Tuesday, September 28, 2010

a close call

‘You know - the irony is, Evelyn was never meant to be here in the first place. We were all supposed to meet round at Clarice’s. But Clarice twisted her ankle in Sainsbury’s and stayed with me last night. So we had a bit of a last minute change around. Jane said she’d pick up Evelyn and the two of them would come down together, even though it’s a massive detour for her.’
‘I really wouldn’t have minded,’ says Jane, brightly.
‘You are good, dear. But then Jane’s car had something wrong with it...’
‘The differential.’
‘Or something, so she couldn’t manage it. So Evelyn said she’d pick Jane up and we’d all meet up here.’
‘Honestly, we’ve had such a run of it.’
Evelyn sits straight-backed and watchful in an armchair.
‘I’m sure these good people don’t need to know our every last movement, Vera,’ she says, plucking some invisible lint from her skirt and dropping it over the side.
‘But context is so important, isn’t it, officer? Or is that the police?’
Evelyn glitters dangerously.
‘Are you okay, Evelyn?’ I ask her.
‘Yes. Completely fine. Thank you,’ she says, then closes her eyes, giving a small, pale nod of the head, a queenly indication of the limitless depths of her embarrassment. ‘I came through it all quite unscathed, actually.’
Frank kneels down in the middle of the carpet and spreads out his obs kit like a salesman.
‘Well,’ he says, clapping his hands together and then selecting the BP cuff, ‘I must admit, when we turned into the close and saw those feet sticking out from under the car I thought – hello, this is going to be interesting.’
‘I bet it did give you a fright,’ says Jane, hugging her knees and almost bobbing up and down on the edge of the opposite sofa. ‘But Mr Jeffries was keen to see what the damage was down there.’
‘Yes. Well. Mr Jeffries should have thought of the impression he’d make when the emergency services pitched up.’
‘I called 999,’ says Clarice, her left ankle bandaged and up on a stool. ‘From my lonely vigil.’
‘So, Evelyn. Tell me again exactly what happened.’
She sighs, and kneads the back of one ancient hand with the desiccated fingers of the other.
‘I’ve driven automatics for years, so really I can’t think how this happened. I pulled up outside. I needed to park, so I put the car in reverse. I think I must have gone to look out of the window to see how much room I had left, when I banged my head.’
‘The window was still up,’ says Clarice.
‘It gave me such a shock. I put my hand up to my head like this, my foot slipped off the brake and onto the accelerator, and I shot backwards at a rate of knots.’
‘Into Mr Jeffries’ Rover.’
‘The blue one.’
‘With the dent in it.’
‘And then I think I must have been dazed or something, because I tried to drive forward again.’
‘The noise was unspeakable.’
‘Like a massacre.’
‘They all came running out.’
‘Especially Mr Jeffries.’
‘Until I came to a stop where you see me now.’

Suddenly a female police officer hallo’s in at the door and clumps into the lounge. A thrill runs through the four old women.
‘Everything all right, Ladies?’ she says, tucking her cap under her arm. She is such a towering figure of power, with her utility belt bristling with CS gas, baton, cuffs and flash light, her stab vest plumped up with notebooks, pens and a mobile phone, it’s like watching a storm trooper from some future law enforcement agency stepping through a time portal into an Edwardian luncheon party.
‘Shall I make some more tea?’ says Jane, jumping up and hurrying off into the kitchen.
‘I’d help..’ says Clarice, but leans forward and taps her bandaged foot solemnly.
Vera smiles up at the officer, and pats the cushion next to her for the officer to sit down on the sofa.
Evelyn says nothing at all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

little john

‘He’s up there,’ says the woman with the Jack Russell, waving with her fag hand towards the top end of the dog walking area. She is as strung out as the dog, their long faces pale and quivering.
We walk on up the gently sloping bank to where a heavy looking guy called John is sitting, his right hand clutching his left wrist, a nub-headed, brindle coloured Staffordshire bull terrier panting at his feet. The two of them are a matching pair; if you put the man’s khaki beanie on the dog, the only thing to tell them apart would be the skull and sword tattoos on John’s arms.
‘All right?’ he says. ‘Don’t worry. He’s not the problem. It was that poxy little Jack Russell that bit me. Zac wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Me and Zac was walking along, everything cushty, nice day n’all, very nice, smoking a doobie do, all lovely like. All of a sudden this ratty little shit bag dog comes running over and starts in on Zac. I goes to pull ‘em apart – and I knew I had to be quick, because you know Staffies. Once they decide to lock-down, it’s Goodnight Vienna. The woman was hopeless. All over the place, screaming, carrying on. Anyway, I gets them apart. Yer woman there comes over swinging a lead, and jus’ before she gets it on, the dog sneaks in with a parting shot, bang, right here on the wrist. Bastard.’
There’s no sign of any blood anywhere, not from between his fingers, not on his jeans or shoes, no smears across his face. His hand looks pale, but he must have been sitting waiting for us at least half an hour, all things considered.
‘Can you move your fingers?’
‘Everything feel normal?’
‘Yep. Not bad.’
‘Are you up to date with your tetanus shots?’
‘Yep. And I’ve got a healthy supply of antibiotics at home, just in case.’
‘Why? What do you mean?’
‘I’m a security contractor,’ he says. ‘I just got back from Afghanistan. You could say I’m used to dealing with death and destruction.’
‘Okay. And how’s your health?’
‘A-One, man. Except for some mental problems – you know, PTSD n’all. I’m taking Mirtazapine, Olanzapine, every ‘pine you can think of, really.’
‘Okay. Right. I’ll just move Zac over to the fence and tie him up there…’
Zac’s face splits into a fleshy smile when I untie his lead from around John’s ankle. I make him comfortable over by the fence, then come back to help Frank clean and dress the wound.
‘Let’s have a look at the damage, then. Slowly, slowly.’
We’re both expecting there to be a little pulse of blood at least, or to see some kind of appreciable injury. What we find, though, is a tiny little puncture wound, the kind you might get if you were gardening and snagged your hand on a rose bush.
‘Is that it?’
‘Yep. I kept it elevated, lots of pressure.’
‘Good. Well… we can clean it up, put a dressing on…. were you expecting to go to hospital?’
‘With Zac? No. I’ll just head home if that’s okay with you fellas.’
‘No worries.’
I rip open a sterile water sachet, clean what there is to clean and tie on a small bandage.
‘Grand. Is that it?’
‘That’s it.’
‘Come on then, Zac. Time for dinner.’
He stands up –six foot two, an urban version of Little John, with a Staffie rather than a staff.
‘No kickboxing for a week,’ he says, shakes our hand, and walks off down the field with Zac trotting happily beside him.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

then and now

The last time I was in this park, the sun had been high in the sky. Then, walking in through the sandstone arches had been like walking onto a wide, intensely animated canvas. Every available space on the lawns around the little café in the centre of the park was taken up by people - sunbathing, dozing, reading the paper, cradled in stripy deckchairs or sprawled on the grass, methodically working round ice cream cones, smoking or picking over the contents of a cooler bag, old people in brilliant whites bowling on the green, children chasing each other with water pistols, shouts of order numbers from the café, shrieks from the boating lake, the gentle pock-pocketing from the tennis courts, a chef in black and white check trousers running out to meet us with a dripping bag of ice, and everywhere around us the rich, cut-grass, honeysuckle sweetness of the summer air.

Now, the park is utterly silent and dark.

Frank pulls up just this side of the café. We wait for an update.
Can we get the police running on this one?
They should be there soon.
And the patient really can’t make it to the entrance?
He says he can’t move. He’s somewhere over by the children’s playground. He doesn’t sound aggressive.
I suppose we could take a look, then.
Proceed with caution.

Frank hands me a torch.

Outside the truck we stand for a moment exploring the darkness, the cut of our torch beams bright at first but dimming off into the gloomy reaches of the park.

We start walking.

The flickering, black and silver patterns of the branches and leaves.
A child’s hat on the railings.
A plastic bag.
A can beside a bench.

This is ridiculous.
It’ll kill a bit of time, though.

Another update on the radio.
The patient says he can't give us his name because he's in breach of his parole.
Parole? What do you mean, parole?
He says he's got a history of self-harm and violence. Maybe you should withdraw and wait for the police.
You think?

Every now and again I turn round suddenly to catch anyone creeping up behind me. At the far edges of the park I can see the lighted squares of windows and the passing of car lights along the street, but here in the middle the night is thick and close up and still.

Watch your back.
What’s that over there?

A wood pigeon crashes out of a bush right by our heads and we both almost throw our torches in the air with fright.
Shitting hell.
Let’s wait for the police.

We head back to the ambulance.
The radio rumbles.

The patient says he can see your lights.
And then: He’s up a tree.

Back in the ambulance we hit the central locking button. I have a sick feeling that someone has climbed into the back of the vehicle, so I have to unlock the doors and go out to check. The thunk of the locks re-engaging as I climb back into the cab again is as beautiful a sound as I’ve heard all night.
Another update.
The patient says he is going to hang himself.
I wind down my window and lean out with the torch.
What’s that? Is that something?
A branch. It just looks like something.
This is ridiculous.
I bet he’s not even in the park.

Frank tells Control he’s going to give a blast of the sirens to see if they can hear them on the patient’s phone.
No. Nothing. I think you can probably stand down, guys. We need to do a bit more exploratory work on this one.
Good – because we’ve done more than enough.

He makes a swift three-point turn, and the headlights sweep ahead of us through the empty park.

Monday, September 20, 2010

by the book

‘She’s taken all the meds in my bag,’ says Paula, standing quietly in the junked-up hallway, her features restrained and pale. ‘She’s upstairs with Jake. Neither of them should be here. I’m not supposed to have anyone else.’
Frank steps into the kitchen to retrieve the tablet packets, whilst Paula leads me up the steep staircase, dragging her feet slightly, like a depressed estate agent showing the worst house on the list; on the landing, she nods to the banister rail that guards against the drop.
‘She hanged herself from that a couple of weeks ago.’
When we push the bedroom door open a little more, Jake straightens up from where he has been hunched over the bed.
‘Treat her well,’ he says, ‘Or I’ll be angry.’
‘Of course we’ll treat her well,’ I say. ‘If we didn’t, you’d have every right.’
‘Just bear it in mind,’ he says, and shuffles a little further down the bed.
Eva is hiding under the duvet.
‘I can’t believe you called the ambulance,’ she cries. ‘Why did you call the ambulance?’
‘Because you’ve taken all my tablets,’ says Paula, in the same, measured tone. ‘You need help.’
‘I just want to die. Why can’t I just be left alone to die?’
Jake leans back in to hug her through the covers – It’s okay, babe. Nothing’s happening, babe - smothering her with platitudes whilst throwing glances at us over his shoulder that are much more to the point.
‘Jake? I’m sorry but - are you a relative?’
Eva snatches the duvet cover aside. Her young face is plump with crying, her long black hair in tangles around her face. ‘He’s a friend, okay? I love you, Jake. I’m not going anywhere without you, Jake. Or you, Paula. Or Gary. Where’s Gary?’
‘Who’s Gary?’
Paula folds her arms.
‘Gary’s downstairs,’ she says.
For a moment I worry about Frank who’s still down in the kitchen, but he appears round the door at that moment clutching a fistful of packets.
‘Gary’s all right,’ he says.
‘We’ll sort out who’s coming in a minute, Eva. For now, we just need to figure out exactly what you’ve taken.’
‘I haven’t taken anything.’
‘Well we’ve got a difference of opinion there. Eva reckons you’ve taken all these tablets,’ I say, showing her the packets that Frank hands to me. Jake stands up.
‘I was with her the whole time. We had a few drinks. She had a couple of Diazepam. Or those pink ones. That’s it. I don’t know what she’s talking about.’
‘You do need to come with us, Eva’ I say. ‘I can’t say if you have or haven’t taken these tablets. But from our point of view we can’t take the chance. We couldn’t possibly just leave you here wondering if you’d taken such a big overdose. This is dangerous stuff.’
‘I just want to die.’
‘So let’s go to hospital and get things sorted.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ says Paula. ‘I’m the only sober one here.’
‘Jake and Gary could come up later. I’m afraid we’ve only got room for one person to come in the back.’
Amazingly Jake seems to accept this, but I make sure he goes down the stairs ahead of me, just in case. By the front door he meets up with Gary – a stooped, bearded young guy with scabbed knuckles and a sideways manner – and the two of them share a cigarette as we get ready to go.
At the bottom of the stairs Eva stops and suddenly pulls her t-shirt off over her head, exposing her breasts.
‘Eva – cover yourself up, please. We’re going outside to the ambulance.’
‘But I’m hot. I’m burning up.’
‘You need to keep your top on though.’
Paula helps her back into the t-shirt and we carry on out.

We’re five minutes away from the hospital and I’m trying to get the essential details down: most importantly, what the drugs are that I have in this collection, a disparate range of prescription analgesics, anti-psychotics, sedatives and paracetamol products. Eva alternates between pseudo-unconsciousness and a rapid gabble that veers from extravagant expressions of love to an unpleasant kind of clamped-down, black hysteria. She keeps sitting up suddenly and trying to climb off the trolley. She is naked from the waist up, scratching herself and thrashing around.
‘Keep yourself covered,’ I say. ‘We’re almost at the hospital.’
‘I can’t,’ she says. ‘I’m burning up. They’re only tits,’ she says. ‘They’re not even real.’
‘You’ve got to try to keep the blanket on.’
‘I want a kiss,’ she says to Paula. ‘Kiss me,’ – and she throws her legs over the side of the trolley.
‘Come on, Eva. Settle back. I don’t want you falling off. We’re almost there.’
Paula leans in and gives Eva a kiss.
‘Is this what happened to you when you took your overdose?’ Eva says as she reluctantly lets her go.
‘Yes. Exactly the same.’
‘Have you got any of that cream?’
Before I can stop them, Eva is over the side of the trolley again and Paula is rubbing a thick, white cream all over her arms and chest.
‘That should help,’ she says.
Eva suddenly grabs her black hair, tugs it off and throws it across the ambulance where it lands by the back door. Her real hair is a brutally cropped ginger red, sticking up in tufted clumps. She shuffles quickly down to the end of the trolley, grabs the BP cuff and lead and wraps it around her neck, then leans backwards to pull it tight. I jump up, scattering the pill packets and clipboard onto the floor and push her back upright.
‘Come on, Eva. This is just silly.’
I unwrap the chord from around her neck and throw it aside just as the ambulance draws up outside A&E. Frank reverses into the bay, and comes round to the back. He opens the door.
‘Just a minute whilst we get sorted here,’ I say, breathing hard behind Eva.
Frank takes the scene in: Eva half naked on the bed covered in white cream, Paula with her arms folded, the tatty black wig on the floor in front of him.
‘Spence.’ He clears his throat. ‘Maybe later you could show me where exactly in the manual it talks about this particular treatment,’ he says.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

side effects

When I was four or five, I had a magnetic fishing game. In the battered old box was a cardboard screen printed with a coral reef. I’d stand that up, scatter the fish behind it – plastic yellow, red, orange; each with a little metal ring through its nose; each with the same stupefied expression – then dabble a stick with a magnet on a string over the side.

That blind and slightly hysterical click as a plastic fish kissed the magnet, that shaky draw up past the top of the reef - that’s how I felt at half past four this morning when the radio trembled and dragged me out to another job.

But the dawn helped. The sky was broad and clear, phasing blue through turquoise to deepest blue, like an alien metal warmed by the sun. No one but the birds saw us spark up the truck and leave the station. Even they hadn’t found their voices yet.


The flat is above a betting shop. The door is open and the hall light cuts across the pavement. As I step down out of the cab a tall guy comes to the doorway, mess of brown hair, features of undercooked dough.
‘Upstairs in the bedroom,’ he grunts. As we follow him inside he calls up the stairs: Ambulance people coming up. Make yourself decent, girls.

James, the tall guy, leads us into the room, and straightaway dumps himself back on the unmade bed that dominates the space. Below him there are two women sitting cross-legged on the floor: Shell, groaning, leaning over a bowl, Wanda behind her, talking quickly and happily even before we’ve introduced ourselves.

‘Two grams of Ketamine, four hours ago. Went to sleep quite happily then woke up with this pain. I’ve seen exactly the same thing with Tommy and he just drank lots of warm water to clear it. Didn’t he, Shell? And that worked out fine, didn’t it? So that’s what we’ve been doing. Hey, babe? But she’s still got this pain and we were running out of ideas, and then she said call you guys, so – we did. But we didn’t want to.’
She rubs her friend’s back and kisses her shoulder.
‘But it’s going to be fine, you know, Hun? There’s nothing to be scared about. You’ll be okay. We’re all good.’
She smiles up at me, her eyes a total eclipse.
‘But the paramedics are the experts.’
Shell groans again and rocks forwards and backwards.
‘Kill me. Kill me. I can’t stand it.’
I squat down and feel her pulse.
‘I don’t doubt you know more about this stuff than I do. I’ve come across people who’ve suffered K cramps before, a bit like this. I’ve no idea what causes it. But then you have to think it might not be that. You might have trouble with the purity of the gear. It gets cut with all kinds of things, so you never know how it might affect you. You don’t seem too bad at the moment, Shell, except for this abdo pain. The only thing we can do is to take you up the hospital so a doctor can assess you.’
Shell suddenly stands up, almost pitching the bowl over. She heads straight out of the door to the stairs.
‘Whoa, Babe!’ says Wanda, laughing and jumping up. ‘Wait for us. I need my make-up and phone.’
James sits up and wildly scratches his hair.


Out on the ambulance Shell is hyperventilating.
‘Shouldn’t you give her a bag or something?’ says Wanda.
‘Let the guy do his job,’ says James.
‘I’m just saying. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m loving it.’
She gets out her phone and starts to film everything.
‘Wanda? Can you put the phone away, please?’ I ask.
‘Why? This is experience. I want to get it down. I want to remember.’
James reaches over and places his huge hand over the phone.
‘Put it away,’ he says.
‘I just want to keep it for the future.’
‘So look around,’ he says.

Shell calms down and we head off for the hospital. Wanda tries to put her make-up on, but the ambulance pitches and jolts so much she keeps hitting her forehead with the mascara brush.
‘Oh my God!’ she screams. ‘It’s so bumpy. I thought ambulances were supposed to be for sick people. What if I had something wrong with my neck?’
Shell vomits into a cardboard bowl.
‘They’d drive a bit slower, babe,’ James says, and then he yawns so widely it’s like someone throwing open a trunk.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Faith and Rose are in their late eighties and have lived together all their lives. A pair of little troll dolls, white hair sticking up as fine and fluffed as polyester stuffing, perfectly round eyes, a permanently surprised expression, as if our breezy ‘halloo’ was the most incredible thing they had ever heard.
‘You were quick,’ says Rose, momentarily stunned, but then giving herself a busy shake and hurrying about the flat, pushing clothes and things into what looks like a toy suitcase.
‘Don’t forget my slippers,’ says Faith.
‘They’re on your feet,’ says Rose.

The block is eerily quiet. Every door has gradually had its letter box sealed with parcel tape so the postman can see which flats are empty and which occupied. Even though the flats have only been up twenty years, the main sewers have collapsed, and under-pinning is too expensive. So all the elderly residents are gradually being re-housed around the county. There are ten left. When the last letter box is taped, they’ll tear the place down and start again.

‘The hip’s gone,’ says Faith. ‘I woke up like it.’
‘She’s in a lot of pain,’ says Rose, tossing the suitcase on the bed.
‘Watch it!’
‘How’s the pain, Faith?’ I ask her.
‘Terrible. You’ve never known pain like it.’
‘We can give you something.’
‘I’ll ask for help when I need it,’ she says, but lets me take her by the arm to make the move from the bed to the carry chair.

There are two girls with silver party balloons laughing and fighting in the street outside. They stop and stand either side of the pavement as a guard of honour as we pass between them. Faith looks straight ahead, but Rose nods and smiles at them, and raises the little red suitcase like the Chancellor on Budget day.


‘So what line of work were you in before you retired?’ I ask them when all the paperwork’s done and we’re still miles from hospital. ‘What did you do for a living?’
‘During the war I made parts for Spitfires. Then after that was all done we changed over to barometers,’ says Faith. ‘I made it to supervisor, so I must’ve had something.’
‘I made locks,’ says Rose, leaning round the seat and smiling.
‘Do you remember, Faith? We used to finish work, go home for tea and then go straight back out fire watching.’
‘We had the energy then.’
‘It was terrible. Worse than you can imagine.’
‘A German bomber crashed just over the road, in the old cemetery.’
‘The pilot was dangling by some strings, but no-one could help him.’
‘The bombs hadn’t gone off.’
‘Dangling, like a puppet.’
‘There was nothing anyone could do. We thought the bombs were going off.’
‘So what happened to him?’ I ask.
‘I’ve no idea,’ says Rose, her eyes shining. ‘I can’t remember.’
The ambulance suddenly pitches from side to side.
‘Sorry!’ says Frank from the front.
‘Honestly,’ says Faith, pulling the blanket about her.
Rose sits back and hugs the suitcase.

Friday, September 10, 2010

a box of things

There are three children on BMXs in the middle of the playing field, circling in a pack, wondering what all the police patrol cars, the dog van and the ambulance could mean. They break apart, re-group and then cycle in our direction, but when they draw level they simply pile on the brakes and stare. I’m the first to speak.
‘All right?’ I say to them. ‘Have you seen a woman over this way? A bit upset?’
Why? Has she killed someone?
Is she on the run from the police?
Has she chopped someone up with an axe?
‘So have you seen anyone?’
What do we get if we say yes?
‘A thanks for your help and very well done.’
No then.
They cycle away, turn, and then squat on their bikes in the penalty box to watch what happens next.

A couple of police officers are climbing over a wire fence to get into the woods that border the fields. A helicopter hovers overhead.
‘I suppose we could look the other side.’
Frank bends down and puts the flat of his hand on the grass, then squints off into the distance like a tracker in a corny western.
‘Woman pass. No shoe. Big hair. Half hour.’
As we get closer to our section of the fence, we see a pink and black Lycra top caught on the barbed wire. Just as I unhook it, a wood pigeon flies up out of the undergrowth.
‘Heap bad magic,’ says Frank.


Earlier that day we’d heard a call go out for a hanging in the city park. We’d had a steady procession of non-injury falls, non-specific abdo pains, non-conveyances – non-anything, really. So we listened jealously as the All Call went out. Later we heard the woman had pulled a knife on the crew that attended. Somehow, in all the chaos of the scene, she’d managed to disappear, and the police had been scouring the area ever since. A couple of hours later, a woman walking her dog on some fields about a mile from the first incident had reported seeing a woman – thirty years old, long blond hair, dirty sweat pants, vest – screaming and shouting, running across the fields and into the woods, trailing a length of rope behind her.
‘Stand off for police,’ Control told us.
Frank rubbed his hands together.
‘This is more like it.’


An hour later one of the police officers stands us down.
‘Thanks for your help,’ he says. ‘We don’t reckon she’s here now. I think we’ll just carry on in the area and hope something turns up. Her friends live nearby. She’ll probably pitch up there.’
We clear up. Onto the next job: a non-injury fall.


Three hours later we’re about to head back to base for our second break when Control apologises and gives us a job backing up a car just round the corner from our current position.

The custody suite is a forbidding block of buildings, set back from the road on a little rise, screened by a high brick wall and a green steel gate that slides back when we identify ourselves at the console. Frank parks up in one of the loading bays, and we go through a series of concrete pens with remotely locked doors into the centre of the operation – a wide, circular room with a hub of raised desks in the centre, protected by screens.
‘This way’ waves one of the white-shirted custody staff. He leads us along a corridor to an open cell at the far end. There is a woman lying on a mattress on the floor with her head to the door. Each arm and leg is being held by an officer. A paramedic comes out to see us.
‘Thanks for coming, chaps,’ he says, adjusting his gloves.
Behind him the woman starts screaming abuse at the officers, thrashing from side to side in an effort to get away from them. She is a wild storm of a person, threatening appalling violence one moment and cracking matey jokes the next, all the while trying to find the angle, the weak spot, any advantage that would allow her to break free and run out of the cell. But the four of them adjust their hold and position to accommodate every dip and turn, all the while chatting calmly to the woman, as if what was happening was just the normal kind of thing, something mildly embarrassing between friends, perhaps - but a grim set to their apparent savoir faire, as easy as the metal grille over the ceiling light.

The paramedic comes over to us.

‘I don’t know if you heard the story of this one,’ he says.
He nods in the direction of a gloved officer, sorting through a pile of clothes and things in a box just outside the cell door. As if on cue the officer holds up a length of frayed blue nylon rope. It hangs there in front of her for a moment, but then the screaming suddenly increases from the cell, some urgent shouts, which spur her on; she drops the rope neatly to one side, and starts patting down the pockets of a pair of dirty sweat pants.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Rowan Close is so dark and definitively shut up for the night it can’t possibly be real. It feels like one of those cute miniature streets in a petting zoo, one mouse per house; if I reached out through the ambulance window I could gently lift a roof and see a ball of fur curled up in a nest of grass. But instead we pass noisily down to the end of the Close and park outside the only bungalow here that could be expecting us: number thirty-seven, Clara’s house.

We can see her crashing around inside, the curtainless windows thrown open, the stark box of her front room cruelly lit by a unshaded bulb. A ginger cat is cleaning itself on the window ledge. It stops with its paw half to its face as we come to the garden gate, thinks for a moment, then drops away into the bushes.

‘Garfield!’ she shouts from inside. ‘Oh don’t let Garfield go!’ But before she can reach the window she topples head first onto the sofa.

The front door is half open. We knock once and go inside.

‘What do you want?’ she pants, struggling to right herself as we follow the only clear trail through all the boxes of books, kitchen equipment, bedding, bags of trash, piles of magazines and other heaps of anonymous and unsorted detritus that clutter up her home.

‘I don’t know, Clara. You called us.’

She rights herself on the sofa and studies us for a moment. Her face is as boozily pink as her blancmange coloured top, its plunging neckline open to the waist, barely covering a pair of breasts so vast she looks like some great fertility totem from the stone age: the Venus of Willendorf pissed on pear cider, her great bare feet resting on a pile of spilled copper coins.

‘Yes. I do feel strange.’

‘In what way, strange, Clara?’

‘I fell over. Outside.’ She delicately picks aside some greasy strands of hair that are sticking to her cheek, then gives her head a demur shake. ‘I don’t know why.’

Suddenly she deflates a little, sags into herself and seems to fall asleep for a second or two. But just as suddenly she jerks awake again.

‘Please excuse the mess,’ she says. ‘I’m doing a spot of decorating.’

In a neat line by the sofa are four, one and a half litre bottles of Perry. Two of them are empty.

‘Oh I know what you’re thinking,’ she says, putting her hands down either side of her and bobbing her head forwards and back in an effort to build sufficient momentum to escape from the sofa – then settling back down again in defeat. ‘I know exactly what you’re thinking. The old bag’s drunk again. But I know what I can and can’t drink. I know what’s normal for me. And this…’ she sighs, gesturing to the room about her with a strange, spidery flip-flop motion of her hands. ‘..this falling over in the street business … this, is definitely, not normal.’

Thursday, September 02, 2010

little rumour girl

The stair lift was out of action. The engineers had been out earlier in the day to fix a broken switch, and now that they had gone, the thing would not move at all. Mrs Ellerman’s carer had tried to get them back, but what with one thing and another, the soonest they could fix the lift was midday the following day. As Mrs Ellerman’s knees lacked the chutzpah to make the climb to the first floor, the carer had made up a temporary bed in the lounge, dragging down the single mattress, layering it with a paisley, duck down quilt, a rainbow-coloured crochet throw, sheets, blankets and numerous pillows and cushions, all artfully arranged in the centre of the living room floor, looking like a thrift shop take on a Sheikh’s tent.

Mrs Ellerman sits on the carpet beside it all, her grey eyed stare falling strangely short, hanging somewhere in the quiet space between us.
‘Did I do the right thing?’

Physically she is in good health, apart from a pair of creaky knees. She looks up at us, like a child who suddenly found themselves sitting on the lounge floor in the dark hours of the morning, eighty years later.

‘My Phil caught that trout,’ she says, looking over to a silver framed portrait of a man holding up a fish. Phil supports the fish with both hands, emphasising the weight. He has a moon man smile, a big shining curve running from one side of his hat to the other. The fish stares out through his fingers.

‘I used to work in a typewriter factory,’ she says as we help her into a chair. ‘I went in to work one day and I says to the foreman “There you are, mate. That’s your lot. There’s my resignation. I’m off”. “Why’s that, then, Rene?” he says. “How come’s you’re off?” So I turns round and I says “You know full well why I’m off. It’s that little girl, always hanging round, spreading rumours, tittle-tattle. You ought to know better than listen to someone like that.” So the next day I goes to him and I says “Let’s have that job back then.” And he turns round and he says: “What about little rumour girl?” and I says “Never you mind about her, mate.”

‘Do you take any medications for anything, Mrs Ellerman?’
‘Only what they give me. I don’t know.’
She looks over by the table with the fish photograph. Underneath it is a silver suitcase with a combination lock.
‘In there,’ she says.