Keith is sitting half on, half off the ambulance seat, one hand on the Entonox mouthpiece and one hand on the arm rest. When the pain in his right flank comes on strong again he bows his head, clamps down on the mouthpiece and takes several deep draughts.
‘Is this like them helium balloons?’ he says as the pain subsides. ‘Is this gonna make me go all Mickey Mouse?’
‘It lowers your voice a bit.’
‘Yeah? Well, so long as it eases the pain I don’t care what I sound like.’
‘Good. I’m glad it’s helping.’
A tall, powerfully built man in his early forties, the only thing that stopped the ambulance wheels lifting up at the front as he clumped up the back steps was the weight of his thickly gelled quiff acting as a counterbalance.
‘I’m stressed. I know I’m stressed,’ he gasps, struggling to find a comfortable position between the chair and the floor, his face pale and his eyes rimmed silver with the pain of it all. ‘Would that bring this on, d’you think?’
‘No, not really. Not if it’s renal colic or something like that.’
‘What else could it be then?’
‘Some kind of infection – don’t know. You need to see a doctor.’
He tokes on the Entonox and then studies me for a second.
‘Are you married?’ he says.
‘Yep. Married. Two kids.’
‘I was. We just split up.’
‘It’s not your fault.’
He takes some more Entonox.
‘Could it be the old Hong Kong Flu, do you think?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘You know. The clap. An STD.’
‘It’s possible. Why?’
‘I saw this woman up town last week. Fifteen years, that’s the first time I done it.’
‘D’you mean a prostitute?’
‘I don’t know. I met her online. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was. Anyway, I seem to remember someone telling me it takes five days, then you can’t piss, and it feels like a donkey kicked you in the kidneys.’
‘Did you have unprotected sex?’
‘No. ‘Course not. I took a flick-knife.’
He laughs, but then the pain grabs hold of him again and he dives down into it with the mouthpiece clamped in his teeth and the demand valve hissing. When this bout ends, he slowly surfaces.
‘It’s good stuff, this,’ he says, waving the mouthpiece in the air. ‘Where can I get myself some?’
‘And it doesn’t give you a hangover.’
He hands me the mouthpiece.
‘No. You’re all right,’ I say.
He takes some more as the ambulance moves off.
‘I’ve just changed my line of work,’ he says, shifting his position again. ‘That’s stress for you, right there.’
‘You’re not kidding. What did you use to do, then?’
‘I was in the house clearance game. Twenty years of it. It got so I could tell everything there was to know about a person, just by what they had around them in their house.’
‘I was good. I used to get all the best stuff.’
‘What about the relatives?’
‘Oh sure they’d circle overhead quick as you like. But I knew the tricky little places, you see. I knew where people liked to put things. I did all right. But it weren’t all plain sailing though. Sometimes we’d get called in to some terrible places. This couple I remember – hoarders, they were. Didn’t throw nothing away. I took three tonnes of paper out of that house. Piled up, great columns of the stuff, floor to ceiling. They’d made little alleyways – runs, you know, like rats - to move about. And of course the drains had packed in years ago, so you can imagine what the carsey was like. Hell on earth. After that job, my partner Malcolm, he burned all his clothes, shaved his head and took to wearing the strongest cologne you could imagine, but I could still smell it on him three weeks later. Made a profit, though.’
He pauses to draw on the Entonox again.
‘I could get used to this,’ he says when the pain has eased again. ‘But I know I’m stressed. I can feel it. What do you do about that, then? What do you do about stress?’
‘I don’t know. Talk to your doctor for one thing. There’s lots you can do.’
‘Like what? Pills, I suppose.’
‘Yeah – pills to help you sleep, calm you down, help you through the bad patch. But they could refer you on for some talking therapies – you know, counsellors who could help you with any lifestyle changes you might need to make.’
‘Lifestyle changes?’ he snorts. ‘Listen, mate. I’ve had enough of them already.’