The door is thrown open so vigorously it crashes into the wall and the stippled glass rattles in its frame. A heavy girl stands there, vacuum-packed in shiny PVC leggings and a gypsy top. She is so preoccupied with her phone we could be two bears come to dinner and she wouldn’t react. Instead, she steps to one side, flaps one hand in the air for us to come in, whilst with the other carries on jabbing about on the keypad with her thumb.
‘Are you the patient?’
She looks up, astonished to see me there, then laughs, nods in the direction of a battered door behind her, then jumps back onto the phone.
We squeeze past.
Charlene is sitting with her legs hugged up on the sofa, her sharp white chin digging into her knees. Another girl, as big and emphatic as the girl who let us in, waves at us from across the room where she sprawls on a bean bag on the floor like a stricken parachutist.
‘Oh my God! You were proper quick!’
‘So. Yep. Hello. What’s been going on?’
Charlene directs her tiny black eyes up a fraction, and looks at me.
‘Show them the rash, Charley,’ says her friend, struggling to sit more upright. And then: ‘She’s got this mad rash.’
Charlene sighs, unfolds herself from the sofa and pulls her t-shirt up. She has raised, blotchy red patches here and there on her tummy and her back. It started last night, she says from behind the t-shirt. She rang a helpline. They said take anti-histamine tablets, whatever they are, see the doctor in the morning. But she’s phobic about taking tablets, she says, so she rubbed cream on it instead, then called us when it was still there the following day.
She lowers the t-shirt and resumes her perch on the sofa.
We give her the once over, then tell her that in the absence of any other symptoms we think it’s probably urticaria, possibly caused by a reaction to something but it’s difficult to say. We tell her we’d better take her down the hospital to make sure it’s nothing more serious.
Charley’s expression remains unchanged through all of this - the poised watchfulness of a barn owl sitting in a tree; I have the feeling if I move too suddenly, speak too quickly, reveal my position in any way, she’ll swoop.
‘Got any slippers?’ I say.
Back out on the vehicle, Charley hugs her knees on the trolley whilst her friends take up positions north and west. North girl seems to be the radio operator of the outfit, fielding all communications, keeping her friends updated.
‘Carl says should he come up.’
‘No. I don’t want that numpty around. He’ll only get me worked up.’
‘Billie says Hi. Carl says are you sure? He’s not got nothing else on.’
‘No. I don’t want him.’
Charley studies me.
‘How’ve things been recently?’ I ask her.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Why?’
‘It all helps to figure out what’s going on now.’
West girl turns round in her chair, hugs the back of it as she says breathlessly: ‘Was it you who came out to me last year? I broke my ankle in four places.’
‘I don’t remember. I don’t think so. How did you do it?’
‘Fell off a garage roof.’
‘What were you doing on a garage roof?’
She pauses, then says: ‘Sunbathing.'
‘Oh my god!’ says North girl suddenly.
I think it must be a particularly bad message, but she looks up and says: ‘I’m getting claustrophobia.’ She pushes her heavy black fringe aside and puffs out her cheeks, but the strands fall back into position when she takes her hand away, like those heavy chain curtains in warehouses that swing straight back into place after the forklift has passed through. ‘But it’s not as bad as that time in the police van,’ she says loudly. ‘I got so freaked I started head butting the sides. It took four of ‘em to calm me down.’
The memory seems to reassure her; she begins happily stabbing away at the phone again.
‘Gary says when are you back?’
‘Tell him whenever.’
‘Ricky says if we carry on making so much noise in the flat we’ll be out.’
Charley continues to stare at me.
‘So. Would you say you’re feeling more stressed than usual today, Charley?’
She gives a single upward twitch of her shoulders, an intensely wide awake, hungry little barn owl flicking its feathers into line, watching for a mouse.