Wednesday, March 27, 2013

questions at the scene


‘When’s it going to start warming up?’

Out here, driving up this steep road, way out on the furthest lip of it all, where the impressive sweep of the town, its buildings and streets, fans out into the distance and the great, grey mass of the sea, it feels as if we’re heading into the mouth of a bleak and wintry corridor that runs all the way to the Arctic.
It’s Springtime.
It couldn’t be any colder.

-          Why did he kill himself?
-          Why did he kill himself here?

‘I wonder how easy it’d be to live abroad.’
‘Pretty easy. Let’s face it, anything’s possible if you’re warm.’

We can see the police ahead of us, a patrol car and a van parked up by the side of the road.
An officer in a yellow jacket waves us in to the dirt track that leads to this patch of derelict ground.

-          Who called the police? The man? A friend? Did he time it so he wouldn’t be found? Or did he time it so he would be found, but something went wrong?

We park, climb out, retrieve what bags we’ll need. I pull a beanie hat on, glad that I remembered to bring it with me today. I pull it down low over my ears.
The officer comes over to show us where to go.

‘We got in at the top entrance. Down here’s the only way to drive in, but we’ve got to just nip the padlock off first.’

-          If the man drove here, did he have a key to get in? Or was the car already here? What connection does he have with this place?

The officer walks ahead of us to a rusted steel fence that bars the way further. The other side of the fence, another officer is approaching with a pair of bolt croppers almost as tall as him.
‘Mind your fingers.’
He positions the massive jaws onto the padlock shackle, and in one smooth movement of the cropper handles, the whole unit falls apart. He unwraps the chain and swings the gate back for us to come through.
‘It’s a formality,’ says the officer with us. ‘The guy’s obviously been dead awhile. Gassed himself in his car.’
‘Can you still do that? With catalytic converters and everything?’
‘You can, but it takes a lot longer. In the old days it was the carbon monoxide that did for you, but now it’s more about suffocation.’
‘It’s an old car,’ says the officer. ‘Before the converters came in.’
I don't add anything. I’ve no idea.

-          Did he know that? Did the man specifically buy an old car to gas himself in? Or was it a coincidence?

I’m glad I’ve got my beanie on. The snow is starting in heavy again. I pull it down even lower, over my eyebrows.

The dirt track curves round past some abandoned buildings, graffiti, fly-tipped, overgrown, beaten in, burned out. Even the sheep watching us from a neighbouring field have numbers sprayed on their sides in blue. They chew and watch as we make our way along to where a couple of other police officers are standing near an old Ford estate car. The boot is open. The rear window on this side has been smashed. There’s a length of silver ventilating ducting lying on the ground by the back wheels. A small heap of towels. As we get closer, a flick-stick lying on the grass surrounded by fragments of glass. A pair of booted feet just visible on the carpet in the back of the car.

-          The doors must have been locked, or else why would the police have had to smash the window? Why didn’t the officer pick up his flick-stick after he’d used it? Is it crime-scene protocol to leave things where you used them? How did the man secure such a bulky piece of ducting from the exhaust to the back window?

There’s a door open on the other side. We go round there and examine the man. He’s been dead for some while. When we lift up his t-shirt, the post-mortem staining is unmistakable. When we turn him on his side to check for any wounds, his whole body moves like a shop mannequin. His waxy face is fixed in an expression of distress. His glasses have been bent askew; I want to set them straight, but don’t. The only other thing in the back of the car with him is a bottle of vodka. No signs of vomit, pills, notes.

‘His flat mate called us. When he got back from his night shift there was a letter on the table explaining what he’d done. It was all pretty well planned out.’
‘We’ll just do the paperwork and leave you to it, then.’
‘Righto.’
‘We’ll do it in the ambulance.’
‘Yep – I’ll come with you.’
We pick up our bags again and start back down the track.

The sheep are still there, chewing, watching.
The officer looks at them, then smacks his gloves together to warm his hands.
‘You’re scientific people,’ he says.
‘I don’t know about that.’
‘Answer me this, professor. If wool shrinks when it gets wet, why don’t sheep?’
‘That’s a good question,’ I tell him. ‘That’s a very good question.’

Monday, March 25, 2013

no-one knows


‘Have a read of that. Go on. It’ll tell you everything you need to know. It’s the God’s honest truth – why would I lie?’
Gus hands me a bundle of notepaper, each page closely covered on both sides in shaky handwriting. But it’s not the right time. We’ve already been here half an hour, trying to make sense of his rambling speech, trying to organise some kind of logical response, whilst his sister Bel sobs in the doorway.
‘He needs help,’ she says. ‘You can see how he is. The family can’t take it no more.’ She blows her nose. ‘You know you’re not well, Gus,’ she says. ‘All last night, howling and screaming and slapping yourself in the face like you did.’
‘I just wanted you to see I can take pain. Normal pain. But this is different. I can’t take this.’
‘Gus – you’ve got to get some help.’
‘I want help. Do you think I don’t? Do you think I haven’t been trying? You don’t know what it’s like. No-one does – not you, not the specialists. Look what they said. They’re completely stumped. They’ve never seen nothing like it. All them tests and still no wiser.’
‘I don’t mean your back,’ says Bel. ‘It’s not your back we’re worried about.’
‘No-one understands,’ he says, looking at me. His face is thin and pale, his eyes so raw with sleeplessness you’d think they were smudged with red paint, like a forty year old clown who’d had enough and roughly wiped his face on his sleeve.
‘What am I gonna do?’ he says. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘The way I see it, Gus, there are two things going on here. On the one hand you’ve got this on-going problem with your back, and on the other, you’ve got the way you’re coping with it. On an emotional level.’
I use the word emotional as lightly as I can, but no-one can be in any doubt what I really mean.
Gus fixes me with his red eyes a moment or two, then looks down at his hands.
‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ he says. ‘No-one does.’
‘He said he was going to kill himself,’ says Bel. ‘He wrote out his will and said he was going to take all his medication at once. You know you did, Gus. Didn’t you?’
He starts crying.
‘You don’t know what it’s like. Everybody’s supposed to be all caring and medical and the rest of it, but it’s really just like in medieval times, when they put your legs in a vice and smashed all the bones to jelly. It’s just like that – like walking on broken bits of old bones. I can’t stand up. I can’t lie down. I can’t do nothing or go nowhere.’
He reaches down and pulls one of his trouser legs up, revealing a healthy, muscled calf. ‘Look at that,’ he says, slapping it with his hand. ‘The flesh just hanging off.’
‘Please don’t let them discharge him back home like this,’ says Bel. ‘It’s not fair. He needs help.’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Promise me you’ll tell them what’s been going on? Because if he just gets sent straight back, I don’t know what’ll happen.’
‘I’ll do my best. Come on, Gus. I’ll have a read of your notes when we’re en route to the hospital.’
He gets up, his powerful frame dwarfing me.
We walk out to the truck.

*

He hands me the notes.
Each page is dated and signed at the bottom: These are the official last words of what really happened to me, Gus, a truthful man. Signed Gus
‘Have a read.’

“I told them all about my back and when I hurt it. The vertibrays all squashed out of line and then I got pain all up from the top of my bottom to my neck. ASK MR CROPREDY HES GOT ALL THE NOTES. I done a lot of jobs in my life carrying heavy things a lot of climbing and lifting and going up ladders even digging a trench was agony, no-one understands what it’s like. They tried all sorts of pills and nothing worked not even the really heavy stuff what made me sick anyway I didn’t get on with it. Theres a problem down there AND ITS GETTING WORSE but there not giving me the MRYs or the Xraze to see whats really going on either that or they wont tell me. I got prostrate problems too I know I have and that hasn’t helped. My balls are all smoove and shrunk back to nothing and my penus is just a stub with a slit in it when I drink anything it goes straight through me and runs down my leg which isn’t nice no one should have to put up with that. But then when I see the nurse she just stuck her fingers up my bottom and felt around and said everything was all right down there, but she doesn’t know. Then they dipped my urin which is nothing but a kind of PASTE and they said that was allright as well. So if everything’s allright, why when I look in the mirror does MY BELLY BUTTUN SHIFT OVER TO THE LEFT? Because my spines pulling all my guts to the right and all my organs are moving where they shoudnt thats why. I know I’m going to die soon which is why I’m writing these notes to let you know the true story of my agony, and what no one did to help not even when I told them the flesh was hanging off my bones and MY NAILS HAVE STOPPED GROING. I cant eat or drink I cant sleep and I know Im driving my family mad but theres nothing to do but write these notes and explane to my lovely girls who I love more than life itself that there dad tryed hard but it wasnt enough to stop him dying a horrible and lonely diseese. Yesterday was the same. I cant eat much at all I’m so bunged up with big toilet I tried putting seppositries up there but they werent no good so now I have to put my fingers up my bum to get it all out its agony no man should have to do this but no one cares which is why I’m writing this now please belive me this is the truth after all WHY WOULD I LIE”

I hand it back to him.
‘What do you think?’ he says, and leans in.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

transformations


Into the great, blue vaulted space of the old chapel, converted into a night shelter for homeless people. I feel like I’ve been miniaturised and put in a specimen box, spread about with strange, multi-coloured pupae. One of them wriggles, unzips, and a bare-chested man emerges. He stands up, cracks his back, scratches his belly, then stumbles off in the direction of the toilets.  The other sleeping bags rustle and snore.

A huge Alsatian is watching us through the Perspex glass of the office in the corner, the energy-saving glow of a desk lamp reflecting in his eyes.

‘This way,’ whispers one of the care workers.
We pick our way through.

I’ve met Marcia and her partner before. I don’t know which of them is the most striking: Marcia, for her sculpted looks, severe and beautiful as a Benin bronze; or Jinx, for his black and white crocheted stovepipe hat.
Marcia always presents as a collapse query cause, but the query shouldn’t really extend much beyond the Coke bottle filled with vodka in her parka pocket, or the tin of weed in Jinx’ waistcoat.
‘What’s happened tonight, Marcia?’
She doesn’t answer, fixed on the toilet seat, her eyes half-closed.
 ‘Let’s get you out to the ambulance and do all our checks there.’
I take her arm and she walks well enough. Jinx rolls along beside us. I know his hat is kept on by his dreads, but it’s still amazing to see how it waves from side to side without slipping off. We pick our way back through the hall of sleeping bags. The man who’d emerged when we entered is standing over his bag again. He doesn’t even look at us as we pass, leaning back instead with his fists in the small of his back, studying the dark reaches of the chapel ceiling, like he was gauging the distance, like he thought one day he might grow some wide and beautiful tattooed wings, and fly there.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

my real name


As we ride to the hospital in the ambulance, Mary tells me the story of her childhood in Togo.

‘I was born early to my parents. I was very small, with a tail, and my parents were worried I was a witch and possessed by evil spirits. So they decided to throw me away. Sometimes this happens in my country. If you think your baby is possessed by evil spirits, you must get rid of it, and throw it away.’

They put me in a basket and took me to the woods. But in the morning when the sun came I woke up and started to cry. An old woman without eyes heard my crying and she came to discover what it was. She took me back to her home and she kept me as her own. I lived with her for one years and a half, and then she died because she was too old. Then my parents came to take me back.

But they did not want the evil spirits to follow me. So they changed my name and my date of birth, so that the evil spirits would not find me again. My parents they called me Mary after the mother of Jesus Christ. But my real name is the name the old woman gave me. It means: Lucky Holy Child Thrown Away.'

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mad March Promotion!



My ebook Into the Eclipse will be free to download from Mon 18th to' Fri 22nd. 

For those of you who haven't read it yet, Into the Eclipse is a thriller about a woman's desperate attempts to win her daughter back from the clutches of a destructive cult. 

I'd love to know what you think about it. (Amazon reviews greatly appreciated)

SK
  

paste


Harry is being transferred to the main hospital for his operation. He doesn’t want to go; it’s an emotional farewell. He puts on a brave face as we wheel the trolley out through the ward and down the corridor, but the great downwards arc of his moustache and his deeply hooded eyes give him an exaggeratedly mournful expression. Everyone there – his fellow patients, the nurses, cleaners, even the doctors – they all seem happy to see him off. They wave and shout things out. Take Care, Harry and All the best, mate and Good luck with the ol’ whasisname.
Outside in the lift he hugs his bag.
‘They’ve been so good to me here,’ he says. ‘Couldn’t have asked for more.’

*

It’s a forty-five minute ride, a routine journey, nothing to be done, the end of another long and busy day. I’m dangerously comfortable on my chair, the ambulance rocking gently from side to side as we hush along the road. Everything about me is folding inwards and downwards, an irresistible, gravitational collapse. At this rate, when we get to the other end and Rae opens the back door, all she’ll find is an empty uniform draped over the seat, and a trickle of warm sand from my boots.

I blink hard, sit up straight. Take a lungful of air.
When I breathe out, it’s like the deflation of a balloon character.

I rub my face for the tenth time, fold my arms, and smile across at Harry.
He smiles back.
He’s a sweet old guy, no doubt about it. But he hasn’t got his top plate in, so his mouth is loose and squashy. He speaks in a monotonous, rounded kind of whisper, hard to make out against all the background noise, and it’s difficult to lip-read because of the overhang of his moustache. And then, when I can make out what he’s saying, it seems to be nothing more than lists. And when he says each item on the list it’s accompanied by a little shrug of his shoulders, like a machine giving a little puff of smoke.
‘All right, Harry?’
He nods.
‘Did you get something to eat?’
‘Oh yes. The food was good there. Very good. They do very good food there, I must say. Yes. No complaints about the food.’
I stare at him.
‘What kinds of things?’ I say, pathetically. ‘What .. erm... what do you like to eat?’
‘Oh – all sorts. I like pretty much everything. Pies. I like pies. Your steak and kidney. Chicken and mushroom. Leek and potato. I like a good pie. Shortcrust, flaky. Shepherd’s pie, so long as the mash isn’t lumpy. I can’t stand lumpy mash. It makes me sick. Pretty much all pies, basically. Fish pie. Fish pie’s nice. So long as it’s not too fishy. I don’t like tuna. Tuna’s for cats. Cod, of course. With chips. Haddock. and chips. Plaice and chips. Kippers. Then there’s sandwiches. I like a good sandwich. Cheese and tomato. Cheese and pickle. Ham and tomato. Ham and pickle. On white bread, though. Not brown, or wholemeal. Brown bread plays havoc with me plate. Then there’s paste, of course...’
‘Paste? What – you mean like Shippam’s?’
‘Shippam’s, that’s it. I like Shippam’s. Crab paste, salmon paste. Beef. I like a good paste sandwich...’
Horse?’
‘Never had that. No. Don’t like Chinese food. Don’t like Indian food. Rice, pasta - none of that old muck. Just good old plain English food. Potatoes, I like. Cabbage. Runner beans. Fruit. I like a nice bit of fruit. Apples I like. Bananas. Plums. Pears. Grapes. Red grapes. White grapes. Red more than white. Oranges. Tangerines...’
The ambulance slows to a stop. We’re at the back of a queue a thousand miles long. I feel like throwing the doors open and running off into the night. Starting a new life somewhere. A cave in the hills. Tattooing myself with leopard spots. Living on seaweed.
But instead I say: ‘So what did you do before you retired, Harry? What line of ... erm ... work, were you in?’
‘Painting and Decorating,’ he puffs. ‘Started when I was fifteen. Stopped last year on me sixty-fifth birthday. And it’s been one long round of illnesses ever since. First I had the right knee done, then I had the left. Then my back went and I had to have that dug out. Asthma, prostate, cataracts...’
Desperately now: ‘What was it like, painting and decorating?’
‘Painting and decorating? Well – I liked it.’
‘Hard work?’
‘Oh yes – hard work. Very hard work. But you get used to it. I started off mixing the paint, carrying the ladders backwards and forwards from the van. Odd jobs, you know. They kept me busy. Next thing they got me rubbing down, sanding woodwork, filling holes, cleaning and scrubbing. Preparation. Tidying up. Making tea. Then there was the putting up of the pasting tables, preparation of the glue, pasting the paper. I loved that, pasting paper. On the walls, of course. And the ceiling...’
I close my eyes.
Open them.
For a horrifying second I think I must have fallen asleep.
The ambulance is bouncing along quietly. Did we turn off? God I hope so.
I rub my face.
Harry is staring at me mournfully, his arms still folded.
‘Tired?’ he says.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

out and down


The snowstorm passed as quickly as it came. The next morning the sun was out so powerfully that by lunchtime most of the roads were clear again, leaving patches of snow and ice on gardens and bushes and pavements. Agnes Reynolds re-emerged from her house, bundled up in a ski-jacket, bobble hat, sunglasses, padded gloves and Hunter boots, and set out for the shops.
She got about fifty yards.
A treacherous sweep of black ice on the pavement corner, exacerbated by the awkward camber there, had her over before she even knew she was going. She landed awkwardly, her right leg twisting underneath her. She heard the snap of her ankle and knew it was broken. A neighbour hurried out with a blanket. Between them – incredibly – they managed to get the boot off, propped the leg up on Mrs Reynolds’ shopping bag, the foot lolling at a unhealthy tilt to the right, and waited for the ambulance.

‘I feel so stupid,’ she says as we strap her into a splint.
‘There’ve been plenty of falls today, Agnes. You’re not the first. I doubt you’ll be the last.’
‘But it’s so embarrassing.’
‘It’s an accident. One of those things.’

Despite the fact that there’s a woman sitting on the ground being attended to by paramedics, an ambulance right alongside, with only the narrowest route open along that stretch of pavement, several people still come past: a man with a fat brown Labrador, two old women, a man with a baby in a sling, and a kid listening to music on phones.
All of them slip.
The man with the Labrador makes the wildest shapes; the dog pulling him forwards at the same time as his feet whip out, so he has forward momentum to contend with. He manages to stay upright only by hugging a telegraph pole.
The two old women clasp each other in terror, their shopping bags whipping round them both like Gaucho bolas.
The man with the baby does a panicked bobbing from side to side with his arms protectively clamped round his cargo. He looks ashen, but the baby seems to like it.
The kid listening to his phone is my favourite. He makes the most catastrophic attempts to stay on his feet, an octopus on roller skates. But he manages it, then carries on walking without any change of expression. Incredibly, a couple of minutes later, just as we’re loading Agnes onto the trolley, he comes back, the same absorption in his phone. Again, the crazed dance of death over the black ice; again, he just manages to keep his feet. He passes by.

Agnes smiles and shrugs.
 *
  
‘I’d better call Gary,’ she says, as the ambulance doors are slammed shut and we move off. ‘He’s working away from home again and won’t be back till the weekend.’
‘Will he come and see you at the hospital?’
‘I don’t think it’s necessary, do you? It’s  a lot of bother for him.’
She takes her hat off and puts the phone to her ear. When Gary answers, a combination of his loud voice and the high volume of Agnes’ handset means I can hear every word.
 Yeah?
 Gary? It’s Agnes.
   I can’t talk long, love, I'm in the middle of something.
 Gary? I've had an accident.
 You've what?
 I've had an accident. I fell over.
 Where?
 On the pavement.
 What pavement?
 The end of the road.
 What road?
 But I'm all right. I think I've probably broken my ankle, though.
 Where did you say?
 I'm with the paramedics. I'm in an ambulance going to hospital. But don’t worry, Gary. I'm perfectly all right, apart from my ankle. I don’t think there’s any need for you to drop everything and come and see me. (She pulls the blanket away from the splint and stares down at her leg as if it belongs to someone else)
 No? Well...
 Honestly, Gary. I'm fine. I’ll probably be up there ages. You know what it’s like. I’ll give you a call and let you know how I'm getting on a bit later on. Okay?
 It’s just I'm in the middle of something.
 Don’t worry. An X-ray and a spot of plaster of Paris. That’s all it is. I’ll be fine.
 If you’re sure.
   I'm sure.
 (long pause) What were you doing out anyway?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

betty grable


Gerald is sitting on the bottom step. He isn’t as bad as they’d described on the radio. The collapse turns out to be a petulant kind of sitting down and refusing to budge; the seizure, a mild shaking of one of his arms that stops whenever he talks, like an old engine when it’s put into gear. But this carer hasn’t been to Gerald much, so the whole scenario is still quite alarming for her.
‘I was helping him out to the doctor’s for his appointment,’ she says.
‘That’s a decent walk for you, then, Gerald.’
He looks up.
‘Germans,’ he says. ‘Nazis. Germans. The Germans have taken over the whole town. And your Doctor Sprailes is the biggest Nazi of the lot. I hate Nazis. Hate ‘em. If it was up to me, I’d have the whole lot of ‘em rounded up and shot.’
‘Let’s get you on your feet, Gerald. That step can’t be very warm.’
‘Yeah, well, the Nazis built this place. They made sure it was cold. They want you to catch your death so they don’t have to bother with you anymore. I hate Nazis. The council. The Mayor. The Mayor’s the biggest Nazi of the lot. The Mayor’s big mates with Hitler, Mussolini. He used to be a Storm Trooper. That’s where he learned his trade. And he used to do all these experiments, but no-one can say nothing about it, because the Nazis won’t let ‘em.’
‘Oh? So, anyway. Give us your hand, let’s have you up and back in your flat, Gerald. And then we can have a good old chat about what you want to happen next.’
He grumbles on in the same way, but lets himself be helped up. We trudge back up the steps, the carer opens the door, we ease him out of his coat and back into his favourite chair – a sky-blue throne raised up on supports overlooking the busy main road that runs past the block.
‘Can I make him some tea?’ asks the carer.
‘Sure. Cup of tea, Gerald?’
He nods, and sinks into a grumpy reverie, staring out of the window.
We check him over. But, as always, the only thing wrong with Gerald is the biggest thing wrong with Gerald, which is the devastating after-effects of a life of heavy drinking. You can see it in his face, blasted with alcohol, a face rudely thumbed out of old red wax. But if Gerald himself is in a poor state, at least his flat is good. Through the good offices of the community health team, the council, the surgery and whoever else, he’s finally pitched up in a tidy little place, everything squared away, the carpet swept, the kitchen stocked and clean. The irony is that Gerald doesn’t seem the least bit aware of it. He sits in his chair like a grumpy version of the shoemaker and the elves.
It’s a wonder the elves keep coming back.
‘I like your tattoos,’ I say to him.
‘I’ve got a big one on my back.’
‘Oh? What’s that one, then?’
‘Japanese characters.’
‘Japanese? That’s interesting. And what do they mean?’
‘It’s a poem.’
‘A Japanese poem?’
‘I think so. Anyway, I liked it.’
‘And what’s the translation?’
‘It means: I’ll use my walking stick and smash the skull of any Nazi that comes within my reach.’
‘Oh. Right.’
‘Yeah. They know what I’m like. That’s why they don’t come round here. They know I’m ready for ‘em.’
I take the blood pressure cuff off his arm. Underneath is a tattoo that’s supposed to be Betty Grable in her famous swimsuit pose, looking backwards over her shoulder, hands on hips, hair piled up. Only the tattooist must’ve been wearing boxing gloves or been in a screaming hurry, because it looks more like the Elephant Man being paraded in front of the Academy.
‘That’s a nice one,’ I say, putting my steth away.
‘Yeah,’ he says, shakily putting down his sleeve. ‘I like stuff about them wartimes...’

Monday, March 11, 2013

help


We wondered if you’d help us out on a slightly strange one. We took a call from an elderly female in a nursing home. She was obviously in a great deal of distress – in fact, the call taker said it sounded like she was being murdered. Then he said someone else came on the phone - a care worker or something - said everything was fine, not to worry, thank you very much, the line went dead. Obviously the call taker wasn’t happy with the way it ended, and didn’t feel a call-back would get to the bottom of it, so he said he’d be grateful if you wouldn’t mind swinging by and taking a look.

We’ve been to this nursing home any number of times. It’s a warm, well-managed place, comfy sofas in the lounge, bright artwork on the walls, a brisk and sunlit feel to all the rooms and corridors. Everyone who works there, from the cleaners and caterers to the nurses and health care assistants – they’ve always been friendly and helpful. If there was one nursing home in all the county less likely to be the scene of a grisly murder, it was this one.
We pull up outside, the driveway as empty and neatly swept as ever.
No police tape, CSI boiler suits, reporters.

Gus, the manager, is standing chatting to a nurse in the hallway.
‘Hello,’ I say as we step through the automatic doors. I wave a hand up in the air. Smiling. Slouching. The Peter Falk school of interrogation.
‘Sorry to trouble you. I wonder if I could have a word?’
Gus excuses himself to the nurse, unlocks his office.
‘I think I know what this might be about,’ he says, leading us inside.
‘Absolutely. I’m sorry to bother you.’
‘Not at all.’
He closes the door behind us and leans back against the desk.
‘How can I help?’
‘Our Control room took a call from one of your residents just a half hour ago or so. Apparently there was a lot of screaming and shouting, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and then someone else came on the phone, said everything was fine, don’t worry, and hung up.’
Gus nods.
‘Yes. I thought so. What it is, you see, we have a woman of eighty-four who’s behaviour is extremely – erm – problematic. She’s come to us from her home address ...’
He mentions the flat number, the block, and before he’s even finished, a name pops out of my mouth.
‘Vera.’
Gus raises his eyebrows.
‘You know her?’
‘Too well. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many times an ambulance has been out to Vera.’
‘I’m not surprised. She’s quite a handful.’ His glasses shine.
‘Vera came to us for a little respite, and almost immediately tried to self-discharge. I was concerned because she wanted to push her rolator down the road without adequate clothing, without showing any insight into her overall condition, personal safety etcetera, etcetera. So we enacted DOLS and ...’
‘Sorry – what’s that?’
‘DOLS. Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards. It’s an aspect of the Mental Capacity Act. You’ve not heard of it?’
‘No. But it sounds – great!’
‘Yes, well. It’s designed to help us give the care we need when the patient isn’t in a position to make the best choice for themselves, for whatever reason. Vera’s an odd case because she’s not been diagnosed with dementia, for example, which is often what this DOLS is brought in to cover, but she’s been assessed according to the guidelines and consequently detained here against her will for the last two months or so.’
It suddenly strikes me that it’s been quiet on the Vera front for some time. I could hug Gus. If I did, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. He’d find a way to disengage at exactly the right moment, and everything would be properly documented.
‘Vera’s a challenging proposition, without question,’ he continues. ‘She spends an awful lot of time screaming for help, abusing my staff, making phone calls when she can, generally uncooperative, disruptive behaviour. And when she’s not doing that, she’s putting herself on the floor feigning injury, throwing things – you name it, really. I feel that our facility here is probably just an interim measure, but that’s in process.’ He adjusts his glasses. ‘You’ve never heard of the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards?’
‘No. But I’ll definitely look them up.’
He turns and taps a password into the laptop behind him; with a few brisk keystrokes he brings up a Department of Health website.
‘A useful piece of legislation,’ he says.
‘I’ll read about it later, Gus. Thanks for your time. And good luck with Vera.’
‘She’ll be fine,’ he says, opening the door.

There’s a commotion in the lobby. A nurse is standing just in front of a tidily-dressed old woman in a red crocheted jacket and speckly brown skirt, who in turn is repeatedly ramming the front wheel of her rolator into the glass door and shouting Help! Help! in a plaintively thin voice I’ve come to know so well over the years.
‘Vera!’ I say, going over and touching her on the shoulder. ‘Vera! You’re looking so well!’
And she is. If you can ignore the fact that she’s shouting for help, she actually looks great, well-fed, her hair nicely cut.
She stops shouting and slowly turns to face me. She narrows her eyes a moment, then says in the lower, rasping voice she uses as an alternative to the scream: Do I know you?
‘Don’t you recognise me, Vera? I’ve been out to you hundreds of times.’
After a moment to think about that, she uses voice number three, the childlike whisper: Please help me! I have to get out of here. I have to get home.
‘But Vera – they’re obviously taking excellent care of you. I think you should stay here a while, rest up and get your strength back.’
Vera looks between all of us, then with a raise of her shoulders to build up her strength, charges her rolator at the door again, screaming Help! Help!

As the nurse tries to quieten her down, a young family emerges from one of the rooms behind us,  a man and his two young daughters, putting on their coats, ready to go. They stand in the background, unable to leave because of Vera at the door. The man puts his arms around the girls; they peer over his sleeves appalled, fascinated.
Help! Help!
‘Vera? Come on – you’re frightening those poor children.’
She stops. There’s a pause, then she starts to turn her rolator round to get a fix on them. But before she is even half-way through the manoeuvre, Gus has already politely and efficiently led them away to an alternative exit. 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

zombies, cats


Late at night. Maybe it’s the exhaustion I feel, or maybe it’s the streetlamps shining through the mist, but everything seems fragile and one-dimensional.  When I cough, too loudly, I half expect everything to fall back soundlessly, like a poorly built set in a play about Jack the Ripper.
We’re standing outside a Victorian workhouse that’s been converted into flats, trying to figure out from the haphazard cluster of buttons and speakerphones which buzzer to press. In the end we take a guess. No-one comes on the intercom to ask us who we are, but the door buzzes open and we take that as a nod.
We step inside.
The hall light doesn’t work, but the dark ahead of us has a texture and smell to it that tells us it goes back some way. Whilst we’re figuring out where to go next, a light snaps on somewhere overhead, spilling down a staircase to our right.
Up here, mate.
There’s a bitten-down meanness to the place, a scrawl of poverty in the air.
We go up two flights, to an unmarked door without a handle or any sign that anyone lives beyond it at all.
I knock, hesitate, and we go through.

Two men chatting in what seems to be a tiny galley kitchen in front of us. Neither of them make any acknowledgement that we’ve come in. I smile and say hello; one of them nods behind him and says: Through there.
Do they live here? Are they workmen? But at this hour? It’s impossible to tell.
We struggle past with our bags, into another, tiny room, more like a storage facility than a living space.
There are three people there: Janine, sprawled in an armchair; her mum Joan, playing a zombie shoot-em up on the laptop; and Carl, Janine’s partner, mixing himself a whisky and coke from the two bottles on the floor.
‘Hello. I’m Spence. This is Rae. Are you the patient?’ I ask Janine.
‘Well it’s not me, love,’ says Joan, blasting away at the creatures on the screen without looking up. ‘My baby days are over, thank god.’ There’s a hard quality to her face and eyes, which, framed in a fall of lank and greasy ringlets, looks like a porcelain doll on smack.  I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the zombies on the screen reached out and claimed her for one of their own.
‘It’s me,’ says Janine.
There’s nowhere to sit, the room cluttered with junk, building materials, old pizza boxes, so we both stand either side of her chair whilst Janine tells us the story. She’s eleven weeks pregnant – Not mine! says Carl, waving his hand in the air then taking a swig from his glass – and she’s been having trouble with nausea and vomiting. She went to the hospital the other day and was on a drip for a while; they discharged her home with an anti-emetic; she still feels nauseous, though she hasn’t actually vomited today.
‘Let’s do your blood pressure and the rest, and then talk about what we can do tonight,’ I say, writing down her details. It’s Janine’s second pregnancy. The first was uncomplicated, except the baby was taken away at a year for adoption. The only other health problems she has are psychiatric, behavioural.
‘It’s my turn now,’ says Carl, putting his whisky and coke down and nudging Joan in the ribs. She hands him the laptop without any change of expression, then settles back on the sofa to read something on her phone. Carl puts some earphones in. He’s more energetic with the gun than Joan; he gets into his stride almost immediately.
All Janine’s observations are normal. I try to persuade her to rest at home for the evening and then see her GP in the morning, but she says she’s worried and wants to go to hospital.
‘What do you think?’ I say to Joan.
‘I’m staying out of it,’ she says.
I look over at Carl, who’s obviously monitoring the situation despite having his earphones in and shooting zombies. He lifts his chin in the air but doesn’t look away from the screen. ‘I’m not getting involved,’ he says.
‘Come on then, Janine. Have you got your pregnancy notes, keys, phone...?’
There’s a spindly kitten staggering around the flat. It appears from behind the sofa and stares at us.
‘Cute kitten,’ I say.
‘You can take that as well,’ says Carl. But then something happens in the game. He grunts, puts the gun down, then reaches down and pulls a slice of pizza out of a box on the floor by the bottles.
‘I love cats,’ I say. ‘We had our one for nineteen years.’
Joan reaches for a whisky and coke of her own.
‘I had a friend,’ she says, pouring out a tall glass. ‘I had a friend, she had ten cats.’
‘Ten! That’s a lot!’
‘It is a lot. But they all died.’
‘Oh.’
She smiles and looks up at me. ‘Over the years, though. Not all at once.’

Monday, March 04, 2013

New book!


I've just published my latest book 'On Calder Hill', available to download now. There'll be a free 5-day promotion running from tomorrow (Tues 5th March), so bear that in mind!

'On Calder Hill' is part historical thriller, part ghost story, aimed at Young Adults, but with plenty in it for the rest of us (although I would say that, wouldn't I?)


Here's the blurb from the site:


***

How far would you go to right a wrong?

For Holly, it was a thousand years.

Exams are the least of Holly’s problems. Her mum has come up with yet another get rich quick scheme – the opening of a cafĂ© in the local park – and Holly has been roped in to help. But as she sits daydreaming at the counter one morning, a mysterious young girl comes to visit. When she disappears after leaving an ancient silver penny as payment, something is begun that will challenge everything Holly thinks she knows – not just about her past, but about the fabric of time itself.

***

I look forward to hearing your comments, good or bad - and of course, any online reviews are always welcome.

SK

PS:  I promise this'll be the last book for at least a year! I've just been finishing some projects... :) 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

maxie


The ambulance lurches alarmingly along the track.
‘Good job this guy’s not a spinal injury,’ says Rae, wrestling with the steering wheel. ‘Although he probably will be after a ride in the back.’

There’s a raw, untamed feel to everything out here. The hawthorn trees all bend over in the direction of the prevailing wind; there’s an agricultural dump of rusting tractor parts, bags of sand, butane canisters, all piled up out of sight beneath a ragged clump of elderberry; a steel container with the door rusted open – a crude scattering of stuff, like a whole community decamped in a hurry and chucked what it no longer needed.

Todd still lives in the workmen’s cottage he was born in, one of an isolated group of four, at the far end of the track. An ancient sheepdog is waiting for us at the door. She watches us climb out of the ambulance, then turns to show us into the tiny front room. It’s a jolt to see that she only has three legs.

Todd is sitting on a simple wooden chair in the middle of the lounge. The countless fires he’s lit in the fireplace have left a great pile of ash and cinder that spill out over the hearth. Maxie goes up to Todd, rests her head in his lap, accepts a stroke, then goes to take up her place again in her basket by the Rayburn heater.

Todd has abdo pain, low down, into his groin. Despite his stoical outlook, it’s obviously causing him some problems. After checking him over we decide to take him to hospital; the fact that he agrees to come without arguing is a sign that there’s definitely something wrong.

‘Could you just go upstairs and give my boy Charlie a knock? He should be out of bed by now. He works all night, you see. On the old compooters.’

One last fuss for Maxie, and we take a slow walk back out to the truck.

***

‘Maxie’s a lovely dog’ I say to Todd, putting the paperwork aside as we rattle back along the track. ‘How long’ve you had her, then?’
‘Oh  - since she were a pup. She’s been a working dog all her life – just like her parents, and her parents before that. She’s called Maxie, because her Dad was called Max. She’s been a great little dog. Very smart. She’d be out all day with me, dawn till dusk. I was a stockman, you see. I had to get up at three, milk a hundred and sixty head of cow, then it was back here for breakfast, and on with the day. She was the best sheepdog I ever had. Almost magical, the way she understood what was needed. I remember one winter morning, the snow was up to here, she went straight out and brought them all down to the yard before I’d even got my boots on. She just sat there, shaking off the snow, with this expression on her face like: Come on, lazy bones! Let’s get this over with!’
‘So how did she lose her leg?’
‘You’ll never believe it – but it was an adder.’
‘An adder?’
‘An adder. A beautiful thing, but deadly dangerous. It was hiding in a rabbit hole, and it reared up and bit her on the leg as she ran past. Well, you should’ve seen it. The leg went all swollen and black. She was in terrible pain – the skin was almost falling off. So this vet, new she was, she took one look and she said: The only thing that’s going to save Maxie is for that leg to come off. So I said: On you go, then.  So she took it off. And she was right, you know. And after a while Maxie didn’t seem to miss it. She just got on with things. Well they do, don’t they? Animals.’
‘I must admit I’ve never seen an adder.’
‘No? Well they’re a sight, I’ll tell you that for nothing. The last time I saw one I was fishing on the river bank with Maxie right next to me. Next thing you know she’s sitting bolt upright, pointing with her nose at something in the middle of the stream. And there it was – an adder, swimming along proud as you like, with its head held high. They’ve got this V on their heads, you know, just like someone drew an arrow with a marker pen, pointing in the direction they’re going. We just sat there watching as it reached the bank, wiggled out, then disappeared into the grass. We kept well away from it, though. ‘specially Maxie.’
‘I bet.’
‘Yes. Well. They’re beautiful creatures, but they’ve definitely got a little twist of the devil about ‘em.’

Saturday, March 02, 2013

a pair of glasses


It’s still early. Even though the sun hasn’t warmed things up overmuch, after all the recent rain it’s great to have a day so blue and crisp and defined. Even the commuter traffic, nudging along its familiar routes, seems easier in itself. A postman waves some letters over his head to us as we pass, more a victory salute than a good morning.

We walk up the path to the front door.

Sarah is sitting half-way down the stairs, the watchful centre of a three-point pattern of concern – her sister Kate, standing just above her on the stairs; her brother-in-law Maurice, standing with his arms folded by the coats at the bottom, and Ethan, the first paramedic on scene, hugging his clipboard in the hallway. On the landing above them all is Daniel, Sarah’s fourteen year old son, sitting with his legs crossed, biting his nails.
‘Who are you?’ says Sarah as Maurice shows us in.
‘Hi Sarah. I’m Spence, this is Rae. We’re in the ambulance, just like our colleague Ethan, here.’
‘Show me your identity cards.’
‘Well – I er… I don’t actually have mine on me today, Sarah. I know I should, but it’s just one of those things.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
Rae and Ethan pat themselves down, too, as embarrassed as me not to have a card.
‘But as you can see, we’re wearing our uniforms,’ I carry on. ‘And our ambulance is parked outside.
‘Where?’
‘You can see it just through the window.’
‘What do you want?’
Ethan steps forward and talks to her gently through the stair rails.
‘Do you remember we had that long chat, Sarah? About how - unwell - you were feeling? How you wanted to hurt yourself, and other people? And we went through all the options, and decided in the end maybe the best thing would be to go up the hospital and see a doctor.’
‘What doctor?’
‘One of the doctors at the hospital.’
‘Which one? What’s his name?’
‘I don’t know, Sarah. I haven’t been up there yet. I don’t know who’s on.’
‘You can’t be in the ambulance if you don’t know who the doctor is.’

Sarah is pale and drawn out, trembling on the threshold of something. Her mouth is so dry her words click and crackle. She talks in a superficially rational way, but her arguments turn round and round in aimless loops that promise understanding but keep slipping back and never seem to catch. Everyone takes a turn over the next half an hour or so to stand at the bottom of the stairs and persuade Sarah to come with us, speaking as neutrally and supportively as they can – but in each case, Sarah simply reflects the concern back as flatly as her glasses reflect the light from the front door.

‘Will you let us do some observations, Sarah? Your temperature, blood pressure?’
‘Why?’
‘Because there might be a physical reason why you’re feeling like this.’
‘Feeling like what?’
‘Low and suicidal.’
‘How do you know what I’m feeling?’
‘I don’t – but that’s what you told Ethan, and that’s what your family have said.’
‘What family?’
‘Kate and Maurice. Daniel. Everyone’s worried because you don’t seem yourself.’
‘Are they? I see. Why do they think that?’
‘Because you’re acting out of character.’
‘And why am I acting out of character?’
‘That’s what we’d like to find out, Sarah. That’s why we’d like you to see a doctor. At the hospital.’
‘What doctor?’

We try to arrange for a doctor to come out and see Sarah at home, but suddenly there’s a marked change to the mood of all this.
‘I want you out of my house,’ she says. ‘Get out. Get out of my house.’
‘Sarah – we really can’t leave until we’ve sorted out some help for you. You’re not well.’
‘I’ll call the police.’
‘Why don’t you come down into the lounge, Sarah? We could all have a cup of tea and talk some more about this. How about it?’
‘No! I want you to leave!’
Daniel catches my eye and emphatically shakes his head from side to side. Then he puts his face in his hands and starts to cry.
‘Come on Sarah. Let’s go into the lounge.’
Suddenly she stands up, pushes past her brother-in-law and runs outside. She stands by the recycling bins, leaning forwards with her hands pressed onto her knees and shouts: ‘Help! Help!’ as loudly as she can. Rae and I go outside to stand with her. We try to persuade her to come back in, but every ten seconds or so, when she’s recovered enough breath, she shouts for help again.
I glance back at Ethan; he waves his radio in the air.
‘Sarah? The police are on their way. If you’re behaving like this when they get here, you’ll be taken to the hospital by force. So why not come onto the ambulance with us now? It’ll be so much nicer, and it’ll spare your family all that unpleasantness. Daniel’s pretty upset, you know.’
‘Help!’
Neighbours stare from their windows. People walking by snatch brief, appalled glances in our direction and then hurry past.
Between each scream, Sarah straightens up to look at me. There’s a peculiarly fractured, one dimensional aspect to her expression, a large pair of glasses with two grey eyes, painted flat.

And then, after a few minutes, she turns, holds her dressing-gown around her legs and goes back inside, as if she’d only stepped outside to bring in the milk.

She heads upstairs. Kate has gone up there to comfort Daniel whilst we were out in the street. She sits with her arms round him, and they huddle up closer as Sarah marches to the top of the stairs and sits down on the top step. I stand a couple down from her, within reach if she suddenly lunges forwards.
‘Daniel? You can come to the hospital with me,’ she says.
‘Sarah – please. Don’t do this,’ says Kate, stroking Daniel’s head, and then kissing the top of it. But then Daniel straightens up.
‘Mum? You’re not well. You need help.’
‘I need help, do I? And why do I need help, Daniel?’
‘Because – because you’re not well.’
‘I see. And why am I not well, do you think?’
‘I don’t know. It’s all in your head.’
‘All in my head, is it? You know what they’ll do to me, don’t you? They’ll poison me again – yes? Remember? They’ll pump me full of poison and that’ll do it, do you think?
‘I don’t know Mum. Yes. Maybe.’
‘Well you can come with me, then.’
‘I don’t want to. I just want to go to school.’
‘Why? Who’s at school?’
‘All my friends.’
‘What friends?’
‘I don’t know. Jack. And Graham.’
‘They don’t exist. You’re not going to school. You’re staying here with me.’
‘Mum! Please!’
I try to gently manoeuvre myself between them.
‘Why don’t we go downstairs, have a cup of tea and wait for the police, Sarah? Let’s leave Kate to help Daniel get ready for school.’
Kate takes the cue and stands up with Daniel.
‘No. He’s staying here.’
‘But your behaviour is upsetting him, Sarah.’
‘No. You’re upsetting him. I want you out of my house.’
‘I can’t do that, Sarah. I have to stay here and make sure everyone’s okay.’
‘Get out of my house.’
‘I’m sorry but I’m afraid I can’t.’
‘Get out of my house.’
‘No.’
‘I’ll call the police.’
‘They’ll be here in a minute, Sarah. Daniel – why don’t you go into your bedroom with Auntie Kate for a moment? It’ll be a bit calmer there, and you can – get ready for school.’
They hurry into the bedroom, but Sarah lunges across the hallway to make a grab for the door. She tries to shut herself into the bedroom with Daniel and Kate – but I put myself in the way, jamming the door open with my foot.
‘Get out!’ she says. ‘Get out!’
‘I can’t do it, Sarah. Sorry.’
I look around briefly to see if there’s anything she could use as a weapon. But the only thing within her reach is a collection of Warhammer figurines on the dresser top: trolls, orcs, witches. Some of have fallen over.
Kate has gone to protect Daniel beneath the window. I stand facing Sarah. She has one hand on the door, but although her breathing is hard, her eyes are as flat as before.
I try to make conversation with Daniel about his school, what he likes, what he doesn’t. The whole time I speak, Sarah studies me, waiting to jump.

The police arrive.

After a brief discussion with Ethan and Rae, two officers come up the stairs. The first one comes to take my place in the doorway of the bedroom. I move off just to the side.
‘Hello Sarah,’ he says. ‘My name’s Sergeant Green and this is PC Marchant. What’s been happening today?’
‘Let me see your identity card,’ she says.
‘Certainly.’ He pulls out a battered leather flip-wallet, opens it up and shows it to her. Sarah makes as if to snatch it out of his hands, but he moves it out of the way.
‘Now, now,’ he says. ‘Don’t get all grabby. You asked to see my identity card and there – I’ve shown you. Okay?’ He tucks it back in his stab vest.
‘Who did you say you were again?’ Sarah asks him.
‘Sergeant Green, Sarah. That’s PC Marchant. We’re police officers.’
‘I don’t believe you. I want the police here.’
‘We are the police. Okay?’
‘Show me proof.’
‘Sarah – I’ve shown you my identity card. You can see I’m in a police uniform. I think I’ve done everything I reasonably can to reassure you that I am in fact a police officer. So let’s move on and talk about why we’re here.’
‘You tell me.’
‘No – I’d like to hear your version of things, Sarah.’
‘If you were a real policeman you’d know why.’
‘Sarah – we understand there are concerns you might be unwell.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘The paramedics. And your family.’
‘Get out of my house.’
‘Who’ve you got in the room with you?’
‘No-one.’
‘That’s Kate, Sarah’s sister, and Daniel, her son,’ I say.
Sarah studies me again.
‘Daniel?’ says Sergeant Green. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’
‘He’s not going,’ says Sarah.
‘Why not?’
‘He’s staying here with me.’
‘I think he needs to go to school, don’t you?’
Daniel nods and stands up.
‘It’s a legal requirement, Sarah,’ says the Sergeant.
‘No.’
There’s a pause. Daniel suddenly says:
‘I have to go to the loo, Mum. I’m desperate.’
It’s such a natural and simple thing to ask, a son asking his mother for the toilet. She wavers for a moment, drops her arm. The bathroom is next door to the bedroom; the Sergeant nods for Daniel to come through, and holds the door open for him. Sarah suddenly realises that Daniel will be out of her control once he’s inside, but it’s too late. Daniel closes the door and throws the lock.
‘Come on, Sarah. Let’s go downstairs to the ambulance and have a chat there,’ says Sergeant Green. ‘It’ll be so much easier.’
She slides down the wall and sits in the doorway.
‘No,’ she says. ‘No.’
Kate steps over her to leave the bedroom.
‘I’ll wait for you downstairs, Daniel,’ she calls through the door, then passes us in tears down the stairs.

We review the situation with Sarah in the hallway. It’s clear that whatever the reason for Sarah’s acute onset psychosis, psychological or physiological, she lacks capacity and can’t safely be left at home. The only way to get her to hospital for the urgent treatment she needs is to forcibly remove her. We explain all this to Sarah in an effort to get her to walk out peacefully, but her illness prevents her from seeing sense.

Another police officer arrives in a van.

‘Come on, Sarah. It’s time to get you down to the ambulance.’
‘No! No!’
‘Come on.’
As the three of them go to help her to her feet she attacks them, flailing her arms and fists at their faces, baring her teeth. The officers are ready though and bring her under control, turning her arms first into locks against the wrist and elbow joints, then skilfully manipulating them behind her and cuffing them together at the wrist, whilst the whole time she screams and writhes and clacks her teeth together and does everything she can to escape. When she’s safely restrained on the floor, we all catch our breath. Sergeant Green tries to persuade Sarah to walk out, but when they relax their hold she launches herself up again, kicking her legs out, trying to wrest herself away and throw herself down the stairs. The police officers haul her back again, turn her on her front and bind her legs together at the knees and ankles with Velcro straps.
‘We’ll have to do a carry-out, feet first,’ says Sergeant Green. ‘If we take care of Sarah’s arms and legs, do you think you could control her head?’
On a count of three we lift Sarah into the air, me with my hands either side of her face, stopping her from banging her head into anything. She tries to bite my hands but can’t reach. Even though it’s a tight squeeze we make it down the stairs.
Kate runs back up to comfort Daniel as soon as she can fit past.
Incredibly, Sarah’s glasses are still on, hanging from her nose, about to fall. As we go through the front door I change my grip, freeing a hand just long enough to take the glasses and put them on top of the recycling bin to our right. I imagine our progress caught in the lenses as we pass: a strange group, lurching haphazardly out into the street towards a yellow truck, a blurry row of houses beyond.