It’s been such an incredibly busy night, I hardly know what to do with myself. I feel punch-drunk, brutalised. No sooner did we clear up than another job came through, everything from the most serious to the most trivial, from a young guy with a life-threatening head injury to a drunk teenager vomiting all over the place. The fact that there was only patchy cover made it worse, especially late on in the shift. Everyone was out of sync, off patch. We ended up travelling distance to get to jobs, twice out to a town east of the city. And now, just before the end of our shift, with the relief crews almost on base ready to take over, another call comes through, back to that same town. We’ve already asked if there was anything Control could do to sit on the job for a few minutes until someone fresh could go. It’s a low priority job, after all. The Dispatcher was sympathetic, but her hands were tied. The only reason for us not to respond would be if we booked sick. But if we did, the whole shift would be marked absent. Given the level of work, that would feel like a major sacrifice.
‘Mobile,’ I say, pushing the button.
Never has that word or that action felt so wretched.
Rae drives smoothly and quickly. I try to shrug it off, this feeling in my chest, an ugly grey weight of exhaustion and resentment. Rae feels the same, but we talk each other up. After all, how bad could it be? Here we are at the top of the day, the morning fresh, the sea running clear and bright. There’s a fishing boat out there, gathering lobster pots. I imagine what it must be like on that boat. I wonder if he notices us, the tiny ambulance on the distant shore, racing along the coast road.
Helen is sitting on the side of her bed, anxiously turning the hem of her nightie over and over in her hands.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what to do. Shall I get dressed before I have a wash, or after?’
Rae spots an ambulance sheet on the sideboard.
‘Did you have an ambulance out earlier on?’ she says.
‘I’m not in trouble am I?’ says Helen.
‘No, no. We just want to make sure you’re okay.’
‘Same thing,’ says Rae, reading the form. ‘Anxiety.’ Then she points to a folder on a table, stuffed full of ambulance sheets.
‘Quite a collection,’ she says.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ says Helen. ‘But I didn’t know what to do. I’m going to the Day Centre this morning. They’re picking me up at nine thirty. Do you think I should go? I haven’t got my tights on. Should I put my tights on, do you think? I can’t breathe.’
‘You can breathe, Helen. You’re talking to me perfectly fluently, your SATS are fine, there’s nothing physically wrong with you. I think you’re just getting a bit het up. Don’t you think? Has that been a problem for you lately?’
‘I’m not getting into trouble, am I?’
‘No. Like I say, we just need to make sure you’re okay and have everything you need. Maybe it’ll be worth having a word with your doctor later today. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. Please help me.’
‘Have you had your medication this morning? I can see here you take some pills to help calm you down.’
‘I can’t have them before I eat.’
‘Shall I make you some toast and a cup of tea? Then you can take your meds.’
‘I haven’t had a wash yet.’
‘Maybe you could have something to eat first, have some pills to help calm you down, then have a wash and get dressed. What do you think?’
‘Oh. I don’t know. I haven’t got my tights on.’
Helen is such a lightning rod of anxiety, she seems to draw it out from everything, to feed on the latent fuss around her, from the heavy brown furniture, the soft toys in their plastic wrappings, the cluttered pictures and plates, the trinkets piled up around the place – and weirdly, out of me, too. Because for whatever reason, the more time I spend with her, the more my own anxiety and exhaustion seem to lift. Her distraction is cancelling out my own.
‘You’re going to be fine,’ I say, squeezing her hand. ‘Everything’s fine.’
‘What about my tights?’
‘You can put them on if you want, Helen, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t. It’s up to you. Whatever way, tights or no tights, it’s going to be fine.’