I haven’t been to this custody suite before. It’s situated miles away, on an industrial estate the other side of a neighbouring town. It doesn’t seem right, having to pick our way between the paint supply vehicles, the glazier trucks and paladins, the bored smokers in plastic bonnets standing outside the sandwich-making factory, the fork-lifts loading and unloading pallets of stuff, the beeping of reversing lorries – all to reach the new police custody suite, a low-slung, red-bricked compound with high wire fences and cameras monitoring our approach.
‘I can’t believe the cop cars do this every day.’
‘Maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s like Batman. Maybe there’s a secret entrance somewhere, a cave with hinged trees that flop to the side.
‘Let’s hope so.’
We drive up onto the yellow grid outside the main gates and buzz to enter. When we’ve been approved, a massive plated door shudders and starts to grind slowly upwards. After a couple of minutes there’s room enough to drive the ambulance in. Stop lights, cables, buttons, and a big red sign on the wall saying Please turn off your engine. The door closes behind us. We climb out and buzz again. After a while, just as the main door crashes to, a police officer appears from a hidden door. A bright and friendly guy with an open face topped with a zhuzh of yellow hair, he looks strangely out of place in these austere surroundings, like a children’s presenter playing the part of a prison guard.
‘Come for our boy David?’ he says. ‘Brilliant. This way.’
There must be a company that specialises in these interiors, because the custody suite itself is exactly the same as the one back in Helmstone. The same dirty-blue marmoleum flooring, the same shadowy footprint decals showing the prisoner where to stand, the same hefty circular command desk, imposingly raised on a dais, with its screens and cameras and crew of white-shirted administrators busily inputting, registering, sorting out.
‘We haven’t been told much.’
‘Okay. So what we have is a twenty-two year old male called David Swift. He was found sitting on the edge of a multi-storey car park yesterday evening threatening to jump. Police arrived on scene and talked him down. He was sectioned, brought here, seen by the Duty Psych. He’s not been violent at all and he’s been cleared to travel with you without any escort. Don’t know why he came all the way out here to kill himself. No-one’s been able to figure that one out. But as he lives in your neck of the woods, they thought it best if he went to Southview. And there we are! That’s it! I’ll go and fetch him out. Nice lad. Very smiley.’
Just before he disappears, he waves across to one of the white-shirted staff, who promptly unlocks a tall metal cupboard and draws out a holdall wrapped in a large, clear plastic sack gathered at the top and sealed with a security tag. He dumps it on the floor at my feet.
‘Sign here,’ he says.
David is sitting on his seat, studying his mobile phone. Now and again he slowly shakes his head from side to side, smiling, and sighing and blowing air gently down his nose, as if he were reading a series of texts from someone who amused and disappointed him in equal measure.
‘Okay, David?’ I say. ‘Comfortable?’
He looks up at me, extending his smile in a blandly disconnected way, then immediately drops back into his phone.
He hasn’t said a word since we showed him onto the ambulance. As soon as we’re underway I restore his belongings to him. He watches me rip open the plastic sack and pull out the holdall, smiling the whole while. I make a joke about how impossible it is to break the police seal, but then again that’s probably the whole point. He tilts his chin up to agree, but doesn’t say anything.
As soon as he has the bag he locates his phone and checks his messages, whilst I read through his notes again: two sheets, one handwritten, one typed. The handwritten sheet is barely legible, sketching out David’s presenting condition in a scrawl of dry bullet-pointed descriptions, acronyms, arcane scores. The typed sheet is a formal follow up, referencing the legal aspects of his treatment, the steps that have been taken and must be taken. Signatures and addresses. A list of the contents of his holdall.
‘It shouldn’t take long to get back to Helmstone,’ I say to him.
He smiles again – a bland and strangely coy expression – then gently puts his phone back in its sock, and into his pocket. He folds his arms, and stares through the slatted blinds of the window.
‘Not the best view in the world from that seat, I’m afraid,’ I say.
And then I’m struck by the view he must have had from that other seat, the one he took yesterday evening, high up on the edge of the multi-storey car-park, his legs dangling over the abyss, the terrible blue canyons of the city beneath him.
He looks at me intently – and then flinches a little. For a second I wonder if it’s my comment about the view. But no. He’s already reaching back into his pocket, pulling out his phone again, intently reading the text that’s just come through.