Mr Ellis is waiting for us in the driveway of his house, his soft, elderly frame picked out against the darkness by the flare of a halogen porch light. He stands completely still, his arms straight down by his sides, a garden statue dressed in a knitted jumper and slacks. He doesn’t say anything as we walk quickly towards him, but turns on the spot and leads us through the entrance at the side of the house. We follow him into a broad kitchen-dining room, everything set for dinner, a cooking clutter of saucepans neatly stacked in the sink, two plates of partially-eaten food either side of a sweetly laid table. But the domestic scene is ominously undercut by the bleep-bleep-bleep of a defib metronome through an open door at the far end.
‘She’s in the hallway,’ says Mr Ellis. ‘Is she dead?’
‘We’ll just go and check with our colleagues, then I’ll come straight back out and tell you what’s happening. Are you okay out here for a minute, Mr Ellis? I know this is very upsetting for you.’
‘I’m all right. Do what you can.’
Out in the hall the first crew on scene have been working for three or four minutes. Mrs Ellis is lain out between them, her blouse and bra cut down the middle and spread left and right, a tube tied off in her throat, a cannula in her arm, two pads on her chest, as fallen and exposed as a vivisected angel.
‘This is Mary. Eighty years old. Haven’t got a PMH yet, but fit and active. Was out doing some kind of community work, came home for dinner. Half way through she got up saying she felt breathless. Came out to the loo, was gone a while. Her husband heard her cry out. Found her collapsed. Dragged her out into the hall, phoned us. Was doing some CPR when we got here. So down about ten, I’d say. We’ve been going – how long is it? – six. Asystole throughout.’
Frank stays to help whilst I go back into the kitchen to talk to Mr Ellis.
‘It’s serious, isn’t it?’ he says.
‘I’m afraid so. Mary’s heart has stopped working. We’re doing everything we can to get it going again. We’re breathing for her, and giving her all the drugs and techniques we know of to keep her alive.’
‘I see. Thank you.’
‘And you know – the team with Mary now are about the best you could get. If there’s anything at all that can be done, they’re the ones to do it.’
‘Have a seat, Mr Ellis. John, isn’t it? I need to ask you a few questions, John. To help my colleagues. I’m sorry to have to ask you these things at a time like this, but it might help.’
We run through Mary’s medical history, how she’d been that day, her medications. He tells me that apart from a few minor aches and pains, she’d been perfectly fit. She’d come home to have dinner, and was due to go back out to her next call.
‘I’d better ring Mrs Napier and tell her she’ll be late,’ he says. He pauses as he picks the phone up, frowns, gives his head a little shake, then dials the number.
I go back out into the hall to get an update.
A plain, oval mirror - the kind you might check before leaving the front door – has been taken off the wall, and the picture hook used to hang up a bag of fluids.
Frank checks the timing on the defib, preps some more syringes. They swap around, the bagging, the compressions. There’s a settled, hopeless look to the whole scenario.
Back in the kitchen, John is leafing through a notebook.
‘So many people to ring,’ he says. ‘I don’t know where to start.’
‘Have you any relatives in the area who could be with you?’
‘My son’s on the way. He should be here in about an hour.’
‘Anyone sooner than that?’
‘He’ll be here in an hour.’
‘Okay. Can I get you anything? A cup of tea?’ I ask.
‘No. Thank you.’ He puts the notebook down and looks around.
‘We were just having dinner, you see,’ he says.
He pauses, and the beeps from the metronome measure out the length of it.