The next day – the second of two car shifts – I’m called to a twenty-three year old male collapsed in the street with a presenting complaint of back given out.
It’s Ricky again. A different part of town, but just as public.
He’s sitting in the middle of a pedestrian precinct, calmly rolling a cigarette whilst two police community support officers in yellow jackets stand over him, one on the radio, one writing in a notebook.
‘Ah! Here we are!’ says the one with the notebook, putting it away.
‘Hello!’ I say, dropping my bags down. ‘Hello, Ricky!’
‘You know this one?’
‘Yep. I met him yesterday. Similar deal. Although he’s looking a bit brighter this morning. How are things, Ricky?’
He ignores me, and concentrates on the cigarette.
‘It was a call from a member of the public,’ says the first PCSO. The other one has finished on the radio, and stands there with her arms folded, on guard, looking around.
‘Ricky wasn’t seen to fall or anything. He just decided to sit down. We were only round the corner. When we asked him what was wrong he said his back had given out.’
‘Is that right, Ricky? Is it back pain today?’
He shrugs, lights his fag.
‘Do you normally suffer with that?’
‘I’ve got complex mental health needs,’ he says, spitting a strand of tobacco off to the side.
‘How did you get on at the hospital the other day?’
‘They kicked me out.’
The second PCSO leans in.
‘I understand that Ricky was asked to leave by security. Isn’t that right?’
He looks in the other direction.
‘Well. I don’t think you need go to hospital today,’ I tell him. ‘There’s a Walk-In Health Centre just around the corner – I mean, literally, fifty yards...’
I point it out.
‘...so what you could do is walk over there and talk to someone about your back. How’s that sound?’
‘You haven’t checked me over or anything. You don’t know me.’
‘Do you want checking over, then? I’d have to call an ambulance again. Or do you think the Walk In centre might be better?’
‘I’m not going there. It’s full of people. I’d have to wait.’
‘Yes – well – I’m afraid that’s a bit of a national problem, Ricky. It’s been in all the papers. It’s no different at A and E. In fact, I’d say it’s worse.’
He closes his eyes and carries on smoking.
‘We can deal with this if you need to get off,’ says the first PCSO.
Our group is a little island of incident in the centre of the busy precinct. The crowd flows around us, anonymous, unstoppable, hardly giving a second look. You’d think we’d be safe in our yellow jackets, but still a woman almost crashes into us. She’s talking on her phone, not watching where she’s going. The second PCSO sees her coming, though, and gently guides her round. For a moment the woman looks up, as shocked as if the air had unexpectedly crystallised in front of her. Ricky isn’t bothered. He carries on smoking, as calmly as before.
I’m squatting down next to him. And just for a second I can see things from his angle. Despite everything, despite the wild, Rasputin beard, the extravagant headphones and the filthy parka jacket, despite the over-stuffed rucksack and the tatty bedroll, despite the focused and hostile detachment, plumped down here on the pavement in the middle of the day, in the middle of everything – despite all this, Ricky is effectively invisible. He just doesn’t figure. No one meets his eye – and if by accident they do, they quickly look away.
And it strikes me that Ricky’s high-profile collapses are just a crude way of testing the limits of his invisibility, a way of proving to himself he still exists.
Of course, he brings me crashing back to pavement level, leaning over and grinding out my empathy as ruthlessly as his cigarette.
‘I’m gonna have you struck off for not caring,’ he says.