Monday, October 31, 2011

true story

Shortly after starting in the job I was sent on relief to work with Charlie, an old paramedic in a station the other side of town. A crotchety piece of work with a crumpled, disappointed look to him. I remember his face, waxy as a burned out candle.
It was a quiet start. I watched telly; Charlie read an old book, sighing every now and then.
It was going to be a long night.
Eventually we copped a job, a smoke inhalation down in Whitby Street. Fire brigade attending. Even though he was a lardy old duffer Charlie seemed to move pretty quick. He was in the cab waiting for me with his eyes closed and his arms folded across his chest.
‘You drive,’ he said.
When we got there we found a woman in the house on her own with two kids. Seemed pretty freaked – said she could smell burning, something electrical, but she’d been all through the house and not found a thing. That’s when she’d called the brigade, and we’d been sent along as standard.
We had a quick look round. I say we. Charlie just stood there in the cellar - a nice enough kitchen conversion, lots of beech and pine - kind of drinking it in. But I was keen then. I wanted to do stuff. I couldn’t smell anything, and to be honest I thought maybe she was having a bit of an episode. To humour her, though, I had a good nose around, upstairs and down. Nothing. Back down in the kitchen, Charlie was still standing exactly as before, almost asleep on his feet.
Great, I thought. Brilliant.
The fire brigade arrived. Three hulking great uniforms coming down the stairs. I told them the story and they took it all very seriously. The Captain sent the Under Captain back to the truck to get a bit of kit – an infrared heat sensor.
‘If it’s electrical, it could be in a cavity behind a wall,’ he said.
Your man came hurrying back downstairs with the sensor – a camera-like thing in the middle of a steering wheel. The Captain held it out and started wandering round, steering himself as he looked through the lens, examining walls and floors and what have you.
‘I’m afraid I can’t find a thing,’ he said to the woman. ‘Maybe it’s coming in from the sewers outside. We’ll go out and check.’
Just before they went back upstairs I asked if I could have a look at the sensor. I’ve always liked kit.
‘Knock yourself out,’ he said.
So I took the sensor in my hands and began steering the lens around the kitchen. The flare from the Aga. Hot spots around water pipes. The woman and her children, hugging each other like beautiful lava people by the cold blue of the kitchen table.
And then I came to Charlie.
Held the sensor there a moment.
Looked over the top of it to check
Pointed it back.
I pointed it straight at him.
And there was nothing. There was nothing there at all.
I lowered the sensor.
He was standing there, like before.
Only this time he was smiling.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

straight to voicemail

On summer nights the beach is spotted with little fires, groups of drinkers, dancers by moonlight, dogs in the water, couples dreaming at the strandline – a soft panorama of beach life running out into the dark from the shouts and the racing neon lights of the pier. But the summer has gone now; the pier closes early, the night is thick and dark, and a sharp wind is blowing in off the sea. Only the breakers stand out in the gloom, rough ribs of foam tumbling in with a roar.
Half way out across the shingle, a huddle of people faintly illuminated with a rectangle of light.
‘Whatever sort of torch is that?’
A little closer, and we can distinguish a huddle of three people kneeling, squatting and standing around a figure lying between them. The standing one is leaning in above the others, lighting the scene with his laptop. A couple of them have taken off their jackets to wrap around the patient. They’re relieved to see us.
As Frank checks the patient – conscious, breathing – a young woman gives us her account.
‘He was standing right at the water’s edge. I thought it was a bit odd, because his feet were getting wet and he didn’t seem bothered. Then he started running up and down, shouting – I don’t know what, I couldn’t really hear – and he started tearing his clothes off and throwing them down. By the time everyone caught up with me he’d stripped down to his boxers and run into the water. He was screaming and crying and thrashing around in the waves for a bit. Then he fell over, went under for a minute but not any longer. And that’s when Billy pulled him out.’
‘I’m okay. I’m okay,’ says Billy, pre-empting a fuss. His hair is spiky and wet.
‘Anyone know his name?’
‘No – but we retrieved his clothes and there’s a phone in his pocket.’
Frank sits back on his heels.
‘There’s nothing obviously wrong with him. He’s deliberately keeping his eyes shut, though – don’t know why. We need to get him on the truck, get him warmed up and have a better look in the light. Let’s get him in the chair and be off.’
‘We’ll help you carry him.’
Everyone working together makes light work of loading the patient onto the chair and carrying him up the shingle beach to the promenade.
‘We’ll take it from here,’ says Frank. ‘Thanks for your help.’ The man shuts his laptop, they swap jackets around so they’re back to normal, and wave as we haul the patient up the steps to the ambulance.
On the truck, we can find nothing obviously wrong with him. But although he’s conscious, he still refuses to co-operate, flopping his arm out in the grand style.
I flip through his iPhone contacts and come across ICE – In Case of Emergency. A man’s name, and a number.
‘Shall I call it?’
‘Call it.’
‘Or shall I let the hospital take care of it?’
‘Call it.’
Straight to voicemail.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

what he'll say

Ellen is waiting for us in the bedroom, so ravaged by cancer, her body so cadaverous, you would think a thousand year old woman had risen from the tomb, put on a fluffy white towelling bathrobe, and sat herself down at the dressing table to reapply her make-up. The skin of her face is tight across her skull, jaundiced and papery, her dry lips drawn back from teeth which seem too big for her head. She sits serenely, blessed by Zomorph, smiling on her family - her husband in a wheelchair, her daughter sitting on the bed, her son-in-law in the hallway, letting us in. We step inside and introduce ourselves.
She’s ready to go, her medications, clothes and things in two bright green plastic bags and a small, black wheeled suitcase with a handle. The daughter wants to travel with her in the ambulance, but Ellen says no, she’d rather they all followed in the car. They watch as we carry her out and make her comfortable on the trolley, then turn back inside to get ready to follow.


‘I’m sorry the ambulance rocks about so much, Ellen.’
‘Oh don’t worry about that, darling. They don’t make them comfortable because they don’t want people to like riding in them. But I don’t mind. I don’t mind a bit. So long as I’ve got someone to talk to and a hand to hold, I’m all right.’
‘I liked that photo in your bedroom, the one with the dog.’
‘Barney? Oh I miss Barney. He was a lovely dog. Lovely.’
‘What was he? An English Bull terrier?’
‘No! He was just a scrap of a thing – a Jack Russell! He just pushed his nose up against the camera and ended up looking bigger than he was. But he always was like that. Getting into mischief. He was a lovely dog. He’d curl up in his basket and wait until the lights were out, then he’d sneak on the bed and cuddle up. And Bill’d say “Can’t we do something about that dog, Ellie?” And I’d say “Well what do you suggest?”. He was a lovely dog. If I’m talking too much, just say.’
‘No. It’s nice to chat.’
‘I think so. I like to chat.’
The morphine takes her away to another place for a while and we travel in silence. But then she moves her head and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.
‘Do you have children?’
‘Yep. Two girls. Six and ten.’
‘Two girls! How lovely.’
‘I’m outnumbered. The only other male is Buzz, our oldest dog, and even he’s been done.’
‘Even he’s been done! Lovely. Still. I expect you’re all right.’
‘Yeah. I’m all right.’
‘I lost my first child.’
‘Did you? I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘She was lovely, lovely. I had her, and then she was gone. You never get over something like that, you know. But I had her for a little while, and that was something.’
She rests her head back on the pillow as the ambulance tips and sways.
‘Can I get you some water, Ellen?’
‘No dear. No - I was just thinking. About a cousin I had once. A long time ago now. He was lovely. Lovely. All the girls loved him. And you know – after he loved them back ...’ She walks her fingers slowly across the blanket. Her fingers are so thin, it seems to perfectly animate the stroll of a man into the distance. ‘And then of course he was off for good. Australia. And we never saw hide nor hair of him again.’
She flattens her hand on the cover, smoothes out a crease there, pats the spot, and then holds her hand out to me. When I take it, she looks at me, and her eyes are dilute and indistinct.
‘Of course Bill will be there at the hospital’ she says. ‘And I know exactly what he’ll say when you open the doors.’
‘What’ll he say?’
She leans forward an inch, squeezes my hand and gives it a little shake.
‘He’ll say “How on earth did you put up with her? I’d have thrown her out at the traffic lights.”’

Friday, October 21, 2011

the wrong hotel

Three o’clock in the morning, parked by the side of a deserted street. Dozing in the low-lit box of our cab whilst the belly of the moon bumps the roof and the ambulance freezes around us. If I half close my eyes, I can turn those streetlights into diatoms of colour; they ripple and stretch and fly apart in strands, swimming through the low voices of the radio.

But then something hooks me back from the brink of sleep: an estate car pulling up to the side of the road in front of us. A man gets out. I watch him as he goes round to the back, opens the boot and pulls out a silver chair. He sets it on the pavement, then goes back into the boot again. I wonder if he’s some kind of street artist ready to perform a bitterly ironic piece – Standby – about the despair of men paid to sit by the side of empty streets at night for no reason. But it turns out he’s just re-arranging the boot. He puts the chair back inside when he’s done, and drives off.

A job comes up on the screen.
Overdose, outside a hotel.

Frank groans, unfolds back into a driving position yawns like Chewbacca as he turns the engine over.
‘Back the other side of town,’ he says, reading the notes. ‘So that was worth sending us here, then.’


The night porter doesn’t wave as we approach. He hugs his arms around his mop and watches us without expression as we pull up.
‘Cold night’ I say.
As if that was all he needed to hear, the night porter unfolds his arms and bends down to pick up the bucket. He holds both – mop and bucket – in one hand, raising the other arm up and out as a counterbalance.
‘Was there a guy sitting out here? Rang for an ambulance? Something about an overdose?’
The night porter sighs.
‘Threw up all over the steps and fucked off. Is that who you mean?’
‘Could be.’
‘I’ve cleared it up.’ He stands there, frowning as if he thinks the whole thing was probably our idea, then turns to go back inside.
‘Speak to Mrs Adams.’

On the Reception desk, Mrs Adams has come out of the back office. She stands with her arms planted across the register like a priestess drawing power from a book of spells.
‘He left as soon as I said the ambulance was on its way,’ she says. ‘He said he’d taken an overdose because he had a row with his girlfriend. She wasn’t with him.’
‘What does he look like?’
She pauses, staring out across the empty lobby.
‘Tall. Thin. Gloomy.’
‘Okay. Thanks.’
‘Anything else I can help you with?’
‘No. Thanks very much. Good night.’
‘Good night to you.’
‘Don’t look back’ says Frank as we walk back across the lobby. But I do. Mrs Adams waves. I wave back, and almost end up in the same segment of the revolving door as Frank.


Control ring us up. Police are on scene with the patient at the Cumberland.
‘Who is this guy? Some kind of fucked-up hotel inspector?’
We drive round the corner and park up behind one of the patrol cars out in the street. As we climb out of the cab again, a police officer comes over.
‘What it is – this fella had a fight with his girlfriend and took some pills she had on her. Went away, came back, punched out a glass door in the lobby. He’s in there sitting on the naughty step with cuffs on. His girlfriend is being a bit difficult at the moment, but you should be all right.’

The Cumberland is a good but less expensive hotel than the first. Some of the letters are out on the name, the doors are thickly painted, whilst in the lobby, a chintz war rages between the repro tables, gilt mirrors, flowery prints and flock wallpaper. A handful of tourist pamphlets and glass shards are scattered across the runner.
Four police officers fill the hallway. Two are with the patient, who sits with his arms cuffed behind him at the bottom of the staircase at the far end. Two more are with the girlfriend, a young woman of twenty who seems even from this distance to have the same darkly wrought intensity as the wallpaper.
‘Don’t you lay a hand on me,’ she says. ‘You’re being completely horrendous. All I want is to make sure Jimmy’s okay. I can’t believe you’re not letting me.’
‘The paramedics are here,’ says one of the officer, glad to have some new angle. ‘Let them do their job, and we’ll see where we go from there.’
As we pass she leans out in front of us.
‘We had a row,’ she says. ‘He took six anti-psychotic pills I’d confiscated off a friend who shouldn’t have been taking them. I’m a reflexologist so I know about this stuff. He’s had some alcohol, he’s been sick a number of times. I’m worried he might go unconscious or have a fit.’
The police officer gently steers her out of the way.
‘Please!’ she says.
‘Let them do their job,’ he says.
‘Let go of me!’
‘Just give us a moment,’ says Frank. ‘It’ll be all right.’

Jimmy barely looks up as we approach. If it wasn’t for the early hour, the handcuffs, the police officers, the flashes of blue from outside, the buzz of radios and the loud protestations of his girlfriend, he could be a disappointed tourist waiting to go back to the airport.
‘How are you on your feet?’ says Frank.
Jimmy stands up, utterly neutral. We walk him out to the truck.
‘I’ll be there in a minute, baby,’ says his girlfriend, touching him on the arm as we pass. ‘Check his blood pressure and heart rate. And check in the manual for side-effects. I’m here baby. I’m here for you.’
‘Just a second,’ says one of the officers. ‘Who’s got the keys to your room?’
‘I know. I know where they are,’ says the girlfriend. ‘They landed in the big ceramic pot to the right of the sofa.’
‘What sofa?’
‘The sofa by the window.’
We all look in that direction.
‘Not this hotel. The other one,’ she says.
Everyone seems to tense up.
Jimmy discretely tests the slack of his cuffs.
‘Let’s get you out to the truck,’ says Frank.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

little rabbits

Alan’s flat is tucked round the side of the main house. Everything is nicely ordered – the roses have been pruned back early, the bark chippings on the soil swept back from the path, the fallen apples from the neighbour’s tree picked up and put in a plastic crate. Alan looks tidily put away, too. He sits waiting for us on an armchair in the centre of the room, a view of the garden off to the left, a large TV to the right. A low bookcase neatly filled with DVDs – Jarhead, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Good, The Bad & the Ugly. To the left of the armchair beneath a picture window is a large wire cage with two tiny rabbits, whose ears hang straight down like the flaps on a winter hat.
‘Did the doctor leave a letter?’ asks Frank. ‘Or was it done on the phone?’
‘On the phone. He said we shouldn’t mess about.’
‘Fair enough.’
I go back out to fetch a chair.


The hospital is as busy as ever. Whilst Frank stands and waits his turn to handover at the desk, I wait alongside the trolley with Alan. He watches the chaos with the same taut readiness as one of his rabbits; I half expect him to leap off the trolley and scamper out the door if I cough or shift my position unexpectedly.
‘So your carer will look after the rabbits?’ I say.
‘She’s very good. I couldn’t manage without her.’
‘How often does she come in?’
‘Every other day.’
‘Do you manage to get out much?’
‘A little. To the corner shop.’
‘How long does that take you?’
‘Half the morning. It’s a major expedition.’
‘I bet.’
Frank waves to us from the desk, then leans back into a semi-conscious slump. I’ve never seen so many nurses, doctors, junior doctors, porters, police, patients, relatives – it’s like a casting call for a disaster movie.
‘Busy today, isn’t it?’ says Alan, studying me intently with his dark eyes.
‘Sorry it’s taking so long.’
‘That’s okay. I’ve got time.’
As if to illustrate the point, he folds his hands neatly on the blanket and sighs.
‘So – tell me about your rabbits,’ I say.
‘What about them?’
‘Erm – they look like baby rabbits.’
‘No. They’re actually quite rare. They’re Holland Lops, a dwarf breed. House trained, of course. Great company. They’ll wander about, then all of a sudden do a complete flip in the air.’
‘I’m glad you’ve got two. I think rabbits get a rough deal sometimes. Kids want them, but they get bored and the rabbit ends up banished to some lonely old shed.’
‘Oh no. Mine are great company. They help me undress.’
‘They help you undress?’
‘Yes. I slip my shoes off, they take a sock each and tug.’
‘They they climb up on my shoulder and we watch a film together.’
‘And what do they eat? Popcorn?’
‘No. They have special pellets that my carer gets. Looks exactly like their poo, but they seem to enjoy it.’
Frank comes over.
‘Sorry it took a while. But we’ve found you a space.’

Mind your backs, please! he calls, Mind your backs! And we nudge the trolley slowly forwards like an ice-breaking ship.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

about charlie

‘I think he’s had a stroke.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘I know he’s had a drink or two, fair enough. But look at him. He can’t speak proper. He’s leant over to the side, his mouth’s all weird.’
‘How well do you know Charlie?’
‘Really well. I’ve not seen him like this before, man. I mean – sure he’s had a drink. But this is different, you know?’
Charlie is slumped over to his right on the bench. He has vomited – so productively, it would be easier to believe that Charlie, bench and rucksack had been swallowed whole by some urban monster who’d raged around town for a while then staggered back and thrown up man, bench and bag right back where it ate them.
A recycling truck pulls up on the street side and two council workmen jump out to haul a paladin of empty bottles to the hydraulic arms at the side. One of them stares over at us, laughs and says something to his friend, who carries on with barely a glance. The noise of the glass as it tips from the paladin into the maw of the truck is colossal, overwhelming.
‘Charlie?’ I shout and pinch his shoulder. ‘It’s the ambulance, Charlie.’
He opens his eyes; a second or two later he senses danger and bunches his fists Popeye-style.
‘I’ll fuck you’s,’ he says. ‘I’ll bust you up.’
‘What’s happened to you, Charlie? Do you have any pain?’
He swipes the air.
‘Calm down, Charlie. We’re here to help.’
‘Don’t think I won’t,’ he says.
I straighten up.
‘Trolley – blankets – pads. This is going to take some careful packaging.’
‘Do you think he’s had a stroke?’
‘I don’t know. It’s possible. It looks that way.’
‘I’ll ring and tell the hostel what’s happened.’


At the hospital later that day, I ask the Charge Nurse about Charlie.
‘Was it a stroke?’
‘Oh – yeah. Thanks for bringing that one in. I owe you.’
‘I know. I’m sorry. He was a bit messed up.’
‘A bit messed up? I don’t think a bit messed up comes anywhere close.’
‘And no, it wasn’t a stroke. He had a BAC of point three something or other, so no, it wasn’t a stroke. Jesus – if I ever have that much to drink just drop me over the side with a bunch of flowers and be on your way.’

Thursday, October 13, 2011

the haunted hotel

The manager of the hotel, a brisk woman with administrative hair, is waiting for us just the other side of the revolving doors.
‘We do provide shower mats,’ she says, leading us across the lobby to the lift. ‘I don’t know why she didn’t use it.’
She explains that Jean had rung the desk first thing to ask for a taxi to take her to the hospital. When they asked why, she said she’d fallen in the shower last night and hurt her side.
‘How does she seem to you?’ I ask her as the ancient metal doors of the lift slide shut. ‘Badly hurt?’
‘She has a lot of pain in her side. I should imagine she’s cracked a rib or something.’
The lift gives a little shake, slowly winds upwards, then after some false stops gives an arthritic judder and the doors open again. We step out onto a boxy landing with a warren of lopsided corridors leading off in all directions.
‘Even I get lost sometimes,’ says the manager, scurrying off ahead of us, dusting the low-ceiling with her hairdo as she goes.
‘Maybe the hotel ghost can show us out,’ says Frank.
She gives him a stern look over her shoulder, as if he’s letting out a secret she’d rather keep from the guests.
‘It’s over four hundred years old,’ she whispers. ‘It’s seen a lot in that time.’
She strides on, her tights swishing and the old boards creaking.
‘Here we are,’ she says at last, standing outside a door so tiny it wouldn’t look out of place in the side of a toadstool.
She knocks twice and we follow her in.

Jean is sitting in a wicker chair, leaning over to her right.
‘I’m sorry to trouble you, hen,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to get the ambulance out but the staff here insisted.’
‘What’s happened to you, Jean?’
‘Ach – it’s stupid. I feel so cross with myself. I was taking a shower late last night and when I went to get out the floor was so slippery my feet just went and I landed on my side, here.’
She puts a hand to her left side and flinches with the pain. ‘It took me an hour to get up and dry and away back into bed. And then in the morning I could hardly move. I come down to see the family and look what I go and do.’
‘Let’s have a look.’
Lifting up her pyjama top reveals a pattern of livid bruising.
‘Nasty. I think you might have fractured a rib or two, Jean. We should definitely take you up the hospital for some decent pain relief, and to make sure there’s no underlying tissue damage.’
‘Oh – bless you, hen,’ she says, patting my hand. ‘Bless you. I don’t want to be a trouble to you, but I know I’ve got to go. Eighty-two years and not a thing wrong, so I’m not doing so bad. I used to work for the hospital m’seln. And then we were over in Romania with the poor wee orphans. So now it’s my turn, I suppose.’
‘Do you think you can walk, Jean? We can get a chair if not.’
‘Ach – away with your fuss! I’m no getting carried out. Here – gis’ a hand up and let’s be on.’
The manager is standing in the bathroom holding a shower mat.
‘It was here, but someone had draped it over the rail for some reason.’
I half expect her to hand out witness statements and disclaimers, but instead she puts the mat down on the bathroom floor and opens the door for us.
‘I’m pretty sure the lift’s this way,’ she says, hurrying on.
‘I’m amazed they’re still allowed a ghost,’ whispers Frank, holding out his arm. 'Come on, Jean. Let's get you down to the ambulance.'

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

getting about

When Geoffrey laughs – and he laughs a lot - he hangs it on the air in front of him like the cartoon of a man providing his own speech bubbles. If he were a cartoon, it would be something grimly ironic, an urban fairy tale about a ruined Santa retired from the trade through years of overwork and ill health, off his legs in a riser chair, his feathery beard plucked back to the stubbly butt of his chin, a cave of verminous yellow teeth, man boobs and a scurfy paunch spread above a giant nappy.
‘My father had no luck either. He used to hide his money in a little tin box he’d stick up inside the chimney. One day he came back unexpected and caught my mum with her hand up there. They had a fight and she pushed him backwards out the window. Three floors and that was that. Yur-hur-hur-hur.’
Geoffrey’s carer, as clipped and contained as his patient is exposed, puts some things together in a bag.
‘Now what else do you think you’ll need, Geoffrey?’
‘That clock,’ he says, pointing to an unfeasibly large alarm clock on the breakfast table. ‘ I want to take my clock with me. I want to know when my time’s up, yur-hur-hur-hur.’
‘Well you can’t very well take the clock, Geoffrey. There’ll be plenty of people around you can ask for the time. And I wouldn’t take your sticks, either. They’ll walk.’
‘I don’t mind,’ he says, contentedly draping his arms across his belly and linking his fingers in the middle like a gigantic buckle. ‘They can have it all as far as I’m concerned. I don’t need much.’
We managed to fit the trolley in the lift. I clear a space in the flat and Frank wheels it in from the corridor. He parks it alongside Geoffrey’s chair.
‘Whoa!’ he says. ‘Bloody ‘ell! Who ordered that?’
‘Your carriage awaits,’ I say, putting the back up and lowering the side.
‘You want me in that thing? You’ll be lucky, yur-hur-hur-hur.’
We fuss around him like elves.
‘Mind your language,’ says the carer. ‘And don’t forget, not everybody wants to hear your dreadful confessions.’
‘No? I haven’t even got started. Take my cousin, for instance...’
‘Please, spare us,’ says the carer.
‘ cousin did twenty years. His wife came home unexpectedly and found the next door neighbour roped to the bed and my cousin on top of him. Yur-hur-hur-hur.’
‘That’s one punch line I think I missed,’ says Frank, negotiating the head of the trolley through the doorway. ‘Thankfully. Think thin, mate,’ he says.
‘But I come from good stock,’ says Geoffrey happily. ‘Especially with regard to legs. I used to cycle everywhere, you know.’
‘How do you mean? Getting to work?’ I say, grunting with the effort of moving the trolley.
Geoffrey smiles at me.
‘France, Germany, Russia...’
‘...Belgium, Holland – and what’s that place just near Gibraltar?’
‘I don’t know. Spain?’
‘North Africa!’ he says. I used to love getting about on the old bike, yur-hur-hur-hur.’

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Mrs Appleton is neatly arranged on her bed, a halo of silver hair on three plump and freshly laundered flowery pillows, legs straight out, arms by her sides. Her husband, a man as pale and soft as a button mushroom, ushers us into the room.
‘I’ve got these pains here – and here – all up here,’ she whispers. ‘I’ve been sick and dizzy with it.’
‘Sick and dizzy,’ echoes Mr Appleton. ‘Shall I get the diary?’
‘The doctors will want to see it,’ she says.
‘Okay, Mrs Appleton,’ Frank says, putting his bag down. ‘What’s been going on?’
‘Let me put you in the picture,’ she says, pushing herself a little further up onto the pillows and then sinking back into them and folding her arms across her chest. ‘In nineteen fifty five....’
‘No, I meant today. What led you to call the ambulance today?’
‘Well I had another episode.’
‘Of the sickness and dizziness?’
‘Any chest pain?’
‘Do you have any chest pain now?’
‘It’s more over this way. And round here. And here, but not so much.’
She hovers one of her hands across her middle, then places it quietly back beside her again.
‘Any shortness of breath?’
‘I’m always short of breath.’
‘Any pins and needles or numbness in your arms or hands or anywhere else?’
‘I do get that from time to time.’
‘How would you describe the pain? Is it a cramping sort of pain? A sharp stabbing thing? An ache?’
‘I couldn’t really say. But it’s there all right. On and off.’
‘And more in your abdomen than your chest, would you say?’
‘What do you mean by abdomen?’
‘I mean around here.’
‘What were you doing when it came on?’
‘Nothing. Just quietly lying here. Waiting for bed.’
Mr Appleton comes back in holding an old school exercise book.
‘Read this,’ he says. ‘It’ll explain everything.’
I briefly open the book. Its pages are stiff, crinkled up with age and the mass of close writing that covers them top to bottom, margin to spine. Diary entries, the first one back in the early seventies, detailing every ache and pain, giddy moment, bowel movement and vomiting episode.
‘There are more, but that’s the most up to date,’ says Mr Appleton. ‘Shall we take it with us?’
‘Yep,’ says Frank. ‘I know the doctors will be keen to see it.’
‘They’re wonderful,’ says Mrs Appleton. ‘Do you know – I called mine up the other day, just to tell him how well I felt.’
Frank raises his eyebrows and nods.
‘Let’s go,’ he says.


Outside in the A&E car park, we lean back against the safety railing like two glum, green birds roosting on a branch.
‘Did you know – of all the health professionals – doctors have the highest rate of alcoholism?’ says Frank, swallowing the last of his coffee, then tipping the dregs out onto the ground. He sighs, then stands to put his cup in the bin. ‘Any bleeding wonder.’

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

the last hot night of summer

An older part of town, where narrow streets of tall, bow-fronted houses and shops lead south from the high street and fade into complicated tributaries of mews cottages and alleyways. It has a backwater feel of silt and settlement, where the bones of scavenged bikes lie chained to streetlights, and railings are encrusted with thick black paint like the coral growth on a sunken ship.

A woman is standing by the entrance to some basement steps, clutching a cordless house phone.
‘Do you want me to go down with you?’ she says.
‘No. It’s probably best if you stay up here and wait for the police.’
She looks relieved.

A flight of worn stone steps pitch down at an alarming angle to the mossy flagstones of the courtyard below. A pile of detritus in an alcove, opposite a front door which, by the look of the temporary wooden batons and splintered panels, has obviously been put in several times before. It stands open.
‘Hello? Ambulance.’
Frank pushes through and I follow.
A long, dimly lit hallway, three rooms off to the right, a closed door at the end.
The smell of neglect – a wretched, spongy sweetness that thrums up from every surface, from the ragged Persian runner, the little wooden bookshelf of cassette tapes and books and empty bottles, the piles of magazines. The walls themselves have a Gallery of the Damned feel: an arrangement of family photographs, an intensely coloured portrait of a dog, a figurative line drawing, a gig poster from the seventies, torn articles from magazines, maps, a mandala – a disparate throw of images, some framed, some simply taped to the wall, all of them slowly cooking, curling and spotting in the fetid air.
A voice from the room at the end.
‘I’m in the kitchen.’
‘Can we come down and see you?’
He doesn’t answer, but we go anyway.
The sudden, sharp smell of white spirit as we near the door.
Frank knocks and carefully pushes it open.

Paul is sitting at the kitchen table with his back to us, his arms resting on his knees, his damp head bowed. Half a bottle of white spirit at his feet.
‘Hello Paul. My name’s Frank and this is Spence. How are you doing?’
He looks up.
‘I’m not a bad person. I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t want to hurt anyone.’
‘No. I know – I can see that. But what’s happened tonight, Paul?’
‘I’m not a bad person. The man upstairs said he was going to smash me. He said he was going to sort me out. But he can’t – I can’t – it’s not fair. These people. These people, in the world. And I’m not a bad person. I’m not.’
‘Paul? First of all – it smells really strongly of white spirit in here. Have you poured some over yourself?’
He nods.
‘I poured it over me.’
‘Why did you do that, Paul?’
‘I want to kill myself. I want to burn.’
‘Paul? Would you mind if I just moved that lighter away from you? Only I’m a bit worried about it. I know you don’t want to hurt us…’
‘I don’t! I don’t want to hurt you! I would never hurt you.’
‘I know that. So do you mind if I just… there we go … that’s better. Now I feel a bit safer. Thanks.’
Frank gives me the lighter. Whilst they talk, I’m glancing around the kitchen for a towel or something to throw over him should he go up. Just behind me to my right is the doorway to the bedroom. Maybe I could grab a blanket from there.
‘Paul? Can I ask you another favour? It’s just the smell in here’s so strong I can’t think straight. Would you mind coming out to the ambulance and having a chat there? It’d be so much nicer – you know, with the fumes and everything. A bit of fresh air. Would you mind? Only I’m getting such a sore throat.’
‘What’s the point?’ says Paul, leaning back down again.
I try to see if he has any other lighters within reach but his hands stay slack.
‘What’s the point? They all think I’m useless. They all think I’m a piece of shit. That man upstairs, he said he wanted to smash me, but it’s not fair! I haven’t done anything wrong.’
‘You wouldn’t even have to come on the ambulance,’ says Frank. ‘We could just sit on the basement steps. It’s lovely out tonight. Isn’t it Spence? Really warm. I expect we could all use some fresh air.’
‘If you think,’ says Paul. ‘I don’t care. I just want to kill myself. I nearly did. I will. Just leave me. You can all read about it later.’
‘Come on, mate. Come outside for a chat. Have you got your keys?’
He stands up, a tall, stooped, middle-aged man in filthy denim.
‘This way,’ I say, as if he’d never walked outside down his own hallway before.

We walk up the basement steps.
The neighbour has gone.
The pub opposite seems even more active than before, its light and vitality spilling out across the street. A man is leaning against the wall, talking on his phone and smoking. He watches us as we lead up from the basement, along the pavement and onto the ambulance.
‘I’ll keep the back door open, so we get some air and you don’t feel hemmed in,’ I say.
Frank puts a seat down.
‘I’m not a bad person. I’m not,’ says Paul, sitting down, then combing and re-combing his bitten fingers back through his hair, shining with the damp of the white spirit.
Frank takes a seat at one end of the trolley; I crouch down at the foot of it. We all sit quietly for a moment, a strange triangulation, whilst out through the open door of the ambulance, the last hot night of the summer moves on.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

twenty four weeks

Below the curtain window a lava stream of traffic nudges along the front. The curtains hang straight down, already exhausted by the day. The hotel room is so thick with heat I wouldn’t be surprised to see a tray of uncooked pizzas pushed through the window.
The room is economically arranged with a double bed set between an en-suite and a wardrobe of equal size. At the foot of the bed, a plasma TV flashes with news images – protests in hot streets somewhere else on this hot planet – whilst an urgent strip of headlines scrolls along the bottom.
Svetlana stares at the screen. She is propped up on pillows, the sheets rucked up around her, the metallic blue sheen of her silk nightdress picked out by the light from outside.
Her husband leads us into the room. He turns the volume down on the TV, then stands over by the window. I expect him to take off his rock star bottle-black sunglasses, but he leaves them on and folds his arms.
‘What is matter with me?’ she says. ‘I woke up in this sweating. I have the pains here and here. I feel – erm – like…’ She pats her throat, then lays her palm forwards, almost like the signing for speech, but probably a mime for nausea.
‘I understand you’re pregnant?’
‘Erm – yes. I am having baby now twenty four weeks.’
‘All good so far?’
‘Yes. Is good so far. Normal.’
‘And do you have the pain now?’
‘No. No pain now. I am just feeling hot and – erm – not good.’
‘In what way not good?’
‘Is just not good. Erm – is werry tired and werry – erm - floppy.’
Her husband unfolds his arms and goes to pull some documents out of his pocket. I expect him to be Russian, too, but when he speaks it’s with a London accent. He carries himself quietly, carefully, like a man trying to walk through a forest without snapping any twigs.
‘The hotel gave us a number to call for a doctor to come and visit,’ he says. ‘But they said it would be a couple of hours.’
Svetlana sits up.
‘Two hours! Is that what you said? Two hours? Do you think that is appropriate? Is that what you want for your sick wife and baby? Two hours?’
‘No. I was just trying to explain..’
‘You were just explaining. Yes. Go on. You just explain. Let’s hear it.’
But he keeps quiet. Eventually, and without breaking eye contact, she settles back down on the pillows.
‘I am sick, he wait two hours,’ she says. ‘What good he is?’
We examine her, but all her observations are normal.
‘These sweats,’ I say. ‘In some ways you can understand it. What with the exceptional heat, and being pregnant. But you haven’t actually got a temperature.’
‘Then why I feel like this?’
‘Well. I don’t know. If you want to go to hospital, we can take you. Or you could wait to see a doctor.’
She sighs and rubs her swollen belly.
‘Where doctor? In hospital doctor?’
‘Or at a walk-in centre, as you’re not registered here.’
‘Walk-in centre? What is this walk-in centre?’
‘There’s one up by the station.’
The husband puts his mobile and wallet in his pocket.
‘I think I know where it is,’ he says. ‘We could get a taxi.’
‘You want put mother of your child in taxi cab? Is that it? Put her in taxi cab and take her to station? My God. Yes. This is brilliant idea for me, the pregnant woman sick with sweating and everything pain and you want to put me in taxi cab? I can’t believe how stupid this man is.’
‘Or we could just take you up the hospital,’ I say, hugging my clipboard.
She looks at me and the change is immediate.
‘Okay,’ she says, as solemnly as a little girl with a sick doll. ‘I think you take me to hospital.’
She swings her legs out to the side and scurries about looking for a dressing gown and slippers. Her husband has the slippers; she snatches them from him.
‘How long I wait for doctor in hospital?’ she says as she puts them on.

I smile at the husband and raise my eyebrows.


In fact, the hospital is a baked hive only Hieronymus Bosch could draw inspiration from. I stand at the back of a ragged queue of trolleys with Svetlana by my side. I watch her anxiously for any sign of fire, but she seems calm enough. Her husband had been sent off for water; whilst he is away she sighs and waits as steadily as a train in the sidings.
‘I think I call my parent,’ she says. ‘This is no good. I not happy.’
She turns to face me.
‘He said he have nice flat but his friend give nice flat to different friend and now we have bad flat. He promise he fix it up nice but is not nice.’
She faces forward again, chews her lip and bleakly surveys the hospital scene. ‘Is box,’ she says finally. ‘Is old broken box. With the door. You know?’ She smiles at me, and scans my face to see if I understand. ‘A box,’ she says, ‘no window, no light, just old door that go flap.’
She turns back to face forwards, and her eyes are shining.
Eventually she whispers: ‘I not give birth to baby in box.’