All the other spit n’sawdust pubs round here were long ago traded in for soft furnished, easy drinking bars with cute names, but The Stag bellows on. The sign outside is so decrepit, and the view through the windows so down-at-heel, you could easily misread it for The Stab. The view of the clientele any time of day or night remains unchanged – slumped forms, slumped tables, big screens.
Charlie has rung for an ambulance and he’s waiting for us in the street.
‘It’s my wife, Julie,’ he says. ‘She’s been having one of her manic episodes. She met this guy in the bookies and they’ve been in the pub all night. I don’t know what to do.’
‘Does she have a history of mental health problems?’
‘Yeah. She’s been in and out of hospital. But she’s not been taking any of her meds and things are getting out of hand. I called the out of hours mental health number, but they told me to call you.’
‘Have you told Julie you called us?’
‘No. I didn’t want to scare her.’
‘Okay. Well, look – do you think there’s a chance you could explain what’s happened and ask her to come outside for a chat? I don’t want to march in an embarrass her in front of everyone.’
‘I’ll try,’ he says, tucking his phone away like he’s re-holstering a pistol.
He goes back inside.
After five minutes, he reappears.
‘She doesn’t want to,’ he says. ‘Can’t you come in and have a word?’
As I walk through the bar there’s the usual shouts of Oi Oi! and Take him! or Buy this man a pint! or Slow night, is it? I go over to the table at the back where Julie is sitting next to an enormous, red-faced guy with ratty hair and a glass in his hand. As soon as Julie sees me she turns to the side and buries her face in the man’s anorak.
‘Go away!’ she says.
‘Julie? Hello. My name’s Spence. I’m with the ambulance. Charlie has called us because he’s a bit worried about your health tonight. Will you come outside and have a quick chat? We won’t do anything or take you anywhere you don’t want to go. All right?’
The big guy takes a gulp of beer and puts the glass down with a whump.
‘Come on love,’ he says, belching lager fumes. ‘Go see the paramedics, love. I’ll come with you.’
Julie turns on me.
‘You’re weirding me out,’ she says. ‘I’ve never seen you before in my life.’
‘I know this is all a bit strange,’ I say. ‘Five minutes then we’ll leave you in peace.’
She stands up suddenly, scraping her chair back. The Big Guy grabs her arm but she snatches it back.
‘Leave me alone!’ she shouts, then pushes her way out of the bar. The Big Guy and Charlie both chase after her. I follow. A muted cheer from the bar.
Outside in the street Julie reacts to the sight of the ambulance by ducking down, raising her arms up and screeching like a chimp.
‘They’ve come to take you away!’ shouts the big man with glee.
Charlie remonstrates with him in an ineffectual way. Julie falls back against the pub wall, then takes a few steps into the road. Cars hoot and make room. The Big Guy grabs her again and there’s a messy, three-way struggle. I tell the Big Guy to let her go.
‘No! Don’t hold her like that,’ I tell him.
‘She’s going to hospital,’ he says.
‘No. You let her go and you listen to me. Back off! And – listen. No-one is doing anything they don’t want to do.’
I turn my attention to Julie, who is standing there, breathing hard.
‘We’re only here to help you, Julie. But if you don’t want us, that’s fine, we can go.’
‘I don’t want you!’ she says, flush with alcohol and the drama of it all. ‘I don’t want your help. Why should I want your help?’
She puts an arm round the waist of the Big Guy, who leers horribly and drapes an arm protectively round her shoulder. ‘ I’m starved of human touch, okay?’ she says. ‘So thanks very much, yeah?’
She relaxes her hug to sufficiently to reach out with her right hand. When I take it, she starts to shake my hand, but it quickly deteriorates into an aggressive hand-pumping that I’m forced to control and then release. ‘Now you fuck off,’ she shouts in my face, then turns with the Big Guy and goes back into the pub.
We stand by the ambulance talking to Charlie, finding out some more facts and then offering what advice we can.
The landlady comes out, a blousy woman in weapons grade makeup. She studies us a while from the door of the pub, then comes over. ‘What’s the matter with that one?’ she says, jabbing her thumb backwards over her shoulder. ‘Do I want her back in my pub, or what?’