Wednesday, April 27, 2011

a little salt water

Flat calm at dawn, and the sea runs out like mercury from the dark legs of the jetty to the vast pearlescent stretch of the horizon. Mid-way across the bay, a thick column of black smoke rises straight up about a hundred feet, then curves and gradually thins to the east. A small yacht is on fire at the root of it; you can just about make out the last licks of fire around a lump in the water. It’s a shock to see it – as if someone had taken a violent, oily rag to a seascape by Turner.

As we swing down towards the pontoon, a coastguard waves and points to where he wants us: a collection of emergency vehicles on the road end of the jetty, and a couple of teenagers sitting on a wooden parapet, shivering under blankets. A lifeboat man stands next to them, as bulked out with Ripstop competence as the boys are reduced and spindly beneath their blankets.
‘Okay. What we’ve got here – two lads who’ve been in the water max of ten minutes. No smoke inhalation, no swallowing of water, no drowning, shark attack, no mugging by crabs as far as we can make out. Just need to warm up a bit, probably, but we’ll let you be the judge. That one’s Scott, that one’s Billy.’
‘Other way r-r-r-ound,’ says Billy, chattering the words out of his mouth.
‘Anyways,’ says the Lifeboat man, ‘Over to you.’
He smiles and carries on writing out his form.
‘Okay. Billy.’
‘No, I’m Billy.’
‘Okay. Scott. Billy. Let’s get you on the ambulance, throw a few logs on the fire then we’ll get the story. Okay?’
‘We’re a bit wet, so you might want to put something on the chairs.’
‘No worries.’
We lead them onto the truck and pile them with more blankets.

The lifeboat man was right – all their observations are normal, no sign of anything untoward, except for mild hypothermia. Despite being dunked in the ocean, alcohol fumes hang over them both in a visible haze.
‘How much have you had to drink?’ I ask them.
‘Oh, loads. Anyway – it was his idea.’
‘Well it was my Dad’s boat, but he said he wanted to take it out.’
‘You said you knew what to do.’
‘I do know what to do.’
‘Obviously mate. Obviously. That’s why the boat blew up and I had to rescue you.’
‘F-f-f-uck off. You didn’t rescue me.’
‘I did!’ he shouts. ‘The boat was in flames! It was going down! So I dived into the sea.’
‘I couldn’t get my laces undone.’
‘Yeah – and you were crying like a bitch so I had to swim back and save you.’
‘I was not.’
‘I saved you, man! I saved you!’
Frank yawns and takes a seat opposite them on the trolley.
‘So it was your Dad’s boat?’ he says.
‘Yeah. God – what am I going to tell him? You won’t tell him, will you?’
‘I won’t say a word,’ says Frank. ‘But he’ll have to know sooner or later. Unless you can think of something really amazing. Which I doubt.’
‘Yeah – I know. He’s going to k-k-kill me. But just don’t tell him yet. I’ve got to get the story straight.’
‘Good luck.’
A violent shudder passes through Scott, shaking up from his white nubby toes, up through the layers of blanket, to rattle out of his body via his jaw. After it passes, he laughs out loud.
‘God! Look at us! We nearly drowned, man! We nearly burned up and drowned!’
Billy laughs too, their shivers accentuating their craziness, until they both almost vibrate out of the chairs, through the door and back out onto the jetty.
Eventually, Scott calms down and flaps his arms out right and left like a giant, sorry bird.
‘I lost my iPhone, man,’ he says, miserably. ‘It’s on the seabed now. That cost four hundred quid.’
‘You should’ve got yourself one of those wreck apps,’ says Frank.
‘Yeah,’ says Billy, sitting up and hugging himself. ‘Yeah. Maybe you’ll get some sex texts from a lobster.’
‘Shut up. Don’t forget – I saved your life. You owe me.’
‘F-f-f-fuck off.’
But he seems happy about it.
‘So – tell me again what happened?’ I ask them.
‘Billy said he wanted to be out on the sea for when the sun came up. So we took his old man’s boat. I put the sails up but they didn’t work, so we stuck the engine on. After a bit it started making a funny noise…’
‘… all this black smoke coming out.’
‘… we tipped loads of water over it.’
‘… and then it blew up.’
‘Yeah, and I stripped down to my boxers and legged it over the side. And I’d swum miles before I realised Baby Billy was still on board. I could see him screaming and crying.’
‘Fuck off was I.’
‘So I swam back and I saved his life! I dragged you from the jaws of death, my friend. And you can never, ever re-pay me.’
Meanwhile, Billy has pulled out his mobile phone and is shakily trying to take the back off.
‘Hey! Where d’ya get that?’
‘I had it with me the whole time, man. I s-s-stuffed it down my shorts.’
As he pulls off the back, a trickle of sea water runs over his hands. He taps it a couple of times on his knee, then nails-out the SIM card, holding it up for us all to see.
‘There!’ he says, turning it round and round in the light. ‘A little salt water never hurt no-one.’

Monday, April 25, 2011

a half too far

Gary is standing outside the pub, arguing with a woman, waving his stick in the air and almost being carried over backwards by the rucksack on his back. She sees the ambulance first and steps to one side to wave us over. He stands where she left him, planting his stick back down on the pavement and blinking owlishly in the harsh midday sun.
‘He’s soiled his-self’ she says as I climb out of the cab. ‘The taxis don’t want to know.’
‘Okay. Are you a relative?’
‘A relative?’ She tips her chin up and laughs like a crow. ‘A relative?’ But then the humour of it leaves her as suddenly as it came. ‘I’m a friend,’ she says. ‘If that.’
We walk over to Gary.
‘What’s happened?’ I ask him.
‘What’s happened? I’ve shit me-self, mate, that’s what’s happened. Look at me. What a state. I stink. It’s disgusting. What’s wrong with me?
‘I don’t know, Gary. Have you vomited at all?’
‘Only the usual brackish whatsits every morning, like. But this – oh, it’s disgusting. The taxis took one look at me and drove off. That’s not very nice, is it?’
‘Let’s get you on the ambulance and see what’s what, shall we?’
‘Urgh,’ he says, walking like an old cowboy beside me, a dreadful dark stain spreading across the seat of his jeans and down each leg.
The Easter throng magically parts around us right and left.

Frank has placed a line of inco pads down the trolley; Gary manoeuvres himself delicately into position.
‘I’m not in trouble, am I?’ he says, hauling each leg up individually. ‘What are they going to do to me? I was only there yesterday.’
‘What for?’
‘What’s that?’
‘I say – what were you up at the hospital for yesterday? Incontinence?’
‘No, mate. I fell over and cut me face.’
Behind the filthy oval panes of his glasses I can see scuff marks and steri-strips around one of his eyes.
‘Was that drink related, too?’
‘I’m a diagnosed alcoholic. It’s all drink related, mate.’
‘How much have you had today?’
‘I just went in for a quick half and then this happened. They wouldn’t serve me any more and threw me out. I hope they don’t charge me for the chair.’
His friend leans in at the door to say goodbye.
‘See you later, Gary,’ she says, drawing her lips back and exposing a landfill of rotten teeth. ‘Look after him,’ she says, and slams the door shut.


At the hospital, the air in the department is bright and relaxed. There is a sparkle of freshness about the place, a dreamy vista of empty beds, cleaners wiping surfaces with a Tai-Chi level of focus, a domestic wheeling a trolley of coffee, tea and perfectly aligned biscuits – the only thing lacking is birdsong, and a line of cherry trees scattering white blossom as I walk down the corridor to the desk. The charge nurse is chatting pleasantly with her colleagues and a couple of young doctors; they all look up and smile as I approach.
‘What have you got for us?’ she says.
The further I get with my story, the darker their collective expression grows. I feel as if I have committed a terrible error of judgement, like a leper trying to interest them in a new sandwich round. There is a shocked pause after I finish my handover.
‘Side room one,’ says the charge nurse finally, screwing up her nose as she spins my board round to get the surname. I want to reassure her Gary didn’t touch the board.
‘Where did you say you found him?’ she says.
‘In a pub on the high street.’
‘God,’ says one of the young doctors. ‘Which one?’

We load Gary onto the bed in the side room. He puffs and blows, his slack red cheeks flapping in and out beside the dreadful aperture of his mouth.
‘I stink,’ he says. ‘What’re they going to do to me?’
‘I don’t know Gary. Make sure you’re okay.’
‘Look at me.’
‘I know. It’s just the way it is.’
‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘I think it’s probably drink related.’
‘But I only had a half a lager.’
‘Did you have anything this morning?’
‘Well I had the usual but that was it.’
‘What’s the usual?’
‘Thirteen cans. But you see – I’m a diagnosed alcoholic.’
‘Anyway, Gary. Here’s your stick. The doctor will be with you shortly.’

In fact, things are so quiet that the doctor goes into the room as we’re outside cleaning the trolley. The door to the examination room is propped open with a chair and I can overhear the consultation.
‘Good afternoon to you. I’m Doctor Enderby.’
‘Hello, Doc. I was only up here yesterday,’ says Gary, pleasantly.
‘Oh yes? And why was that?’
‘I fell over. I’m a diagnosed alcoholic.’
‘Okay. I see. Mm. And can you tell me what has happened to you today, please?’
‘Yes I can. I’ve shit me-self.’

We wheel our trolley out through the automatic doors into sunshine.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

rocking horse manor

The electric gates swing open; I drive past the gate house and on to a private road that curves round and down through a meticulously groomed corridor of conifer and camellia to a D-shaped drive around a rocky waterfall; behind it rises the Altrincham’s residence. A boxy, red-bricked place, unweathered, pristine, it has an affected but strangely guileless look, as if a child had won the lottery and designed its ideal home with a crayon. A portico of Portland stone is stuck on to the front of the house; beneath it a pair of massive oak doors. A terrier barks and barks from somewhere deep inside the house, but otherwise the place is dark and quiet.
Just as Frank is about to flip the lion’s head knocker, there is the sound of rattling chains from the other side, a heavy bolt, and then one half of the door swings open. Mr Altrincham stands looking at us from inside – or rather, he seems to sense our presence, swaying slightly from side to side and sniffing the air.
‘Ambulance?’ says Frank after a moment. Mr Altrincham lets go of the door, turns and heads back inside, which we take as a signal to follow.

We find ourselves in a colossal atrium. A wide staircase sweeps upwards on the opposite side to a gallery of rooms. On our left is a glass fronted library; on the right, an oak panelled wall with a couple of corridors leading off. But essentially the feel is of a house built around a great cube of space, with a geometric glass canopy above, something like a museum, or maybe the lobby of a grand hotel. What pictures and objects there are have a lost air, as if they were used to a smaller place, and struggle to justify the emphasis their new surroundings have put on them: a couple of small, country-themed oil paintings; a bronze of a running child; an medieval oak chest, a tattered rocking horse.
‘You’ll be careful, won’t you?’ says Mr Altrincham, beginning the long haul back up to the gallery. ‘When I had to go in a few months ago, they dropped me down the stairs.’
‘Don’t worry. We’re professionals,’ says Frank, giving me a look as I follow up behind him.
‘What sort of dog have you got?’ I ask him, but Mr Altrincham either cannot hear me or chooses not to.
‘She’s just about ready to go,’ he says.

He leads us up to the gallery and along to the main bedroom. It suddenly strikes me that the whole place is modelled on a medieval great hall. A thousand years ago this would have been the Lord and Lady’s retreat, the inner court set apart from the rabble below. But if the idea is the same, the fixtures and fittings have changed. Instead of tapestries there are professional family portraits; instead of a scattering of straw and lavender, acres of fitted beige carpets; instead of serfs, two ambulance men with a carry chair and a blanket.
‘Now you promise me you won’t drop her?’ says Mr Altrincham, fussing around with an overnight bag.
‘What on earth have you done with my dressing gown?’ says his wife from the edge of the four poster. ‘My flannels?’ She clutches the bedclothes to her, overwhelmed by the horror of the situation.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘Your husband can always bring the rest of it up later.’
She stares at me like someone being addressed by an owl in a nightmare.
‘My slippers!’ she gasps eventually.

From far off, the dog continues to bark.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

occasional flight

Mr Collins has slid out of his chair onto the floor. He sits sweating helplessly on the rug, like a feverish white elephant in a fisherman’s jersey. The jersey has ridden up as he went down, revealing vast slopes of pale white flesh, four massy limbs on each corner, the legs bound in stained crepe bandages, toes poking out in bundles of cracked and dreadful meat, arms extending helplessly left and right, the left hand resting on a cushion, the right on an ornamental bird cage, where an ancient green budgerigar hops about on the seeded floor pecking affectionately at his finger.
‘The fire brigade shouldn’t be long,’ I tell him.
Mrs Nelson, next door neighbour, next of kin, helps us move what furniture we can to make some space, but really you’d need a small tractor. The flat is packed out with shelves of DVDs, cabinets of photos and ornaments, a sofa heaped up with magazines, books, manuals, and a coffee table banked up with transmitters and receivers, two high aerials extending up to the ceiling.
‘Bit of a radio ham?’ says Frank.
‘Oh yes,’ says Mr Collins. ‘You need something.’
It’s so hot in the flat I want to rip off my clothes and throw a ladle of water on the radiator.
‘I’ve just got to open a window,’ I say.
‘You’ll be lucky. It’s a stretch,’ says Mrs Nelson, perfectly adapted to the environment in a loose Japanese kimono.
There is a gigantic TV screen in front of the window bay; I can just about reach round it to flip the handle of the window, but can’t manage to push it open.
‘I’ll just use this to help,’ I say, leaning over an inch more to retrieve a walking stick from the alcove. As I swing it up I accidentally hook the net curtain line which only seems secured by a pin; it crashes down on my head.
‘Oh my good god,’ says Mr Collins. ‘Mr Bean.’
But when I use the stick to push open the window, the sudden rush of cool night air is worth all the fuss.
As I stand there bathing in the delicious draught, there is a hiss of truck brakes from down in the street.
‘Here they are.’


‘Jesus it’s warm in here,’ says a fireman. They’ve already stripped down to their blue t-shirts, but those are heavy trousers.
‘What’s the plan, gentlemen?’
After some discussion we decide to drag Mr Collins out into the hall on the rug; once there, we’ll have the space to lift him up and onto the trolley. The lead fireman inspects the rug.
‘It’s a good, tough weave,’ he says. ‘I think we may as well lift you with it as well.’
Suddenly the budgerigar squawks, a surprisingly loud sound for such a small animal. It’s a dreadful noise, something like a wire hanger being dragged down the funnel of an ocean liner.
‘What the hell was that?’ says a fire fighter, tentatively lifting a corner of the throw that covers the cage and peering inside.
‘A Mongolian feathered hamster,’ says Frank.
‘I was seriously mis-sold then. Thirty years ago,’ says Mr Collins. ‘Wasn’t I, Bertie?’
‘What’s the bell on the top for?’
‘That?’ says Frank. ‘Bertie gives it a tap whenever he draws blood.’
The fire fighter drops the throw.
‘Don’t listen to them,’ says Mr Collins. ‘Bertie’s a strict vegetarian. I let him out sometimes. I like to watch him fly about. Don’t I? Ye-es. Don’t I? ’
Mr Collins reaches out to the cage again, and we watch as the decrepit bird wipes its beak affectionately against his mitt-thick fingers. The moment passes, and we prepare to move.
‘Come on. Let’s get this rug on the road.’
Between us we manoeuvre the massive armchair out of the way, then grab hold of the rug. We look like some strange version of Twister: four firemen, two paramedics, adopting what positions they can to fit around each other in the restricted space, shifting Mr Collins backwards a foot at a time then re-positioning, calling out tolerances and obstacles, shouting out Stop or Come on, or Go, Yeah, Go, until we’ve made the distance and spill out into the cool vaulted heaven of the hallway.
‘Now then,’ says Frank, straightening up and easing his poor back. ‘If you’re sure you can’t remember the magic word to make this rug fly, Mr Collins – everyone grab a hold, bend your knees, and ...’

On three, he rises into the air.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

king frog

Our destination seems to be stuck out in a grey area of the map, as if even the Satnav were so tripped out it closed its eyes, tossed the little chequered flag over its shoulder and let it fall where it may.
‘Ignore that,’ says Frank.
We follow his instinct, taking a backstreet tributary that curves round and down and then up again into an obscure block. The estate has that four in the morning ebb, the street lamps and the moon having long since sucked up what light there is and dealt it back as night sweats.
There is a squat, middle-aged woman waiting for us on the pavement. Her hair has been clumped up in bunches and tied off with scraps of coloured rag, the remainders of which she could have stitched together with spider silk and made into a dress.
‘She’s upstairs,’ she says, pointing too.
‘A relative of yours?’
‘No. A friend. We were having a party.’
We follow her through a doorway hidden amongst some bins and she leads us like an urban version of the white rabbit up a stairway like a tunnelled run, junked to the arches with discarded chairs, hi-fi components, the bone yard of a thousand thrift stores. The air gets thicker with herbal smoke as we near the heart of the place.
‘What’s she had tonight?’
‘Ketamine, LSD. Some cake.’
‘What was in the cake?’
‘Oh it’s pretty healthy. Nuts and seeds. There’s loads left.’
She pushes through a door at the top and brings us out into the top flat - surprisingly clear, as if all the clutter that had simply been vomited down the stairwell. The furthest door stands open to a dimly lit living room, and inside we can see eight or so people sitting around, five of them on the floor holding down the legs, arms and shoulders of a young, screaming woman.
‘What’s the patient’s name?’
‘Has she had any alcohol?’
‘She doesn’t drink.’
I step through into the room.
‘Hello, there. Hello. It’s the ambulance,’ I say, trying to ameliorate the shock of the uniform that I can sense on the air.
But if I was a director I’d want to re-shoot my entrance. Can you try it again with more sincerity, less school master – I don’t know, just try.
But then if I was an actor I’d want to ask about the costume design. Along with the first woman – but apart from the guy holding down the left leg, who looks as straight and out of place as I do, like a trainee optometrist at a festival – everyone seems to have been dunked in the same dressing up box, a seventies pot pourri of spangly wigs, metallic hot pants, stripy stockings, robes, tails and faded Love t-shirts. Apart from the restrainers, there are two women sitting chatting on a put-you-up, and a man perched on the edge of an easy chair, overlooking the scene. His pointed goatee, twirly moustache and pince-nez sit like a comedy set on display above a starched white collar, stripy yellow and black blazer and pressed white trousers. The lobes of his ears are stretched into pendant rounds by two black plates, and tattooed flowers sneak over the edge of his collar. He is leaning forwards on his cane.
Rosie is lying between her five friends on the floor. She is dishevelled, sweated up. Every so often she tries to wrest herself free from their grip, screams and swears incoherently, then bashes her head back onto the throws and cushions they’ve placed behind her.
‘So tell me again what’s happened to Rosie?’
The optometrist looks up at me over his shoulder.
‘Can you take over holding her down?’ he says. ‘I’m exhausted.’
‘How long has she been like this?’
‘An hour.’
‘Well just carry on as you are for the moment. Let’s just see what needs to be done.’
‘What if we can’t do it anymore and we let go and she jumps out of the window and kills herself.’
‘Just stay with it for a while. I’m sure between all of you in the room you can swap about and make it easier.’
‘And you are?’ says the man with the cane.
‘My name’s Spence.’
‘Spence. No last name?’
I hesitate, and the man leans back with a smirk.
‘Oh I get it,’ he says. ‘I see. You’re just doing your job. What is your job by the way?’
‘I’m a technician with the ambulance service. And no – we don’t normally give our last names, but I’ll tell you anyway. It’s Kennedy.’
‘Oh. Kennedy. Well I’m Lord Scratch-it-up from Hearts Enough and this is my castle.’
He leans back in the chair and sighs.
‘OK. Right. So. Rosie’s been like this for an hour. What’s she taken?’
‘I told you,’ says the first woman over my shoulder. ‘Ketamine and LSD.’
‘At what time?’
‘Look. None of that matters. We’ve all had exactly the same and none of us are beating ourselves senseless on the floor.’
‘But with respect, these things affect people differently. Plus we don’t know exact quantities. It varies.’
‘Are you going to help her?’ says another girl. ‘Do something.’
‘Does anybody know her past medical history?’
‘Her what?’
‘Her past medical history. If she suffers with anything.’
‘I think she had some investigations for something or other a while ago, but I’m not sure.’
‘On any meds?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Aren’t you going to give her something? If you’re not, I don’t really understand why you’re here?’ says the man with the cane, sitting up again.
‘Rosie needs to go to hospital. They might well give her some kind of sedative there, but there’s nothing we carry that we can give right now.’
‘And you’re some kind of medical person, is that right?’
‘Yes. But the only thing that we can do is make sure that Rosie is safe, that she gets taken to hospital in the safest way possible. The problem really is with the stairs. I’m afraid the police are the experts at this kind of thing. We’re going to have to get them over to help.’
‘So you’re a medical person, but you’re calling the police, and she needs to go to hospital. I don’t understand.’
Rosie throws herself up into an arch, and looks around the room like a demon conjured up through the floor.
‘We can’t take her out like this. She’ll hurt herself and everyone else,’ I tell them, when this raging fit subsides. ‘Let me just get them running.’
I turn to make the call. I notice the table set out with party food along the wall, sandwiches, biscuits, crisps and a large patterned plate with a half eaten cake. In the centre of the table there is a hefty plastic frog; with a crown tipped back on its head and its eyes and mouth sprung wide with delight, it slowly pulses with light – green, then red, then purple, orange and yellow.


Half an hour later, a police van pulls up next to the ambulance. I go down to brief them on the scene.
‘That was tricky to find,’ says one of them. I lead them back up to the flat.

Whilst they assess the scene in the living room, I talk to the first woman in the kitchen.
‘I’ll follow up in the car,’ she says. ‘I haven’t had anything. I’m the one driving my husband home,’ the man with the cane, it transpires. ‘Are you sure you don’t want some cake?’

Back in the living room the police are worried about the logistics of a forcible removal down those stairs; the sergeant says he wants to stay on scene for a little while longer. Rosie seems calmer now, exhausted by her exertions. She still seems dangerously volatile, though; when the police tentatively unstrap her legs and sit her up, she rubs the spot where they had been secured and eyes up the distance to the hallway.
I’m chatting in the hallway to a police officer and a couple of the other party goers when the man with the cane suddenly appears. He walks up to me and waits for me to finish my sentence. When I look at him he smiles and says: ‘I’m sorry but I’d regret not doing this for the rest of my life.’ He reaches out, puts his hand on my shoulder, and looks square into my eyes. ‘You are the most useless prick I’ve ever met in my entire life.’ Then he turns and limps off back into the room.
The shock of it rinses through me, through the people I was talking to. Led by a sense of outrage I follow him to the room and stand in the doorway as he retakes his place in the chair.
‘That is unacceptable abuse!’ I say to him. Everyone looks at me, the police, the party goers and restrainers - even Rosie. ‘Where do you get off thinking you can talk to me like that. I came here to help you.’
He slumps in the chair, throwing his right arm over the back of it and arching up his head in a pastiche of a naughty child. ‘Oh I’m sorry if I offended you. Please accept my apology.’
I turn and go back to pick up my conversation, but the shock of it has robbed me of the power to think or speak about anything else.
‘Just ignore him,’ says Frank. ‘He’s an idiot.’
But instead I go into the kitchen to speak to the man’s wife. She is sitting looking exhausted on a chair, the rags in her hair loosening and slipping out.
‘You’re not responsible for your husband, and I know he’s had some stuff tonight, but I know you’re sober and I just wanted to explain to you exactly how unpleasant he was so you can tell him in the morning.’
‘I’m really, really sorry,’ she says. ‘I can only apologise.’
‘He touched me on the shoulder, looked into my eyes, and he said to me: “You are the most useless prick I’ve ever met in my entire life.” That’s what he said. I just wanted you to know.’
‘I’m sorry.’
And then another impulse takes me. I grab a piece of paper off the top of the fridge and I start writing.
‘This is my name. This is where I work.’
I hand her the paper.
‘I expect a full apology in the morning.’
And as soon as I do it, I hear that voice again. Okay – but can you just try it again with more authority, less pout – I don’t know, just try.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Two o’clock in the morning and the frontage of the automotive parts warehouse is cut out of the night with halogen. Marie is sitting waiting for us on the low wall out front, her right arm hanging out of the sleeve of her jacket countess-style, her left gripping a mobile.
‘Let’s get on the ambulance and have a chat there,’ I tell her. I touch her elbow to guide her to the step; a seamy, unwashed fug rises from her like steam from a pony.
She strides in to the vehicle and sits on a chair.
‘It’s my arm,’ she says.
‘Let’s have a look, then.’
I help her off with her jacket.
‘Tell me what happened.’
‘I’ve been staying round at my boyfriend’s. I woke up and my arm was numb. That’s it.’
‘Ever happened before?’
‘Any trauma?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Have you fallen on it? Hurt yourself in any way recently?’
‘Any unusual lifting or exercise?’
‘What’s your health like normally, Marie?’
‘Fine,’ she laughs, dipping her head, tails of lank brown hair swinging over her eyes. ‘Why?’
‘Do you take any medication for anything?’
‘Depression, ADHD, ODD and Bipolar disorder. That’s it.’
‘I thought you were supposed to know this stuff.’
‘Well. Every day you learn something new.’
‘Every day,’ says Frank, leaning back against the side of the ambulance and shutting his eyes.
‘Can you feel that?’ I say to her, prodding gently around her shoulder.
‘And that?’
‘Can you move your arm at all?’
‘Where do you live?’
She tells me the address, a hostel just round the corner from the hospital.
Frank unfolds his arms and straightens up.
‘Okay Marie,’ I say. ‘I’ve no idea what’s wrong with your arm. The only thing we can do is take you up the hospital to see a doctor.’
She nods, settles back into her jacket, checks her phone for messages.
‘But really - couldn’t your boyfriend have taken you up there?’
‘He’s got work tomorrow.’
‘So what was the plan? Given that it’s two in the morning? You wake up with a numb arm, and you go out on your own into the street? Is that even safe?’
‘I thought it would ease off.’
‘So when it didn’t you called for an ambulance?’
‘And your boyfriend doesn’t know anything about it.’
‘He’s got work tomorrow.’
‘But you didn’t phone a taxi.’
‘I’m sick.’
Frank opens the door, and the night leans in.
‘See you the other end,’ he says.
The way he says it, it could be the eighth circle of hell.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

the parrot and the palm

‘One thing I learned yesterday.’
‘Go on.’
‘You only ever see the same side of the moon.’
‘Never the dark side.’
‘Even though that does get light sometimes.’
‘But not so you’d notice.’
‘And do you know why?’
‘Because the moon spins so slowly on its axis, by the time it’s made one trip round the earth it’s only spun round once. So it’s always the same side facing us.’
‘But hang on a minute. The earth is spinning as well.’
‘Yeah. And the moon spins round that.’
‘So if everybody’s spinning, why don’t you see the back and the front.’
I hold up my fists and ineffectually turn them this way and that for a moment.
‘Well. If you saw the animation on You Tube you’d understand.’
‘Like you, you mean?’

Frank turns the truck into the road. Up ahead we can see the hazard lights on a car winking on and off. He heads towards it.

‘But you know, if you were in the southern hemisphere, it’d be upside down,’ I carry on, trying to claw back the ground I’d lost.
‘What? The moon?’
‘We see the man in the moon. They see something else.’
‘What do they see?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t get that far.’
‘Waltzing Matilda?’
‘No. I think that’s when you go off into the bush with a rucksack.’
He looks at me sideways as we pull up behind the car.
‘I think you need to check out some other websites, Spence.’
‘I think you’re right.’

A plain-clothes police officer comes up and stands by the window. Frank lowers it.
‘Sorry to drag you out,’ says the officer. ‘I don’t think he’s been badly hurt, but I just wanted a professional view.’
His disguise is not so much in his clothes as in his face. He has a wide and friendly mouth crammed with the kind of teeth you might expect to see in a fox; with his spiky ginger hair glistening in the yellow light of the streetlamp, he shifts his weight happily from foot to foot like an excitable, vagrant clown.
‘No worries,’ says Frank.

* **

Mr Norris’ flat is really just one big lounge, and really the one big lounge is just one big tree – a gigantic palm, rising out of a clay pot the size of a roll-top bath, its leaves arching over everything like monstrous, glossy green chevrons. At the foot of the palm is a decorative Chinese birdcage, the door standing open.
‘She’s up there,’ says Mr Norris. ‘If you’re wondering.’
‘I was.’
‘Do you like parrots?’
I find a place to stand on the carpet; my boots crunching on a scattering of sunflower husks.
‘So tell us what happened to you tonight?’ says Frank, pushing a frond aside and standing next to Mr Norris. ‘We’ll come to the parrot later.’
‘It’s all absolutely hideous. I’ve lived here twenty years and never had anything like it.’
The police officer reaches a hand into the air between us like a referee.
‘I’ll just be outside if you want me,’ he says.
‘Thank you so much officer,’ says Mr Norris. ‘I do appreciate everything you’ve done.’
‘Have a word with these people then I’ll jump in again.’
He reaches into his jacket pocket for his radio as he leaves; I half expect to see him haul out a line of flags.
‘So. Mr Norris,’ says Frank. ‘I understand you’ve been assaulted.’
‘Yes. Mr Jephcoat has only been in the basement a month and he’s already making a nuisance of himself. I thought he was all right at first but it’s all gone horribly wrong. You see we’ve got this neighbour, Mrs Jennings. I’m afraid she’s got mental health problems...’ he semi-whispers the words, ‘and consequently every now and again she crashes about a bit. It’s just something one gets used to. We’ve all got our quirks, heaven knows. But for some reason Mr Jephcoat has decided that every time she makes a noise he’ll play his music extremely loudly, and of course that rebounds on everyone.’
‘So what happened with the assault?’
‘I’m coming to that. So he was playing his awful music, and the following morning I saw him down in the gardens, so I went up to him and we had a chat about it. And that’s the funny thing. It was all absolutely fine, he seemed fine, so I thought “There, got that sorted”. But late tonight – oh, I don’t know what time it is now – late tonight I got a knock on the door. I should’ve known something was wrong because Clothilde flew straight up into the centre of the tree, where she is now, if you can see. That’s her safe place. She’s as good as a burglar alarm.’
‘So I opened the door and there was Mr Jephcoat with a little yellow saw in his hand and very red in the face.’ “I’ve done it” he says. “Done what?” “I’ve cut down that blasted tree.” “Whatever are you talking about? What blasted tree?” And then I just knew. “Oh, not the bay.” “It’s gone” he said. “But that’s taken twenty years to grow. I planted it the day I moved in. Tell me you haven’t,” I said. “Come and look” he said. So I followed him out and it was true. There were branches and leaves absolutely everywhere, and to make matters worse, he’d walked all over the flower beds so he could throw most of the debris over the wall into Mrs Jennings’ garden. Well I was furious. Saw or not I went up to him and told him what I thought. “This is unacceptable” I said, or something, I can’t remember exactly. So then he grabs me round the neck and presses me up against the wall. It was dreadful. He was breathing very heavily, like a mad bull, and his head looked like it was going to pop. I thought he wanted to strangle me, but after a minute or two he let me go, and stormed off back into his flat.”
‘Sounds nasty,’ says Frank, leaning in and feeling Mr Norris’ pulse. ‘Do you have any pain anywhere?’
Mr Norris looks up sadly.
‘No. The police wanted me checked over, otherwise I wouldn’t have called you out. I’m sorry to have bothered you.’
There is a tiny rustling from high up in the tree. I change my position and just manage to catch a glimpse of a lumpish, yellow and green shape, wriggling deeper back into the heart of the palm.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

breakfast call

‘The woman on the phone said I had to get down on the floor and press up and down on his chest, but I couldn’t, not with my condition.’
I’m sitting with Steve on a broad yellow sofa; from our position we can see and hear the crews working on his father in the kitchen – the calm requests and comments, the beeping of the metronome, the passing of seconds and then minutes as relentlessly as the sweep of the second hand on the clock above the doorway.
‘See his feet moving? Is he conscious?’
‘No. It’s a mechanical thing, because of the chest compressions. Are you sure you don’t want to come and sit a bit further off, Steve? It’s an upsetting thing to watch.’
‘He’d want me here. I won’t leave him.’ Steve inhales wetly, then looks down to the tissue in his hand, absently watching it turn over and over in his fingers.
‘I knew something wasn’t right,’ he says. ‘We’ve got this routine. Dad gets up at half five, comes down to the kitchen, has a cup of tea and takes his pills, puts the washing on, sets out the breakfast things, then comes up to run me a bath and get me out of bed. But when I opened my eyes the house was quiet, and I looked at the alarm clock and it said half past eight, so I just knew something had happened. He’s dead, isn’t he?’
‘We’re doing everything we can, Steve. You’ve got the best team possible in there. If anyone can help your dad it’s them. We’ve just got to wait and see.’
‘But I know he’s dead. His tea was cold. There’s nothing you can do. I just wish I could’ve done something myself, but it’s difficult enough to walk, let alone get on the floor.’
‘You called the ambulance, Steve. That’s the main thing. You did everything you could.’
‘He’s dead though. I can’t believe it.’

In contrast to the crowded kitchen off to our left, the sitting room stretches out around us cool and quiet, thrumming with order in the early morning sunshine, every picture and ornament, cushion and cabinet freshly dusted and meticulously placed.
‘You keep a lovely home,’ I say to Steve. ‘How long have you lived here?’
‘We moved when my mum died. About ten years now.’
‘It’s so bright.’
‘Yeah. It really catches the sun.’
‘Lovely garden out there, too, by the looks of it.’
‘He never stopped.’
He runs up against the idea of that, and pauses a while. Then he reaches for the phone on a side table.
‘Can you call Janice for me?’ he says, handing it over. Then: ‘Wait. No. I’ll do it.’


Time slips slowly through the house.

In a neighbouring garden, some children come out to jump on a trampoline; their shouts rising happily on the bright blue air.

The activity in the kitchen changes, becomes less focused, more contemplative, post event. The metronome is switched off. The lead paramedic comes in and kneels beside Steve. He says they did all they could and gave him every chance, but it was probably just too long since he collapsed. He says Steve’s Dad has died, and he’s sorry. He says he knows it’s no consolation, but in his experience, by the look of everything, it would’ve been quick.
‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
‘It’s not your fault.’
The team withdraws, the kitchen gets tidied, everything the same – the cup of tea and the handful of pills on the breakfast counter – but now Steve’s Dad lying on the floor beneath a blanket, his head on a pillow.
‘I want to kiss him goodbye but I can’t get down there,’ he says.
‘Shall we make your Dad comfortable on this sofa?’
‘No. He wouldn’t want that. He wouldn’t want to mess it up.’
‘We can put sheets and things down.’
‘No. Could you just lift him up so I can kiss him, then leave him back where he is?’
‘I’ll talk to the others.’

Frank gets a scoop stretcher from the truck. We load Steve’s Dad onto it, then lift him up onto the counter. I bring Steve into the room; he hobbles over and kisses his Dad on the cheek.
‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ he says, over and over again.
His Dad’s face has the haughtiness of death, a wax representation of the man that was, but easing imperceptibly, like the impression of a footprint at the edge of an ocean, succumbing grain by grain to the dissolution of all things.

‘You can make him comfortable on the floor again if you want,’ says Steve.
We lower him down.

In the neighbouring garden, the children are called in to breakfast.

Friday, April 08, 2011


Paul the social worker is waiting for us out on the pavement; he leans out on tip-toes and waves his folder in the air to attract our attention.
‘It’s a difficult situation,’ he says as we gather round the cab of the truck. ‘Mrs Macaulay doesn’t want to go to hospital, so I’m not sure how successful we’re going to be. We might have to get the police involved, but let’s see how far we get with a little gentle talking first.’
A small, gently rounded man, he stands in the sunshine radiating as much empathy and goodwill as a freshly laundered soft toy. He adjusts his glasses and smiles. ‘Such a beautiful day today. Anyway chaps. Mrs Macaulay is eighty-four, going downhill a bit these past few months. Recent diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia with a query on dementia. Non-compliant with meds since the start of the year, self-neglect generally, abusive. Not sure about the actual threat of violence. Her grandson Jeremy is here. I’ll introduce you.’ He holds up the folder. ‘I’ve got all the paperwork, of course.’
He leads us up a set of steep concrete steps to the open door of a small, red-brick house. A weathered thirty-year-old man appears from inside, licking a roll-up cigarette and lighting it with the air of someone ready to stand back and await developments.
‘She’s locked herself up in the bedroom,’ he says, tossing the match into the garden and then squinting up and down the street. He picks a strand of tobacco from his bottom lip and looks us over. ‘She says she’s not going.’
Paul grimaces. ‘I know. I know. It’s tricky.’
‘Tricky!’ says Jeremy. ‘Good luck. She was spoon feeding a doll all last night.’ He stands aside to let us pass through a cloud of blue smoke. ‘But watch yourself. She’s already waved a Bowie knife in my face, and she keeps an iron bar by the bed.’
‘Mm. Maybe we’d better get the police along,’ says Paul, hugging the folder to his chest at the bottom of the stairs.
‘I don’t mind having a word through the door in the meantime,’ I say to him. ‘I’ll jump back down if she comes out swinging.’
As I walk up, I think about that scene in Psycho where the detective gets stabbed up on the landing; the camera watching from high up in the corner of the ceiling as Mrs Bates scuttles out and plants a carving knife in his chest. But this isn’t the Bates residence. There’s an old Hoover on the landing, and a bunch of appliqué violets in a frame on the wall.
‘Hello? Mrs Macaulay?’ I say, laying a hand lightly on the door – a cheap, three ply affair with a straight lever handle and a mortice lock.
‘Go away.’ The voice is high pitched and quivering, like a young girl pretending to be old. ‘Leave me alone.’
‘Mrs Macaulay? My name’s Spence. I’m with the ambulance. Can you open the door so I can say hello properly?’
‘I said go away! I’m not going to let you take me. I know you. You’ve want to drag me out and dump me. You want to cut me up. And I won’t let you. Go away.’
‘Mrs Macaulay? We’re just worried about your health. We’re worried you’re not yourself and we want to help.’
‘Mrs Macaulay?’
There is a sudden thump against the door and I pull back.
‘I’ll kill you!’ she screams. ‘You’re not taking me.’
‘Come on, Mrs Macaulay. We’ve just come here because Jeremy and your family are worried you’re not well.’
‘I have no family. They’re all dead.’
Suddenly there is the sound of someone stumbling over furniture to get to the other side of the room, then screams through the window ‘Help me! Help!’.
‘The police are en route,’ says Paul up the stairs.
Silence from the room.
‘Mrs Macaulay?’ I say at the door again. ‘Are you okay?’
I hear her clumping slowly back towards the door.
‘Why are you still here?’ she says at last, breathing hard close up to the crack. ‘I’ve told you. I’m not going to be dragged off and cut about.’
‘All we want is to meet you face to face. Come on. Open the door and say hello.’
There is a pause, and then she whispers: ‘Why don’t you fuck off back home to your prostitute wife?’


Later that morning we’re driving through the backstreets.
‘Look at that,’ I say to Frank, nodding to a run down café on the corner. ‘That’s got to be the worst name in the history of catering. Burpers.’
‘I always thought Sam n’Ella’s could really work,’ he says.
‘And then, if you were a hairdressers, maybe you could call yourself Crawlers.’
‘I’m thinking of opening a swimwear shop: Crabbies.’
Frank laughs.
‘Talking of names,’ he says. ‘You didn’t tell me Mrs Macaulay knew your wife.’

Sunday, April 03, 2011

the continental

A&E is overrun, has been all week. Pushing Mrs Riseborough on the trolley through the swing doors, it’s as if we’ve just stepped into the blood and carnage of an epic painting by Delacroix, with a health care assistant waving an x-ray form in the air, rallying the charge.
‘I’ll just go and have a chat with the nurse,’ says Frank, sauntering off through the chaos.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask Mrs Riseborough. Her breathing is dreadful, a chronic rattle-bag of wheezes and rubs. She didn’t want to bring the nasal canula she uses at home because the respiratory nurse had told her not to take any equipment out of the house. Instead, she’s using one of our low-flow oxygen masks, holding it off a little way from her nose and mouth, like a dowager sniffing an exotic plant.
‘I’m feeling hot and I don’t want anything to make me hotter,’ she says. ‘I hate to feel restricted.’
‘I can understand that.’
A drunk tries to throw himself off a trolley, and his equally drunk friend thinks sitting on him will help. Security run from place to place, restoring order with fat, black leather gloves.
‘I’m sorry it’s all a bit of a mess at the moment,’ I say to Mrs Riseborough. ‘Time of year or something. But hopefully we won’t be too long.’
‘Don’t worry about me, dear. I’m quite comfortable, thank you.’
A scream from behind some curtains. A kid wrapped in a blanket drifts past in bare feet.
‘So. What did you do before you retired?’ I ask Mrs R. to distract her from her surroundings.
‘You’d never guess to look at me now but I was a dancer. I auditioned for the Continental up in town – quite famous in its time. Have you heard of it?
‘Yes. Very famous. A kind of Moulin Rouge cafe revue place, wasn’t it? With comedians and singers between dances?’
‘That’s it. I went up town and auditioned and they said “Okay. You can dance all right, but we need to see how you go.” So they took me on for a week, and renewed the contract every week after that, and that’s how I went on for eight years. I had a wonderful time.’
‘When was that?’
‘Just after the war. About nineteen forty-nine, I should think. A really wonderful time. I worked with all the famous stars. Whatsisname – thought himself a real ladies man. He wasn’t all that, but he wouldn’t be told. And you-know who, off of the telly. We had these skimpy costumes – feathers and lace, all very arty, you know - nothing sordid. I met my Bill there.’
‘How did that happen?’
‘He’d just been demobbed and was up town working. He came by the theatre once and saw me on the stage and really took a fancy to me. So he used to come every night from then on, and in the end he plucked up the courage to have a word with Harry on the stage door – Harry was a lovely man, really knew what was what, really looked after us girls. So Harry said “Of course. Come through and say hello.” So he let him backstage one night. Well, I was coming off stage and there was Bill, looking all shy and shifty and holding out my dressing gown. He was such a dear. So he takes me out to dinner and that was that. And here we are, sixty years later – sixty two actually, if you count the last two, which I do, even though he’s gone now.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘What can you do?’ she says, taking another gasp of air. ‘It’s life and you’ve just got to make the best of it. I said to the doctor “Be straight with me now. I want to know what’s wrong with me and how long I’ve got”. “Are you sure?” he said. And I told him. I said “Absolutely” I said. “I want to be like Bill. I want it laid out flat so I can have a good look at what I’ve got and know what it is I’ve got to do about it.” “Well,” he said, “There’s not an awful lot that can be done about it,” he said. “I should think you’ve got about four to five weeks.” “Good,” I said. “Thank you very much.” Because you know I’ve had a wonderful life and I’m not sorry about going. I’ve had my lot. I danced at The Continental, I married a lovely man, I had a lovely family, and what more can you say about it?”
She lays a frail hand on mine and smiles at me. Her face has been ravaged by illness, but the cheekbones are as high and fine as they must always have been, and her eyes as blue.
‘I was a fabulous dancer,’ she says. ‘And you know what my daughter Chloe said? She said “When you’re gone, Mum, don’t for Gawd’s sake let anyone else have them photos.”