1. The intense midday sun only accentuates the lightless interior. Betty is reclining on her bed, her wild white hair standing up from her head like strands of fibre glass so fine you can trace the curve of her head. Her skin is as white as her hair; she hasn’t been outside in three years, and there’s a dreadful, vegetable pallor to her, like the flesh of some obscure root lain aside in the dark. ‘I haven’t been taking my ferruss sulphuss’ she says. ‘I think that’s it. That and the old pipes they left in the ground when they did all that renovation.’ Betty had fainted onto the bed when the neighbours downstairs came by to see if she needed her key charging. Betty relies on them for tasks like this – the neighbours, and the Dairy Crest milkman, who delivers most things these days. ‘Bread. Biscuits. They even do fruit,’ she says. ‘I try to keep up.’ But she won’t come to hospital. ‘Too many associations,’ she says. ‘Ever since mum died there I really don’t care to go back.’ Even the doctor on the phone can’t persuade her. ‘No thank you,’ says Betty. ‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance, but I really think I’m best if I stay inside.’ The doctor says she’ll pop round later.
2. Gary is standing out on the first floor ledge that runs just below the windows. He has to hang on to some railings with one arm stretched up above his head. He changes hands now and again, swaying dangerously, glancing round at the sizeable crowd that’s gathered in the street, like an exhausted gibbon cornered by hunters. I notice one man discreetly filming the whole drama, his right hand on his young son’s head, absent-mindedly stroking the child’s hair, whilst he holds up the phone with the other. The police can’t get in to the flat. The woman who lives there won’t let them in, and some fierce dogs rage just behind the door. The fire brigade arrive. A ladder is fetched – a substantial thing, with tall legs that extend from either side of the sections to give a steady base. They set the ladder against the wall, a fireman climbs up, helps Gary down. Someone gives Gary a cigarette butt to smoke. He slumps down on the pavement to light it. ‘I need help,’ he says. ‘Seriously. I need help.’
3. There’s a small crowd standing on the beach around Angie, a middle-aged woman face down on the pebbles. Her boyfriend is holding their bags and things and standing ineffectually, perhaps even a little embarrassed, close by. ‘Angie’s a dance instructor,’ he says. ‘Mega fit. We were drinking Pimms when she took a nosedive. She been going in and out of consciousness like this. Sorry to call you out.’ Angie is drunk, made worse by a day of hard exercise and the hot weather. We thank the crowd, tell them they can go now – which they do hesitantly, as if they were all half-expecting to come with us – then help Angie across the promenade and on to the ambulance. She vomits a couple of times, but starts to improve. ‘I’ve been running marathons,’ says the boyfriend. ‘Fifty one, and I decide it’s time I got fit again. Probably meeting Angie gave me the kick-start I needed,’ he says. ‘I’ve been running with these army guys. They don’t believe in all that scientific sports hydration, all that special diet nonsense. Their mindset is just get up, get out, do the miles, get back for more beers in the evening. You’ve got to admire that spirit. And you know for a fact that if they saw a gun they’d just run at it, wouldn’t care, they’d just have to attack regardless. You’ve got to admire that bloody-mindedness, haven’t you? It’s what keeps us all safe. Mind you,’ he says. ‘None of them finished the marathon. They all failed.’
4. Rose has slashed her arm in the psychiatric hospital – a deep wound that caught an artery. The nurses are all on top of her trying to staunch the bleeding, trying to restrain Rose, who kicks out, screams, does everything she can to throw them off and run out of the room. There’s blood everywhere, great skidded puddles on the floor, soaked towels, a liberal splatter pattern across the bed linen, walls, side tables. The nurses have improvised a tourniquet; we supplement with a battle dressing of our own. It’s a struggle to get the trolley in, but we manage. She screams all the way in to hospital.
5. Another middle-aged woman is prone on the beach. She tripped over her bag of towels and sun cream, breaking her arm as she landed. Her cheek and chin are scuffed up and bloody. ‘I feel so stupid,’ she says. ‘All I wanted was a swim.’
6. A man has fallen off his bicycle and landed on his head. It takes a while to package him up. I tie a dressing around the deep laceration he has to his scalp. ‘Amish bonnet style’ I tell him. ‘Great,’ he says. The traffic is stacked up without any means of diversion. When I go back to the ambulance for some more equipment a man leans out of his window and asks me how much longer. ‘At least half an hour I should think,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry.’ The man waves his hand in the air, then loosens his tie another notch. He looks so red his head is in danger of exploding. ‘It’s not your fault,’ he says. ‘But we’re late for our luncheon appointment.’
7. To a summer language school, called to Agneta, a fourteen year old Swedish girl with abdo pain. ‘She doesn’t like the food here,’ says Hannah, one of the organisers, thumbing through her list of special instructions. ‘The past four days she’s had nothing but gummy bears and candy bars.’ Before we make it into the dormitory, Agneta is carried out by two boys, her arms around their shoulders. There’s a whole group of girls around them, crying, talking on their phones, looking around distractedly. It’s a scene of biblical proportions. Hannah shakes her head. ‘Good luck,’ she says.
8. Mrs Rawlinson is sitting on a high-backed wooden chair with her arms folded neatly in her lap, superintending her middle-aged son Simon as he rushes around the house gathering together the tissues and pills, keys and glasses, books and charts and other necessaries that Mrs Rawlinson will not be dissuaded from taking. She’s had a bad experience at the hospital, and will only agree to go in if she can do so explicitly on her terms. Sarah, the daughter-in-law, plays with her twelve-month-old son in the middle of the sitting room carpet. There’s something emphatic about the way she plays with the baby. ‘Who’s a good boy? Yes you are! Yes you are! Clever boy! Clever boy!’ snuffling her nose in his belly, tickling his feet. Mrs Rawlinson looks on from the chair. ‘Where are his shoes?’ she says.
9. We drive around the dark streets but can’t find the man covered in blood, shouting. I shine a torch out of the window as we slowly go along – a stack of bins, a bike discarded down an alley, the glittering eyes of a cat hiding under a car – but no patient. I ask a couple of people, but they haven’t seen anything. ‘Sounds dangerous, though,’ says one of them, a man with a beard as wild as Father Christmas. ‘You take care.’
The end of the shift. Another crew take on our truck and get a job straight away. I follow them out of the station in my car. They drive in front of me up to the traffic lights, and we wait there a moment. I switch on the radio. It’s on a classical station; they’re playing Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt. I brace my arms against the steering wheel and breathe deeply.
The ambulance must have got information to upgrade the job, because suddenly their lights go on, and they move out onto the wrong side of the road. I watch them as they head off, their blue lights rippling and sparkling in the soft night air. And with the music playing like this, watching them speed off into the night, suddenly I could cry with the muddle and the heat, the relentlessness, the beautiful complication of it all.