The traffic is backed up all the way to Heavenport, a necklace of red brake lights strung along the exposed coast road.
Rae checks the address in the map book.
‘This is one of those out-of-the-way bungalows over to the East.’
‘We might need the four by four.’
Fewer cars coming than going. A tidal thing, this passage of metal east to west, west to east, its movement along the cliff top as predictable as the rising and falling of the sea two hundred feet below us.
I force another set of headlights into the bus lane. I fly at them, a howling blue devil.
‘You’d think that white line was a wall.’
The computer bleeps again.
‘Police on scene. Cat A. Sounds like something.’
The ambulance veers across the road, her square bulk exposed to the strong off-sea winds.
‘It’s horrible out there.’
The town marker for Heavenport rears up out of the darkness, a wreathed copper globe on a white plinth, a marker not just of the town’s limit, but of the grandiose ambitions the early developers had for something new. Pre-war the town was a frontier knock-up, rough shacks on rough tracks; but now, a hundred years later, the tarmac roads are as smooth as anywhere else, a well-lit, low-fat spread of mini-markets and salons, lain out in an orderly grid just north of the cliffs, Dunroamin, Dunworkin, Shangrila.
But the incident we are headed to – an elderly woman collapsed, found by police – is in that part of Heavenport that still has unmetalled roads, generators in outhouses. The satnav starts to offer up strange and contradictory routes, so we switch to the map book. As the roads run out we find ourselves at the top of a long, dark path heading down into oblivion.
‘This is definitely it.’
‘What d’you think about the four by four?’
‘Fuck it – let’s see.’
The ambulance dips alarmingly, lurching in and out of potholes, and then almost grounds out as the path levels suddenly at the bottom. There is a sharp turn to the right, and now in the distance we can see a pattern of lights – headlights, windows. Closer to them, we make out a police car, and people standing around a few other vehicles further up. I wind down the window as we draw level to a policewoman.
‘She’s in there. A friend of hers couldn’t get an answer, so we came and broke in. She’s not too good, but you’ll see. Watch your step. It’s dark and – well – cluttered.’
She points with a torch across a rotten slew of mud to a wrought iron fence set in a hedge. Through the fence, down an overgrown path into the hallway of the bungalow.
Everything feels close in and dirty. The hallway, a mean stretch of yellowing corridor with a finger of clearance left and right, leads us on more in the manner of a peristaltic squeeze than a progression through someone’s living space. The air has a saturated feel, powdering wood, spotted paper, sweet, damp wool.
Into the dining room, and two neighbours nod from their point of vantage, standing side by side over the other side of a sofa. The one is so thin and the other so fat it’s like they’re opposite ends of a deflating balloon.
‘Will she be all right?’ says the thin one.
‘We haven’t seen her yet,’ says Rae. ‘So we can’t really say.’
‘She’ll be all right,’ says the fat one, hugging herself. ‘She’s a fighter.’
A policeman steps in from a door to their left and waves us over to him.
‘Through here chaps – chapesses.’
Incredibly, the space get smaller. The policeman, a blond man as energised as the house is dismal, backs into an unspeakable bathroom to let us through to the bedroom.
‘Your community whatsit’s in there with Esmie. We kicked the door down, got her off the floor, so you’re all right there. Down for about sixteen hours, they reckon. Over to you. Shout when you need me.’
Derek, the community responder, is standing by the side of the bed and the body of an elderly woman lying prone, inert, her left leg drawn up, her left arm draped over the edge of the bed, an oxygen mask obscuring her face.
‘This is Esmie,’ he says.
As he describes her condition I glance round the room. What I first took in the shadows overhead to be a monstrous fungal bloom is actually a mass of ancient teddy bears, welded to the shelves over time.
Rae changes places with Derek. We shake blue gloved-hands. Happy New Year, and the rest. He asks about the girls, I ask about his wife’s line dancing injury. A moment of warmth beneath the bears.
‘Chair, incos, blankets,’ says Rae.
We hurry off to get them, working together to do our best to clear a path back through the house.
‘Apparently she doesn’t go anywhere without her bag,’ says the policeman, following us into the sitting room. He swings it over to me. It’s so solid and heavy I look inside: packed out with utility bills.
The neighbours are standing where we left them.
‘You’ll have a job getting her out,’ the thin one says. ‘Ordinarily she’d tell you what for.’
‘Ordinarily – I’d let her,’ says Derek.
We clear a path.