Sunday, November 28, 2010

1985

Midnight, and the moon rides low above us, trawling the world for heat. We smack and rub our hands, scan the cottage with a flashlight. Frank raps the knocker, and the sound echoes along the black lane.
A moment, and the door opens.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ says Edward, stepping aside and ushering us forward. ‘Come in. Come in. You’ll catch your death out there.’
He turns and we follow him into a cosily lit kitchen diner. The ancient brick fireplace in the far wall arches over a wood burning stove, where a bright heap of logs blazes and snaps. Around it, pinned across the exposed brickwork, lithocuts of dogs leaping through winter scenes; watercolours of elm trees, wheat fields and crows; and family photos, children and adults, separate, together, their forms and colours merging, ghosting beyond the glass.
‘It certainly is bitter tonight,’ he says, settling back into his chair. There is a cup of cocoa on the oak side table, a pair of bifocals, and a book of poetry by Seamus Heaney face down beside it.
‘Brass monkey sends his apologies,’ says Frank.
‘So what’s been happening tonight, Edward?’ I say, squatting down beside his chair.
‘Well I started feeling this pain in my chest,’ he says, describing a little circle with his index finger in the middle of his jersey. ‘I got a bit worried and phoned the out of hours doctor, and he said he was going to pass it on to the ambulance, because he thought it was just possible I might be having a heart attack. I don’t think I am, though. Do you?’
‘I don’t know. Have you got the pain now?’
‘No. Sod’s law, of course. Almost as soon as I hung up, it seemed to go.’
‘There you are. We don’t even need to turn up and we make people better,’ says Frank, going over to the stove, standing in front of it and raising the tail of his jacket. ‘Ahhhh! That’s more like it.’
‘I don’t want to be a nuisance, chaps. I’m so terribly sorry for calling you out on a night like this.’
‘Don’t worry yourself about that, Edward. The most important thing is to make sure you’re okay.’
We go through the usual questions for chest pain, take a few readings.
‘We need to get you out to the vehicle and do a proper ECG. Is that okay?’
‘Yes. Of course. Whatever you think. Would it be okay if I just called my daughter Stephanie and told her what’s happening?’
‘Sure. Go ahead.’
‘Will I be going to hospital, do you think?’
‘I’m afraid so. You can’t be too careful with chest pain.’
‘Righto.’
He dials the number.
Frank puts our equipment back in the bag and I write down a few details.
Edward gets through.
‘Hello, Steph? It’s daddy. Look the paramedics are here and they think it’s probably best if I go with them to hospital. I’m so sorry to be a nuisance, dear. But I’m perfectly all right. The pain’s gone and I’m feeling okay. Please don’t worry yourself… No, no. I’m absolutely fine. I’ll be there for a few hours. I’ll let you know when I know more….. No, darling. It’s late and you’ve got work tomorrow….. Honestly darling, it’s very sweet of you but…. well, if you’re sure. I’m so sorry. I’ll see you up there, then? Love you.’
He rings off, gently puts the phone back in its cradle. His hand lingers there for a second.
‘She’s a sweetie,’ he says. ‘And she’s got work tomorrow.’
‘Duvet day,’ says Frank. ‘I’ll write her a note.’
‘Would you? That’s kind,’ says Edward.
He stands up and Frank hands him his jacket.
‘Jane would say I was making a fuss over nothing. And she’d be absolutely right, of course.’
‘Is your wife…?’
‘She died a few years ago, now. Quite a few years, actually. Nineteen eighty five.’
He pauses, his jacket half on, inclining his head, as if someone was calling to him and he couldn’t quite hear. I go to help him finish dressing, a log cracks on the fire, the moment passes.
‘Shall we?’ he says, then reaches up to a hook by the door, takes down a hat, and pulls it on firmly. ‘Lay on, Macduff.’

Friday, November 26, 2010

battle of the slingbacks

The house at the end of the street is strangely elevated, sitting on a steep rise like a grim urban decoration on a grassy cake. A tuck of steep concrete steps zigzags down from the front door, a black iron handrail running along the right side.
Rozka is sitting on the last step, holding a bloody handkerchief to the side of her face. Pavel, her partner, is speaking excitedly into a mobile; he steps out into the street and waves his free arm in the air. As I pull over, he grabs the handle and hauls the door open.
‘Whoa! Just slow things down a bit,’ I say, pulling the keys out of the ignition. ‘My colleague just needs to get a bag out of the back.’
‘Please. My wife,’ he says, stepping back onto the pavement, glancing up and down the street, into the sky, as if he were expecting a fleet of other vehicles and a helicopter. ‘She fell.’
‘Let’s have a look.’

You would think the two of them had been heading out to a fancy dress party if it wasn’t nine o’clock on a weekday morning; Pavel as Tony Montana, Rozka as – who, exactly? An ankle length black fur coat with a feathery black trim, ruched white blouse with pearls and earrings, a bone-clasped stack of crow black hair, blood red lipstick, and a pair of slingbacks so precipitous she could by-pass the stairs all together and step out of the house straight on to the street like a circus performer leaving for work.
‘I tripped,’ she says, looking up with her one good eye.
Frank checks her over. It looks as if she stumbled on the last step, pitched forwards onto the pavement, and gave herself a glancing blow on the side of her face which broke her sixties style glasses, giving her a small but stitchable cut just below the right eye. Luckily, everything else is fine.
We clean and dress the wound, help her up.
‘Love your shoes,’ says Frank. ‘I’d need a ladder to get into them, though.’
She smiles.
‘I know they’re a bit over the top, but I can’t help what I like.’
Pavel bowls across. As he talks, he waves his arms in the air to illustrate the magnitude of the accident. His shirt is unbuttoned to the belly, and the ropes of gold chain he wears around his neck tug and tangle in the thick grey curls of his chest hair.
‘You will kill yourself one day. One day you will fall from the very top of the stairs straight onto your head and your brains will be splashed across the road. How will that be, hey? How do you think that will be? What am I supposed to do then? I love you. You’re my baby and I love you for always. But I’ve told you and you do not listen.’
‘Pavel?’ says Frank, lowering his head. ‘If you wouldn’t mind just easing off a bit. Let’s try not to get too fired up.’
‘Sure, boss. Of course. You know best.’
But just as he steps away to make another call, Rozka starts talking at him rapidly and bitterly in Slovakian, and he is pulled back into the fray. We help her into the ambulance, and on the pretext of taking some observations in private, we gently close the door on him.
As soon as they are separated, Rozka resumes her placid demeanour.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says. ‘It’s all so stupid.’
‘Pavel is obviously upset.’
‘He gets very excited about things and he hates my shoes. He’s always saying they’re too tall. But I like them. I’ve never had an accident before.’ She shrugs. ‘It’s just an unlucky day.’

Five minutes later we let Pavel on to the truck. He bounds on.
‘Thanks for everything, guys,’ he says. ‘Thanks.’
The two of them stare at each other, then Pavel reaches out both hands, clasps her face, studies her intently for a second or two at arm’s length, then kisses her gently on the forehead. It’s a touching moment. But just as Frank gives me the nod and I open the door to get out, Pavel hurls himself into another tirade.
‘Steps… shoes… brains…’
I close the door behind me, and put the radio on in the cab.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

the man in the cupboard

A policewoman intercepts us as we pull up outside the house.

‘It looks like Chelsea might be suffering alcohol withdrawal,’ she says. ‘We got a call from her to say there was an intruder in the house. When we got here, she was outside in a bit of a state saying he was hiding in the cupboard. Mate – it’s a tiny little box for the electric meter. A cat wouldn’t fit in it. Anyway, we had a good look round the rest of the house and reassured her. Didn’t find a thing. It’s all quiet now. She’s upstairs on the sofa with my colleague. What else can I tell you? We’ve been here before, nothing serious, all alcohol related. She was meant to go the substance misuse people this morning to start on a programme. We gave them a call and the woman there said to call you guys, because if she’s having serious hallucinations and hearing voices, she should probably go to hospital. Anyway. See what you think.’
The policewoman moves off to make a few calls. I knock on the door, shout up ‘Ambulance!’ and we trudge up a flight of worn blue stairs to the living room.

‘Oh my good god, look who’s coming up now,’ says Chelsea. ‘That’s all I need. I’m not sick you know. You’re not carting me off to hospital.’
She is sitting on the edge of the sofa, a straight line from her hips to her eyes. She is a curious mixture, a cut-up collage of a woman; dance instructor, northern comic, clairvoyant. Her eyes are lightly underscored with sleeplessness, and she holds herself perfectly still as she talks, but despite the strange context of our visit and a living room crowded with uniforms, she seems remarkably sanguine.
I pull up a chair and lay the clipboard across my lap.
‘Chelsea? We heard a little bit from the police about what happened, but I’m still not exactly clear. Can you tell me what’s been going on?’
‘Right. What it was – this man broke in to the house and wouldn’t go. He was chasing me round, saying stupid things, you know, whispering, singing and carrying on and stuff. I kept trying to get him out but he just wouldn’t go and I got really scared. Then he jumped in the cupboard and I could hear him whispering behind the door. So I ran out and called police. When they got here he’d gone, thank god. All I need is to change the locks and I’ll be fine. Honest. There’s nothing else going on. I’m not mad.’
‘The thing is Chelsea, there are some aspects to the story that don’t quite add up. You know this cupboard the man hid in? The police say it’s really, really small. Too small for anyone to hide in. So from our point of view, you can’t blame us for thinking maybe what you were having was some kind of hallucination.’
‘Once he was out I was fine. I just need the locks changing.’
‘The police said you’re due to start an alcohol detox programme soon.’
‘Yeah. I was supposed to go this morning, but all this business stuffed it up.’
‘When was the last time you had a drink, Chelsea?’
‘Four days. Maybe five.’
‘I think it’s a brilliant thing to do. It’s definitely worth it, but it’s going to be tough. You know more about this stuff than me, though. All the side effects.’
‘Yeah. I’ve done it before. I know what happens.’
‘So you know you can suffer with hallucinations – incredibly vivid, you can’t tell them from the real thing – but hallucinations nonetheless.’
‘Yeah.’
‘So do you think it’s possible this man in the cupboard could’ve been a hallucination? Horrible and scary, but not what you might call real?’
‘Yeah.’
She stares at me.
‘But now he’s gone, you can all bugger off.’
‘Let’s just check your blood pressure and what have you. There are other things that can upset your balance, and we ought to rule them out before we decide what to do next.’
‘Fair enough. Only hurry up ‘cos I need to go out and get some fags.’
Frank runs through the procedure whilst I fill out the paperwork.
The flat is geometrically tidy, everything laid out on an invisible grid. It’s like sitting in an Etch-O-Sketch drawing of a room, angular and flat, with a spikiness to the air that even the bright morning sunlight spilling in through the window does little to warm.
‘Everything checks out,’ I say.
‘Good. I could’ve told you that and saved you the bother.’
‘The only thing that’s unusual is this story about the intruder, though.’
‘I’ve told you. He was behaving very odd, all the things he was saying, the way he said them. I was scared. Anybody would be. You would be. And then when he shut himself away in that cupboard, I didn’t know what else to do but get the police. Now he’s gone, I’ll be fine. Honest.’
She smiles at us pleasantly.
‘All I need do is change those bloody locks,’ she says.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I know what you're thinking

We pick our way up to the battered front door through a tangle of rusted bike frames, boxes, nests of frayed rope, cans, bottles, food cartons, broken kitchen units - surely the high-water mark of some catastrophic flood. Frank presses the bell, and the loud clatter of it activates a monstrous dog, raging in a room deep within the house. It’s followed immediately after by the shouts of two men, so incoherently excitable they could be two cavemen trying to coral a bear. The barking is eventually muffled, there’s a couple of victory shouts, and then the front door is pulled open with a judder that almost puts the frame in.
A cadaverous man in parka and jogging bottoms looks us up and down.
‘Ambulance,’ says Frank, pleasantly. After a pause, he adds: ‘Are you the patient?’
‘Me? No. I’m Scott. You want Tony.’
The man stands aside, and Tony staggers towards us from the interior gloom.
‘Thanks. Thanks for coming. Thanks. I wondered when you’d get here. Do you want me outside, or shall I just sit down here. Woah! Almost went! Don’t want to make things worse, do I? Where shall I sit? On the floor? I’d never get up! Hey! I’d never get up! Do you ever feel like that? I bet you do. Who are you anyway?’
‘Just slow things down a bit, Tony. Have a seat – here.’
Frank sweeps a pile of newspapers from off the third stair up, and helps Tony to sit there.
Tony sits blinking in the hard light from the garden, flicking his head about like a chicken looking for grain. His right eye is grossly swollen and purple, but he doesn’t seem aware of it.
‘What happened to you?’ says Frank.
‘Me? Why? What happened to you? I’m okay. I’ve had a bit to drink – I admit. Why beat about the bush? It’s what I do. It’s who I am. I like to drink – have to, actually. Don’t I, Scottie? Scottie?’
He reaches out, grabs Scott by a pocket, and almost pulls himself off the step and onto the floor.
‘Scottie here’s my best friend. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for Scottie. Don’t worry about the dog, by the way. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’d bite off its head and rip it to pieces – hah! We locked him up for you. They told us you were scared of dogs.’
‘We’re not scared of dogs, Tony, but we’d rather they didn’t get in our way.’
‘Fair enough, squire. I know what you mean. I used to be scared of dogs, but Scottie showed me how to treat them. Didn’t you Scottie? You showed me? You stand there – grrr! Show them who’s boss. Fuck – what’s the matter with my eye?’
‘I don’t know. Have you had a fall at some point?’
Tony starts jabbing at his eye whilst Scott props himself up against the balustrade.
‘He fell over yesterday. Wasn’t knocked out, everything seemed fine, but this morning when he got up his eye was out here so I called you lot.’
‘Have you had anything else other than alcohol, Tony?’
‘Me? Yes. I have. I had some cornflakes.’
Scott sighs. ‘If you mean drugs, no he hasn’t had any drugs. We don’t do drugs. He’s just – always like this.’
‘Okay. Well. Let’s get you out to the ambulance and have a good look at you, Tony.’
‘I don’t need an ambulance, friend. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with me. Fuck – why can’t I open my eye? What’s wrong with my eye?’
‘You’ve had a fall and it’s become very swollen, Tony.’
‘Where’s the mirror? I’ve got to see this.’
He jumps up and staggers over to the hall mirror, a filthy smear of glass on the opposite wall. Next to the mirror are two large and blurrily pixellated photographs of a man staggering around in an alleyway.
‘Fuck! Fuck! I look terrible. Why are you showing me this? Why? What are you doing to me? Is this how I’m going to look the rest of my life? Christ – I’m a monster. Scottie! Look at this! Have you seen this? Jesus.’
‘Come on, Tony. Mind your step.’

***

Tony buzzes around the ambulance like a fly in a bottle.
‘Guess what my daughter’s name is? Go on – guess.’
‘I don’t know. Hayley?’
‘Evelina Stephanie Pattendale. Evelina Stephanie Pattendale. ESP. That’s why I called her that. ESP. Because that’s how we communicate.’ He taps his head and grins. ‘She’s not here though. She’s at college doing biochemistry. Gets it all from me. I know what you’re thinking. I’ve not always been such a fuck-up. I used to work in the industry. Yeah? But I can’t help having a drink. Where’s the harm in that? It’s a big enough world. Christ – my eye! What are you going to do about my eye?’
‘Just leave the dressing alone, Tony. The doctors will take care of it at the hospital.’
‘Hey. Do you want to hear a joke? This is fantastic. I love this joke. Evie told me this a while back. I love this joke.’
‘Go on then.’
‘You start.’
‘I thought you were going to tell me a joke?’
‘Okay then. Be like that. Knock, knock.’
‘Who’s there?’
‘Fireman.’
‘Fireman who?’
‘Sam! You know!’
He leans forward, creased at the waist with a strangely silent kind of laugh. Then he straightens back up again, suddenly serious, glancing about the ambulance with his one good eye. He starts asking questions like a hyperactive child: ‘Why is that yellow? What does that button do? How old are you?’ It’s impossible to talk to him; he is on to the next question before I can answer the last. At the hospital it’s the same, except when he’s in the chair and I’m wheeling him into the department, he seems unable to resist saying whatever comes to mind, utterly lacking that vital, social margin between a thought and its expression.
We pass a young man handcuffed to a prison officer, smoking.
‘Hello mate. What’ve you done? Hey? What’s your crime? He looks bad. A right handful.’ The prisoner cuts him with his eyes.
Just inside the automatic doors, a junior doctor stands at reception waiting for notes.
‘Hello, baby. You look great in green. Doesn’t she look absolutely fantastic! Yeah – and you know it.’
The doctor flushes and frowns as we pass.
I try to dampen down his behaviour, but nothing I do or say makes any difference. Everyone within range of that one good eye is a target, his tracer line of inappropriate free-association rattling off around the department.
‘Cubicle eight,’ says Frank, striding back towards us.
Tony looks up.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

this christmas

The estate is built into the side of a hill overlooking town. Across from Julie’s house, sweeping down beyond the rooftops, aerials, dishes and chimneys, the city overlies the valley like a wash of blue and grey on an animator’s transparency. The wind is picking up. I want to stretch out my arms, take three big steps and launch myself into the void. I could hover high above this spot, adjusting the angle of my hands now and then, a big green hawk taking it all in.
A police car marks out number three. We park the ambulance behind it and walk up a dozen coarse concrete steps to the raised pavement. The moment we set foot there, a chubby Jack Russell comes rolling through a hedge and snapping at our ankles. There’s something laughable about the whole performance.
‘I’m being mugged by an over-stuffed sock,’ says Frank. A woman barks out from behind the hedge: ‘Lola! No!’ The dog turns about and hurries back under it.

The door of Julie’s house stands open. I knock and we step inside.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
They are all gathered in the sitting room. Julie is sitting on a discreetly patterned sofa, holding a phone in her lap and absently scrolling through the address book whilst she talks. A social worker stands in front of her, a police officer to the side, a community psychiatric nurse guarding the door.
‘I’m just not going. I’m not. You can’t make me.’
‘I’m afraid we can make you, Julie. Your doctor says he wants you to get treatment in hospital.’
‘He can treat me here at home.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not an option.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘No. I’m sorry Julie. You have to come with us. Just for a few days whilst we make an assessment.’
‘I don’t need an assessment. Why won’t you listen? I don’t need anything. I just want you to get out of my house.’
‘We can’t do that.’
‘Yes you can.’
‘No.’
The police officer sighs and adjusts her posture; she is so tall and powerful, the entire house seems to shift slightly to the left.
‘Julie. Listen to me. We have signed papers to say you’re to be admitted under Section Two of the Mental Health Act. Your doctor and all these good people want you to get help. You really have to go with us to hospital.’
‘I’m not going to go.’
‘I’d rather you walked out nicely, Julie, but if I have to carry you I will.’
She could tuck Julie under her arm like a roll of carpet and stride out through the brick wall. Julie seems unimpressed though.
‘I’m going to call someone,’ she says.
‘By all means,’ says the police officer. ‘But make it quick.’
Julie carries on scrolling through the phone.
The house is cold but scrupulously tidy. The only sign that something is amiss is the placing of two small camping lanterns on coffee tables either side of the sofa, and a variety of suitcases and light travelling bags placed around the room and in the hallway.
‘It’s cold in here,’ I say, and reach out to touch one of the radiators.
‘They’ve cut me off,’ Julie says, glancing up from the phone. ‘I paid the bill but they refuse to accept it. They said someone called Richard paid it instead, but I don’t know anyone called Richard. They won’t turn me back on until I agree to their terms. That’s it. That’s the only thing wrong. Why is that mad?’ she says, glancing furiously at the social worker. ‘Tell me how that could possibly be described as mad.’
‘There are other things, too, Julie,’ says the social worker, a woman as cosily rounded and domestic as the police officer is squared and martial. ‘You know there are other things.’
‘Like what? Like my useless son in law, stealing keys and sneaking round the house when I’m not in? How does that make me mad?’
The psychiatric nurse nods for me to come over and speak to her in the hallway.
‘She’s psychotic, of course.’
‘Of course. Of course.’ But I take it on trust. She seems like any middle aged woman, trembling and red in the face with her house invaded by professionals and her power disconnected.
‘It’s not just the heating thing,’ she adds. ‘Although that is strange.’
‘Mm.’
We hear the police officer speaking again.
‘Get yourself ready now, Julie. We can’t stay here any longer.’
There is a pause, then Julie says: ‘Well, I’ll come. But it’s against my will.’
‘Obviously.’
‘And I’ll need time to get my things together.’
‘Quick as you can. You don’t need much.’
‘There’s lots I’ll need, thank you.’
‘Like I said. You don’t need much.’
Julie squeezes past us in the hall and into her bedroom. She starts slowly opening drawers and dumping clothes onto the bed. The psychiatric nurse goes in to help. The police officer stands with me and Frank in the hall.
‘Nice place,’ she says, looking around. ‘Wish mine was as tidy as this.’
She reaches up, runs a finger along the top of the door frame, then shows it to us.
‘Look at that. Not a trace. That’s a sign of a good clean gaff.’
The social worker comes out of the living room and smiles awkwardly.
‘Shouldn’t be much longer,’ she says.

***

In the back of the ambulance Julie sits tidily in a metallic blue raincoat buttoned to the neck, hugging a flowery handbag to her stomach, staring fixedly at the cupboards and spigots on the opposite wall. She wears an extraordinary hat – a crocheted egg-yellow beret, that rides on top of her head as if she’d decided to wear an omelette out for the day. The social worker sits to her right; I’m perched on a jockey seat against the bulkhead. The ambulance pitches along the road as smoothly as the conversation.
‘Have you lived there long?’
‘Ten years.’
‘Oh. That’s a long time. It seems like a nice place to live.’ Then: ‘High up.’
‘Look. Just because I have problems with the gas people doesn’t mean I’m crazy.’
‘No, no. I’ve had run-ins with the power companies before. And look at all the stuff there is about them in the newspapers today.’
‘They said I hadn’t paid my bill so I couldn’t have any more gas. When I said I had paid them, they said it was someone called Richard, who I’ve never heard of before.’
‘It’s all very confusing.’
‘Yes. Well.’
She squeezes the handbag even more tightly.
‘Why’s he coming in this way?’ says the social worker, leaning out and peering forwards through the hatch behind me. ‘He’ll hit all the road works.’
The ambulance comes to a halt, and we sit in silence for a while. Julie opens the handbag and rummages around inside.
‘Have you any family in town?’ I ask.
She clips the bag shut.
‘Ellie, my eldest daughter. But she’s hooked up with this terrible man. I wish she’d never got involved with him. The last one was all right, but that went down the Swanee.’
‘What’s the matter with this latest one, then?’
‘He’s bone idle. Always up to something. He drinks. He disappears back to Poland whenever he feels like it. And then he steals my key and goes through my things.’
‘Maybe it’s a misunderstanding. Maybe he was checking to see you were okay.’
‘Well I don’t want him checking up on me. I had a terrible Christmas,’ she adds, her chain of thought lurching as markedly as the ambulance over this stretch of road.
‘Why? What happened?’
‘They invited me round but they’d obviously had a big do the night before. Ellie was still in her party dress and there were empty bottles and glasses everywhere. They hadn’t done any cooking. All we had for Christmas dinner were a few dry sandwiches.’
The social worker frowns. ‘That doesn’t sound very nice,’ she says.
‘Yes – that sounds awful. So what do you think you’ll do for Christmas this year?’
The ambulance lurches to a halt.
‘We’re here,’ shouts Frank through the hatch.
The social worker smiles at me, and shakes her head.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

non-familial

Sarah sits upright on the trolley, her hands kneading the safety rails either side, her eyes wide, her mouth opening and shutting in sequence with the rights and lefts of her head. She could be a fabric and tin automaton, a display in a pharmacy window from the fifties.
‘Are we there yet?’ she creaks.
‘Not yet. So. Sarah – is there any family history of heart problems in your family?’
‘Any what?’
‘Any heart problems in your family?’
‘Yes.’
‘What are they?’
‘What are what?’
‘The heart problems. In your family.’
‘My father. He had a heart attack.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry. Was it long ago?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Okay. And your father had a heart attack, did he?’
‘Yes.’
‘And do you know what caused it?’
‘Yes.’
‘So what caused it, then, Sarah? Your father? His heart?’
‘It killed him.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry. He died when his heart stopped working?’
‘Yes.’
‘What was it? Do you know? Angina? Valve problems?’
She drops her jaw.
‘His car was struck by lightning!’

Monday, November 15, 2010

frills, cuffs and funny hats

It wasn’t so much a storm as wildly accelerated fog. All afternoon it had torn into town from off the sea, flinging itself against every surface, rattling street signs and hoardings to the rivet, kicking up litter spouts, punishing umbrellas, soaking anyone too desperate, stupid or dependent to stay indoors, scouring the pavements like a monstrous, hyperactive, supersaturating broom. But as night fell the storm magically lifted.
Now everything is still, raw, exhausted.
I park under a yellow lamp and we walk up the steps to the house.
Maddy waits on the top step for us.
‘Hi,’ she says, folding her arms across her chest. ‘Thanks for not putting your lights on.’ She looks down at her shoes. ‘I suppose you’d better come up.’
She turns and we follow her inside, a cold, vaulted hallway with a long and brightly coloured bank of letterboxes on the left, a jarring modern addition to the stained glass window above.
‘Sorry guys. I’m right at the top.’
Maddy leads us to the central staircase, taking us up through such a hotchpotch of partition walls, fire doors and screens it’s like she’s taking us up through the centre of a great stack of playing cards.
‘I don’t know about you but I’m gonna be needing an ambulance in a minute,’ wheezes Frank. Maddy laughs.
‘This is it. You made it.’
She pushes open her door and goes to sit on a little square sofa by an open window. There is half a bottle of wine on the coffee table in the middle, Scissor Sisters playing on the music system.
Frank sits down opposite her; I take a stool in the kitchenette.
‘I understand you may have taken an overdose, Maddy,’ he says, putting his clipboard on the floor and taking off his jacket. ‘Is that right?’
She nods.
‘What’ve you taken?’
‘Beta blockers, some analgesics – not a serious dose, though.’
‘And when did you take them?’
‘Since this afternoon. Over the course of about four hours.’
‘Okay.’
Maddy makes herself comfortable, hooking one foot under the opposite knee and leaning back onto the sofa, propping up her head on her right arm. Superficially she could be as easy as a celebrity being interviewed for a weekend supplement, but despite the muted light of her bedsitting room the pinched corners of her sadness still show.
‘I’m really sorry to bother you guys,’ she says. ‘I phoned that help line number, and the bastards called you on my behalf. I suppose they had a duty of care, or something.’
‘It’s no bother,’ says Frank. ‘We just want to make sure you’re okay.’
‘Oh I’m fine,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to get out of it, that’s all. I know it’s not a particularly dangerous dose I took. I used to be a nurse.’
‘Is there no-one else here?’
‘No. I’ve only just come back from Sardinia. My daughter and ex-partner are staying out there. I just needed to get back and sort myself out.’
Maddy pushes her hair back from her face and gives us both a reassuring smile. ‘But don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything stupid. More stupid, I should say.’
I run through some basic obs whilst Frank writes up the form. Maddy accedes to everything with quiet grace. Outside, the night drifts past the opened window, carrying with it a savour of the black ocean, shifting just beyond the reach of the promenade lights.
‘Still nursing?’ I ask.
She laughs.
‘No. I gave that up years ago when I had Julie. No – when I was nursing, it was all frills, cuffs and funny hats. We had a great laugh, though. I remember when I did my psych placement. It was at this huge Victorian institution. They’ve all closed down now, of course. God knows where they put everyone. But honestly, you should’ve seen it. The corridors went on forever. Miles and miles of arched brick ceilings, recessed doors. Boom, boom, boom, when you walked along it. You didn’t know who was staff and who was patient. It was great.’
‘Maybe you could get back into nursing?’
‘Nah. I don’t think they’d be impressed by all this,’ she says, picking an empty blister packet off the coffee table and waving it with a grin, the barrister with the comedy evidence.
‘They wouldn’t have to know, Maddy.’
‘Well,’ she says, dropping it again and settling back into the sofa. After a while she says: ‘Maybe. You never know.’

Sunday, November 14, 2010

cowardly lion at the excelsior

I only recognise The Excelsior when we pull up outside. A dour Edwardian fa├žade, it has all the allure of a ruined mausoleum with en suite and satellite.
‘I remember this place.’
‘Yeah?’
But it wasn’t the place I remembered. There had been a woman in a back room, flat out on a pull-down. As we worked on her, the frowsy woman who shared the room had taken a call on her mobile: this isn’t a great time – seriously, it’s not a great time – then she’d sighed, turned round and lowered her voice – blue eyes, blond hair, big tits – fifty - a hundred. She was right about the blond hair. I could see it hanging on the back of the door along with her wrap. But she was fine. She arranged a time and said goodbye before she jabbed the phone off, right back with us with all her friend’s dates and medications off pat.

An old man waves to us from the porch, his paisley pyjamas gaping dangerously at the fly. As I get out of the truck I nod over to him.
‘Are you the patient?’
He bats the air. ‘Me? Oh no! Though it’s true I have had need from time to time.’
He laughs, coughs. Digging over a tub of gravel.
‘You get on inside in the warm. We’ll be there in a second.’
‘Righto.’
Up the stairs, and the old man is standing half in, half out of the reception office. The ghastly strip-light of the lobby highlights the old man’s nose, his filthy moon glasses folded into it, like a fence subsumed by an oak.
‘Come on in, boys,’ he rattles. ‘Pete’s through here.’
He turns and leads us into the office where a middle aged man sits quietly on a swivel chair.
‘Pete! I know you!’
‘Do you?’ he says, mournfully.
In the pause that follows I try to think of a way of saying: Yes. The last time we met you, were lying at the bottom of Prince’s Hill, shivering in a leather thong, saying how insulted you were they suggested you used Viagra.
‘Yes. It was a while ago, though,’ I say.
But in fairness, no-one could forget Pete, certainly no-one who had seen The Wizard of Oz. But if Pete looks uncannily like the cowardly lion, you would have to think times had fallen off since the witch melted. In his skinny black leather jacket and dirty jeans, he could be the cowardly dealer lion in the substantially re-written modern version, The Wizard of Ounce, growling ‘Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!’ when a flying monkey offers him less than twenty-five for a third.
‘What’s the problem tonight, Pete?’
He strokes his legs.
‘I can’t move ‘em,’ he says.
‘How did you get down to reception?’
He thinks about it. ‘Walked.’
‘I couldn’t carry him,’ says Harold, the old man. ‘I’m ninety-three myself. I’ve had pig valves, balloons, god knows what. I’ll be lucky to see Christmas.’
Pete looks at him.
‘I don’t need carrying,’ he says.
‘I’m just saying,’ says Harold. ‘I’m not the manager. The manager doesn’t stay overnight. I look after things till he gets back in the morning. I’m not – official.’
We turn our attention back to Pete. Apart from his rather lean appearance, his face is tanned and he sits in the chair with his legs planted confidently apart.
‘Any pain?’
He taps his right hip. ‘I’m waiting for an operation,’ he says. ‘But it’s not too bad.’
We check him over, everything’s fine. Of everyone in the room, Harold is the one who needs most attention, but he’s quite happy to watch from the corner of the office, idly turning a little brass horse over and over in his hands.
‘The manager’s back at seven he says, placing the horse back down amongst the chaos of papers and letters on the desk. ‘I’ll fill him in.’
We can’t find anything new going on with Pete, but he insists we take him to hospital.
He squints up at me.
‘Will you be bringing me back?’
‘No. You’ll have to get a taxi.
‘A taxi? How much’ll that set me back?’
‘Early hours – about fifteen quid.’
‘Fifteen quid?’
‘But if you really think your problem can’t wait till morning, the money shouldn’t figure, should it?’
‘Fifteen quid?’
‘And the rest,’ says Harold, chuckling horribly, hauling himself up. ‘Well if there’s nothing more you gentlemen require, I think I’ll take myself off to bed.’

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

a cheery wave

Mr Bacton is sitting in a supermarket wheelchair, discretely hidden behind a supermarket mobile screen, on the edge of the supermarket car park. With his neck in a white cervical collar and in his large flat cap, he could be a giant species of mushroom wheeled out for the village parade. A community responder stands behind him holding him by the stem, whilst around him, chatting happily amongst themselves, are the supermarket first aider and her excitable young assistant; the supermarket manager, Mr Bacton’s wife, a police officer, and an anguished middle-aged woman who massages her hands and moves restlessly from foot to foot, looking everywhere but at Mr Bacton.
Frank circulates, playing the crowd; I go up to the responder who gives me the basic story, the injuries she found, the worst being some central neck pain. Mr Bacton remains at the centre of the whole drama, splendidly immobile, deeply unimpressed.
‘Keep your head nice and still whilst I have a feel, Mr Bacton. Is it a bony pain, here, right in the middle, would you say? Or is it more off to the side?’
‘Is it what?’
‘Does it hurt here – right here – in the middle – where I’m pressing? Or is the pain more to the side?’
‘The middle.’
I give him the once over; apart from his neck and some superficial grazes, he seems to have come through remarkably intact.
‘So tell me what happened, Mr Bacton.’
‘I told them already.’
‘I know, I know. I just want to hear it for myself so I can get the story straight.’
He flicks his tongue over his lips and sighs.
‘I was walking behind my wife along the pavement to the supermarket. We stopped at the zebra crossing. Eventually a woman waved for us to go on. I admit we were a little bit slow: my wife had her hip done last year and I’ve got arthritis, you see. Anyway, when we reached the other side, I turned to give the driver a cheery wave.’ He sighs. ‘That’s when she ran me over.’
The supermarket first aider’s assistant bounces up and down behind me.
‘Shall I help you get the trolley out?’ he pants. ‘Do you need some blankets fetching?’
‘Yeah. Good idea. Go get some blankets.’
He bounds off.
‘Because of the neck pain you’re describing and the mechanism of injury, we’ve got to assume the worst and take you to hospital as flat as we can. We’ll put you in a vacuum mattress, and strap you up so you won’t move about en route. Purely precautionary. I’m sure it’s all fine.’
‘Yes. Well,’ he says.
‘I’ll follow in the car,’ says Mrs Bacton.
Mr Bacton stiffens. He tries to turn his head but the responder has a good grip.
‘Keep very still,’ she says, and smiles at me over the top of his cap.
‘Are you sure, Dorothy?’ he says. ‘You know what happened last time.’
Suddenly she doesn’t seem all that sure.
‘Is it difficult parking at the hospital?’
‘This time of day it shouldn’t be too bad,’ I say, picturing the parking Armageddon that is A&E. ‘You’ll be fine.’
The first aider’s assistant has come bounding back with an armful of blankets. He peers over the top of them.
‘Where do you want them?’ he says.
Mr Bacton looks across at him. I could swear he growls.

Monday, November 08, 2010

bug spray

‘They’re not like your usual anti-social neighbours. They know how to do it without getting caught. They come out at night. They do it at night, creeping around, squirting bug spray over the fence, soaking the fence with their disgusting chemicals, drilling holes so they can peek through. That’s why I had the CCTV installed, because otherwise you’d only imagine what they were doing and you’d go mad. But now I can catch them at it. They come round the front, lift the flap of the letterbox, and look through - spray through, they’re so vindictive. So spiteful. We’re terrified to go out or do anything. I’ve had rocks thrown into the garden. I daren’t let the cat out, and the dog I have to accompany out back when he needs the loo. We’re prisoners in our own house. They know it’s just me and my son. Thank god James spends half the week with his Dad. At least he gets some sort of break. They know what it’s doing to our health. We’ve been hospitalised with it. We’ve had the environmental health, the housing team, the police. Everyone knows about it but no-one seems willing or able to do anything and it’s absolutely destroying us.’
Mrs Enderby grasps the two hems of her dressing gown tightly together with both hands.
‘I’ve got a headache, shooting pains in the backs of my eyes, down my arms, my ears are ringing, my spine feels as if it’s on fire. I’m sick, dizzy, my chest is tight.’
She sits on the arm of the sofa. ‘But it’s James I’ve called you about.’
James Enderby is neatly arranged on the sofa, his long fair hair partially obscuring the sides of his face; he looks down at the scruffy little terrier lying with its head in his lap, and slowly strokes the fur between its ears.
‘And how are you feeling, James?’
He looks up.
‘I’ve got a headache and my breathing feels a bit tight.’
He holds his hands up; the dog opens its eyes, wondering why the stroking has stopped.
‘Pins and needles,’ he says, then lowers them back down, and carries on with the stroking.
‘We can’t go on like this,’ says Mrs Enderby, struggling not to cry. ‘It’s impossible. It’s a nightmare. I don’t know why no-one’s doing anything.’
The sitting room is so perfectly ordered, a tiny particle of wood I inadvertently walked onto the carpet from outside may as well have a police line around it; the fabric of the sofa has been hoovered to the ticking; a glass-fronted bookcase glints in a corner, each glass shelf with a central display of three figurines, precisely angled in, winged by dustless knick-knacks. A huge Swiss cheese plant rises up to the ceiling, holding a spread of dark, waxy leaves above our heads. There is an ancient cat asleep on a red and gold embroidered cushion beside the pot. It sneezes, then puts a paw over its face.
‘Everyone’s affected,’ says Mrs Enderby, getting up when she hears a car in the street outside and the motion detection lights snap on. The police.
‘They’re out in the front garden spraying all day and night,’ she says, dropping the curtain and moving to the hall. ‘They know what it’s doing to our health. We’ve had the windows shut all summer.’
She lets in two police officers. We hear her going through the latest developments in the hallway, her voice rising and falling in a monotonous sine wave of horror.
James carries on stroking the dog.
‘How’s your breathing now?’
‘A little better,’ he says.