He should be easy to spot.
Male, 50. Chest pain. Beneath the town clock.
And there he is, a hunched figure on the shallow steps around the base.
I pull the car over half on and half off the pavement, and leave it running for a quick getaway.
There is a group of clubbers sitting on one of the benches in the little landscaped island of the square. I nod hello, expecting them to point or say something, but they ignore me.
John is so fattened out by all his layers he looks like some kind of spaceman – except, instead of a shiny white suit and survival pack he has a shiny black parka and carrier bag.
‘Hiya mate,’ he says, looking up as I approach. He keeps one hand clutched to the centre of his chest, the other on the stretched handles of the bag.
‘How are you doing?’
‘Not good, mate. Not good.’
‘What’s happened, then?’
‘I don’t know. I got this pain in my chest, like. Right here. And it hurts like a bastard when I cough.’
It’s been a busy night. I know that if I wait here for an ambulance the hands on the clock above us will have travelled all the way round before anything pitches up. I can’t do an ECG on the street or in the back of the car. So I decide to take him in myself.
‘Are you okay sitting in the front?’
‘No worries, mate. Sorry to bother you. It wasn’t me that got you out.’
‘Oh? Who did?’
‘Well I coughed and the pain was so bloody sharp I kind of doubled over. Some kids were going passed and I think one of them called you.’
When he’s in the front and I’ve climbed into the driver’s seat, I grab the clipboard off the dash. When I ask him his address he hesitates, then gives me the name of a road. I can tell he’s made it up, so instead I leave that field blank. A couple more questions and we’re good to go.
‘Sorry to mess you about,’ he says. ‘I mean, I’m fifty years old, for Chrissake. I should be big enough and ugly enough to take of myself.’
Then he coughs. It sounds like his lungs are filled with tacks.
At the hospital, the foyer is as crowded as ever. I help John into a chair and do some basic obs there whilst we’re waiting for the triage nurse. We’re surrounded by the usual casualties of a weekend night – overdoses, drunks, somebody in a vacuum mattress waiting for a log-roll, an abdo pain. It’s a disparate catch, like a trawler has passed over the town and dragged up a dozen cases for sorting at the dockside.
Eventually, Raoul the triage nurse makes it round to us. Raoul needs a break – a sabbatical, actually. He’s doing that thing where he seems to be listening but he’s actually only ten percent there. The majority of his brain is somewhere else, scanning the scene around him, an agitated snow globe of beds, times, x-ray requests, in-comings, out-goings. It’s an impossible, thankless task. I don’t know how he stays as calm as he does.
He listens to the story of John, distilling it down to a scrawl of numbers, acronyms, abbreviations. After the age and date of birth, he comes to the address.
‘And where do you live?’ he says.
‘What number Whiston Road?’
‘Thirty Whiston Road?’
‘Something like that.’
‘What do you mean, something like that?’ Raoul sighs and carries on looking around. He talks without malice, and without even seeming to address anyone in particular. It could almost be part of an internal monologue, the story of his night, which is the story of the continuing struggle of the department to keep its head above water.
When John doesn’t say anything, Raoul directs his attention back to him.
‘Come on. You must know your address,’ he says, sighing and tapping the form with his pen. He looks at John, hunched forward on the wheelchair, gripping on to his carrier bag, really seeing him for the first time.
‘NFA,’ John says quietly. ‘Just put NFA.’
Raoul hesitates. He writes NFA, then clicks his pen shut.
‘Sorry John,’ he says. Then brightens again. ‘We’ll sort you out with a bed just as soon as we can.’ He touches him lightly on the arm. And hurries away.