Rae has been standing off until we arrived. The notes accompanying this 25yo male, unco mentioned alcohol and drugs, so she thought it would be prudent to wait for support. We park up outside the address – the basement flat of a smart Georgian terrace row. A neatly arrowed sign points to the gate we need; Rae leads the way down the steps to the front door, rings the buzzer, and we wait.
Just at the point where we start to wonder if we have the right place, there is the sound of someone approaching along the hallway. A chain, a bolt and then the door slowly opens. The weathered husk of a middle aged man in a fisherman’s cap and filthy jacket peers out at us. With his cratered skin, rotten teeth, and with a palpable margin around him of cider sweat, smoke and bad thoughts, the man is about as disreputable as it’s possible to get without recourse to prosthetics or CGI.
He leans back against the wall, exhausted by the effort of letting us in.
‘Through there,’ he puffs, then frowns and smacks his lips, as if the words had unexpectedly left a trail of tar in his mouth. He watches us as we pass, then closes the door and tags along behind.
The brown throws tacked over the bay windows at the front of the room exclude most of the bright spring morning outside, but enough light spills around the edges to reveal a middle-aged woman sitting on the sofa, smoking, and a young guy sleeping on his back on a bare mattress in the corner. The woman is as ruined as her partner. She is a body of discarded things, her head extemporised from a basket of root vegetables.
‘I want him out,’ she gapes, pointing with her fag at the figure on the mattress. ‘I want him out. I’m supposed to be going to detox tomorrow. I can’t have anything stopping that.’
Frank goes over to the supine man with Rae; I try to calm the woman down.
‘I know it’s upsetting, but could you try to keep your voice down? It’ll be really helpful if you could, because otherwise we won’t be able to treat your friend.’
‘What friend? I’ve never seen him before.’
‘But still, if you could just keep it calm so we can see what the problem is.’
‘I don’t care what the problem is. I don’t want him here. He’s got to go. Get him out.’
‘Yep. We’ll be done just as soon as we can.’
I look over at Rae.
‘He’s not unconscious,’ she says. Frank leans in and gives him a gentle shake of the shoulders. ‘Hello, fella,’ he says loudly. Then to the woman: ‘What’s his name?’
‘I’ve told you. I’ve never seen him before. He’s a piece of shit and I want him out.’
‘Honestly - Barbara, is it - (seeing a letter on the arm of the sofa). You’ve really got to try very hard not to shout and get worked up like this. It’s not helping.’
‘I don’t care if it helps or not. I want him out. It’s my house. I can say what I want.’
‘Yep. Of course. But if you just let us find out what’s wrong we’ll be out of your hair in no time.’
‘I want him out. I want him gone.’
The man who let us in has wandered back into the room. He sits down beside the middle aged woman and struggles to put a cigarette in his mouth.
‘Has he taken any drugs?’ I ask the man.
The woman erupts again.
‘Drugs? I don’t want drugs in my house. You brought him here and he took drugs?’
The man has been interrupted mid-lighting, and he stares stupidly around him as the naked flame of his lighter burns in the air in front of him.
‘I didn’t bring no-one,’ he drawls. ‘He followed me.’
‘I’m sick of you bringing these wankers home,’ she says. ‘I’ll throw you out, n’all.’
The man takes the cigarette out of him mouth with his free hand, then a moment later forgets and tries to light the end of his nose.
Meanwhile, Frank has squeezed the mystery man’s ear. He sits up, suddenly awake. The contrast between the man and his two hosts is remarkable. Whilst they are sponge-like in their decrepitude, the man is as lean and bright as a scalpel. He takes in his surroundings.
‘What the fuck do you want?’ he whispers.
‘Your friends were worried about you,’ says Rae. ‘And so were we.’
The man sneers.
‘Worried about me!’ he says, then looks up. ‘What are you looking at?’ he says.
‘We’re the ambulance,’ I say, trying to sound as neutral as possible. ‘We’re here to help. You were flat out, unresponsive.’
Rae steps round the side of the bed.
‘Why don’t we go out to the ambulance and check you over there?’
‘What do you mean, check me over?’ he says, still staring at me. ‘Who do you think you are?’
‘The ambulance. We’re the ambulance. We’re here to make sure you’re okay.’
‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘Well,’ says Frank. ‘You’re going to have to leave this flat whatever happens, because Barbara here wants you to go.’
The man hesitates a moment, then stands up.
‘Where’s my phone?’ he says, but then sees it amongst the debris on the coffee table along with his keys; he scoops them both up and puts them into his jeans pocket.
‘I’m going, yeah? But only ‘cos I want to.’
‘Yeah – fuck off,’ shouts Barbara from the sofa. Then slaps the back of her partner’s head so his cap flies off.
‘Easy Barbara,’ says Rae, picking up the resus bag. ‘Don’t go mad.’
‘This is my home,’ she shouts. ‘I’ll do what I want, thank you.’
Her partner has readjusted his position. He goes to cross one leg over the other, thinks better of it, then dedicates himself again to finding and lighting a cigarette.
I stand aside to let the young man go through the door, then I pick up the drugs bag and follow on behind.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ he says.
‘I’m following on behind.’
‘Following on behind.’ The phrase sounds ridiculous. ‘I’m coming out. As well.’
‘How old do you think I am? Ten?’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’
‘Following on behind. Who the fuck do you think you are?’
I put the drugs bag down to free my hands, and consciously adjust my stance, to be sideways on, less of a target.
‘Just leave,’ I say to him. ‘Any more trouble and we’re calling the police.’
‘The police, hey?’ he says. ‘Okay. Yeah. You call the police. Let’s have them here. I’d like to see them.’
Rae speaks from behind me. ‘I’ve called them,’ she says. ‘They’ll be here in a minute.’
The man glances at her, then goes outside and sits on the basement steps for a moment. Then almost immediately he stands and strides up the steps to street level.
‘I’m taking your ambulance,’ he says.
I follow him, reaching the top just as he climbs into the cab. The engine is running on the KRS, the keys in my pocket.
‘You can’t go anywhere,’ I tell him, opening the door. ‘This is stupid, mate. Just be on your way.’
He look at me, his eyes dark flints. Then he snorts derisively.
‘Automatics’ he says. Then he leaps out of the cab, shrugs his hood over his head, stuffs his fists into his pockets, and slouches off down the street.