The moon is a hyper-radiant disc slung low in the sky. I can’t help glancing at it from time to time as we prep the ambulance, trying to read our fate in its brilliant surface.
We take a call immediately. Control want us to take a psych patient from Short Stay to Elm Ward, a secure unit twenty miles away.
‘It’s part of the hospital there,’ they say.
‘Are you sure? I can’t think I’ve ever come across that one.’
‘No, no. It’s on the notes. And don’t worry. She’s suicidal, but not aggressive.’
Everyone is asleep on Short Stay except for the charge nurse, hunched over notes, caught in an amber fold of light at her desk.
‘We’ve come for Laney.’
‘Ah-hmm,’ she says, stopping only briefly to look at me over the rims of her bi-focals. She gestures with her pen. ‘You’ll have to wake her.’
Laney is sitting in a chair, wrapped in a cell blanket and curled over so that her forehead is resting on her knees. The top of her hair has been pruned into something like a monk’s tonsure; from the scabs of the scissor marks, I’d guess it was her own handiwork.
I reach over and shake her gently by the shoulder.
She bobs up unexpectedly and looks wide-eyed all around, anywhere but me, as if she’d been woken by a ghost.
‘Hello, Laney. It’s the ambulance. We’ve come to take you to Elm ward.’
‘My sandwiches!’ she gasps, rolling her lips drily over the spaces where her teeth should be. I’m shocked to see her looking so old. The notes said she was fifty-eight, but she could be twice that.
‘Don’t go without my sandwiches.’
I look back at the nurse. She gestures again with her pen, slightly peeved.
‘No. No. We’ll make sure we’ve got all your stuff. Sorry to wake you like this, but the hospital needs the bed. Just one of those things.’
She binds herself up in the blanket more tightly, and then deflates slowly back down into the foetal position.
I shake her by the arm again. She springs back up.
‘Don’t touch me! I don’t want to be touched!’
‘Okay. Sorry. I won’t do it again. It’s just we’ve been asked to take you to Elm ward. It won’t take long. I’ve got your sandwiches.’
There are two packs: one of egg mayonnaise, still intact; one already open, the bare slices spilling out, the filling mysteriously gone.
‘I’ll put them in your bag, look.’
I show her what I’ve done, but she doesn’t seem that bothered any more.
The notes describe her as having nothing physically wrong, but we opt for as clean and quiet removal as possible, for the sake of the other patients in the ward. Frank brings up the wheelchair and we coax Laney into it.
‘Bye, then’ I call out quietly to the nurse. She conducts us away with her pen, without looking up.
We settle Laney onto the ambulance.
‘Sandwiches!’ she says.
‘You want your sandwiches? Okay. Here you are.’
‘The other ones.’
I put the egg mayo pack back in her bag and take out the opened pack of dry slices.
‘There you go.’
‘Not on me! On the trolley. Where I can see them.’
I put them on the trolley in front of her chair. The ambulance moves off and two of the slices jolt out of the container and spill onto the sheet. When I reach forward to put them back she screams out ‘No! Leave them!’
I leave them.
After a moment, she wraps the blanket back around herself, and retreats back into her foetal position. I change the cabin setting to mood lighting, and make myself comfortable.
The rest of the journey passes smoothly. At one point we hit a pothole and another slice is jolted free of the container, but Laney is dozing and doesn’t notice.
At the hospital Frank shouts out the arrival time and then disappears to find a chair. After a short while when the only noise is the ticking of the cooling engine and breathing sounds from under the blanket. I hear a rattle of wheels approaching the back door.
‘Here we are,’ says Frank, opening up. ‘Let’s be having you.’
Getting Laney down the steps is worse than getting her up. Just waking her is difficult enough, but then we have to negotiate the collecting together of the bread slices, helping her out of the seat without touching her, and smoothing the way down the steps into the wheelchair without startling her.
Above us, the moon rolls on across the car park sleek and white and cold.
There is another ambulance crew waiting to handover. Just before we squeeze past them I ask one if he’s heard of Elm ward.
‘Elm ward? Yeah – that’s part of Green Lodges, about ten miles away, just off the motorway. You can’t miss it.’
‘Ten miles away?’
‘You can’t miss it.’
Laney unwraps herself in the chair, craning up in the chair like an unprepossessing chick in a nest, sensing danger.
‘I don’t want to go back in the ambulance,’ she wails. ‘I want to go to bed.’
‘Me too, Laney,’ I say, reaching for the radio. ‘I’m very sorry about this. We’ve been given the wrong information.’
‘Don’t put me back in the ambulance!’
The other crew laugh and give us sympathetic shakes of the head.
‘Nice to see you,’ say the department nurses as we head back outside.
On the radio, Control confirm that the destination was wrong.
‘Don’t know what happened there,’ he says. ‘I’ll send the correct address through.’
‘If you could. That would be lovely,’ I say.
It takes ten minutes persuading Laney back up the steps into her seat again, but eventually she wraps herself up in the blanket and seems happy enough.
‘See you the other end. Or somewhere,’ says Frank. And he slams the door shut.
The noise wakes Laney up immediately.
‘I’m hungry,’ she says. ‘I want my sandwiches.’
I hand her the opened pack.
‘The egg ones!’
I put the opened pack on the trolley and hand her the others, then settle into my seat.
We move off.
There’s nothing much to do in the back but try to stay awake. Laney rakes open her sandwich pack with dreadful paws and hauls out a sandwich. She puts it up to her nose, sniffs it, then cautiously lifts the top slice and peers underneath it. She takes it off completely and lies it on her lap. Then she puts her face up to the exposed contents and begins counting the egg pieces with her forefinger. It’s a curiously tender performance; she smiles over the whole spread, like the most nurturing schoolmistress in the world carefully enumerating the infinite successes and blessings of her many students.
Then she starts to eat them.
It’s terrifying, something like the Devil, ploughing. Using the hooked crook of the same finger, she drags a path through the filling, gathering up the pieces of egg and gently transferring them to her mouth.
By the time we arrive at Green Lodges, she has another collection of empty slices.
I queasily put them in the bag with the others just as Frank opens the door.
‘That didn’t take long,’ he says.