Sunday, October 28, 2012


Ruby leads us down the hallway. An elderly Caribbean woman in a red and yellow headscarf and a coat one size smaller than her extra-large frame, she rolls from side to side, sliding each Velcro boot forwards when the hips allow, making slow progress, like some fabulously padded but poorly articulated robot.
‘Abrianna done have a laaa’t of stress lately. A laaa’at of stress. Furs’ there come the move to this place, way owut in the middle of nowhere, then you gat arl’ that mess wit’ Clement n’arl. Don’t get me started on that. So it a shay’am but ah’m nat surprised she take ap wit’ the bottle again – after tree year now, hear me? Tree. And God help us all now it come to this.’
She pushes a door open.
‘Abrianna? Ah gat them ambl’ance people wit’ me love.’
She shuffles aside and gestures to her friend Abrianna on the bed, propped up on pillows with her arms outstretched, gripping on to the mattress like a terrified grandmother on a fairground ride.
‘Oooh’ me gat it bad them shakes an ting,’ she says. ‘Oooh it bad this time, Rooby. An’ arl me had was the one bottle. Oooh Rooby.’

We take some obs, get the story.

Abrianna and Ruby have been friends ever since they came over from Jamaica in the early sixties. They lived all their life in the same street, but both have suffered poor health lately, Ruby with her hips and knees, Abrianna with her drinking. To make things worse, their families have moved to different parts of the country. Abrianna took this flat in a warden controlled block to be nearer her son, Clement; she moved a week ago, and had only just finished unpacking when it unexpectedly transpired that Clement would have to move himself, and quickly, too. Even though Abrianna had successfully finished a detox programme and been off the booze for three years, her first reaction was to reach for the wine. But the wine has failed her, pitching her headlong into an episode of tremors, sweating and hallucination. She can see creatures crawling across the dark tops of the room’s shelves and cupboards; she sweats and gasps with the sickening horror of it all.

Rae goes to fetch the trolley.


Ruby stands at the open door of the ambulance whilst we finish making Abrianna comfortable.
‘Nah don’t you be fret at arl’ about me, love,’ she says, leaning in, making a move to raise one foot up onto the bottom step, then thinking better of it. ‘Me gat to get home wit’ the taxi car, but what I do is call the hospit’all, see how you doin’, then I call Clement and tell him when I gat di information what it is. Then I come up and see you tomorrow, girl.’
‘Oooh Rooby, darling,’ says Abrianna, pushing herself up on the trolley and looking at her friend. ‘Ah’m so sorry wat I done. Will you be all-rait, chile?’
Ruby bats the air in front of her and half-turns away, as if Abrianna has just said the most ridiculous thing in the world. Then she turns back to face her friend and wags a finger in the air.
‘Sixty year we know each other, wo-man. Sixty year. Wat’ you think?’

We offer to stay with Ruby until the taxi comes, but in truth we need to get Abrianna to hospital, and the taxi shouldn’t be long. There’s a bench beneath an old cherry tree, on a D-shaped stretch of grass in front of the block. Ruby takes her pull-along suitcase and slowly makes her way over to it.

I catch one last sight of her in the mirror as I leave the driveway, sitting under the cherry tree, settling herself down, reaching up to tighten her headscarf.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

the rose-patterned handkerchief

Caitlin is sitting in an armchair with her arms folded whilst a cat equally as decrepit staggers around the carpet in front of her, like an old Victorian toy magically brought to life, its one button eye shining, the ticking showing through its fur.
‘Now, now, Teagie,’ says Caitlin, leaning forwards to reach down and swish her fingers together. ‘Don’t carry on so.’ The cat sashays arthritically to the side of the armchair, and begins rubbing the side of its head against her hand.
‘She’s upset. She doesn’t want me to go – nor do I, come to that. So that’s two of us against it, then.’
The District Nurse called us because she’s worried Caitlin’s angina has become unstable. Caitlin’s had a rough night, off and on the GTN with decreasing success. She looks pale and waxy.
‘Can’t I just stay here?’ she says, settling back in the chair. The cat sits on its haunches and rawls plaintively.
‘I’m an ex-nurse, you know. I’m grateful for you coming out to me like this, but I’m tired and I don’t want all the moving about. I’ve had a good life. I won’t make a fuss.’
We’re all sympathetic, but leaving her alone in the flat is unthinkable in her condition. Reluctantly we persuade her to come with us to hospital, on the understanding that after things have stabilised, she’ll be in a better position to arrange more appropriate care at home.
‘Well – if I must. But let me just make a few calls first, and sort something out for Teagie,’ she says. I pass her the phone. She holds the screen of it right up to her nose.


Caitlin is comfortable on the ambulance trolley. She directs her attention to the back of the truck, and the patterns of slatted light that sweep across the interior as we move and turn.
‘I was a nurse for forty years,’ she says. ‘I worked all over the world, you know. I had a grand old time, really. I have to say.’
‘What countries did you work in, Caitlin?’
‘Me? Oh – all over. Different parts of America, South America. Germany, yes. Greece. I think my favourite place was New York, though. Oh yes – I have to say. Of all the places I worked, New York was the best.’
‘Where did you work in New York?’
‘The Brooklyn Methodist. This was in the sixties, mind. There was dreadful poverty. Dreadful. Upstairs it was private, but they had the poor wards downstairs, seventy to a room. Can you imagine that? But we did what we could. There were some wonderful people there. I remember when President Kennedy was shot. I hadn’t been there a month or so. I barely knew who he was. President. Big catholic family, that was about it. But there were doctors and nurses there, fainting right away – fainting, to the floor, when they heard the news. Amazing.’
She re-arranges the blanket across her legs, and then holds her right hand up in front of her, and turns it around, examining it, like she’s surprised to see something so aged so connected with her. Then she rests it back down and looks at me.
‘I remember this one woman – god! I can see her plain as day, sitting in her chair. She was a poor Italian woman, and her husband was dying of the cancer. They’d left it pretty late like they all did, but even if they’d had all the money in the world I don’t suppose it’d have made much difference. Anyhow, she used to sit with him all day and all night, and to keep herself busy and to make a bit of extra money she had a bag of cotton handkerchiefs she used to embroider little roses on. She used to work away at these handkerchiefs, some of them she’d give away as presents to the nurses and what have you, but the rest she’d sell. Well, this particular day some important, Methodist bishop comes round, collecting for the hospital, upsetting everyone. He makes his way down the ward until he comes to the woman, and he stands there all filled with a love of himself, rattling his tin and saying she should hand over the few cents she’d made as a contribution. In my younger days I was a bit headstrong, you know. I couldn’t let things alone. So I went over to him, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked what in Holy Joseph’s name he thought he was up to? Didn’t he think he ought to leave that poor woman alone? So then of course he demands to know who I am, and I tell him exactly who I am, and he says good because now he’s going to have me put out on my ear for insubordination. I had to go up in front of the hospital board and explain what happened, of course. But I didn’t care. I told them exactly what I thought about it, and a few other things beside. I was always lucky, though. They said would I try to moderate my temper, because this sort of behaviour doesn’t do me or the hospital any kind of credit. I said fine, they let me keep my job, and I worked there quite a few years after that. I never saw your man the bishop again - or the Italian woman, come to that. Her husband died later that night. But she left me one of her rose handkerchiefs on the night desk. I’ve still got it at home. In a little frame.’
She laughs, reaches out and taps me on the knee.
‘And if you’re lucky, and it’s you again to take me home, I’ll show it you!’

Monday, October 22, 2012

turning turtle

Mrs Crayford is slumped forwards on an armchair, heaving into a bucket. Her son, Graham, a middle-aged man in a trouser/sweatshirt combo as worn out as he appears to be, stands beside her with one hand patting her on the back and one hand redundantly down by his side. When the nausea subsides, Mrs Crayford slumps backwards away from the mess; pushing it away with one hand, dabbing her mouth with a floral handkerchief with the other.
‘She’s been like this all day,’ says Graham, hurrying the bucket away at arm’s length into the kitchenette. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’
His mother is ninety-five, with about the same number of significant ailments and a wheeled suitcase of meds.
‘She can’t afford to go on like this indefinitely,’ he says. ‘She’s really not well.’
We’d have to agree. She has a temperature, her blood pressure is lower than you might expect, and she’s already suffering dehydration.
‘I think it’s a trip up the hospital,’ I tell her. She shakes her head with her eyes closed, waving the handkerchief in front of her face.
‘Come on, Mum,’ says Graham. ‘I’ll come along too. It’s an adventure.’
She shrugs, then presses the handkerchief to her mouth.

Whilst I wait for Rae to take the bags out and come back with a chair, and Graham to gather together everything his mother needs, I glance round the room.
‘Turtles,’ I say.
She raises her face to look at me.
‘You collect turtle stuff.’
‘Oh!’ Mrs Crayford waves her handkerchief dismissively and closes her eyes.
All around the room there are turtle-themed products. Carved turtles in exotic hardwoods; fabric turtles knitted, stitched, and stuffed; brass turtles, ceramic turtles ranged in graded lines along the mantelpiece; two stone turtles either side of the fireplace; a miscellany of turtle dishcloths hanging from a line; turtle cards and prints; and taking up half a wall, a 3D turtle picture – a bunch of turtles skimming the reef, the front one looming into frame with a kind of wistful resignation to its face – not unlike Graham, who emerges from the back bedroom to the right of it, two floral jackets in his hands.
‘Which one?’ he says.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

spongebob, whistling

 The night before this particular shift I cut the end of my right index finger on a piece of broken glass. In the morning when I look for a fresh plaster, the only waterproof ones left have got Spongebob Squarepants on them. I wrap one round my finger and admire it: Spongebob, whistling.  

The shift rolls out as busy as any I’ve had all year.

A man with an obstructed bowel, panting down in his crypt-styled kitchen, looking more tortured than any of the plaster saints and gold-leaf icons that line the walls.

An elderly woman with a fracture dislocation of her ankle, broken when she was walking her little Jack Russell over the park.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Remy. I took him in when my brother died.’
‘Remy’s a nice name.’
‘My brother liked a drink.’

A sixty-year-old man who has fallen over in the wet room, cracking his head on the tiled floor. A slick halo of blood around his head; a large black Labrador standing guard over him.

A twenty-year-old man, white-faced, sweating, heaving, who took sixty-four paracetamol sometime last night, and who only just mentioned it to his mother when she rang this afternoon.

A sixty-year-old woman who was getting on to the bus when the doors suddenly slammed in her face and pushed her backwards onto the pavement. She has two items of luggage – a handbag, and a three foot length of dowelling.
‘What’s the rod for?’
‘My budgerigar.’
‘Are you building him something?’
'A perch.’
‘Wow. How big is he?’
‘Well obviously I’m going to cut it.’

A fifty-five-year old woman with back pain.
‘I’m a dental nurse,’ she says. Then screams as we go over a bump.
I rest my hand on her arm and encourage her to use the gas and air.
‘I hope you floss,’ she says, when she’s recovered her poise. The gas and air lowers her voice and makes her sound gruff.
‘That’s all I hear when I go to the dentist,’ I say to her. ‘Have you flossed? But honestly – who flosses?’
‘I do. You should. Otherwise your gums will get diseased and your teeth will fall out. Show me your teeth.’
I bare them.
‘Hm. Not too bad. But they’d be better if you flossed.’
She takes another few tokes of the Entonox, just as we hit a bump.
‘And if your dentist gives you pain,’ she grimaces, ‘change your dentist.’

Then half a dozen more, merging into each other - an elderly man off his legs, shaking on the edge of his bed; a ninety-year-old-woman with chest pain, a ninety-five-year-old woman with a TIA – an exhausting, disorienting trawl through a twelve-hour day.

But after each job, when I peel off the blue gloves, it’s reassuring to see Spongebob there, still bright and yellow, still whistling happily on my finger.

I like it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

dr everard sprailes

Michael is in the sitting room, padlocked by his right arm to a high-backed wicker chair. With his left he alternates between smoking a roll-up and swigging from a quarter bottle of vodka.
‘Read my essays if you want to see how intelligent I am,’ he says, gesturing to the shelf of brightly coloured files behind him. ‘C’est n’a pas difficile.’
‘So – what’s happened tonight, Michael? Why have we been called?’
‘It was against my express wishes,’ he says. ‘I’ve studied the European Convention on Human Rights. I’ll happily talk you through it sometime, when I’m feeling better. But the thing is I’m sick – have been for some while. I’ve been speaking to Dr Everard Sprailes about it. Do you know him?’
‘Oh. Well - Dr Everard Sprailes has a PhD in Neuroscience. I would call him myself but I’m temporarily incapacitated as you can see. Dr Sprailes will be able to take a scan of my head and tell me what the problem is.’ Michael taps out some more ash and sighs. ‘And I’ll be able to have a conversation at the appropriate level. Apologies for the smoking, by the way. I know it’s self-destructive. I know I shall die of cancer one day, but at the moment I think it’s the least of my worries.’
Michael’s father has been standing out in the hallway. A tall, kindly-looking man with a hunch to his shoulders like he’s been living in small spaces too long, excuses himself into the room and sits opposite his son.
‘I require you to leave now,’ says Michael, rattling his padlock. ‘Now! I’m sorry, father. I love you and I respect you but I cannot submit to your homeopathy – I will not submit to your homeopathy – you’ve damaged me in ways that cannot be forgiven, and I want you to leave.’
The father gets up.
‘But first fetch me some tea.’
He goes out.
Michael reaches for the vodka bottle and takes a long pull from it as I speak, studying me from round the side of it.
‘Can I just say, Michael – it’s probably best if you don’t drink any more alcohol. Only – if we go to the hospital – if that’s what you decide to do – then the fact that you’ve drunk all this vodka will only delay your being assessed by the duty psych team.’
Michael slowly lowers the bottle.
‘Do you honestly think I’m not aware of these things? This bottle is filled with water. Water, with a zest of lemon and honey. Okay? But thank you for your input.’
He wrinkles his nose and lips, closes his eyes and gives his head a quick little shake from side to side.
‘Look. If you can’t get me Dr Everard Sprailes then I really don’t know what you’re here for. I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the night researching my condition on the internet and I’ve come up with some fascinating links which I may or may not share with you. I can tell you’re concerned about the padlock – here…’
He slips his hand out of the lock, which turns out not to have been fastened, unwraps it from the chair and tosses it in my direction.
‘Yes, I’m suicidal. Yes, I’m ill. But if you insist we go to the hospital then I’ll agree solely on the understanding that we contact Dr Sprailes at the earliest opportunity.’
Michael’s dad appears at the door again, with a cup of tea.
‘You!’ he shouts. ‘I thought I told you to get out.’
His dad turns to go again.
‘But you can leave the tea.’

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

some cat

Mrs Appleby was due to be picked up by a Patient Transport vehicle to go to an important review at the fracture clinic. But no-one came to the door when they knocked, or shouted for help when they listened at the letterbox; the neighbours on the right didn’t really know her, the neighbours on the left were out; Control rang Mrs Appleby’s telephone number, and the crew listened to it reverberating unanswered through the house. The next call Control made was to Mrs Appleby’s next of kin – a son, away on business. He told them this was very out of character and cause for concern.
‘He wants you to break in,’ says Control.
We’ve been prowling around the outside of the house, casing the joint, pressing our faces up to windows at different angles, shielding our eyes from the light, doing whatever we can to cheat the nets and see if anything looks amiss. But the house is tidy and quiet, exactly as you might expect a house to look after the owner had gone out.
Or not come down.
I look around.
There’s a tortoiseshell cat, calmly cleaning herself on an upturned apple crate. She stops to watch as I try some of the windows, then gives a condescending little shrug and carries on. The garden behind her is as quiet as the house – cane pyramids for the last of this year’s runner beans; an orderly bed of late flowering plants; a shed with its door half-open. I step up onto a low brick wall to get a better view, half expecting to see a pair of stockinged legs sticking out onto the path. The whole place has taken on the sharper, darker lines of a film set, variations on a theme of death and sudden collapse.
‘The toilet window’s not secured,’ says Rae.
It’s a PVC affair, a white hatch, levered at the top and opening a fair amount.
I drag a dustbin over, grasp the window ledge, and hop up so that both feet are planted either side of the bin. I pull myself up just enough to look inside, half expecting to see Mrs Appleby slumped on the toilet. But the space is clear, just the toilet seat, a metal handrail screwed into the wall either side, and a paper holder.
I pull myself up and stuff myself through the window head first, wriggling forwards as far as I can, upside-down lizard-style down the back of the toilet wall until I can just reach the handrails. As soon as I’ve got a good hold, I pull myself through, drop my legs down onto the toilet seat, and stand up.
I go through into the rest of the house.
‘Mrs Appleby?’
The kitchen is swept and clean, towels folded away, a lemony glow around the metal sink and a dishcloth hung out to dry on the mixer tap.
I can see Rae looking in through the window again, shielding her eyes to counteract the glare.
‘I’ll let you in the front,’ I mime and say.
I go through an empty lounge to the hallway.
But the front door’s locked and I can’t find a key.
Rae is round the front now, waiting on the little patch of lawn there.
‘I can’t open it,’ I shout through the door. ‘She’s definitely not down here, though. I’ll just check the rest of the house.’
I walk up the carpeted stairs.
I call ahead of me. ‘Ambulance! Hello?’ She might still be in bed – it’s about ten o’clock, but she could be having a lie-in. I don’t want to terrify her.
‘Hello? Mrs Appleby?’
All the doors on the landing are shut.
She must have gone out. Who would shut all the doors like this if they were staying in?
‘Mrs Appleby?’
I open the first.
A box-room, used for storage. A giant stuffed teddy in an I wuv you t-shirt, gawping crazily from the top of a pile of bags and boxes.
I shut the door again.
‘Mrs Appleby? Ambulance.’
I open the second door.
A bathroom.
The shower curtains are drawn.
‘Mrs Appleby?’
I pull them aside.
There’s a big garden spider in the bath, sitting by the plughole. I could swear it looks up at me with the same expression as the cat.
I let the shower curtains fall to again, and go back out onto the landing.
This third door must be the bedroom.
I knock and open it.
There’s a mound in the bed.
‘Mrs Appleby?’
But when I get closer I realise she’s arranged the pillows on one side of the bed to act as a barrier – a comforter? – and then draped the duvet over everything.
I shut the door and go back down stairs. I can see Rae pacing about in the front garden, reading something on her phone. I pull the net curtains aside and knock on the window. When she looks up I mouth she’s not here. Then I go into the kitchen, open one of the big windows and hop up onto the draining board, knocking over a bottle of dishwashing liquid with my boot.
I pause on the window-ledge, figuring out the best way to jump.
The cat studies me from the apple crate.
She makes it pretty clear what she thinks.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Mary has toppled over in the front garden, bending down to pull some weeds. Despite her age, her swollen legs and replacement hips and knee, she managed to disentangle herself  from where she fell into the hydrangea bush and crawl to her neighbour’s front door. The neighbour put a tea towel to her head and called for an ambulance. Mary has a cut above her left eye and she’s broken her left wrist, but apart from some bruising and a thorough shaking-up, she’s not too bad.
A man as ancient as Mary comes to the ambulance door.
‘Fetch my bag would you, David? It’s on top of the fridge. Make sure my phone’s in there with my address book and purse. And could you ring Ann and tell her? Only don’t lay it on too thick – I don’t want to worry her.’
‘Righto. Anything else?’
‘Could you turn the heater off? And make sure the back door’s locked.’
‘Will do. Anything else?’
‘Can you ring Jessica and tell her I won’t be there today? Tell her I’ll give her a call from the hospital when I know what’s what.’
‘Okay darling. Here. Give us a kiss.’
He hauls himself up the steps, holds on to the yellow rail, and then bobs about arthritically from one side to the other as he struggles to figure out the cleanest, least painful place to kiss her. In the end he opts for the top of her head.
As he’s shuffling back towards the house I ask Mary if David is her next of kin.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘He’s my boyfriend.’
‘Okay. Shall I put him down as your next of kin?’
‘I don’t know. We don’t live together. We’re not living in sin.’
‘Oh – don’t worry about that, Mary. I don’t think anyone minds about that stuff anymore.’
She goes to put her injured hand up to her face, then winces and slowly relaxes it back down again. Her left eye has swollen up and closed now, but she fixes me keenly with her right.
‘I kept my house and he kept his.’
‘That’s nice.’
‘We’re not getting married.’
‘I think whatever works best for you is fine.’
‘When my husband died I didn’t want to get married again.’
‘No. I can understand that. But then things change, you come up with new arrangements. It’s perfectly understandable.’
‘Because if we got married it would affect things.’
‘Sure. And I think it’s a good idea to have your own space.’
‘No. You don’t understand. If we got married I wouldn’t be able to carry on collecting my first husband’s pension.’

Thursday, October 11, 2012

the corner of the room

Sara is kneeling on the floor, with Isabel lying in a foetal tuck, her head cradled in Sara’s lap. The other two flatmates stand around, anxious witnesses, hugging themselves through their dressing gowns.
‘She’s eighteen. We all are.’
‘She’s studying science. Her boyfriend went back this afternoon.’
‘But it wasn’t like there was a fight.’
‘We cooked a roast together.’
‘Watched some telly.’
Does she have any medical problems?
‘No. Don’t think so. She never mentioned any. But we haven’t known each other that long.’
‘Since we started uni and found this flat.’
‘I don’t think she gets on all that well with her family, though.’
‘She’s estranged from them or something. Could be religious, I’m not sure.’
‘I heard a thump.’
‘We came straight in.’
‘She was lying in the middle of the floor, exactly like that, curled up on the rug.’
‘Pulling at her chest.’
Does your chest hurt, Izzy?
Sara strokes Izzy’s head. Izzy draws her knees up even closer, and presses Sara’s arm so tightly to the side of her face her knuckles whiten. Despite the bright light in the room, her eyes are wide and deep, like she’s looking past us all, straining to see something hiding just behind us in the shadows.
It’s almost like a night terror or something...
Between us we try to calm her down and form an idea about what could be wrong. It sounds as if she is making words, but it’s difficult to make them out.
What’s happened tonight, Izzy? What’s wrong?
She gasps and shakes her head from side to side, pushing Sara away one minute, the next, clinging on to her as if she were the last real person left alive in the world.
What did you say, Izzy? I couldn’t quite...
Suddenly she makes an effort to sit up.
Sara moves with her.
‘The corner of the room!’ she gasps. ‘I saw it! There, in the corner! The corner of the room!’
And collapses back down again.

I’m not the only one who sneaks a look.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Jean and Malcolm’s eighth floor flat is as boxy and bright as a modern theatre foyer, tastefully decorated with esoteric bric-a-brac, shelves of travel and art books, and several large playbills and framed posters on the wall. There’s an atmosphere of high-culture about the place, as if the whole flat had been raised up above the rest of town not by plain bricks and mortar but by the power of its artistic sensibility alone.
Jean is lying on the sofa in a cinematic attitude of distress, her towelling robe rucked up around her, one hand on her forehead, the other drooping out to the side. Her husband Malcolm leads us into the room, his big red face slack.
They’ve both been drinking, although I suspect Malcolm cleared the evidence away soon after making the call. I’ve been out to him before – non-compliance with medication, exacerbated by alcohol, emotionally volatile - but he doesn’t remember.
‘I’ve taken all my medicine, but it just hasn’t worked,’ says Jean, her eyes as wide as she can make them. ‘I’ve never known pain like it. D’you know what? Without wishing to appear dramatic, I had one of those whiteout moments, you know? That was it, whoosh, my life was over. I thought I was going to die.’ Her voice tails off into a stage-whisper; she grasps the collar of her dressing gown tightly to pinch off any further horror at the neck.
Rae examines her; I start filling out the form. Malcolm wanders around picking up things and putting them down again.
‘I bet you get fed up going to old farts like us, don’t you?’ he says.
‘No. Not at all. It keeps us in a job.’
‘I like that! You’re not denying we’re old farts, then?’
‘I think you need some help tonight.’
‘Spoken like a politician. But seriously. I’ve never seen Jean so bad as this. I wouldn’t have phoned, but I just didn’t know what to do.’
Rae calls out the figures; I write them down, along with all her other details. Jean sends Malcolm off to fetch her medication, and for the next few minutes they squabble over the random selection of boxes he wanders in and out with.
Eventually Rae comes to review the situation.
‘I don’t think the chest pain is your heart, Jean, but we’d need to run you down the hospital to be doubly sure. And I think it’d be as well to talk to a doctor there about your pain medication. Okay?’
Jean nods, then looks at her husband.
‘I’ll need my shoes, then, Malcolm.’
‘Your shoes?’
‘Yes, my shoes. Or slippers, or something. I can’t very well go out barefoot.’
‘Let me just make a few calls.’
‘Get me my shoes first. There’s plenty of time to make calls later.’
‘For god sakes, woman. Can you just… you’re going to the hospital. You’re seriously unwell. I have to make some calls. I have to tell our son. I think he has a right to know, don’t you?’
He drops down into an armchair and holds the phone close up to his face to start scrolling through the address book.
‘My shoes.’
He lowers the phone and stares across at her, his temper riding up on a flushed wave of booze. There’s a moment where I think he might actually throw the phone at his wife, but it passes, and he drops it on the coffee table instead.
‘Right. Fine. What shoes? Where?’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t come.’
She looks at me. ‘I don’t think he should come with me. I don’t want him.’
‘It’s up to you.’
‘Why shouldn’t I come, darling? You’re my wife, for Chrissakes. I’ll get your shoes.’
He wanders off into the kitchen.
‘No! In the bedroom!’
I stand up.
‘I’ll get them for you.’
‘Would you?’ She holds out her hand, rests it on mine, and looks up at me with puppy eyes.
‘Thank you,’ she whispers. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone shouted Cut! and she suddenly dropped the act and looked away.
Whilst they’ve made every effort to keep the rest of the place tidy, the bedroom is surprisingly chaotic. All their clothes are out of the drawers and wardrobes, as if someone had ransacked the place looking for something. I manage to find a pair of slip-on sandals, and take them back to Jean. She steps into them on, one hand on my shoulder, thanking me profusely. Malcolm re-emerges from the kitchen, such an artlessly innocent expression on his face it’s obvious he’s been taking a few last gulps before we leave.
‘Okay?’ he says, his lips and tongue barely in synch. ‘Okay then? Ready?’

At A&E I’m waiting with Jean and Malcolm whilst Rae goes to hand over. Jean is telling me about her son, Sam, something influential in the business field.
‘Not a bit like us,’ she says. ‘Not an artistic bone in his body. No idea who he takes after. He’s always coming over, tidying up.’ She pulls a comic kind of po-faced expression, waggling a finger at me.
‘I’ve got two girls,’ I say.
‘Really? How old?’
‘Seven and eleven.’
‘How marvellous!’
But Malcolm frowns, the sudden change in weight distribution almost pitching him head-first onto Jean.
‘Seven and eleven?’ he says. ‘Aren’t you a bit old for kids that age?’
‘Thanks, Malcolm.’
‘You’re very welcome.’
‘But you know what – I can’t decide whether it’s better to have kids earlier or later. Probably later, I think. What’s that line in that film? Something about Charlie Chaplin still having kids at seventy-three, but he just couldn’t pick them up?’
Jean reaches out and rests her hand on my arm again.
‘Do you know what we call Sam?’
‘Uh-huh. I see. Affectionately known as Hitler,’ I say.
Now it’s her turn to frown.
‘No, no,’ she says, and leans in to whisper: ‘We don’t like him.’

Monday, October 08, 2012

keeping track

It’s too late at night for the strong cabin lights. As there’s nothing to be done on the journey but chat, I put the spots on instead. I sit next to Mr Carrington on the edge of the three pools of light that drop from the roof down the middle of the cabin, the last one illuminating the things he has put on the trolley in front of him: a lightweight waterproof jacket, a mobile phone, and a book on the development of radar in World War Two.
‘That looks interesting,’ I say. ‘A work thing, or hobby?’
‘A bit of both, actually. I’ve had a long connection with the air force as a photographer of planes, but then principally as an air traffic controller. I’m just finishing off some research into the early use of radar.’
‘You know, that reminds me of something I haven’t thought about in a long time. I was brought up in this little town called Wisbech, out in the Fens.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard of it.’
‘There was this guy who used to run an electrical repair shop there, just off the market. Mr Cox. Completely unassuming, you know. Bald head, brown overalls, round glasses. A lovely guy, quietly working away in this tiny little shop with dusty stuff for sale in the window and radios and boxes of bits on the shelving behind him. It didn’t matter what you brought in - a crappy old Pifco torch or a broken radio – he’d always be able to get it going again. It was only years later I found out he’d been some kind of commando during the war. There was a raid on a German radar installation in France...’
‘Bruneval! Yes. Well – famous, of course. They went over, overthrew the garrison, came back with the radar under one arm and a German technician under the other. Amazing! And this Mr Cox, he was one of that bunch?’
‘You’d never guess to look at him. But yeah – a genuine hero.’
I think of Mr Cox in the back of the plane, a parachute strapped over his overalls, the jump light reflecting in his little round glasses.
‘So – air traffic controller? That sounds pretty stressful.’
‘It had its moments.’
‘How on earth do you keep track of everything?’
‘It’s a particular skill. Multi-tasking, on a massive scale. In four dimensions, too – time, distance, height and so on. You have to hold lots of information in your head at one time, always making sure there’s sufficient capacity in the system for any erm.. unscheduled events.’
‘I bet you’re a good chess player.’
‘Chess? Not really. Crosswords, on the other hand...’
‘So how do you select potential candidates?’
Air traffic controller. Maybe I should send off for an application form – except they probably work nights, too.
‘It’s not easy. There are psychometric tests, of course, questionnaires, but none of them tell you all that much. It’s more the case that once you’ve been doing the job for a while, you get to recognise those characteristics in other people that might make them a successful operator. It’s hard to explain – because there’s no set look. When I think back to my time in the tower, the two people who stand out as being particularly good were nothing at all like each other. One was a bank manager type, very dour, and the other was this tall Scot with a bizarre sense of humour. You couldn’t get two more different people, but they both shared the same facility – for moving planes about.’
He folds his arms.
‘Now you’ve done it,’ he says, after a while. ‘You’ve got me reminiscing.’
He yawns. 
‘What time is it?'
‘Four o’clock.’
I yawn, too.
We pass on through the night, one of hundreds of call-signs, creeping across a controller’s screen.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

gap year

The door to one of the Regency town cottages is standing open, the light from inside illuminating the scene – a guy lying on his side on the paved flags of the courtyard, half a dozen people standing round. There’s a response car parked up nearby; Rae pulls up behind it and we climb out to take a look.
It’s Callum, a paramedic I haven’t seen in a while, a nice surprise.
‘Hey Callum! How are things, man?’
‘Yeah, good. Good.’
We shake hands over the boy on the floor, who vomits copiously, adding to a mess of the same that stinks up his hair, face, hands, clothes.
‘Euw! So - how’s it working out at the new station?’
‘Not bad. Not bad, thanks. I miss it here though.’
Yeah, right.’
The patient’s friends laugh around us; I smile and say hi and hello to them all, conscious of the fact that I’m probably over-playing the sang-froid, Saturday night game-show schtick.
‘I’m guessing you do this a lot, then?’ says one girl, shivering, and clutching her jacket collar more tightly around her as the rain drifts down more insistently.
‘A fair bit. So – what’s the story with this one?’
‘Lucas, nineteen. He’s been drinking a lot tonight, starts to feel wobbly, his friends bring him outside to freshen up in the air. Starts to collapse, they put him in the recovery position where you see him today. No drugs, is that right?’
His friends shake their heads and say the usual things.
‘Only we don’t care,’ says Callum. ‘We’re not the police. We just need to know the facts so they can treat him at the hospital.’
No drugs.
‘Rousable. No PMH to speak of.’
I lean in and prod Lucas behind the ear.
‘Hell-ooo? Lucas?’
He bats at my hand with his own horror-version.
‘Dear, dear.’
‘It’s a shame, all right.’
The music from inside turns up a notch.
A guy steps forward, introduces himself as Alex, an old school friend of Lucas.
‘I’m in my first year at uni here and Lucas came up to visit. He’s miles from home.’
‘So it’s looking like a trip up the hospital to sober up. Can you come with us,  Alex?’
‘Yes – of course.’
‘We’ll take care of him.’
Callum and Rae fetch the trolley. Fortunately Lucas is slim; between us we have enough hands to lift him off the floor without getting any vomit on us. We set him on his side and load him onto the vehicle. With the noise of the lift going up, Lucas draped over the trolley, our happy banter, I’m conscious we look and sound more like waste disposal contractors than paramedics – but that feels about right. I lay a contingent pattern of  inco pads on the floor around the head-end of the trolley, and then get Alex to sit on a chair with a vomit bowl ready.
‘No doubt see you later, Callum.’
‘No doubt.’
We head in.


‘So. Are you old school friends then?’
‘Yes. But I came up to uni and Lucas took a gap year.’
We both look at him, groaning on the trolley.
‘What are you studying?’ I ask Alex.
‘Physics,’ he says.
‘Oh yeah? My brother studied physics.’
‘Wow!’ says Alex. ‘It’s a great subject.’
He fiddles with the vomit bowl as he talks, turning it round and round.
‘I don’t know what I want to do with it yet, but I’ve got plenty of time. There are so many fascinating developments, so many areas you can go into.’
‘It is an amazing field. My brother – he always wanted to be an astronaut, but he had terrible problems with his eyes so it was never really on the cards.’
Alex frowns. ‘That’s so frustrating,’ he says, ‘when a physical disability gets in the way like that. But what can you do? You just have to accept that that particular avenue is closed off to you, and move on.’
‘Exactly – which is what he did. He worked in the defence industry for years, then ended up working for the European Space Agency, on a satellite programme.’
‘That’s incredible. I’d love to do something like that.’
I nod, like it was me who did all that and not my brother.
‘What does he do, exactly?’
‘Oh. Well. He’s explained it plenty of times, but I never really understood. Software engineer, something like that.’
Lucas groans some more and Alex readies himself with the vomit bowl. Nothing comes out, the moment passes, he relaxes back again.
‘I mean, take the Higgs-Boson,’ he says, holding up the bowl like he was going to scoop one out of the air. ‘Think of all the applications coming out of that.’
I look at the bowl.
‘I must admit I have no idea how my mobile phones work, let alone the God Particle. But yeah – an incredible time in physics.’
The ambulance rocks from side to side. Lucas opens his eyes a fraction, and flops an arm off the trolley.
‘What was he drinking?’
‘Whisky of some sort. I didn’t see exactly. I’m guessing approximately twenty one units.’
‘Okay.’ I write that down.
‘And definitely no recreational drugs?’
Alex shakes his head.
‘Lucas owes you,’ I say to him. ‘Taking care of him like this.’
Alex smiles and shrugs.
‘Seriously. It’s a really good thing you’re doing for your friend, tonight. I hope he appreciates it.’
‘How long are we going to be up there?’
‘A while. Four hours, probably more.’
Alex grimaces, but then settles back.
‘Oh well,’ he says. ‘What’s time?’

Friday, October 05, 2012


The A&E department is brightly, happily, deliciously empty. A hundred miles of vacant trolleys extending from the atrium along the main corridor past the second isolation room out towards the sluice. Just a couple of occupied cubicles on this side, discreet conversations, contented sounds. And nurses, doctors, consultants, HCAs, cleaners, porters – everyone calmly fulfilling their roles, one thing at a time, as easy in their day as uniform models in a catalogue. I walk up to the desk, place my board on the counter and look around, wondering if I’ll ever see it like this again.
A senior matron has followed me there. She has a check-shirted man in tow - a photographer, judging by the fat and expensive-looking camera he has round his neck. The matron stands next to me and immediately has everyone’s attention.
‘Mind if we take a few shots of the department?’ she says.
It so completely fits with the holiday mood of the place, there is almost a burst of studio laughter and a round of applause.
Only if you get my best side.
He’s a photographer, not a magician.
I need something to do with my hands.
There’s no answer to that.
Just look busy, people.
Thank god you weren’t here yesterday.
The matron absorbs all the comments with a strangely glittering expression, something like a fox in a chicken coop. When the hilarity subsides, she speaks to the charge nurse.
‘Actually he’s from the coroner’s office. We need to establish the sight-lines from the desk to this bed here.’
The charge nurse blanches.
‘How do you want me in the picture?’ she says, picking up the phone and sitting up straight. ‘Is this all right?’
The matron raises her eyebrows.
‘I don’t know. Alert would be good,’ she says.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

the dog stops

A poorly-lit, crescent-shaped driveway, sloping gently round and down by the side of an elegant municipal office. The chestnut trees planted around the garden arch wetly overhead, back-lit in orange from the neighbouring street. The rain has stopped, but its echo continues in a fall of water from the saturated canopy. A dog is barking insistently somewhere – that, and the ambulance and police car parked a little further ahead, tells us this must be the place. We turn our vehicle around for a quick getaway, and walk down to meet the crew.
Finally we see the dog, a black Staffie, wearing a large hooped collar, tied off on some railings. At the fullest stretch of the lead, it barks once every couple of seconds, its fat head jerking up and its body recoiling like a howitzer shelling the area with alarm.
‘Poor thing’ I say as I pass. It doesn’t even look up.
There are two drug users in respiratory arrest – lying on their backs sneaker to sneaker in the arched doorway of a cellar entrance. The two paramedics from the original truck have had to split up, one per patient. As soon as we say hello they ask if we’ll take the other.
‘That security guard found them when he came out to investigate all the barking.’
‘Watch out for needles. It’s a fucking spike-fest round here.’
I see one. I pick it up and shove it point down into the raised flower bed behind us as I go over to take over the bagging of our patient. I press behind his ear and above his eye to stimulate a response, but he’s way too flat. Behind the mask his face shines dully in the artificial scene light, like it’s been roughly pressed out of clay. He breathes with me as I press the bag, timing it to my own pattern. Rae preps the Narcan. We spend the next quarter of an hour or so monitoring his progress, bringing him up. Finally, after the third shot, he starts to show signs. Groaning, he makes a sudden effort to sit up, blindly batting a hand around his face trying to locate the airway. I pull it out for him, and he makes a graa-cch kind of sound, like a man fighting his way out of a swamp. There is a dark patch of liquid spreading around his jeans; at first I think he’s been incontinent, but when he sits up some more I realise it’s actually beer.
‘Wha-tha fok…’
‘It’s the ambulance. You stopped breathing. How are you doing?’
His head seems too big for his neck; it flops around as he tries to locate the mechanism for keeping it up and making words.
His mate still hasn’t come round sufficiently so the other crew are loading him on the trolley. Rae helps them, whilst I watch our guy.
‘You’re the second heroin OD I’ve done in a couple of days,’ I say to him, retrieving the needle from the flower bed and slotting it into our sharps bin. I stand up and shake the cramp out of my legs. ‘I think there must be some strong gear going round.’
He leans back against the brick wall and makes a face.
‘What do you mean, gear?’ he says. ‘We were surprised, yeah? This guy comes over. He jabs me and my mate in the leg. Next thing, you’re fucking having a go.’
‘You don’t have to worry about a story, mate. Honestly – we don’t care. It makes no difference to us.’
‘I’m telling you. This guy – I’ve never seen him round here. He followed us. Next thing you know – zup! Me and my mate. Both of us. In the leg. Right there.’
‘Listen. The Narcan’ll wear off pretty quick. I think you should come to hospital to be monitored. Just to be safe.’
‘Nah, mate. Fuck that. Hospital? Nah.’
He tries to stand up, and I have to grab his collar to stop him falling backwards into the bushes.
‘You’re not in any state to do much else, mate.’
He’s leaning away from me and I’m holding on to him.
There’s a pause, and suddenly I’m looking over my shoulder before I really know why.
It’s the dog.
The dog has stopped barking.
I’m holding on to the man’s collar, he’s leaning away from me, and the dog is there, suddenly quiet, scrutinising me from the railings. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

no more moderation!

I've decided to take off the comments moderation feature - at least for the rest of the month, to see how it goes. So from now on, your comments should appear straight away.

copyright Warner Bros Animation
The only reason I was moderating comments was to try to cut down on the amount of spam (quite a lot, as it goes). I should be able to delete the spam when it crops up, but it does mean that stuff I haven't approved may pop up from time to time - so apologies in advance.

Like I say - we'll see how it goes!

Thanks again for all your comments. Very much appreciated.

why tell Charlie?

As hostels go it slots right in, the only thing to distinguish it from the rest of the Georgian buildings in the crescent being a computer screen and cork notice board visible through the front window. Charlie, the duty manager, is waiting for us under the portico on the black and white tiled steps, smoking a cigarette and glancing anxiously behind him. He waves as we pull on to the forecourt and dabs out his fag amongst the geraniums in the box to his right.
‘Thanks for coming,’ he says, rubbing his chin. ‘Josh’s been staying with us a couple of weeks. He’s just come in and asked me what he should do about the overdose he’s taken. So of course I say what overdose and he says a couple of boxes of paracetamol. So I say for a start I’ll be calling the ambulance. But then he starts getting edgy, saying he doesn’t want to go to hospital. I explained that I couldn’t let him back in the hostel after all those pills, but he’s still being difficult. I’m on my own here tonight. I can’t just let him back to his room and keep an eye on him. It’s not that kind of place. Anyway - see what you think. He’s in the hallway. I don’t really know Josh that well. He’s only been here a couple of weeks.’

The wide, black door’s standing half open. Charlie goes ahead of us.
‘It’s the ambulance, Josh.’
The hallway has been partitioned off, a security door with meshed glass in front of us controlling access to the rest of the property, and a double-locked office to our left with a serving hatch cut into it. Josh is standing in the corner over by the security door. A tall, stringy kid in his early twenties, he leans up against the wall with his jeans at half-mast, a track-suit top with the sleeves bunched up at the elbow. His hair is cut in a feathery black crop, strikingly contrasting with the pallor of his skin. There’s something curiously inert about him, every aspect; even his clothes can’t seem to keep a grip.
‘Hi Josh. My name’s Spence. We’ve got Rae here, too. How are you doing?’
‘What do you mean, how am I doing? I’m tired and I want to go to bed.’
‘We understand you may have taken an overdose tonight.’
He doesn’t respond.
‘Some paracetamol? Is that right?’
‘I didn’t call you.’
‘No – I think Charlie did. Charlie called us because you’d asked him about this overdose, and really – what else can he do?’
No response.
‘How many paracetamol have you taken, Josh?’
He shrugs. ‘Thirty-four or so. Two packets. Something like that.’
‘That’s a significant amount, Josh.’
He looks at me, then without any change in expression, turns to look at Charlie. It’s a strangely absent gesture, his black eyes flat, without expression.
‘I want to go to bed. Just let me in so I can go to bed.’
‘Can’t do it, mate. Sorry.’
‘I just want to go to bed.’
I hug my clipboard.
‘Why don’t you come out with us to the ambulance, Josh? We need to take you up the hospital to get this overdose treated – and get you someone to talk to you about the reasons why you did it? Yeah? Come on. Charlie can’t just let you go back to your room, can he? Not after what you told him.’
‘I just want to go to bed. You have no legal right to stop me.’
‘Can’t do it, Josh,’ says Charlie.
‘I’ll sleep rough then.’
Charlie shakes his head. ‘Come on, mate. Please can you just go with the ambulance people here? It’s the only sensible thing. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I just said yeah, fine, whatever – would I?’
Josh suddenly pushes himself upright and strides past us out of the lobby, down the steps and out onto the street. Rae goes after him a little way, but ultimately all we can do is watch him hurry off down the road.
‘Can I use the phone in your office, Charlie? Have you got his details? I’ll get the police involved, pass a description. They should probably be told.’

I’m in the office a little while; Rae has gone back out to the ambulance to sit in the cab and text.
Whilst I’m on the phone to Control telling them what’s happened, the front door opens again and Josh walks in. Charlie stands at the door to the office to talk to him. Josh starts shouting, repeating the same thing over and over again: Let me in. I want to go to bed. Let me in. You have no right.
‘He’s come back,’ I say to Control. ‘As you can probably hear.’
Charlie tries to reason with him, but Josh kicks the door.
I’ll smash it down if you don’t open it. Now!
‘Can we have the police along, please?’ I ask Control, and ring off.
Rae has followed Josh in. Between us we have him penned in the corner by the security door. His brief burst of violence subsides, and he assumes the same position as before.
‘I’ve called the police,’ I say to him.
‘They can’t touch me.’
‘Josh – all we want is for you to be well. You’ve taken a dangerous overdose of paracetamol. You can’t just go to bed and forget about it.’
‘Why not? It’s my life.’
‘What sort of people would we be if we just left you to it?’
No response.
‘Why did you tell Charlie about the overdose, Josh? You could’ve just stayed in your room, swallowed the pills and no-one would’ve been any the wiser.’
‘Let me in,’ he says, without looking up. ‘I want to go to bed.’
‘I think you told Charlie because unconsciously or not you wanted someone to know and do something about it. Which is good! That’s a good sign, Josh. That’s why we’re here. To help get something done.’
‘Let me in. I want to go to bed. You’ve got no right to stop me.’
‘It’s a significant overdose, Josh. You could seriously damage your liver. It could kill you.’
‘You’ve got no proof I took anything.’

I step outside. Rae takes my place. Maybe she can find a way to persuade him.
The police arrive. I explain the situation at the bottom of the steps.
‘I don’t know there’s much we can do,’ says the first officer. ‘If he’s competent, he’s within his rights.’
‘I know,’ I say, glancing up at the door just to check we’re not being overheard. ‘To be honest, when he absconded I thought that would be it, but now he’s come back and just keeps saying he wants to go to bed. Obviously Charlie the warden can’t let him through, so we’re a bit stuck. He’s already threatened to kick the door down, and I think there’s a real chance he’ll get violent.’
‘Let’s have a look, then.’
We walk back up the steps together.

The scene is exactly as it was – Josh, leaning up against the wall, Rae to one side and Charlie to the other.
‘Hello, Josh,’ says the first officer.
Josh folds his arms more tightly. ‘You can’t lay a finger on me. I know my rights. I didn’t call the ambulance. I don’t want you here. I’m tired and I want to go to bed.’
The police officer speaks to him patiently, evenly, each phrase ending with a gentle ok-ay, and then a pause to judge the effect. The second officer seems edgier, offering up a tougher kind of logic whenever the moment allows. Between the five of us we have most angles covered – medical, social, safety, legal – but nothing has any effect.
‘You can’t touch me,’ says Josh. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’
‘I understand you kicked the door and used a threat of violence against Charlie here. Is that right?’
‘Let me in. I want to go to bed.’
‘Of all the things that might happen tonight, that is definitely not one of them,’ says the second officer.
‘Come on,’ says the first. ‘O-kay? Let’s go outside and talk about it there. You can’t stay here tonight, and we can’t stand here talking to you all night.’
He puts a hand out to guide Joshua to the door. Joshua lashes out. The two officers grab his arms and they all wrestle to the floor.
‘I’m arresting you for breach of the peace,’ says the first officer, struggling to speak whilst he grapples for control of Josh’s left arm. Despite his slim build, Josh is surprisingly strong. He screams and swears, kicking his legs, twisting and butting his head – anything to get a purchase, an angle. Charlie backs away into the office, appalled. In the confined space of hallway the whole business is lumpen, messy and violent. The three of them are squashed up in a heap between a radiator and the security door. We do what we can to help, holding down Josh’s legs, whilst the first officer eventually manages to free up a hand to put out a call for back-up on his radio.


At the hospital, Josh is handcuffed to a trolley with the two police officers standing right and left. He has resumed his inert posture again, completely uncooperative, sullen and withdrawn. I can tell he’ll be refusing any treatment, all the while looking for a chance to escape.
‘Sorry to bring him in,’ I say to the charge nurse. But she smiles, seems quite sanguine about it.
‘If he doesn’t want help, we can’t force him,’ she says.
‘No. I don’t suppose we can.’
 ‘He’d have turned up eventually, after a day or so, with the abdo pain, the vomiting, the jaundice...’
She signs my board with a flourish.
‘Thank you,’ she says.
Whilst I’m in the reception office, photocopying my sheet, I try to imagine standing in the hallway back at the hostel, watching Josh wander through the security door and off to bed, sleepily tidying away the scattered blister packs into the bin.  
I drop the copied sheets into the tray, and head back out to the truck.