legs and his hands like a market trader marionette, relishing the tricky skips of his words, riding the performance to the end.
He gives us a modest little bow when he’s done.
We both clap.
‘That’s fantastic, Marshall.’
‘Thanks. Thanks a lot.’
He rubs his nose and seems to fade again. He tells us about his website. His stage fright. His partner and her unsympathetic friends.
We ask him if he’ll come with us to hospital.
‘I can’t. They’re all back at the flat waiting for me to watch Billy Elliott. They’ll wonder where I am.’

We stand there by the fence.

A young family walks by and I nod to them but they’re confused by the scene and hurry past.

Marshall pushes his hair back from his face. He looks pinched and pale, like a child suddenly grown old, or an actor who started his performance in a packed theatre only to find that by the time he reached the curtain call, the walls and roof had disappeared and been replaced by a jungle.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Ella Mae.
More an ululating cry than a name.
Ella Mae.
With a name like that you’d expect a Southern American dowager cooling herself beneath the frangipani with a cheroot and a banana daiquiri. What you get is a crazy old nurse - piratical eye patch, wide-brimmed hat - hunched on a mobility scooter, hooking at the scenery with a nicotine-dipped finger.

The latest job Control sends through to us is to Ella’s address. Before Rae even acknowledges receipt, she calls up the dispatcher.
‘Can’t she be dealt with over the phone?’
‘The line went dead, so I’m afraid we’ve got to attend.’

Ella Mae lives in a house that must once have been part of the old chapel next door. Perhaps a sexton lived here, simply and devoutly, rising with the sun every day to oil the pews, dust the books, water the stone planters and wash the steps. But the chapel has long since surrendered its prayerful space to mezzanine floors, sofa beds and plasma screen TVs. And if the adjoining house ever maintained a quiet devotion, that energy has been abstracted now into something altogether more fallen, more tragically human.
The stone planters are filled with lurid plastic flowers and wired bees, fragments of mirror, twirling seaside windmill sticks, dolls and damaged plaster birds. There are notices taped to the glass in the door, written in a cramped and furious hand, threatening actions, offering warnings, describing on-going litigations. Amongst the notices are random postcards faded with age: Puffins on the Gower Peninsula; Greetings from Hawaii. Public safety announcements from the national press. Black and white photographs arching back from the glass as they curl in on themselves.
Rae raps on a glass pane.
‘She gets exactly one minute.’
But Ella Mae has been staking out the door. The filthy net curtain that hangs behind all the paper in the window is immediately hooked aside, and her gaunt face looms out.
‘Who is it?’
‘The ambulance, Ella. Open up.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Well that’s exactly what we’d like to know from you. Open the door please.’
We hear a crash as she reverses her scooter.
Rae turns the handle and pushes the door aside.
A caustic fug of smoke envelopes us.
‘Put your cigarette out, Ella. We’re not coming in until you do. In fact, not even then. We’ll stand here in the fresh air whilst you tell us why you called the ambulance.’

It’s difficult to understand her when she talks. Even if her false teeth – glitteringly grey and black, like the scales on a mackerel – actually fit her mouth; even if she hadn’t ripped up her voice with an unbroken chain of cigarettes stretching tip to tip from VE day to this knock on the door; even if she hadn’t drunk a bottle and a half of vodka tonight, her thoughts are so whirled around and mixed into each other it’s almost impossible to follow what she is saying. The only thing you can do is let your mind roam freely through her speech, picking up odd scraps of sense and laying them down jigsaw-style until a pattern emerges.
‘So nothing new has happened tonight?’
This seems to be the case.
‘We’ll be going then, Ella Mae. You know you’re not allowed to do this. You know you’re wasting time and stopping someone else from getting help, someone who might really need it. You used to be a nurse. You should know these things.’

But Ella seems to be saying that there is someone else in the house.
Someone called Musketeer.
‘Do they need our help?’
Ella nods as if we were idiots, then reverses further into the living room, a space so junked she really could do with a bucket on the scooter, like a mini-JCB.
‘Hello?’ shouts Rae, then we wait and listen. ‘Hello? Anyone there?’

After a pause, which Ella takes advantage of to light another cigarette, Rae says:
‘This is ridiculous. Ella. We’re off. Please don’t call again.’

But just as we turn to go, we hear it.
A faint call from deep inside the house.
‘Hello? Anyone there?’
That call again.
Ella sits puffing on her cigarette, staring at us triumphantly.
‘Musketeer,’ she says.
We brave the smoke and follow the scooter-width track through the junked up space of the living room out to the hallway. Incredibly, there is an elderly man nesting in a space he has made amongst all the books and magazines that completely obscure the bottom of the stairs. He is wrapped in a blue quilted sleeping bag.
‘Hello,’ he says.
‘Are you Musketeer?’
He smiles and tries to smooth down his wild, white hair.
‘Don’t listen to her,’ he says, then mimes someone sipping from a glass. ‘All night,’ he adds as a rider. ‘Crazy.’
‘So you’re okay, are you?’
‘I’m fine. Just trying to get some sleep, you know?’
Ella has made it through to the hallway, too.
Now she is saying there is something in the bathroom, too.
We look at Musketeer.
‘Oh, there is,’ he says, with a simple smile. ‘Take a look for yourself.’
This is the furthest either of us has made it into Ella’s lair. The light doesn’t seem to work here. I hold my torch up and we take careful steps towards the bathroom door, a slide-aside affair, half off its tracks and revealing an awful looking cavern beyond. I push the door more firmly aside.
The bathroom is as junked as the rest of the house.
I prod around with the torch throwing ghastly shadows against the walls until Rae finds a light chord and snaps it on.
There is a foetid smell coming from the bath.
We go over to it.
For a moment it looks as if there is someone in there, hiding under a clothes horse that has been dumped across the top and then covered with rags. But when I reach down to touch it, the shape is revealed as a bundle of filthy clothes.
‘I want a report made of this,’ says Ella from the hallway. ‘An official report.’
From his nest back in the hallway, Musketeer gives a low, appreciative laugh.
‘I’ll never get to sleep at this rate,’ he chuckles.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

junk abraham

This playground has a post-Apocalyptic feel. Set up some years ago on a rise overlooking the great grey spread of the city, now the damaged seats of its swings rock gently backwards and forwards, worked by the ghosts of children long since grown up and gone. Mature weeds thick as trees rise up around the margins; the yellow slide stands water-stained and peeling; even the roundabout seems more like an abandoned instrument of torture than a plaything.

There is a cratered path that leads up alongside the playground, eventually widening into a patch of open ground and a signposted footpath to the downs. A woman with a child in a red buggy waves us along in that direction, then hurries off, the buggy wheels skittering on the grey granite chippings, the child leaning out to look backwards and see what the mother is so afraid of.

We come to a battered blue car with the driver’s door standing open.

A man is lying flat on his back on the ground, at right angles to the car, his arms spread out either side of him. There is another man kneeling beside him. He puts his mobile phone away as I jump out of the cab.
‘My brother,’ he says.
‘He’s got a pulse but he’s not breathing,’ I say to Rae. As she pulls out the resus and drugs bags I crouch down at the unconscious man’s head, lift his chin forwards to open his airway, and prise open his eyelids to check his pupils.
‘When did he take the heroin?’ I ask the man. He raises his eyebrows, smiles and shrugs, turning the palms of his hands towards me in the internationally accepted mime for: I’d like to help you, but…
‘We’re not the police. We just need to know so we can treat your brother. What’s his name?’
‘Did he smoke or inject?’
The man scratches his head roughly, then says:
‘Fifteen minutes ago.’
An ambulance car wallows along the pathway and scrunches to a stop next to us, kicking up a cloud of dust that’s snatched up by the wind and carried off towards town.
Rae hands me an airway which I put into Rich’s mouth, and then the BVM and oxygen so I can start bagging him. Frank is with us now. I ask him to draw up a syringe of Narcan. But just as he gets the kit together, Rich makes a sudden convulsive gagging motion, reaches in to pull out the airway, and sits up.
‘You see the effect I have?’ says Frank.
‘Hello, Rich. You were a little bit flat, mate,’ I say. He sits staring vacantly at the car, turns to look at me, then back to the car, like a man who has woken up inside a dream but doesn’t yet know how to influence what happens next.

A woman walks past with a black and white collie.
‘Morning!’ she says brightly, hauling on the dog’s lead, striding off towards the footpath. ‘Lovely morning!’ The dog regards us with fierce yellow eyes.
‘How are you feeling now, Rich?’
He grunts.
His brother gives him a push on the shoulder.
‘You were blue, mate. Honestly. You were so gone.’
Rich studies him with the expression we just saw on the collie dog.
‘Come and sit on the ambulance so we can check you over.’
We help him up.
As he leans forward and his t-shirt drops back, I notice he has a tattoo at the angle of his neck: a pair of angel wings either side of an Egyptian eye.

He sits up on the ambulance and submits to an examination. We leave the door open. The sky is overcast, but now and again the sun breaks through and touches a tiny row of houses way off on the far side of town with a gilding splash of light.
‘I’m supposed to be at work today,’ he says, rubbing his face. ‘I’m a Painter and Decorator.’
‘I can’t imagine getting smacked up can do much for your roller technique,’ says Frank, leaning against the door jamb, smoking a roll-up.
Rich looks at him. ‘I can’t help it.’
‘It must cost you a fair bit.’
‘Sixty pounds a day.’
‘Sixty? That’s a lot of paint.’
‘You could say.’
Rich’s brother has been back over at the car, but he comes back carrying a little white puppy.
‘Look what we bought yesterday,’ he says, holding it up in the air. Wrinkled and fat, its paws spread helplessly either side of the man’s encircling hands, the puppy could pass for the Lamb of God, hoisted up on a mountain top, hairless and helpless and utterly subject to the vagaries of a world it knows nothing about.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

forty quid

The window of the All Night store is heaped with a selection of goods you can expect to find inside. Jumbled and incoherent, it looks like the window dressing equivalent of a supermarket dash, a bored employee given sixty seconds to swipe as much as they can from the shelves and throw it in the window. And if this is a representative sample, what’s mostly on sale in this shop is beer and spirits. Dusty pyramid piles of bottles and cans rise up precariously against a background of dessicated celebrity magazines, boxes of sanitary products and a toy ambulance standing by in a yellowing plastic bubble. The whole scene is back-lit by the strip-lighting from within, and a purple neon sign that flashes on and off throughout the night and day: 24… Hour… Off… Licence.
Next to the store is a battered black doorway. It stands open to reveal a cavernous hallway with letters on the floor, as if the postman had thrown them there, too scared to go any further. A flight of stairs rises steeply upwards at the back of the hall. We step inside and walk up.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
‘Up here.’
Short stubs of staircase switch back on themselves seemingly without logic, following the hidden architectural demands of the shop underneath. But eventually they lead us up to a large sitting room where two men hang back against the far window and a young blond girl lies motionless on her back on a wide, dark green tartan bed.
‘Help her, man. She gone. I think she dead.’
‘Yeah. Help her.’
The two of them have an enervated watchfulness about them, like husbands on a shopping trip outside a changing room. The difference between this girl being alive or dead is another tedious distraction.
‘She owe us forty quid.’

I can see from here that the girl is not dead. She’s not even unconscious. Her breath rises and falls evenly, her pulse beats in her neck and tummy, and her eyelids flutter as she resists the urge to sit up and look at us as we come closer around the bed.
‘What’s her name?’
‘I don’t know, man. We only met her tonight. At a club. Y’understand?’
‘So what can you tell me about her?’
‘Nothin’. She say she want coke. We come back here and get her some. She put it up her nose then gets well freaked and crashes out on us, man. What’s the matter with her? I swear no more. Last time.’
‘Anything other than coke?’
He tips his head back.
‘What’ya mean?’
‘It doesn’t make any difference to us. We’re not the police. We just need to know what she took so we can figure out what’s the matter.’
‘Ya listen ta’ me. Nothin’. A little bit a’ coke, vodka and the Bull. Thassit.’
‘The name on her credit card is Christina,’ says Frank, holding her shiny black purse.
I call her name, and when that doesn’t work, apply some painful stimuli. When she opens her eyes she starts to cry.
‘What’s happened to you, Christina?’
‘I don’t know,’ she sniffs. ‘I want my mum.’
‘I want my forty quid.’
‘I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll go down to the ambulance, check you out there and then decide what we’re going to do. Okay?’
She nods, her bottom lip clenching upwards as she cries, making her look like an eight year old caught in her older sister’s party clothes.
‘Come on. Take my arm.’
The second guy steps towards us.
‘What about our money?’
‘We just need a few minutes to ourselves on the ambulance, then we’ll let you know.’
The two men study us as we lead Christina down the stairs. She goes barefoot, hanging onto my arm, with Frank following behind carrying the response bag and a pair of black stiletto shoes.

‘Who are those men?’ I ask her as I wrap the blood pressure cuff around her arm.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t like them. I was with some friends at a club. We got chatting to them. They said did I want some cocaine, so I said yes. We all started out together but somehow we got separated. I ended up in their flat. And when I took the cocaine, it made me feel bad. I felt all choked up and panicky. Then I must’ve collapsed. And when I came too they were standing over me, staring down, and I was scared.’
Frank gives her a roll of tissue to wipe her face. She looks at us.
‘Please don’t tell my mum.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty one.’
‘Then it’s up to you whether you tell her or not. But I think you should come with us to the hospital and give yourself space to think about what to do next. I don’t think you’re safe here with these guys.’
She blows her nose.
‘Frank? I think we’re about ready to go. And if you see the guys outside…’
‘Yep. I know,’ he says. ‘Leave it to me.’

Friday, July 10, 2009

blood and flowers

Any more calls to this hostel and they could usefully introduce valet parking for the ambulances. I swim through the late night traffic and we’re out of the cab even before the caller has hung up. He stands lookout at the end of the flagstone alley that leads to the side entrance, and waves his arms Help style when he sees us.
‘There’s a guy on the floor just up there,’ he says, breathlessly. ‘I think he’s cracked his head. My girlfriend’s with him.’
‘Lead on, Macduff,’ says Frank.

A young woman in a tiny club dress and white jacket has taken off her heels to crouch down by the side of a man squashed against the hostel wall. Her right arm is around the man’s back whilst her left hand strokes his face.
‘Come on!’ she says, leaning in closer, the party sparkles in her crimped blond hair twinkling in the beam of Frank’s flashlight. ‘Some amazing people are here to take care of you now, Jim. Jim? The help you need has come, darling. But don’t worry. I’ll be here. I’m not going to leave you.’
She looks up at us, but hangs on to Jim.
‘He’s hurt and alone. I don’t know what to do. Please do your best.’
The man who led us down the alley stands slightly back from his girlfriend. The hostel warden is leaning against the doorway, taking in the cool night air through a cigarette.
‘All right, gents?’ he says, considerately flicking the ash downwind. ‘I think Jim must’ve taken a tumble outside. He seems okay, but you’re the boss.’
Jim has a small cut and swelling above his right eye, and the blood has run down the side of his face.
The contrasts between the blinding sweep of Frank’s torch and the deep shadows and pools of darkness in the alleyway are marked, but even so you can figure by the shine of Jim’s coat and the dull glint of the bottle next to him that he’s a street sleeper with a drink problem.
‘He needs the best medical attention – and plenty of hugs,’ the woman says, giving Jim another squeeze. Frank looks at me. We’re quite prepared to touch Jim with our gloves on, but hugging? We’d need to be suited up like Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak.

‘Let’s have the trolley out, Spence,’ says Frank.
I know he wants to get Jim away as quickly as possible – for the woman’s sake as much as anyone.

When I come back with the trolley, she’s still giving Jim affectionate rubs on the arm and strokes of the face.
‘Be careful,’ I say to her. ‘He’s got blood on him.’
‘Oh I don’t mind about that,’ she says. ‘I just want what’s best for him.’
She gives him another squeeze, radiating love with as much chemical intensity as the product in her hair. Her partner is less committed. He hangs back from the scene, flipping his phone as if there were other calls he’d like to make.

We help Jim onto the trolley and rattle back up the alley to the ambulance.

‘You’re in the best, most expert hands the city can employ,’ she says. ‘They really are angels from heaven. I know you’re going to be fine, Jim. You’re going to be absolutely fine.’ She has a hold of his left hand, but he tries to pull it away and pillow his head. Like an irascible old terrier, Jim has had enough fuss and just wants to curl up for a while.

We load the trolley onto the vehicle. The woman wants to come on, too, but I stop her.
‘Thanks for your help,’ I say. ‘Do you want some alcohol gel for your hands?’
‘No. Thank you. I just want to know what I should do next?’
‘I think you’ve done as much as anyone could. We’ll take him to hospital and get him checked over. But he seems fine. Just a minor head injury. They often bleed quite a bit.’
I notice a long, diffuse smear down the right side of her jacket.
‘I’m afraid you’ve got blood on you.’
‘Have I?’
And for a moment something sudden and new seems to drop down around us in the night, like an unexpected scene change in a play. She stares at her hands. I give her some alcohol gel. Whilst she rubs the liquid between her fingers, her partner touches her on the shoulder.
‘Come on,’ he says.
She studies him silently for a moment, then turns back to me.
‘Can I send flowers?’ she says.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

room 43

Mrs Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Wilson, ninety-one not out, sits with her hands cupped in her lap, neatly perched on the edge of a plump and flowery sofa, her head wrapped in a bandage. She fell over in the bathroom and cut the back of her head; the bandage is there to hold a dressing in place whilst we wait for the paramedic practitioner to glue the wound here at home and keep Betty out of hospital. As the wound is right at the back of her head, the bandage has to take a couple of turns under her chin, too, otherwise the whole thing would gradually slide upwards.
‘You look like a proper Mummy,’ her son Jeremy says. ‘Or Marley’s ghost.’
Then he slaps his knees to spur himself into action, and goes off into the kitchen to make us all a cup of tea.
‘I saw a ghost once. Twice, actually,’ Betty says, leaning forwards and squeezing her eyes shut, smiling indulgently like a tipsy nun. ‘I used to work in an old hotel, a very, very old hotel. A coaching hotel, in fact. I looked after the linen. Well, I had a little office in the oldest part out the back, and I was out there one night doing the books, when I felt something strange in the air. Nothing frightening. Just different. Out of the ordinary, you might say. And when I looked up, I saw a man walk across the room and go up the stairs.’
She sits back up straight again and looks at us. After a pause, in which the only sounds are the heavy rain thrumming against the windows and Richard clinking cups in the kitchen, I ask:
‘So - how did he look?’
‘Just odd. Completely different.’
Frank wades in.
‘How do you know he was a ghost and not just some geezer staying at the hotel? Was he transparent? Head under his arm?’
‘Oh no. Nothing like that. He just looked - extraordinary. The outline of a person. All ripply. But I wasn’t afraid. Things like that don’t scare me. Why should they? It’s just the way things are. Like the clouds, or the rain. When my husband died he came back to me about a month later. He was just a smiling face, drifting across the room when I opened my eyes one night. He was saying: Don’t worry, Betty. Everything’s going to be fine.’
Jeremy comes in with a tray of tea, and takes up his seat again on a matching flowery pouffe at Betty’s side. We sit sipping our tea in a semi-circle, the rain booming down outside. Betty’s bird song clock suddenly cuckoo’s the half hour.
‘I heard a good one from some guys at another station,’ says Frank, replacing the delicate, rose-patterned cup on its matching saucer with the self-conscious precision of a navvy in a china shop.

‘They turn up to a resus in a hotel. They charge into the lobby and a guy on the desk says Room 43 – which was what they’d been told anyway. So they pile up the stairs to the first floor, find the door to Room 43 and knock on it. A guy comes to the door and says: “What do you want?” and they say: “We’ve been told there’s a sick person here.” And the man turns round and says: “I think you have the wrong room, mate. There’s no-one like that here.” So of course they say sorry and all that, the guy shuts the door, and one of them gets on the radio to ask if Control can check the address. Meanwhile, the manager appears at the end of the corridor and says: “Thanks for coming so quickly. I’ve got the key.” And they say to him: “Well it’s not Room 43. The guy there says he doesn’t know anything about it.” So the Manager gives them a funny look, leans past them, swipes his key card and pushes the door open. The same guy who answered the door to them just a minute ago is lying on the floor, and he’s been dead at least twelve hours.’

‘That’s a good one,’ laughs Jeremy, taking a swig of his tea. ‘I like that one.’
‘I know what you’re thinking, but they’re stand up guys, those two’ says Frank.
‘Stand up comedy, more like.’
‘All I’m saying is, there’s more to life than just what you see on the surface,’ he says, sitting back on the chair and looking round the room, as if the framed photos and needlepoint pictures could be covering something altogether more terrifying than a floral print wall.

There’s a sudden, urgent rapping on the door.

‘That’ll be the paramedic practitioner,’ I say, getting up to answer it.

‘You think?’

Monday, July 06, 2009

scusstin cat

The side of this new ambulance is blazoned with stroke information but I think it should carry advertising for beer. At least that way we could generate some income and buy a few more of these trucks, which make the rest of the fleet look like hand carts.
And after all, beer is the motive force behind the majority of the jobs we’ve been hit with tonight. Drunken assaults, assaulted drunks, unconscious drunks, drunken falls, self-harming (with a bottle opener), spiked drinks, and a man – drunk - wanting his hip operation bringing forward at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night as he was tired waiting on the list.
I need a drink. But I have to settle for a Diet Coke down on the seafront as the sun drags itself above the horizon and survivors of the Saturday night apocalypse clatter home.

One last call – a psychiatric / suicide. Patient given as slightly violent, which I query with Control. Should we stand off a touch? It’s up to us. Police have been assigned, no ETA. There’s a grey wash of exhaustion in the air. Even the seagulls are gliding smack into buildings.
Frank takes the ambulance round the corner and into the street. There is a young girl standing outside a house with a mobile phone. She waves to us, it all seems calm, so we park up and introduce ourselves.
‘Mel’s upstairs,’ she says. ‘She’s taken about a dozen of these pills and says she wants to kill herself.’
She hands us an empty blister pack of Citalopram.
‘Is that everything she’s taken?’
‘I think so.’
We follow her up the stairs of a sparsely furnished student house towards a bedroom on the landing where a girl is being comforted on an unmade bed.
‘I just want to kill myself,’ she chokes. ‘I’m worthless and no good and everyone’d be better off if I was dead.’
All three girls are spilling out of ultra-short club dresses, the glossily sweet aromas of their make-up and perfume cut with smoke and sweat and alcohol. They are hyper-sexed figures from a Manga strip struggling in the grim dimensions and gravity of this room.
‘Kill me. Just kill me and walk away,’ Mel says.
At some point in the night someone has drawn a cat nose and whiskers on her face. ‘I’m scusstin. I’m a scusstin person and I want to die.’
Frank and I sit down on the other bed in the room. I put the clipboard on my lap. It’s an intolerable temptation to kick off my boots, lie down on this bed and go to sleep, and for a moment I wonder if that might actually help. Maybe it would be a calming influence. I remember reading an article about the psychiatrist R D Laing. If a patient was having a psychotic episode and was crouched on the floor with their hands over their heads, he would crouch down next to them and do the same. I bet R D Laing would’ve had no problem lying down. The shock factor. The distractingly idiosyncratic move. I could wake up after an hour or two, Mel would have straightened out, I could go home.
Instead I say: ‘What’s happened tonight to spark this off?’
Mel starts banging her head against the wall and her friend hugs her to stop it.
‘Nothing,’ the friend says, stroking away the strands of blond hair that are sticking to Mel’s face. ‘We had a nice time, came home, then this. She’s been like it before, but never as bad.’
Mel starts scratching at her legs, but her nails are all bitten back, so it doesn’t cause any damage.
‘Can’t you just give me an injection to kill me?’ she says.
There is a knock on the door downstairs and two policemen come thumping up the stairs.
I explain the situation to the first of them, a tall, buzz-cut guy whose blue eyes are no doubt capable of projecting his CV onto the wall.
Meanwhile, Frank says to Mel: ‘Do your family live nearby?’
‘They’re all miles away and I bet they’re glad about that.’
‘Brothers? Sisters?’
‘A little sister.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Imagine if Claire came to you and told you she was really sad and wanted to kill herself. What would you say to her?’
‘I’d say don’t be stupid.’
‘Would you tell her she wasn’t thinking straight? She was being too hard on herself?
There is a pause. The policeman has tucked his hat under his arm; his colleague stands behind him on the hallway discretely studying his watch.
Mel suddenly snatches up the empty packet of Citalopram and shakes it in the air.
‘These are meant to be happy pills but they don’t fucking work.’
She starts trying to bang her head on the wall again.
The policeman steps into the room. We make room for him on the bed.
‘Now Mel,’ he says. ‘Don’t do that or I’ll have to restrain you.’
He puts his hat on the windowsill, sits down between us then leans forwards to take her hands. For a moment they sit like that, Mel cradled in her friend’s lap, both her hands held by the policeman.
‘I’m scusstin,’ she whispers. ‘I’m a scusstin person and I have to kill myself.’
‘You’re not disgusting, Mel. I’ve only known you a few minutes but I would say you’re a well loved young woman who just feels a bit under the weather at the moment. Why don’t you come with these guys to the hospital and speak to someone about how you feel?’
‘A little ride in the ambulance, Mel,’ I say, sounding like a poor salesman. ‘The pills you’ve taken won’t cause you any harm, but the fact you took them is a worry. We need to make sure you’re safe. So why not come with us to the hospital and we can find someone for you to talk to? Otherwise, I’m afraid it’ll mean a trip to the cells.’
The policeman gives me a slantways look.
‘I don’t think that’ll be necessary,’ he says. ‘I know Mel’s going to be sensible about this.’
Ten minutes later, he leads her down the stairs and into the ambulance. The policeman explains to her why he believes she is a worthwhile person. I chat to her friend about her studies.
Mel moans and pulls her hair. ‘I’ve done bad things, scusstin things. I’ve had sex with boys to make them like me.’
‘When?’ says her friend.
‘All the time. I don’t tell you ‘cos I think you’ll hate me.’
She starts scratching and slapping at her legs.
‘Don’t make me have to restrain you,’ says the policeman, reaching out to take hold of both her hands again.
She stares at him, a smudged and bedraggled, scusstin cat, paw to paw with the long arm of the law in the early hours of the morning.

Friday, July 03, 2009

trouble sleeping

As we climb out of the cab, the heat of the afternoon lays down heavy on our backs. In just the few seconds it takes to pull out our bags, open the little iron gate and walk up the path, our delicious, air-conditioned frosting is burned clean away.
I ring the bell.
Dogs furious. Commanding words, and a door firmly closed inside. A pause, and then a white shirted figure moves into focus behind the leaf patterned glass of the front door. An elderly man, trim and precise, waves us in.
‘She’s just through here,’ he says, turning and leading us through into the curtained bedroom where his daughter died last night.

She is lying on her back on a single bed, the counterpane neatly rolled and folded at the end, and even the single sheet she had been lying under drawn across and to the side in a wide triangular fold. She looks asleep, her arms out to the sides, palms up, a martyr to the night’s heat who found respite in the early hours.
I touch her forehead, but the dark staining along the lower edges of her arms and legs tells the story well enough.
‘I’m very sorry to say that your daughter has died, George.’
‘I thought so. They said to put her on the floor before you arrived but I knew it would do no good.’
‘It’s not much comfort I know, but at least there are no signs of distress. I don’t think she could have suffered at all.’
He leads us out of the room and into the sitting room. Dogs barking and scratching even more frantically behind the kitchen door.
‘We don’t mind if you let them out, George. We’re okay with dogs.’
‘If you’re sure. They like to know who’s here and whatnot.’
The moment the door is opened two small black and white mongrel terriers bowl across the carpet in a frenzy of wagging and sniffing. The smaller of the two immediately launches into a campaign to jump up on the sofa. The other seems more wary, running in and out and around until she’s sure she knows how many there are of us and what we might do.
‘Nutmeg is an absolute pain,’ George says. ‘She knows she’s not allowed. Jenny will settle eventually.’
And she does, taking up position between his legs. Nutmeg inspects my boots.
‘I don’t know what’ll happen to them,’ he says. ‘They’re rescues. They were everything to Mary. But they’ll have to go back.’
I make a start on the paperwork. George strokes Jenny’s head and scrunches her ears as he answers my questions. He spoke to Mary last night before she went to bed. Everything seemed fine, nothing out of the ordinary. They were due to go shopping this morning. She didn’t show. She didn’t answer the phone. He drove round and used his spare keys to let himself in.
I tell George that I need to make a phone call to the police, the next stage of the procedure for a death at home. George says he knows.
‘I went through it all when my wife died a few years back. Don’t worry.’
His face is flushed and damp with sweat.
Rae bats Nutmeg away and leans forward to touch George gently on the shoulder.
‘Can I get you a cup of tea? Anything at all?’
‘No. I’m fine,’ he says, taking off his glasses and wiping his face with a handkerchief. ‘I’m fine. But I don’t know how the boys will take it.’

When the police arrive, Rae helps George put Jenny and Nutmeg back into the kitchen as I answer the door. I tell them what has happened, and take them into the room to see the body. They put on latex gloves and make a quick inspection for themselves, then I hand them the paperwork.
Back out in the hallway, George is standing with Rae.
‘We’ll be going now,’ I say to him. I shake his hand. ‘I’m very sorry for your loss.’
He thanks us for coming.
We pick up our bags, one of the policewomen holds the door open for us and smiles. We step back outside.
It’s so bright I can hardly open my eyes.