The church has been converted into a homeless shelter. Just inside the worn arched entrance, a smart Plexiglas security door with electronic key pad. Laminate steps into a blond-wood lobby, potted plants, counter like a smart hotel, a little backroom of monitors and screens, and remote control of the doors that lead left and right into the body of the place. A rack of donated, expiring sandwiches: Help yourself.
The only sense of the church around us are in certain features that have been left on show for architectural interest: a worn angel buttress, a limestone pillar, a stained glass window protected by a grille.
‘She’s sitting on a sofa.’
Buzzed through the door on the left.
Even though we’ve been told Jade is thirty, looking at her sitting there, her body wasted by years of drinking, face blurry and red, hair as sharp as a nylon wig, you can only trust she is actually that age; like the bad waxworks model of a celebrity, you only get it if you unfocus your eyes and think around the fact.
‘Why’ve we been called tonight, Jade?’
‘I feel like I’m going to fit.’
Even though Rae is extremely thorough in her examination, everything seems normal. Jade becomes more restless as the meeting goes on, changing her story to introduce other, non-specific complaints in a fishing kind of way, but Rae establishes that nothing acute has happened tonight. There are no worrying symptoms, nothing that needs urgent attention.
‘But I might fit,’ says Jade.
‘Well if that were to happen, the staff here can call us back. As it stands now, though, Jade, I’m struggling to think of a reason to take you up the hospital. Especially tonight, with it being so crowded. If we took everyone up who thought something was going to happen, you wouldn’t get in the door. It’s a job to get in the door as it is.’
‘I want to go on the detox.’
‘I think that’s a good thing to do,’ says Rae, quietly folding her steth away. ‘But that’s something you need to arrange through your GP, okay? Not at the hospital tonight.’
There’s another church feature on the wall just behind Jade: a broad commemorative mosaic, a group scene, Jesus seated in his robes, a child on his lap, a crowd of people around. Jesus is resting his right hand on the child’s head, reaching out to a kneeling woman on his left. There are sculpted trees around them, a sky in three kinds of blue, the whole scene vibrantly alive in the way that mosaics often are. It strikes me that you could put together a similar plaque for Rae, seated in green this time, a crowd of patients around her, some dressed in slacks and dirty tees, some in nicer things. But if you wanted to be true to the experience, you’d have to mix up the expressions on the faces as well as the clothes. You’d need some looking on gratefully, happily, relieved – and then just a couple, in the foreground maybe, or sat on a nearby wall, looking like Jade does now. But it might be too difficult in a mosaic. Maybe beatific smiles are easier to catch than frowns.
‘So you’re not taking me?’
‘No, Jade. You don’t need to go. But there’s nothing to stop you taking yourself up there if you really want to go to hospital tonight.’
We stand to go.
She calls to us just before the door closes.
‘What am I supposed to do then?’
‘Get some rest,’ says Rae, gently. ‘Just – rest.’
A dark figure is smoking outside under the security lights. Smoke billows around him, drawn up by the thermal action of the lights. Just for a moment it looks like he’s falling, a devil on fire, spiralling into the earth. But if he is, he’s pretty sanguine about it.
‘Busy?’ he says, tapping the ash to one side.
The cab of the ambulance feels good and warm.