Shortly after starting in the job I was sent on relief to work with Charlie, an old paramedic in a station the other side of town. A crotchety piece of work with a crumpled, disappointed look to him. I remember his face, waxy as a burned out candle.
It was a quiet start. I watched telly; Charlie read an old book, sighing every now and then.
It was going to be a long night.
Eventually we copped a job, a smoke inhalation down in Whitby Street. Fire brigade attending. Even though he was a lardy old duffer Charlie seemed to move pretty quick. He was in the cab waiting for me with his eyes closed and his arms folded across his chest.
‘You drive,’ he said.
When we got there we found a woman in the house on her own with two kids. Seemed pretty freaked – said she could smell burning, something electrical, but she’d been all through the house and not found a thing. That’s when she’d called the brigade, and we’d been sent along as standard.
We had a quick look round. I say we. Charlie just stood there in the cellar - a nice enough kitchen conversion, lots of beech and pine - kind of drinking it in. But I was keen then. I wanted to do stuff. I couldn’t smell anything, and to be honest I thought maybe she was having a bit of an episode. To humour her, though, I had a good nose around, upstairs and down. Nothing. Back down in the kitchen, Charlie was still standing exactly as before, almost asleep on his feet.
Great, I thought. Brilliant.
The fire brigade arrived. Three hulking great uniforms coming down the stairs. I told them the story and they took it all very seriously. The Captain sent the Under Captain back to the truck to get a bit of kit – an infrared heat sensor.
‘If it’s electrical, it could be in a cavity behind a wall,’ he said.
Your man came hurrying back downstairs with the sensor – a camera-like thing in the middle of a steering wheel. The Captain held it out and started wandering round, steering himself as he looked through the lens, examining walls and floors and what have you.
‘I’m afraid I can’t find a thing,’ he said to the woman. ‘Maybe it’s coming in from the sewers outside. We’ll go out and check.’
Just before they went back upstairs I asked if I could have a look at the sensor. I’ve always liked kit.
‘Knock yourself out,’ he said.
So I took the sensor in my hands and began steering the lens around the kitchen. The flare from the Aga. Hot spots around water pipes. The woman and her children, hugging each other like beautiful lava people by the cold blue of the kitchen table.
And then I came to Charlie.
Held the sensor there a moment.
Looked over the top of it to check
Pointed it back.
I pointed it straight at him.
And there was nothing. There was nothing there at all.
I lowered the sensor.
He was standing there, like before.
Only this time he was smiling.