‘He’s round the back having a fag.’
It’s five in the morning, but the teenage girl has a chemical vibrancy about her that jars with the low-tide silence of the street. There are screams and shouts further along just out of sight, and she straightens like an animal caught standing too long.
‘Don’t take him to hospital’ she says, and then, just before she runs off, ‘He don’t like needles.’
‘What’s his name?’
She shakes her tangled hair out then sprints away, the sounds of her shouts blending with those of her friends, a wild call and response that echoes around the parked cars and curtained windows.
We pick our way through cardboard boxes, stacks of broken tiles and rusted engine parts to the front door of the house. It’s unfastened and swings open a little when I knock.
But Jason appears around the side of the house. A striking looking kid with spikes of ice-blond hair and a preternaturally wide-eyed expression. His left arm is elevated up to his shoulder in a makeshift tea towel sling, parcelled up with tightly knotted rags and strips of cloth
‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Okay. We’ll get you on the ambulance and have a look at your arm there. Is your mum or dad about?’
‘My mum.’ He nods towards the house. ‘But I’m all right if you just want to go.’
‘How old are you, Jason?’
‘So we’ll need to speak to her about all this and have her along as well. Why don’t you go with Frank to the ambulance and I’ll go in and get her.’
He shrugs, then follows Frank through the garden.
I turn back to the house and knock again. The door swings wider onto a darkly narrow hallway with newspaper on the floor and piles of rubbish pushed up out of the way under the stairs. A low grade sweat to the air of dog, dust, smoke and reheated fat; the wallpaper has a repeating flowery motif, but in the general gloom I could swear it was the social services logo and hotline.
A woman appears at the end of the corridor, forty going on eighty, thin and stooped, her long hair almost catching on the tip of her cigarette.
‘Thank you for coming. He’s just outside.’
She speaks in that overly precise way drunk people use when they don’t want to appear drunk. She finishes speaking, and watches her words float away from her like strange balloons down the hallway. Then she nods once and shuffles off into the sitting room. I follow her.
‘Are you Jason’s mum?’
She draws on her cigarette and squints at me through the smoke.
‘Well – as he’s only fifteen, we’ll need to talk to you about what’s happened.’
She steadies herself against the wall.
‘I’ll just get my bag.’
‘We’ll be outside.’
Frank has already cut off the extemporary bandaging and cleaned the wounds – a gout of flesh from the underside of his forearm, and the tip of his index finger missing.
‘He says they were play-fighting and he fell down on a broken bottle.’ Frank starts bandaging the wounds up. ‘We need to get you up the hospital, fella,’ he says.
‘I don’t want no needles. I hate needles.’
‘Don’t worry about that, Jason. They’re experts at this stuff. They do it all the time. They’ll take really good care of you. I’m not going to say it won’t hurt, mate, ‘cos it probably will. But you’re a tough kid and I’m sure you can cope.’
Jason watches as he gently dresses the arm.
‘Will I lose my finger?’ he says.
‘I don’t think so. But that’s a nasty injury to the tip. That’ll need special attention.
Jason chews his lip.
‘I hate needles,’ he says, finally.
‘Who bandaged your arm, Jason?’
He turns his wide eyes in my direction.
‘My step father.’
‘And where’s your step father now?’
‘I don’t know. Asleep?’
Jason’s mum appears at the ambulance door. She is so unsteady on her feet I have to get out and help her up the stairs. She’s of no use as a guardian, but I want her at the hospital to talk to the staff.
‘There you go!’ I say.
I settle her into a seat and she sits quietly for a moment, catching her breath, hugging a large, brown leather shoulder bag on her lap. Suddenly she frowns, opens it up and starts digging around inside, leaning over so precipitously that only the seatbelt stops her pitching head first into it.
‘Jason stayed round his friend’s house last night,’ she says, finally pulling herself up again, as if she’d just remembered the lines of a script. ‘He fell on some glass.’
Frank has finished dressing Jason’s arm. He tidies all his stuff away.
‘I think we’re set,’ he says.
‘How will I get back?’ says the mum. ‘I can’t find my phone.’
‘I haven’t got any money.’
Frank hesitates for a second, then snaps off his gloves.
‘We’ll think of something,’ he says. ‘Okay, kidda? Ready? Let’s go.’