It’s a novelty to get a call from a telephone kiosk, certainly one with a door. Most of those have either been torn up, turned into email hubs or works of art. Carl has found what must be the last functioning box in town. He’s still on the phone when we pull up. When I knock on the glass, he frowns and turns his back. I walk round the other side, knock again, and point at the badge on my jacket. Ambulance I mouth. He shakes his head and turns again, only this time the cord on the receiver stops him and he has to reverse, ending up facing back in the original direction.
For a moment I wonder if we’ve got the right person. Maybe the patient left and this guy took his place in the box. That would be embarrassing. I get back to Control. Nope. That’s the right location she says. I’ll get the call taker to speak to the patient.
I wait outside the box. After a while, Carl turns again, squints at me through the glass, shakes his head irritably, and smacks the receiver back on its hook.
I hold the door open for him. He walks out and then stands on the pavement, his arms folded, shivering in the frosty night air.
A sharply pale, ferociously intense young guy in his thirties, Carl looks like the conductor of an orchestra who stepped off the podium, went on a three-week bender, wandered into the zoo and woke up in the lion enclosure. The jacket of his black suit has gone, his white shirt is grimy and untucked, and his black trousers are only held up at the front – at the back, the seat has been ripped away right and left, hanging open, revealing a pair of hideously soggy pants.
‘Shall we get you on the ambulance and have a chat there?’ I ask him. ‘It’s warmer and a bit more private.’
‘I need to go on a detox,’ he says, miserably, lurching up the ambulance steps and onto a seat.
Rae wraps him in a blanket and he sits there, shivering, staring at the floor.
‘I’ve drunk an improbable amount of alcohol,’ he says. ‘I’ve got liver failure. I’ve been having hallucinations. I’m really very, very unwell and I absolutely must go on a detox.’
‘We’ll certainly run you up the hospital – to warm you up, and see about these hallucinations. As far as any kind of referral onto a detox programme, that’s the kind of thing that needs to come from your GP.’
‘Who’s your GP?’ I ask him.
‘My GP is immaterial,’ he says. ‘My GP is a spectacularly ineffective individual who doesn’t care whether I live or die.’
‘I’m sorry to hear you don’t get on with your GP,’ I tell him. ‘Who is it, just for the record?’
‘Just for the record? Dr Death. And just for the record? I will never, ever go back.’
* * *
Carl makes quite an impression as he walks between us into the A&E triage area, holding the blanket open like he froze in the process of wrapping it tighter; the effect is of some ragged little bird with a plume of coal-black feathers on his head, walking with its wings outstretched in some tragic mating ritual. He hops up onto a trolley and perches there, staring down at his over-sized feet. His wings slowly lower around him.
‘Oh dear!’ says a nurse in passing.
Carl tuts, and shakes his head bitterly.
* * *
Once I’ve handed over and checked in Carl’s paperwork, I head outside to the ambulance.
It said on the news that tonight was the best night for seeing meteors from the Geminid shower. The sky is perfectly clear, the stars standing out in great number and depth. I lean back against the bonnet of the ambulance and stare up at the sky for a few minutes. It’s so cold I put on my beanie hat, fold my arms, and wait.
And then – there! Just east of Orion’s Belt. A thin swipe of white against the black. I read somewhere these things are only as big as a grain of sand, travelling so fast they burn up in the atmosphere. You wouldn’t think something so small could make such an impression, but really – it’s so exciting to see it. I can’t help thinking of Jiminy Cricket and the whole wish upon a star thing – although with him it might actually have been a star and not a meteor, I can’t remember. Anyway, when he sees it and makes a wish, the Blue Fairy comes down and turns Pinocchio into a real boy, eventually, after the puppet master and Pleasure Island – Da Rough House! Da Rough House! and a whole lot of other stuff. But there’s so much to be done tonight, so much tidying up and putting right, Rough House or otherwise, it’s just too tall an order, even for a fairy. So I don’t pursue my claim. I settle for having seen a meteor, and climb back into the cab.
Rae brings coffee out.
We sip it, listening to the radio.
It’s all good.