Alan is waiting for us by the taxi rank, leaning on a cab window chatting to the driver, a grim faced man whose abstracted image is trapped in the glass of his windscreen, staring straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, engine running. Alan looks smarter than normal. In his PVC leather-style bomber jacket, starched white shirt and chinos, Ferrari cap and white trainers, a visitor from outer space who based his earthly disguise on a bad seventies cop show. When he sees us pull onto the forecourt, he taps the cabbie on the arm, straightens up and strides over.
‘It’s Alan,’ I say to Frank.
I climb out of the cab.
‘Hello Alan,’ I say.
He walks with curious, bobbing little movements, like an alien adjusting to new gravitational environments, with trainers made of sponge.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘I was assaulted.’
‘Let’s have a chat on the back, then.’
I lead him on board.
‘So what happened?’
‘I was in this club, yeah? When this guy, yeah? He threw this plastic cup at me and it hit me here, on the back of the head. And now I can’t move my neck. It’s gone all numb. And my arms and legs feel weird. So what I did, yeah? I drank a double JD and coke – a Jack Daniels. A double. Straight off – like this. To numb the pain, yeah?’
‘And how long ago did this happen, Alan? Given that it’s now half past four in the morning?’
‘I don’t know. An hour?’
‘A plastic cup?’
‘Yeah. He threw it, and it hit me here, right in the back of the neck.’
‘Well I can’t see anything there, Alan.’
‘What d’you mean?’
He has that affronted slack about his face, an expression I’ve seen on him every one of the half dozen times I’ve seen him this year. His brown eyes narrow, drawing a flush of temper up over his jaw line to pulse at the bulb of his nose. ‘What are you going to do?’ he says.
I pause, and in that moment the weight of the long night shift rings around the shell of the ambulance as hard and blue-black as the morning.
‘It’s up to you, Alan,’ I manage to say. ‘If you want to go to hospital, we’ll happily take you. But if you’re complaining of neck pain, we’ll have to put you in a collar and immobilise you on the stretcher.’
‘Are you saying I shouldn’t go?’
‘I don’t know. You’re the patient. You’re the only one who can say how you feel.’
‘You think I’m making this up?’
I fold my arms, cross my legs, lean forwards and support myself there. It’s comfortable. I could sleep like this for a thousand years. You could dry me out and put me in a glass case. Put me on display with all the other mummies. So long as I didn’t have to do anything.
‘Do you remember the last time we met, Alan?’
‘It was about the same time of day. Dawn, I think. Over at the fish market. You were on your bike. You said you’d had a crash and you’d hurt your neck.’
‘The police were there, do you remember? You got really cross. They took you in the back of the car. But then they got another call, and let you out again a little bit further up the road.’
He stands up.
‘What do you want?’ he says.
‘I’m in your hands, Alan. It’s very simple. If you want to go to hospital, we’ll take you to hospital. So, Alan – do you want to go to hospital?’
‘You tell me.’
‘You don’t have to go, Alan. You can just go home and rest.’
‘You tell me.’
‘Yes or no, Alan? Do you want to go to hospital?’
He stands up, pulls his cap more firmly down on his head, turns and jumps off the ambulance.
‘You’re useless,’ he says. ‘You don’t do nothing.’
‘Go home and rest, Alan. Where’s your bike?’
But he doesn’t answer. He backs away from the ambulance, and stands watching from a little way off. When I close the cab door it nips off his curses.
I settle into the seat, and push the button to call Control.
The taxi moves off from the rank, but I can’t see anyone in the back.