Our destination seems to be stuck out in a grey area of the map, as if even the Satnav were so tripped out it closed its eyes, tossed the little chequered flag over its shoulder and let it fall where it may.
‘Ignore that,’ says Frank.
We follow his instinct, taking a backstreet tributary that curves round and down and then up again into an obscure block. The estate has that four in the morning ebb, the street lamps and the moon having long since sucked up what light there is and dealt it back as night sweats.
There is a squat, middle-aged woman waiting for us on the pavement. Her hair has been clumped up in bunches and tied off with scraps of coloured rag, the remainders of which she could have stitched together with spider silk and made into a dress.
‘She’s upstairs,’ she says, pointing too.
‘A relative of yours?’
‘No. A friend. We were having a party.’
We follow her through a doorway hidden amongst some bins and she leads us like an urban version of the white rabbit up a stairway like a tunnelled run, junked to the arches with discarded chairs, hi-fi components, the bone yard of a thousand thrift stores. The air gets thicker with herbal smoke as we near the heart of the place.
‘What’s she had tonight?’
‘Ketamine, LSD. Some cake.’
‘What was in the cake?’
‘Oh it’s pretty healthy. Nuts and seeds. There’s loads left.’
She pushes through a door at the top and brings us out into the top flat - surprisingly clear, as if all the clutter that had simply been vomited down the stairwell. The furthest door stands open to a dimly lit living room, and inside we can see eight or so people sitting around, five of them on the floor holding down the legs, arms and shoulders of a young, screaming woman.
‘What’s the patient’s name?’
‘Has she had any alcohol?’
‘She doesn’t drink.’
I step through into the room.
‘Hello, there. Hello. It’s the ambulance,’ I say, trying to ameliorate the shock of the uniform that I can sense on the air.
But if I was a director I’d want to re-shoot my entrance. Can you try it again with more sincerity, less school master – I don’t know, just try.
But then if I was an actor I’d want to ask about the costume design. Along with the first woman – but apart from the guy holding down the left leg, who looks as straight and out of place as I do, like a trainee optometrist at a festival – everyone seems to have been dunked in the same dressing up box, a seventies pot pourri of spangly wigs, metallic hot pants, stripy stockings, robes, tails and faded Love t-shirts. Apart from the restrainers, there are two women sitting chatting on a put-you-up, and a man perched on the edge of an easy chair, overlooking the scene. His pointed goatee, twirly moustache and pince-nez sit like a comedy set on display above a starched white collar, stripy yellow and black blazer and pressed white trousers. The lobes of his ears are stretched into pendant rounds by two black plates, and tattooed flowers sneak over the edge of his collar. He is leaning forwards on his cane.
Rosie is lying between her five friends on the floor. She is dishevelled, sweated up. Every so often she tries to wrest herself free from their grip, screams and swears incoherently, then bashes her head back onto the throws and cushions they’ve placed behind her.
‘So tell me again what’s happened to Rosie?’
The optometrist looks up at me over his shoulder.
‘Can you take over holding her down?’ he says. ‘I’m exhausted.’
‘How long has she been like this?’
‘Well just carry on as you are for the moment. Let’s just see what needs to be done.’
‘What if we can’t do it anymore and we let go and she jumps out of the window and kills herself.’
‘Just stay with it for a while. I’m sure between all of you in the room you can swap about and make it easier.’
‘And you are?’ says the man with the cane.
‘My name’s Spence.’
‘Spence. No last name?’
I hesitate, and the man leans back with a smirk.
‘Oh I get it,’ he says. ‘I see. You’re just doing your job. What is your job by the way?’
‘I’m a technician with the ambulance service. And no – we don’t normally give our last names, but I’ll tell you anyway. It’s Kennedy.’
‘Oh. Kennedy. Well I’m Lord Scratch-it-up from Hearts Enough and this is my castle.’
He leans back in the chair and sighs.
‘OK. Right. So. Rosie’s been like this for an hour. What’s she taken?’
‘I told you,’ says the first woman over my shoulder. ‘Ketamine and LSD.’
‘At what time?’
‘Look. None of that matters. We’ve all had exactly the same and none of us are beating ourselves senseless on the floor.’
‘But with respect, these things affect people differently. Plus we don’t know exact quantities. It varies.’
‘Are you going to help her?’ says another girl. ‘Do something.’
‘Does anybody know her past medical history?’
‘Her past medical history. If she suffers with anything.’
‘I think she had some investigations for something or other a while ago, but I’m not sure.’
‘On any meds?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Aren’t you going to give her something? If you’re not, I don’t really understand why you’re here?’ says the man with the cane, sitting up again.
‘Rosie needs to go to hospital. They might well give her some kind of sedative there, but there’s nothing we carry that we can give right now.’
‘And you’re some kind of medical person, is that right?’
‘Yes. But the only thing that we can do is make sure that Rosie is safe, that she gets taken to hospital in the safest way possible. The problem really is with the stairs. I’m afraid the police are the experts at this kind of thing. We’re going to have to get them over to help.’
‘So you’re a medical person, but you’re calling the police, and she needs to go to hospital. I don’t understand.’
Rosie throws herself up into an arch, and looks around the room like a demon conjured up through the floor.
‘We can’t take her out like this. She’ll hurt herself and everyone else,’ I tell them, when this raging fit subsides. ‘Let me just get them running.’
I turn to make the call. I notice the table set out with party food along the wall, sandwiches, biscuits, crisps and a large patterned plate with a half eaten cake. In the centre of the table there is a hefty plastic frog; with a crown tipped back on its head and its eyes and mouth sprung wide with delight, it slowly pulses with light – green, then red, then purple, orange and yellow.
Half an hour later, a police van pulls up next to the ambulance. I go down to brief them on the scene.
‘That was tricky to find,’ says one of them. I lead them back up to the flat.
Whilst they assess the scene in the living room, I talk to the first woman in the kitchen.
‘I’ll follow up in the car,’ she says. ‘I haven’t had anything. I’m the one driving my husband home,’ the man with the cane, it transpires. ‘Are you sure you don’t want some cake?’
Back in the living room the police are worried about the logistics of a forcible removal down those stairs; the sergeant says he wants to stay on scene for a little while longer. Rosie seems calmer now, exhausted by her exertions. She still seems dangerously volatile, though; when the police tentatively unstrap her legs and sit her up, she rubs the spot where they had been secured and eyes up the distance to the hallway.
I’m chatting in the hallway to a police officer and a couple of the other party goers when the man with the cane suddenly appears. He walks up to me and waits for me to finish my sentence. When I look at him he smiles and says: ‘I’m sorry but I’d regret not doing this for the rest of my life.’ He reaches out, puts his hand on my shoulder, and looks square into my eyes. ‘You are the most useless prick I’ve ever met in my entire life.’ Then he turns and limps off back into the room.
The shock of it rinses through me, through the people I was talking to. Led by a sense of outrage I follow him to the room and stand in the doorway as he retakes his place in the chair.
‘That is unacceptable abuse!’ I say to him. Everyone looks at me, the police, the party goers and restrainers - even Rosie. ‘Where do you get off thinking you can talk to me like that. I came here to help you.’
He slumps in the chair, throwing his right arm over the back of it and arching up his head in a pastiche of a naughty child. ‘Oh I’m sorry if I offended you. Please accept my apology.’
I turn and go back to pick up my conversation, but the shock of it has robbed me of the power to think or speak about anything else.
‘Just ignore him,’ says Frank. ‘He’s an idiot.’
But instead I go into the kitchen to speak to the man’s wife. She is sitting looking exhausted on a chair, the rags in her hair loosening and slipping out.
‘You’re not responsible for your husband, and I know he’s had some stuff tonight, but I know you’re sober and I just wanted to explain to you exactly how unpleasant he was so you can tell him in the morning.’
‘I’m really, really sorry,’ she says. ‘I can only apologise.’
‘He touched me on the shoulder, looked into my eyes, and he said to me: “You are the most useless prick I’ve ever met in my entire life.” That’s what he said. I just wanted you to know.’
And then another impulse takes me. I grab a piece of paper off the top of the fridge and I start writing.
‘This is my name. This is where I work.’
I hand her the paper.
‘I expect a full apology in the morning.’
And as soon as I do it, I hear that voice again. Okay – but can you just try it again with more authority, less pout – I don’t know, just try.