The estate is built into the side of a hill overlooking town. Across from Julie’s house, sweeping down beyond the rooftops, aerials, dishes and chimneys, the city overlies the valley like a wash of blue and grey on an animator’s transparency. The wind is picking up. I want to stretch out my arms, take three big steps and launch myself into the void. I could hover high above this spot, adjusting the angle of my hands now and then, a big green hawk taking it all in.
A police car marks out number three. We park the ambulance behind it and walk up a dozen coarse concrete steps to the raised pavement. The moment we set foot there, a chubby Jack Russell comes rolling through a hedge and snapping at our ankles. There’s something laughable about the whole performance.
‘I’m being mugged by an over-stuffed sock,’ says Frank. A woman barks out from behind the hedge: ‘Lola! No!’ The dog turns about and hurries back under it.
The door of Julie’s house stands open. I knock and we step inside.
They are all gathered in the sitting room. Julie is sitting on a discreetly patterned sofa, holding a phone in her lap and absently scrolling through the address book whilst she talks. A social worker stands in front of her, a police officer to the side, a community psychiatric nurse guarding the door.
‘I’m just not going. I’m not. You can’t make me.’
‘I’m afraid we can make you, Julie. Your doctor says he wants you to get treatment in hospital.’
‘He can treat me here at home.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not an option.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘No. I’m sorry Julie. You have to come with us. Just for a few days whilst we make an assessment.’
‘I don’t need an assessment. Why won’t you listen? I don’t need anything. I just want you to get out of my house.’
‘We can’t do that.’
‘Yes you can.’
The police officer sighs and adjusts her posture; she is so tall and powerful, the entire house seems to shift slightly to the left.
‘Julie. Listen to me. We have signed papers to say you’re to be admitted under Section Two of the Mental Health Act. Your doctor and all these good people want you to get help. You really have to go with us to hospital.’
‘I’m not going to go.’
‘I’d rather you walked out nicely, Julie, but if I have to carry you I will.’
She could tuck Julie under her arm like a roll of carpet and stride out through the brick wall. Julie seems unimpressed though.
‘I’m going to call someone,’ she says.
‘By all means,’ says the police officer. ‘But make it quick.’
Julie carries on scrolling through the phone.
The house is cold but scrupulously tidy. The only sign that something is amiss is the placing of two small camping lanterns on coffee tables either side of the sofa, and a variety of suitcases and light travelling bags placed around the room and in the hallway.
‘It’s cold in here,’ I say, and reach out to touch one of the radiators.
‘They’ve cut me off,’ Julie says, glancing up from the phone. ‘I paid the bill but they refuse to accept it. They said someone called Richard paid it instead, but I don’t know anyone called Richard. They won’t turn me back on until I agree to their terms. That’s it. That’s the only thing wrong. Why is that mad?’ she says, glancing furiously at the social worker. ‘Tell me how that could possibly be described as mad.’
‘There are other things, too, Julie,’ says the social worker, a woman as cosily rounded and domestic as the police officer is squared and martial. ‘You know there are other things.’
‘Like what? Like my useless son in law, stealing keys and sneaking round the house when I’m not in? How does that make me mad?’
The psychiatric nurse nods for me to come over and speak to her in the hallway.
‘She’s psychotic, of course.’
‘Of course. Of course.’ But I take it on trust. She seems like any middle aged woman, trembling and red in the face with her house invaded by professionals and her power disconnected.
‘It’s not just the heating thing,’ she adds. ‘Although that is strange.’
We hear the police officer speaking again.
‘Get yourself ready now, Julie. We can’t stay here any longer.’
There is a pause, then Julie says: ‘Well, I’ll come. But it’s against my will.’
‘And I’ll need time to get my things together.’
‘Quick as you can. You don’t need much.’
‘There’s lots I’ll need, thank you.’
‘Like I said. You don’t need much.’
Julie squeezes past us in the hall and into her bedroom. She starts slowly opening drawers and dumping clothes onto the bed. The psychiatric nurse goes in to help. The police officer stands with me and Frank in the hall.
‘Nice place,’ she says, looking around. ‘Wish mine was as tidy as this.’
She reaches up, runs a finger along the top of the door frame, then shows it to us.
‘Look at that. Not a trace. That’s a sign of a good clean gaff.’
The social worker comes out of the living room and smiles awkwardly.
‘Shouldn’t be much longer,’ she says.
In the back of the ambulance Julie sits tidily in a metallic blue raincoat buttoned to the neck, hugging a flowery handbag to her stomach, staring fixedly at the cupboards and spigots on the opposite wall. She wears an extraordinary hat – a crocheted egg-yellow beret, that rides on top of her head as if she’d decided to wear an omelette out for the day. The social worker sits to her right; I’m perched on a jockey seat against the bulkhead. The ambulance pitches along the road as smoothly as the conversation.
‘Have you lived there long?’
‘Oh. That’s a long time. It seems like a nice place to live.’ Then: ‘High up.’
‘Look. Just because I have problems with the gas people doesn’t mean I’m crazy.’
‘No, no. I’ve had run-ins with the power companies before. And look at all the stuff there is about them in the newspapers today.’
‘They said I hadn’t paid my bill so I couldn’t have any more gas. When I said I had paid them, they said it was someone called Richard, who I’ve never heard of before.’
‘It’s all very confusing.’
She squeezes the handbag even more tightly.
‘Why’s he coming in this way?’ says the social worker, leaning out and peering forwards through the hatch behind me. ‘He’ll hit all the road works.’
The ambulance comes to a halt, and we sit in silence for a while. Julie opens the handbag and rummages around inside.
‘Have you any family in town?’ I ask.
She clips the bag shut.
‘Ellie, my eldest daughter. But she’s hooked up with this terrible man. I wish she’d never got involved with him. The last one was all right, but that went down the Swanee.’
‘What’s the matter with this latest one, then?’
‘He’s bone idle. Always up to something. He drinks. He disappears back to Poland whenever he feels like it. And then he steals my key and goes through my things.’
‘Maybe it’s a misunderstanding. Maybe he was checking to see you were okay.’
‘Well I don’t want him checking up on me. I had a terrible Christmas,’ she adds, her chain of thought lurching as markedly as the ambulance over this stretch of road.
‘Why? What happened?’
‘They invited me round but they’d obviously had a big do the night before. Ellie was still in her party dress and there were empty bottles and glasses everywhere. They hadn’t done any cooking. All we had for Christmas dinner were a few dry sandwiches.’
The social worker frowns. ‘That doesn’t sound very nice,’ she says.
‘Yes – that sounds awful. So what do you think you’ll do for Christmas this year?’
The ambulance lurches to a halt.
‘We’re here,’ shouts Frank through the hatch.
The social worker smiles at me, and shakes her head.