Monday, March 29, 2010

old bones

Mrs Wilkinson, ninety-six next week, lies on her side by the door, her head resting on the carpet between the dark corner of an ancient chest of drawers and a wicker wastepaper basket.
‘Am I dying?’ she says.
‘No. You’re okay for the minute. Let’s get you up and more comfortable.’
Around her on the walls are paintings she did in her youth – a champagne bottle and a watering can, a pot of African violets, a serious young woman standing in three quarter pose with her arms folded, staring back at the painter with a level expression of surety.
‘I loved to dabble,’ she says. ‘But not any more. I get so tired, and anyway I lost the knack.’
Mrs Wilkinson has hurt her arm; it’s as if someone has gently pierced the skin of a rice pudding and dragged it aside.
‘It’s a trip up the hospital, I’m afraid,’ says Frank. ‘You need this looking at, and then there’s the business of why you fell in the first place.’
‘You’re the boss,’ she says. ‘I don’t care what happens.’

The staff at the home form a guard of honour, waving and halloing and touching her arm as we carry her down the stairs and out through the kitchen.


Mrs Wilkinson sits comfortably on the trolley as we travel to the hospital. With her hands neatly folded in her lap, she could be a dowager duchess riding in a carriage to a social event. Her eyes are squeezed almost shut, and the fleshy corners of her mouth drawn back and upwards. She looks like someone about to cry – or burst into laughter, it’s difficult to tell. But when she speaks, the tone of her voice is clear and warm.
‘I was sure I was going to die, but if you say not – well, another time soon, I expect.’
‘Did you drink the champagne before you painted it?’
‘Did I … oh, yes. Of course. Why would you not? Any old excuse.’
She seems to sniff the air, and then pulls the blanket more closely around her.
‘I thought I might take up painting again but you know I get so tired and really I just can’t be bothered anymore.’
The ambulance jolts and I put out my hand to steady her.
‘Thank you,’ she says. And then: ‘You know, there’s not a soul left alive I know. Isn’t that strange? Who’d have thought it? Who’d have thought I would’ve made such old bones?’
‘Do they run in your family?’
‘Do what, sorry?’
‘Old bones. Do old bones run in your family? Although that sounds strange now I say it.’
‘I know what you mean dear. And no, they don’t. I had one older sister and she’s gone. She had a daughter, but poor Agnes died when she was just two. Fancy that. Two. And here’s me, ninety-six. How absurd. My father lived till he was sixty. So no, I can’t say as old bones do run in the family. Except for me, of course. But I’ll be off soon. I really can’t understand how I’ve made it this far. I thought it might be today, but you seem adamant, so there we are.’

punch bag

The last time I was here the hostel was being refurbished, a building site, covered in snow. The access road, a steep driveway fenced high up on either side and difficult to navigate at the best of times, had disappeared beneath a thick covering, so we left the ambulance on the top road and continued on foot. It was late at night, everything was hunkered down; the only sound was the crumping of our boots in the snow.

But that was six months ago, and the season has flipped on its head. The sun is up, the snow has long gone, and with it the security fences and portakabins, the temporary lighting and hulking steel containers. In its place is a quadrangle so new it could have dropped fully formed from the sky. There is a glittering crust on the limestone paving slabs that crackles as we walk on it. Either side, grass lies in unsettled slabs on the earth, the shrubs in the freshly chipped beds are tied with white tags, the timber of the bicycle rack and refuse point is raw and untainted, and the pond in the centre of it all, flat and lifeless, pea green with an algae bloom, has been planted with lilies, their new leaves just visible as faint shadows curling up from the black plastic planters on the bottom.

The site manager had no idea anyone had called for an ambulance.
‘Eddie? I think he’s in. Why? Is he ill – well, of course he must be ill. Here, I’ll go in with you.’
She seems too young for this; she swaps the handheld radio about between her hands as if she doesn’t know how to carry it all, the clipboard, the radio, the large bunch of keys.
At Eddie’s room she knocks gently and puts her ear to the door.
‘Eddie? Are you okay? Did you call an ambulance?’
There is a faint noise from behind the door, so the warden puts the key in the lock and lets us all in.

Eddie has pulled all three blinds down, and the room is lit only by the thin strip of bright daylight that underscores each of them, and by the light that spills in around us from the corridor. The man himself is lying on his back on the sofa, one muscular arm crooked up to partially cover his face, the other gripping a coverless duvet to his chest.

The room looks ransacked. Family photos scattered around the floor, a laptop and cables, DVDs and CDs lying out of their cases, cans of beer, letters from the council, bank statements, free magazines, an upended ashtray. The only order in the room is along the far wall, behind the sofa, where Eddie has stacked a number of tool boxes around an angle grinder and a canvas bag of clothing. Dominating the room, standing between the door and the sofa, is a metal gantry from which a red leather Lonsdale punch bag hangs. The bag has words scrawled on it in black marker pen: Louise XXX, My Girl, I heart Shelley.

‘Eddie? We had a call from a third party who said they were worried about you. They said you’d been talking strangely, threatening to hurt yourself.’
He drops his arm from his face and studies us.
‘Eddie. Have you hurt yourself?’
‘Have you taken any pills, for example?’
‘No. I said I would but I didn’t.’
‘So – it’s just alcohol?’
‘And you haven’t cut yourself, or anything like that?’

The three of us stand quietly for a moment.

The scheme manager shifts her weight, and taps the aerial of her radio on her leg.

Eddie suddenly sits up, puts his bare feet flat on the carpet, and then presses his eyes with the heels of his hands. When he lowers them again he looks at us and seems to see us for the first time. He says: ‘God. Why are you here?’

The punch bag hangs between us all, perfectly still.

Friday, March 26, 2010

a following wind

The address has crashed the satnav, its blue line disappearing then reappearing, throwing loops, changing direction, the chequered flag switching from one side to another, and even though the volume is turned down, I can just hear the voice patiently demanding we make a u-turn. But I know this close – a stub of bungalows tucked discretely away above the run of the main road, each with a concrete ramp and a white metal rail. We turn up onto it, and park outside the number at the far end.

A pale woman in bright red lipstick and a tightly belted black raincoat opens the door, but when I smile and say hello, instead of making any response she simply ducks her head and turns away, walks quickly and quietly into a room off down the hall, and carefully shuts the door behind her.

There are voices in the front room, so we push the door open and step inside.

‘Oh. You’re here. Good. Now – Peter? – do you have my bag? Do not lose that list of numbers. And I’ll need my medication. Oh. I feel so awful. Where are my shoes?’

David’s voice is as brittle and dusty as his hair. He sits on a simple wooden chair in the middle of the room, hands placed either side on the curved armrests and his slippered feet just-so, looking as poised as a King in his robing room.

‘Peter? Where are you Peter?’
‘Over here, David.’
‘Have you packed everything I asked you to pack, Peter? I don’t want these gentlemen taking me to hospital without my essentials. And don’t go losing that list of numbers. Or my prescription.’
‘Yes, David. It’s all there.’
‘Here. In your bag.’
Peter quietly and quickly unzips a battered old suitcase, flips open the lid and takes a step back to let David inspect the jumbled contents. He sneaks me a confederate smile as he does it; with his stooped posture and rapid, fussy movements, there is something insectivorous about him, like a giant woodlouse in a corduroy jacket.

‘So, David. Before we deal with all that, let’s just see what the problem is and why we’re here.’

David turns his head to look at me, but closes his eyes at the same time.

‘I’m not well,’ he whispers. ‘The doctor insists I be taken to hospital immediately, but not to the local hospital. I can’t go there. Last time I was there they put me with dead people. So if you try to take me there I shall simply get up and leave. I can’t walk so you’ll have to carry me. And don’t lose my bag or my papers. They are extremely important and I must have them with me at all times. And Peter. Peter?’
‘Yes, David.’
‘Make sure the heating is switched down to three, do you understand, Peter? Three. And lock the front door securely.’
‘Yes, David.’

I try to understand exactly what the problem is, but every question I ask, no matter how blunt, simply acts as a stimulus for another fretful account of his last admission to hospital, or domestic instructions to Peter, who all this time scuttles around the edges of the room, patting down the curtains or rummaging through a composting pile of underwear. As an alternative source of information, Peter is as hopeless as his friend. When I try to ask him for information, he momentarily stops his scavenging, spreads his lips in a ghastly approximation of a smile and nods at David.

‘I must have my work with me,’ David says, sensing that the focus had shifted away from him. ‘I’m in the middle of important filing.’

There is no doctor’s letter, no indication that the doctor had been there at all. Other than an existing heart condition, nothing David can tell us and nothing we can deduce from his signs and symptoms or bubble pack of medication suggest an acute reason for David to go to hospital.

‘Excuse me just a moment,’ I say, and leave the room to radio control. But before I press the button, I knock on the door of the adjoining room. The white faced woman opens it and then stands sideways on to me, as if she were trying to make herself as narrow a target as possible.

‘Hello. Sorry. I just wondered if you’d be able to shed any light on the situation with David,’ I ask her. ‘Can I ask – what’s your relation to the patient?’

‘Relation?’ she says, with a start. ‘I’m not a relation. I just came round for lunch.’
She digs her hands deep into her raincoat pocket and stares at the floor.
‘Okay. Thanks anyway. Sorry to bother you.’
I close the door quietly again.


Control confirms that the doctor has given instructions for David to be taken to a hospital out of district. Apparently he absconded half way through his last admission.
‘To Scotland,’ they say. ‘On the train.’
Control tell me that the doctor has made this unusual arrangement purely on the phone, concerned that David had prematurely ducked out of a series of cardiac tests. They give me the doctor’s name so I can check with him directly, but when I try to make contact he’s unavailable.

‘Come on then, David. Let’s get you onto the ambulance.’

I wonder how patient Howard Carter would have been if Tutankhamen had given a running commentary on the exhumation. I’m sure given the same provocation he would’ve ended up throwing the casket on the back of the truck and knocking off early. But we have a more valuable load; we let David’s endless monologue blow about our shoulders as we help him onto the chair and wheel him outside to the ambulance.


‘I’m currently writing another accountancy book. It’s part of a series on the international flow of money, the money markets, price differentials, that sort of thing. An examination of the euro zone, currency conversions, exchange rate movements and the like. Accountancy studies, economic and socio-political evaluations of the current state of affairs. Simple stuff, really. A matter of formulae.’

The road noise and David’s voice are fantastically enervating, an endless rolling on of sound. The sun flashes through the blinds and the truck gently pitches from side to side. I give a sudden duck of the head and sit upright, wondering if I had fallen asleep. I look at David to see if he has noticed, but his eyes are closed as he talks. He doesn’t need any encouragement from the audience, or any sign of consciousness.

In an effort to wake up I try to find out more about him.

‘So you’re an author, David? Academic books?’

‘No, no, not just academia. Action books, too. A group of Texans escape the slaughter of the Alamo and have a series of adventures as they attempt to fight their way back home. I called that one: ‘Lucky Star’. A book about a brigantine in the Napoleonic Wars that escapes capture by the French near Mauritius and has a series of adventures as it attempts to sail back home. I called that one: ‘A Following Wind.’

I feel completely thrown by this, but before I can respond he says: ‘Now listen to me. Where’s my case? Have you lost it? If you’ve lost it I shall be furious. It has everything I need in it. It has a contact list with all my numbers. And why is this taking so long? If you think you can take me back to that hospital you’re very much mistaken. I refuse to be put with dead people. I shall simply walk out.’


Inevitably, when we get to the hospital, they have no record of the request.
The charge nurse on the desk drops the phone back down on its hook.
‘Well!’ she says with a smile. ‘The Bed Manager isn’t happy. What did you say that doctor’s name was?’

Sunday, March 21, 2010

watching for a mouse

The door is thrown open so vigorously it crashes into the wall and the stippled glass rattles in its frame. A heavy girl stands there, vacuum-packed in shiny PVC leggings and a gypsy top. She is so preoccupied with her phone we could be two bears come to dinner and she wouldn’t react. Instead, she steps to one side, flaps one hand in the air for us to come in, whilst with the other carries on jabbing about on the keypad with her thumb.
‘Are you the patient?’
She looks up, astonished to see me there, then laughs, nods in the direction of a battered door behind her, then jumps back onto the phone.

We squeeze past.

Charlene is sitting with her legs hugged up on the sofa, her sharp white chin digging into her knees. Another girl, as big and emphatic as the girl who let us in, waves at us from across the room where she sprawls on a bean bag on the floor like a stricken parachutist.
‘Oh my God! You were proper quick!’
‘So. Yep. Hello. What’s been going on?’
Charlene directs her tiny black eyes up a fraction, and looks at me.

‘Show them the rash, Charley,’ says her friend, struggling to sit more upright. And then: ‘She’s got this mad rash.’

Charlene sighs, unfolds herself from the sofa and pulls her t-shirt up. She has raised, blotchy red patches here and there on her tummy and her back. It started last night, she says from behind the t-shirt. She rang a helpline. They said take anti-histamine tablets, whatever they are, see the doctor in the morning. But she’s phobic about taking tablets, she says, so she rubbed cream on it instead, then called us when it was still there the following day.

She lowers the t-shirt and resumes her perch on the sofa.

We give her the once over, then tell her that in the absence of any other symptoms we think it’s probably urticaria, possibly caused by a reaction to something but it’s difficult to say. We tell her we’d better take her down the hospital to make sure it’s nothing more serious.

Charley’s expression remains unchanged through all of this - the poised watchfulness of a barn owl sitting in a tree; I have the feeling if I move too suddenly, speak too quickly, reveal my position in any way, she’ll swoop.
‘Got any slippers?’ I say.

Back out on the vehicle, Charley hugs her knees on the trolley whilst her friends take up positions north and west. North girl seems to be the radio operator of the outfit, fielding all communications, keeping her friends updated.
‘Carl says should he come up.’
‘No. I don’t want that numpty around. He’ll only get me worked up.’
‘Billie says Hi. Carl says are you sure? He’s not got nothing else on.’
‘No. I don’t want him.’

Charley studies me.

‘How’ve things been recently?’ I ask her.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Why?’
‘It all helps to figure out what’s going on now.’
West girl turns round in her chair, hugs the back of it as she says breathlessly: ‘Was it you who came out to me last year? I broke my ankle in four places.’
‘I don’t remember. I don’t think so. How did you do it?’
‘Fell off a garage roof.’
‘What were you doing on a garage roof?’
She pauses, then says: ‘Sunbathing.'
‘Oh my god!’ says North girl suddenly.
I think it must be a particularly bad message, but she looks up and says: ‘I’m getting claustrophobia.’ She pushes her heavy black fringe aside and puffs out her cheeks, but the strands fall back into position when she takes her hand away, like those heavy chain curtains in warehouses that swing straight back into place after the forklift has passed through. ‘But it’s not as bad as that time in the police van,’ she says loudly. ‘I got so freaked I started head butting the sides. It took four of ‘em to calm me down.’
The memory seems to reassure her; she begins happily stabbing away at the phone again.
‘Gary says when are you back?’
‘Tell him whenever.’
‘Ricky says if we carry on making so much noise in the flat we’ll be out.’

Charley continues to stare at me.

‘So. Would you say you’re feeling more stressed than usual today, Charley?’
She gives a single upward twitch of her shoulders, an intensely wide awake, hungry little barn owl flicking its feathers into line, watching for a mouse.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Tennyson Court. But surely even the Lady of Shallot, distracted as she is, wouldn’t mistake the dark, shuttered Bingo hall off in the distance for Camelot. And if, cursed as she is, she felt driven to jump in a boat and cast off, I reckon she’d only get about halfway through her death song before she ran aground somewhere between the probation offices and the off licence.

I park by some bins. The board with all the numbers on has been ripped up, so it’s a guess this is the right place. The blocks rise around us square and squat, more like military emplacements than domestic accommodation. The planners have been bold, lopping off the top of the hill and putting in its place a stack of housing units, a health centre and what looks like a multi-coloured assault course. Tennyson Court guards the approach, and a single rack of concrete steps leads up to its entrance like a mounting block for the scaffold.

The sun comes out.

A psychiatric social worker meets us at the door. He’s leaning on a stick, but by the look of him I guess it belongs to the patient.
‘Thanks for coming,’ he says, and leads us inside, pausing in the echoing corridor to give us a briefing.
‘Jack isn’t doing so well. He was discharged from Southview a couple of months ago, but he’s really gone down hill in the last couple of weeks. Not coping, very low, not compliant with his meds, general self-neglect, not eating and so on. He’s got a UTI and a bit of a chest infection going on at the moment, to add to his woes. That’s about it. Flat’s a state, as you can imagine. Says he won’t go in, but I think we can persuade him and frankly he’s got no choice. Okay?’
With his battered brown leather jacket and scrubby ginger beard, he has the demeanour of a charismatic young Captain describing a mission. I expect him to tap a map on the wall with the stick. We’re here, the other chaps there.
But instead he turns round smartly and uses it to prod open the door to the flat.
‘Jack?’ he says. ‘Jack, the ambulance people are here.’

The lino floor that tacks hold of our feet as we walk inside, the junked-up furniture, the curtains, cornicing – even that cuckoo clock – everything seems coated in a soft brown sludge. It’s like walking into a neglected fish tank; even the air has a honey-sick, unfiltered heaviness to it.
There’s a framed poster on the facing wall: Muhammad Ali standing over the body of Sonny Liston. First round, first minute, it says.
On the next wall, there’s a spread of family photographs, leached of colour, curling at the corners, all of them taped together into a patchwork of smudged faces, ghostly poses.
The cuckoo clock suddenly tries to mark the hour, giving out a jarring, wheezy kind of clunk. The bird door remains closed though, and the leaping deer at the bottom that presumably makes a circuit, gives a little jerk of the head and stays where it is.
‘Time to get up, Jack.’
The CPN pulls back a curtain that looks to be woven out of old tobacco strands, to reveal a darkly shadowed alcove and the etiolated figure of a man lying on top of a foetid divan.
‘Time to go,’ he says.

Monday, March 15, 2010

the straight man

Mrs Rawlinson comes to the door. She seems quiet and precise, a fussy bonnet of metal grey hair, a tweed twin-set, an immaculately powdered set to her face. This bell has summoned a character actor out of stock.
‘He’s upstairs,’ she says. ‘It’s pouring out of him.’
She turns and we follow her up. The house has a freshly painted zest, vacuumed, dusted, ruled lines of lemon-scented sunlight angling in through the windows.
‘In there.’
Bill is sitting on the side of the bed with one hand clamped to his nose and the other holding a blood spotted handkerchief.
‘All right, squire,’ he says.
‘Just look at him,’ says Mrs Rawlinson. She picks a yellow washing up bowl off the bottom of the bed and holds it in front of me. A few scrunched tissues and a slop of watery blood. She puts it back down. ‘I ‘spect you’ve seen worse.’
I kneel down in front of him.
‘Just take your hand away from your nose for a second, Bill.’
He cautiously lowers his hand, and tips his head back, presumably so I can get a good look down both barrels.
‘Don’t tip your head back. The blood’ll run down the back of your throat into your stomach and make you sick.’
‘Oh. Right-o, chief.’
His nose is dry. The only trace of blood is a dark red crust around the right hand side of his mouth.
‘Bad, is it?’
‘It’s stopped.’
‘Hey! That’s all right then.’
They’re an unlikely couple. Whilst Mrs Rawlinson is solid, well-upholstered, Mr Rawlinson has the slack, strangely deflated physique of a superannuated clown. Now and again he jerks upright with a burst of energy, and has to put an arm out to the side to stop himself from rolling completely over.
‘How’s your health normally, Bill?’
‘Health? Me? Fit as a butcher’s dog, mate. An athlete. Cricket. Rugby. Football. Anything with a ball. Everywhere a hundred miles an hour.’
He straightens up, puffs his chest out, then taps it proudly with the hanky hand. ‘Not a day’s illness in me life.’
‘Here are his tablets,’ says Mrs Rawlinson, handing me a long list.
‘How old are you, Bill?’
‘How old do you think I am?’
He looks about ninety, so to be safe I take ten years off.
‘Eighty nine,’ he says. ‘Eighty nine years old. Imagine that. Don’t suppose you can, can you?’
‘Looking good.’
We talk about his nose for a while, then I start running through a general health screen.
‘Sixty years we’ve been married. Sixty years next Thursday,’ he says, with a huge sniff. ‘She’ll tell you all about it.’
‘Try not to sniff, Bill. You don’t want to start it all off again.’
‘Right-o, Chief.’
‘Sixty years! Incredible.’
‘Yep. Sixty. Count ‘em.’
Bill suddenly jerks round to smile at his wife, taking the BP cuff with him and almost pitching backwards on to the bed.
‘Hang on a minute, Bill.’
‘Sorry squire.’
I help him set himself upright on the bed again. He dabs at his upper lip with the hanky.
‘Shall I get some things together?’ Mrs Rawlinson says.
‘Thirty years I worked on the railway,’ says Bill loudly. ‘The underground, you know. The tube. Mostly as a driver. That was a time, that was.’
He unrolls the hanky, studies the patterns of blood there, then suddenly flaps it at me.
‘Do you know, three times the train in front of me had one under – that’s what you call it when someone jumps in front of the train. One under. Three times, just the very second before I got there. It’s amazing how many do it. Horrible. Terrible. Arms, legs, whasisnames. Still goes on, I expect. I remember this one time…’
Mrs Rawlinson suddenly talks over him, describing his other nosebleeds, what was done, what was said.
‘Oops. That one hit the buffers,’ he says with a boyish smirk. Then he jerks round to wink at his wife, and I just manage to stop him crashing face down into the bowl. As I help him upright again, Mrs Rawlinson sighs and takes it away to rinse clean in the bathroom. It’s a sixty year routine and they do it seamlessly. When she comes back in a few moments later, I look to see if the bowl has been filled with confetti.

Monday, March 08, 2010

grippy boots

A woman waves to us from between some parked cars. She smiles as I draw level and wind the window down, but then she puts her hand up to cover her mouth and nose, and cries.
‘Let me just park up and we’ll be with you’ I say to her.
She steps back as I pull as close over to the side as I can and put the hazards on.
It’s midnight. The night is sharp, balanced on a point between a good night out and something wilder, louder, more ragged. A tsunami of girls comes crashing along the pavement, a Hen party, all dressed in St Trinian’s outfits. We climb out and take cover with the woman behind the ambulance just as they wash past, shouting and singing; one of them flicks her skirt up, moons us in a thong. The woman nods and smiles at them, and eventually they pass away, their cat-calls echoing off the house fronts and cars and frosted paving slabs.
‘What’s going on?’ Rae says.
‘My sister isn’t very well – here,’ she whispers, leaning in to us, tapping the side of her head. ‘She’s had a lot of personal problems, difficult things. But this? This is something else. It’s been going on for a year now. I looked up the symptoms on-line and she ticks all the boxes. I’m really scared she’s becoming a paranoid schizophrenic.’
‘So what happened tonight?’
‘It’s my mum’s birthday. We went out to celebrate, to a restaurant. On the way there she was saying how she’s been hearing voices whispering from the walls, and how when she’s out running strange people have been jumping out at her. It was so painful to hear her talk like that. When we got to the restaurant she was quiet and edgy. We ordered starters, she had a rocket salad with parmesan, and we drank some wine. When she put a forkful in her mouth she started gagging and making a horrible noise, pulling it out and spitting it all over the table. She said the waiter had put poison in it. I can’t tell you how awful it was. We had to leave. And then when we got back here, she’s just been crying constantly, saying how she’s not going to be around much longer to worry us. We really didn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know I’ve called you. I’m scared she’s really going to flip out.’
‘You did the right thing.’
‘Did I?’
‘Definitely. Let’s go in and say hello. Who’s with her now?’
‘My mum and my husband.’
‘Lead on.’
She takes us down some steep basement steps and along a narrow corridor set with heavy brown doors and neatly lit with porthole sidelamps like the passageway of a thirties cruise liner. The mother, a woman as neatly constructed as the house, stands at the far end, smoking. She smiles warmly as we approach, moves to one side to give us room.
‘She’s calmed down a bit now,’ she says. ‘She’s doing all right.’
The woman stops with one hand on the sitting room door.
‘I’d better go on ahead and announce you,’ she says. ‘I don’t want it to be too much of a shock.’
‘Of course.’
She opens the door just enough to slip through; we hear her call her sister’s name. There’s no reply, but after a second or two I hear the husband say: ‘You’re joking.’
We wait in the hallway with the mother.

‘So it’s your birthday today?’
‘Yep. For my sins.’
‘Happy Birthday.’
‘Thanks very much.’
‘How did you do with your presents?’
‘Pretty good. I got some great stuff, actually. I got these beautiful, grippy boots.’
She leans back slightly and raises her left foot, turning it from side to side in its new grey fabric boot.
‘That’s nice. You can’t beat a nice pair of boots.’
‘You certainly can’t. Especially with it being so cold out, so treacherous.’
She takes another drag of her cigarette. The smoke rises off into the cool white light along the top of the corridor.
We hear raised voices behind the door.
‘Oh. Time to go,’ says the mother.
We follow Rae in.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

st michael the terrifying

The steep basement steps tip down to a small, dark courtyard, a brick-arched under-pavement recess, and Michael, crammed up to his knees in a fire exit. He uncurls a little as I touch him on the shoulder.
‘Are you all right?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘How you doing? You feel cold to me.’
‘It is cold’
He uncurls some more, swings his legs round from the basement doorway and pulls his fat hands out from either jacket sleeve. Coarse, bitten back and raw, tattooed with a pen.
‘Somebody rang to say they saw you.’
‘Who rang?’
‘I don’t know. They were worried.’
Michael looks out at me from under his double hood, drawing his focus, collecting himself. Then he reaches up, grabs hold of a railing, and hauls himself to his feet.
‘So what’s going on?’ I say.
‘I haven’t got no place to sleep. I need somewhere to get me head down. I haven’t slept in days, man.’
He holds a trembling hand out towards me.
‘Look at that,’ he says. ‘See that? That’s alcohol. I need alcohol.’
‘Apart from being on the street and needing some alcohol, is there anything wrong with you this afternoon? Are you in pain?’
‘Yeah. If I don’t get alcohol I’ll go crazy.’
He puts his hoods down. His face has been as blasted as his hands by a winter on the streets. His lips are plumped up and numb. Everything about him looks improvised; his ginger goatee could be cut from an old welcome mat, his ginger hair smeared on his scalp with a palette knife.
‘Take me to hospital.’
Michael sways a little as he tries to see who it is talking.
‘Let’s go up top and have a chat there.’
I head back up the steps and he shuffles behind. At street level again, he collects himself for a moment in the brighter light; slowly his anger and frustration seem to swell as the blood flows more freely again, like dreadful wings filling out as blood flows into the circuit.
‘So Michael, the only thing wrong with you right now is that you haven’t got anywhere to sleep and you need some alcohol.’
‘There’s no fucking place in this town. I’ve got no bed. And if I don’t get a drink I’ll fall down in the street and have a fit. Is that what you want?’
‘Have you been along to the shelter?’
‘They got no beds’
‘They could give you better advice than I can.’
‘They got no beds’
He grimaces, raises his arms out to the side, tips his head back, grinds out a strange, strangled kind of roar, half rage, half yawn, flecked with spit. Then he looks straight back at me, and it’s like he’s seeing me for the first time. We stand opposite each other on the pavement, lunch time workers flowing efficiently round the obstruction, the moving statue, approximately human in all its layers, St Michael the Terrifying, fucked-up father to rough sleepers the world over.
‘I’m from Yorkshire, me,’ he says finally.
A police car pulls up behind the ambulance.
A policeman gets out, and puts on his hat.

Monday, March 01, 2010


Five o’clock in the morning, and the shift is two hours shy of never-ending. I’ve lost all my other faculties – I’m writing with a cheese string; talking through my arse - but I can still read a watch face. The actual time, though? That unaccountable spot in eternity where this poor little husk broke surface? You might as well say the Devonian period. Fish learning to walk. That feels about right. Climbing from a cab was never so fraught.

But Bette Davis is on the floor and someone has to get her up. Mr Davis, a great stern blancmange of a man, is waiting at the door.

‘Hello, I’m Spence, this is…’ but he turns away. He’s right. Come in. Pick the lady up. Leave. Why complicate things?

We follow him through a bizarre maze of rooms – any home would look like the Minotaur’s Labyrinth to me at the moment – into a reedy smelling den with a broad yellow divan and a lady crammed knees and arms into the far corner.
‘Get me up!’ she says, her mouth flapping.
‘How did you end up on the floor?’
‘Get me up!’
‘Have you hurt yourself?’
‘She’s fallen out of bed,’ says Mr Davis, steaming at my shoulder. ‘On the floor, there.’
He points.
‘Have you hurt yourself though, Bette?’
‘Hurt yourself?’
‘Get me up!’
‘Where do you want to go when we’ve got you up?’
Monte Carlo? SeaWorld? This bed looks fantastically comfortable…
‘She fell out of bed,’ says Mr Davis, then wanders back out to fetch something from the network of secret passages and catacombs.
‘Come on then, Bette. Let’s get you up.’
Just as we’re about to lift, I say: ‘Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.’
She stares at me.

Mr Davis wobbles back in with a blister pack and a towel, for some reason. I notice that the left side of the bed has a couple of thick white nylon ropes tied from a sidebar to a mahogany dressing table and the back of a thickly packed armchair. It makes that side of the bed look like the set of a crummy pirate movie.
‘What’s with the rigging?’ I ask him.
He dumps his load on the bed.
‘I’ve got to get up somehow,’ he sniffs, then wanders off again.
Bette Davis. Imagine that. We raise her up, put her back to bed.