A key worker buzzes open the door to the lobby. He seems surprised to see us. He leans out on the bottom half of the reception door, holding a mug of coffee in one hand and a Snickers bar in the other. A portable TV is playing loudly on a desk behind him; he pushes himself back up, stuffs the rest of the Snickers bar into his mouth, flips the wrapper across the office, then turns the TV down.
‘Just when I was getting into it,’ he says. ‘It’s weird – but pretty good. The Tolpuddle Martyrs. Four hours long, though.
‘I’d rather be transported,’ says Frank, yawning, leaning back against the security glass. ‘But given the current climate, that’s probably on the cards anyway.’
‘Who’ve you come for?’ says the key worker pleasantly, fetching a polythene-covered list from a tray and smoothing it flat on the door ledge in front of him.
‘No name, unfortunately. Room ninety five’s all we have. Twenty six year old female with abdo pain. That’s it.’
He looks over the list.
‘Ingrid,’ he says. ‘Figures. I think she was up the hospital a week ago with K cramps. I’ll take you up there.’
He unhooks a bunch of keys, swings the lower portion of the door open and then locks it behind him.
‘Just to give you a heads up,’ he says, ‘Ingrid’s a sex worker and heroin user. She’s doing her best, but she’s on a last warning at the moment. Just so you know. It might be germane to your cause.’
He leads us up the back stairs to the fourth floor. The hostel is a strip-lit, municipally signed seventies’ accommodation block with a moribund air of chlorine products, cigarettes and damp shoes. With the green paint, alarm consoles, pin boards, extinguishers, posters for activities, emergency hotline adverts, rules and announcements, it feels like an approved foothold on the side of a dreadful decline.
‘Here we are.’
The key worker knocks on ninety five and opens it with his key.
‘Ingrid? The paramedics.’
He steps aside and waves us in.
Ingrid’s room is lit by a desk lamp on the floor. A clutter limited only by the size of the holdall it spilled out of, lies strewn across a plain wooden chair and the open door of a closet. Ingrid is sitting on an unmade bed, with a laptop, a pack of cigarettes and a pack of baby wipes next to her. She is a pretty woman, frail and pinched. In her shot blue silk nightdress and white towelling robe, she has a strangely abstracted look about her, a socialite who lost her way to the bathroom and ended up in a flophouse. She ignores the fact that we have come into the room, and carries on staring down at the mobile in her hand.
‘Hello Ingrid. I’m Spence. This is Frank. What’s been going on tonight?’
She looks up slowly, without expression. Absently, as if her free hand belonged to someone else, she starts kneading her tummy and rocking forwards gently.
‘Ingrid? It’s the ambulance. How can we help?’
‘What’s wrong with me?’ she says, her voice as delicate and indistinct as the trail of glitter above her right eye.
‘Do you have any pain?’
‘What’s wrong with me?’ she says again, then looks back down at the phone.
‘Ingrid? Try to tell us what the problem is. I understand you have some abdominal pain. Is that right?’
She stands up, turns her back on us and walks over to the other side of the room.
The phone lights up. She puts it to her ear, seems to lose the call, then fiddles around with the buttons to get it back.
‘Ingrid? We’ve come here to help you. But we can’t do anything until you tell us what the problem is. Can you come and sit down again and we’ll see what’s going on? Ingrid?’
She drifts back to the bed and sits down again.
‘Okay. So do you have pain in your tummy?’
‘Can you point to where it hurts the most?’
She squeezes the middle of her abdomen again and leans forward.
‘What will you do?’ she whispers.
‘What I suggest is we go down to the ambulance and have a look at you there. We can do a few checks, and then run you up to the hospital so you can see a doctor. You’re obviously in some pain. Ingrid? Will you do that, Ingrid?’
She stares at her phone.
‘Come on, Ingrid. Let’s get a bag together – your keys, money, phone.’
But she ignores me, flicking through the contacts on her phone. If we left or stayed, it would make no difference to her.
‘Okay,’ she says, and stands up.
‘Good! You don’t need much. Here are your keys, look. So let’s go.’
To say she follows us out of the room is to overstate the way she moves. It’s an abstracted thing, a dream of movement. If there was a heat sensor up there instead of a security camera, it would pick up three blurry red shapes and something else, something trailing behind, a wraith-like ripple of blue sliding along the corridor.
She stops when we get outside.
‘I’m not going to hospital,’ she says, and wraps her dressing gown around her.
‘Come on, Ingrid. You’ve got this far. I really think you should come with us and get checked out.’
A car pulls up. A dented silver Micra with the backseats flat beneath a dump of possessions. The driver, a pouchy middle aged man in a black suit gets out and stands with one hand on the door and the other on the roof. Ingrid slips her phone away into her pocket and walks over to him.
But she doesn’t look back. She opens the front passenger door and gets in. The man doesn’t even acknowledge us. He sits back behind the wheel and they drive off, both looking straight ahead.
‘So what d’you reckon?’ says Frank, folding his arms. ‘Right or left at the end of the road?’
They turn right.