This job is so far off patch we may as well be setting sail for Marrakesh. A low priority call, we figure a local crew will come up long before we get there. But the minutes roll on as smoothly as the road, and the country changes and becomes unfamiliar. It’s warm enough to open the window, the radio plays a stack of good songs, but it’s still tedious that we’re expected to run on this one, and I can’t help prodding Control for updates every few minutes. The dispatcher gets annoyed.
‘Give me your mobile number. Talk to the PSIAM desk yourself,’ he says.
I’ve always pictured the PSIAM desk as a dimly lit backroom in Control, richly furnished with rugs, palms, overhead fans, a mahogany desk and a hookah, a Bakelite phone and a bronze eagle, Sydney Greenstreet sipping sweet, cardamom-flavoured coffee, sweating in an off-white suit, something heavy in his pocket.
‘Sidney here,’ he wheezes. ‘Good morning, Spence.’
‘What’s the story, Sidney?’ cringing like Peter Lorre. ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like it, I tell you.’
‘I hate to send you boys out there,’ he sighs. I hear a noise, like the slapping of a fly-swatter and the scattering of papers. ‘A dreadful waste of everyone’s time, I’m sorry.’
‘So tell me again what it’s about?’
‘An eighteen year old chap suffers low potassium. Ongoing thing, hereditary. Starts feeling low a week ago, usual symptoms of tingling in the arms and legs, but doesn’t have his usual medication to correct it. He says he’s moved house and hasn’t registered with a GP in the new area yet. He does have a repeat scrip but says he wasn’t sure if the pharmacy would accept it. He’s living with three other people. None of them seem interested or able to take the scrip to the pharmacy. They say they have no car and no money.’
‘Did you Google the nearest pharmacy, Sidney? Did you find out if they could walk?’
‘I did, Spence. I did. Nought point five miles, Spence. A light afternoon stroll. Even I could manage it.’
‘And what did they say?’
‘Not a thing. The phone went quiet.’
As it does now.
‘I told them that this was not what the ambulance service is for,’ he carries on - the sound of a pistol barrel being broken open and spun? - ‘but they still demanded an attendance. So there you are. All our other vehicles are on other jobs, or getting diverted. I’m afraid it looks like you’ll be stuck with this one, Spence. I’m sorry. I’ve done my best.’
‘It’s not your fault, Sidney.’
‘It’s this damned system. Let me know how you get on.’
I hang up.
‘They want us to attend.’
‘Shit,’ says Frank.
There’s a middle aged woman and a younger girl smoking and chatting outside the house. They wait until we’ve parked, then turn and lead us up to the patient. Rich, the eighteen year old, is lying on his back under a stained and uncovered duvet. A pleasant faced kid, he nods as we walk into the room and introduce ourselves. His girlfriend, her mother and a family friend, file in after us. The family friend perches on the edge of the other bed in the room and continues to play a game on his phone, held up close to his face, using both thumbs and maybe the tip of his nose.
‘My arms and legs are pretty much completely numb now,’ Rich says. ‘Sorry.’
‘I understand you ran out of your meds. Why was that?’
He makes a face.
‘But you do have a scrip?’
‘Yep. I didn’t know if it would work, though.’
‘But you didn’t try?’
‘No one would go and get it for me.’
I turn to the mother, a pale faced forty year old, weighed down by years of mascara and a leopard print dressing gown.
‘Could you really not have taken his scrip down to the pharmacy? This has been a few days coming.’
‘I don’t have the money.’
Usually about this time I let things go and retreat into a more resilient kind of politeness. But there’s something about all this – the distance we’ve travelled, the terrible waste of resources, the shocking passivity in the room – that makes me want to ride it out for longer.
‘What about you?’ I say, turning to the girlfriend. ‘Couldn’t you have helped out?’
‘I haven’t got a car.’
‘You could’ve walked.’
‘And you?’ to the boy on the phone. ‘What do you think?’
He frowns and leans harder into the phone.
Frank shifts in the doorway.
‘A few bananas and an energy drink usually puts things right,’ says Rich, helpfully. ‘But there weren’t any.’
‘Bananas,’ I say to the mum.
She shakes her head as if I’ve offered her one.
‘There’s a supermarket at the end of the road,’ I say. ‘I’ve never seen such a big one. Have you Frank?’
‘It’s the size of a small town. They’ll have bananas. Couldn’t you have got him a bunch?’
‘Like I say. I don’t have the money.’
‘For a couple of bananas?’
‘Have you any idea how much it’s cost to run an ambulance out here?’
I look back at Rich. He’s lying with the same expression on his face, waiting for something to happen. ‘You’ll be hours up the hospital.’
There’s a silence in the room. Everyone’s waiting for me to say something. I think of Sydney, standing by the phone, dabbing his forehead dry with a handkerchief.
‘I suppose we’d better go to the hospital, then. Who’s coming with him?’
The two women stare at the boy with the mobile phone. After a while he looks up and says: ‘What?’