Liang is lying on his back in the CDU, hugging a pillow over his face. The charge nurse doesn’t seem concerned, though. She looks exhausted, all her thoughts turned irresistibly in the direction of home like boats in the harbour when the tide runs out.
‘He’s ready,’ she says, not looking up, scribbling something on a sheet of paper and then stuffing it in an envelope. ‘His bag and notes. He’s no bother, so you don’t need an escort. And yes he can take the pillow. Anything else?’
‘No. That’s great, thanks.’
We go over.
Slowly he pulls the pillow aside and blinks up at us. Liang is neatly dressed in a dark denim shirt buttoned to the neck and seam-sharp chinos. His Caterpillar boots are impeccably aligned on the floor at the foot of the bed, their laces in parallel lines on the floor, right and left. A heavy-set man in his early twenties, Liang’s cheeks are plumped out like he’s storing all his anxiety there.
‘Sorry to disturb you at this late hour, Liang. But we’re your transport to Claremont,’ I say. ‘Are you ready to go?’
He sits up, gently puts the pillow to one side, and then plants his feet in his boots. When his laces are tied, he hugs the pillow to his middle and then stands and awaits further instruction.
‘Great! So – if you’ve got everything, we can set off. Do you want to take the rest of your sandwiches?’
There’s a half-eaten pack on the table behind him, but he shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut, and whispers into the pillow that no, he does not want to take the sandwiches.
We say goodbye to the nurse, and leave.
From the cab it doesn’t sound as if much is happening back in the ambulance. Neither Rae or Liang are saying anything; I figure that Liang has probably gone back to sleep, and with nothing to do – no observations to make or treatments to attend to – Rae has probably drifted off herself, or is braced on her seat, Tweeting. The roads are quiet at this time of night. Claremont is out in the country, and pretty soon the traffic thins to nothing. The road feels as weighted with sleep as the houses we pass. Even the streetlamps seem exhausted; they trail their thin yellow lights across the way like strangely drawn fishermen dragging their nets across a river.
I put the radio on and lower the window to let in some air.
It feels like a major achievement to make the hospital without falling asleep and ploughing into a ditch.
I turn into the hospital driveway. The road turns smoothly to the left, past the medical blocks and round through stands of fir trees to the psychiatric wing. I park just outside the foyer, lit up like a deserted hotel. I climb out of the cab and ring the buzzer by the ward name we want; after a long pause, a cheerful voice says Hi and the door buzzes open. Rae leads Liang out of the ambulance and we all walk in together.
Another set of doors, a brightly lit corridor in primary colours, anodyne flower prints framed in beech along the walls.
Half way down the corridor I notice that there’s actually someone standing in the dark courtyard beyond the window, watching as we pass. When he sees that I’ve noticed him, he rises up on his tip-toes and waves as hard as he can. I wave back.
‘Who’s that?’ asks Rae. ‘Friend of yours?’
And then for one dislocated moment, I have the feeling that it’s actually my own reflection, cut off behind the glass, free at last to warn me about something.
Liang glances to his right, hugs his pillow a little tighter.
The door to the ward stands open.