Five o’clock in the morning, and dawn’s a spill of ink. Clubbers clacking and scraping in the direction of taxis, or anything that looks like a taxi.
There’s a guy standing outside The Spur Hotel, his hands planted deep in the pockets of his parka. I nod to him as we pull up, but he doesn’t respond.
‘Did you call the ambulance?’ I ask him as I climb out.
‘Me mate? No mate?’ His face cracks into a dreadful, stumpy grin. ‘Why – someone dying?’
‘Well I couldn’t possibly say.’
He watches me as I pull out my bag; Rae locks the vehicle behind us as we go up to the revolving doors. I glance behind as we push through; he’s still watching.
Our boots don’t make a sound on the thick blue carpet. We cross the vestibule, walk up a shallow staircase and approach the reception desk, spot lit at the far end of the atrium. The hotel rises up around us like a renovated prison – layers of identical rooms forming the four sides of the atrium, with the dining room and bar in the middle. The silence is overwhelming, accentuated by the empty dining tables all dressed for breakfast, the jardinières, the fans, the fish tanks.
A red-eyed, puffy faced receptionist is waiting for us at the desk, his arms spread left and right along the desk as if he’d been flat on his face when the call came through.
‘Room two three two,’ he says. ‘Come. I show you.’
‘So what’s the story?’
‘Well – a man and his girl, they got back from club about an hour ago. He was propping her up, you know – like this?’ He smiles at me, does the mime. ‘I thought it was the vodka.’ He shrugs. ‘It happen lot.’
The lift puts us out on the fourth floor, an identical floor to the one we’d just left. Without even looking up, the receptionist pads ahead of us along an endless corridor, turns at the end, then along another, turns at the next end, then two doors down stops and swipes the lock.
‘Hello ambulance peoples’ he says, rapping with his knuckles on the door before he opens it.
Lying on the tiles of the en suite bathroom is a young woman, her head underneath a melamine shelf containing twin sinks and a dressing mirror. Kneeling by her side is a heavily built guy in his twenties.
‘That’s fine now,’ I say to the receptionist, who is soaking up the scene from over my shoulder. ‘We’ll let you know if we need anything else.’
‘Okay, my friend,’ he says. He nods to the boyfriend, and quietly withdraws.
‘So what’s been going on?’
Craig tells us what happened. They’d come away for the weekend. Been to a club. Not drunk all that much. Not taken any drugs. Natalie had become anxious and wanted to leave. She’d collapsed on the bathroom floor when they got back.
Natalie starts to hyperventilate, but in a non-committal, stagey kind of way. I coach her resps back.
‘Have you ever had a panic attack before?’ I ask her. She nods. ‘Okay. So you’ll know how over-breathing can make you feel.’ She nods again.
In between encouraging the breath control, I ask Craig about Natalie’s medical history.
‘I wouldn’t know,’ he says. ‘I’ve only known her a month.’
Natalie lifts her head.
‘You’re going to dump me,’ she says.
‘I’m not going to dump you. Don’t be silly.’
But Natalie drops her head back to the floor and starts breathing quickly again – and too soon after for it to be at all credible, passes out.
‘She’s not unconscious,’ I say.
I show him how I can tell.
Over the next half an hour, and despite all our efforts, Natalie carries on as before, small bursts of hyperventilation followed by unconvincing faints. Rae and I play Good Cop, Bad Cop, but nothing works. We try to encourage Natalie to stand up and move to the bed where she’ll be more comfortable, but Craig intervenes, physically picks her up, carries her through.
‘Watch your back,’ I tell him.
He shakes his head and staggers with her into the bedroom. As soon as she lands on the bed she throws herself flat and pretends to pass out again.
‘Why’s she doing this?’ he says, red in the face.
‘I don’t know. Natalie? Come on. Let’s sit you up and have a chat about how you’re feeling. We’ve just got to reassure ourselves that everything’s okay, then we can leave you alone.’
She sits up and stares at me for a moment.
‘Natalie? How are you feeling? How can we help?’
She holds out her hand to Rae without taking her eyes off me.
‘You don’t like me, do you?’ she says.
‘It’s kind of immaterial whether I like you or not, Natalie. We’re here to help and that’s what we’re trying to do.’
Suddenly she jumps up and runs out of the room.
Craig follows her, shouting over his shoulder: ‘I’ll be okay from here in, guys. Thanks for your help.’
We stand outside the room and watch Natalie run down the corridor, followed by Craig. Right at the end, where the corridor turns to the right, she stops, and after hesitating a moment, neatly puts herself on the floor.
Wearily, we walk up to meet them.
Craig is kneeling beside her, stroking her hair; amazingly, he nods at us in a friendly way.
‘All right?’ he says.
I check Natalie over.
She’s feigning unconsciousness again, only coming out of it to look up at Rae and say: ‘I like you. You’re all right.’ Then lapsing back into a little fast breathing again.
‘Try to encourage her back to the room, Craig. I think you’re doing a great job. But obviously she can’t stay like this all night. The hotel security might get involved. I don’t think Natalie needs to go to the hospital, but if anything changes later or you become concerned, you can always call us again.’
‘Thanks,’ he says. ‘Sorry to have wasted your time.’
‘It’s no bother.’
We leave them to it.
Back down in the atrium, the receptionist has resumed his position on the desk.
‘What was matter?’ he says, looking up from an early edition of the newspaper. ‘Vodka?’
‘She’s not too bad,’ I tell him. ‘Lying in the corridor at the moment, but hopefully they’ll be back in their room soon.’
‘Okay chief. I keep eye on this business.’
Back outside on the pavement, the strange guy hasn’t moved.
‘No good?’ he says. ‘Nothing doing?’
‘Another life saved.’
He watches us stow the bags and get back in the cab.
‘One month in,’ says Rae. ‘Good god. If I was him I’d be running in the other direction.’
‘Dumped,’ I say. ‘Definitely dumped.’