There is a little girl working her way up to the top of the spider web climbing frame in the playground behind us, carefully picking a route through the intersecting ropes to the red and blue plastic cap at the top. I wonder if she’s climbing up there to get a better view of the scene: the middle aged woman standing on the pavement speaking urgently into a mobile phone, the three paramedics conferring behind an ambulance, a wild-haired old woman peering out through the window of a neat little corner cottage. But the girl on the climbing frame seems oblivious to all the fuss; once she reaches the top, she waves to a friend who is running over from the far side of the park, then turns and starts to make her way carefully back down again.
‘Betty’s next door neighbour says it’s all very uncharacteristic,’ says Geoff, the paramedic who was first on scene, his ambulance car standing off further off down the street.
‘Let’s hope so,’ says Frank.
‘Apparently she had a fall over the weekend, bished her head, hasn’t been herself since. When I got here she was running up and down the street in her nightie, screaming and carrying on. I tried to talk to her but she picked up half a brick and lobbed it at me, saying she was going to kill me. Then she ran back inside.’
‘What’s she doing now?’
‘I knocked on the door and she came running out again with her nails out like this.’ Geoff extends his hands into two claws, and snarls like a pantomime bear. ‘Wouldn’t listen to reason. So I thought I’d wait for back-up before I did anything else. I didn’t want her to get hurt.’
‘And the police?’
‘Should be here soon.’
‘Let’s go have a look then.’
Frank leads the way.
When Mary, the next door neighbour, sees us coming across, she finishes her phone call and waits, holding the phone up to her chest, gripped tightly, like a talisman.
‘I’ve just spoken to Betty’s son. He’s coming straight over, but he lives quite a way away. He says can you call him back?’
Geoff stays with Mary whilst Frank and I walk up the sheltered little path to Betty’s front door. He reaches out and knocks.
‘Betty? Betty – it’s the ambulance. Could we have a word?’
There is a scraping of chairs from inside, as if someone were making such a rush at the door they came straight through the furniture.
‘I’ve told them! I’ll kill you! Let me – leave me – will you...’
The door is thrown open and Betty stands there, breathing heavily, her loose and mottled flesh showing through the holes in her nightclothes. She is the very model of a crazy old lady, her hair blown out in a tufted shock of white, her eyes two points of black on a narrowing horizon. ‘You!’ she says, turning to look at me and letting go her hold on the door. ‘They said – it’s not – I’ll kill you!’ She steps outside onto the stone flags of the patio, the toes of her bare feet blue and swollen. She tries to rake at my arms, but I step to the side and manage to catch hold of her wrist. Frank catches the other.
‘Betty. Betty. Listen, love,’ he says. ‘Easy. We’re not here to hurt you. We just want to talk. People are worried about you.’
‘Let me go! Let me go!’ she spits, wrestling wildly with us, then suddenly giving up and leaning forwards. She begins sobbing in an awful way, dry and forced, without any natural root. ‘Let me go! Let me go!’
‘This won’t look great,’ says Frank, over the top of her hair. ‘Two grown men wrestling an old lady.’
‘Come on, Betty,’ I say, in the tone of a favourite nephew to an aunt. ‘Why don’t we go onto the ambulance and have a chat there? We’ve got some nice warm blankets.’
She suddenly changes again, straightening up and letting her arms go loose.’
‘I didn’t think,’ she says, looking squarely into my face. ‘They said – what if – why are you doing this?’ It’s a ripped and random monologue, poisonous wisps bubbling up through the vents in her rage.
‘Ha!’ she shouts, then lunges at me in an effort to take a bite out of my face. I’m forced to twist out of the way, and both Frank and I struggle to maintain control. She flops forwards again.
The police arrive; two officers hurry over to where we stand struggling on the patio.
‘This is Betty,’ says Frank. ‘Betty is eighty four.’
‘Hello Betty,’ says one of the officers, frowning at us, reaching out to touch her on the shoulder. But when she jerks upright again like a ghastly ventriloquist’s dummy, he flinches, and I can see he understands.