We finally spot them, a group of four, over on the cycle path that circuits the park. A man is lying on the ground, a girl kneeling beside him, two other men standing around.
Rae drives the ambulance through an access point onto the path and pulls up.
I take out my pocket torch as I walk over.
‘Hello!’ I say, affecting a breezy tone. ‘What’s happened?’
I play the beam of my torch over the figure on the ground, then squat down to take a closer look (breathing, conscious, easily roused with a gentle poke behind the ear).
‘Don’t do that,’ he says.
I look up at his friends.
- We’ve all had a bit to drink.
- None of the taxis would take us.
- Funnily enough.
- We were walking back home when Aaron started being sick and just lay down on the ground.
I turn my attention back to Aaron and ask him some questions, but he keeps his eyes shut and doesn’t respond. When I dig him behind the ear again, he opens his eyes wide, grabs my hand without hesitation: I told you not to do that.
‘Well then sit up and talk to us, Aaron. What’s wrong? You can’t very well lie here on the path all night. It’s going to start raining in a minute.’
He rolls away from me, moving his hands like he wants to pull the tarmac over him like a quilt.
I stand up, careful to avoid the puddle of vomit.
‘Are you all with Aaron?’ I ask them.
- I’m his brother.
- I work with him. We’ve got a six o’clock start tomorrow. Cheers, mate.
- I don’t know him that well.
‘Does Aaron have any medical problems? Is he diabetic?’
- No. He’s good as gold.
- Just can’t hold his drink. Can you, mate?
Aaron’s brother takes a step closer.
‘We only live a mile that way. Can’t you just give us a lift home?’
‘No, I’m afraid we can’t. We’re not a taxi. We’re an emergency ambulance.’
‘This is an emergency.’
‘No it’s not. He’s just had a bit too much to drink.’
‘What do you suggest we do then?’
‘What were your plans when you came out on the lash tonight? How did you think you were going to get home?’
‘It’s not my fault he had too much to drink.’
‘Why don’t you try getting him on his feet again and seeing if he can walk? Because if he can’t, the only thing we can offer is the hospital. Hours on a trolley, sobering up.’
They haul him upright, but he doesn’t make much of an effort to take his weight. They put him down again.
I turn to Rae.
‘Shall we have the trolley out, then?’
She starts putting the tail-lift down.
‘You shouldn’t go to hospital just because you’ve had a little bit too much to drink, but what can I say? He’ll need one of you to go with him, please.’
They start to argue amongst themselves. The brother says he’s got work in the morning. The girl says she has, too. The other guy hangs back.
‘I’ll go with him,’ says the girl, eventually.
The other two drag Aaron to his feet by the belt of his jeans and dump him on the trolley. He starts hawking and spitting indiscriminately.
‘Hey! No spitting.’ I say. ‘Do not spit on the ambulance.’
‘Don’t speak to him like that,’ says Aaron’s brother. ‘You must’ve been drunk before.’
‘I’ve been drunk, yes. But I haven’t ended up spitting everywhere.’
‘Yes you have.’
‘No. I haven’t.’
‘You should learn to speak more politely to your customers.’
I feel a sudden and overwhelming spike of temper. I turn and go over to Rae, ostensibly to help with the trolley, but really just to buy some distance.
The brother says something else. I cut him off.
‘I’m - just - not prepared to discuss this with you anymore,’ I say, choking a little on the words.
The Hulk, splitting his shirt, bunching his fists, turning to face the tanks and then coming out with some lame quote from a self-help book.
Rae gives me a worried look as I operate the tail lift; we load Aaron into the back.
‘Make sure you keep an eye on this one,’ the guy says, as the girl follows me up the ambulance steps. ‘I don’t want him mistreating my brother.’
I slam the door.
We set off.
* * *
‘Half-brother,’ she says.
‘He’s Aaron’s half-brother.’
We rattle on in silence for a bit.
‘I’m a trainee nurse,’ she says, sighing.
‘That’s good. How’s it all going?’
‘Fine. Well. You know.’
She flicks the hair out of her eyes, then leans forward to put one hand on Aaron’s shoulder.
‘I just took this other job to make ends meet.’
‘That must be tough.’
Aaron hawks and spits again. I ask him not to, but he ignores me. At least it’s mostly landed on him. I wipe his mouth with a tissue, not because I want to, but because I don’t want the girl to worry.
‘Sorry,’ she says.
‘It’s not your fault.’
Suddenly I notice a wasp crawling on the shelf beside the trolley. It must have flown in from the park whilst the doors were open.
‘Mind out. There’s a wasp,’ I tell her.
She immediately throws herself back in the seat and tucks her legs up.
‘A wasp? Where?’ and then: ‘Are you sure it isn’t a hover fly?’
‘No. That’s definitely a wasp. Why? Are you allergic? Don’t worry, though. It’s quite drowsy.’
Aaron opens his eyes and raises his head.
‘What wasp? Where?’
He flicks the back of his hand in the air, then closes his eyes again.
The wasp lurches up. The girl screams. I follow it round with my board, ready to swat. At one point it lands on Aaron’s head and I draw back the board as if to hit it. ‘Only kidding,’ I say to her, and she smiles. Eventually the wasp settles back on the side, and I smash it.
‘Sorry, wasp,’ I say. I use Aaron’s tissue to collect up the wasp pulp and drop it in the bin.
The girl relaxes in the chair again, then puts her hand back on Aaron’s shoulder.
After a while he makes to spit again.
‘Shouldn’t we...?’ she says – and I guess she wants me to put him on his side.
‘He’s not unconscious,’ I say. ‘As you can tell by his wasp reaction. I’m not worried about him aspirating.’
‘Sorry about all this,’ she says. ‘I know it’s wasting your time.’
‘You’re very good to come with him. His brother should be the one sitting there, not you. Still, at least the hospital’s only round the corner.’
We turn onto the ramp.
‘In fact – here we are.’
When Rae opens the back door I tell her I’m going to get Aaron to lie on his side. Even though he’s fully conscious it wouldn’t look good rolling into the department with a drunk lying on his back. She opens the door to show the girl out. I lean over Aaron.
‘Aaron? We’re at the hospital now. Can you just roll onto your side, please?’
He ignores me.
I dig him behind the ear to get him to respond. As soon as I do he raises up to look at me.
‘I told you not to do that,’ he says, and draws back his fist to punch me.
I grab the sleeve of his jacket and manage to guide his arm across his face. I say something like: What the fuck is wrong with you?
He stares at me, then feigns unconsciousness again.
I’m a little rough when I release the trolley, not caring how it bumps against the back-stop so the whole thing crashes and judders. Rae takes a step back. I feel weak with the injustice and stupidity of the whole thing. There’s a hot feeling in my chest like one of those glo-sticks you snap and turn red. I’d be happier if we were pitching him out into a skip, but instead we lower him gently on the tail lift and wheel him through the A&E doors.
* * *
The receiving nurse listens to the whole story, then stands over Aaron.
‘Why are you here?’ she says, turning red in the face. ‘Why have you come to my department, drunk like this? Do you know how busy we are? This is a hospital. For sick people. Not for stupid drunks. Open your eyes. Talk to me, Aaron. Aaron?’
She pinches his shoulder.
He immediately sits up and bats her arm away.
‘Will you just fuck off,’ he says, lurching to his feet.
‘Aaron! Don’t!’ says the girl.
He staggers out of the doors into the car park.
‘Sorry,’ she says over her shoulder. Then follows him.
The nurse sighs, then signs my paperwork.
‘Book him in anyway,’ she says.
Rae strokes my shoulder.
‘Oh dear!’ she says. ‘I think someone needs a hug and a cup of tea.’
‘Yeah,’ I say, rubbing my face. ‘And some careers advice.’