Half past four in the morning and the music in the emptying club has been set to chill. Smoke and a densely sweated heat roll out through the double chrome doors, past the two bouncers standing with their hands respectfully cupped in front of them, professional mourners at the end of the world. The forecourt is a fisheye of tragedy, eerily pale in the light misting down from the lampposts on the road above, the patterned brickwork of the beachside walk, the dark, railway sleeper kerb and the cobbles on the beach beyond them, ghosting through a screen of smoky blues and greys. A tragic scene, from the litter of overturned chairs, scattered plastic pints and bodies draped over tables, to the groups of guys staggering off, pushing each other, climbing stuff, jumping down, and girls holding on to walls, walking barefoot with shoes in their hands, whilst around us from the deeper reaches of the night, wild screams and shouts and cries. The epic scale of it reminds me of a print on my mother-in-law’s wall: Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had to step over a fallen horse.
A couple of guys wave over to us from beneath the prow of a beached fishing boat further along. One of them is holding the arm of a man who lies face down at his feet, dipping and struggling, his enormous mop of curly hair thrashing about. He laughs as he struggles to hold on to the man, like a fisherman who’s somehow caught a live sheep in his nets.
‘He’s out of it,’ he says. ‘Rich is really out of it.’
I shine a torch down on to him whilst Rae squats down to ask him who he is and what might be wrong with him.
The man grips his t-shirt, pulling it away from his throat, gargling like an actor in a bad death scene.
‘Rich. Slow down, mate. Tell us what’s happened to you.’
As far as we can tell he had come out of the club and lain down on the beach. He hasn’t had any drugs; he hasn’t hurt himself.
‘So what’s the problem, Rich?’
‘My throat,’ he rasps. ‘My neck. My chest. I can’t breathe.’
Rae manages to calm him down sufficiently to establish that his life isn’t actually in danger at the moment. We can’t assess him properly here, though. There are too many people around, too many distractions. It’s cold, too, with a freshening wind coming in off the sea. We help Rich to his feet and take a slow, faltering walk back up the ramp to the ambulance parked up on the top road. His friends wave us off, leave him to it.
Up on the vehicle we get Rich on the stretcher where he rolls about groaning and complaining that his throat hurts. I slam the door shut. It feels good to be in the ambulance. Now and again as someone walks by they slap their hands on the side and shout taxi! or help me, I’m dying!, but inside the heater whirrs along, the light is bright and everything feels well-lit and safe and to hand in the best tradition of sanctuaries the world over.
‘Let’s start over, Rich,’ says Rae. ‘What has happened to you tonight? Why are we here?’
‘I came out of the club and fell over,’ he says, holding his neck.
‘You fell over? Where did you fall over?’
‘Just outside. I whacked my head on a bollard.’
‘You hit your head on a bollard?’
He nods, and winces.
‘Don’t nod. Just say yes or no.’
‘Yes. No. What?’
‘Were you knocked out?’
‘Rich, we have to be clear about what happened to you. Let me feel your neck. Does that hurt?’
He yelps before Rae even gets a hand to him.
‘You have to be braver than this, Rich. Let me feel your neck.’
‘Be careful. I hurt it in Rugby last year and I can’t do anything more to it.’
‘So you have an old neck injury and you fell over tonight and banged your head. Is that right? Don’t shake your head, Rich.’
‘Then we’ve got to put a collar on you, and put you on a board for the ride in.’
‘You can’t put me on a board. Last time I was left on it for six hours.’
‘That won’t happen tonight.’
‘And I feel sick.’
‘How much have you had to drink tonight?’
‘Nothing. Hardly anything. Four cups of whisky and Red Bull.’
‘Cups? What do you mean, cups? How big’s a cup?’
‘I don’t know. A cup.’
‘Had any drugs tonight?’
‘No. I don’t touch drugs.’
We both lean over him and shine a light in his eyes. They stare back at us, large and clear.
‘I’ll get the board,’ I tell Rae.
‘Shit. My mum’ll kill me,’ says Rich, then clears his throat with a ghastly retching sound. Rae grabs a bowl.
At the hospital the doctor feels down Rich’s back, working methodically along the spine as a team of us hold him on his side.
‘Does that hurt? Don’t nod, Rich, just say yes or no.’
‘Yes. Yes! No. Yes!’
We lower him back down.
‘We’ll send you for an x-ray, just to be safe, but I don’t think there’s anything going on, really. We’ll sort some pain relief whilst we’re about it, too.’
‘You won’t inject me, will you?’ he says, struggling to meet the doctor’s eye without turning his head.
‘No. It’ll just be a pill.’
‘Because I have a dreadful phobia.’
‘A phobia? Of needles?’
Rich blinks and looks straight up at the ceiling. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Wrists.’