I wrench the steering wheel violently to the left. Both my feet jam down on the pedals.
I brace for impact.
Because we’re not moving.
My heart volleys between the back of my spine and the windscreen.
We’re not moving, and the engine is quiet.
Then it comes to me – we’re parked up. We’ve been on roadside standby for ten minutes or so.
I relax my grip on the wheel and look to the side. Rae is breathing softly, curled up in the attendant’s seat, knees up on the dash, arms tucked in and chin down. She groans and folds herself even smaller into her jacket.
I breathe, and check the time.
Outside the sky is starting to lighten, a one point increment of blue.
I shift position to feel my feet again.
Suddenly the MDT lights up, along with the horribly urgent sound effect they’ve decided to accompany each job - an electronic Chihuahua raging in a loop of three. I jab it off.
Rae uncurls with a groan.
Man bitten by dog.
I yawn, and turn the engine over.
St Helen street. I don’t know, but I’m guessing St Helen is the patron saint of drunks, deadbeats, users and abusers. There’s probably a shrine to her somewhere: an alabaster figure, head drooping sorrowfully, hands stretched out either side, a needle in the right, a can in the left.
The clubs and bars down this stretch are patrolled weekend nights by a sheriff’s posse of bouncers. But instead of pistols round their waists they have yellow ID bands round their arms. They all seem to come from the same village somewhere in Serbia – probably the same family - and walk in the same way, a casually tough, flat-footed, no-necked waddle, arms out to the sides, ready to draw.
Two of them are with a crowd of people outside The Fox and Hounds. I can see three or four others up ahead, confronting some people, a dog running about. We pull up outside the pub and Rae winds the window down.
‘Hey,’ she says. ‘What’s up?’
One of the bouncers steps over.
‘Yes. Thank you for coming so quick. I have bite to leg. Here. It not bad but I thought maybe ... erm ... injection for ... erm ... infection.’
‘Let’s have a look.’
But just as she goes to get out there’s a sudden roar from up ahead and we see the bouncers and other figures all crash together. It’s a Tex Avery special, a whirlwind of boots and arms - Oof! Zing! Pow! – a rangy dog leaping in and out, wind-milling its paws.
The bitten bouncer taps the ambulance. ‘One moment,’ he says, and hobbles off up the street to help. Rae calls for urgent police back-up as I drive forwards to light the scene with the ambulance and maybe get out and help, depending.
But it’s over as suddenly as it started. Now there is a man sprawled face down in the middle of the road with a bouncer on top of him; another man stands over by a shop window holding a dog by the collar, everyone else has gone.
‘GET HIM OUT OF HERE!’ screams the man on the floor. ‘TAKE BUDDY BACK TO THE SQUAT. DON’T LET THEM TAKE HIM!’
‘Ssh, friend,’ says the bouncer at the head end, holding on to the man’s hand, folded expertly behind his back with one toe-like thumb on the back of his wrist. ‘People sleeping. Quiet now.’
‘You fucking Polish cunt,’ splutters the man underneath him. ‘I hope you die of cervical cancer.’
The bouncer laughs. ‘I am boy, not girl. And anyway I not from Poland.’
‘Sorry. I don’t have anything against the Poles. I’m not racist. It’s just words. I hope you die of testicular cancer then, you bastard.’
The bouncer shrugs and looks up at me.
‘What to do with this?’ he says.
I shine my torch just in front of the man’s face. There is a small puddle of blood there as richly red as a spilled can of enamel paint. I shine the torch on his face – it looks like he cut an eyebrow and bashed his nose when he was taken down.
‘They’re fucking killing me,’ says the man. ‘Get off of me, you Nazi scum.’
‘So what happened here?’ says Rae, pulling on her gloves. ‘Bit of a mess, isn’t it?’
‘I wasn’t doing nothing,’ says the guy on the floor. ‘I was walking by minding my own business and these cunts decided to push me around. So my dog bit one. Next thing you know they’re beating the crap out of me. I want this recorded. I want photographs. Where's Buddy? Is he all right? Who’s got Buddy?’
‘Your friend took him off,’ says Rae. Then, to the bouncer ‘The police are en route.’
‘Good,’ says the bouncer.
‘Just let me sit up,’ says the guy on the floor. ‘I promise I won’t do nothing. Just let me sit up.’
‘No, my friend,’ says the bouncer. ‘We wait till police get here I think.’
‘What’s your name?’ says Rae.
‘Okay, Bill. We’re going to need you to be nice and calm so we can treat your injuries.’
‘Fuck that. I want pictures. I want these cunts prosecuted for brutality.’
He raises his head just enough to spit, a gob of blood that plops out onto the tarmac in front of him. Rae takes a step back.
‘No spitting,’ she says. ‘If you spit we’re not coming anywhere near you.’
‘Sorry. Sorry,’ says Bill. ‘I wasn’t spitting at you, I was spitting at the road. That’s allowed, isn’t it?’
‘The road, yes. Us, no.’
Flashing blue lights, and a police car pulls up. Two police women get out and walk over.
‘Hi guys,’ says the first, as pleasantly as someone introducing themselves at a party. ‘Oh dear. What’s happened here, then?’
‘Oh great,’ says Bill. ‘The fucking filth. More Nazi scum, with your pepper sprays and your batons. Why don’t you fuck off with your Nazi friends here and have a fucking orgy.’
‘That’s not very nice,’ says the police woman. ‘We’re only here to help.’
‘Yeah right,’ says Bill, then spits again.
‘If you spit like that we’ll have to put a hood on you, and I’d really rather not. You’d rather not, too, I expect.’
‘Sorry officer,’ says Bill. ‘I’m just scared. I get scared around the police.’
And he starts to cry, a stagey, extravagantly boo-hoo deal that seems absurdly at odds with his previous demeanour. Bill is a curiously volatile mix, lurching from dreadful curses through swearing and aggressive bravado to self-pitying cries and friendly chat.
‘All right if I sit up?’ says Bill, suddenly reasonable again. ‘Only I can’t breathe all that well at the moment.’
‘Fine,’ says the police woman, moving in. ‘But I’m afraid we’re going to have to cuff your hands behind your back to begin with, just until we know what’s what.’
‘No worries,’ says Bill.
‘And no spitting. Okay? There.’
We help him sit up into a cross-legged position, his hands cuffed behind him. He looks around, the blood from his nose and eye matting his goatee beard.
‘Urgh,’ says the police woman to Rae. ‘Any idea of injuries?’
‘Minor. We need to clean him up to see, but minor, I’d say.’
‘Good. Now then. First things first. What do we call you?’
‘Bill the tramp.’
She gets out her notebook and writes it down.
‘Bill – the – tramp. Okay Bill. What’s your date of birth?’
‘One, one, one,’ he says, then spits off to the side.
‘Bill – remember what we said? Okay? No spitting.’
‘I was spitting on the road. Clearing my mouth. Or isn’t that allowed in this country? Like walking your dogs, apparently.’
‘He stand in front and sing bad song, then when we tell him to go away he make dog to bite my friend,’ says the bouncer.
‘Oh dear,’ says the police woman.
‘You fucking Polish nob! You whore! I hope you get a fucking bullet in the back of your head one day, you cunt.’
The bouncer shrugs and smiles at his friend.
‘Polish!’ he says to him. They laugh. The other produces a small bottle of alco-gel and squeezes some onto his friend’s hands.
Suddenly Bill starts howling.
‘POLICE BRUTALITY! THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE ON THE STREET! WAKE UP, EVERYONE! THEY’RE COMING FOR YOU!’
‘Bill! Bill! This isn’t helping, is it?’
‘Sorry. Sorry. I’m just worried about Buddy, that’s all.’
‘Are you going to behave and let the paramedics treat you?’
‘Sure. No problem.’
I approach him warily from the rear, soak a wad of tissue and start cleaning the blood off his face.
‘Can you do my nose?’ he says. ‘There! Just a bit more! Ah! That’s it. There’s nothing worse than having an itch in your nose and not being able to scratch it.’