Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Suddenly a curtain of fine water sweeps down from the night sky and closes across the world. I’m piloting a submarine, the headlamps straining forwards through the gloom; somebody clutching an umbrella glides past like a jellyfish; I see an elderly woman standing in a lighted doorway, clutching a dressing gown together at her chest with one hand and waving with the other; we turn out of the cab and swim across the pavement towards her.

‘What a night!’
‘Thank you so much for coming. I’m afraid Geoffrey isn’t too good. I just can’t seem to wake him.’

Her bungalow is a warm, yellow sanctuary. The water cascades noisily just behind us beyond the open door, but in here the air is quiet and bright, the walls neatly painted, hung with delicate portraits of people, and dogs, and people with dogs – on a low walnut table guarding the hallway is a marble statue of a Jack Russell, sitting on its haunches looking backwards over its shoulder, as if it had been turned to stone in the middle of a walk.

‘Through here.’

A black and white photograph of a young pilot; an oil painting of a young woman; a row of framed kennel club certificates.
And into a clinically white room where Geoffrey lies slumped on a pneumatic bed, his puffy face flushed red, breathing noisily. He has a nasal canula leading off to a cylinder of oxygen, and a catheter leading out from under the bed sheets to a bag hung on the side.

‘Geoffrey? Hello, Geoffrey – it’s the ambulance.’

He opens his eyes and grunts slightly. We sit him more upright and check him over.
Rae finds the care folder – emphysema, palliative care at home, no DNR.
Geoffrey’s wife Jean touches me on the arm.

‘I didn’t know what to do. I can’t cope if he’s as bad as this.’

It’s late at night. Despite the palliative care order, there’s nothing else available to us but to take him to hospital. We ask Geoffrey if he wants to go, and he nods.

‘Don’t worry, Jean. We’ll take good care of him.’

We can just fit the trolley into the house. I feel bad about the tracks the wheels make down the carpet, but Jean waves that aside. I have to move the table and the statue of the terrier to get along the hallway.

‘Ah, Gertie,’ says Jean, patting the statue on the head. ‘She was a good dog.’
I put the statue to one side, just by the doorway to the sitting room.


As we wheel Geoffrey back along the hallway, Jean asks us to wait a moment whilst she says goodbye to her husband. She pushes a few strands of white hair away from his eyes, looks at him intently, then kisses him lightly on the lips. He barely responds.

‘I hate to see him go to the hospital on his own, but I just can’t cope.’
‘It’s okay, Jean. No one will think badly of you.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Absolutely. Get some rest tonight. Call the hospital in the morning.’

She gives him one last stroke on the arm and we carry on down the hallway.

Looking ahead out of the front door, it seems as if the rain has stopped. We pass the living room. Gertie is there, looking over her shoulder. I expect her to run after us as we manoeuvre the trolley over the front step and head out into the shining dark.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

rock and roll

Even if we had no experience of the area we’d know this block was trouble; it takes Mr Jessop about a minute to let us in his front door, with a formidable scraping of bolts, catching of locks, rattling of chains, sliding of metal props. Finally he peeps round the opening, a frail, crinkle-cut old man in shiny trousers, button down shirt and a white wig so conspicuous it could be a nylon mop-head placed carefully on his head for a prank.
‘Come in,’ he smiles, and carefully shuts the door behind us.
‘This way.’
We follow him into the flat; he plops himself back down in his command chair, a patchy, corduroy affair quietly steaming in front of a cylindrical fire so old it’s a surprise to see it runs on electricity.
‘I’ve got this pain,’ Mr Jessop says, leaning to one side. ‘Just here.’ He rubs the right side of his abdomen. ‘The last lot checked me over and said they couldn’t find anything wrong, but it’s really no better.’
‘When were they here?’ I ask him, looking at his clock. Five in the morning. The room is so hot I feel myself being drawn down into a stifling pit of unconsciousness. ‘The ambulance,’ I add, suddenly opening my eyes wide and wondering for a moment if I’d actually passed out.
‘Early,’ he says. ‘About two.’
‘Did they leave a sheet?’
He points to the table.

Everything is lined up. A comb wrapped in a single sheet of kitchen towel; a pen, a pencil and a shopping list; a cardboard sign saying water off; a glasses case; a list of phone numbers; three packets of medication, and a German phrase book.
‘Do you have any relatives nearby?’
‘My sister and her husband live up in Scotland,’ he says, then adds: ‘She’s not well,’ as if she’d be round every day if she was.
I find the ambulance sheet and read through it.
‘It says here you did some vigorous dancing last night?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I was up at the community centre.’
‘What kind of vigorous dancing?’
‘Jive. It’s coming back, apparently.’
I try to imagine Mr Jessop jiving. His wig falling over his eyes.
‘Do you think you might have injured yourself – erm – jiving?’
‘It’s possible,’ he says, rubbing his side. ‘It was a bit sore after.’
‘Everything checks out,’ says Rae, taking off the BP cuff. ‘How old did you say you were, Mr Jessop?’
‘Eighty two.’
‘Well, your blood pressure’s better than mine.’
When he smiles his silvery teeth crackle audibly.
‘I look after myself,’ he says.

Monday, August 16, 2010

medusa from the bingo

When we pull up outside the smart block of flats, there are two patrol cars and a video surveillance unit double parked either side. Rae puts the ambulance where she can, and we hurry up the steps into the lobby, a neat little area with a leather sofa, a potted plant, and a table with a spread of pamphlets.
‘Just going in now,’ says the young buzz-cut officer into his shoulder radio; his black flak jacket, radio and tattoos all of a piece, like an outfit rented from a fancy dress shop.

The call had been dramatically concise: Female, 76. Collapse behind locked doors. Son on scene. Police en route.
The son, an extruded beard of a man in a tired blue jumper and sandals nods anxiously as we join the back of the queue outside his mother’s door.
‘Go for it!’
Buzz Cut draws his enormous boot back and starts kicking at the door. As he draws away each time and slams repeatedly into the panels, we all lean in to study the way the door shudders, passing comment on the locks and bolts that may or may not be employed on the other side.
‘She wasn’t well when I left her,’ the son says. ‘Puffing and blowing. I phoned to say goodnight and didn’t get an answer.’
We wait to one side as Buzz Cut redoubles his efforts. Another team comes through the lobby carrying an iron battering ram between them.
‘We’ve brought the key,’ one of them says.

Suddenly there is a shrill cry from the entrance.
‘What the hell are you doing?’
An outraged woman stands in the frame of the glass doors, her bag slack on her shoulder, her keys held up in mid-air, as if they held some power to make things explicable.
‘Don’t! Don’t you dare do that!’
She hurries forward, brushing aside anyone not in direct contact with the carpentry.
‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’
The son comes forward and puts his hands on her shoulders.
‘Mum. I didn’t know what had happened to you.’
‘I was at the bingo,’ she cries.

The buzz-cut officer wipes his forehead and presents himself to the woman.
‘Your son thought you may have collapsed,’ he said. ‘He was worried.’
‘I went to the bingo,’ she shouts. ‘Is that such a crime? Get away from my door.’
She puts her keys in the lock and begins rattling them speculatively.

‘She seems fine,’ I say to Buzz Cut. ‘We’ll be off.’
I pick up the resus bag and discreetly reverse down the hall.
Everyone leaves quickly; when I look back, the only people left standing there are Buzz Cut and Sandal Son, leaning back from Angry Woman, who is shaking her keys in their face, and swinging her tresses from side to side like a mop of blanched snakes.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

a new ride

‘Hello? Is that Mrs Walters?’
‘Hello, Mrs Walters. My name’s Spence. I’m with the ambulance. I’m calling about Mirabelle. Nothing to worry about, but Mirabelle had the ambulance out to her this afternoon and we’ve brought her to hospital.’
‘Yep. Mirabelle. I understand from the card she’s carrying you’re the host family. Is that right?’
‘Did you know Mirabelle had come in to town to visit the fair today?’
‘The fair?’
‘Yep. The fair. In town.’
‘But she’s down on the beach.’
‘Well – not any more. We picked her up at the fair. She was with a bunch of friends from the language school.’
Was she.’
‘Without an escort.’
Was she.’
‘I’m afraid so. Nothing radically wrong, Mrs Walters. She banged her knee on the walters – waltzers. Nothing serious, as far as we can tell. Everything’s fine. But for some reason she had to be carried off. And then when they took her to the manager’s office, she fainted. Or appeared to.’
‘Does any of this surprise you?’
There is a long pause; the crackles and scratches on the line sound like furies tearing up Mrs Walters’ head. Finally I’m driven to say: Mrs Walters?
‘No,’ she says. ‘She’s a difficult girl.’


The crowd moves sluggishly round the fair, coin corpuscles in an artery of colour and noise, the stalls and rides on every side harvesting the goodness from their pockets. Jump up, Cowboy – No Fear, No Limits, Come on people, Every one a winner, Two to a car, Hold very tight …. All the single ladies, All the single ladies … sirens, klaxons, a pulse of light around a tableau of skulls, cars in flames – screams from a sudden column of bodies thundering overhead – scorched rubber, static dust, doughnuts, chips and hydraulic fluid – stupefied babies with ice-cream beards – feral gangs, lost families – a head through a hole, a gypsy in a caravan, a man with a radio.

Follow me.

We fall in behind him as he machetes his way forward with the aerial; hostility on the faces turning round, slackening to curiosity when the uniform and equipment register. Another attraction. Something else to see.

The office is soundproofed, but the Plexiglas screen pulses and rattles with the noise; we can barely hear each other beneath the muted roar.
She’s unconscious.
Mirabelle lies in the recovery position on the hardboard floor, but even from here I can see her eyelids fluttering. I kneel down and shout in her ear, giving her fingertip a little tweak, too. She doggedly carries on the pretence; when I go to lift an eyelid, she holds it shut.
Did she fall?
Nope. She grazed her knee on the safety bar. When the ride stopped, she wouldn’t get out then went funny. So the guys carried her in here, and she collapsed on the floor.
Have we got someone who speaks French?
Danielle, her friend.
Danielle – can you ask Mirabelle if she’s in any pain?

Danielle looks at me, confused.
But she is unconscious.
No, she’s not. Just ask her.

Danielle kneels down and puts a hand gently on her shoulder.

It’s a slow process. Even if Mirabelle was prepared to talk to us, she has no English. Danielle translates everything reluctantly, as if she thinks we’re being overly cruel with our line of questioning. The fairground manager looks about set to have a stroke. I wonder how many hours he’s worked today; how many situations he’s dealt with.
Let’s just get her out to the ambulance.
You can go on the truck.
What truck?
We’ve got a little green truck. You’ll love it.

He slaps me on the shoulder, then gestures for radio man to fetch the truck.
A minute later he pulls up outside in a tiny green John Deere flatbed with a flashing amber light on a stalk. Rae opens the office door and radio man gestures to the back with his thumb.
All right in the back?
Between the four of us we half-walk, half-carry Mirabelle out to the truck. She moans bonelessly, like a sleeper dragged from her bed.
Come on Mirabelle. Allons-y.
We sit either side of her, our feet almost dragging along the ground as the truck moves off. The truck beeps a warning and radio man keeps punching the horn, but still our progress is slow. As the crowd parts it falls back together behind us. People stare. Whatever kind of ride is that?


‘So that’s where Mirabelle is at the moment, Mrs Walters. In minors at A&E.’
‘The hospital?’
‘Yep. The hospital.’
Another long pause.
‘The hospital in town?’
‘Yep. I’m afraid so.’
I doodle some hair on the smiling face I’ve drawn on the patient report form, but as the silence continues I add some fangs.
‘But she’s going to need someone to come and sit with her, Mrs Walters. Pick her up after she’s done, that kind of thing.’
‘Yes. She will, won’t she?’ says Mrs Walters. ‘And I suppose that’ll be me, then.’
‘So I can leave that with you? Mrs Walters?’
‘Ye-es,’ she says. And before I can add anything to sweeten the pill, the line goes click.

Monday, August 09, 2010

the wait

A man is lying on his side on the pavement outside the Beauty Clinic. A girl in a starched white coat stands over him, half in the shop and half out, both arms folded, absently sucking a red nail, staring out above the morning crowd as it flows around him. Suddenly she sees us approaching and waves enthusiastically.

‘What’s going on?’
‘This guy, he came staggering along the pavement. For some reason he stopped just there, knelt down in the doorway and then just sort of – went to sleep.’

The only thing more striking than the brilliant white of the girl’s coat is the contrast between her and the figure at her feet. Her face is so symmetrical, so carefully painted with foundation, blusher, lipstick, mascara, her eyebrows so perfectly cropped, every individual strand of her hair shining with product, she could have stepped fully formed from the head of an advertising executive. The man, on the other hand, is the brutal, unadorned animal, corrupt and cast down, his shaven and sun-burned head pitted with crescent scars, his battered face slack with drink. Lying at her feet like that, curled up on his side, he looks like the husk of something she sucked the vitality from to achieve her transcendent being.
‘What’s the matter with him?’
‘I don’t know.’
I crouch down by his side, discretely pinch his shoulder and shout in his ear. ‘Come on. Wake up, mate. You can’t lie here.’
He bats my hand away.
‘Come on.’
‘Leave me alone.’
There’s a cut to his voice that makes us all a little more wary.
‘Shall I leave you to it, then?’ the girl says.
‘Absolutely. We’ll get him on the ambulance out of your way.
‘Thanks, guys,’ she says. She really means it.

He wriggles back down in an effort to get comfortable again. Shoppers almost fall over us, frowning in a confused kind of way, only finding alternative routes at the last minute.
‘Are you sick? Have you hurt yourself?’
He motions for us to go away.
‘Come on. Let’s sit you up. Then we can have a chat on the ambulance, in private. This is no good, mate. Honestly.’

Finally, we persuade him to stand up, and help him on to the ambulance. He drops himself down into a chair and starts rubbing some life back into his face. A tall, lean man bulked out with several layers of track suit tops and t-shirts, he looks as if he put on his entire wardrobe before he came out.
‘Aren’t you hot in all this?’
He drops his hands.
‘What do you want from me?’ he says.
‘We just want to reassure ourselves you’re okay. You lay down on a pavement in the middle of the morning. People were worried. That’s all. Let’s do a few checks, then if everything’s okay you can go on with your day.’
He sits back in the chair and stares into mid-air.
‘I don’t care what you do,’ he says. ‘Only do it quickly.’
Whilst Rae helps him bare an arm for the blood pressure cuff, I start writing out the sheet.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Tomasso. T tango, O oscar….’
‘And your address?’
‘Sardinia? Is that where you’re living now?’
‘That’s where I’m from.’
‘So what’s your address now?’
He gives us a postcode only, each letter phonetically again. When I ask him exactly where that is, he starts talking quickly in Italian.
‘I don’t understand you, Tommaso. I wish I did, but I don’t. You have to talk English.’
He closes his eyes and pulls his chin back as if I’ve insulted him.
‘What do you think?’ he says eventually. ‘What do you know?’
‘We’re just trying to understand what’s going on with you today, Tommaso.’
He straightens in the chair and struggles to put his arm back through all the sleeves.
‘I am a sniper,’ he says as he does it. ‘Do you know what that means? Do you know what it’s like to lie on the ground for twenty four, thirty six hours, not moving a muscle, for just one shot?’
‘Yep. That sounds difficult.’
‘You get bitten to pieces.’
‘Scorpions. Tah! Tah!’ He makes little stabbing movements in the air with a finger that make us both lean back a little.
‘Look here, my friend,’ he says, giving up on the jacket and bending down instead to roll up a trouser leg. There is a cluster of tiny scabs running up just over the sock line, like old bed bug scars.
‘Nasty,’ I say.
He drops the trouser leg and shrugs.
‘I’m a sniper. It’s what I do. But let me tell you. You walk a hundred miles, you lie down, you wait for days, you take your shot … (he smacks his hands together) … Tah! Then you wait whilst the rest of the unit clears out. You guard their back. Only then can you think about yourself. Only then can you take your chance and escape.’
He resumes his struggle with his clothing. I help him in to the last track suit sleeve. ‘But I love my country. I am a proud man. You – you don’t know what it means to fight for your country.’
Finally he’s done, and sits still in the chair.
‘Well. All your observations are fine, Tommaso. I don’t think you need to go up the hospital.’
‘Hospital? No way. Six hours on a plastic seat. For what?’

Friday, August 06, 2010


Everyone develops an ambulance persona over time. It starts forming day one, filling out, drying and colouring as palpably as the wings of an insect crawling out on a leaf. Fed equally by experience and need, it is an expedient, semi-fictional character that feels out its correspondences with all the other characters it meets on the job - at the station, at the hospital, in the community; a curious hybrid character, rooted in your private self, nourished by your public self, sufficient, sustaining, protective and – hopefully - loved.

Marcus could hang his character on a peg marked ‘Carry On’. If a scientist tweezered off a thread of his shirt for DNA profiling, the report would come back five percent Kenneth Williams, five percent Charles Hautrey, ten percent Frankie Howerd – the rest, strange, less identifiable structures coiling back into the furthest recesses of British music hall tradition.

A paramedic for twenty years, Marcus has been everywhere, seen everything, and talked about it in tones rounder than a Christmas pudding. Outrageously fit and handsome, with his clear blue eyes, lean body and action figure head of silver hair, he could pull on a leather bomber jacket, throw a leg over a motorcycle and play Steve McQueen in a biopic. Except, he wouldn’t be able to resist pursing his lips, crossing his eyes and saying something like: ‘Ere, Jump on and I’ll let you squeeze me ‘orn, or maybe: I’m not used to having something this big between my legs.

In the Rec room, Graham, a young trainee paramedic, tells us about his three weeks in theatres. He describes what the consultants were like, how easy – or difficult – he found it, fitting in around them, learning how they work, acquiring the statutory number of intubations and cannulations he needs to complete that module.
‘And Marcus, mate, you’ve got an identical twin. I met an ODP there the absolute spit of you. Honestly – looks the same, sounds the same, the same mannerisms. It’s uncanny.’
‘Ooh. Good looking fella is he?’
Graham laughs, and almost spills his tea.
‘There you go. That proves it. When I told him about you, that’s exactly what he said.’

Thursday, August 05, 2010

three days

The Old Sword and Mitre – shabby little temple to the warrior, priest or whatever else beer and whisky will draw out of you – was put up on this corner when carts delivered the bricks. And although its windows have been ripped out a few times since, the doors re-hung, the fixtures and fittings shuffled about, thirty layers of paint slapped on; and although a thick flicker-book of managers have stood behind the bar, the bones of the pub have stayed exactly where they were set, stoically bearing the weight of a couple of hundred years or more. This threshold, beneath the black curlicued metalwork of the sign, has an old stone step scooped in the centre by the feet of countless shadows, toe to heel from the end of a night in the eighteenth century, to me and Frank, banging on the door at one o’clock in the morning, July twenty eighth, two thousand and ten.

Paul, a tall man in a crumpled white two piece suit, comes to the door, his stripy shirt unbuttoned to the belly. He opens it enough to slip outside, slopping half his glass of beer on the pavement in the process. But he doesn’t seem to notice, and after a comically exaggerated glance left and right up and down the street, leans in at a precarious angle.
‘My friend Victor here is having some problems tonight. You see, what happened was, he saw the doctor – well, we think he saw the doctor. He had an accident, you see, a day or so ago. A taxi or something. Clipped him in the High Street. He was fine. He was fine, he was okay. But he hurt his leg, you see. And then he saw this doctor, hopeless, but you see, quite broken or something or some such. But this doctor gave him some stuff. Like medicine, I suppose. And it seems to have made him go a bit woo-woo. I mean, he’s only had the weeniest, tiniest bit of beer, about a half I should say, but it’s upset him a bit, and he’s a bit out of sorts. You’ll see. You’re the doctor.’
He frowns, takes a pull on his glass, then tries to carry on with his monologue, resisting my attempts to get past him by putting his free hand on my chest and leaning in a bit closer, as if he has thought of something even more important to say. But I brush his hand away.
‘Let’s go in and see the patient. What’s his name?’
‘Victor. His name’s Victor. His friend Arseny’s – ah’m - with him at the moment.’
We go in.

Arseny has got Victor face down on the carpet, his left knee in the small of his back, his right arm hooked under Victor’s right arm, drawing it back and up at a terrible angle, the wrist splayed inwards in a professionally applied lock. Arseny nods at us as we come in, leaning back and waving nonchalantly with his right hand, a cocky rodeo rider on a bull.
‘I keep him for you. I make sure of him for no danger.’
Arseny pulls back on Victor’s arm and elicits a whimpering kind of scream.
‘No worries. I have him here ready for you. You safe. He is my good friend but I am professional bodyguard, security man and kick box champion.’
The rope-veined muscles of Arseny’s arms, the V-shaped bulk of his torso and shoulders, are barely contained by the tight second skin of his Adidas t-shirt; his body seems to have bulked up at the expense of his head, though, a minimal, solid-looking nub screwed on as an afterthought.
‘Are you telling me that Victor is violent?’ I say.
‘No. But I control for you.’
‘Thanks, but I don’t want you to control anyone. It looks like you’re half killing him. If he’s violent, we’ll go outside and wait for the police. If he’s not violent, you can get off him and we can talk to him like a normal person. Yeah?’
Arseny grunts, gives Victor’s arm one last affectionate twist, then jumps off and stands to one side.
‘I do this for living,’ he says, articulating his shoulders and rolling his neck. ‘It nothing for me. Really.’
I crouch down beside Victor, who is still growling and grimacing face down on the carpet. Paul taps me on the shoulder and when I look at him he makes as if to carry on his monologue of explanation, until Frank takes him off to one side.
‘Let him talk to Victor,’ he says. ‘You can tell me what you know.’
Victor rights himself, his head bobbing and swaying drunkenly.
‘Come and sit over here,’ I say to him. ‘Tell me what’s been going on.’
He lurches suddenly upright, and I take a few steps back in case he takes a swing. But he simply throws an ill-focused arc of blame around him, and then staggers over to a chair.
‘So. Are you ill, Victor? What’s the matter?’
He sees me for the first time and grimaces again.
‘Go away,’ he says.
‘What do you mean, go away? Your friends called us in because they were worried about you.’ I look over at Arseny and maybe we both feel the irony of that, but I carry on regardless. ‘Something must be up,’ I say.
Victor reaches down and rubs his leg.
‘Paul seems to think you were hit by a taxi at some point.’
He doesn’t answer, but makes as if to stand. Arseny unfolds his arms and takes a step over; Victor slumps back into his seat.
‘Tell me how you’re feeling.’
‘I’m okay. Leave me alone.’
His eyes are plate wide. There’s something about the way he veers from micro-sleeps to sudden animalistic growls and jerky movements that makes me think he’s taken something.
‘Have you used any drugs tonight, Victor?’
He stares at me, and then drops a sneer in his top pocket.
‘Victor? What’s your health like? Do you have any health problems? Diabetes, for instance?’
‘No. Nothing. I’m fine,’ he snarls. ‘Go please.’
‘This is all pretty strange,’ I say to Paul, who has broken away from Frank to lean over me again. He nods so emphatically he’s in danger of pitching head first onto us both.
‘I’m not sure what there is for us to do here, Victor. Where do you live?’
Victor nods upstairs.
‘Do you work here, then?’
Paul puts a hand on my shoulder and whispers:
He works behind the bar.’
It seems incredible.
‘Where’s the manager? Who’s supposed to be locking up tonight?’
Just then a woman pushes in through the front door and walks across the carpet with a purposeful stride.
‘Hi,’ she says. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Can I speak to you in private?’ I say, standing up and leading her over to the pool tables. Paul tries to follow us, but the woman directs him forcefully back to the end of the bar, pointing with a dog-trainer’s straight arm and finger.
‘A regular,’ she says. ‘Means well.’
‘So – Victor actually works here?’
She nods. ‘What’s happened?’
‘I wish I could say. I think it was Paul who called the ambulance. When we got here Arseny had Victor face down on the carpet in an arm-lock.’
She nods and winces, as if to say I can imagine.
‘I can’t figure out what’s gone on. Paul was saying that maybe Victor had been hit by a taxi and put on something by the GP, and that’s maybe interacted with the alcohol, but Victor can’t or won’t confirm or deny it. He’s not able to tell us what medication he’s on, how he’s feeling, or anything meaningful. He’s emotionally volatile, very uncooperative. He’s refusing help of any kind and we can’t force him. I’m quite happy to call the police if you feel worried about us leaving you here with them all.’
She shakes her head.
‘No. I’ll be fine.’
‘I don’t know about this taxi story. My guess is he’s drunk a fair bit of alcohol and maybe taken something else, GHB maybe. Hard to say.’
I pause for a moment.
‘Shit,’ she says. ‘Well. Thanks for coming. Sorry to waste your time.’
‘No worries.’
We go back over to the three of them, Victor groaning on the seat, Arseny standing guard and Paul tottering forwards and backwards, clutching his beer like a spirit level.
‘Last chance, Victor. Will you come to hospital with us?’
‘No. Go away.’
‘Come on then, Frank. We’re off. You guys keep an eye on him,’ I say to Arseny and Paul. ‘Or something.’
‘You take him to hospital?’
‘We can’t if he says no. He’s very clear about it.’
‘Then thank you for coming. Please.’
Arseny holds out a lumpen mitt. I shake it. Then Paul joins in, and everyone ends up shaking everyone else’s hand at least twice. The manager watches from over by the bar.

Outside, Frank shrugs and sparks up a cigarette.
‘Well, what a pointless mess that was.’
‘God knows what was going on.’
Frank blows smoke and leans against the truck. ‘You know, when you went to talk to that manager woman I got a couple of straight words out of Victor. I asked him how long he’d been working there and he said three days. Three days! He asked me if I thought he’d get the sack.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said three days? Three years and you could count on it.’