Laura’s face is puce from the cold. She reminds me of those kits that turn your fist into a face – the staring eyes, the mussed wig, a circle of red around the thumb-mouth, rolling out the words in an alcoholic gurn.
‘My mum’s a doctor, yeah? My brother, my sister. My dad. We’re all in the same fing, yeah? So it’s like – I know what you do, okay? I know what you’re talking about...’
Each time she comes to a pause she closes her eyes and leans forward, jerking awake when we ask her something else.
‘Why have you called us tonight, Laura?’
She staggers through a list of things, crying sometimes, laughing out of the blue. Apart from being cold her obs are normal, though. It looks as if she called 999 when the shop doorway was just too much to bear.
‘I don’t think you need the hospital,’ says Rae. ‘Where were you thinking of staying tonight?’
Laura isn’t forthcoming. She’s warm on the ambulance, it’s well lit, things are happening. She’s wary of admitting anything that might end up with her sitting in the doorway again.
‘I think we should try to get you somewhere,’ says Rae.
The nearest shelter turns us down.
‘Sorry guys. It’s not technically freezing tonight. We’re not taking any walk-ins.’
‘So you can’t give her a spot tonight?’
‘We’re full. The other shelters will say the same. Below zero and it’s special measures, otherwise...’
‘It feels pretty cold out in that wind.’
He shakes his head.
‘Where did you say she’d been staying...?’
We make a couple more phone calls, but get no luck.
‘It’s either back out on the street or come with us up the hospital. That’s all we can do for you tonight,’ says Rae.
‘I’m sick!’ says Laura. ‘I’ll kill myself.’
‘Okay. Hospital it is.’
Laura pushes her hair back and folds her face into something like a smile.
Five minutes into the trip Laura wakes up.
‘I’ve got three kids,’ she says. ‘Mum took two and the oldest went for adoption. I’m not proud of that. I’ve tried, you know? It’s a sickness. My dad died of it, the booze and everything. I’ve done what I could. I’ve done all the programmes. I will get better. I won’t give up. I want to help people, in the medical way. I could totally do it. I just need to get clean...’
She trails off, seems to go to sleep again, but a bump in the road shakes her into a different line of thought.
‘Hey! I was in the Co-op the other day. I was just standing there, you know...’ She does a naughty child mime, arms folded, looking around... ‘When all of a sudden, all these crisps, yeah? All these fucking crisps start flying off the shelves, all around me! And I’m like – what the fuck...? I was just standing there, and all these crisps... fucking hell! ... Don’t even ask what flavour...’
She laughs, suddenly having a great time. She pushes the hair out of her face and looks at me with her eyes wide for the first time.
‘But you know what? That shit happens to me all the time. My mum’s psychic. It runs in the family.’
She settles back in the seat.
The moment passes. She smacks her lips and looks around her feet for something. Another jolt in the road changes her focus again.
‘Are you gonna give Tango a ring?’ she says.
‘Tango? Who’s that?’
‘Where’s he tonight?’
She slurs the name of a place. When I get her to say it more slowly, I realise it’s the name of one of the hostels we’d talked about earlier.
‘Why can’t you stay with Tango tonight?’
‘They won’t let me.’
She mumbles something, and starts picking at a scab on the knuckle of her index finger.
‘Laura? Why won’t they let you stay there?’
‘I beat up his key worker,’ she says.