Marion is wedged tight, utterly filling the narrow concrete space, like a character balloon inflated to fit a shoebox.
‘I’ve made a right fool of myself,’ she gasps. ‘I’ve ruined your strawberries, Geoff.’
‘Never mind about the strawberries.’
Geoff is standing next to me, a big man himself, sweating in a plaid shirt. ‘We’ve tried everything but we ran out of ideas,’ he says.
Behind us on the unlit patio, the other party guests carry on drinking and smoking at a picnic table as if nothing of any note is happening. I feel like a magician in a downbeat club, his flashiest trick – freeing the lady from the box – falling flat. No one’s the least bit interested.
‘How long’s she been down there?’
‘About half an hour. We gave her a drink.’
I run the flashlight over her again.
Marion has fallen backwards into an unguarded light well – a narrow concrete box about a foot wide, three deep, five long. Her knees are crooked up and her arms pushed forwards at the shoulder. The only injury she appears to have is a sprained wrist, but that’s the least of her worries.
Frank shakes his head. ‘Let’s get another crew along,’ he says.
Whilst we wait for them to arrive, I climb down into the tiny space available at the head end, and explore the problem from close up.
‘I need to pee’ she says. ‘That’s where I was headed when I fell in.’
‘We’ll soon have you out,’ I say to her, but it’s not going to be easy.
I unhook a hanging basket of strawberries swinging from an ornate iron bracket over our heads.
‘I’m lying on the other one,’ she says. ‘Sorry Geoff.’
‘Never mind about that,’ he says. ‘I can grow more strawberries.’
Someone laughs in the group around the patio table, but I think it’s unconnected. Cigarette smoke drifts across. The night is tall and cool above us. ‘Good job you landed face up,’ I say to her. ‘Could be worse.’
‘Could be worse,’ she says, bug-eyed, her face congested in the flashlight. ‘Can’t think how, but I’m sure you’re right.’
Frank reappears with a big grey bag full of manual handling equipment. He takes out the Mangar Elk – an inflatable mattress designed to lift heavy people off the floor. I slide it as far as I can under her back, and we inflate a few layers. It helps raise her up a bit, but not enough to get her out, and the confined space stops it inflating any more. Frank produces a lifting belt around her waist, and we’re struggling to fit it into position just as the second crew arrives. It breaks when we all grab hold and pull.
‘Much more of this and we’ll have to get the Brigade in,’ says Frank.
‘What will they do?’ asks Geoff.
‘Smash up the concrete with jack hammers I should think.’
‘Are there any more crisps or have we run out?’ someone shouts over from the picnic table.
Frank produces a couple of detachable seat belts from the lifting bag. We slip them around her shoulders and hips, then tie off the loose ends down her middle, an arrangement that makes her look like a big punnet of fruit with an orange handle. But even with this we can’t get her up; the flesh of her sides and hips is pressed against the rough plaster of the box and won’t let her up.
‘Let’s get the brigade running,’ I say to Frank. ‘We can try with the sliding sheets whilst we’re waiting.’
He makes the call, then fetches out a sliding sheet. Between us we tuck it as best we can between Marion and the wall. When we’ve all got a good hold and our feet in position, we haul on the orange belts. She lets out an enormous fart.
‘Sorry!’ she says.
‘Well I think it made a bit of room,’ I say – and she does rise up an inch or two more. But there’s still just too much friction between her sides and the wall, so we relax her back down again.
‘Let’s try stuffing the sliding sheet down both sides. If that doesn’t work, the brigade’ll have to tear the place up.’
‘In a controlled way,’ I tell him.
‘Let’s get her legs up and lying on the edge of the wall first. She can’t weight bear, so we may as well.’
I manage to pull her legs up and out. Marion moans; I ask her if she’s okay.
‘I just feel such a fool,’ she says. ‘And I’ve ruined your strawberries, Geoff.’
‘Are you sure you didn’t bang your head?’ I ask her.
‘Positive. The only thing I’ve hurt is my wrist and my dignity.’
We rearrange the sheets again, then take a fresh grip and count down to the final effort. Just as the fire brigade are coming through the house, we haul Marion out of the well and up onto the patio flagstones, where she lies panting and swearing.
‘Everything all right then, chaps?’ says the fire officer.
‘Yep. Just managed to get her out.’
He looks down at the hole and frowns.
‘Oh dear. Doesn’t look all that safe. You should really have that covered. Someone could have an accident.’
Geoff slaps him on the shoulder. ‘I’ll see to it in the morning.’
We help Marion into a sitting position. One of her friends hands her down a cigarette.
‘Can I have this?’ she says, already puffing away.
‘I think you’ve earned it.’
‘I bet you all think I’m a right fool.’
‘I’m the fool,’ says Geoff, wiping his face with a handkerchief. ‘All those hunky firemen and I didn’t get a single number.’