They must be using subliminal advertising between TV shows – a micro-flash of The Happy Eater logo, an upturned pill pot, lightning pink letters: take what you have.
Everyone, everyone, is taking an overdose tonight. This is our fourth.
Such a liberal scattering, I’m thinking of adding a dustpan and brush to my kit.
The streetlamps in this side street have been partially absorbed by the plane trees, to the extent that the heavily pollarded crowns seem to glow like monstrous, irradiated asparagus tips. Frank grumbles and drives slow, sweeping each house front with the side lights.
‘Twelve. There. Back up.’
A scuffed, plumped-up building. Some kind of hostel? TV on in the lounge, but no-one watching. I ring the bell and wait for someone to come, but nothing moves. We ring and wait some more. The only sign of life is a spider squaring off to a strange kind of bug on the handrail. Whilst I ring Control to advise them of the situation – the lack of response, not the insects - we crouch down and get a close-up of the action. I wonder what anyone watching us would think: There are two paramedics crouching down and looking at something. One of them’s on the radio. It looks serious.
‘This is one of those superbugs I was telling you about,’ says Frank, blowing on the two combatants. They both hunker down and look up.
‘What super bug?’
‘The one with all the spots.’
Control get back to me.
I’m afraid it just goes to answer phone. You’ll have to force entry.
You want me to kick the door down?
I’m afraid so.
Just as I foot the door to explore the lock situation, a light goes on at the top of the stairs and we hear people clumping down.
‘Fuck sake. Who is it? What do you want?’
‘Ambulance? Jesus Christ.’
I look back down at the insect match: the superbug has gone and the spider is glaring up at me with all his hands on his hips.
The door opens. A man stands there with the same expression as the spider.
‘We had a call that someone here has taken an overdose?’
‘Valerie somebody or other.’
‘Who’s Valerie? Do you mean Jean?’
‘Why? Has she taken an overdose?’
‘It sounds more like her.’
‘I’d have to check that.’
‘Do you have a room number?’
‘I’ll check that too.’
‘You don’t have much do you?’
As I call Control again, a young woman drifts into the hallway and stands alongside the man. She takes speculative sips from a can of cider and stares at us with enormous eyes.
‘Hello,’ says Frank. She shrinks back into the can.
Control get back to me: Room number seven.
‘Number seven?’ says the man. ‘It’s empty. But Jean’s moving there next week. Maybe she’s confused.’
‘Where is Jean now?’
‘Ten B. Round the back. I suppose you want to go there.’
‘Go on, then.’
We follow him through the house, past the piles of uncollected letters, the fire notices and alarm consoles, the extinguishers and the social board fluttering with courses and help-lines. The girl ghosts after us. The man opens a back door and shows us to a beaten up old white door with 10B nailed to the centre. There is a dim light showing through the curtains and the muted sound of a radio. The young woman bites the rim of her can as the man leans between us and knocks on the door.
‘I think it must be Jean,’ he says standing back again. We all wait.
After a minute the radio shuts off. A minute more and the curtains suddenly snap aside. A sallow face looms up to the pane like an aged carp probing the surface of a pond. We all draw back.
‘Did you call the ambulance, Jean?’
‘The ambulance? Did you call them?’
She presses an eye against the glass. The girl almost bites her can in half.
‘No!’ she says. ‘Why?’
‘We’ve been told you took an overdose?’
The face withdraws, and the curtains fall back across the window. Before anyone can say anything, Control calls me again.
It’s number twenty three.
What do you mean, number twenty-three? We’re at number twelve.
Yeah. But she’s got a really quiet voice.
‘Sorry,’ I say to the man. ‘Wrong number.’
He wants to swear. I’d prefer it if he did. But the look he gives me instead. The look.