The housing estate feels so desolate it may as well be swept by searchlights. What light there is – from the hundreds of tiny halogen dots marking out the landings and aerial walkways; the rows upon rows of dimly lit windows or darker, curtainless rooms flickering grey and blue by the TV; the emergency lighting globes guarding the stairwells, and the hard spikes of orange light thrown down from the street lamps – all these things join together, point through point, like a pattern of lines on a star chart: sink estate, in the Constellation of Despair.
Frank pulls the ambulance to the side. Over on a patch of grass between two buildings, a figure sprawled, another standing over him, on the phone. We hurry up the steep bank towards them.
‘What d’you think? He’s had the shit kicked out of him. I didn’t see nothing.’
The man on the floor is unconscious, breathing with the stertorous rattle of the deeply unconscious. The side of his face is grossly misshapen, both eyes swollen shut; his right arm is bent mid-humerus, and his legs splayed. Despite the freezing night, he is only wearing a t-shirt and jeans, his trainers torn off and thrown against the wall. His body is profoundly cold to the touch.
‘We’ll need back-up, Frank. Can you get that running, and bring up the spinal board and stuff?’
Frank strides back down the bank, talking into his radio.
‘What’s your friend’s name?’
‘He ain’t no friend.’
‘Do you know what his name is?’
‘And what’s your name?’
The man smiles.
‘Er – let’s say Bill. Yeah. Bill.’
‘Bill – Thanks for calling us. We’re going to need your help.’
‘Sure. Whatever. I don’t care what I do. Not like those cunts up there,’ he says, thumbing the air behind him. ‘They couldn’t give a shit. Leave him, they said.’
‘Bill – You did the right thing. I don’t care what you have or haven’t done tonight. How you help us now is all that matters.’
He points the phone at the figure on the ground. It looks as if he’s about to take a picture.
‘Bill – you can put your phone away now. Frank’s coming up with the stuff and we’re going to need you to help us get Stu packaged up double quick. Is that okay?’
‘Yeah, man. Hey - this is good.’
Frank drops the gear next to us.
‘They haven’t got anyone to back us up. We’re on our own.’
‘Police should be here any minute.’
Bill straightens up.
‘Whoa! What d’you mean, the police?’
‘It’s an assault, Bill. They have to come.’
He hesitates, looks back up to one of the flats, then out along the road. For a second I think he’s winding himself up to run, but he relaxes again and squats down beside Stu.
‘Whatever,’ he says.