The first thing you notice about Colin’s flat is the smell, a rank and cloying cheesiness that immediately has you panting through your mouth like a dog. The second are the many squares of paper stuck over the walls and cupboard doors – crudely handwritten slogans: You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps and I’m about to go nuckin’ futs and The floggings will continue until morale improves, and so on. In one alcove is a tall, black bookcase, each shelf given over to a fussy collection of figurines: the first two, native Americans, the next, witches and warlocks, the next elves and faeries, the very top shelf taken up by three wax skulls, one of them horned. Each shelf has a handwritten notice: You can look but do NOT touch. Each time Colin has written it, he’s made some kind of mistake and crossed it out furiously, until the very last notice on the top shelf beneath the skulls which, from here at least, looks relatively neat and clean.
Colin is rocking backwards and forwards in an old rocking chair, his filthy white towelling robe gaping open across a distended, waxy white abdomen, the scar of an old laparotomy straining like the zip on an overstuffed bag. Colin is talking as we come into the room, an excitable jabbering that would be surprising at any time of day; at three o’clock in the morning, in this stinking, airless room, it’s quite overwhelming.
‘Six point three it was! Six point three! So I checked it again and blow me, it was down a point! I’ve kept a record of the tests for the past few weeks – look! Here! That’s me, there! It’s never usually that up and down, so I was very confused by that. I’d just finished watching my DVD and I thought – hey! I don’t feel right. So I got my kit out and gave it a bash, and look – see? How it’s up and down? I’ve had some food and something to drink. I’ve done my injections exactly as I’m supposed to. So how d’you account for it? Or is it just me? Have I got completely the wrong end of the stick? I ‘spect you think I’m I right old duffer. Hey? Hey?’
Luckily, Rae’s attending. She drops straight in to get-out-quick mode, each question direct and sharply illuminating, like an emergency beacon that starts to flash as soon as it hits the water.
We’re out of the flat in five minutes. Even the lift smells sweet.
Nerys the pat nurse looks at me and shakes her head as I’m cleaning up in the triage area.
‘That’s the third dreadful patient you’ve brought me tonight,’ she says. ‘What did I ever do to you?’
She’s right. I do feel bad.
The first was a disruptive mental health patient, who ended up charging round the department knocking things over, or standing stock-still and freaking everyone out with a weird smile; the second was a creepy drunk guy with neck pain who made inappropriate comments from where he lay immobilised on his trolley.
‘They gave us grief, too,’ I tell her. ‘Don’t forget, that first patient tried to throw herself out of the ambulance and I spent the whole time wrestling with her in the back. And neck pain guy, we had to immobilise him in his dodgy flat, listen to him for an hour whilst we waited for back-up, then carry him down four flights of stairs. And he wasn’t light.’
‘Yeah? Am I supposed to feel sorry for you? At least you get to drop them off and walk out. We have to sit with them for hours.’
She’s got a point. That’s one benefit of working on the ambulance. You get limited exposure to the difficult patients.
‘I’ll make it up to you,’ I tell her.
‘I’ll think of something.’
‘Yeah? I can’t wait to hear it.’
At four o’clock in the morning, she may be waiting a while.