‘Hello? Is that Mrs Walters?’
‘Hello, Mrs Walters. My name’s Spence. I’m with the ambulance. I’m calling about Mirabelle. Nothing to worry about, but Mirabelle had the ambulance out to her this afternoon and we’ve brought her to hospital.’
‘Yep. Mirabelle. I understand from the card she’s carrying you’re the host family. Is that right?’
‘Did you know Mirabelle had come in to town to visit the fair today?’
‘Yep. The fair. In town.’
‘But she’s down on the beach.’
‘Well – not any more. We picked her up at the fair. She was with a bunch of friends from the language school.’
‘Without an escort.’
‘I’m afraid so. Nothing radically wrong, Mrs Walters. She banged her knee on the walters – waltzers. Nothing serious, as far as we can tell. Everything’s fine. But for some reason she had to be carried off. And then when they took her to the manager’s office, she fainted. Or appeared to.’
‘Does any of this surprise you?’
There is a long pause; the crackles and scratches on the line sound like furies tearing up Mrs Walters’ head. Finally I’m driven to say: Mrs Walters?
‘No,’ she says. ‘She’s a difficult girl.’
The crowd moves sluggishly round the fair, coin corpuscles in an artery of colour and noise, the stalls and rides on every side harvesting the goodness from their pockets. Jump up, Cowboy – No Fear, No Limits, Come on people, Every one a winner, Two to a car, Hold very tight …. All the single ladies, All the single ladies … sirens, klaxons, a pulse of light around a tableau of skulls, cars in flames – screams from a sudden column of bodies thundering overhead – scorched rubber, static dust, doughnuts, chips and hydraulic fluid – stupefied babies with ice-cream beards – feral gangs, lost families – a head through a hole, a gypsy in a caravan, a man with a radio.
We fall in behind him as he machetes his way forward with the aerial; hostility on the faces turning round, slackening to curiosity when the uniform and equipment register. Another attraction. Something else to see.
The office is soundproofed, but the Plexiglas screen pulses and rattles with the noise; we can barely hear each other beneath the muted roar.
Mirabelle lies in the recovery position on the hardboard floor, but even from here I can see her eyelids fluttering. I kneel down and shout in her ear, giving her fingertip a little tweak, too. She doggedly carries on the pretence; when I go to lift an eyelid, she holds it shut.
Did she fall?
Nope. She grazed her knee on the safety bar. When the ride stopped, she wouldn’t get out then went funny. So the guys carried her in here, and she collapsed on the floor.
Have we got someone who speaks French?
Danielle, her friend.
Danielle – can you ask Mirabelle if she’s in any pain?
Danielle looks at me, confused.
But she is unconscious.
No, she’s not. Just ask her.
Danielle kneels down and puts a hand gently on her shoulder.
It’s a slow process. Even if Mirabelle was prepared to talk to us, she has no English. Danielle translates everything reluctantly, as if she thinks we’re being overly cruel with our line of questioning. The fairground manager looks about set to have a stroke. I wonder how many hours he’s worked today; how many situations he’s dealt with.
Let’s just get her out to the ambulance.
You can go on the truck.
We’ve got a little green truck. You’ll love it.
He slaps me on the shoulder, then gestures for radio man to fetch the truck.
A minute later he pulls up outside in a tiny green John Deere flatbed with a flashing amber light on a stalk. Rae opens the office door and radio man gestures to the back with his thumb.
All right in the back?
Between the four of us we half-walk, half-carry Mirabelle out to the truck. She moans bonelessly, like a sleeper dragged from her bed.
Come on Mirabelle. Allons-y.
We sit either side of her, our feet almost dragging along the ground as the truck moves off. The truck beeps a warning and radio man keeps punching the horn, but still our progress is slow. As the crowd parts it falls back together behind us. People stare. Whatever kind of ride is that?
‘So that’s where Mirabelle is at the moment, Mrs Walters. In minors at A&E.’
‘Yep. The hospital.’
Another long pause.
‘The hospital in town?’
‘Yep. I’m afraid so.’
I doodle some hair on the smiling face I’ve drawn on the patient report form, but as the silence continues I add some fangs.
‘But she’s going to need someone to come and sit with her, Mrs Walters. Pick her up after she’s done, that kind of thing.’
‘Yes. She will, won’t she?’ says Mrs Walters. ‘And I suppose that’ll be me, then.’
‘So I can leave that with you? Mrs Walters?’
‘Ye-es,’ she says. And before I can add anything to sweeten the pill, the line goes click.