This housing estate is as real as a theme park, verges efficiently lain in squares, saplings with their labels showing, sleek, low mileage cars parked according to contract in sleek, low mileage bays. The map book is way out of date, but even the Sat Nav does not recognise the place; according to the screen I’m floating in a grey zone. I slowly drive the ambulance four by four towards the chequered flag around an intricate network of roads, cul-de-sacs and roundabouts so confusingly run together that you can probably only get the picture and sense of it all from the air - a giant chameleon, with its tongue extended. All the houses are dark and sleeping except for a few solar garden lights at jaunty angles in the grass carpeting out front, and the occasional stab of yellow behind an upstairs window. But here is a house with its uPVC door ajar and an elderly man raising a hand. I park up, grab a bag out of the back and head over.
Mr Muir is as carefully put together as the estate. His scarlet woollen jersey is shop-sharp, two neatly pressed shirt cuffs at his wrist, the crease of his linen slacks aligned with the centre of the crosses of his laces, his silver moustache clipped to the lip and his hair as buffed as the silver top on an antique box.
‘I took her pulse, which felt rather light and fast to me. But see what you think,’ he says, quietly closing the door behind me. ‘This way.’
He seems to move without making contact with anything, leading me up a pale carpeted staircase to a landing plumped out in creams and whites, past a Japanese bamboo print and a tall white biscuit vase filled with cracked willow spray painted silver, to a small and superheated bedroom.
Valerie, his middle-aged daughter, is lying on her side on the bed. She raises her head and smiles thinly as I put my bag and board down and introduce myself. Over in the corner, Lisa, her twenty year old daughter, shifts palely on a black velvet dressing stool. Mr Muir follows me in, then rests against a white veneer chest of drawers and examines his cuticles as I ask the woman what the matter is.
‘I’ve been getting this pain,’ she says, ‘all over. My neck, shoulders, into my arms and hands. My legs.’
Mr Muir clears his throat.
‘What would it take to get a scan done?’ he says. ‘We’ve had an x-ray but the doctors said it didn’t show anything.’
‘Tell him about the faint,’ says Lisa, chewing her lip. ‘Tell him what happened.’
‘Did you faint then?’ I ask, kneeling down and feeling her pulse.
‘I went dizzy, yes. There were these white spots, moving around.’
‘But did you actually pass out?’
‘No. I didn’t pass out as such.’
‘And this pain. How long have you had it?’
‘About three years. I wish I knew what it was. The doctors don’t seem to have an idea. I think they think I’m just some hypochondriac and they wish I’d leave them alone.’
‘So have you had any new pain tonight?’
‘Well it’s been getting worse and worse. I can’t do anything.’
‘Over what period?’
‘Three weeks or so.’
‘And does your doctor know about that?’
‘I don’t think he cares.’
‘You can’t go on like this, mum,’ says Lisa, sitting on her hands and chewing her lip. ‘You just can’t.’
Mr Muir stands more upright.
‘How is her blood pressure? Would you be able to find that out for us?’
‘Of course. I’ll run through the usual checks and see where we are.’
‘Because I wouldn’t mind betting it’s low. What do you think about her pulse? I thought it was dangerously thready.’
‘No. It feels pretty good to me. Regular, not too fast. Pretty good.’
‘Really? I am surprised. You’re sure about that? It definitely felt off to me. But I suppose you know best.’
‘Let’s do the checks and see what’s what.’
Mr Muir and his grand-daughter watch me carefully. I ask question after question, as much to lighten the atmosphere as anything else, but my efforts sound thin and unconvincing even to me, the soft furnishings absorbing my bonhomie as ruthlessly as the acoustics.
‘It all looks fine,’ I say, curling up and stowing the stethoscope, wishing I could follow it into the bag. ‘So now we need to think about what to do next.’
‘This can’t go on,’ says Lisa. ‘You’re not well.’
Valerie props herself up on one arm and flashes her daughter a look. ‘What can I do? No one seems to believe that I’m ill.’
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t be able to get her a scan? Wouldn’t that show if a nerve was being impinged in the neck? Or anything else? I mean – what can be causing all this?’
‘As far as the faint goes, it’s not uncommon for someone to be sitting down in a hot room then feel light headed when they get up. You didn’t pass out, you haven’t had any new pain – and you’ve recently started some strong pain killers, which might be making you drowsier and more susceptible to this kind of thing. I think it would be as well if you went back to see your doctor about how you’re feeling, but I don’t think you need to go rushing off to hospital tonight. I don’t think they’re in the best position to help.’
She lies back down and drapes a hand across her forehead.
‘It just goes on and on.’
‘If you’re not happy with your doctor, you could always change.’
She glances at me from beneath her hand.
‘Really? Do you think? How?’
‘I’m not sure. But you’re perfectly entitled to see someone else.’
‘And have him ring up the new chap and say: “Watch out for this one. She’s a waste of time.”’
‘I’m sure that wouldn’t happen.’
‘It shouldn’t happen.’
Lisa sighs. ‘Go to hospital and get a scan.’
‘They won’t be doing any scans tonight,’ I say to her, as pleasantly as I can. ‘Your doctor will refer you if he thinks it’s called for.’
‘But it takes ages. Months and months.’
‘Not so long as that. And if they think it’s urgent, they’ll work one up right away.’
Mr Muir clears his throat.
‘My wife went to the doctor with shooting pains in her leg. He said it was muscle strain and sent her off with pain killers. Three months later she was dead. Riddled with cancer. If they’d taken action sooner, she might have lived.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘”Just muscle strain”, he said. “Take these”. Three months later she was gone.’
‘You must get this sorted, mum,’ says Lisa. ‘Please.’
The room is silent for a moment. Valerie almost seems to fall asleep. But then suddenly she opens her eyes again, and as the brightly enamelled radiators quietly click and the night presses up against the window, she studies me from where she lies, glittering darkly against the pillow.