A stooped, liverish man with heavy framed glasses and a white stick meets us at the entrance.
‘It is Geri you’ve come for?’ he says, leaning forwards and tilting his head in an effort to eke out what vision he has with as much other information as he can. ‘Is it?’
‘Flat 93’ I say. ‘We don’t have a name.’
‘It is Geri,’ he says, confirmed, then turns round to hold his electronic key fob against the plate. ‘Thanks for coming.’
‘Are you a relative?’
‘No, I’m Tom. Just a friend. We were all in the pub together, but Geri and Paul had another big fight, and she came back on her own. She gave me a call about an hour later to say she’d taken this overdose. Oh God I hope she’s okay.’
He leads us into the lobby, a resonant cube of cold green tiles, the air metalled with chlorine, wet denim and urine.
‘These damn lifts,’ he says, as we wait together.
‘Has Geri done this before?’
‘Oh yes,’ he says, quite matter of fact. And then: ‘Paul’s up there with her now. He’s had a skin full, so watch out.’
We ride up to the top floor together. The down lighters in the ceiling wash us of vitality; our reflections stare back at us as we rise up, a huddle of fish in a neglected aquarium. We judder to a halt.
He shuffles along a corridor to a sudden turn at the end that brings us to a half-open door. He pushes it aside and calls out ‘Paul.’ We follow him in.
From one of the rooms that lead off inside a large man lurches out in front of us, a phone gripped in his fist. Tom steps neatly round him and on into a bedroom. We follow on, the man turning slowly as we pass.
Inside the bedroom a fried blond, middle-aged woman is lying flat on her back on the bed, her coat still on and damp from the rain, her hands stuffed in her pockets, puffing out her cheeks and snoring like a drunk on a bench. Frank goes over to assess her; just as he does, the large man comes into the bedroom behind me. I turn round to tell him what to expect, what our plan of action is at the moment. But before I say a word, he shouts at me.
‘Where the fuck were you?’
Without waiting for a reply he raises his chin, and fixes me with a contemptuous stare as he puts the phone back up to his mouth. ‘I hope you’re making a note of the time?’ he bellows, presumably to the ambulance call taker still on the line. ‘Half a fucking hour. Half an hour!’
It throws me so much I don’t say anything. I drove to the address as fast as I could, as soon as we took the job, because it was given as a Category A, and I had just eight minutes to make it from the far side of town. And despite the heavy rain and the dark and the traffic, I made it in eight. What could he mean?
‘Yeah! You go on, mate!’ he says. ‘You go on with your innocent looks,’ waving the phone at me. ‘I know what you’re like, you paramedics. I know how it is with you bastards. Leaving people to die you don’t like the look of.’
I had been completely wrong-footed by his hostility; in fact I had fully expected him to thank us for getting there so quickly. The injustice of it sparks me into a flare of my own.
‘Get out! You’re rude, you’re aggressive and I want you out. Out! Now! Or we’ll get the police up here and have you arrested for obstruction.’
Before he can say anything else I push him backwards and slam the door in his face. My heart is thumping and I find it hard to say anything more for a moment. I fully expect him to come crashing back through the door, but after a moment or two it seems he has gone off to some other room. I turn to the others. Tom lowers his head and taps the bed thoughtfully with his stick.
‘Like I said, they’ve had a skin full.’
Frank shrugs and directs his attention back to Geri.
The overdose isn’t as serious as all that, but we can’t leave her. She wants to sleep it off, but although she consistently bats away our efforts, Tom uses some leverage to coax her out of the flat and down to the ambulance.
Paul emerges as we head for the lift, but doesn’t say another word.
At the hospital whilst we’re waiting for Frank to come back from the desk with a cubicle number, I ask Tom how he came to be partially sighted.
‘Oh. Another drinking thing,’ he says. ‘I was in the pub. This guy fell off his stool and put his hands out to save himself. Unfortunately I was standing next to him. His fingers went up under my glasses and his dirty old nails dug into my eyes. They got infected. I lost all the sight in this one, and eighty per cent in this one.’
Geri coughs and retches on the trolley between us.
‘Anyway. Thanks for coming out tonight,’ he says, touching her on the hand and giving it a comforting squeeze. ‘Don’t pay any mind to what Paul says. He doesn’t mean it. It’s just the drink talking.’