I’ve been to this estate many times over the years. I could lay the jobs out in front of me like cards from an urban pack of Tarot: King of Cups; The Needle; Queen of Acopia; Misfortune. But today the sun is out, and the daisies in the grassed areas are shining and white. Even the fly-tipped mattress and fridge have an artful look about them. There's a tangle of scaffolding outside the main entrance on this side. Half of the flats have already been fitted with new windows, and the fresh PVC is as strikingly white as the daisies.
We were called to an MS patient who’d fallen on the floor whilst moving between his wheelchair and the bed. He’d been smoking a fine, fat doobie at the time, and his room was royally hung with smoke.
‘Thanks guys!’ he shouted. ‘I love what you do! It’s amazing!’
He was so high, we could’ve tied a ribbon round his ankle and floated him up. Once we had him safely on the bed, he rolled around with the sheer pleasure of it, then told us his story whilst we checked him over. How he’d been perfectly healthy up until about six years ago. How the MS had put him in a wheelchair. ‘But what the hell! I’ve still got me health – well, the MS aside, of course. But seriously, though. I’m grand, fellas. Just grand.’ He planned to do a parachute jump in the summer. ‘That’s about the only thing left on my list! I used to climb mountains, you know. But sure I’m still good enough to boot out of a plane.’
As I step from the lobby back outside the sunshine is so intense I have to screw my eyes up. The shredded plastic sheeting hanging from the scaffolding flaps gently above us in the breeze, and for a moment it feels as if the whole place – the blocks and ramps, the concrete gulleys and the bald swatches of grass between them –it feels as if everything is gently stirring and moving and shaking itself in happy anticipation of the summer.
A gang of kids appears over the brow, coming down the slope in ones and twos, the smallest of them a straggling, knot-haired girl of about seven leading a brindle-coloured whippet on a length of rope. As soon as they catch sight of the ambulance they all speed up and run down the slope to investigate, the little girl and the dog tripping along behind.
‘What happened, mister?’
‘Did someone die?’
‘Shut up!’ says the girl at the front. ‘He’s not allowed to say!’
Another girl gets a dig in the ribs, and the digger gets a kick.
The whippet sniffs the back wheel, and the little girl reaches out to touch the ambulance decals, shining in the sun.
‘Don’t worry,’ I tell them, throwing my bag in the back of the truck. ‘Everything’s fine.’
It’s meant to be reassuring, but in truth they look disappointed. After a minute or two they move away, and stare as we get into the cab. Once it seems as if nothing much else is going to happen, no sirens or dangerous driving, they lose interest, and carry on over to a utilitarian brick building I hadn’t noticed before. More bunker than recreation hall, it’s windows are covered with a protective grille. All around the grille is a bright mural – animals, flowers, people, all made out of scavenged materials, scraps of wood, bent metal and old patterned plates broken up into mosaic tiles and stuck on with grout. The gang of kids drape themselves over the railings that run in front of the building, waiting. Eventually, slightly out of breath and walking with a limp, a middle-aged woman comes down the slope and meets up with them in front of the building. She hunts in her pocket for a key, and grumps her way past them all to get to the door. The only one of the gang to pay her any attention is the whippet, who sniffs her tracksuit pockets.
Once the door is open, all the kids try to run inside at once, fighting each other in the crush, ignoring the woman, who shouts and waves her arms ineffectually as she gets swept away in the tidal wave. Only the little girl with the dog hangs back. She gives the ambulance once last look, then, with the doorway finally clear, she shrugs, and with a little tug on the dog’s rope, skips inside.