En route to the hospital I hear an anguished cry from the back. The patient’s mother: Come on, Richard.
Frank shouts through the hatch to me. Respiratory arrest. But we’re only two minutes away from the hospital so he tells me to carry on driving whilst he bags him.
As I swing into the car park I give a meaningful nod backwards over my shoulder to a paramedic sipping tea in the cab of his ambulance. He jumps out to help as I back into a space, opening the door and climbing inside almost before the ambulance is stationary.
The crash team close around us as we barrel into resus.
Half an hour later Richard is tubed. Stretched out in ITU. General opinion: sepsis of the lungs. Prognosis: poor.
Doctor Hall is striding out to his car just as we pull up. He waves his keys in the air to acknowledge us – an energetic movement that rides back the sleeve of his brown corduroy jacket – then jumps in to his silver Mini and revs it up. In his multi-coloured scarf, cream chinos and expensively distressed loafers, he could be a catalogue illustration from Country Doctor Casuals. I watch him skitter up the steep drive out into the lane, then I back in to the top of it.
‘I won’t go all the way down,’ I tell him as we convene outside the winding path that lead to the front door. ‘It’s a little too steep for the ambulance.’
‘Yes. Of course. These country piles. Anyway – the business at hand. Thanks so much for coming. Here’s the thing.’
We follow him up the path through overgrown stands of bamboo and rhododendron. He gives a brief description of the incident, speaking vigorously, laying out his words right and left like an explorer with a machete.
‘Our man here Richard is forty odd, lots going on, poor chap. Latest being a spell in hospital with a liver abscess. COPD. Mitral incompetence. You name it. He says he’s had a chest infection for about a week, but this is the first time I’ve been out to have a look, I’m afraid. Out of hours prescribed antibiotics over the phone three days ago, but it’s worse than that. I haven’t got a sats probe, but you don’t really need one to tell that basically his oxygen levels are crap. I think it’s a ride to A&E for chest x-rays, TLC – ASAP, if you don’t mind, chaps.’
We arrive at the front door. Dr Hall raps twice on the star-frosted pane and we all troop inside.
‘I’ve brought reinforcements,’ he shouts up into the house, a building of steeply shadowed angles, doorways open and closed, a standing air of life lived in antique but neglected compartments.
An elderly woman shuffles into the hallway from one of these rooms. She has on a great black overcoat with a bag draped over her arm.
‘I’ve got Richard’s medications,’ she says, then: ‘Hello – I should say to begin with.’
She watches as Dr Hall leads us up a narrow staircase with an alarming turn midway.
‘Don’t envy you chaps that,’ he says. Up onto a landing, into a small bedroom and a man sitting on the edge of a sofa-bed, struggling to breathe.
Richard looks sideways and up at us; it’s as if someone had drained all the blood from his face, and then underscored each prominent eye with a black marker pen. He looks back, returning to his vigil.
‘We’ve got a chair and some oxygen for you, Richard,’ says Frank, stepping forward and touching him on the shoulder. I fit a mask together and hand it to him.
‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute,’ gasps Richard, patting either side of him, feeling under the rucked sheets, moving aside containers of red grapes, packets of crackers. ‘I don’t want to forget anything.’
‘The sooner we get you out to the ambulance and to hospital, the sooner we can start to get you better.’
‘Wait a minute.’
He shuffles along the bed away from the chair.
‘I’ve just got to change my watch.’
‘Don’t worry about that.’
‘No. I can’t take this one.’
He reaches out to the chest of drawers just beside the bed, a rickety piece of furniture covered with medication packets, tissues, cream pots – and half a dozen wrist watches, some of them with heavy link gold straps, some of them in cheap black plastic, each with its face perfectly in line with the chipped edge of the drawer top. Richard takes off his current watch with trembling fingers, places it at the end of the line, then waggles his fingers backwards and forwards over the others as he makes his selection.
‘Which one can I most afford to lose?’ he says.