I race across town faster than I’ve ever driven before, the back of the car kicking out as I accelerate hard down a clear stretch. The address on the screen for this cardiac arrest – surely it’s Frank’s house? I want to call Control to check, but I figure it’s best if I concentrate on the road and get there as quickly as I can. Another ambulance car appears behind me from a junction and tucks in behind. We drive in mad convoy out of town to the outskirts where Frank lives, falling onto the cars ahead of us like ravening blue devils, scattering everything left and right. We make the street and pull up outside his house. I’m dragging bags out of the boot when Malcolm says:
‘It’s his neighbour.’
There’s a porch light on and the door stands open. I leave a couple of bags for Malcolm to carry and we both hurry down the path towards it.
There’s a woman standing in the lobby, hanging on to the bottom post of the stairs. She’s so upset she can’t talk. Instead she points with her free hand, then gives a guttering sob and collapses on to the bottom step. We squeeze past her and hurry up to the bedroom.
It’s a dreadful scene. Frank is there, standing with his bare arms covered in blood, astride a woman on the floor who has suffered a catastrophic haemorrhage. Her face is a mask of blood, clots where her eyes should be, bloody matter extruding from her nose, a stream of blood running out of the side of her mouth, the tip of her tongue clamped outside of her blue lips. The double bed is liberally splattered, a pool of blood gathered in the central depression, something like finely chopped liver scattered across the bottom sheet, and a sodden trail of blood to the edge where the poor woman was dragged and dumped on the floor.
‘Close the door,’ says Frank, holding his bloodied hands and arms out to the side, touching his nose with the one clear space available to him on the back of his right hand. ‘It’s non-viable,’ he says. ‘Jesus Christ – what a mess.’
The woman is his neighbour. She was diagnosed with lung cancer about a year ago, metastases in the brain and bones. Palliative care, a DNAR in place.
‘Helen came round and got me. Apparently Jean started coughing an hour or so after she’d gone to bed...’ He pauses and we all take in the scene, imagining the horror of that.
‘Arrested soon after. Helen got her on the floor – God knows how – then came to fetch me. I didn’t know about the DNAR to begin with, so I tried a few compressions, but it was never going to work. I may as well have been working a pump handle. Poor thing. I think Helen knew it was hopeless from the start.’
We find some clear space to put our bags down.
‘Let’s do what we can to tidy things up. Then we can put her back to bed and it won’t be so hard on the family.’
We spend the next half an hour making Jean look more presentable. I use some clinical wipes to clear as much of the blood from her face and hair as I can. I talk to her as I do it – as much for my own benefit as hers.
‘There we go...’ (gently easing her tongue back into her mouth)
‘Sorry, Jean....’ (using the corner of a wipe to hook away the congealed blood from her eyes).
‘Let’s just get this... there...’ (rubbing her hair clear of blood, drying it off with a towel).
But Jean’s lungs are so corrupted, the slightest tilt of her head is enough to tip a fresh stream of blood down the side of her face. There’s nothing to be done about that, though. Our only hope is that when she’s lying on her back on the bed, she won’t be moved for a while.
Whilst I finish cleaning Jean up, Malcolm strips the bed, folding up all the spoiled bed linen and putting it in a discrete pile over by the window. He finds a couple of inco pads and we use them to wipe the parquet floor clean. Anything that’s tainted with blood we roll up and put aside with the linen.
There’s a cowbell near the headboard.
‘That was what she used to ring when she needed anything,’ says Frank, turning over the pillows to hide the stains. ‘It was their little joke. It’s such a shame it ended like this.’
When I put it aside I’m careful to hold the clapper so it doesn’t accidentally ring again.
We lift Jean up and settle her back on the bed. I clean her face one last time to catch any new spillages. We arrange her arms by her sides, and then drape one of our own blankets over her.
Frank goes downstairs to comfort Helen whilst I finish the paperwork. Malcolm calls the family undertakers and arranges for collection. We take one last look around, and then carry our bags back down.
Frank is standing in the hallway with Helen.
‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ she says.
I tell her I’m sorry for her loss – the usual awkwardness – then leave.
Outside, the night has deepened. It comes rushing towards us across miles of open field with a tail of pin bright stars. It’s exhilarating, standing here outside the house like this. Dizzying, like we’re feeling the way the world moves for the first time, the spin, the implacable momentum of it all.
I stow the bags back in the car. We chat a little, make a few cracks, talk about this and that, head back to base.