Three o’clock in the morning, parked by the side of a deserted street. Dozing in the low-lit box of our cab whilst the belly of the moon bumps the roof and the ambulance freezes around us. If I half close my eyes, I can turn those streetlights into diatoms of colour; they ripple and stretch and fly apart in strands, swimming through the low voices of the radio.
But then something hooks me back from the brink of sleep: an estate car pulling up to the side of the road in front of us. A man gets out. I watch him as he goes round to the back, opens the boot and pulls out a silver chair. He sets it on the pavement, then goes back into the boot again. I wonder if he’s some kind of street artist ready to perform a bitterly ironic piece – Standby – about the despair of men paid to sit by the side of empty streets at night for no reason. But it turns out he’s just re-arranging the boot. He puts the chair back inside when he’s done, and drives off.
A job comes up on the screen.
Overdose, outside a hotel.
Frank groans, unfolds back into a driving position yawns like Chewbacca as he turns the engine over.
‘Back the other side of town,’ he says, reading the notes. ‘So that was worth sending us here, then.’
The night porter doesn’t wave as we approach. He hugs his arms around his mop and watches us without expression as we pull up.
‘Cold night’ I say.
As if that was all he needed to hear, the night porter unfolds his arms and bends down to pick up the bucket. He holds both – mop and bucket – in one hand, raising the other arm up and out as a counterbalance.
‘Was there a guy sitting out here? Rang for an ambulance? Something about an overdose?’
The night porter sighs.
‘Threw up all over the steps and fucked off. Is that who you mean?’
‘I’ve cleared it up.’ He stands there, frowning as if he thinks the whole thing was probably our idea, then turns to go back inside.
‘Speak to Mrs Adams.’
On the Reception desk, Mrs Adams has come out of the back office. She stands with her arms planted across the register like a priestess drawing power from a book of spells.
‘He left as soon as I said the ambulance was on its way,’ she says. ‘He said he’d taken an overdose because he had a row with his girlfriend. She wasn’t with him.’
‘What does he look like?’
She pauses, staring out across the empty lobby.
‘Tall. Thin. Gloomy.’
‘Anything else I can help you with?’
‘No. Thanks very much. Good night.’
‘Good night to you.’
‘Don’t look back’ says Frank as we walk back across the lobby. But I do. Mrs Adams waves. I wave back, and almost end up in the same segment of the revolving door as Frank.
Control ring us up. Police are on scene with the patient at the Cumberland.
‘Who is this guy? Some kind of fucked-up hotel inspector?’
We drive round the corner and park up behind one of the patrol cars out in the street. As we climb out of the cab again, a police officer comes over.
‘What it is – this fella had a fight with his girlfriend and took some pills she had on her. Went away, came back, punched out a glass door in the lobby. He’s in there sitting on the naughty step with cuffs on. His girlfriend is being a bit difficult at the moment, but you should be all right.’
The Cumberland is a good but less expensive hotel than the first. Some of the letters are out on the name, the doors are thickly painted, whilst in the lobby, a chintz war rages between the repro tables, gilt mirrors, flowery prints and flock wallpaper. A handful of tourist pamphlets and glass shards are scattered across the runner.
Four police officers fill the hallway. Two are with the patient, who sits with his arms cuffed behind him at the bottom of the staircase at the far end. Two more are with the girlfriend, a young woman of twenty who seems even from this distance to have the same darkly wrought intensity as the wallpaper.
‘Don’t you lay a hand on me,’ she says. ‘You’re being completely horrendous. All I want is to make sure Jimmy’s okay. I can’t believe you’re not letting me.’
‘The paramedics are here,’ says one of the officer, glad to have some new angle. ‘Let them do their job, and we’ll see where we go from there.’
As we pass she leans out in front of us.
‘We had a row,’ she says. ‘He took six anti-psychotic pills I’d confiscated off a friend who shouldn’t have been taking them. I’m a reflexologist so I know about this stuff. He’s had some alcohol, he’s been sick a number of times. I’m worried he might go unconscious or have a fit.’
The police officer gently steers her out of the way.
‘Please!’ she says.
‘Let them do their job,’ he says.
‘Let go of me!’
‘Just give us a moment,’ says Frank. ‘It’ll be all right.’
Jimmy barely looks up as we approach. If it wasn’t for the early hour, the handcuffs, the police officers, the flashes of blue from outside, the buzz of radios and the loud protestations of his girlfriend, he could be a disappointed tourist waiting to go back to the airport.
‘How are you on your feet?’ says Frank.
Jimmy stands up, utterly neutral. We walk him out to the truck.
‘I’ll be there in a minute, baby,’ says his girlfriend, touching him on the arm as we pass. ‘Check his blood pressure and heart rate. And check in the manual for side-effects. I’m here baby. I’m here for you.’
‘Just a second,’ says one of the officers. ‘Who’s got the keys to your room?’
‘I know. I know where they are,’ says the girlfriend. ‘They landed in the big ceramic pot to the right of the sofa.’
‘The sofa by the window.’
We all look in that direction.
‘Not this hotel. The other one,’ she says.
Everyone seems to tense up.
Jimmy discretely tests the slack of his cuffs.
‘Let’s get you out to the truck,’ says Frank.