Wednesday, June 29, 2011

a waste of a beautiful day

The two decorators who found the body are smoking out on the stoop. The brilliant afternoon sunshine picks out the white of their overalls and the white flecks of paint in their hair and beards. There is already an ambulance parked outside; a diamond blue haze ripples around it.
‘They’re up there,’ says one, screwing up his eyes and studying us, as if he meant something more than he was actually saying.
‘Way up there,’ adds his mate, gesturing straight up at the sky with his cigarette. ‘The very top.’
‘Okay. Thanks.’
We head inside. This Georgian building was converted into flats many years ago, and only a few flamboyant scraps of cornicing and ceiling rose survive. They sit like architectural ghosts, haunting the shadows beyond the alarm console, fire extinguishers, and the notice that says Absolutely NO visitors. Contravention of this rule will result in immediate eviction. The old staircase rises up in front of us like the abused backbone of a magnificent fossil, crudely over-painted, the treads shod with lino, the edges conscientiously nailed with strips of corrugated plastic.
We climb six flights until a brisk nip at the top and the staircase narrows into something more discrete, the access to a garret, presumably where servants would have slept under the roof.
‘In here, guys.’
A tiny landing of curious angles, an open door – and lying on the floor inside, curled up on his side, the body of a man, his face congested, scrunched up, as if he died trying to push something out, and the effort overtook him, puffed him up, and turned him into the veined approximation of a person.
‘We were just about to stand you down,’ says Jack, one of the two paramedics first on scene. ‘He’s still warm but of course it’s hot up here…’ he pushes the hip at the body and the whole thing rocks ‘… it’s rigored, we’ve got pooling here, and here. So – thanks for coming, guys. And sorry for the long haul up.’
‘No worries.’
We turn and walk back down.

The hostel feels vacant. It feels as if every living thing has been carried away, leaving just a corpse upstairs and random bags of trash by the doors on some of the landings. Reaching the top of the last flight down, the fierce afternoon sunshine scours the street just beyond the doorway. The two decorators are standing at the top of the stoop now, looking in. One of them is making a phone call; the other nods and smiles as we come out.
‘The police will be here soon,’ I say to him as I pull off my gloves. ‘They’ll want a word about all this.’
‘No worries boss.’ He takes off his cap and shakes out his long black hair. ‘It was a waste of a beautiful day, anyway.’

Saturday, June 25, 2011

a pretty tight ship

June had been late coming down for the weekly trip up town, so Jack had knocked on her door. There was no answer and he thought he could smell burning, so he called Susan who had a spare key, and together they went in. They found her lying on the floor of the sitting room, her trolley tipped over on its side, drinks spilled, cushions, clothes, newspapers and address books scattered about. There were a couple of blackened poached eggs on the cooker which Jack dragged from the hob and doused with a cup of water. All in all the flat was in a riotous state. June was conscious but unable to talk; she lay there, naked from the waist down, breathing noisily, reaching up with her left hand and making blind, shaky gestures into the space between them. Susan called for an ambulance.

‘What’s wrong with her, do you think?’ Susan asks, as Frank checks her over and I clear a path to the door for the chair.
‘It looks like June may have had a stroke. Do you know her past medical history?’
‘No. Not really. I know she suffered with her joints, like we all do. Apart from that, nothing. Clear as a bell.’
‘Heart problems? Blood pressure?’
‘Oh yes, she had a few heart attacks. And her blood pressure wasn’t all that good. But apart from that, nothing to speak of.’
‘Did she have carers come round at all?’
‘No. We’re all pretty self-sufficient here. All good sturdy stock.
‘That’s good.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Any relatives around?’
‘I know she has a daughter in America.’
‘A son in Leicester,’ shouts Jack from the kitchen.
‘And a son in Leicester, apparently,’ says Susan.
We pick June off the floor and put her into the chair. She fights us, and we wrap her tightly in our blankets to stifle her struggles. I give the pink bedspread they had covered her with back to Susan.
‘Oh dear,’ says Susan. ‘Is she going to be all right?’
‘She’s not too well at the moment, but they’ll take good care of her at the hospital,’ says Frank. ‘Okay? Let’s be off.’
We pass quickly out of the flat and in to the strange lift that runs from this mezzanine to the ground floor. Once we’re outside, Frank says: ‘I didn’t get her date of birth. Once we’re on the ambulance, can you scooch back inside and get it for us, Spence?’

All the doors are shut by the time I make it back. I ring June’s flat again, and when there is no reply, about every other button I can find. Eventually someone lets me in.

Jack and Susan are still there tidying up the flat.
‘Oh. I wondered who it was ringing,’ says Jack.
‘I just needed to get June’s date of birth. Do you happen to have it?’
Jack slaps me on the shoulder.
‘Come with me,’ he says.
He leads me out into the hallway and back onto the mezzanine lift. As we travel slowly down he rocks backwards and forwards with his hands lightly clasped in front of him, smiling strangely and smacking his lips, like a vicar struggling to make small talk.
‘I’ve got everyone’s birthday. On my calendar,’ he says eventually.
‘That’s nice and organised.’
‘Yes. I run a pretty tight ship.’
The lift shudders to a halt and I open the door for him.
‘Just in here,’ he says, and fiddles around with the keys to his front door. ‘Excuse the mess.’
‘I have to be pretty quick, Jack.’
‘Yes. Yes. Won’t be a moment.’
He disappears into what looks like a converted larder, and after an age of harumphing and throat clearing, re-emerges with an unfeasibly large glossy calendar. He struggles to find a clear space to put it down, then fiddles around with some glasses that hang round his neck on a chain.
‘Now then. June... June.... birthday in September, I think. Or is it July? Mm. June... June.... I know I’ve got it down somewhere.’ He looks down his nose at the calendar, licks his index finger, and slowly flips the pages.
I start to feel prickly with the need to get away.
‘Honestly. It’s okay if you haven’t got it, Jack. It was just if you had it somewhere handy.’
‘Now just a minute. I know how important these things are. June... June.... Not September – of course. That’s Sheila. Definitely not August, because that’s when mine is, and I’m almost sure no-one else here has a birthday in the same month.’
‘Honestly, Jack. It’s okay. I’d better be off.’
‘Just a minute. June... Mm. Got it! December. That’s why! I was getting her muddled up with Cynthia.’
‘Great. December the what?’
‘The what?’
‘What day in December?’
‘What date is that, Jack?’
‘Oh. December the fourth.’
‘Lovely. And the year?’
‘Oh – I don’t write the year down on the calendar,’ he says, flipping it shut. ‘But looking at her I’d guess she’s about eighty-two. Wouldn’t you?’

Friday, June 24, 2011


Henry, ninety-one, had been watching the tennis. When Leyton Hewitt reached for a deep pass, Henry reached for the remote and fell out of the chair. We pick him off the floor an hour later and settle him back in bed. The carers on scene - two raucous women who clean him up, smear his genitals with cream and haul on a fresh pair of pyjama bottoms, all with the bonhomie of a pair of blousy witches – flop back onto the sofa and suck busily on the teats of their energy drinks.
All Henry’s obs are fine. Frank writes out the sheet. I sit by the bed, and fetch down a photo of Henry as a young man of twenty, glaring into the camera, striding across Piccadilly with a suitcase in one hand, fag in the other.
‘Where were you off to in this photo, then, Henry?’
‘That photo?’
‘I dunno mate. China, probably.’
‘How long were you in the navy?’
‘Twenty year.’
He chews for a moment, then turns his head in my direction.
‘We were up in the Arctic circle,’ he says. ‘Colder than hell. Colder than you can imagine. Everything iced-up and frozen. Equipment, men – everything. One night, I was on watch. And this fucking great shadow rolls by. German cruiser. Just like us – frozen solid. There was nothing anyone could do. You couldn’t work the guns. You couldn’t do nothing. Everything frozen solid. The only thing you could do was stand on the deck and salute. So that’s what we did. Stood to attention and saluted, as this German cruiser passes by in the night.’
He sucks his cheeks furiously for a moment.
‘Fucking hell it was cold’ he says.

trouble at the mardi gras

There is a middle-aged woman waiting for us by the front door of the Mardi Gras bed and breakfast. She gives us a terse smile.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says, then looks down and begins searching in her soft leather shoulder bag for something. ‘The police are in there with Emanuel. I expect you’re aware - it’s a Section Three. Twenty-five years old. Very paranoid. Thinks he’s in the SAS. He’s been on the phone to the police on a daily basis about death threats and so on. Not violent, as such.’
‘As such?’
‘So far.’
The social worker has an unfortunate manner, brittle and administrative, like a harassed teacher collared by a parent when all she wants to do is get home to her cats. I wonder if it’s just the stress of this situation that’s making her so unapproachable – or maybe the deeper, longer term effects of intervening in awful situations like this. She finds the section papers and waves them briskly in front of us.
‘Okay? His mum’s with him.’
‘Is there anything medically wrong with Emanuel?’ asks Frank, as neutrally as he can. The social worker straightens an inch. ‘No. Why do you ask?’
‘Because if there isn’t any medical need for an ambulance, it might be safer if he went in a police vehicle.’
‘No. Absolutely not. Sections must always travel in an ambulance. That’s the agreement.’
‘I only ask because if Emanuel’s a bit feisty and needs restraining and so on, it’ll be easier to load him onto a police van. The back’s lower, both doors open nice and wide, and there’s less equipment for him to grab in the back.’
‘No. The police are never to be used to convey. It’s inappropriate. No.’
‘Okay. I just thought I’d point out how it’s been in the past sometimes. Of course we’re happy to take the patient.’
The social worker looks at Frank with a glittering focus that reminds me of the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
‘It’s the agreement,’ she says finally, then turns and leads us inside.
Frank sighs and shakes his head. We follow.

We pass through a narrow reception area to a bare-boarded dining room. Between the neatly stacked shelves of breakfast cups, plates and aluminium tea pots, are a series of energetic paintings, as frenetic as if a carnival parade had reached a pitch of excitement, exploded and splashed against the canvases.
Emanuel is sitting at a bistro table outside on a sunny patio, smoking a filter tip cigarette and speaking urgently into a phone. Two female police officers stand in the room watching him, along with a small, capable looking woman in a blue housecoat.
‘It’s just that there are details that concern me,’ says Emanuel. ‘It doesn’t add up and I’m ringing you for clarification.’ He pauses momentarily to suck in more smoke and to throw us all a glance over the top of his purple-tinted glasses. ‘No. No. Listen to me - please. It’s vital that you understand. There are people here pretending to be the police and I believe they intend to do me harm. All I require from you is verification. Why won’t you give it to me?’
‘Immy, darling’ says his mother, holding a jacket out in his direction. ‘It’s okay, Immy. I’ll be coming with you.’
‘Come on, Emanuel,’ says one of the police officers. ‘We’ve shown you our warrant cards. Look. The paramedics are here. They’re the ones who’ll be taking you to the hospital.’
Emanuel holds up his hand. ‘Wait a moment. Just wait,’ he says. Then back into the phone: ‘Why won’t you? I am a citizen of this country and I have my rights. I’m telling you my life is in danger. I need you to reassure me that these people are in fact police officers. Because their numbers don’t add up, they have the wrong uniform, and I know for a fact that they are here to do me harm, perhaps even to kill me.’
‘Immy!’ says his mother. ‘Immy – I’ve got your jacket.’
‘Let’s go, Emanuel,’ says the Social Worker. ‘We’ve talked about this. We have to go now.’
‘No,’ he says, standing up and stepping warily into the breakfast room to be nearer to his mother. When he talks into the phone again, it seems they have hung up. ‘Wait a moment – just wait!’ he says, as the police officers move a little closer. ‘Wait! I just want to ring Control again. You have to let me ring them again. It’s my right. I just want to check something.’
‘Look. Emanuel. We’ve shown you our warrant cards and we’ve played along with this for long enough. I know you’re upset and that’s perfectly understandable. But you have to come with us now. We can’t stay here any longer.’
‘No. You can’t make me.’
‘I’m afraid we can. That’s why we’re here. You really do have to come with us to the hospital. Once we’re there, we’ll leave you with the staff. We’ll go as soon as we know you’re safe. But it’s our job to make sure you come with the social worker and the paramedics to the hospital. Okay?’
‘No. Don’t you dare come a step closer. And don’t you lay a finger on me. I just have to make this phone call. Please. Just let me make the call.’
‘No. No more phone calls, Emanuel. Let’s go.’
He goes to hit redial on the phone, but the police officer takes it off him.
‘That is assault!’ he says. ‘Mummy!’
‘No more phone calls.’
‘Give it to me!’
‘Come on, Emanuel. Let’s go out to the ambulance.’
‘No! You cannot take me if I don’t want to go.’
‘I’m sorry, Emanuel,’ says the social worker. ‘That’s why we’re here. You’re not well and you need treatment.’
‘Emanuel? Listen to me. I want you to walk out to the ambulance quietly and calmly. Will you do that for us? Come on.’
‘No! Don’t you touch me. Don’t you touch me! No. Get off. Get off.’
‘Put your hands down, Emanuel. Hands down.’
‘Please don’t fight them, Immy,’ says his mother, laying her hands on his arm. ‘Please don’t.’
He resists, pulling back from her, confronting the police officers with his fists clenched, and then suddenly lurching off to the side as if he had seen something he could defend himself with. The two officers jump on him, spin him face down onto a sofa that lies against the far wall, and eventually manage to turn his arms behind him using wrist locks. One of them produces a pair of handcuffs and snaps them on.
‘Nice and calm, now,’ she says. ‘Just slow it all down.’
‘You’re hurting me,’ he roars into the cushions. ‘I can’t breathe. You’re breaking my arms.’
‘Calm it down, Emanuel,’ she says. ‘As soon as you relax we’ll stand you up and you’ll feel more comfortable.’
‘I’m calm,’ he pants. ‘I’m calm. All right? Sorry. I was just upset.’
‘I know. It is upsetting,’ she says. ‘Okay? Ready to stand up, then?’
‘Yes. Please. Ow! You’re hurting me.’
Between them they help him to his feet. They are all breathing heavily, but of the three of them, Emanuel seems the most exhausted. His tongue keeps flicking out to wet his dry lips; his glasses have slid down his nose, and he scrunches up his face to try to edge them up again. He has the outraged, bedraggled look of an animal that’s been captured by vets at the zoo.
‘My baby,’ says his mother, gently stroking his face and helping him with his glasses. ‘I’m coming with you.’


The ambulance lurches from side to side.
‘Sorry it’s so uncomfortable,’ I say to Emanuel. He is sitting on one of the side chairs, his arms still cuffed behind his back.
‘Can you take these things off me?’ he asks the police officer.
‘No. Not until we get you to the hospital,’ she says. ‘Not long now.’
‘No. Sorry.’
‘I need to make a phone call.’
‘No more phone calls.’
‘I need to call Papa and tell him goodbye.’
His mother is sitting in the chair next to him. She strokes his knee. ‘I spoke to Papa this morning, darling. He knows all about it. He’ll be coming to visit you later.’
‘I need to tell him goodbye. He’ll be upset.’
‘It’s okay. I told him all about it. He knows.’
‘No. Sorry,’ says the police officer.
The ambulance lurches again and I put out my hand to steady Emanuel.
‘Almost there,’ I say.’
We travel in silence for a while, Emanuel periodically scrunching up his face and casting his eyes around above his specs.
‘Lovely little bed and breakfast you have there,’ I say to his mother. ‘Keeps you busy, I expect.’
‘Oh – in the summer it’s mad. Quietens down a lot over the winter months, though. We usually manage to get away then.’
She smiles and pats Emanuel on the knee again.
It has been raining all afternoon, but suddenly the weather lifts, and we’re riding through streets drenched in sunshine.
‘Do you know – it’s twenty years since I was last in an ambulance,’ says his mother, smoothing strands of hair away from Emanuel’s forehead. ‘Not nearly as nice as this one, though. Twenty years – imagine that. Just about to give birth to Ivan, his younger brother. All this equipment you have now. It’s amazing. Something for every eventuality, I expect.’
Emanuel tenses and looks across at the police officer again.
‘Please? Can’t I just phone Papa?’ he says.
She shakes her head.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


The worst fears of the neighbours gathered outside on the pavement are realised: Jack is, in fact, dead. Once the door is broken in and we step inside the house calling his name, we find him sitting in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, his head tilted back and his eyes half open, looking like a man pretending to be asleep so he can keep an eye on proceedings. The two police officers go back outside to tell the crowd what’s happened and to find out any more information.

I start looking for personal details – date of birth, registered doctor, medication and so on. There are hundreds of packs of toilet roll and cleaning products neatly stacked in the mahogany cabinet, the utility cupboard and over the fridge. Just as I find a Tupperware container with his medications and repeat scrips, we hear voices in the hallway. The brother has arrived. We hear the policewoman ask him to take a seat on the stairs.
‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,’ she says. ‘Your brother Jack has died.’
There is a ghastly, muffled sob, and the policewoman says: ‘I’m sorry for your loss, Harry. I know it’s not much consolation, but it looks like Jack died peacefully. Do you want to come in and see him?’
After a pause, the door slowly opens.
Harry stands on the threshold of the room, peering across to where his brother is sitting.
‘Let’s make a bit of room here,’ I say, and move a couple of things. Harry must have visited this room a thousand times over the years but now he shuffles uncertainly across the threadbare carpet like he doesn’t know the place at all. He stands quietly in front of his brother, and then stoops forward, as if he’s going to kiss him, but seems to change his mind, and reaches down to pat him gently a couple of times on the shoulder instead. He lets his hand rest there a moment, then turns and looks helplessly back at us.
‘I think it was quick, Harry,’ I say. ‘You can tell by the way he’s sitting. No sign of any distress or pain or anything. I’m sure he died sleeping in the chair.’
‘Yes. Well. He liked his chair.’
‘Would you like to sit down, Harry? Can I get you a drink of water or a cup of tea?’
‘No. Thank you. The taxi’s outside waiting.’
‘We’ll sort that.’
‘You’ll tell him?’
‘Don’t worry. Come and sit a while.’
‘All right.’
Frank helps him into a chair. He perches on the edge of it.
‘I came over as quick as I could. Do you think - if I’d got here sooner...?’
‘Jack’s been dead a good few hours I should think.’
‘I couldn’t get hold of him on the phone. I don’t know why I waited – I knew something wasn’t right. I should’ve come over sooner.’
‘It wouldn’t have made any difference.’
It wouldn’t surprise me if Jack suddenly gave a little snort and sat up. But aside from the obvious pooling of blood in his arms there is something else, something more unsettling - a cold vacancy, a complete absence of those myriad ticks and traces of life we subliminally read but never really notice till they’re gone.
‘He only ever used to go shopping at night,’ says Harry, and we all nod as if it explained something. ‘Fifty years as a machine operator for Cluttons in Bedale Street. We grew up together. I’ve known him all my life.’ He shifts uncomfortably in the chair. ‘Obviously.’
‘What do I do about the paperwork? You know – the certificates,’ he says.
‘The coroner’s office will give you a call tomorrow,’ says the policewoman. ‘Don’t worry about that now. Just get some rest for now.’
‘Right. And they’ll call me, will they? I don’t need to call them?’
‘No. They’ll call you. I’ve got your number.’
He struggles to stand up and the policewoman gives him a hand.
‘I’ve got a taxi waiting,’ he says, then glances once more across to his brother, and shuffles back out.
‘Look at this,’ says the policewoman after a moment, pulling a wad of forms out of her pocket. ‘I’ve got all the paperwork on me already. This is my fourth in as many days. I’d stay that side of the room if I were you, guys. I think I’m jinxed.’

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


A wash of aquamarine draws up across the dark margin of houses and trees. There is a stunned clarity to the air - birds are beginning to sing themselves back into the world, and the sound is profoundly refreshing after the long night shift.

I ride in Frank’s wake to the front door and watch as he buzzes the intercom. After a moment the catch releases and we step into the lobby of a retirement block so perfectly squared away we could be stepping into an architect’s three dimensional plan. The lift runs us up smoothly to the third floor, the door hushes aside and we find ourselves in a hallway the exact copy of the one downstairs. If it wasn’t for the fact that an aspidistra had been switched for an umbrella plant, there’d be no proof we’d moved at all – that, and the higher numbers on the doors. As we follow them to the right, we meet a middle aged woman standing in the middle of the carpet. I feel like a sleepy mouse who turned a corner and met a Kite. She makes a smile, then tears through the facts.

‘Before we go in let me tell you about my father,’ she says. ‘It’s tricky.’
‘I got a call to come down yesterday around supper time. The cleaner found my father on the floor, confused and complaining of some vague pains here and there. My sister’s away so I came over – miles, actually – and whilst I was on my way the cleaner called you people, the first crew. They did a marvellous job because I have to warn you, he’s not the easiest of customers. They checked him over, couldn’t find any injuries from the fall, but his legs are very swollen and he’s not in terribly good shape. They got him back on his feet and sat him in the lounge – which took an hour. I got here soon after. Normally Daddy’s as sharp as anything but there’s something not right. I’ve been abroad and I haven’t seen him these past few months and I have to say he doesn’t look good. The thing is, he can’t get up on his own, can’t do the basics, but he’s refusing to go to hospital. The other crew were here for a couple of hours trying to persuade him. We tried everything. Reason, bullying, begging – everything, but nothing worked. He’s stubborn and he flatly refused to go. So your colleagues arranged for the out of hours doctor to visit, and they left. The doctor’s in there now, and it looks like he’s finally persuaded Daddy to go with you. And that’s the story so far. Except to say you’ll have to forgive him if he seems a little – abrupt. He’s got it into his head that the first crew manhandled him. So I’m sorry if he causes offence. Just please try not to rise to it. It’s taken such a huge effort to get him this far.’
‘Of course. Shall we go in and say hello?’
She shows us into the flat.

Mr Williams is sitting in the middle of a neat yellow sofa with a stick planted firmly between his legs, both hands draped magnificently over the bone handle. He is a wild and withered version of his daughter, the same raptor profile, his oiled grey hair quivering from the tension of keeping his body erect. He smacks his lips together and raps the cane on the floor like a tetchy magician trying to turn us all into birds.
‘Who are you?’
The out of hours doctor, a plump and friendly man we’ve met many times before, makes the introduction.
‘This is your transport, sir. Your transport has arrived.’
‘Transport? Transport where?’
‘To the hospital. Do you remember? We talked about it.’
‘I’m not going to the hospital. It’s far too late. I’ll make my way there on my own next week, when it’s more convenient.’
‘We discussed all this, Mr Williams. Do you remember? I’m not at all happy with your condition.’
‘My condition?’
‘Your blood pressure is very low. Your legs are swollen. You’re so weak you can’t get yourself up off the sofa to get to the bathroom or take care of yourself. You need someone to look after you.’
‘I am perfectly able to take care of myself. I just need a little time. So will you please stop all this nonsense, leave me alone and let me get to bed. Who are all these people?’
‘The ambulance, Mr Williams. They’ve kindly come over to take you to hospital. Look. They’ve even brought a special chair.’
Mr Williams shakes his head.
‘No. It’s completely unacceptable. The last lot picked me up and threw me across the table. I couldn’t believe it. Threw me – across the table. I shall be making a formal complaint.’
His daughter folds her arms.
‘But Daddy they didn’t.’
‘They did. You weren’t here.’
‘I was right here. You’re seeing things.’
But she sits down on the corner of a table in the hallway, and seems less certain.
‘I’m not crazy,’ he says. ‘I’m in full control of my faculties.’
He glances at me.
‘You. Give me the alphabet – backwards.’
‘It’s way too early in the morning, Mr Williams.’
‘Would you like me to recite it for you?’
And he does, closing his eyes and racing through the letters.
...E,D,C,B,A. There. As I explained. I am in complete control of my mind, and as such insist that you leave me be.’
His daughter unfolds her arms and makes a desperate gesture with her arms: Scoop him up! Put him in the chair! But the doctor picks up his briefcase instead.
‘Mr Williams. I’ve made my position clear. You need urgent treatment at the hospital and it’s not a rational decision to refuse it. My next step is to get a mental health team out to assess your capability with a view to taking you, regardless. I’m very sorry it’s come to this, but we’ve tried everything else.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘We’re going to leave you now, but the team will be in touch within the next couple of hours.’
The daughter stands behind the sofa and puts her hands onto the backrest for support.
‘You mean you’re not taking Daddy now?’ She seems brittle, ready to fly into pieces. ‘You’re leaving him here?
Who is?’ says Mr Williams.

Friday, June 10, 2011

the ex

Tanya is sitting on a stub of wall outside the pub, leaning forwards with a wad of cloth pressed to the side of her face. A steady trickle of blood runs out beneath the heel of her hand, curls off the point of her chin, and falls to the pavement.

A policeman stands next to her.

‘Tanya’s been assaulted with a knife,’ he says. ‘She’s got a nasty cut to the left side of her face, but no other injuries as far as we can tell. We’ve got the guy who did it - over there…’ he says, nodding in the direction of a screaming man pinned face-down on the ground beneath a security guard and three other officers. ‘Her ex,’ he adds, then carefully peels off his gloves so he can take out his pocket book.

On the ambulance, we take a look. A grievous work of butchery, laying open the left side of her face from the corner of the mouth to the cheekbone. I clean it up as best and as quickly as I can, then cover it again with dampened gauze.
‘I told him it was over but he wouldn’t have it,’ she says. ‘He took all my stuff. My CD player. My methadone scrip. He tried to get me yesterday but I ran off. I didn’t do nothing.’
She turns in the chair to show me the jagged rip in the back of her jacket where he’d swiped at her: as she turns, the white foam stuffing rucks and rides out of the hole.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

the long walk

Bernard is standing waiting. He waves and I head the car that way, parking up as best I can in the limited space available. I’m glad he’s there to show me where to go; there are no numbers in this street, an urban ravine of workshops, garages, mews flats and studios, the shameful back exits to a dozen restaurants and shops. A kitchen porter in black and white check trousers smokes watchfully from an alcove. A loud crash and then swearing and laughter from a yard to my left. Seagulls squabbling over scraps. The smell of salt spray, diesel and garbage juice.
‘This way,’ says Bernard. He turns and leads me across a patio yard crowded with recycling bins and overalls flapping on a line to a door propped open with a metal bucket. ‘Up here. Mind your head.’ A plain grey staircase, rising steeply two storeys to an equally plain fire door. ‘He’s very drunk.’

A two room flat, divided three dimensionally like a cake: length-ways into galley kitchen and living room, height-ways by a mezzanine sleeping compartment, a metal ladder propped against it leading up to a plain mattress and a reading lamp. The room is strewn with debris – books, bottles, clothes, and face down amongst it all, Jarl, dry-crying on a sofa.
‘Jarl? The ambulance is here.’
He rolls onto his back and squints up at us both.
‘I don’t want no amb’lance,’ he says, his hand dropping from his face as abruptly as his grief. ‘What for I need amb’lance? Bernard? What you do?’
‘You’re not well. You need help.’
Jarl struggles to sit himself more upright. A bottle of vodka clumps down onto the carpet, and as Jarl reaches out a hand to catch it he almost follows.
‘Steady, mate.’
Bernard shakes his head. ‘You wouldn’t believe he was sober for six months,’ he says. ‘Weren’t you?’
‘I want rehab. You send me rehab?’
‘I think maybe that’d be a good idea, Jarl, but that’s something you’ll have to do through your GP. Anyway – look – we’ll come to that. Let’s have a chat first.’
‘No. I want rehab, not GP.’ He struggles to sit up, and when he can support himself and free his right hand sufficiently, salutes. ‘Løytnant, Norwegian Navy, my friend. Yah. Is true. The Løytnant - he says, Good Luck, nice life, and so on and so forth. Come. Sit down, have drink with me and I tell you. Come. Come.’ He bounces around on the sofa pushing magazines and ripped letters aside. Bernard quietly picks the bottle up off the floor and puts it in the sink with a nest of empties.
‘Jarl tries hard, but I’m afraid it’s still a problem,’ he says.
Somehow Jarl has found himself in a sitting position. He slumps forward, resting his forearms on his knees, and suddenly focuses on a spilled bag of Haribo bears amongst the scattered ash, letters and bottles on the coffee table. He picks one up, inspects it carefully, dusts it off.
‘The Løytnant is used to making important decisions, as you can see. Red, I think, today.’ He pops it in his mouth.
‘So. Tell me why the ambulance has been called today?’
‘He was having an anxiety attack’ says Bernard. ‘I wasn’t sure. It looked bad. But he seems to have come round a bit now. I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time.’
‘Who is this?’ says Jarl, chewing loudly. ‘Policeman?’
‘It’s the ambulance, Jarl. Bernard was worried about you.’
He pats the air in front of his face and collapses back on the sofa. ‘Pah. All I want is rehab. Then my life can begin again.’
‘Do you mind if I take your blood pressure and whatnot? Just to make sure everything’s okay?’
He struggles up again and holds out his left arm – a lean, square-wristed limb, brown and powerful.
‘Jarl is a marine engineer, too.’
He nods.
‘He’s had an amazing life. Do you know he walked here from Jakarta?’
‘From Jakarta?’
‘How long you think?’ says Jarl, finding a crooked cigarette on the sofa with his free hand and putting it in his mouth. ‘How long?’
‘From Jakarta? I don’t know. Years, I should think.’
‘Five. Five years.’
‘That’s incredible.’
I take the BP cuff off his arm. He puts the cigarette in his mouth, and then salutes again.
‘Løytnant, Norwegian navy. We can do anything.’
For the first time I notice all the pictures of yachts and sailing ships around the flat: schooners, clippers, fishing smacks, a Chinese Junk.
‘Did you work on all these?’
He shrugs, and then frowns as he struggles to bring the tip of his cigarette into the flame of the lighter.
In amongst the photos there is a picture drawn by a child – a happy man, smiling with a crazy grid pattern of teeth, waving his peaked cap at the sun with a stick arm. The paper is curled with age. Next to the picture, a map of the world.
‘He’s a clever man,’ says Bernard. ‘He’s written books.’
Jarl lies back down on the sofa.
‘What sort of books are they, Jarl?’
‘Philosophy. You think this thing. If all politician got rid of – shoom! – then every…then all the people they would come together and understand each other and would respect the culture. I’ve seen this things. I’ve thought about it a lot.’
I finish writing the paperwork.
‘You take me rehab now?’
‘No, Jarl. I’m going to refer you back to your GP.’
‘Pah. But come, please - shake. Løytnant, Norwegian Navy. With thanks.’
He almost crushes my hand.
As I turn to go I notice that the ladder isn’t fixed at the top.
‘I wouldn’t fancy going up that,’ I say. ‘Especially after a few drinks.’
Bernard laughs.
‘He’s used to ladders,’ he says.