There’s a statue in the centre of town, some minor nobility, a seventeenth century general perhaps, dressed in robes, the garland on his head counterbalanced by the substantial nose, one hand at his side with a scroll, the other outstretched – pointing in the direction of something important, glory, perhaps, or maybe a greater allowance from the public purse. The statue has a rich patina of copper green, supplemented by generous splashes of white; the hand and the nose and the garland are an ideal perches for gulls, keeping watch on the human traffic that flows beneath them right and left along the pavement.
Today, just after twelve, they’re watching an elderly man slumped on the shallow steps around the plinth, a sports bag off to the side, and a younger, cleaner looking guy on a mobile phone glancing up and down the street. Their attention is drawn not so much to the man or the young guy (although you never know what might come of these things), more to the scattering of liquorice allsorts around the old man. There’s too much activity at the moment to jump down and claim the sweets, but they know how to wait.
I’ve met Stanley before. Ex-army. Street drinker. Punchy, creatively obnoxious. I’ve always been struck by the tidiness of his moustache. His coat and trousers may be shiny from sleeping rough, his hands scuffed and filthy, but his moustache still has a parade-ground clip to it.
‘He says he needs help,’ says the young guy, putting his phone away. ‘I don’t know what’s the matter, but he looks in a bad way. I think he’s wet himself.’
‘Okay. Thanks for calling. We’ll be fine now.’
‘Did I do the right thing? I wasn’t sure...’
‘You absolutely did the right thing. It’s kind of you. Thanks for your help.’
He walks off.
‘Hello, Stanley. What’s going on with you today? Do you have any pain?’
We help him sit upright.
‘Yah fuppin’ conks. Ah’ll punch yah fuppin’ brains out. Ah’ll...’
‘Now, now, Stanley. There’s no need for that. We’re here to help you. We’re the ambulance – do you see? The ambulance. Now try to relax your fists and tell me what’s wrong today.’
‘Yah mutha-fuppin’ conk. Ah’ll cut yah. Ah’ll eat yah fuppin’ eyeballs.’
‘Stanley? Look at me? We’re not going to help you if you behave like this. Do you understand? Do not swear at us, please. Just tell us what’s wrong.’
He starts to cry.
‘Mah boys’ he sobs. ‘Mah boys r’all dead. DEAD, yah fuppin’ bandstand. Yah don’ undersand. D’yous? D’yous?’
‘I’m sorry to hear it, Stanley. First things, first, though. It’s all a bit public here. Why don’t we get you on the ambulance and have a chat about it there? Yes? Come on. We’ll carry your bag.’
We help him up. He walks heavily, dragging his feet and pitching forwards, so we have to take a firm hold of his arms and shoulders. People make way for us, some of them looking horrified, some of them laughing. I know it must look as if we’re arresting the guy, but we can’t help it. He needs firm handling or he’ll have us all in the flowerbed.
‘Three steps up.’
Rae just has time to put a couple of inco pads down on the trolley before Stanley lands himself there. He seems to fall asleep instantly, and gives me an evil look when I prod him awake again.
‘Tell us what’s going on today, Stanley.’
He stares at me without talking.
‘Come on, Stanley. Enough with the Paddington Bear act. How are you feeling?’
He starts to laugh, a phony, pantomime-villain chuckle.
‘Don’t mess about, Stanley. Let’s have your arm out of your coat and we’ll do your blood pressure at least. Sit forwards for me.’
It’s a struggle. We’re both conscious of his fists as we work.
‘There. Thank you. Now then. Tell me what’s wrong.’
‘Yah fuppin’ conk. Yah think yah sah brave, doncha? Yah mutha-fuppin’ conk. Ahm gonna rip yah heart out an’ feed it ta ma dog.’
‘What dog? Look – do you need our help, Stanley? If not, we’ll just release you back into the wild. Is that what you want? Do you want to get off the ambulance?’
‘Fine. Let me go.’
We undo the cuff and help him to sit up. He starts to fumble around in the pockets of his coat, eventually pulling out a wad of old letters, bus tickets and about thirty pounds cash.
‘Is tha’ enough to get some food?’ he says, holding it out.
‘Yes. You’ve got plenty there. So off you go and get yourself something nice.’
‘Fine. Okay. Yah fuppin’ conks, yous.’
We help him back down the steps and watch as he staggers back in the direction of the statue.
Five minutes later, the back of the ambulance cleaned up, we’re just about to climb in the cab and drive off when we see a young couple with a husky dog standing over Stanley at the foot of the statue. He’s sprawled there again, one arm raised up to the foot of the statue in a heroic attitude of suffering.
We go over to see what’s happening.
‘Oh! Hello! That was quick!’ says the young guy, taking the phone away from his ear. His girlfriend, the one with the dog, smiles at us. They’re both so incredibly cool – the dog, too, who pants and smiles benignly and seems ready to offer whatever help it can.
‘I think he’s having a heart attack or something. He said for me to call,’ says the young guy. ‘I hope I did the right thing.’
‘Yep. Absolutely. It’s kind of you to stop like this. We’ll sort things out from here.’
‘Thanks guys,’ he says.
‘We should totally work for the ambulance’ says the girl. ‘We made a call yesterday, too.’
‘I’ll give you a cut of my wages’ I tell her. ‘I think that’s only fair.’
She laughs, and they all wander off.
I pull on some fresh gloves and lean over Stanley. The gulls have cleaned up most of the liquorice allsorts.
I reach out and squeeze his shoulder, and say his name in a weary, sing-song kind of way: ‘Stanley, Stanley, Stanley’
He turns and squints up at me.
‘Yah fuppin conk’ he says.