Thursday, December 30, 2010

the baby or the girl

Street names, synonyms for illness, difficulty, death. Shorthand scrawls for a pratfall in a swimming pool, an entrapment, a G5 in the lobby. Have I been here before? I’m sure I’ve been here before. If not here, then somewhere.

Tour guides on the Big Black Seaside Tour of Misfortune.

‘People don’t like to see us, Frank.’
‘Maybe we should change our uniform.’
‘Did you ever see pictures of the stuff they wore during the Black Death? A big black cape and a leather beak stuffed with herbs.’
‘I’d wear it.’
It’s late afternoon, my birthday, and I think the fog in the streets has invaded my heart.
‘If I don’t get a coffee in the next ten minutes I’m a dead man.’

I have been here before. Except the geometrically dour council block is surrounded by scaffolding. It coalesces out of the mist like a grotesque puzzle toy, a musical box. I imagine giant hands ripping it from its foundations, turning it over and over, eventually finding the pressure points and the whole thing springing apart to reveal – what? A dancing angel? Or a woman spinning round and round with a bottle of vodka?

There are tyres tracks on the triangular grass verge out front; probably from the last ambulance that parked here, probably yesterday. Getting out in slow motion. One small step for man, one giant waste of time. Reaching for the bell. And the long pause. I’ve definitely been here before.

Sandra is waiting for us on the sofa. She is a stop-motion, grey clay animation of a lonely drunk. Her cigarette burns in a different time zone. The flat is cold and poorly lit, a scattering of ripped bills, energy drinks, a plasma TV with teeth marks, the wretched galley kitchen a stub corridor to hell.

We spend time.

A pain in her side she’s had for a week. Hasn’t called the doctor because he’s shut, hasn’t any credit on her phone, can’t get there, doesn’t have the number, other reasons. She just wants reassurance she’s all right. She doesn’t want to come to hospital.

Ticks in boxes. Scrawled assessments.

‘We’ll log this call with your doctor so he knows what’s happened. What’s your number?’
She hands me the phone. After a while going through various menus I hand it back.
‘I can’t find it, Sandra.’
She shrugs.

The walls of the flat are darkening damp and bare, except for a small cluster of family photos, framed. The oldest one, a baby in a frilly white jump suit lying happily in front of a two year old who has one hand on the baby’s head, as if she’s taking its temperature, or like a stall holder proudly describing her most valuable offering.
‘Which one’s you, Sandra? The baby or the girl?
She shrugs.

***

Outside the fog is thickening. It runs noiselessly around us, shifting and cooling and flowing through, magically on and down to the barest atomic matrix of existence, where everything is everything, and anything is possible, where a man can stand still and be a lamppost, and a lamppost can go into a petrol station for a coffee.

Monday, December 27, 2010

brenda

A woman in a pastel pink terry towelling bath robe waves enthusiastically from the side of the road, a strange, bare-legged, marshmallow figure amongst the early morning commuters in their heavy coats and scarves, the piles of snow spread all around like spilled suds from a bath. Her legs are lobster red, and her hair has been roughly towelled dry, sticking out in tangled clumps. She smiles and jumps up and down in her slippers.
‘He’s down at the bottom of the basement stairs. I thought I heard someone calling.’ She turns and dog-slippers her way back across an icy yard, adding over her shoulder: ‘I was in the bath.’
She leads us to the top of a steep flight of worn stone stairs. A tall, elderly man is standing looking up at us from the bottom. His face is bloody, and the front of his old blue windcheater glistening.
‘Down here,’ he says, raising his arm.
‘Is he all right?’ says the woman, dropping the phone into the baggy pocket of her bath robe and then gathering the fluffy collar of it tightly around her neck. ‘I thought I’d better ring before I did anything else.’
‘Well let’s see. I think you should get inside, though. Thanks ever so much for your help’
‘That’s all right,’ she says, pushing her hair back.’ Then she waves down at the man. ‘Hope it goes well, Mr Chapman.’
‘Thank you, Brenda.’
Then she turns and hurries up the icy steps back into the house.

We pick our way down to Mr Chapman.
‘What’s happened to you, then?’
‘I was just bringing my car battery down for a charge and I slipped on the last step. I’m okay though. I wasn’t knocked out or anything.’
‘Any pain anywhere? Funny feelings in your arms or legs?’
‘Not a thing. My head stings where I scraped it on the wall, but that’s it. I don’t want to waste your time. I’m fine.’
‘Let’s just get you on to the vehicle, give you the once over and see what’s what,’ I tell him. ‘Are you sure you can make it up the steps?’
‘Yes, yes. Just move my battery into that alcove though, would you?’
Frank puts it out of the way and we head slowly back up the stairs.
‘How old are you, Mr Chapman?’
‘Eighty four.’
‘And how’s your health?’
‘Fine. Nothing wrong with me.’
He smiles, and his teeth have the usual bloodied definition of head injuries, each individual tooth highlighted with a dark line. ‘No pills or potions.’
‘And still driving, obviously.’
‘It’s my life,’ he says. We reach the ambulance. ‘I used to drive one of these, just after the war.’
‘Really? Well it’s an honour to have you aboard. Shame it’s not happier circumstances, but never mind. There you go. Make yourself comfortable on the trolley.’
‘Look, are you sure this is necessary? I could just go indoors and tidy myself up. You’ve got better things to be doing with your time.’
‘Right now, this is the most important thing for us, Mr Chapman. Let’s just get that jacket off. And – have – a – look at you.’
I start exploring his matted hair. It’s quickly apparent he has a significant wound – a palm sized skin flap exposing his skull.
‘This is quite serious, Mr Chapman,’ I tell him, soaking the area with saline and doing my best to bring it all together and tidy it up. ‘It’s pretty deep.’
‘Really? I don’t think so. I think I just need to go home.’
‘No, no. You’ll have to go to hospital with this one.’
‘Hospital?’ He swings his legs off the trolley. ‘I don’t think I need hospital. Can’t you just put a plaster on it? I’ve had worse.’
‘Absolutely not. This goes right down to the bone.’
‘Really?’
‘Really. You’ll need stitches. Some proper looking after.’
He mutters something, then settles himself back on the trolley again. I carry on cleaning him up. After a moment he says: ‘I only wanted to put the battery on charge.’
‘You can do that later.’
‘I don’t want my car running down.’
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘I’ve always taken good care of my cars.’
‘Excellent.’
I toss the bloody gauzes into a bag and Frank helps me bandage the wound up.
‘Are you sure this is absolutely necessary?’ Mr Chapman says, folding his arms.
‘We wouldn’t do it otherwise,’ I tell him.
There’s a pause. Eventually he says: ‘Can’t I just go back down and put the battery on charge?’
‘We need to get you to hospital, Mr Chapman.’
‘Brenda seems nice,’ says Frank, tidying up around us. ‘Jumping out of the bath like that. Running down the street.’
Mr Chapman looks up, tentatively patting the dressing on his head.
‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ he says.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

tigers and lillies

The entrance to the sauna is via a discrete L-shaped screen; a man could quite easily be walking along the pavement on his way into town, not thinking about anything in particular, perhaps in his innocence a little too close to the shop fronts there – the gallery, the tatty sports shop, the cheap hotel - and suddenly find himself turning sharply to the left into a small reception area, a red and black themed room, with black rubber tiles on the floor, prints of naked male torsos around the walls, and a Plexiglas kiosk with a slot to slip your money through.
‘He’s in the locker room,’ says the man behind the screen, a young guy, bare-chested, his earlobes stretched by large black washers, his nipples pierced, his shoulders tattooed left and right with a tiger and a bouquet of lilies.
He buzzes a security door and we struggle through with our bags to a staircase, the kind of sharp edged affair you might find leading down to the kitchens of a restaurant. At the bottom is a changing area, wooden benches and lockers, and beyond it, a low-ceilinged corridor. There is a sign on the wall, a rack of arrows pointing in different directions: sun deck, cafe, hot and cold showers, plunge pool, solarium, play room, glory holes. The air is moist, vaguely sweet, vaporous with detergent, cologne and other, earthier flavours. Silent figures in the same institutional towel pad to and fro along the corridor. I’m conscious only of feet, legs and lower abdomen; I don’t want to embarrass anyone by making eye contact. But it seems to me that quite a few of the men find a reason to scratch their face, cough, or look in the other direction as they pass.
‘In here.’
The receptionist stands in front of a middle aged man almost completely dressed now, leaning forwards to slip on his shoes.
‘Would you go outside to talk to him in the ambulance? It’ll be a bit more discrete.’
The man doesn’t look at us, but stands up and hurriedly slips his rucksack over his shoulder.
‘I understand you had a fainting episode just now?’
He looks down to the side and shakes his head.
‘No,’ he says.
‘What do you mean? We’d like to make sure you’re okay.’
‘No. No thank you.’
He starts to leave.
The receptionist smiles at us and shrugs his tiger and lilies.
‘Sorry to have called you out for nothing, guys.’
By the time he has finished talking, the man is up the stairs and away.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

changeable

The street is in the older part of town, a one way stub of workers’ cottages so tightly packed the occupants must sleep standing up. But Frank manages to find room to park the ambulance without blocking the street. Incredibly, this apartment block has been shoe-horned into the housing continuum, with parking spaces at street level between the struts and legs of the upper storeys. The sheer concrete lines and halogen spots of its balcony walkways is in contrast to the mullion windowed chintz of the rest of the street; it stands in the middle of it all like some grand, alien ship, ready for take-off.

All the notes tell us: a fifty-nine year old woman called Barbara, unwell at number fifteen.

Frank pushes the at scene button, grabs a bag from the side, we find number fifteen, and knock. After a minute or two, the door opens, and a slack faced woman with coral pink lips and a pan scourer hairdo sniffs cautiously round the edge.
After a moment Barbara says: ‘Yes, it’s the ambulance,’ into the phone she has pressed to her ear, then turns round and retreats back into the house without acknowledging us; we follow her inside anyway.
‘Should I hang up now?’ she says, we’re not sure to whom.
‘Yes. Just hang up.’
‘I’m hanging up now,’ she says into the phone, then presses it off without saying anything further.
‘Okay,’ says Frank. ‘Hello. My name’s Frank, this is Spence. What can we do for you tonight?’
She stands on the other side of the room, a dimly-lit space that could be a showroom at Past Times; there are framed prints of Aubrey Beardsley drawings, art deco mirrors and figurines, tapestry cushions, candle holders, faerie prints, and scattered strategically about the place, a hundred soft toys – from Jemima Puddle-Duck, Bagpuss and Peter Rabbit, to an audience of variously graded teddy bears, some in overcoats, some in cowboy outfits or homemade doily wraps, or simply naked, tagged in the ear like prize cattle, looking on from the margins.
‘What seems to be the problem?’
Barbara flutters a hand just below her chin.
‘I’ve never felt so unwell,’ she squeaks. ‘I feel dreadful.’
‘In what way?’
‘What?’
‘In what way do you feel unwell?’
The question seems to disorientate her; she pauses whilst it disperses through the air, then she continues.
‘I’ve been on these pills from the doctor for a week. He gave them to me because I was so ill.’
‘These here?’
She stares at him.
‘Well what do you think? Yes – those there.’
‘Okay. Antibiotics, I see. Was this for some kind of chest infection?’
She pauses again, then sits down on the sofa and rolls up her sleeve.
‘I’m so worried,’ she says. ‘I’ve come out in this rash. What do you think this rash is?’
‘Let’s have a look.’
Her arm appears to have no more than a light bruise by the elbow and a couple of spots of eczema. The light in the room is poor, so I click on my pocket torch to give Frank something better to work by.
Barbara glares – and when she speaks, her voice has dropped an octave.
‘I do pay my electricity bills you know. You can put another light on.’
‘Yes. Yes, I know. It’s just so Frank can get a better look.’
‘Mm. Well – I can’t really see anything here,’ says Frank. ‘Do you have any pain anywhere?’
Her voice rises again, a quivering, reedy tone, and her hand flutters up into the air.
‘I’ve never felt so ill. I’m sorry to waste your time. I just didn’t know what else to do. I called my daughter, and she said if I was as bad as that I should call the ambulance. But I know you’ve got better things to be doing with your time.’
‘Don’t worry. Do you have any health problems?’
The strange drop of tone again.
‘Of course I’ve got health problems. What do you think?’
‘Okay. Any medication for anything?’
‘Over there.’
Barbara is extraordinarily volatile, switching suddenly from one character to another like some grotesque, topsy-turvy doll - anguished child’s face on one side, angry, middle-aged woman’s face on the other.
Both Frank and I tiptoe around her with our questions, but it’s difficult to get much sense from her.
‘I don’t know what the problem is, Barbara. But you’re obviously very concerned. So perhaps the best thing would be for you to come with us to hospital.’
Angry woman.
‘I’m not going there. People go there to die.’
‘It’s not as bad as that, Barbara.’
‘It is. My daughter’s a doctor and she’s told me all about it. Left in the corridor for hours. Left to die.’
‘No, no. They really do their best.’
Anguished child.
‘I think it’s terrible what’s happening today.’
‘In what way?’
‘People falling ill. Having to wait hours and hours to see anyone.’
‘But we came out right away. We came to help.’
‘What can you do? You’re not doctors. I’ve never felt so unwell.’
‘Which is why you should come with us to the hospital.’
‘No. I’m not going there. What’s going to happen to me?’
Frank sits next to her on the sofa.
‘Barbara? What do you think your daughter would want you to do? She suggested you called the ambulance because you didn’t feel well. And that’s what you did. Now that we’re here, we think you we should take you to the hospital. So don’t you think your daughter would tell you to go with us?’
Barbara sniffs, draws out a handkerchief from the sleeve of her jersey.
‘I’ll just get my things.’
‘Good. Good! We’ll just stand over there by the door to give you a little space. A couple of minutes and we’ll be off. Okay?’
‘Yes.’
We go over to the door, and whilst Barbara mutters to herself, gathering things together and stuffing them into a floral bag, we pass the time, talking quietly.
‘So where were you the other week?’
‘I took a couple of days off with my back. We did a dodgy lift and it made my old problem flare up again. Just here,’ I say, pressing him between his shoulders. ‘I scored some decent painkillers off the doctor, though, so it’s not all bad.’
‘My back’s been pretty bad recently.’
‘Yeah?’
‘I went to see this Osteopath, and she said....’
‘What are you talking about?’
Barbara has stopped getting her things together and walked right up to us.
‘Oh, we were just swapping horror stories about our backs.’
‘Your what?’
‘Our backs. We’ve both had back problems.’
‘Oh. Have you. Did you know I’ve had back problems?’
‘No. Have you?’
‘Yes. I had an MRI. I’m under Mr Coltishall.’
‘Right.’ An awkward pause. ‘Sometimes I think I could do with an MRI. Might not like what I find, though.’
I smile at Barbara, but it crashes up against the sheer wall of her face.
‘What’s your name?’ she says.
‘Spence.’
‘No. Your last name.’
‘I’m afraid it’s not really policy to give out last names.’
‘Actually it doesn’t matter. Because I have a daughter who works for the Met police in London. And she can find out your name like that. And she will find it out. Because I’m going to put in an official complaint about you. And d’you know what? I’m going to make your night. I am not going to the hospital. And I want you out of my house, right now.’
‘Barbara..?’
Right now!
We turn and leave.

We climb back into the cab. Frank phones control to put them in the picture. Whilst he’s explaining the situation they interrupt to tell him that Barbara has called again.
‘Where are you at the minute?’
‘Still outside the property.’
‘I don’t suppose...’

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year!

(c) Innis McAllister


Thanks to everyone for reading Siren Voices over the past year. It’s been fantastic to have such warm and encouraging feedback.

I hope you all have a great Christmas break, and that 2011 is filled with love, luck and happiness.

SK <:0) x

the frequent flyer's* advent calendar

*frequent flyer – noun phrase: regular caller without good cause

The picture: A snowy street scene. An ambulance skidding along between iced cars, its headlamps wic-wacking, its emergency lights rippling blue and red, front and back. A generous scattering of glitter.

Hidden around the picture: twenty four numbered panels. Each one has a tiny scene behind it, with a little clip of dialogue as the panel is opened.

1 The lobby of a run-down hotel. Pete, the cowardly lion, sitting in a ruined tub chair with a couple of crutches propped against it. He is wearing a spivvy black leather jacket, dirty jeans, smoking a roll-up the size of a matchstick.
‘I can’t walk.’
‘How did you get down to the lobby?’
‘I can’t walk very far.’

2 A cold, curtainless room lit by a bare light bulb. A ginger tom delicately licking its paw over on the window ledge. Below him, such a scattering of rubbish it could be a sorting room at the recycling depot. Clara, staggering around with a half empty bottle of Perry cider.
‘The door! Don’t let Garfield out! Is he out? Don’t let him out!’

3 The landing of a concrete housing block. Mr Sylvester, rattling around in a dilapidated blue blazer and slacks, propped up against the railings, shaking a brown inhaler.
‘Hello chaps. I need another one of these. But Kathleen should be home soon.’
‘When?’
‘Oh I don’t know. I don’t like to pry.’

4 A long and narrow lift, sheet steel and graffiti tags, a fold-down chair in the corner. Mary, shuffling out in a leopard-pattern fur coat and red slippers, fag smoke billowing around her.
‘Oh hallo boys. Is it cold out? Will I need a hat?’

5 Dolly, Queen of the Wallop, swearing and cursing in her chair, as easy as an elephant that accidentally sat back in a laundry basket.
‘How are you, Dolly?’
‘Fantabulosa, darling. What do you think?’

6 Zachary, walking out of a seafront bar, escorted by a doorman. He casts sharp looks left and right along the street, a strip of fluorescent orange hair draped across the centre of his bald head, his combat jacket zipped right up, collar up, a Chad Valley chess box tucked under his arm.
‘I will speak with you in the language you know. If I revert, I apologise. But there are certain secrets I cannot reveal to you, many of them connected with this ancient box. You’ve heard of the Knights Templar? Then you’ll understand. Dark times, my friend. Strange, dark times.’

7 Ella Mae – careening forwards on her mobility scooter, her cowboy hat slipped back on her head and her eye patch folded up, a fag trembling in her lips. She tugs it out with yellowing fingers and smiles, revealing a dental graveyard of blackened stumps.
‘The bastards have banned me from Waitrose.’

8 Stanley, standing with one hand on the door, his tousled head turned back into the flat where a beautiful springer spaniel leaps from sofa to armchair.
‘Dookie! Decorum!’

9 Miranda, swaying in the hallway of a Glade-drenched bungalow, her eyes swimming in and out of focus behind the dirty lenses of her glasses. Josh Groban emoting on the DVD
‘We understand you’ve taken an overdose.’
‘Yeah?’
‘Will you be coming to hospital?’
‘No. Fuck off.’

10 Mrs Jessom, standing in the middle of a plush lounge, seemingly aghast to find herself in a quilted, leaf-patterned housecoat. In the corner of the room, beneath a display shelf of porcelain fairies, the life-sized mannequin of a small child in a red raincoat, her face to the wall.
‘I look a fright.’
‘No, no.’
‘I do. I look a fright.’

11 Janice, simpering in a WWF bed beneath a wall of WWF posters and WWF DVDSs. The quilt - Bret Hart, golden belt over his shoulder - has been artfully arranged to reveal teasing flashes of naked shank and brisket.
‘I was just getting ready to take a flannel bath when the cat head butted me and I fell backwards onto the bed.’

12 Jose, sitting on the steps of the entrance way, devouring a cigarette. In the half-light of the courtyard he could be a Spanish movie star, but close inspection reveals such a slack and dissolute face it’s all you can do not to bite your knuckle.
‘I see espiders. Everywhere. Espiders.’

13 Ralph, enthroned on a ruined chair amongst the detritus of his basement flat, his friend Bobby bustling about like a large, solicitous woodlouse.
‘He was knocked clean out.’
‘Clean out.’
‘And that’s some of his hair in the ashtray.’

14 Joy, a frail woman of indeterminate age in teddy bear PJs, mouthing instructions from round the corner of her curtains.
‘Whatever you do, don’t say you’ll look at her chinchillas.’

15 Michael, a falling down, fag butt Father Christmas in a foetid raincoat, slumped on a bench outside the Co-op, a festive carrier bag hanging on his zimmer with a packet of sandwiches and a litre of vodka.
‘Fuck off.’

16 Jenny, perched on the edge of her sofa like an Egyptian mummy unexpectedly reanimated, reaching down to where an equally ancient and over-stuffed black Labrador Maisy lies sleeping on her side.
‘ Maisy, Maisy, Maisy. Just look at you now. You dear and lovely little thing.’

17 Sonia, lying on the pavement beneath the bright department store display, shaking her arms and legs in a psychogenic fit, a small crowd watching from the taxi rank alongside.

18 Susan, a young, tidily dressed girl sitting patiently on the platform bench with a flowery bag by her side and a couple of fluorescent jacketed staff standing with radios right and left.
‘Hello Susan.’
She smiles pleasantly - ‘How are you?’ - and then slips the strap of her bag over her shoulder ready to go.

19 Kevin, sitting with his head in his hands at the kitchen table, a Tupperware box of medication in front of him.
‘I simply need you to write me out a prescription for the drugs I need.’
‘We’re not doctors, Kevin. That’s not what we do.’
‘Then I have no further use for you. Good day.’

20 Connor, bare-chested and exultant in the bedroom of a devastated squat, swigging from a carton, a white moustache of milk beading his upper lip.
‘I swallowed a razor blade.’

21 Jeannie, sitting cross legged on the double bed that takes up most of the floor space of the bedsit. Behind her, almost covering that wall, a spread of A4 photos printed off the computer - hazy, pixelated family shots of babies in prams and on laps, a sister and brother, school photos, a beach holiday.
‘And see that one there? Isn’t he gorgeous? My brother’s baby, such a cutie.’

22 Michaela, immaculately tragic in chiffon, taffeta and Maybelline gloss, one great hairy foot up on a Moroccan pouffe beside the Ottoman.
‘I’ve been such a fool.’

23 Cynthia, crying as she opens the door, waving us quickly inside, her Jack Russell skittering at insane speed around the room like an over-wound toy. Cynthia’s image is reflected a dozen times in the seventies-style hang of little round mirrors on the far wall.
‘I may have had a little bit to drink. It’s not a crime.’

24 Burt, a generously proportioned character balloon from the derelict collection, occupying three quarters of a four person settee, his t-shirt ridden up beyond the dreadful horizon of his abdomen. Above him, a wall of clocks begins chiming the midnight hour.
‘The pain? I don’t know. It’s there all the time. Sometimes I hardly notice it. Sometimes it’s completely gone. I don’t know. It’s just a pain-type pain.’
‘Have you seen your doctor?’
‘Him? Well, he’s not interested.’


All the panels stand open now.
I faxed my annual leave request through at midnight on September 1st last year.
This year, I get to be home for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

mr petersen

Mr Petersen’s short red hair stands up in spikes; with his soft round nose, widow’s peak, raisin eyes and tiny mouth, he looks like an illustration from a tougher Beatrix Potter: Mr Tiggy Winkle on the Social, his paws stuffed in the zipper pockets of a black puffa-jacket, trembling in the hallway of a sheltered housing project in the early hours.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘I’m having a stroke.’
‘Let’s go inside and have a chat.’
He turns and shuffles ahead of us into the shared living space, a spare, functionally lit cube with a synthetic Christmas tree subsiding under a pile of tinsel in the window. Mr Petersen settles himself neatly on the edge of a battered armchair and waits for us to begin.
‘So. What’s happened tonight?’
‘I was just going to bed when I had this funny feeling. A numbness, spreading down from the right side of my face, round my mouth, and then on into my arms. I’d been reading about strokes and how to spot them. F – Face. A – Arms. S – Something. And T – erm - Trembling. So I thought I’d better call for an ambulance.’
‘Okay. Any pain anywhere? Nausea? Shortness of breath?’
‘No. Just this funny feeling.’
‘Let’s have a look.’
We run through the protocol.
‘Everything seems fine, Mr Petersen. But the fact remains you’ve got this funny feeling, so we need to check it out. Why don’t we go out to the vehicle and carry on there?’
‘Yes. I think that’s probably best.’
‘Any other health problems?’
‘Asperger’s Syndrome, Generalised Anxiety Disorder.’
‘Right. Have you got your keys, then? Phone – the usual stuff?’
‘I need to get them from my room. Will you come with me?’
‘Sure.’
We follow him back across the hallway to a scuffed white door. He smiles as he pushes it open.
‘Please excuse the mess,’ he says. ‘It’s not normally like this.’
The room is quite bare, except for isolated heaps of clothes piled up on the floor; the bed itself is a bare divan, with a lumpy, yellowing pillow at the far end.
‘Won’t be a moment,’ he says.
He scuffles across the room to sweep a bunch of keys from off a pine sideboard.
‘Do you watch The Bill?’ he says.
‘I thought it wasn’t on any more.’
‘Well – technically no. But are you familiar with one of the main characters, PC Amber Johannsen?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
Well – she’s been visiting me, helping me out.’
‘What – do you mean the actress?’
‘No, no. PC Amber Johannsen, not her spirit, but her character, from the spirit side. She comes and helps me in various ways.’ He gives me a shy smile. ‘Satisfies me in others. She said to tell you sorry she couldn’t take me up the hospital herself, but now she’s just a spirit she’s no longer able to drive the patrol car.’
‘Right.’
He nods, then busies himself looking for his mobile phone, picking speculatively through the mounds of clothes like a bird through piles of raked leaves.
‘Mr Petersen? Have you been up to A&E before?’
He pauses momentarily and looks across at me.
‘Yes. About two months ago.’
‘Was it for something similar?’
‘No. It was – for something else.’
He carries on hunting for his phone.
I pause for him to tell me, but he seems reluctant.
‘What was wrong that time?’ I say.
‘I tied a boot lace round my organ, rather too tightly,’ he says, suddenly straightening up. ‘Ah! Here it is!’ He holds up the mobile phone, and gives it a triumphant little wiggle in the air.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

a thousand years

Thelma is lying on her side on the carpeted floor, her legs in the dining room, her top half in the hall.
‘I’m all right,’ she says, the rich orange threads of the carpet muffling her words. ‘I’m all right.’
‘I couldn’t get her up on my own,’ says Harold, her husband, hobbling on behind us after he let us in. ‘It’s my back, you see. I just don’t have the strength.’
Harold is as decrepit as his wife; their skin has the colour and texture of parchment, their hair as finely silvered as fibre optic strands.
‘Usually Carol from the cafe across the road comes over to help, but she’s in Tenerife.’
‘Lucky Carol.’
‘I just need a hand,’ says Thelma, more loudly. ‘That’s all.’
I give her the once over and everything seems fine.
‘Why do you think you fell, Thelma? Did you trip, or did you have a funny turn?’
‘It depends what you mean by funny.’
‘Did you go dizzy, or pass out?’
‘No. I remember everything with absolute clarity. Rather too well, actually.’
‘Okay. Let’s get you up, then. Shout if anything hurts.’
We help her sit, then after a moment, up into a chair.
‘I need to go up,’ she says. ‘I’m tired and I need to go to bed.’
‘We can help you with that,’ I say. ‘We just have to make sure everything’s okay with your blood pressure and this and that.’
‘I know.’
We settle into the routine. Whilst Frank does the obs, I start the paperwork.
‘So just talk me through what happened again, Thelma.’
‘I was on the phone. To my daughter. I finished the call, turned round and caught my heel. I went down quite slowly and I didn’t hurt myself in any way. But I just couldn’t get up on my own.’
She seems tearful.
‘It must be upsetting.’
‘Yes. Well. Yes. When your only daughter says she wishes you were dead, it is upsetting.’
‘What an awful thing to say.’
Harold totters over and drapes an arm around Thelma’s shoulder.
‘Don’t take it to heart,’ he says.
‘Well how can I not? What other way is there? “I wish you were dead”. She makes herself pretty clear.’
Harold looks at me and Frank, expecting some kind of judgement.
‘Families, eh?’ says Frank, curling up the steth and carefully storing it away in the bag.
‘Has this been going on a while?’ I say to Harold.
‘About a thousand years,’ he sighs, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and handing it to Thelma. ‘Ever since she married that Steven and had a child.’
Thelma looks up, suddenly animated.
‘What do you expect? When you marry a mental deficient, you’re quite likely to give birth to a mental deficient.’
The force of her enmity almost lifts her off the chair cushion, but the power of it passes as rapidly as it came, and she shrinks away to almost nothing.
‘I’m so tired,’ she says. ‘If you could just help me onto the stair lift.’
Leaning on my arm she hobbles across the hallway to the foot of the stairs. I drop the plastic seat and handrail into position, and Thelma shuffles on.
‘If you could walk behind. Just in case,’ she says.
‘Yep.’
She presses a button and the seat begins its slow ascent. After a few minutes she reaches the dark landing at the top.
‘I’ll be fine now,’ she says, without looking back. ‘Thank you.’
I turn to go back down.
Harold is at the bottom, tightly gripping the banister, looking up.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

just the point

The police car rushes past, lights but no siren. Frank groans and sits upright again, puts the ambulance into drive and we pull away from the bus stop in the high street where we’ve been sitting waiting for back-up. The police car ducks off to the left down a narrow tributary; I watch its lambent blue lights splashing around the smaller shops there, the newsagents, fast food counters, antique shops and other, more obscure businesses, and against the dark windows of the maisonettes above. We park behind the police car, blocking the street. Apart from the diesel thrum of our engines, the street is utterly silent; it’s like we’ve been miniaturised and tossed into a dimly lit fridge.
‘Geezer with a knife?’ says one of the police officers, spanking his gloves together and working his chin deeper down beneath his muffler.
‘After you,’ says Frank.
‘Too kind.’
His colleague, bigger, more restrained, nods to us unenthusiastically as he rocks from side to side with his hands in his pockets, like an old robot trying to free up its joints.
‘Blimey O’Reilly,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t get any warmer.’
‘Yeah, but look at you with your vests and your whatnots.’
‘Jealous.’
‘Only in the winter, mind.’
The enthusiastic officer hops up the steps to the front door.
‘What number?’
‘Top flat.’
He runs his torch over the little stack of buttons, then confidently stabs the last. We hear it ringing from far off inside the building. He stands on the step waiting, his colleague wandering up behind. I fetch a dressings bag from the truck; by the time I’ve rejoined them, a young girl is standing by the open door, waving us in.
‘Right at the top I’m afraid.’
‘How is he?’
‘Oh. Calm, I suppose. I don’t think he’ll be any trouble.’
‘Has he still got the knife on him?’
‘No. I took it off him and put it back in the kitchen.’
‘Great. Look – we’d better go first.’
‘Okay. But please go gently. I don’t want to scare him.’
‘We’ll be discrete.’
But I’m not sure how discrete it’s possible to be for two police officers and two paramedics on a narrow and creaking staircase at two o’clock in the morning.
‘This door?’
‘No. There’s another staircase tucked just round the corner.’
‘Blimey.’
‘It’ll get your blood flowing again,’ I say, then immediately picture a guy standing waiting upstairs with a knife. ‘Or something.’

There is a small landing at the very top of the stairs and a battered door standing ajar immediately in front of it. The police officer knocks gently, nudges it fully open and stands for a second looking intently into the bright interior. Over his shoulder I can see a young man standing against the far wall. He has on a loose fitting jungle green t-shirt with a monkey face design, and a pair of pale blue jeans. The t-shirt has a palm-sized blood stain spread just below the monkey’s chin on the left.
‘Terry?’
‘Yeah?’
‘Terry – it’s the police and ambulance, mate. First things first – do you have any weapons on you right now?’
‘No. Gill took the knife.’
‘Terry we need to make sure that everything’s safe in here for you and us. Just put your hands up above your head and we’ll quickly check it all out. Is that okay? Will you do that for us right away, mate?’
‘Fine. Of course I will, officer.’
He raises his arms up, puts his hands flat on the top of his head, and shuts his eyes.
‘Good lad.’
The police officers walk briskly in; the older one controls Terry’s arms whilst the other pats him down.
‘Sorry to do this, Terry, but we have to take these things seriously.’
‘I completely understand, officer. But you needn’t worry. I’m not a danger to anyone.’
‘Okay. Good.’
We come into the room, followed by Gill, who goes to stand in the doorway of the adjoining kitchenette. We watch as the police officers finish their search. There is something unconvincing about Terry, an unsettling chill to his acquiescence that puts us more on edge than if he had been wilder and more emotional.
‘Okay, Terry. You can put your hands down now.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Have a seat.’
‘Thank you very much, officer.’
He sits down on a low sofa, his long legs drawn up and his hands resting inertly on his knees. With his floppy black fringe obscuring his face and his chin dropped down onto his chest, he looks like a sulky child dragged in off the street.
‘I understand you may have stabbed yourself tonight, Terry.’
‘That’s right, officer. I stabbed myself with a kitchen knife.’
‘Why did you do that, then, Terry?’
He shrugs, then inspects his bloodied hand, and begins gnawing at the quick of his thumb.
Gill folds her arms and leans against the doorway. ‘We had a quarrel and Terry got upset.’
‘Is that right, Terry? Did you have an argument?’
He nods.
‘Okay, mate. Will you let the paramedics take a look at you? See what the damage is? Would that be okay?’
‘If you think it’s necessary. But I really don’t think it’s that serious.’
The police officer nods to us, and we both step over to the sofa.
Frank hitches up the t-shirt and I shine a light on the puncture wound he reveals in his abdomen – a puckered little incision an inch below the lower line of his ribs. I gently probe around the wound trying to gauge the depth.
‘How far in do you think you went?’ I ask him.
‘Not far at all, officer. Just the point.’
We dress the wound, and then whilst Frank takes his blood pressure I go over to Gill in the kitchenette.
‘Can you show me the knife?’
She reaches up on top of the fridge-freezer and takes down a short handled vegetable knife, the very tip of the blade stained red.
‘He was in such a rage. I thought he was going to kill himself in front of me,’ she says, hugging herself.
‘Has he done anything like this before?’
‘I don’t know. We haven’t been together long.’
I go back into the lounge.
‘Terry? You need to get some treatment up at the hospital.’
‘Sure. No problem,’ he says, immediately standing up. ‘I’ve had some alcohol this evening, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem.’

***

Down on the ambulance Frank helps settle Terry and Gill in their chairs, then prepares to jump out again. ‘All right? Need anything? Throw another log on the fire, Spence, and let’s get going,’ he says. ‘See you the other end.’
He slams the door.
‘Okay. So. Can I take your last name, Terry?’
He looks up, staring straight at me for the first time, his gray eyes preternaturally clear in the flat white light of the ambulance.
‘Plunger,’ he says.
And before I make any kind of response – before I’ve made anything of it at all - he carries on excitedly, talking loudly and quickly: ‘Plunger, that’s right. Ha, ha. I can see you appreciate the correspondence. Little boy Plunger, plunging a knife in his stomach. Great. How appropriate. How deliciously ironic.’
Gill looks down.
‘Leaving scene two forty three,’ shouts Frank back through the hatch.
The ambulance rolls forward, and after a moment, the heater cuts noisily into life.

Monday, December 06, 2010

the list

The snow has retreated from the close, the only sign it was ever here, a slightly muddier grass verge, and isolated patches of ice caught like blown suds beneath the immaculate stands of privet, pyracantha, cotoneaster.
We rumble to a stop outside a bright little bungalow half-way down the road. The arrival of the ambulance causes a discrete riot of attention, with elderly faces appearing at various bay fronts and bedroom windows, curtains tentatively drawn aside, front doors opening. As I climb out, a woman in a cleaner’s apron stands absently by her front door folding a cloth over and over in her hands. She smiles sadly as I say hello, and nods in the direction of the number we want.
The door is open; I knock and we step inside onto a spread of crumpled polythene sheeting.
‘The snow,’ says David, a middle aged man appearing from along the corridor. ‘She hated all the mud.’
‘Where is she?’
He nods to a room behind him. His wife Alison appears in the doorway of the kitchen at the end of the corridor. ‘It’s no good,’ she says. ‘She’s gone.’
Deidre is sitting in a neat little upright armchair, slumped over on to her right side, her legs drawn inwards, her right arm crooked up with her hand pressed against the side of her face, like someone who fell asleep trying to solve a problem. She has on a tightly bound hairnet, a fluffy blue dressing-gown over flowery yellow pyjamas and hand-knitted woolly bootees. Caught napping. You would think our inconsiderate barging-in would wake her up. But she is as rigid to the touch as a waxworks model; she has been dead these twelve hours or more.
‘When was the last time anyone spoke to Deidre?’
‘Last night, just before she went to bed. Everything was absolutely fine. Nothing untoward. I couldn’t get hold of her all morning, but she’s got this emergency button so we weren’t that concerned. But when I still couldn’t get her at lunchtime and her best friend Rene hadn’t heard anything, we came round.’

We go into the dining room to write out the paperwork and contact the police. David and Alison sit with us, but she quickly excuses herself to make some calls.
‘I must cancel the cleaner and the gardener,’ she says. ‘I don’t want them to learn from a police car outside or a note on the door.’
‘Here’s the address book,’ David says, opening a tattered black object as worn at the corners and closely covered with writing as the Rosetta stone. ‘Good luck.’
As I fill in the ROLE sheet and patient report form, Frank chats to him.
‘There’s very little sign of distress, David,’ he says. ‘I mean, you never know exactly what happened, but my feeling is she got up in the night feeling unwell, made her way to the front room, just had time to sit herself down in the chair and then – boom – had a heart attack and was gone. I really don’t think she would’ve suffered at all.’
‘Really? Do you think it was that quick?’
‘I’m absolutely convinced.’
‘Thanks. I’d hate to think of her suffering.’
‘She looks so peaceful. Just like she fell asleep.’
‘I hope so.’
Around us on the dining room table are heaps of unwrapped presents, newly constructed decorative cardboard boxes, stacks of half finished Christmas cards – and in front of all this, two long lists: presents and cards.
‘Your mum’s a very organised woman,’ says Frank. ‘I’m impressed.’
‘If you think she’s organised you should see Alison,’ says David. ‘Incredible. I just fall in behind.’
‘Got it,’ says Alison from down in the kitchen.
‘See what I mean?’
Frank looks over the list and then puts it back on the table.
‘I haven’t even started thinking about my Christmas shopping, let alone wrapping it.’
‘She’s got family all over the place,’ says David.
I pass over one of the sheets for Frank to countersign, and glance over the Christmas list: bubble bath, gloves, gardening book, scented candles, jumper, cushion covers – each item with a name alongside it, and a tick.
The doorbell rings.
‘That’ll be the police,’ says Frank, getting up to show them in.
‘What am I going to do with all this stuff?’ says David.
I don’t know whether he should send it or not, but at that moment Alison comes into the dining room again with the address book in one hand the phone in the other. We both turn to her. She’ll know.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

a helicopter

The ambulance car is waiting for us at the start of the track.
‘I’ve tried making it along there, but I grounded out almost immediately. I’m not even sure you’ll make it in the ambulance, but have a go. Let me just jump in the back.’
The stables are about a mile distant, along a rough bridleway only a few inches wider than the ambulance. Its surface is deeply pitted with waterlogged holes and awkward banks of compacted earth; it leads off ahead of us, winding out into open country, the easy cut of the valley and surrounding hills greying to distance.
‘Do we know any more?’
‘Just what you have. Thirty year old, kicked in the head by a horse. She’s been fitting but stopped last time I heard. Sounds bad.’
As soon as Cal jumps aboard and slams the door behind him, Frank sets off down the track. The ambulance pitches violently from side to side; scraping against the elder trees, hawthorn and blackberry thickets either side.
‘We’ll never get her back along here in one piece if she has a head injury,’ shouts Cal from the back, through the hatch. ‘It’s going to have to be a helicopter job.’
‘Or maybe a horse,’ says Frank, slowing to take a cruel sequence of pits and banks that threaten to topple the ambulance off to the right and down a steep embankment. ‘Jesus – they don’t make it easy, do they?’
More by luck than judgement we make it to the muddy courtyard of the riding stables. A red-faced woman in a quilted green jacket stuffs her mobile away and waves us in the direction of the stables behind her.
‘In there,’ she shouts. ‘Mary’s with her.’

The ground leads steeply down into the stables, its old stone flags slippery with mud and muck. Inside, a woman lies on the ground moving her arms and legs spasmodically, like a person wrestling snakes in a nightmare; above her, a tall black horse looms over her from the stable gate, its massive head sleek and impassive.
‘Don’t let it kick me again,’ the woman says as we crouch down beside her. ‘Get it away.’
But she keeps her eyes closed, and seems unable to answer any of the questions we put to her. Mary strokes her forehead clear of the long wet strands that are plastered there, soothing her with platitudes.
‘It’s okay, Susan. Help’s here now. You’ll be all right.’ Then she addresses herself to us.
‘Susan was here on her own putting the horse back in its stall. She was kicked in the head and fell to the floor unconscious. When I came in about five minutes later she was having a fit. That passed, and then she seemed to keep moving in and out of consciousness. Apparently she had a head injury a while ago, had a CT scan, but I don’t know what came of that. Her husband’s on his way. He shouldn’t be long.’
I take hold of Susan’s head and try to stop her moving it, but she fights whatever I try to do. Frank plays a torch over her, but despite the mud and water neither of us can see any trace of a wound.
‘Kicked in the head, did you say? By this fella behind us?’
‘So she said. Why? Don’t you think so?’
‘It’s difficult to tell. But you’d expect to see something. They’re pretty mean.’
The horse stares down at me.
Suddenly Susan starts thrashing and moaning again.
‘She’s fitting again,’ says Mary.
‘I don’t think this is a fit,’ I say.
‘What is it then?’
‘I don’t know.’
I ask Susan to open her eyes; she holds them closed. Frank gently pries them open, and when he shines his light across them the pupils react normally to light. In any other situation you could be certain this was a put-on. But the dramatic scene makes us uncertain.
Cal and Frank bring the scoop stretcher, spinal board and collar, and we set to work immobilising Susan. Mary stands back and makes another call. The horse stands looking over the stable door, eyeing the comings and goings with formidable glassiness.
A man appears in the stable.
‘Susan,’ he says. ‘What’s going on?’
But he hangs back on the periphery, showing as much animation or concern as the horse.
‘Can you tell us about Susan’s previous medical history?’
‘Her what?’
‘What does she suffer with? Any heart problems, asthma, that kind of thing?’
‘She was kicked in the head by a horse a couple of months ago.’
‘And what happened then?’
‘She had a series of scans and whatnot, but they didn’t find nothing.’
‘Is she on any medication?’
‘No. But she’s been having fits since.’
‘And what have the doctors said about that?’
‘Not a lot. I don’t think they know.’
‘They didn’t put her on medication?’
‘No.’
The horse sees the latest entrants before me; two more ambulance people slipping down the slope into the stable: a paramedic practitioner and a CCP.
‘What’s the story?’
I hand over to the CCP and he begins his examination. On the pretext of going to the truck for equipment I take Mary aside. She seems nervous; the more I nod and smile, the more guarded she becomes.
‘How long have you known Susan?’
‘Not long. I only started work here a couple of weeks ago. Why?’
‘Is there anyone else around who knows a bit more about her?’
‘The regular stablehand should be back soon. She’ll be able to fill you in. Did I do wrong? What are you thinking?’
‘No. You absolutely did the right thing.’
‘But you think she’s putting it on?’
‘I don’t know. She may be.’
‘Why would she put it on? Why would she do a thing like that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘That’s crazy.’
‘I may be wrong. We have to play safe.’
An anaesthetist arrives.
‘Where’s the patient?’
I show her to the stable. She gets the low-down from the CCP. The PP nods to me.
‘The helicopter ETA is five minutes. We need to direct it into that field over there, and get her away as soon as.’
‘How is she doing?’
‘Not sure. She’s certainly combative. Could be cerebral irritation. Difficult to tell in there.’
‘Absolutely.’
‘Give us a hand with this.’

A minute before the helicopter arrives, the other, regular stable girl catches my attention, smoking nervously on the fringes of the scene. She flicks some ash on the floor and nods for me to come over.
‘Is she really going away in a helicopter?’
‘Yeah. If she’s got a head injury, the drive back along that path would kill her.’
‘How much is that going to cost?’
‘A fair bit.’
‘And all this? All these – people? It’ll be thousands.’
‘It is what it is.’
She takes a drag of her cigarette and watches the comings and goings in the stable for a moment. Then she drops it on the earth and grinds it out with her boot.
‘She’s faking it,’ she says.
‘How do you know?’
‘She waited until we’d all gone home, and the only person who’d be here to find her was that new girl.’
‘Has she done it before?’
‘Not like this. But other stuff. I can’t believe she’s taking it this far. A helicopter!’
‘What can we do? We have to treat for the worst case scenario.’
‘But a helicopter?’
Just then a low, cutting drone becomes apparent, and we see the lights of it, three bright spots coming towards us from out of the low grey banks of cloud to the east.
‘Here it comes.’

***

Six of us carry Susan out to the helicopter, our boots sucking in the mud, our free arms rising out to counterbalance the weight. The force of the rotors spinning above us as we approach the craft thumps in my chest; we load Susan in head first, then hurry away again. A moment later, we stand on the edge of the field and watch as the helicopter powers up and rises gracefully into the air; with its navigation lights and the lights showing from inside, and set against the coming dusk, it is a beautiful thing, a UFO hurriedly leaving earth and heading away into the darkening reaches of space.

We follow its progress across the sky, then start collecting the remains of our kit together. We throw the whole muddy ensemble into the back of the ambulance and set off back down the lane. In the hour it’s taken us to complete this job, the character of the place has changed. The pools of water in the potholes hold the last of the day’s light; they lead away before us, isolated craters of liquid blue glass.

I call Control. I tell them we’ll be a while.

Friday, December 03, 2010

home

The storm began lightly enough, but its flakes soon fattened as the night came down, falling thicker and faster, until the air was an endlessly shifting fabric of black and white, and every edge and surface rounded with snow. It was a soundless coup. Within the hour, cars were struggling to find traction on the town’s steep roads; within two, buses were abandoned by the side of the road, and lines of traffic fumed in spinning, herring-bone jams through the city centre, drivers out and arguing the angle, as animated by the storm as the ragged bands of pedestrians shrieking and picking their way home.
As the night went on the storm increased its grip. The cars at the side of the road were gradually subsumed, every motionless object merging with its neighbour beneath the steady white mantle. The smallest detail was transformed – the spokes of a bicycle wheel, railing points, a spider’s web, the upper edge of a handle – the leading edge of every line delicately picked out in white; whilst above us, reaching up like monstrous filter feeders, the branches of the trees, heavy and ragged with snow.

An exhausting night. Even the simplest job almost impossible. At one point the ambulance slid to a halt on a road with a difficult camber; it took half an hour to get moving again, and that was only because the people from the houses either side came out with brooms and shovels to help.
‘I got these clip-on spikes for my boots,’ said one of the men, snugly wrapped in a quilted jacket and bearskin hat. The ambulance spun forward and I fell over. He helped me up. ‘I expect they’ve sold out now, though,’ he added as I brushed the snow off my trousers.
Seven jobs in twelve hours – falls in the street, falls at home, a user smacked out on heroin collapsed at a bus stop, a man hit by a sliding car – each one perilously close to our last. We approached the end of the shift cold and wet and dispirited.
We were both wondering how we would make it home.

‘Good luck, Spence,’ said Frank as he threw his bags into his car. I was still pushing the snow off the roof of my battered old Peugeot 205. His house was just the other side of town; mine was fifteen miles away, up country.
‘Thanks mate. I’m going to need it.’
But earlier in the year I’d made it through. I was confident I’d be okay.

Just a mile from the station, the temperature warning and stop light came on.

I pushed my hat further up on my head and glared at the dashboard. No, come on, not now. I decided to drive on and see if the lights would go out. They stayed on. I drove further. I could pull over at this service station and let it cool down. But then it might not start again. I passed the station. This was a clear stretch of road; the further I went, the further I had to walk back to any of my friends who lived in town, and the nearer I got to the next service station along the route. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and peered through the windscreen. I tried to fool the dashboard into thinking I wasn’t bothered. I glanced down without moving my head. The lights were still on. Stop. But I had to get home. I had to sleep. I decided to press on as far as I could. There was a truck in front and behind; I was in a slow moving convoy of vehicles struggling north along the main route; if I stopped now it would be a long, cold wait in the drifts at the side of the road, or a dangerous walk back to safety. I drove on, shouting encouragement at the car. The lights stayed on. Stop. I was almost at the next service station now. But I was so desperate with lack of sleep, as whacked out as the man we’d dragged out of the snow at the bus stop earlier. Something like madness came over me. I didn’t care if the car exploded. I didn’t care if the whole thing went up in flames. I pictured myself, lit up like a sparkler, spitting and hissing through the snow storm. I drove on. The lights stayed on. Stop. But I was in open country. If I pulled over now I really would be in danger. I gripped the wheel and drove on, sliding from side to side through the rutted ice pathways of the road. I needed to make up some time. I needed to take a shortcut. I came to a lane that I knew would be difficult but insanity had dropped before my eyes like the blades of a plough; by force of will I would make it up this lane, make it home. I turned left into an ice tunnel, the ceiling a frozen wave, surfing through the tube, swearing and slapping the wheel, skipping across the runnels of ice and skittering through the lying snow like a rapid fox in the wilderness. I made it to the end of the lane. The car was filling with smoke, a smell of burning rubber and oil; it was probably coming from me, the vapours of my madness. I didn’t care if the car exploded around me, so long as it left me with four wheels and something to steer them by - I had to get home. I skidded out onto a clearer road and carried on. There were no other cars. No one was that crazy. If I piled into the side or swerved into a ditch that would be it for me. But I had to get home and I had to sleep. I had to. This shift had to end in whatever way was left to me. A mile to go. The car was poisonous and I opened a window. I tore off my hat and threw it behind me. Half a mile. The engine was stalling. I skipped down the high street like a meteor coming to earth. Five hundred yards. A hundred. The house. The house. The engine burbled like a neglected kettle and suddenly cut out; I had just enough momentum to coast the last fifty yards and stuff the smoking bonnet into a heap of snow. I grabbed my bags and rolled out in a cloud of blue grey smoke, taking down great lungfuls of the beautiful, beautiful, crystalline air.
A Viking burial for the poor little pug.
And me?
I was home.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

1985

Midnight, and the moon rides low above us, trawling the world for heat. We smack and rub our hands, scan the cottage with a flashlight. Frank raps the knocker, and the sound echoes along the black lane.
A moment, and the door opens.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ says Edward, stepping aside and ushering us forward. ‘Come in. Come in. You’ll catch your death out there.’
He turns and we follow him into a cosily lit kitchen diner. The ancient brick fireplace in the far wall arches over a wood burning stove, where a bright heap of logs blazes and snaps. Around it, pinned across the exposed brickwork, lithocuts of dogs leaping through winter scenes; watercolours of elm trees, wheat fields and crows; and family photos, children and adults, separate, together, their forms and colours merging, ghosting beyond the glass.
‘It certainly is bitter tonight,’ he says, settling back into his chair. There is a cup of cocoa on the oak side table, a pair of bifocals, and a book of poetry by Seamus Heaney face down beside it.
‘Brass monkey sends his apologies,’ says Frank.
‘So what’s been happening tonight, Edward?’ I say, squatting down beside his chair.
‘Well I started feeling this pain in my chest,’ he says, describing a little circle with his index finger in the middle of his jersey. ‘I got a bit worried and phoned the out of hours doctor, and he said he was going to pass it on to the ambulance, because he thought it was just possible I might be having a heart attack. I don’t think I am, though. Do you?’
‘I don’t know. Have you got the pain now?’
‘No. Sod’s law, of course. Almost as soon as I hung up, it seemed to go.’
‘There you are. We don’t even need to turn up and we make people better,’ says Frank, going over to the stove, standing in front of it and raising the tail of his jacket. ‘Ahhhh! That’s more like it.’
‘I don’t want to be a nuisance, chaps. I’m so terribly sorry for calling you out on a night like this.’
‘Don’t worry yourself about that, Edward. The most important thing is to make sure you’re okay.’
We go through the usual questions for chest pain, take a few readings.
‘We need to get you out to the vehicle and do a proper ECG. Is that okay?’
‘Yes. Of course. Whatever you think. Would it be okay if I just called my daughter Stephanie and told her what’s happening?’
‘Sure. Go ahead.’
‘Will I be going to hospital, do you think?’
‘I’m afraid so. You can’t be too careful with chest pain.’
‘Righto.’
He dials the number.
Frank puts our equipment back in the bag and I write down a few details.
Edward gets through.
‘Hello, Steph? It’s daddy. Look the paramedics are here and they think it’s probably best if I go with them to hospital. I’m so sorry to be a nuisance, dear. But I’m perfectly all right. The pain’s gone and I’m feeling okay. Please don’t worry yourself… No, no. I’m absolutely fine. I’ll be there for a few hours. I’ll let you know when I know more….. No, darling. It’s late and you’ve got work tomorrow….. Honestly darling, it’s very sweet of you but…. well, if you’re sure. I’m so sorry. I’ll see you up there, then? Love you.’
He rings off, gently puts the phone back in its cradle. His hand lingers there for a second.
‘She’s a sweetie,’ he says. ‘And she’s got work tomorrow.’
‘Duvet day,’ says Frank. ‘I’ll write her a note.’
‘Would you? That’s kind,’ says Edward.
He stands up and Frank hands him his jacket.
‘Jane would say I was making a fuss over nothing. And she’d be absolutely right, of course.’
‘Is your wife…?’
‘She died a few years ago, now. Quite a few years, actually. Nineteen eighty five.’
He pauses, his jacket half on, inclining his head, as if someone was calling to him and he couldn’t quite hear. I go to help him finish dressing, a log cracks on the fire, the moment passes.
‘Shall we?’ he says, then reaches up to a hook by the door, takes down a hat, and pulls it on firmly. ‘Lay on, Macduff.’

Friday, November 26, 2010

battle of the slingbacks

The house at the end of the street is strangely elevated, sitting on a steep rise like a grim urban decoration on a grassy cake. A tuck of steep concrete steps zigzags down from the front door, a black iron handrail running along the right side.
Rozka is sitting on the last step, holding a bloody handkerchief to the side of her face. Pavel, her partner, is speaking excitedly into a mobile; he steps out into the street and waves his free arm in the air. As I pull over, he grabs the handle and hauls the door open.
‘Whoa! Just slow things down a bit,’ I say, pulling the keys out of the ignition. ‘My colleague just needs to get a bag out of the back.’
‘Please. My wife,’ he says, stepping back onto the pavement, glancing up and down the street, into the sky, as if he were expecting a fleet of other vehicles and a helicopter. ‘She fell.’
‘Let’s have a look.’

You would think the two of them had been heading out to a fancy dress party if it wasn’t nine o’clock on a weekday morning; Pavel as Tony Montana, Rozka as – who, exactly? An ankle length black fur coat with a feathery black trim, ruched white blouse with pearls and earrings, a bone-clasped stack of crow black hair, blood red lipstick, and a pair of slingbacks so precipitous she could by-pass the stairs all together and step out of the house straight on to the street like a circus performer leaving for work.
‘I tripped,’ she says, looking up with her one good eye.
Frank checks her over. It looks as if she stumbled on the last step, pitched forwards onto the pavement, and gave herself a glancing blow on the side of her face which broke her sixties style glasses, giving her a small but stitchable cut just below the right eye. Luckily, everything else is fine.
We clean and dress the wound, help her up.
‘Love your shoes,’ says Frank. ‘I’d need a ladder to get into them, though.’
She smiles.
‘I know they’re a bit over the top, but I can’t help what I like.’
Pavel bowls across. As he talks, he waves his arms in the air to illustrate the magnitude of the accident. His shirt is unbuttoned to the belly, and the ropes of gold chain he wears around his neck tug and tangle in the thick grey curls of his chest hair.
‘You will kill yourself one day. One day you will fall from the very top of the stairs straight onto your head and your brains will be splashed across the road. How will that be, hey? How do you think that will be? What am I supposed to do then? I love you. You’re my baby and I love you for always. But I’ve told you and you do not listen.’
‘Pavel?’ says Frank, lowering his head. ‘If you wouldn’t mind just easing off a bit. Let’s try not to get too fired up.’
‘Sure, boss. Of course. You know best.’
But just as he steps away to make another call, Rozka starts talking at him rapidly and bitterly in Slovakian, and he is pulled back into the fray. We help her into the ambulance, and on the pretext of taking some observations in private, we gently close the door on him.
As soon as they are separated, Rozka resumes her placid demeanour.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says. ‘It’s all so stupid.’
‘Pavel is obviously upset.’
‘He gets very excited about things and he hates my shoes. He’s always saying they’re too tall. But I like them. I’ve never had an accident before.’ She shrugs. ‘It’s just an unlucky day.’

Five minutes later we let Pavel on to the truck. He bounds on.
‘Thanks for everything, guys,’ he says. ‘Thanks.’
The two of them stare at each other, then Pavel reaches out both hands, clasps her face, studies her intently for a second or two at arm’s length, then kisses her gently on the forehead. It’s a touching moment. But just as Frank gives me the nod and I open the door to get out, Pavel hurls himself into another tirade.
‘Steps… shoes… brains…’
I close the door behind me, and put the radio on in the cab.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

the man in the cupboard

A policewoman intercepts us as we pull up outside the house.

‘It looks like Chelsea might be suffering alcohol withdrawal,’ she says. ‘We got a call from her to say there was an intruder in the house. When we got here, she was outside in a bit of a state saying he was hiding in the cupboard. Mate – it’s a tiny little box for the electric meter. A cat wouldn’t fit in it. Anyway, we had a good look round the rest of the house and reassured her. Didn’t find a thing. It’s all quiet now. She’s upstairs on the sofa with my colleague. What else can I tell you? We’ve been here before, nothing serious, all alcohol related. She was meant to go the substance misuse people this morning to start on a programme. We gave them a call and the woman there said to call you guys, because if she’s having serious hallucinations and hearing voices, she should probably go to hospital. Anyway. See what you think.’
The policewoman moves off to make a few calls. I knock on the door, shout up ‘Ambulance!’ and we trudge up a flight of worn blue stairs to the living room.

‘Oh my good god, look who’s coming up now,’ says Chelsea. ‘That’s all I need. I’m not sick you know. You’re not carting me off to hospital.’
She is sitting on the edge of the sofa, a straight line from her hips to her eyes. She is a curious mixture, a cut-up collage of a woman; dance instructor, northern comic, clairvoyant. Her eyes are lightly underscored with sleeplessness, and she holds herself perfectly still as she talks, but despite the strange context of our visit and a living room crowded with uniforms, she seems remarkably sanguine.
I pull up a chair and lay the clipboard across my lap.
‘Chelsea? We heard a little bit from the police about what happened, but I’m still not exactly clear. Can you tell me what’s been going on?’
‘Right. What it was – this man broke in to the house and wouldn’t go. He was chasing me round, saying stupid things, you know, whispering, singing and carrying on and stuff. I kept trying to get him out but he just wouldn’t go and I got really scared. Then he jumped in the cupboard and I could hear him whispering behind the door. So I ran out and called police. When they got here he’d gone, thank god. All I need is to change the locks and I’ll be fine. Honest. There’s nothing else going on. I’m not mad.’
‘The thing is Chelsea, there are some aspects to the story that don’t quite add up. You know this cupboard the man hid in? The police say it’s really, really small. Too small for anyone to hide in. So from our point of view, you can’t blame us for thinking maybe what you were having was some kind of hallucination.’
‘Once he was out I was fine. I just need the locks changing.’
‘The police said you’re due to start an alcohol detox programme soon.’
‘Yeah. I was supposed to go this morning, but all this business stuffed it up.’
‘When was the last time you had a drink, Chelsea?’
‘Four days. Maybe five.’
‘I think it’s a brilliant thing to do. It’s definitely worth it, but it’s going to be tough. You know more about this stuff than me, though. All the side effects.’
‘Yeah. I’ve done it before. I know what happens.’
‘So you know you can suffer with hallucinations – incredibly vivid, you can’t tell them from the real thing – but hallucinations nonetheless.’
‘Yeah.’
‘So do you think it’s possible this man in the cupboard could’ve been a hallucination? Horrible and scary, but not what you might call real?’
‘Yeah.’
She stares at me.
‘But now he’s gone, you can all bugger off.’
‘Let’s just check your blood pressure and what have you. There are other things that can upset your balance, and we ought to rule them out before we decide what to do next.’
‘Fair enough. Only hurry up ‘cos I need to go out and get some fags.’
Frank runs through the procedure whilst I fill out the paperwork.
The flat is geometrically tidy, everything laid out on an invisible grid. It’s like sitting in an Etch-O-Sketch drawing of a room, angular and flat, with a spikiness to the air that even the bright morning sunlight spilling in through the window does little to warm.
‘Everything checks out,’ I say.
‘Good. I could’ve told you that and saved you the bother.’
‘The only thing that’s unusual is this story about the intruder, though.’
‘I’ve told you. He was behaving very odd, all the things he was saying, the way he said them. I was scared. Anybody would be. You would be. And then when he shut himself away in that cupboard, I didn’t know what else to do but get the police. Now he’s gone, I’ll be fine. Honest.’
She smiles at us pleasantly.
‘All I need do is change those bloody locks,’ she says.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I know what you're thinking

We pick our way up to the battered front door through a tangle of rusted bike frames, boxes, nests of frayed rope, cans, bottles, food cartons, broken kitchen units - surely the high-water mark of some catastrophic flood. Frank presses the bell, and the loud clatter of it activates a monstrous dog, raging in a room deep within the house. It’s followed immediately after by the shouts of two men, so incoherently excitable they could be two cavemen trying to coral a bear. The barking is eventually muffled, there’s a couple of victory shouts, and then the front door is pulled open with a judder that almost puts the frame in.
A cadaverous man in parka and jogging bottoms looks us up and down.
‘Ambulance,’ says Frank, pleasantly. After a pause, he adds: ‘Are you the patient?’
‘Me? No. I’m Scott. You want Tony.’
The man stands aside, and Tony staggers towards us from the interior gloom.
‘Thanks. Thanks for coming. Thanks. I wondered when you’d get here. Do you want me outside, or shall I just sit down here. Woah! Almost went! Don’t want to make things worse, do I? Where shall I sit? On the floor? I’d never get up! Hey! I’d never get up! Do you ever feel like that? I bet you do. Who are you anyway?’
‘Just slow things down a bit, Tony. Have a seat – here.’
Frank sweeps a pile of newspapers from off the third stair up, and helps Tony to sit there.
Tony sits blinking in the hard light from the garden, flicking his head about like a chicken looking for grain. His right eye is grossly swollen and purple, but he doesn’t seem aware of it.
‘What happened to you?’ says Frank.
‘Me? Why? What happened to you? I’m okay. I’ve had a bit to drink – I admit. Why beat about the bush? It’s what I do. It’s who I am. I like to drink – have to, actually. Don’t I, Scottie? Scottie?’
He reaches out, grabs Scott by a pocket, and almost pulls himself off the step and onto the floor.
‘Scottie here’s my best friend. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for Scottie. Don’t worry about the dog, by the way. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’d bite off its head and rip it to pieces – hah! We locked him up for you. They told us you were scared of dogs.’
‘We’re not scared of dogs, Tony, but we’d rather they didn’t get in our way.’
‘Fair enough, squire. I know what you mean. I used to be scared of dogs, but Scottie showed me how to treat them. Didn’t you Scottie? You showed me? You stand there – grrr! Show them who’s boss. Fuck – what’s the matter with my eye?’
‘I don’t know. Have you had a fall at some point?’
Tony starts jabbing at his eye whilst Scott props himself up against the balustrade.
‘He fell over yesterday. Wasn’t knocked out, everything seemed fine, but this morning when he got up his eye was out here so I called you lot.’
‘Have you had anything else other than alcohol, Tony?’
‘Me? Yes. I have. I had some cornflakes.’
Scott sighs. ‘If you mean drugs, no he hasn’t had any drugs. We don’t do drugs. He’s just – always like this.’
‘Okay. Well. Let’s get you out to the ambulance and have a good look at you, Tony.’
‘I don’t need an ambulance, friend. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with me. Fuck – why can’t I open my eye? What’s wrong with my eye?’
‘You’ve had a fall and it’s become very swollen, Tony.’
‘Where’s the mirror? I’ve got to see this.’
He jumps up and staggers over to the hall mirror, a filthy smear of glass on the opposite wall. Next to the mirror are two large and blurrily pixellated photographs of a man staggering around in an alleyway.
‘Fuck! Fuck! I look terrible. Why are you showing me this? Why? What are you doing to me? Is this how I’m going to look the rest of my life? Christ – I’m a monster. Scottie! Look at this! Have you seen this? Jesus.’
‘Come on, Tony. Mind your step.’

***

Tony buzzes around the ambulance like a fly in a bottle.
‘Guess what my daughter’s name is? Go on – guess.’
‘I don’t know. Hayley?’
‘Evelina Stephanie Pattendale. Evelina Stephanie Pattendale. ESP. That’s why I called her that. ESP. Because that’s how we communicate.’ He taps his head and grins. ‘She’s not here though. She’s at college doing biochemistry. Gets it all from me. I know what you’re thinking. I’ve not always been such a fuck-up. I used to work in the industry. Yeah? But I can’t help having a drink. Where’s the harm in that? It’s a big enough world. Christ – my eye! What are you going to do about my eye?’
‘Just leave the dressing alone, Tony. The doctors will take care of it at the hospital.’
‘Hey. Do you want to hear a joke? This is fantastic. I love this joke. Evie told me this a while back. I love this joke.’
‘Go on then.’
‘You start.’
‘I thought you were going to tell me a joke?’
‘Okay then. Be like that. Knock, knock.’
‘Who’s there?’
‘Fireman.’
‘Fireman who?’
‘Sam! You know!’
He leans forward, creased at the waist with a strangely silent kind of laugh. Then he straightens back up again, suddenly serious, glancing about the ambulance with his one good eye. He starts asking questions like a hyperactive child: ‘Why is that yellow? What does that button do? How old are you?’ It’s impossible to talk to him; he is on to the next question before I can answer the last. At the hospital it’s the same, except when he’s in the chair and I’m wheeling him into the department, he seems unable to resist saying whatever comes to mind, utterly lacking that vital, social margin between a thought and its expression.
We pass a young man handcuffed to a prison officer, smoking.
‘Hello mate. What’ve you done? Hey? What’s your crime? He looks bad. A right handful.’ The prisoner cuts him with his eyes.
Just inside the automatic doors, a junior doctor stands at reception waiting for notes.
‘Hello, baby. You look great in green. Doesn’t she look absolutely fantastic! Yeah – and you know it.’
The doctor flushes and frowns as we pass.
I try to dampen down his behaviour, but nothing I do or say makes any difference. Everyone within range of that one good eye is a target, his tracer line of inappropriate free-association rattling off around the department.
‘Cubicle eight,’ says Frank, striding back towards us.
Tony looks up.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

this christmas

The estate is built into the side of a hill overlooking town. Across from Julie’s house, sweeping down beyond the rooftops, aerials, dishes and chimneys, the city overlies the valley like a wash of blue and grey on an animator’s transparency. The wind is picking up. I want to stretch out my arms, take three big steps and launch myself into the void. I could hover high above this spot, adjusting the angle of my hands now and then, a big green hawk taking it all in.
A police car marks out number three. We park the ambulance behind it and walk up a dozen coarse concrete steps to the raised pavement. The moment we set foot there, a chubby Jack Russell comes rolling through a hedge and snapping at our ankles. There’s something laughable about the whole performance.
‘I’m being mugged by an over-stuffed sock,’ says Frank. A woman barks out from behind the hedge: ‘Lola! No!’ The dog turns about and hurries back under it.

The door of Julie’s house stands open. I knock and we step inside.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
They are all gathered in the sitting room. Julie is sitting on a discreetly patterned sofa, holding a phone in her lap and absently scrolling through the address book whilst she talks. A social worker stands in front of her, a police officer to the side, a community psychiatric nurse guarding the door.
‘I’m just not going. I’m not. You can’t make me.’
‘I’m afraid we can make you, Julie. Your doctor says he wants you to get treatment in hospital.’
‘He can treat me here at home.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not an option.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘No. I’m sorry Julie. You have to come with us. Just for a few days whilst we make an assessment.’
‘I don’t need an assessment. Why won’t you listen? I don’t need anything. I just want you to get out of my house.’
‘We can’t do that.’
‘Yes you can.’
‘No.’
The police officer sighs and adjusts her posture; she is so tall and powerful, the entire house seems to shift slightly to the left.
‘Julie. Listen to me. We have signed papers to say you’re to be admitted under Section Two of the Mental Health Act. Your doctor and all these good people want you to get help. You really have to go with us to hospital.’
‘I’m not going to go.’
‘I’d rather you walked out nicely, Julie, but if I have to carry you I will.’
She could tuck Julie under her arm like a roll of carpet and stride out through the brick wall. Julie seems unimpressed though.
‘I’m going to call someone,’ she says.
‘By all means,’ says the police officer. ‘But make it quick.’
Julie carries on scrolling through the phone.
The house is cold but scrupulously tidy. The only sign that something is amiss is the placing of two small camping lanterns on coffee tables either side of the sofa, and a variety of suitcases and light travelling bags placed around the room and in the hallway.
‘It’s cold in here,’ I say, and reach out to touch one of the radiators.
‘They’ve cut me off,’ Julie says, glancing up from the phone. ‘I paid the bill but they refuse to accept it. They said someone called Richard paid it instead, but I don’t know anyone called Richard. They won’t turn me back on until I agree to their terms. That’s it. That’s the only thing wrong. Why is that mad?’ she says, glancing furiously at the social worker. ‘Tell me how that could possibly be described as mad.’
‘There are other things, too, Julie,’ says the social worker, a woman as cosily rounded and domestic as the police officer is squared and martial. ‘You know there are other things.’
‘Like what? Like my useless son in law, stealing keys and sneaking round the house when I’m not in? How does that make me mad?’
The psychiatric nurse nods for me to come over and speak to her in the hallway.
‘She’s psychotic, of course.’
‘Of course. Of course.’ But I take it on trust. She seems like any middle aged woman, trembling and red in the face with her house invaded by professionals and her power disconnected.
‘It’s not just the heating thing,’ she adds. ‘Although that is strange.’
‘Mm.’
We hear the police officer speaking again.
‘Get yourself ready now, Julie. We can’t stay here any longer.’
There is a pause, then Julie says: ‘Well, I’ll come. But it’s against my will.’
‘Obviously.’
‘And I’ll need time to get my things together.’
‘Quick as you can. You don’t need much.’
‘There’s lots I’ll need, thank you.’
‘Like I said. You don’t need much.’
Julie squeezes past us in the hall and into her bedroom. She starts slowly opening drawers and dumping clothes onto the bed. The psychiatric nurse goes in to help. The police officer stands with me and Frank in the hall.
‘Nice place,’ she says, looking around. ‘Wish mine was as tidy as this.’
She reaches up, runs a finger along the top of the door frame, then shows it to us.
‘Look at that. Not a trace. That’s a sign of a good clean gaff.’
The social worker comes out of the living room and smiles awkwardly.
‘Shouldn’t be much longer,’ she says.

***

In the back of the ambulance Julie sits tidily in a metallic blue raincoat buttoned to the neck, hugging a flowery handbag to her stomach, staring fixedly at the cupboards and spigots on the opposite wall. She wears an extraordinary hat – a crocheted egg-yellow beret, that rides on top of her head as if she’d decided to wear an omelette out for the day. The social worker sits to her right; I’m perched on a jockey seat against the bulkhead. The ambulance pitches along the road as smoothly as the conversation.
‘Have you lived there long?’
‘Ten years.’
‘Oh. That’s a long time. It seems like a nice place to live.’ Then: ‘High up.’
‘Look. Just because I have problems with the gas people doesn’t mean I’m crazy.’
‘No, no. I’ve had run-ins with the power companies before. And look at all the stuff there is about them in the newspapers today.’
‘They said I hadn’t paid my bill so I couldn’t have any more gas. When I said I had paid them, they said it was someone called Richard, who I’ve never heard of before.’
‘It’s all very confusing.’
‘Yes. Well.’
She squeezes the handbag even more tightly.
‘Why’s he coming in this way?’ says the social worker, leaning out and peering forwards through the hatch behind me. ‘He’ll hit all the road works.’
The ambulance comes to a halt, and we sit in silence for a while. Julie opens the handbag and rummages around inside.
‘Have you any family in town?’ I ask.
She clips the bag shut.
‘Ellie, my eldest daughter. But she’s hooked up with this terrible man. I wish she’d never got involved with him. The last one was all right, but that went down the Swanee.’
‘What’s the matter with this latest one, then?’
‘He’s bone idle. Always up to something. He drinks. He disappears back to Poland whenever he feels like it. And then he steals my key and goes through my things.’
‘Maybe it’s a misunderstanding. Maybe he was checking to see you were okay.’
‘Well I don’t want him checking up on me. I had a terrible Christmas,’ she adds, her chain of thought lurching as markedly as the ambulance over this stretch of road.
‘Why? What happened?’
‘They invited me round but they’d obviously had a big do the night before. Ellie was still in her party dress and there were empty bottles and glasses everywhere. They hadn’t done any cooking. All we had for Christmas dinner were a few dry sandwiches.’
The social worker frowns. ‘That doesn’t sound very nice,’ she says.
‘Yes – that sounds awful. So what do you think you’ll do for Christmas this year?’
The ambulance lurches to a halt.
‘We’re here,’ shouts Frank through the hatch.
The social worker smiles at me, and shakes her head.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

non-familial

Sarah sits upright on the trolley, her hands kneading the safety rails either side, her eyes wide, her mouth opening and shutting in sequence with the rights and lefts of her head. She could be a fabric and tin automaton, a display in a pharmacy window from the fifties.
‘Are we there yet?’ she creaks.
‘Not yet. So. Sarah – is there any family history of heart problems in your family?’
‘Any what?’
‘Any heart problems in your family?’
‘Yes.’
‘What are they?’
‘What are what?’
‘The heart problems. In your family.’
‘My father. He had a heart attack.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry. Was it long ago?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Okay. And your father had a heart attack, did he?’
‘Yes.’
‘And do you know what caused it?’
‘Yes.’
‘So what caused it, then, Sarah? Your father? His heart?’
‘It killed him.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry. He died when his heart stopped working?’
‘Yes.’
‘What was it? Do you know? Angina? Valve problems?’
She drops her jaw.
‘His car was struck by lightning!’

Monday, November 15, 2010

frills, cuffs and funny hats

It wasn’t so much a storm as wildly accelerated fog. All afternoon it had torn into town from off the sea, flinging itself against every surface, rattling street signs and hoardings to the rivet, kicking up litter spouts, punishing umbrellas, soaking anyone too desperate, stupid or dependent to stay indoors, scouring the pavements like a monstrous, hyperactive, supersaturating broom. But as night fell the storm magically lifted.
Now everything is still, raw, exhausted.
I park under a yellow lamp and we walk up the steps to the house.
Maddy waits on the top step for us.
‘Hi,’ she says, folding her arms across her chest. ‘Thanks for not putting your lights on.’ She looks down at her shoes. ‘I suppose you’d better come up.’
She turns and we follow her inside, a cold, vaulted hallway with a long and brightly coloured bank of letterboxes on the left, a jarring modern addition to the stained glass window above.
‘Sorry guys. I’m right at the top.’
Maddy leads us to the central staircase, taking us up through such a hotchpotch of partition walls, fire doors and screens it’s like she’s taking us up through the centre of a great stack of playing cards.
‘I don’t know about you but I’m gonna be needing an ambulance in a minute,’ wheezes Frank. Maddy laughs.
‘This is it. You made it.’
She pushes open her door and goes to sit on a little square sofa by an open window. There is half a bottle of wine on the coffee table in the middle, Scissor Sisters playing on the music system.
Frank sits down opposite her; I take a stool in the kitchenette.
‘I understand you may have taken an overdose, Maddy,’ he says, putting his clipboard on the floor and taking off his jacket. ‘Is that right?’
She nods.
‘What’ve you taken?’
‘Beta blockers, some analgesics – not a serious dose, though.’
‘And when did you take them?’
‘Since this afternoon. Over the course of about four hours.’
‘Okay.’
Maddy makes herself comfortable, hooking one foot under the opposite knee and leaning back onto the sofa, propping up her head on her right arm. Superficially she could be as easy as a celebrity being interviewed for a weekend supplement, but despite the muted light of her bedsitting room the pinched corners of her sadness still show.
‘I’m really sorry to bother you guys,’ she says. ‘I phoned that help line number, and the bastards called you on my behalf. I suppose they had a duty of care, or something.’
‘It’s no bother,’ says Frank. ‘We just want to make sure you’re okay.’
‘Oh I’m fine,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to get out of it, that’s all. I know it’s not a particularly dangerous dose I took. I used to be a nurse.’
‘Is there no-one else here?’
‘No. I’ve only just come back from Sardinia. My daughter and ex-partner are staying out there. I just needed to get back and sort myself out.’
Maddy pushes her hair back from her face and gives us both a reassuring smile. ‘But don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything stupid. More stupid, I should say.’
I run through some basic obs whilst Frank writes up the form. Maddy accedes to everything with quiet grace. Outside, the night drifts past the opened window, carrying with it a savour of the black ocean, shifting just beyond the reach of the promenade lights.
‘Still nursing?’ I ask.
She laughs.
‘No. I gave that up years ago when I had Julie. No – when I was nursing, it was all frills, cuffs and funny hats. We had a great laugh, though. I remember when I did my psych placement. It was at this huge Victorian institution. They’ve all closed down now, of course. God knows where they put everyone. But honestly, you should’ve seen it. The corridors went on forever. Miles and miles of arched brick ceilings, recessed doors. Boom, boom, boom, when you walked along it. You didn’t know who was staff and who was patient. It was great.’
‘Maybe you could get back into nursing?’
‘Nah. I don’t think they’d be impressed by all this,’ she says, picking an empty blister packet off the coffee table and waving it with a grin, the barrister with the comedy evidence.
‘They wouldn’t have to know, Maddy.’
‘Well,’ she says, dropping it again and settling back into the sofa. After a while she says: ‘Maybe. You never know.’

Sunday, November 14, 2010

cowardly lion at the excelsior

I only recognise The Excelsior when we pull up outside. A dour Edwardian fa├žade, it has all the allure of a ruined mausoleum with en suite and satellite.
‘I remember this place.’
‘Yeah?’
But it wasn’t the place I remembered. There had been a woman in a back room, flat out on a pull-down. As we worked on her, the frowsy woman who shared the room had taken a call on her mobile: this isn’t a great time – seriously, it’s not a great time – then she’d sighed, turned round and lowered her voice – blue eyes, blond hair, big tits – fifty - a hundred. She was right about the blond hair. I could see it hanging on the back of the door along with her wrap. But she was fine. She arranged a time and said goodbye before she jabbed the phone off, right back with us with all her friend’s dates and medications off pat.

An old man waves to us from the porch, his paisley pyjamas gaping dangerously at the fly. As I get out of the truck I nod over to him.
‘Are you the patient?’
He bats the air. ‘Me? Oh no! Though it’s true I have had need from time to time.’
He laughs, coughs. Digging over a tub of gravel.
‘You get on inside in the warm. We’ll be there in a second.’
‘Righto.’
Up the stairs, and the old man is standing half in, half out of the reception office. The ghastly strip-light of the lobby highlights the old man’s nose, his filthy moon glasses folded into it, like a fence subsumed by an oak.
‘Come on in, boys,’ he rattles. ‘Pete’s through here.’
He turns and leads us into the office where a middle aged man sits quietly on a swivel chair.
‘Pete! I know you!’
‘Do you?’ he says, mournfully.
In the pause that follows I try to think of a way of saying: Yes. The last time we met you, were lying at the bottom of Prince’s Hill, shivering in a leather thong, saying how insulted you were they suggested you used Viagra.
‘Yes. It was a while ago, though,’ I say.
But in fairness, no-one could forget Pete, certainly no-one who had seen The Wizard of Oz. But if Pete looks uncannily like the cowardly lion, you would have to think times had fallen off since the witch melted. In his skinny black leather jacket and dirty jeans, he could be the cowardly dealer lion in the substantially re-written modern version, The Wizard of Ounce, growling ‘Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!’ when a flying monkey offers him less than twenty-five for a third.
‘What’s the problem tonight, Pete?’
He strokes his legs.
‘I can’t move ‘em,’ he says.
‘How did you get down to reception?’
He thinks about it. ‘Walked.’
‘I couldn’t carry him,’ says Harold, the old man. ‘I’m ninety-three myself. I’ve had pig valves, balloons, god knows what. I’ll be lucky to see Christmas.’
Pete looks at him.
‘I don’t need carrying,’ he says.
‘I’m just saying,’ says Harold. ‘I’m not the manager. The manager doesn’t stay overnight. I look after things till he gets back in the morning. I’m not – official.’
We turn our attention back to Pete. Apart from his rather lean appearance, his face is tanned and he sits in the chair with his legs planted confidently apart.
‘Any pain?’
He taps his right hip. ‘I’m waiting for an operation,’ he says. ‘But it’s not too bad.’
We check him over, everything’s fine. Of everyone in the room, Harold is the one who needs most attention, but he’s quite happy to watch from the corner of the office, idly turning a little brass horse over and over in his hands.
‘The manager’s back at seven he says, placing the horse back down amongst the chaos of papers and letters on the desk. ‘I’ll fill him in.’
We can’t find anything new going on with Pete, but he insists we take him to hospital.
He squints up at me.
‘Will you be bringing me back?’
‘No. You’ll have to get a taxi.
‘A taxi? How much’ll that set me back?’
‘Early hours – about fifteen quid.’
‘Fifteen quid?’
‘But if you really think your problem can’t wait till morning, the money shouldn’t figure, should it?’
‘Fifteen quid?’
‘And the rest,’ says Harold, chuckling horribly, hauling himself up. ‘Well if there’s nothing more you gentlemen require, I think I’ll take myself off to bed.’

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

a cheery wave

Mr Bacton is sitting in a supermarket wheelchair, discretely hidden behind a supermarket mobile screen, on the edge of the supermarket car park. With his neck in a white cervical collar and in his large flat cap, he could be a giant species of mushroom wheeled out for the village parade. A community responder stands behind him holding him by the stem, whilst around him, chatting happily amongst themselves, are the supermarket first aider and her excitable young assistant; the supermarket manager, Mr Bacton’s wife, a police officer, and an anguished middle-aged woman who massages her hands and moves restlessly from foot to foot, looking everywhere but at Mr Bacton.
Frank circulates, playing the crowd; I go up to the responder who gives me the basic story, the injuries she found, the worst being some central neck pain. Mr Bacton remains at the centre of the whole drama, splendidly immobile, deeply unimpressed.
‘Keep your head nice and still whilst I have a feel, Mr Bacton. Is it a bony pain, here, right in the middle, would you say? Or is it more off to the side?’
‘Is it what?’
‘Does it hurt here – right here – in the middle – where I’m pressing? Or is the pain more to the side?’
‘The middle.’
I give him the once over; apart from his neck and some superficial grazes, he seems to have come through remarkably intact.
‘So tell me what happened, Mr Bacton.’
‘I told them already.’
‘I know, I know. I just want to hear it for myself so I can get the story straight.’
He flicks his tongue over his lips and sighs.
‘I was walking behind my wife along the pavement to the supermarket. We stopped at the zebra crossing. Eventually a woman waved for us to go on. I admit we were a little bit slow: my wife had her hip done last year and I’ve got arthritis, you see. Anyway, when we reached the other side, I turned to give the driver a cheery wave.’ He sighs. ‘That’s when she ran me over.’
The supermarket first aider’s assistant bounces up and down behind me.
‘Shall I help you get the trolley out?’ he pants. ‘Do you need some blankets fetching?’
‘Yeah. Good idea. Go get some blankets.’
He bounds off.
‘Because of the neck pain you’re describing and the mechanism of injury, we’ve got to assume the worst and take you to hospital as flat as we can. We’ll put you in a vacuum mattress, and strap you up so you won’t move about en route. Purely precautionary. I’m sure it’s all fine.’
‘Yes. Well,’ he says.
‘I’ll follow in the car,’ says Mrs Bacton.
Mr Bacton stiffens. He tries to turn his head but the responder has a good grip.
‘Keep very still,’ she says, and smiles at me over the top of his cap.
‘Are you sure, Dorothy?’ he says. ‘You know what happened last time.’
Suddenly she doesn’t seem all that sure.
‘Is it difficult parking at the hospital?’
‘This time of day it shouldn’t be too bad,’ I say, picturing the parking Armageddon that is A&E. ‘You’ll be fine.’
The first aider’s assistant has come bounding back with an armful of blankets. He peers over the top of them.
‘Where do you want them?’ he says.
Mr Bacton looks across at him. I could swear he growls.