The estate rises around us in the darkness like a ruthlessly illuminated housing machine. Layer upon layer of regularly spaced squares fitfully lit by plasma screens, measured out in a grid of walkways. But despite the scale of the place there’s no-one around, not even a dog walker or a posse from the clubs; no sign of life at all, just a skin of frost over the parked cars and the grass, and here and there faint wisps of steam rising from vents.
Ellie is waiting for us in one of the entrance halls, staring out at us through the scratched Perspex of the front door. Her eyes are so wide and dark they make the hall lights flicker.
‘Can we come in?’
She doesn’t answer, but relaxes her hold on the door and turns to walk back inside.
Her flat is clean and warm, the laminate floor clear of anything but a pair of dog slippers and a scattering of empty pill packets. Ellie goes over to turn off the TV – a cooking competition - and puts her feet into the slippers.
‘My name’s Spence. This is Frank. We were told you might have taken an overdose tonight. Is that right, Ellie?’
She nods, gathers the lapels of her pink towelling robe around her, knots the belt more tightly.
‘Are these the tablets you took?’ pointing to the packets on the floor.
She nods again, and goes to pick them up.
‘It’s all right, Ellie. I’ll get them. Were these all full when you started?’
‘There’s quite a few here. I’ll do the counting up on the ambulance. What we need to do now is take you to hospital for some treatment. Is that okay?’
‘I’ll get my bag.’
‘And your keys? Good. Okay – let’s go.’
She lies back on the trolley, folds her hands neatly across her stomach and closes her eyes. She’s only twenty one; her face is as clear and unmarked as a sleeping alabaster angel in a church.
I calculate the number and size of the pills she’s taken, dropping the counted packets into a spare vomit bowl. The tally is dreadful, a shopping list for the damned. I put everything aside and feel the pulse at her wrist.
‘Did you take any alcohol with these pills, Ellie?’
She opens her eyes.
‘A glass of wine.’
I picture her alone in the flat, sitting on the edge of the sofa, taking little sips with each mouthful, tipping her head back, watching the chefs battle it out on the TV.
‘How long ago?’
‘Half an hour.’
‘Good. And how are you feeling now?’
She rests her head back on the pillow and closes her eyes again.
‘My tummy hurts,’ she says.
We turn up the slope to the department.
The Charge Nurse looks at the name on my sheet and then glances down the corridor to where Frank is waiting with Ellie.
‘Oh yeah. Yep. She was in about a month ago. What’s she taken this time? Whoah!’
She signs the board, hands it back to me, then asks one of the other nurses to come over.
‘Best crack on with this,’ she says. ‘Although why the hell she’s still got all these meds hanging around is beyond me.’
I go back to the trolley to help push her into a cubicle. Her dog slippers are poking out of the bottom of the blanket, so I pull it down a little to cover them.
‘The nurse will be with you very shortly,’ I say to Ellie as we move along. But I can see the nurse is already there waiting for us, smiling, a bottle of charcoal in her hand, shaking it.