1. We haul our heavy bags up four flights to the top flat. A smart middle-aged man is waiting for us by an open door.
‘That’s a long way up!’ I puff, pleasantly.
‘It’s because you’re fat,’ he says.
He turns and goes inside.
A scrupulously clean flat, laminate flooring, size-ordered books, tasteful prints, and on a clear section of wall a gleaming Fender Stratocaster, hung on a peg.
His partner Janice is sitting over by the window.
‘Can I get you a cup of tea?’ she says.
‘No, no. We’re good, thanks. How are you feeling, Janice?’
‘I really don’t mind,’ she says. ‘Are you sure you don’t want one? You look as if you could use something.’
The man comes and stands by my shoulder.
‘Make sure you tell them everything,’ he says. And then to me: ‘Janice has a habit of glossing over the truth. God knows why.’ He stares at her a moment then says: ‘I want you to tell these people the whole story.’
Janice is brittle, watchful.
When the man turns to fetch a glass of wine from an antique table, she mouths: I don’t want him here.
When he turns back I say to him: ‘Would you mind if we had a chat to Janice on her own? Is that okay?’
I prepare myself for his response, but eventually all he says is: ‘Make sure you tell them about the overdose.’
When he leaves the room, he shuts the door slowly and quietly.
2. Zak limps as he helps Ellie up the steps of the ambulance.
‘What’s the matter with your foot?’ I ask him.
‘I kicked a wall when she said she weren’t going to hospital. But I can book myself in and get it looked at when we’re up there.’
Ellie throws herself onto the trolley and curls up. Zak takes a seat, but then leans forward and drapes himself over her.
‘Stay with me, babe,’ he says. ‘I love you, yeah? You know I do.’
But Ellie is so drunk she doesn’t appear to notice or care. She pulls her jacket further over her head and draws her knees up.
‘Sorry to call you guys out,’ says the paramedic on the car. ‘It was initially an abdo pain, and I was going to take her up, but then she said she didn’t want to go, took a few steps down the road and collapsed. Non-injury. I think alcohol’s the deal here, but who knows. She changed her mind and said she did want to go to hospital, so I didn’t really have much of a choice. I’m really sorry. Here’s what I got on the form. See you later.’
Rae is attending.
When I ask if she needs anything she bats the air sleepily so I leave them to it.
I drive us up the road.
At the hospital I wait with Zak and Ellie whilst Rae goes to handover to the nurses.
Zak goes off to book himself into the minor injuries department.
I’m still waiting when he hobbles back through the double doors towards us.
‘Mate - help me roll her over,’ he says.
‘It’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘She’s not unconscious, and actually this quite a good position for keeping her airway clear.’
‘What?’ he says. ‘Her tobacco’s in the other pocket and I need a smoke.’
3. The woman is lying back on the ambulance trolley breathing as deeply and noisily through the Entonox regulator as a panicked scuba diver. Her partner, a blank faced kid with stripes shaved in his eyebrows leans forward and taps her leg.
‘Off your nut yet?’ he says.
She takes the mouthpiece out for a second. ‘Fuck off,’ she says.
He smiles and sits back. ‘That’s a yes, then.’
I read through her notes. She’s young, but already has three children. At twenty-two weeks these abdo pains look dangerously like contractions.
But her partner seems oblivious. He carries on talking to me about the mini-moto scrambler he’s thinking of buying the four-year-old. He shows me a picture on his phone.
The woman takes the mouthpiece out again.
‘I’m worried it’ll be like my cousin, come out too soon and dying in one of them incubators,’ she says.
He looks up.
‘No it won’t,’ he says. ‘I won’t let it.’
‘How’re you gonna do that, then?’ she says, before wincing and taking several more drags on the mixture.
‘I’ll crawl up your cunt and push it back, all right?’ he says. Then he elbows me and holds out his phone again. ‘Look at that! Wha’dya think?’
4. Mal is a mean drunk. He lies back on the ambulance trolley, bunching his fists and raising himself up anytime anyone asks him the simplest question. His grey goatee is neatly trimmed; that, along with his sharp blue eyes are the only clean thing about his face, liberally fouled with the blood from his head wound.
‘Ya’ filthy bitch,’ he says to the police woman.
‘What have I told you about using language like that?’ she says. ‘Carry on in that vein and I’ll arrest you for drunk and disorderly and take you down the nick.’
‘Ssh. Ssh,’ he says, smiling and lying back down again.
‘So let’s have your address,’ she says.
‘Why should ah?’
She sighs and taps her notebook with her pen. Her colleague is outside the ambulance on the radio, listening to the roll-call of Mal’s previous convictions; he looks round the door and nods to us.
It’s been going on like this for half an hour or more. Mal was found on his back in the gutter by a lovely couple who tended to him despite the foul language and temper. They stayed until we arrived. I had to tell the woman she had blood on her trousers from where she’d knelt down beside him.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ she said.
It was a battle from then on to get Mal to accept any treatment – something we felt obliged to do, though, as he had a significant head injury, and no evidence of capacity to refuse. The police arrived; between us we got him on to the vehicle, but if anything his hostility grew. The police managed to get the name of his wife from him, though; it appeared she lived nearby. They rang her on Mal’s phone. She said she’d come out and meet us.
When finally she steps up onto the ambulance in her heavy lavender coat and trim hat, she should be stepping up onto a dais at the Guild flower show to award prizes, not taking her seat next to a late-night derelict like this.
‘Oh Malcolm,’ she says.
‘Fuck yous,’ he says. ‘Le’me lone.’
She smiles tearfully at the police woman.
‘I hope he hasn’t been too much of a bother,’ she says.
‘Oh. You know,’ says the police woman.Rae slams the door and we move off.