On summer nights the beach is spotted with little fires, groups of drinkers, dancers by moonlight, dogs in the water, couples dreaming at the strandline – a soft panorama of beach life running out into the dark from the shouts and the racing neon lights of the pier. But the summer has gone now; the pier closes early, the night is thick and dark, and a sharp wind is blowing in off the sea. Only the breakers stand out in the gloom, rough ribs of foam tumbling in with a roar.
Half way out across the shingle, a huddle of people faintly illuminated with a rectangle of light.
‘Whatever sort of torch is that?’
A little closer, and we can distinguish a huddle of three people kneeling, squatting and standing around a figure lying between them. The standing one is leaning in above the others, lighting the scene with his laptop. A couple of them have taken off their jackets to wrap around the patient. They’re relieved to see us.
As Frank checks the patient – conscious, breathing – a young woman gives us her account.
‘He was standing right at the water’s edge. I thought it was a bit odd, because his feet were getting wet and he didn’t seem bothered. Then he started running up and down, shouting – I don’t know what, I couldn’t really hear – and he started tearing his clothes off and throwing them down. By the time everyone caught up with me he’d stripped down to his boxers and run into the water. He was screaming and crying and thrashing around in the waves for a bit. Then he fell over, went under for a minute but not any longer. And that’s when Billy pulled him out.’
‘I’m okay. I’m okay,’ says Billy, pre-empting a fuss. His hair is spiky and wet.
‘Anyone know his name?’
‘No – but we retrieved his clothes and there’s a phone in his pocket.’
Frank sits back on his heels.
‘There’s nothing obviously wrong with him. He’s deliberately keeping his eyes shut, though – don’t know why. We need to get him on the truck, get him warmed up and have a better look in the light. Let’s get him in the chair and be off.’
‘We’ll help you carry him.’
Everyone working together makes light work of loading the patient onto the chair and carrying him up the shingle beach to the promenade.
‘We’ll take it from here,’ says Frank. ‘Thanks for your help.’ The man shuts his laptop, they swap jackets around so they’re back to normal, and wave as we haul the patient up the steps to the ambulance.
On the truck, we can find nothing obviously wrong with him. But although he’s conscious, he still refuses to co-operate, flopping his arm out in the grand style.
I flip through his iPhone contacts and come across ICE – In Case of Emergency. A man’s name, and a number.
‘Shall I call it?’
‘Or shall I let the hospital take care of it?’
Straight to voicemail.