When I was four or five, I had a magnetic fishing game. In the battered old box was a cardboard screen printed with a coral reef. I’d stand that up, scatter the fish behind it – plastic yellow, red, orange; each with a little metal ring through its nose; each with the same stupefied expression – then dabble a stick with a magnet on a string over the side.
That blind and slightly hysterical click as a plastic fish kissed the magnet, that shaky draw up past the top of the reef - that’s how I felt at half past four this morning when the radio trembled and dragged me out to another job.
But the dawn helped. The sky was broad and clear, phasing blue through turquoise to deepest blue, like an alien metal warmed by the sun. No one but the birds saw us spark up the truck and leave the station. Even they hadn’t found their voices yet.
The flat is above a betting shop. The door is open and the hall light cuts across the pavement. As I step down out of the cab a tall guy comes to the doorway, mess of brown hair, features of undercooked dough.
‘Upstairs in the bedroom,’ he grunts. As we follow him inside he calls up the stairs: Ambulance people coming up. Make yourself decent, girls.
James, the tall guy, leads us into the room, and straightaway dumps himself back on the unmade bed that dominates the space. Below him there are two women sitting cross-legged on the floor: Shell, groaning, leaning over a bowl, Wanda behind her, talking quickly and happily even before we’ve introduced ourselves.
‘Two grams of Ketamine, four hours ago. Went to sleep quite happily then woke up with this pain. I’ve seen exactly the same thing with Tommy and he just drank lots of warm water to clear it. Didn’t he, Shell? And that worked out fine, didn’t it? So that’s what we’ve been doing. Hey, babe? But she’s still got this pain and we were running out of ideas, and then she said call you guys, so – we did. But we didn’t want to.’
She rubs her friend’s back and kisses her shoulder.
‘But it’s going to be fine, you know, Hun? There’s nothing to be scared about. You’ll be okay. We’re all good.’
She smiles up at me, her eyes a total eclipse.
‘But the paramedics are the experts.’
Shell groans again and rocks forwards and backwards.
‘Kill me. Kill me. I can’t stand it.’
I squat down and feel her pulse.
‘I don’t doubt you know more about this stuff than I do. I’ve come across people who’ve suffered K cramps before, a bit like this. I’ve no idea what causes it. But then you have to think it might not be that. You might have trouble with the purity of the gear. It gets cut with all kinds of things, so you never know how it might affect you. You don’t seem too bad at the moment, Shell, except for this abdo pain. The only thing we can do is to take you up the hospital so a doctor can assess you.’
Shell suddenly stands up, almost pitching the bowl over. She heads straight out of the door to the stairs.
‘Whoa, Babe!’ says Wanda, laughing and jumping up. ‘Wait for us. I need my make-up and phone.’
James sits up and wildly scratches his hair.
Out on the ambulance Shell is hyperventilating.
‘Shouldn’t you give her a bag or something?’ says Wanda.
‘Let the guy do his job,’ says James.
‘I’m just saying. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m loving it.’
She gets out her phone and starts to film everything.
‘Wanda? Can you put the phone away, please?’ I ask.
‘Why? This is experience. I want to get it down. I want to remember.’
James reaches over and places his huge hand over the phone.
‘Put it away,’ he says.
‘I just want to keep it for the future.’
‘So look around,’ he says.
Shell calms down and we head off for the hospital. Wanda tries to put her make-up on, but the ambulance pitches and jolts so much she keeps hitting her forehead with the mascara brush.
‘Oh my God!’ she screams. ‘It’s so bumpy. I thought ambulances were supposed to be for sick people. What if I had something wrong with my neck?’
Shell vomits into a cardboard bowl.
‘They’d drive a bit slower, babe,’ James says, and then he yawns so widely it’s like someone throwing open a trunk.