Wednesday, December 28, 2011

the saviour of the streets

Control make it plain.
‘Operation Wipeout is now declared. Multiple red calls stacking without any resources to assign. Please would all crews clear up as quickly as possible. Control out.’
They’ll sit on less urgent calls until the situation eases, but for now it’s looking grim.

Which makes it all the harder to deal with a drunk on a bench.
‘He’s not unconscious,’ I tell the man standing next to him. ‘Look. You can tell by the way he’s holding his eyes shut. His blood sugar is fine, so he’s not having a hypo. All his obs are normal. He’s faking it, I’m afraid.’
‘But I don’t understand. Why would he do that?’
I step back and let Frank torture the guy with a discrete but dreadful range of painful stimuli whilst I talk to the patient’s friend.
‘Let’s start with his name.’
‘I don’t know this. I only met him in morning. We stay at same hostel. He thrown into street for being too much drunk.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘He came with me here – okay - sat on benches. Okay. Then he ask me call for ambulance and lay down like this.’
‘Do you know if he suffers with anything?’
‘What is this “suffers”?’
‘Does he have anything wrong with him?’
The man shrugs. ‘I met him in morning. I don’t know this things.’
I hear an irritated growl and see the man batting away Frank’s hand.
‘Leave me alone!’ he spits through gritted teeth.
‘Come on, mate,’ says Frank. ‘Sit up and be nice. It’s a busy night. There are people out there who actually need us.’
‘I’m sorry if I waste time,’ says the man. ‘I didn’t know what to do. He says “call ambulance” so I call ambulance. Why he pretend is sick?’
I shrug.
‘If he was thrown out of the hostel for being drunk, he might just want a comfortable bed for a few hours.’
‘Like this?’
‘It happens.’
Despite Frank’s best efforts, the man lies as inertly as before, flopping out an arm so that to the late night shoppers passing by he looks dead. They frown at us as they hurry by, wondering why we’re not busily getting our stretcher out, giving him oxygen, doing the ER hustle.
‘The next step is the police,’ says Frank, prodding the guy in the shoulder. ‘Drunk and disorderly. Is that what you want?’
No reaction, so Frank unclips his radio and requests police attendance.

The friend watches the whole thing with his hands buried in the pockets of his jacket and his head on a disappointed tilt.
‘You’re a good friend to him,’ I say. ‘He doesn’t deserve you.’
‘I am from Armenia,’ says the man. ‘I am classical pianist come Great Britain to work. Kitchen, pubs and things. Just to get place, you know? To get a-started. But in my travels through Europe I seen much violence, much unhappy. I don’t like this thing, of course, but I help if I can.’ He shrugs again, but keeps his hands firmly in his pockets. ‘What else to do?’

The police arrive. I explain the situation to them. The Armenian offers them his name and what he knows; they thank him, then go over to the drunk on the bench.

Just then another figure appears on the scene - a tall, well-dressed man in a three-quarter length herring bone tweed coat. His face has a slack and aggressive pallor, as if his big night out turned into an emotional filleting. Without saying or offering anything, he comes and stands close up behind one of the police officers. She immediately turns and holds out the flat of her hand to him.
‘Could you not stand behind me, please, sir? I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.’
‘What? What the fuck? What have I done? Jesus – some people! You have a real problem, lady. A real problem.’
I want the police to deal with the drunk quickly so we can get away and help out with the stacking red calls.
‘Do you know anyone here?’ I ask the man.
He shakes his head.
‘Well in that case could you just keep out of the way? You’re not helping, and it’s really none of your business.’
He stares at me vacantly, then shuffles back to have another look.
‘Seriously – what is wrong with you?’ I say to him, grabbing him by the shoulder and turning him round. ‘Just back off!’
Both police officers turn their attention on the man.
‘Move away now. Now! I’ve told you – don’t stand behind me. So move!’
He shuffles a little way off and then stands in the road, swaying from side to side. And although I know it’s because of the alcohol, it could just as well be the blurring effects of his disdain. He stands there, sneering and cursing, spitting into the road.
I look from the drunk on the bench – who is getting up now, swearing horribly and straightening himself up – to the strange man in the herring-bone coat in the street, and then to the Armenian guy who stands taking it all in with his hands buried warmly in his pockets. It’s strangely comforting to see him there, standing neutrally, a traveller with an instinct for kindness, helping despite needing help himself, doing his best to make things come out right.
‘Thanks for your help,’ I say to him.
He shrugs. ‘What else to do?’ he says.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

criminal crackers

SK: (to man hyperventilating on trolley) Would you say you’d been particularly stressed lately?
He nods
SK: Anything in particular?
MAN: The Witness Protection Programme


YOUNG GIRL: My eldest sister’s coming back from university tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to doing the usual Christmas things – opening presents, eating loads, playing games…
SK: Oh yeah? What kind of games?
YG: Newmarket, Rummy, Cluedo, Monopoly. Cluedo’s a favourite. Which is funny ‘cos my sister’s away studying Forensic Psychology. She always loses, though. I think she’s so busy profiling Colonel Mustard she forgets to mark her cards.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thanks so much for reading this year. I must say I think you all deserve a medal or at least some kind of certificate for wading through some of these descriptions...

Anyway, have a great Christmas - and here's to 2012!


Sunday, December 18, 2011

more bigger magic

The logo for the Woodfield housing estate is an oak tree powering up between the D and the F to spread its canopy right and left over the word. But if the keywords of the logo were maybe ‘shelter’ and ‘protection’, the architects have fixated on the ‘protection’ and translated it into a spread of buildings with the charm of a bunker, the openness of a castle and the joie de vivre of a prison. Three blocks to the Woodfield housing estate, then, each with a sylvan name, each rising up in a generous slab of brick, and each with a parallel sequence of walkways running their length, between stairwells that rise up to the flat roof like gun turrets. And if the logo is based on an oak, it’s not a species that’s been seen round here recently. Nature has retreated to an embattled straggle of drought resistant plants in the flower beds that edge the car park, everything meanly bitten down, strewn with takeaway cartons and drink cans.

We go to buzz the intercom at the bottom of the furthest stairwell, but the door’s held open by a traffic cone so we go up unannounced. The familiar stairwell ambience. You could bottle it. Squaleur by Givenchy. I can imagine the advert – a glamorous model running down the stairs two at a time, shirt undone, chased by the paparazzi. Something like that. As credible as the tree logo, anyway.

Mrs Po lives here with her son, Chen, in the middle flat on the top floor. He meets us at the door, a slim, powerfully built twenty year old soberly dressed in a dark blue suit.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he says, giving us a polite bob of the head and shoulders and then moving some stuff so we can get in the door. ‘Mother’s upstairs in the bedroom. I’m afraid she’s been unwell for a few days now. She’s diabetic and can’t afford to be sick like this for long. I rang the doctor and he said you’d be coming.’
‘Let’s go and say hello.’

Mrs Po is shivering under a mountain pile of duvets, knitted covers and coats. In fact any layer that might possibly give any warmth has been dragged onto the bed. There is a litre bottle of mineral water and a plastic bucket down on the carpet; around the bed, tacked up on the walls, are a disparate spread of Chinese prints, scroll poems, 3D pictures of the Last Supper and out of date calendars.

Chen talks to his mother in Cantonese, and after a pause, she slowly pokes the top of her head above the layers. Chen kneels onto the bed and helps sit her up.
Mrs Po is a petite woman made completely round by wearing just about every article of clothing she owns. It makes me think of how we used to make snowmen – rolling a snowball so that it grew fatter and fatter the more layers of snow it accumulated.
‘I feel hot just looking at you,’ I say. Chen translates. Mrs Po swipes the air dismissively.
We check her over. She has a temperature. Frank sets up the chair and we help her out of the bed and onto it. She agrees to take off some of her coats, but insists on putting on an extraordinary hat – something like a waste paper basket knitted out of turquoise rope and finished with a spray of plastic flowers.
‘Her lucky hat,’ says Chen, moving more stuff so we can manoeuvre out of the bedroom. He wheels aside a tall, rectangular box on wheels.
‘That’s the weirdest shopping trolley I’ve ever seen,’ I say.
‘It’s for my drum kit. It’s got all my stands and sticks.’
‘Cool! A drummer!’
‘Not for much longer. I’m thinking of giving it up. I’m getting tired of hauling all this shit up the stairs.’
‘Have you thought about the harmonica?’ says Frank, putting Mrs Po’s meds into a plastic bag.
‘Often,’ says Chen. ‘Oh. By the way. Sorry about the smell.’
‘What smell?’
‘Tiger Balm. I’m afraid mother is mad about tiger balm. She thinks it will cure all her ills. She uses it for her rheumatism, her asthma, her migraines - everything.’
‘I like the smell.’
‘Really? I suppose I’ve forgotten what it’s actually like, I’ve been around it so long. Mother used to make me wear it to school. It’s even good for exam results, apparently. Although not so much in my case.’
‘Bit like ginseng, is it? A magical herb?’
‘More bigger magic,’ says Chen, holding the door open for me as I wheel Mrs Po out towards the stairwell. ‘And I suppose you can’t have too much of that.’

Thursday, December 15, 2011

jason's mum

‘He’s round the back having a fag.’
It’s five in the morning, but the teenage girl has a chemical vibrancy about her that jars with the low-tide silence of the street. There are screams and shouts further along just out of sight, and she straightens like an animal caught standing too long.
‘Don’t take him to hospital’ she says, and then, just before she runs off, ‘He don’t like needles.’
‘What’s his name?’
She shakes her tangled hair out then sprints away, the sounds of her shouts blending with those of her friends, a wild call and response that echoes around the parked cars and curtained windows.
We pick our way through cardboard boxes, stacks of broken tiles and rusted engine parts to the front door of the house. It’s unfastened and swings open a little when I knock.
‘Hello? Ambulance.’
But Jason appears around the side of the house. A striking looking kid with spikes of ice-blond hair and a preternaturally wide-eyed expression. His left arm is elevated up to his shoulder in a makeshift tea towel sling, parcelled up with tightly knotted rags and strips of cloth
‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Okay. We’ll get you on the ambulance and have a look at your arm there. Is your mum or dad about?’
‘My mum.’ He nods towards the house. ‘But I’m all right if you just want to go.’
‘How old are you, Jason?’
‘So we’ll need to speak to her about all this and have her along as well. Why don’t you go with Frank to the ambulance and I’ll go in and get her.’
He shrugs, then follows Frank through the garden.
I turn back to the house and knock again. The door swings wider onto a darkly narrow hallway with newspaper on the floor and piles of rubbish pushed up out of the way under the stairs. A low grade sweat to the air of dog, dust, smoke and reheated fat; the wallpaper has a repeating flowery motif, but in the general gloom I could swear it was the social services logo and hotline.
A woman appears at the end of the corridor, forty going on eighty, thin and stooped, her long hair almost catching on the tip of her cigarette.
‘Thank you for coming. He’s just outside.’
She speaks in that overly precise way drunk people use when they don’t want to appear drunk. She finishes speaking, and watches her words float away from her like strange balloons down the hallway. Then she nods once and shuffles off into the sitting room. I follow her.
‘Are you Jason’s mum?’
She draws on her cigarette and squints at me through the smoke.
‘I am.’
‘Well – as he’s only fifteen, we’ll need to talk to you about what’s happened.’
She steadies herself against the wall.
‘I’ll just get my bag.’
‘We’ll be outside.’

Frank has already cut off the extemporary bandaging and cleaned the wounds – a gout of flesh from the underside of his forearm, and the tip of his index finger missing.
‘He says they were play-fighting and he fell down on a broken bottle.’ Frank starts bandaging the wounds up. ‘We need to get you up the hospital, fella,’ he says.
‘I don’t want no needles. I hate needles.’
‘Don’t worry about that, Jason. They’re experts at this stuff. They do it all the time. They’ll take really good care of you. I’m not going to say it won’t hurt, mate, ‘cos it probably will. But you’re a tough kid and I’m sure you can cope.’
Jason watches as he gently dresses the arm.
‘Will I lose my finger?’ he says.
‘I don’t think so. But that’s a nasty injury to the tip. That’ll need special attention.
Jason chews his lip.
‘I hate needles,’ he says, finally.
‘Who bandaged your arm, Jason?’
He turns his wide eyes in my direction.
‘My step father.’
‘And where’s your step father now?’
‘I don’t know. Asleep?’
Jason’s mum appears at the ambulance door. She is so unsteady on her feet I have to get out and help her up the stairs. She’s of no use as a guardian, but I want her at the hospital to talk to the staff.
‘There you go!’ I say.
I settle her into a seat and she sits quietly for a moment, catching her breath, hugging a large, brown leather shoulder bag on her lap. Suddenly she frowns, opens it up and starts digging around inside, leaning over so precipitously that only the seatbelt stops her pitching head first into it.
‘Jason stayed round his friend’s house last night,’ she says, finally pulling herself up again, as if she’d just remembered the lines of a script. ‘He fell on some glass.’
Frank has finished dressing Jason’s arm. He tidies all his stuff away.
‘I think we’re set,’ he says.
‘How will I get back?’ says the mum. ‘I can’t find my phone.’
‘Bus? Taxi?’
‘I haven’t got any money.’
Frank hesitates for a second, then snaps off his gloves.
‘We’ll think of something,’ he says. ‘Okay, kidda? Ready? Let’s go.’

Monday, December 12, 2011


I’m a hard man, me. Ex marine commando. Do you know what that means? I don’t think you understand what that means. I’m so full of – rage. D’you know?
‘Who at?’
‘Why are you so full of rage?’
‘Listen. Don’t you take the michael out of me, mister. I’m set to go. I’m ready for anything.’
‘You’ve no call to get punchy with me, Patrick. I’m here to help.’
‘Listen. I’ll try to explain. I’m a hard man. I’m handy with my fists, d’you understand me? Ask anyone. They’ll say – Yep, Patrick. He’s a hard man. He’ll have a go, no problem. And I will. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care what happens to me. I’m ex-army. A boxer. I’ll tell you something. I met a real famous person. Guess who it was.’
‘I don’t know. A boxer?’
His head nods back and his eyes close, like those dolls where the eyelids tip shut when you lie them down. When he raises his head up again they spring back open; he takes a gulp of air and re-orientates himself in the ambulance.
‘Who did you meet? What boxer?’
He breathes heavily through a nose that’s as bulbous and pock-marked as a specimen of alien fruit. Talking is an effort for Patrick. His system is so swamped with alcohol and his senses so numbed by lying on the pavement in the rain, he has to take a series of internal run-ups to find the words and get them out.
‘Listen. I’m ex-army. Marine commando. Tough as you want. And I fancied myself too. I met this guy. He said to me – Do you box? And I said – Maybe. He said – I reckon you’re a fighter. So I said – Yep. You got it. I’m a fighter all right. And I looked him up and down, and I thought - So that’s what you’re after. And I’ll do it, my friend. I’ll take any fucker. So I said – What about you, then? You a fighter? He said – Yep. I do my share. So I said – Is that right? And he said – Yep. And there was something about him. Something – I don’t know. Handy. So we parted friends – bosh - that was that. Then I found out who it was.’
‘Terry Downes. Middleweight champion of the world.’
‘Good job you didn’t start anything, then.’
‘Me? Pah! I don’t care about that. I’m ex marine commando. I don’t give a fuck what I do.’

Saturday, December 10, 2011

lena and sammy

It will be dawn soon. The night is thinning, drawing away from a scattering of lead coloured clouds low on the horizon. The streets are quiet, except for a shift worker in a fluorescent jacket pedalling home, a few cars heading out to the motorway.
Lena is waiting for us at a bus stop. She is wearing a Russian furry hat with ear flaps, and a fake leopard skin coat over her PJ’s. She makes no movement to show that the ambulance is for her, but when we pull up she wanders over to the kerb and waits there, swaying slightly, her mobile phone up under one of the flaps, but not talking into it, either listening to what the person is saying, or pretending to.
‘Are you the patient?’ I ask, climbing out.
She nods – a small movement, as if anything larger would pitch her into the road.
‘Let’s get you on board and we’ll have a chat.’
She drops the phone into her pocket and waits neutrally as I open the side door, then shuffles forwards.

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

Friday, December 09, 2011

looking for helen

The storm has grown in strength as the day retreated and now it holds dominion, raging along the lane, thrashing through trees and bushes, shivering lampposts to the root, tearing on into the dark in a panic of leaves and twigs and anything else without attachment to the world. It snatches the gate out of my hand when I lift the catch, then bullies on ahead through stands of lavender, a scattering of pots, and up through the pergola of wild rose that frames the little porch of Myrtle Cottage. A police officer in a yellow jacket is sheltering there, directing the beam of his torch along the path.
‘Good timing,’ he shouts. ‘We’re just about to break in.’

A cause for concern. Helen had rung NHS Direct complaining of feeling unwell. But before the call taker had time to give her advice or find out more, there was the sound of a scream and the line went dead.
‘She had a fall the other day. Nothing serious. Given some pain meds and discharged. That’s all we know,’ I tell the officer, leaning in so he can hear.

A dog barks from deep inside the cottage.
‘I think they’re in,’ he says. Moments later, a bolt is thrown and the door opens.

The other two police officers have turned on whatever lights they could as they came through, illuminating a low-ceilinged honeycomb of a building, eerily undisturbed. For a moment or two we stand together in the kitchen and the tiny hallway. Even the dog – an elderly Airedale with a disappointed expression – stands with us, tolerating an encouraging scratch behind the ear from one of the police officers. He looks round at the quiet house as bemused as the rest of us.

We split up to search the place.

Helen? Helen?

Myrtle cottage must at one time have been at least two or three buildings, but in the hundreds of years since the floor plan has changed endlessly. Now it is a muddled affiliation of rooms and annexes, staircases and walk-in cupboards, outbuildings and attic studies.

Helen? Helen?

Leading on with the torch. It’s impossible to predict the depth of space behind each door. Patting for switches that aren’t there or don’t work. Probing ahead, and the torchlight plays across a furry bed cover crumpled at the foot of a bed; a giant teddy on a rocking chair; a dressing gown hanging from a hook; a reflection of light from a framed photo; a glass of water on a side table; across shelves bowed with a weight of books; tables strewn with notebooks, baskets, ornate boxes, saucers of trinkets, little ceramic trays of make-up. Checking the bathroom (the bath). The airing cupboard, the linen closet. At any moment expecting to hear something, to see something – someone.

Helen? Helen?

Nothing upstairs.

Out into the garden, where the storm chases its tail around the house.
The coal shed, a garage converted into a studio, with more shelves of books, musty boxes of children’s toys from the fifties, a clear area at the back with a table set for spraying and stencilling.

Helen? Helen?

The summer house, locked and dark. The torch through the patio doors – Bugs Bunny in a rictus of astonishment, propped up against a stack of spotted chair cushions, a folded umbrella. Round to the greenhouse, the overgrown path at the side of the house, the log pile, the tool shed, a muddled stack of logs, a rusted barbeque equipment, an extension at the back – another studio, with a chair and a desk of papers, a lamp, a book on astronomy, a mug, a plastic kettle.

Helen? Helen?

Nothing found, we all re-group in the kitchen.

Whatever may have happened here, there’s no sign of Helen and no patient to treat. Our best guess is that the call-taker misinterpreted the scream. Perhaps she put the phone down for some other, more innocent reason, and simply left the house to get help or do something unconnected.
‘We’ll stay here and try to find out more,’ says the first police officer. ‘We’ll talk to neighbours, make some calls. The door needs securing too, of course. But thanks for coming out. Sorry it was a waste of time.’
The Airedale accompanies us to the door. I catch a last glimpse of him staring glumly out as we leave. And maybe it’s because the house seems so thick-walled and low and sheltering, with its tiny windows glowing in the dark, but when the old door shuts behind us, the storm seems wilder, ready to jump down hungrily and snatch us up before we make the ambulance.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


We’re sitting in the rec room. One of the older paramedics has got on to the subject of elderly drivers and their adventures in automatics.

‘I remember we went to this job,’ he says. ‘An elderly couple, just back from the shops. His wife gets out and goes to unlock, the husband puts the car in reverse to put it away in the garage. But something happens – who knows what – his foot gets stuck or something. Anyway, the car shoots back, crashes through the garage door, out through the garage wall, ploughs across the garden, through a washing line, the flower beds, on through a brick wall and out into the street behind where it smashes into a passing van. When we get there the guy is still in the driver’s seat looking a bit shaken up but not too bad, considering. He mentions about his wife, but there’s no sign of her. So we put him on a back board and get him on the ambulance. After a little while there’s a knock on the door and there’s a firefighter standing there. “You’d better come and look at this” he says. So I leave the guy with my mate and I follow him back over to the car. The firefighter points to it and says “Have a good look under there, mate, and tell me what you see.” Well there’s a ton of shit like you might expect – rubble, soil from the garden, a rose bush, all sorts. And then I notice a pink slipper. “Can you figure it out yet?” he says. And that’s when I realised what it was – the guy’s wife was wrapped up under the car, her legs over here… her arms over there… but so caught up in everything you could hardly tell it was a person at all.’
I lean forward in my chair. ‘Was she all right, then?’
‘Of course she wasn’t all right!’ snorts Earle, a new paramedic, boots up on a stool, the labels still stuck on the soles. ‘She’s just been run over by a car, mate! What do you think?’
A pause, and then Frank stands up and saves me with his mug.
‘Anyone for tea?’ he says.