In the foyer of the smart new hotel the manager, his assistant, the breakfast bar cook and the domestic supervisor are standing in a row at the reception counter; behind them against the wall is the projection of a large, white clock.
‘It start at four this morning,’ says the manager, coming round the counter to meet us. ‘This lady acting very strange. She lie down on floor, and when I tell her to get up she bark at me. I say “please don’t treat me like this,” so she sit on sofa and ask if I hear voices like she can hear, and when I say no she draw her finger across her throat like this. I ask her if she sick and need help. She get angry, march outside for cigarette, march back and demand for key to room. I thought maybe if I let her back in she might sleep and get better, so I give her key. But then I call you, because half an hour ago she come back down, throw key at my assistant, then has big argument with herself and marches around the reception going absolutely crazy. I think I not give her keys back again, because I have responsibility and I cannot have person like this wandering around my hotel. And now, whenever we go near her to ask if she want help, she get too mad like this. When I … watch out...’
He stops talking and looks over our shoulder.
‘Here she come,’ he says.
A middle-aged woman is standing just inside the door, her gaunt white face and frizzy blond hair vividly contrasting with the overall black of the rest of her: black leather trench coat, black shirt and leather trousers, black, knee-length, spiky heeled boots.
She stares unblinking between us all, then says with a preternatural calm: ‘I’ll have the key to my room now, please.’
I walk up to her, and as quietly as I can introduce myself and Rae.
‘We’re from the ambulance,’ I tell her. ‘People are worried about you.’
‘No they’re not,’ she spits. ‘Leave me alone. Stop harassing me.’
She pushes past me, her heels clacking on the wooden floor, and walks up to the desk. The assistant manager shrinks back.
‘The keys to my room,’ she says, holding out her hand.
The manager approaches her from the side.
‘I’m sorry, but I cannot give you key to room,’ he says.
‘The keys to my room’
‘No. Please – talk to the ambulance. They here to help.’
‘I am perfectly fine, thank you.’
‘You don’t seem fine.’
She turns on the spot and marches off towards the lifts.
‘No, no,’ says the Manager. ‘Please. I cannot have you in hotel like this.’
‘Take your hands off me!’
‘I not touch you. Look!’
He holds his hands above his head and turns this way and that, appealing for witnesses.
‘You are assaulting me!’
‘We just want to make sure you’re okay,’ I say, hurrying over. ‘Will you have a seat and a chat, just so we can figure out the best thing to do? We need to make sure you’re not unwell.’
‘I do not want your help. Get out.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that. We need to reassure ourselves that everything’s okay.’
Anyone could tell things are far from okay. There’s an intensity about the way she confronts us, a glittering, imploded thing. It feels as if violence or restraint from violence are just two sides to the same thin piece of metal; maybe it’s only the heavy leather coat that’s keeping her from flying round the room and smashing us all to pieces with her tail.
After a moment, she pushes past me and clips quickly back through the lobby to the pavement outside.
A crowd of drunk kids are coming up the street, heading to the railway station for an early train, shouting and fighting between themselves to kick a coke can along the street. I wonder what they’ll do when they reach the woman, who simply stands there, right in their path, lighting a cigarette. And I know I’m tired from a long and busy night, but I swear, when they reach her, they don’t seem to change their course at all, but pass right through her, and the only thing to mark their passage is the rattle of the coke can momentarily gone, and the gentle stirring of the heavy tails of her long, black leather trench coat.