It wasn’t so much a storm as wildly accelerated fog. All afternoon it had torn into town from off the sea, flinging itself against every surface, rattling street signs and hoardings to the rivet, kicking up litter spouts, punishing umbrellas, soaking anyone too desperate, stupid or dependent to stay indoors, scouring the pavements like a monstrous, hyperactive, supersaturating broom. But as night fell the storm magically lifted.
Now everything is still, raw, exhausted.
I park under a yellow lamp and we walk up the steps to the house.
Maddy waits on the top step for us.
‘Hi,’ she says, folding her arms across her chest. ‘Thanks for not putting your lights on.’ She looks down at her shoes. ‘I suppose you’d better come up.’
She turns and we follow her inside, a cold, vaulted hallway with a long and brightly coloured bank of letterboxes on the left, a jarring modern addition to the stained glass window above.
‘Sorry guys. I’m right at the top.’
Maddy leads us to the central staircase, taking us up through such a hotchpotch of partition walls, fire doors and screens it’s like she’s taking us up through the centre of a great stack of playing cards.
‘I don’t know about you but I’m gonna be needing an ambulance in a minute,’ wheezes Frank. Maddy laughs.
‘This is it. You made it.’
She pushes open her door and goes to sit on a little square sofa by an open window. There is half a bottle of wine on the coffee table in the middle, Scissor Sisters playing on the music system.
Frank sits down opposite her; I take a stool in the kitchenette.
‘I understand you may have taken an overdose, Maddy,’ he says, putting his clipboard on the floor and taking off his jacket. ‘Is that right?’
‘What’ve you taken?’
‘Beta blockers, some analgesics – not a serious dose, though.’
‘And when did you take them?’
‘Since this afternoon. Over the course of about four hours.’
Maddy makes herself comfortable, hooking one foot under the opposite knee and leaning back onto the sofa, propping up her head on her right arm. Superficially she could be as easy as a celebrity being interviewed for a weekend supplement, but despite the muted light of her bedsitting room the pinched corners of her sadness still show.
‘I’m really sorry to bother you guys,’ she says. ‘I phoned that help line number, and the bastards called you on my behalf. I suppose they had a duty of care, or something.’
‘It’s no bother,’ says Frank. ‘We just want to make sure you’re okay.’
‘Oh I’m fine,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to get out of it, that’s all. I know it’s not a particularly dangerous dose I took. I used to be a nurse.’
‘Is there no-one else here?’
‘No. I’ve only just come back from Sardinia. My daughter and ex-partner are staying out there. I just needed to get back and sort myself out.’
Maddy pushes her hair back from her face and gives us both a reassuring smile. ‘But don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything stupid. More stupid, I should say.’
I run through some basic obs whilst Frank writes up the form. Maddy accedes to everything with quiet grace. Outside, the night drifts past the opened window, carrying with it a savour of the black ocean, shifting just beyond the reach of the promenade lights.
‘Still nursing?’ I ask.
‘No. I gave that up years ago when I had Julie. No – when I was nursing, it was all frills, cuffs and funny hats. We had a great laugh, though. I remember when I did my psych placement. It was at this huge Victorian institution. They’ve all closed down now, of course. God knows where they put everyone. But honestly, you should’ve seen it. The corridors went on forever. Miles and miles of arched brick ceilings, recessed doors. Boom, boom, boom, when you walked along it. You didn’t know who was staff and who was patient. It was great.’
‘Maybe you could get back into nursing?’
‘Nah. I don’t think they’d be impressed by all this,’ she says, picking an empty blister packet off the coffee table and waving it with a grin, the barrister with the comedy evidence.
‘They wouldn’t have to know, Maddy.’
‘Well,’ she says, dropping it again and settling back into the sofa. After a while she says: ‘Maybe. You never know.’