The unmade road up to the standby-point has a frontier roughness. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a clapperboard saloon and an undertaker with coffins propped up on the rail; instead, the little magnolia-painted prefab is set between a social club for serial killers and a mean-looking garage with a dozen cut-and-shuts dump-parked out front.
At five o’clock in the morning, it couldn’t be more wonderful.
It’s been another busy night (another night, in other words.). We’re both too tired to say or do or think much of anything. On the drive out of town to the standby-point it starts to rain, a thin, dispiriting drift against the windscreen, irradiated by the street lamps, soft and unrelenting. Rae is so low down, her knees braced on the dash, it’s like she’s being subsumed by her chair. It’s happening to me, too. I can feel the plastic of the steering wheel creeping up my arms, whilst the rain falls and clears against the windscreen. Speckle. Wipe. Speckle. Wipe. Speckle. Wipe.
I slap my face and turn the radio up.
‘Huh?’ says Rae.
‘I’m falling asleep.’
But then suddenly, incredibly, I seem to be outside the standby-point watching Rae punch in the door combination.
I turn to watch a car pass below us along the main drag, and I feel a great bond of sadness with the driver.
What brought us to this? Where did we go wrong?
But Rae is in and I’m following, and suddenly I’m warm and perfect in a beautiful recliner. The TV is as automatic as the lights in this place. A Countdown repeat. It’s all so safe and regular and predictable I could sob. I settle back, and free-fall Alice-style down a very deep hole, peopled with consonants and smiles and self-eating clocks.
* * *
‘Who are you?’
‘The ambulance. You buzzed us through. Who do you think?’
I don’t actually say the last two things but I think them so hard she must have heard.
‘Come on then,’ she says.
Bea tuts and grumps her way ahead of us down the corridor. A thin, middle-aged woman with a demeanour as bracing as a can-opener; if it wasn’t for the zip on her anorak, she’d fly into pieces.
‘They’re here!’ says Bea, tossing the announcement ahead of her into Maggie’s room like a stun grenade.
We follow her in.
Maggie has woken up with a racing heart. She has AF; sometimes it cuts loose and fills her chest with stampeding horses.
‘Calm down!’ says Bea. ‘You mustn’t get like this.’
Maggie is wet with sweat, trembling, clutching onto my left hand as I take her pulse with my right.
‘What have you done with your medication?’ says Bea, rootling around behind us amongst a pile of old newspapers and letters. ‘And where’s your jacket? Are you taking your jacket? You have to take your jacket. Just calm down and think.’
Rae yawns and heads back out to the truck to fetch a chair.
‘Let’s just take a moment,’ I say. ‘Keys, medication, reading glasses. It’s cold outside but we’ve got plenty of blankets. We’ll wrap you up snugly.’
‘Maggie’s got schizophrenia, arthritis and a new hip. And don’t forget to tell him about the gabapentin, Maggie. Maggie! Tell him about the gabapentin.’
‘Just – one step at a time,’ I say to Bea, palming my hand up and down in the space between us. It’s like playing whack-a-mole with a banshee. Every time I pat her down, she pops up somewhere else.
‘Were you … thinking of coming with her?’ I say, adjusting the oxygen mask around Maggie’s face.
‘Me? No. I’ve got things to do. I can’t just come to the hospital. I’ll ring later and find out how she’s doing. Maggie? I say I’ll ring later and find out how you’re doing. Just calm down, will you? You’re getting all worked up.’
I glance at my watch. I count Maggie’s resps, whilst at the same time visualising the distance to hospital, the handover, the transfer, the ride back to base.
‘Everything’s going to be okay,’ I say, releasing her hand.
Rae comes in with the chair and sets it up with an expert flick of her hands.
‘It’s all going to be fine,’ I say to Maggie, helping her to sit up. ‘We’ll be there before you know it.’