This junction is one of the busiest city intersections, dividing it cleanly east-west, north-south. On one quarter of the compass, the Red Hat, a trendy coffee bar with silver tables and chairs outside and crazy decals on the windows; on the point opposite, an ethnic grocery store, slanted tables stacked with beef tomatoes, okra, corn on the cob, garlic ropes, buckets of olives and a stretched canvas awning to keep it all dry; diagonally across, a row of smaller, less well-appointed businesses – Spirited Away, a cheap wine, beer and DVD shop, and its next door neighbour, a wire-mesh protected internet café (cheap international calls / SIM cards unlocked), and then, on the final quarter, a supermarket’s latest castle of occupation, slick and efficiently rendered, like an architect’s model instantly built to scale.
But it’s late now and everything – even the internet café – is dark.
Approaching along the high street from the east we can see a sparkle of blue lights cannoning off the buildings – a police van, parked on a skew, and on the pavement beside it, a man face down, his arms held behind his back by two police officers. A third waves to us. I hit the at scene button, and climb out.
‘We’ve got a chap here, don’t know his name, can’t get much sense out of him. He was involved in an altercation with some other people. There was a fight and this one hit the deck. Not exactly sure of his injuries, because he’s – erm – difficult to talk to. I should imagine he’s taken some kind of drug because he’s pretty fired up. Anyway, see what you think.’
The man would seem to be about thirty, dressed in a neat check suit and suede shoes, his shirt unbuttoned to his belt buckle and his wild black hair whipping round as he strains to lift his head and curse everyone within range.
I walk over, squat down. He whips his head round to look at me.
‘Fuck you, my friend. Yes, that’s right – fuck you. Who do you think you are? Hmm? Get off me! I’m going to kill you all.’
‘Just try and slow it down for a minute, will you? My name’s Spence. This is Frank. We’re with the ambulance.’
‘Oh. How nice. The ambulance, ay? Well you know what you fucking ambulance? Why don’t you go and fuck yourself, and when you’re done, why don’t I kill you and throw you on a heap with the rest of them? Hmm? Do you like the sound of that, ambulance? Hm?’
‘Well. No. Not particularly. Listen – what’s your name at least?’
‘My name? You want my name? Fuck you. How’s that name for you? Fuck you.’
I stand up. ‘Well he’s quite lucid at least.’
Suddenly he makes another crazed effort to wrest his arms away from the two police officers. But they have him under control and finally he gives up with a scream of unsuppressed rage. A crowd of clubbers try to walk around us and the other officer has to usher them to a safer distance.
‘Good luck to you mate,’ one shouts out to the man on the ground.
‘Leave him alone, you fascist.’
No-one pays them any attention. More people are gathering on the street corners, entertainment on a slow night.
‘What do you want us to do with him?’ one of the officers says.
‘Let’s stand him up and see if we can make out what’s going on.’
‘We’ve already called a van up, by the way. We’re quite happy to take him off to the cells on a D&D if you think there’s nothing medical.’
They explain to the man what they want him to do; he listens, breathing hard, obviously biding his time for an opportunity to escape.
‘Yes, sir,’ he says. ‘Of course, sir.’
Eventually they manage to get him back on his feet. He stands there, his arms behind his back, staggering from foot to foot, breathing hard, his long hair swinging in saturated coils and his eyes flicking around him like a bated animal in a pit.
‘What’s happened to you tonight?’ I ask him. ‘What’s brought you to this?’
Suddenly he seems to collect himself. He takes a deep breath, then raises his head up slowly to look me full in the face. I wonder for a moment if he’s about to spit; he has blood on him, and I don’t want to catch any in the eye. I can’t help but take a step back, which he reads with a sly smile.
‘Ah! Look at this doctor! Okay, Mr Doctor. I tell you what happen to me, Mr Doctor. It is my birthday. I come out tonight. I drink with friends. We have good time. This man fight with me. I fight with him. The police they come and throw me on the ground like a dog. Okay, Mr Doctor? Yeah? You fix me up? Yeah? You like that? Big Happy Birthday?’
He screws his face up and begins to cry.
‘First things first,’ I say to him. ‘Do you have any pain? Did you hurt your neck when you fell?’
I reach forward and feel the back of his neck. ‘Does that hurt?’
He looks up again.
‘Do you have any pain anywhere?’
‘My whole body is pain. My whole life is pain.’
‘What’s your medical history? Are you diabetic, for instance?’
‘Fuck you, Mr Doctor. Fuck you and your big idea. Fuck this shit. Let me go.’
He arches his back and drops down in an effort to wrong foot the officers and break free of their grip. But they anticipate his move, and use his momentum to put him back on the ground. Another police van pulls up.
‘I don’t think we’re going to get very far with this guy. If you’re happy to take him to the cells, I think that’s going to be the safest place for everyone. He’ll just be a liability down the hospital.’
We climb back into the truck and finish the paperwork, the screams of the man as a team of officers drag him into the truck fading as the ambulance window slides back up into the closed position.