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.