It will be dawn soon. The night is thinning, drawing away from a scattering of lead coloured clouds low on the horizon. The streets are quiet, except for a shift worker in a fluorescent jacket pedalling home, a few cars heading out to the motorway.
Lena is waiting for us at a bus stop. She is wearing a Russian furry hat with ear flaps, and a fake leopard skin coat over her PJ’s. She makes no movement to show that the ambulance is for her, but when we pull up she wanders over to the kerb and waits there, swaying slightly, her mobile phone up under one of the flaps, but not talking into it, either listening to what the person is saying, or pretending to.
‘Are you the patient?’ I ask, climbing out.
She nods – a small movement, as if anything larger would pitch her into the road.
‘Let’s get you on board and we’ll have a chat.’
She drops the phone into her pocket and waits neutrally as I open the side door, then shuffles forwards.
Lena’s eyelashes spike out around her wide eyes like the pupils were black pebbles dropped in a pond. It takes an effort of will for her just to keep upright on the ambulance seat; she holds herself there, a prematurely aged, forty year old woman, reduced by the hour and the hard white light, her body insulated from the cold by the coat and hat just as effectively as her awareness is insulated by alcohol.
‘I want my fucking things back,’ she says. ‘I want them back.’
‘First things first, Lena. Why have you called the ambulance?’
‘I want my fucking things back. She cheated me and locked me out. She can’t do that to me. I’ll fucking kill her. I know my rights.’
‘Okay. But that’s something else, Lena. We’re the ambulance, not the police. We’re here to help you if you’re sick or you’ve hurt yourself.’
She starts to cry, with that calamitous drop into total misery you sometimes see in toddlers.
‘How dare she? I am not a piece of shit.’
I pass her some tissue, and she pushes it into her face.
‘So which one is your flat?’
‘Flat? I don’t have no flat. I haven’t got nothing, mate. Except my things. Will you go and get them off her for me?’
‘We’re not the police, Lena.’
She blows her nose and then slumps back in the seat.
‘Are you unwell in any way?’
‘Are you in pain?’
She squeezes her eyes shut and taps at the middle of her chest with the ball of tissue.
‘What do you mean? Chest pain?’
She opens her eyes again, turns the corners of her mouth down and wobbles her head slightly.
‘That bitch broke my heart. I thought she was my friend!’
‘Okay. Have you taken an overdose?’
‘No, mate. I haven’t taken no overdose. But yeah - maybe I should. I haven’t taken any of my pills for five days.’
‘What pills are they, Lena?’
She sighs, then names a run of psych meds.
‘You know – if you stop taking those meds suddenly it can really affect your mood. It can make things seem really out of whack.’
‘They are out of whack. I’ve spent my whole life out of whack.’
She leans forward, and I have to put my hand on her shoulder to stop her falling out of the chair.
‘I was eighteen when I was pregnant with my little girl. And do you know what they said to me? They said: “She might take a while to come out”. So I said “What d’you mean? I’m having her out right now.” So I pushed as hard as I could, and she practically flew across the room, along with all my tubes. And now I’ve got pain down there all the time. And I thought Sammy cared about that, ‘cos exactly the same thing happened to her.’
Lena straightens herself up in the chair and blows her nose. I give her some fresh tissue and dump the old. And as if blowing her nose was all she needed to do to put herself in a better mood, she folds her arms across her lap and smiles.
‘She’s a good girl, Sammy. You know the first time I went to stay with her I asked if I could borrow her razor and she said “No – I’m Hep C positive.” She didn’t have to say that, but it just goes to show.’
‘That is considerate.’
‘She’s very considerate, Sammy is. And she’s been through it. She’s had it all happen to her. She was raped. Only I was gang raped. When I was eighteen. And do you know what they did to me after they were done? Do you know what they did after they’d finished and I was crawling around in the garden? They threw food at me. Food! Sammy’ll tell you. She’s been through it. I lived with a man for twenty years and he beat me every single day. He beat me and used me and kept me as a prisoner. But what do you do? What do you do when you love someone like that?’
‘They’re terrible things to have happened, Lena.’
‘They were terrible. And now look.’
She straightens her hat and stares at me.
'I want my fucking things back. Are you going to go and get them for me or what?’