The ambulance car is waiting for us at the start of the track.
‘I’ve tried making it along there, but I grounded out almost immediately. I’m not even sure you’ll make it in the ambulance, but have a go. Let me just jump in the back.’
The stables are about a mile distant, along a rough bridleway only a few inches wider than the ambulance. Its surface is deeply pitted with waterlogged holes and awkward banks of compacted earth; it leads off ahead of us, winding out into open country, the easy cut of the valley and surrounding hills greying to distance.
‘Do we know any more?’
‘Just what you have. Thirty year old, kicked in the head by a horse. She’s been fitting but stopped last time I heard. Sounds bad.’
As soon as Cal jumps aboard and slams the door behind him, Frank sets off down the track. The ambulance pitches violently from side to side; scraping against the elder trees, hawthorn and blackberry thickets either side.
‘We’ll never get her back along here in one piece if she has a head injury,’ shouts Cal from the back, through the hatch. ‘It’s going to have to be a helicopter job.’
‘Or maybe a horse,’ says Frank, slowing to take a cruel sequence of pits and banks that threaten to topple the ambulance off to the right and down a steep embankment. ‘Jesus – they don’t make it easy, do they?’
More by luck than judgement we make it to the muddy courtyard of the riding stables. A red-faced woman in a quilted green jacket stuffs her mobile away and waves us in the direction of the stables behind her.
‘In there,’ she shouts. ‘Mary’s with her.’
The ground leads steeply down into the stables, its old stone flags slippery with mud and muck. Inside, a woman lies on the ground moving her arms and legs spasmodically, like a person wrestling snakes in a nightmare; above her, a tall black horse looms over her from the stable gate, its massive head sleek and impassive.
‘Don’t let it kick me again,’ the woman says as we crouch down beside her. ‘Get it away.’
But she keeps her eyes closed, and seems unable to answer any of the questions we put to her. Mary strokes her forehead clear of the long wet strands that are plastered there, soothing her with platitudes.
‘It’s okay, Susan. Help’s here now. You’ll be all right.’ Then she addresses herself to us.
‘Susan was here on her own putting the horse back in its stall. She was kicked in the head and fell to the floor unconscious. When I came in about five minutes later she was having a fit. That passed, and then she seemed to keep moving in and out of consciousness. Apparently she had a head injury a while ago, had a CT scan, but I don’t know what came of that. Her husband’s on his way. He shouldn’t be long.’
I take hold of Susan’s head and try to stop her moving it, but she fights whatever I try to do. Frank plays a torch over her, but despite the mud and water neither of us can see any trace of a wound.
‘Kicked in the head, did you say? By this fella behind us?’
‘So she said. Why? Don’t you think so?’
‘It’s difficult to tell. But you’d expect to see something. They’re pretty mean.’
The horse stares down at me.
Suddenly Susan starts thrashing and moaning again.
‘She’s fitting again,’ says Mary.
‘I don’t think this is a fit,’ I say.
‘What is it then?’
‘I don’t know.’
I ask Susan to open her eyes; she holds them closed. Frank gently pries them open, and when he shines his light across them the pupils react normally to light. In any other situation you could be certain this was a put-on. But the dramatic scene makes us uncertain.
Cal and Frank bring the scoop stretcher, spinal board and collar, and we set to work immobilising Susan. Mary stands back and makes another call. The horse stands looking over the stable door, eyeing the comings and goings with formidable glassiness.
A man appears in the stable.
‘Susan,’ he says. ‘What’s going on?’
But he hangs back on the periphery, showing as much animation or concern as the horse.
‘Can you tell us about Susan’s previous medical history?’
‘What does she suffer with? Any heart problems, asthma, that kind of thing?’
‘She was kicked in the head by a horse a couple of months ago.’
‘And what happened then?’
‘She had a series of scans and whatnot, but they didn’t find nothing.’
‘Is she on any medication?’
‘No. But she’s been having fits since.’
‘And what have the doctors said about that?’
‘Not a lot. I don’t think they know.’
‘They didn’t put her on medication?’
The horse sees the latest entrants before me; two more ambulance people slipping down the slope into the stable: a paramedic practitioner and a CCP.
‘What’s the story?’
I hand over to the CCP and he begins his examination. On the pretext of going to the truck for equipment I take Mary aside. She seems nervous; the more I nod and smile, the more guarded she becomes.
‘How long have you known Susan?’
‘Not long. I only started work here a couple of weeks ago. Why?’
‘Is there anyone else around who knows a bit more about her?’
‘The regular stablehand should be back soon. She’ll be able to fill you in. Did I do wrong? What are you thinking?’
‘No. You absolutely did the right thing.’
‘But you think she’s putting it on?’
‘I don’t know. She may be.’
‘Why would she put it on? Why would she do a thing like that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I may be wrong. We have to play safe.’
An anaesthetist arrives.
‘Where’s the patient?’
I show her to the stable. She gets the low-down from the CCP. The PP nods to me.
‘The helicopter ETA is five minutes. We need to direct it into that field over there, and get her away as soon as.’
‘How is she doing?’
‘Not sure. She’s certainly combative. Could be cerebral irritation. Difficult to tell in there.’
‘Give us a hand with this.’
A minute before the helicopter arrives, the other, regular stable girl catches my attention, smoking nervously on the fringes of the scene. She flicks some ash on the floor and nods for me to come over.
‘Is she really going away in a helicopter?’
‘Yeah. If she’s got a head injury, the drive back along that path would kill her.’
‘How much is that going to cost?’
‘A fair bit.’
‘And all this? All these – people? It’ll be thousands.’
‘It is what it is.’
She takes a drag of her cigarette and watches the comings and goings in the stable for a moment. Then she drops it on the earth and grinds it out with her boot.
‘She’s faking it,’ she says.
‘How do you know?’
‘She waited until we’d all gone home, and the only person who’d be here to find her was that new girl.’
‘Has she done it before?’
‘Not like this. But other stuff. I can’t believe she’s taking it this far. A helicopter!’
‘What can we do? We have to treat for the worst case scenario.’
‘But a helicopter?’
Just then a low, cutting drone becomes apparent, and we see the lights of it, three bright spots coming towards us from out of the low grey banks of cloud to the east.
‘Here it comes.’
Six of us carry Susan out to the helicopter, our boots sucking in the mud, our free arms rising out to counterbalance the weight. The force of the rotors spinning above us as we approach the craft thumps in my chest; we load Susan in head first, then hurry away again. A moment later, we stand on the edge of the field and watch as the helicopter powers up and rises gracefully into the air; with its navigation lights and the lights showing from inside, and set against the coming dusk, it is a beautiful thing, a UFO hurriedly leaving earth and heading away into the darkening reaches of space.
We follow its progress across the sky, then start collecting the remains of our kit together. We throw the whole muddy ensemble into the back of the ambulance and set off back down the lane. In the hour it’s taken us to complete this job, the character of the place has changed. The pools of water in the potholes hold the last of the day’s light; they lead away before us, isolated craters of liquid blue glass.
I call Control. I tell them we’ll be a while.