Still twenty miles out of town and we’re in a queue of traffic so slow we’d have more chance closing our eyes and wishing ourselves home. There must be an accident up ahead, a sink hole or something because this is terrible. We’re surrounded by drivers on their mobiles, frantically re-entering co-ordinates on their Satnavs, or leaning back in their seats and pressing their hands up into the ceiling like prisoners finally losing it in the cell. I’ve had my knees up on the dashboard for the last five miles. It stopped feeling good at three, but I’m too numb to do anything about it now.
Frank holds out his palm.
The job screen lights up.
‘What? No. No.’
A job way off in the wilds, so far away the scale of the map has to pull back to satellite view to fit the two red markers on the same screen.
‘What is it?’ says Frank, rolling his head left shoulder to right with an audible crack.
‘Intoxicated. Can’t get up.’
I call Control and do my best to get out of attending without actually refusing the job. But we’re out of area, out of leverage, out of luck. The Dispatcher fields my call with a chilliness that would make a polar bear grimace.
‘You are the nearest,’ she says.
Not only is it a long way to run, but if the patient needs to go in, we’ll have to head back the way we’ve just come by another ten miles or so, to a hospital renowned for its handover delays. By the time I eventually finish work my kids won’t recognise me. I’ll knock on the door and some teenagers will answer it. They’ll shout over their shoulder: Mum – there’s some strange bearded guy mumbling something about an overrun.
But we have no choice.
Frank drives so fast the ceramic tiles are stripped from the chassis and the cab starts glowing red. Technically I’m a month younger when we haul up outside the address.
An elderly woman is standing waiting for us by the garden gate. She waves us over and starts talking the moment we’re in range.
‘I’d better just tell you…,’ she says. Then she closes her eyes, her chin folds upwards and she presses a handkerchief to her face to hide the rest.
‘Take your time,’ says Frank, looking back at the ambulance, gauging the distance. ‘Tell us what’s happened?’
Eventually she looks at us again.
‘Peter came back a couple of days ago. Well – he had to, you see. A condition of his bail. So he’s been staying with us because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. But I’m not well, nor his father. We can’t cope. He’s been drinking the whole time. Sleeping on the floor. Carrying on. We had the ambulance out yesterday. They took him to hospital but all they did was put him on a drip or something and then send him straight back. But we just can’t cope. I don’t know what to do.’
‘And it’s Peter we’ve come to see?’
‘He’s on the floor again. Eric can’t get him up, not with his back. Do something, would you? It can’t go on like this.’
‘Let’s go in and say hello,’ says Frank.
Eric waves as we go into the kitchen. By his feet is his son, Peter, a fifty year old man with a face as rough as a pumice stone. He is on his knees on the lino, sipping from a highball glass of vodka.
‘Thank you,’ I say, taking it from him.
His head wobbles as he tries to follow me with his eyes.
‘Here… I need that…’
‘Maybe, but it just seems a little too ironic to be called here because of alcohol and watch you carry on drinking. Doesn’t it?’
He shrugs and reaches out his hand to me as if the shrug was all he needed to win the argument.
‘Just a minute,’ I say.
‘Sorry about this,’ says Eric. ‘We didn’t know what to do.’
Peter hasn’t fallen or hurt himself. We check him over and apart from a little raised blood pressure – not as much as you’d have thought, given his history – he’s fine. Drunk, but fine. We help him onto the sofa. His legs bounce up and down as he folds his arms to see what we’ll do next.
‘Let’s have a chat in the other room,’ I say to the parents.
‘He needs to go on some kind of detox programme,’ says Eric quietly. ‘He’s killing himself.’
‘I think you’re right about the detox, but hospital isn’t the place to do it. He needs to be sober, for one thing. They’ll just keep an eye on him and then send him back – here, probably, if you don’t refuse him.’
‘But we can’t cope.’
‘If you want him out and he refuses to go, you can always call the police.’
His mum uses the handkerchief again.
‘We couldn’t do that,’ says Eric.
‘I know it’s hard. But something’s got to give. And if it takes some police involvement to shake him up a bit, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’
‘He’s had enough of that already.’
‘He’s got to get on top of the drinking, though, Eric. It’s not helping anyone.’
Frank has been writing out the paperwork. He gives me the board to finish off.
‘If Pete’s out of area at the moment, maybe he could see your GP in the morning? What do you think?’
‘It’s worth a shot,’ says Eric. ‘Otherwise I just don’t know.’
‘Don’t forget – if he gets difficult, if you feel threatened in any way, or you really just can’t think what to do next, call the police. Unless he’s unconscious or having a fit or fallen over and hurt himself or something, it’s not really our domain.’
‘Right. Yes. I will do. Thanks.’
He signs the form.
They watch at the door as we reverse out of the close, practically a handbrake turn.
‘Seatbelt,’ says Frank. ‘Parachute. Gum. Let’s go.’