The high street is so busy and bright I have to screw up my eyes to look at it. We cut a path through the muddle, our siren a madman’s rant in the market place. A young mother reaches over the back of her buggy to press her hands over her baby’s ears; a decrepit old man gets pulled back by the shoulder as he steps out at the pedestrian lights; a cyclist wobbles, puts a foot down, casts a look back, and on and on through a hundred scattered scenes, from balconies and shop doorways, car windows and the opened backs of vans, from the railings along the pavement and the groups of friends stopped like rocks in the river of lunchtime shoppers – amongst all this a sudden unexpected convergence of attention, a yellow truck, and its dramatic progress along the street.
But we’re hardened to the fuss. We have to get there quickly, to the thirty year old male collapsed, unconscious, life status questionable, on a pavement outside a bookshop.
‘There’s the patrol car.’
I press on scene as Frank pulls over to the side.
One officer is holding up a crumpled looking man by the collar. He has a disdainful set to his arm, looking out over his audience like a puppeteer about to stuff an unstrung marionette in the bin.
His colleague strolls over to the ambulance. I wind the window down.
‘Not sure about this one, mate. Sorry to drag you out. This guy – Gary, I’ve not met him before – apparently he collapsed on the pavement. Seems all right now, though. Bit pissed – might have something to do with it. Anyway, see what you think.’
Gary has that stubbed out vacancy you see in drunks. When I introduce myself he smiles, pushes out his bottom lip when I ask him how he is. It’s a strangely disconnected movement, like watching the bottom drawer of a cupboard slide out by itself.
‘I’m all right.’
‘Did you hurt yourself when you fell?’
‘I’m all right.’
‘Okay, Gary. Let’s get you in the back of the truck and give you the once over.’
‘Fair enough, chief.’
Shouting words of encouragement and guiding his arms and legs as best we can, we corral Gary up the steps into the ambulance, his hooves scrabbling and clattering on the steps; about the only thing we don’t use to help him along is a lasso. He dumps himself in a chair. The police officers step away, stripping off any further involvement with a snap of their surgical gloves.
‘See you later. No doubt.’
On the ambulance Frank settles himself at the far end of the trolley, draping one leg over the other and lacing his fingers round one knee, bouncing a foot up and down like a benevolent history teacher settling down in a disappointing class.
‘Now then. Gary. Tell us what happened.’
Gary puts his hands in his pockets and looks up at me. He tries to gauge how level I am by closing one eye, and the action almost has him off the chair.
‘I had something to eat.’
‘What did you have to eat, Gary?’
He thinks about it.
‘An onion – and a parsnip.’
‘What did he say?’ says Frank. ‘An onion and a parsnip? Fantastic.’
I raise my eyebrows.
‘So – you had an onion and a parsnip. Anything with that? Any drugs, for example?’
‘Ten milligrams of Valium.’
‘Okay. Anything else?’
‘Can you open your eyes for me, Gary, so I can get a look at your pupils?’
He raises his chin up, but the eyes remain closed. I reach over and prise it open. The pupil rolls back at me, fat and black.
‘Okay. So you had a few cans, some Valium cut with root vegetables. Anything else?’
He gives me a boneless smirk and shakes his head.
‘Not a thing, sir.’
He seems to pick up a bit with that. He stands up – a hideous procedure, his fingers spread wide, his sense of balance swarming round his head like so many bees.
‘Are you a straight crew?’ he says as he struggles to maintain his position.
Frank uncrosses his legs.
‘A straight crew? What’s that got to do with the price of fish?’
‘A straight crew. You know what I mean. Especially you.’
‘I have no idea what you mean. What are you asking us?’
‘I want you to take a look at this.’
He starts fumbling with the belt of his trousers, a pair of jeans so shiny with dirt they could have been cut from the granite walls of a sewer.
They sag to his ankles.
I don’t want to look, but I’m morbidly drawn against my will. Even Frank has stood up from the trolley and is peering round.
‘What are we supposed to be…’
He reaches round, tugs his pants halfway down, lifts the tail of his shirt, exposing the kind of scraggy arse you might see on a bear with mange.
‘Well – no, not really. What?’
‘I fell over.’
‘I can’t see any damage there.’
‘Look closer,’ says Frank, but I don’t.
‘Honestly, there’s not a mark there.’
Gary turns round and lifts his shirt.
‘What about here?’ he says, making a vague sweep of his torso with the flat of his hand. ‘I fell over.’
‘So you keep saying, but there’s not a mark on you. Gary, this is all a bit of a waste of time, don’t you think? Just pull your trousers up and let’s see what we’re to do.’
He manages to straighten his clothes in that vaguely magical way drunks have of remaining upright despite the odds.
‘It seems to me that you’re a bit the worse for wear, but it’s difficult for us to say exactly what the matter is. I don’t think you need to go to hospital, but we’re duty bound to offer it. The other thing is we can release you back into the wild and you can enjoy the rest of the day. What would you like to do?’
Gary pushes his bottom lip out again.
‘Go home,’ he says at last.
‘Good. Let’s help you out.’
At the bottom of the ambulance steps he turns and offers his hand.
‘I want to thank you for all you’ve done.’
‘No problem, Gary. Just go easy on the vegetables.’
He does a mock salute, and almost pitches backwards into a pile of rubbish bags.