The big screen at the back of the burger restaurant is playing Van Wilder. The place is empty, near to closing, and it’s strange to see this cavernous room, as high and square as a power station, utterly devoid of life. The characters up on the screen are having some hilarious, high-definition relationship problems, but we don’t take a seat to watch. Instead we carry on to the back of the room, to the security pad at the side of the toilet door, where Rae taps in the numbers.
Janine is doubled over in a cubicle, hyperventilating. Her boyfriend Tom is standing next to Clara, the paramedic first on scene. A tall, red-faced young man with a mild expression, Tom looks pleasantly embarrassed, like someone who’d just been asked up on stage to help a magician. He smiles at us as we introduce ourselves, swinging Janine’s bag from side to side in a diffident kind of way.
‘I’ve been trying to coach Janine’s resps back to normal but not having a great deal of luck so far,’ says Clara, straightening up. ‘Let’s get you out of here onto a chair at least,’ she says to Janine, who has started making dramatic gasping noises, sucking in her cheeks and cupid-bowing her mouth like a cartoon fish. ‘Try to remember what I said – in through the nose, hold it a little, out through the mouth… that’s it… you hold the key to feeling better, Janine. You’re perfectly safe. Come on. Take my hand…’
Back out in the restaurant and there’s an advert break playing. Loud, fast images, shaky zoom shots, white teeth, laughter and overflowing drinks, cars and crowds and perfect sunsets, the whole thing thumping over our heads into the void of the empty restaurant.
‘I – can’t – tell my – dad. He’s had a – stroke. This’ll – kill him.’
‘No-one’s telling anyone anything, Janine. Don’t worry about that now. Let’s just focus on getting your breathing right. When you’re feeling better we’ll see about the rest.’
‘But – my dad!’
She takes a few more deep breaths, then slumps across the table.
‘She’s been doing this a fair bit, too,’ says Tom, blushing. ‘What is it? Has she fainted?’
‘Well – you see it sometimes with anxiety attacks,’ says Clara. ‘Don’t worry. She’s not unconscious or anything. I think it’s just emotionally exhausting for her. Plus over-breathing like that makes you dizzy. But she hasn’t passed-out as such. Have you – hey? Hello!’ Clara hooks the hair away from Janine’s face, who immediately arches her back and starts breathing rapidly again.
‘Come on. Let’s get you out to the ambulance. I can’t hear myself think in here,’ says Clara. ‘And it’s making me hungry.’
We all get up and make our way out to the truck.
There are two customers in the front part of the restaurant by the doors. The one facing me stares as we pass, a cluster of fries poised in front of his mouth. I nod at him and raise my eyebrows, which seems to work, because he suddenly reanimates, cramming the fries in by turning his hand from side to side, and then pouting up to a drinks straw to wash it all down.
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about her,’ says Tom. ‘Her name and where she lives. But that’s it. This was our first date.’
‘Your first date?’
‘I know! I thought it was going pretty well. We went for a few drinks in the pub, nothing crazy. In fact, she said she was going to drink me under the table. But we hardly had anything and then it all kicked off. So – not much of a competition, as it turns out.’
‘I think you’re being incredibly supportive, Tom. Janine’s lucky to have met you.’
‘You think? It doesn’t look good though, does it? A panic attack on your first date. I didn’t think I was that bad.’
He checks his phone.
‘Sorry. I’ve got to keep an eye on the time,’ he says. ‘If I miss the last bus I’ve got a long walk home. It’s a college day tomorrow.’
Janine vomits noisily into a bowl. I tuck her hair away from the mess, give her some tissues and replace the bowl with a fresh one.
‘There! Better?’ I say.
But she groans and starts hyperventilating again, slumping forwards to press her forehead onto her knees.
‘You’ll feel better if you sit up straight, Janine. Come on. Open your eyes for me. Think about slowing that breathing down. In through the nose, hold it, out through the mouth…’
Tom checks his phone again.
‘What are you studying at college?’ I ask him.
‘Plumbing and stuff.’
He puts Janine’s bag on the end of the trolley and then stands at the back door.
‘One thing’s for sure,’ he says, as Rae opens it for him. ‘Boilers are a lot easier to figure out than people. Anyway – catch you later.’And he hurries off into the night.