The house is so crapped up it would take a team of grim, boiler-suited operatives a month to clean it, blasting their way down through the layers of plastic bottles, beer cans, fast food cartons, freebie newspapers, court injunctions, needles and crack pipes, all compressed in datable strata if they had the time or the inclination to look. The safest and quickest option, though, would be to nuke the plot from outer space, but our mission this morning is simpler: we have to find a path through to the lounge, to Gail, a young woman of twenty-five who called to say she can’t breathe.
Gail has the long, straggly hair and abstracted look of Venus in that painting by Botticelli – except instead of pearlescent skin she has the scabbed and blotchy face of a crack addict; instead of the voluptuous bodies of attendant nymphs and winds she has a couple of addled friends blowing smoke, and she rises not from a giant sea shell but a shit-brown sofa.
‘I’ve had this bad tooth for a week,’ she says. ‘The dentist said I had to make an appointment for a root canal and he only gave me a temporary filling. That broke, so I took thirty ten milligram MST to help with the pain, and a few co-codamol and aspirin. Unfortunately I’ve got this sensitivity to opiates, yeah? And I’m lactose and wheat intolerant. So I took a load of anti-histamines and went to sleep, and then when I woke up this morning I couldn’t breathe. And even now I can hardly get my breath. I feel all weak and dizzy, and I’m covered in sweat.’
‘The good news is that you can talk in complete sentences…’
‘But I can’t get my breath, you know? And that’s pretty serious. Wouldn’t you say?’
‘Your SATS are perfect, Gail, so even if you think you can’t get your breath, there’s plenty going in. From here I can’t hear any kind of wheeze, so I’m not worried about that.’
‘You’re not worried I’m struggling to breathe?’
‘Like I say, your SATS are fine. What I am worried about is the thirty MST you took. That’s quite a big overdose, and that’s probably why your breathing went off earlier. Why did you take so many?’
‘I told you. I had toothache. And I feel really….’
Her head lolls forwards, then back up again.
‘What?’ she says.
‘Let’s go out to the ambulance and do all our checks there, Gail.’
‘My blood sugar’s low,’ she says, suddenly reaching a hand out to a plate of cold, plain pasta shapes splodged with tomato sauce. She fingers one free of the pile and pushes it into her mouth.
‘Are you diabetic?’ I ask.
‘No. But I suffer with low blood sugar sometimes.’
‘Well that’s something else we can check out on the truck. Come on. Get your stuff together. Keys, phone, money to get back.’
‘And I’m allergic to hospitals,’ she says. ‘Only kidding.’
‘Do you take any recreational drugs?’ asks Rae, glancing down at a crack pipe.
‘What do you mean? You think everyone’s a druggie just because they live different to you?’
‘We don’t care what you do or don’t take, Gail – we’re not the police. But we do need to know all the facts so we can treat you properly.’
Gail notices the crack pipe, too.
‘That’s not what you think it is,’ she says. ‘We had the plumber in and he left some gear lying about.’
‘Oh. OK. We’ll see you out in the ambulance then.’
‘Can I take my plate of pasta? I don’t want my blood sugar to crash.’
‘No. Leave it here. If your blood sugar’s low, we can deal with it some other way.’
Gail turns to one of her friends. ‘Stick some Pringles in a bag, can you?’
We pick our way back outside.
* * *
It’s a pleasure to stand out in the yard. Even though it’s as trashed as the house, at least we can look up at the sky. On the wild lawn an abandoned suitcase lies open, spilling more empty cans and bottles like seeds from a nightmarish fruit.
An old woman walks past the overgrown shrubs by the front gate, one arm out to the side, one arm pulled straight out in front by a bulldog that snuffles and sneezes as it goes. She manages to haul the dog back just long enough to nod down at something on the path.
‘Watch it. There’s a baggie there.’
‘A baggie. And it looks like it’s got something in it. No doubt one of theirs,’ she says, grimly flicking a look at the house behind us. ‘You take care.’ And the dog drags her on.
‘What does she mean, baggie? Where?’
Rae bends down and picks up a small, Ziploc bag half filled with white powder. Strangely enough, the bag has a picture of a bulldog crudely stamped on the front. Rae drops it back on the path behind her, nearer the front door.
When Gail steps outside, she sees the bag, stops and looks round.
‘Oh. Look at this. How interesting.’ She bends down and picks the bag up. ‘The neighbours must’ve thrown it over the fence as a sick joke.’
She puts the bag in her pocket.
* * *
Later, after we’ve handed Gail over at the hospital and aired out the back, Rae peels off her blue gloves and tosses them in the bin.
‘Funny about that old lady and the baggie,’ she says.
‘Yeah. No wonder she goes around with a big dog.’
‘And a hawk.’
‘What d’you mean, a hawk?’
‘You must’ve seen it.’
‘What – a hawk?’
‘She had a big bird of prey perched on her other arm, like a kestrel.’