We’re on our way to a routine job when we spot them: two men, struggling to help up an elderly man who’s sitting on the pavement. They’re looking around for help, presumably to ask someone to phone for an ambulance.
We pull up alongside. I open the cab door and climb out.
The first guy takes a moment to register who I am, stunned by the fact he’s only had to think about an ambulance for one to show up.
‘Can you help us?’ he says, struggling with the guy, an old man in a khaki cap and shiny overcoat. There’s an unzipped holdall beside him on the pavement, the neck of a bottle of whisky poking out of the middle, conveniently to hand.
‘Did you see him fall?’
‘No. He was just lying there. No-one else seemed that bothered.’
‘Can you take over?’ says the other guy.
‘Sure! We’ll be fine, now. Thanks for your help.’
‘No worries,’ says the first. I thought they were together, but after exchanging a brief, rather surprised look, they walk off in separate directions.
After we’ve reassured ourselves the old guy hasn’t hurt himself, we help him up and, guiding his legs giant-puppet-style, we walk him up the ambulance steps and land him safely on our trolley.
Rae fetches in the holdall.
‘There! That’s better! Now then. My name’s Spence. This is Rae. Can I ask what your name is?’
His head lolls from side to side, his eyes open but unfocused.
‘What do we call you?’ I ask him again. ‘Hey?’
He turns his face in the approximate direction of my voice and opens his mouth to talk – or rather, he tips his head back and releases a gargle of unshaped sounds, floating out on a cloud of vapours. Once he’s decided enough noise has been made to satisfy the request for information, he stretches his lips a little more to reveal a motley collection of stumps, and laughs.
Even if it wasn’t for the bottle of whisky you’d guess he was drunk. A distillery would smell sweeter.
‘George!’ says Rae, who’s found a bus pass in the holdall.
‘S’it,’ says George, his head wobbling so dangerously if it wasn’t for the roll of blanket behind him it’d be in danger of falling right off his shoulders. ‘Orrargh!’
The effort of saying his own name exhausts him. He deflates into sleep, slides a little down the trolley, his cap pushed forwards across his face.
I give him a pinch and take his cap off, and he’s suddenly awake again, paddling his arms in the air like the Moro reflex in a baby.
‘Marrghm!’ he cries out, his eyes wide open again, staring up at me.If he thinks I’m his mum, no wonder he’s surprised. Given his age, she must have been dead these past twenty years.