Rae reads the screen and groans.
‘Oh God! This is Anna-Beth. I can’t cope with Anna-Beth tonight.’
It turns out Anna-Beth is a frequent flyer. A woman in her early twenties, she calls about twice a month, sometimes more, always with back and neck pain. The suspicion is she’s a morphine chaser, but so far there hasn’t been any official line on that. I’m amazed I haven’t met her before, but I suppose it’s mathematics rather than luck.
‘The last time I went there we had a row. I don’t suppose you could attend this one, could you? I’ll buy you a coffee. Pleeease? I’d better just hang in the background.’
‘She’s got this hulking great boyfriend, so watch out. No doubt he’ll try to get us to carry her out as well as give her drugs.’
The boyfriend is standing waiting for us in the doorway, backlit by the strip lit hallway, the silhouette of a nub-headed bouncer with a frown like a crimp in a metal bucket.
‘Through here,’ he says, turning and leading us through.
Rae hangs way back.
Anna-Beth is lying on her back on a wide leather sofa in a onesie decorated with cute doggies in pink bows. Behind her head on a shelf is a cage of tiny orange and white rats. One of them jumps up onto a shelf and scrutinises me with the same button-eyed level of attention as Anna-Beth.
‘It’s my back,’ she says.
I put my bag down.
‘I understand this is part of an on-going problem.’
The boyfriend shuffles forwards.
‘It’s about time this was sorted out, mate’ he says. ‘It’s been going on too long. She’s in agony. Look at her.’
But in truth, Anna-Beth looks pretty comfortable.
‘What pain meds have you been prescribed?’
The boyfriend produces a shoebox and drops it on the coffee table. ‘They’re all there,’ he says. ‘And none of them even touch the sides.’
A quick glance in the box reveals an impressive arsenal of pain meds.
‘These are pretty strong,’ I say. ‘Have you taken what you should today?’
‘But you’re still in pain?’
‘Yes. And my neck – which is a new thing.’
When I ask her what advice she’d been given about managing her condition, she says they told her to stay mobile and keep taking the meds. But apparently this hasn’t worked today.
‘I phoned the out of hours number and they told me to call 999. I wouldn’t have bothered you otherwise.’
‘She puts up with a lot,’ says the boyfriend. ‘Too much, if you ask me. What are you going to do about it?’
‘Well obviously there’s not much we can do for you other than take you to the hospital. But I understand you’ve been up there a lot...’
‘Her pain meds aren’t working,’ says the boyfriend. ‘What else is she going to do?’
‘You may be right. Maybe hospital is the only option tonight. Either that or having a doctor come out to see you.’
‘The doctor won’t do anything. He’s hopeless.’
‘An out of hours doctor, not your GP.’
‘They’re all the same.’
The rats have become even more active, maybe sensing an audience, or the prospect of more food. They’ve started hopping about from shelf to swing to straw to shelf again, tumbling over and over and whipping their nude pink tails about.
‘You know what’s likely to happen at the hospital though, don’t you?’ I say, struggling to concentrate and not be drawn into watching the rats instead. ‘A long wait. Probably a referral back to your GP. Wouldn’t you rather stay at home in comfort and see how you go?’
Again – the boyfriend: ‘She’s tried that. What else can she do?’
‘Anna-Beth? This is your decision. I need to hear it from you.’
‘I’ll go to the hospital.’
‘Okay. Well – you’ve been walking around today. So we’ll take a slow walk out to the ambulance. No rush. Have you got everything? We’ll need those meds in a bag for starters.’
The boyfriend steps in massively and helps Anna-Beth move her legs off the sofa, sit up straight, stand, then walk to the door, all the while flashing us looks even sharper than the rats.
When I go to book Anna-Beth in I ask Linda, one of the Receptionists, to bring up Anna-Beth’s attendance sheet. After a few seconds it appears on the screen, a long, scrolling list of dates, all with the same complaint: back & neck pain.
‘She obviously likes it here,’ says Linda. ‘And I mean a lot.’
Back out on the truck and Rae is sitting texting in the attendant’s seat.
I chuck the clipboard onto the dash and climb in next to her.
‘You were right about the boyfriend,’ I say. ‘What a piece of meat.’
‘Oh him? That was a different one.’
‘A different one?’
‘Yeah. The other one must’ve seen the light. She can’t have had this one more than a couple of weeks. But what gets me is – he looks exactly the same.’
She finishes the text , puts the phone back in her pocket and starts writing out a new sheet.
‘Maybe there’s a website,’ she says. ‘Chuffing Great Lunks.com.’