Diane staggers from side to side in front of Rough Head, his hands bunching up the sides of her grey sports top, the whale tail of her thong riding up above the waistband of her jeans.
‘Take her to hospital,’ he says over her shoulder through a tangle of greasy blond hair.
‘That’s what we’d like to do, but if she doesn’t want to go, we can’t force her.’
He gives out a frustrated kind of roar. Diane wrestles his hands away and throws herself down onto the blue sofa, grabbing whatever she can to pile on top of her head.
‘Go away! Leave me alone! I’m not going to no fucking hospital.’
‘This isn’t right, man,’ says one of the other guys. He has his hands in his pockets, as he stands at the head of the sofa staring at us. ‘This ain’t fucking right.’
I hear the lift clank open in the hallway, followed by a ‘Hello?’ from the second crew. There is a pause in the room, and I fight the urge to shout ‘Don’t come in! Turn around and run!’ but a second later two paramedics push the door aside as far as they can and peer round into the room.
‘All right, Helen. Hello Jane.’ Affecting an easy conversational tone that everything about me contradicts. I watch as Helen tightens up. Good.
‘What’s going on?’ she says.
I take a step backwards in their direction, keeping my front to Rough Head and the other guys in the room. Frank has already folded the chair back up and is retreating this way, too.
‘Diane here, twenty-five, may well have had a fit this afternoon…’ I pause, willing Helen to read the subtext quickly. The guy over by the window, furthest from the action but quicker off the mark than the others, says: ‘Hey! What do you mean may have had a fit? She definitely had a fit. You saw her. Fuck me.’
Helen raises her hand up. ‘Just a minute, sir,’ then to me: ‘Carry on.’
I mutter the word pseudo as if I’m clearing my throat, then carry on again at stage volume.
‘She seems to have made a recovery, resting on the sofa now. Obviously we’d like to take her to hospital but she’s adamant she doesn’t want to go. And as I was just explaining to these guys, we can’t just kidnap her and take her against her will.’
‘She needs to see a doctor. She’s not well,’ says the man at the sofa. His gray eyes draw a fibre optic current of discontent up from his trainers along the length of his wasted body. ‘Do your job.’
‘I’m not fucking leaving this flat!’ shouts Diane.
‘Look at this one,’ says the man by the sofa, gesturing with a jab of his chin in Helen’s direction. ‘She won’t even look at me.’ Then he levels his head. ‘Look at me,’ he says.
We really need to go, but it’s getting difficult to find a moment that won’t increase the tension and leave us more vulnerable.
In a move that feels like throwing myself out of a window, I excuse myself past Rough Head and sit down on the arm of the sofa.
‘Diane, listen to me. I want you to come to hospital, but if you say no I won’t force you. It’s your decision. I’m sure your friends here will look after you and make sure you’re okay. But you should go and see your doctor to talk about what happened. D’you think?’
She pulls more clothes over her head.
I stand up and turn to face Rough Head. He holds out his hand, so I take off my blue rubber glove to shake it. I notice he has his little finger crooked inwards – some kind of gang signal?
‘Thanks for coming, yeah?’ he says.
Frank and the others are struggling out of the flat. I follow them, conscious of the word ‘ambulance’ embroidered across my back, a glowing yellow target.
As I reach the door Rough Head holds it for me and says as I pass: ‘Have you got the time?’
Once upon a twenty years I was mugged in London. Hands in the air, knife to the throat, frisked for cash.
I had been walking to the off licence. Late in the evening, spilling with summer. Easy as a ten pound note.
But at the exact moment I walked past an alleyway on my left, a man and two teenage boys stepped out in front of me. I stopped and graciously waved them on ahead of me, but they seemed confused. The group broke right and left; the boys to the front, the man behind.
The boys turned round together.
‘Have you got the time?’
‘I’m not wearing a watch, but it must be just after nine.’
Suddenly the man was at my back with a knife across my throat. He didn’t need to ask me to raise my hands. They floated up by themselves. The two boys stepped in close and dug around in my jeans pockets, pulling out the crumpled note, my house keys, a stupid shopping list. The note they kept, the rest they dropped to the floor.
‘Give us your watch,’ shouted one of the boys.
‘I’m not wearing a watch.’
The boys stared. One of them spat on me, then they both stepped aside as the man gave me a shove in the back.
‘You go that way,’ he said. Then they ran off up the street.
I stood there and watched them go.
I saw a man walking down the other pavement. He was looking across at me.
‘I’ve been mugged,’ I said to him.
It didn’t sound like me.
I pointed up the street at the three of them, as they reached the top and turned the corner. ‘They pulled a knife.’
He shook his head and said ‘Bastards.’ But he carried on walking.
Bad things happen. You survive, you don’t. That’s it. Everything else is the luxury of revision, the paring back of experience to a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Repetition brings a kind of ease; you rehearse the meaning, what you could have done, what you did. You take what you can.
I’ve been attacked before and since, but nothing as bad as the time I stood in the street with a knife to my throat and my hands in the air. It was the utter subjection of it, the surrender of everything I was. They could have killed me, they didn’t. That’s it.
‘Have you got the time?’ says Rough Head.
And once again I’m reaching back through the years to ease my young arms back down to my sides.
‘It’s late,’ I tell him. ‘Look after her.’