There are three children on BMXs in the middle of the playing field, circling in a pack, wondering what all the police patrol cars, the dog van and the ambulance could mean. They break apart, re-group and then cycle in our direction, but when they draw level they simply pile on the brakes and stare. I’m the first to speak.
‘All right?’ I say to them. ‘Have you seen a woman over this way? A bit upset?’
‘Why? Has she killed someone?’
‘Is she on the run from the police?’
‘Has she chopped someone up with an axe?’
‘So have you seen anyone?’
‘What do we get if we say yes?’
‘A thanks for your help and very well done.’
They cycle away, turn, and then squat on their bikes in the penalty box to watch what happens next.
A couple of police officers are climbing over a wire fence to get into the woods that border the fields. A helicopter hovers overhead.
‘I suppose we could look the other side.’
Frank bends down and puts the flat of his hand on the grass, then squints off into the distance like a tracker in a corny western.
‘Woman pass. No shoe. Big hair. Half hour.’
As we get closer to our section of the fence, we see a pink and black Lycra top caught on the barbed wire. Just as I unhook it, a wood pigeon flies up out of the undergrowth.
‘Heap bad magic,’ says Frank.
Earlier that day we’d heard a call go out for a hanging in the city park. We’d had a steady procession of non-injury falls, non-specific abdo pains, non-conveyances – non-anything, really. So we listened jealously as the All Call went out. Later we heard the woman had pulled a knife on the crew that attended. Somehow, in all the chaos of the scene, she’d managed to disappear, and the police had been scouring the area ever since. A couple of hours later, a woman walking her dog on some fields about a mile from the first incident had reported seeing a woman – thirty years old, long blond hair, dirty sweat pants, vest – screaming and shouting, running across the fields and into the woods, trailing a length of rope behind her.
‘Stand off for police,’ Control told us.
Frank rubbed his hands together.
‘This is more like it.’
An hour later one of the police officers stands us down.
‘Thanks for your help,’ he says. ‘We don’t reckon she’s here now. I think we’ll just carry on in the area and hope something turns up. Her friends live nearby. She’ll probably pitch up there.’
We clear up. Onto the next job: a non-injury fall.
Three hours later we’re about to head back to base for our second break when Control apologises and gives us a job backing up a car just round the corner from our current position.
The custody suite is a forbidding block of buildings, set back from the road on a little rise, screened by a high brick wall and a green steel gate that slides back when we identify ourselves at the console. Frank parks up in one of the loading bays, and we go through a series of concrete pens with remotely locked doors into the centre of the operation – a wide, circular room with a hub of raised desks in the centre, protected by screens.
‘This way’ waves one of the white-shirted custody staff. He leads us along a corridor to an open cell at the far end. There is a woman lying on a mattress on the floor with her head to the door. Each arm and leg is being held by an officer. A paramedic comes out to see us.
‘Thanks for coming, chaps,’ he says, adjusting his gloves.
Behind him the woman starts screaming abuse at the officers, thrashing from side to side in an effort to get away from them. She is a wild storm of a person, threatening appalling violence one moment and cracking matey jokes the next, all the while trying to find the angle, the weak spot, any advantage that would allow her to break free and run out of the cell. But the four of them adjust their hold and position to accommodate every dip and turn, all the while chatting calmly to the woman, as if what was happening was just the normal kind of thing, something mildly embarrassing between friends, perhaps - but a grim set to their apparent savoir faire, as easy as the metal grille over the ceiling light.
The paramedic comes over to us.
‘I don’t know if you heard the story of this one,’ he says.
He nods in the direction of a gloved officer, sorting through a pile of clothes and things in a box just outside the cell door. As if on cue the officer holds up a length of frayed blue nylon rope. It hangs there in front of her for a moment, but then the screaming suddenly increases from the cell, some urgent shouts, which spur her on; she drops the rope neatly to one side, and starts patting down the pockets of a pair of dirty sweat pants.