The hollow zone between late and early, and the streets are deserted. We keep our sirens off. Gradually, a growing fuzz of blue in the distance. As we approach it, I feel the low thrum of fire trucks shaking up the houses and flats either side. We come to a stop, and the lights of our vehicle add to those already there, racing across the faces of the people standing behind the cordon, evacuated from the block, or drawn outside to witness.
A Fire fighter in a white tabard waves us over.
‘So. Gentlemen. Three casualties. Two adults, one baby, exposed to quite a high level of smoke. Especially the adults – their faces are pretty black with it. The baby doesn’t seem too bad. They’re all on oxygen up in that cab.’
‘What was the fire like?’
‘It looks like an oven went into meltdown with a plastic kettle on the hob. Quite a bit of toxicity there, I should think. But not much flame, and no burns.’
‘Great. Let’s see them.’
He leads us up to the foot of the cab, its door standing open, and points up at the occupants.
‘That’s Rachel, the baby’s Mae or Rae or something, the man’s called Mick.’
Rachel is sitting with the baby on her lap in the passenger seat, an oxygen mask between the two of them. Rachel’s face is sooty and black, with circles of pale flesh around each eye like graffiti glasses. Mae’s face is clear, except for a few black finger marks across her cheek. She wriggles about on her mum’s lap; when she sees me, she stretches out her arms as if she’s suddenly ready to fling herself out onto the night.
‘Whoa there squirrel,’ says Rachel, tightening her grip round Mae’s waist. Then laughs at me: ‘She’s a real stunt baby.’
‘Pass her down and then let’s all go to the ambulance. We’ll treat you there.’
She hands Mae to me, kicking and wriggling, then climbs out backwards unsteadily. Her partner Mick follows, looking as blackened and blasted as a miner climbing out of the pit after a long shift. Whilst Rachel is chatty and alert, Mick almost falls asleep on the short walk to the ambulance.
‘Are you okay?’ I say, poking him in the shoulder.
‘Wha? Oh. Yeah. Just tired, me.’
His eyes begin to close again and his chin drops.
‘How long were you exposed to the smoke, Mick?’
He doesn’t answer. We almost have to walk him up the steps. I sit him on the trolley and the woman with the baby on the chair facing. As soon as his legs are up, he lolls his head back and falls asleep.
‘Hey. Wake up,’ I say to him. ‘What’s the matter?’
Rachel leans across and pinches his arm.
‘It’s the baby. Keeping him up. He’s tired out.’
‘Is that what it is, Mick? Is that what’s making you so drowsy?’
‘Open your eyes for me, mate. Open your eyes.’
I have to open them for him. The pupils are constricted.
‘Mick? Have you been using tonight?’
I pull his oxygen mask away from his face so I can hear what he has to say.
‘Wha? No. I’m just sleepy – from the baby. You know.’
‘Yeah. I had some vallies yesterday. Tha’s it.’
He immediately nods back onto the trolley; I put the hissing mask back onto his face.
As I’m writing down some obs Rachel jiggles Mae up and down on her lap.
‘He was supposed to be making me something to eat,’ she says finally. ‘Something hot. He must have forgotten he put the oven on.’
‘We won’t have to go to hospital will we?’ says Rachel, jiggling the baby up and down on her leg. ‘It’s not that bad, is it?’
‘It could be. All that stuff on your face – you were breathing it in as well. Who knows what’s in it.’
‘It’s just smoke.’
‘She’ll be all right though, won’t she?’
‘Was she in another room?’
‘That’ll help, then. Sooner we get off, the sooner we’ll all feel better.’
Rachel fumbles around behind her for the seat belt.
‘Look at me,’ she says. ‘I’m still in my underwear.’
‘Never mind about that.’
She pulls the red chenille dressing gown more snugly around her shoulders, then kisses Mae on the head. I give Frank the nod to go.
Outside the resus room, we’re cleaning up the trolley when one of the nurses comes out with a clipboard.
‘Were you the crew that brought in the fire family?’
‘What was the situation?’
‘Mick was supposed to be cooking but forgot what he was doing and left the oven on.’
‘What was your impression of him? Has he had some heroin tonight?’
‘I think so. He’s grouching out all over the place.’
‘So maybe a child protection element, then?’
‘Rachel seems all right, but who knows.’
The nurse goes back into resus. As the doors swing apart I catch a glimpse of Mae sitting on Rachel’s lap, with Mick flat out on a trolley behind them. As the nurse walks over, Mae laughs, jerks up into a stand, throws her arms wide, ready to fly through the air into his arms. The doors swing shut again. I wheel the trolley outside.