Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The man in the dark suit

I acknowledge the message, book us mobile, then scroll down to read the details. The first part of the message: OS Red Spot Casino, The Marina. Overdose/Poisoning/Psychiatric/Suicide attempt.
J. groans. 'This night just gets better and better.'
Then an addition: Warning - weapons involved. Pls stand off and await police assist.
And again: Man armed with explosives. Hearing voices. Wearing a Brazilian football shirt.
J. calls up Control to get an ETA for the police on scene. Is told approximately ten minutes. As an afterthought he says: 'This patient is obviously insane. Argentina are a much better team.'
The airway crackles blankly.
'Joke,' he says, but the radio is a tough audience tonight, and remains silent.
He groans again and makes himself comfortable as I head off down the road towards the marina.

A few streets from our destination J. tells me to stand-off on the ramp that leads down to the supermarket at the edge of the marina. 'The police will have to pass us to get to the scene, and it's high enough up so we can see what's going on,' he says. Uncannily, just as he finishes explaining his plan, Control sends us another message: Rendezvous with police in supermarket car park.
'Crap idea,' he says. 'But if that's what they want...'
I turn on to the ramp and follow it round and down towards the mini roundabout at the end where we need to turn left into the car park.
As I reach the end of the ramp I see a man in a Brazilian football shirt walking towards us from our right.
J. is immediately awake, slapping me on the arm and mock-squealing. We are straightaway two schoolboys on the dodgems.
'Go round! Go round!' he screams.
'Argh! He's following us!' I shout back.
'Go round again!'
'He's heading us off!'
'Quick! Turn left! No - right! No - Left! Go into the car park and drive to the other side.'
The crazy man in the football shirt makes an ineffectual lunge at the vehicle as I pass, but I make it through and drive off around the supermarket car park. I drive way out across to the other side. As our giggles subside I notice a tall, smartly dressed figure in a dark suit and white shirt standing on his own in the centre of the carpark by a trolley station. He makes a minimum turn of the head to watch us as we drive past.
'What's wrong with everyone tonight?'
J. sighs and rubs his face.
I reach the far side of the car park and stop the vehicle. The engine clicks as I stare out across the bleakly illuminated space.
'Is he coming?'
'I'm not sure. He's thinking about it.' Then: 'Yep. He's headed right this way.'
We scan the car park. No police.
'This is ridiculous,' J. says. 'We can't keep driving round the car park. It's like the Benny Hill Show.'
The man in the football shirt is half way across to us by this point.
'I can't see any thing that looks like a bomb.'
Almost at us, walking with a purposeful slouch, like a player walking back to the bench after a red card. Disappointed, tired - but homicidal? I don't know enough about these things to tell. Does anyone?
J. hits the central locks button and the mechanism engages with a reassurring thunk.
The man stops, his arms straight down by his sides, and stands neutrally, a little away from my window.
I smile at him and nod, polite to the last.
He waits for me to lower the window.
So I lower the window.
'Why did you drive away from me?' he says. He shivers and folds his arms.
'Sorry about that,' I say. 'We've been told not to approach you because you're armed with explosives.'
He shrugs.
'Have you got any explosives on you?' I am profoundly conscious that this is probably the first and last time I will ever ask anyone this question.
He shrugs again, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a mother of pearl cigarette lighter. 'This is all I have. I only said what I said because I need help. I have to go to hospital tonight.' He taps his head. 'I'm not well up here.' He takes a tentative step closer. 'Please. Can I come on board? It is very cold.'
J. leans across me and says: 'Well - you shouldn't go telling people you're going to blow yourself up, mate.'
'I'm sorry. It was a mistake.'
J. makes an irritable gesture to a bench a little way ahead of us. 'Go and sit on that and wait til the police get here.'
The man does as he is told. He sits on the bench, folds his arms and legs, and stares at us.
J. gives Control an update. 'Further to this call at the Marina - we've found the patient - or rather, he's found us. He's now sitting on a bench a couple of yards in front of us. Don't think he's armed. Looks quite harmless. Can you tell the police where we are?'
There is a pause. J. searches for some music on the radio.
Suddenly the man stands up and comes over to the ambulance again. I wind the window down.
'Couldn't you give me a blanket at least? It's so cold.'
J. makes the same gesture back to the bench.
'You really should have thought about that when you started shouting about bombs in your pocket. Maybe when you've sat back down I might throw a blanket your way. But you've got to go and sit down first. Go on.' And then: 'Go on.'
The man retreats to the bench. J. groans, climbs out of the vehicle, grabs a blanket out of the back and tosses it across to him. He wraps it around his shoulders, J. climbs back in, I lock the doors again and we all settle into our positions to wait for the police.
The man in the centre of the car park watches us as before, his face and shirt white beneath the lights.
'What does he want? He's crazier than any of us.'
We slide further down in our seats.

After another quarter of an hour a police van turns the corner off the ramp and cautiously glides to a halt on the far side of the car park. For a moment the night seems strung with a thinly glistening web of distrust - between the police in the van, the man on the bench, the man in the centre of the car park, and me and J. in the ambulance. Then it is just as quickly broken as the police van starts moving again; a minute later the van draws alongside us. The man on the bench stands up and pulls his blanket tightly around himself, ready for the next stage.
I wind my window down and tell the policeman what has happened so far, about the ludicrous chase around the mini roundabout, the cigarette lighter, the world's closest stand-off.
'So who's that guy in the middle of the car park?'
'I have no idea.'
Three policemen and a policewoman get out of the van, put their hats on, and go to talk to the man on the bench. We follow on behind.
Suddenly, as if sensing a bigger, more responsive audience than the hopeless ambulance people, the crazy man immediately begins to talk nonsense, very quickly. Something about God, and knowing his plans, and how he has been given a mission to kill people. The senior policeman makes a calming gesture with his hands, just as if he is directing a car to pull over.
'That's enough of that,' he says, flatly.
'So what do you want then? DO YOU WANT ME TO SHOUT?'
'No, I don't want you to shout, either. I just want you to tell me what all this is about.'
The crazy man immediately reverts to the subdued, rather deflated tone he used with us.
'I need to go to a hospital tonight. I'm not well. I need help.'
The other officers have already lost interest and are chatting to each other or looking round the car park. One notices the man in the middle.
'Who is that?'
'Nobody knows.'
Meanwhile, the senior officer discusses things with J. and his next in command.
'We're not taking him,' says J.
'He's hardly a 136.'
'But still...'
The senior officer speaks to the man again. 'If you'd like to come with us, sir, we'll make sure you get to where you need to get to tonight.' And then to us: 'Thanks for your help, guys.'
The crazy man snaps us a look that is one part victory, three parts disdain.
We complete our paperwork and drive off.

The man in the dark suit watches us all as we leave.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Old injuries

I ring the doorbell but get no answer. Have we got the right address? A third party made the call. Why aren't they here? I smile at Rae and look up at the lighted window. And then further up, on into the black sky. 'Aren't the stars clear tonight?' I say, in an effort to wake up. I clap my rubber-gloved hands together. 'Fuck it's cold'.
We hear footsteps on the stairs, a light goes on in the hallway, and a moment later the door opens. A woman with a dessicated smile peers out at us.
'Ambulance,' I say.
'He's in the bath,' she says, and then, as she turns to go back up the stairs, 'you're welcome to him.'
As I follow her up I ask what his name is. Malcolm. And her name? Sheila, his girlfriend.
She steps over something on the stairs - a vegetable knife.
'What's the knife doing there?' I ask.
'That's where I threw it after I took it off him.'
I pass a weighted look back to Rae. Is this the point where we should excuse ourselves and retreat to wait for police back-up? But I'm sufficiently new to this game to think I can cope with anything, and I don't want to sit outside in the truck whilst the police struggle to find the resources, so I carry on after the woman, with Rae - reluctantly or not, I'm not sure - in my wake. I check the shadows and doorways carefully when we reach the landing. I've seen 'Psycho'. I'm ready for anything.
'So - where is Malcolm?'
Malcolm is crammed into a three-quarters full bath, naked except for his glasses, his arms hanging over the sides, his feet hooked up beneath the taps, his shriveled penis swaying gently just below the surface of the water like a sea-anemone.
'What's happened, Malcolm? What's wrong?' I say, putting my board and bag down and kneeling on the bath mat.
'He's taken a load of pills and I hope he dies,' says Sheila, and then walks off into the sitting room.
He slowly turns his face to look at me. Pulls off his glasses and dips them in the water to clear the steam. Puts them back on and stares at me. There is a sweat on him, and I don't know if it's from the bath, the effects of the pills, or the stress. But he doesn't seem stressed. He looks just as if he has been interrupted taking a leisurely soak, and is mildly interested to see who it is.
'I just want to die,' he says, with a matter of fact smack of the lips. 'I'm no use to anyone.' And then he turns his face forward again.
'First things first', I say. 'Can I take your pulse?' He doesn't say no, so tentatively I reach out to touch his wrist. 'What have you taken tonight?'
He recites the list. 'Ibuprofen, Citalopram, Irbesartan.'
'And how much did you take?'
'All of it.'
'All of your medication?'
I see the cartons in the little wicker basket under the sink.
'And were they full packets?'
The face turns towards me again.
'I was going to do this.' he says, and performs a perfunctory little mime of drawing a knife across his wrists. 'But I don't like blood.'
I fish out the cartons and set them by the board for later.
Rae stands by the bathroom doorway and we exchange a look. I make myself comfortable on the toilet beside the bath and tell him that I think he should come with us to hospital, that the amount he has taken - particularly the painkillers - could cause him some harm.
'I don't care. Good. I want them to.'
The woman re-appears at the door with a cigarette right up by her cheek for easy access.
'He left his wife two years ago and she doesn't want him to see the boys.' Suck/blow. 'And after this - don't think you'll ever see them again.'
Rae leads the woman back into the sitting room. I watch Malcolm carefully to see his reaction, but he seems supported and oblivious in the bath.
'So you're taking medication for depression?' I say.
'It's not working,' he says, and then with a damp snort: 'Obviously'.
'The way I see it,' I say after a pause in which I have to fight a growing self-consciousness about any words I will try to say.
'The way I see it is that depression is just another chronic illness like any other illness, and you can get treatment for it, and adjust that treatment or start something new if things aren't working out. But the important thing to remember is that these dark feelings you have at the moment are just like feeling sick with the flu, or dizzy with an ear infection. You have to put yourself in a position to get some help. One step at a time. First - come to hospital with us to look at what drugs you've taken tonight. And then - take it from there.'
'If not for your sake, then at least for all those people that love and care about you.'
'No-one cares about me.'
'Your boys.'
'Better off without me.'
'Your girlfriend. She called the ambulance, after all.'
'I don't know why. She hates me. Especially now. It's all too much. I've had enough.'
Rae is back in the doorway. She comes at the problem from a different angle.
'Malcolm - what you've taken won't kill you but it may damage your kidneys and put you on dialysis for the rest of your life. That will certainly make things worse.'
He suddenly drops his knees below the water line, pulls his arms in.
'You seem all right. I don't want to be trouble.'
'Don't worry about it. It's all the same to us. But the thing is - we can't call the police and have you arrested and dragged out of here kicking and screaming. We can't force you to come to hospital if you don't want to. But all that will happen is that you'll send us away, you'll get weaker and eventually fall unconscious, and we'll come straight back and take you in anyway, so whatever happens, you're bound to end up in hospital. It's just that if you come now, you'll be giving yourself more of a chance to avoid any long term damage and get yourself in a position where you can do something about your problems. What do you say?'
There is a long pause. Rae ushers Sheila away who looks like she wants to come and throw something else in the bath. Eventually, Malcolm sits up.
'I'm a taxi driver. I'll lose my licence after this.'
'How will they ever know?'
But as he stands up in a cascade of water and reaches for a towel, I'm thinking that he may be right.
He dries himself off ineffectually, drops the towel to the floor, and then pads off down the hall into the bedroom to get some clothes. He has the bearish lope of heavy men, with his hands hanging loosely by his side and the palms pointing backwards. I notice a thickly crimped line on the skin of his left shoulder.
'That's an interesting scar', I say after him. 'How did you get that?'
'Oh that', he says, tugging some trousers up over his damp legs, and swaying precariously. 'That's from my rugby days. Years ago. That's an old injury.'

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Four assaults

Somewhere quiet
A quarter to midnight and our first assault. I climb out of the ambulance and walk across to the man standing in a blood splashed shirt with a policeman on one side and a shivering girl on the other. When I ask his name he simply tips his head back and bares his teeth, and there's nothing else to do but stand there and look into his mouth. The police lights clatter on around us.
After a suitable pause I say: 'First things first, mate,' and then 'What's your name?'
'Paul,' he says, and turns to his girlfriend. 'I can't believe this, Chrissy. He's only gone and broken my fucking teeth. Look.' He suddenly snarls back at me again. 'I had them done last month. How much is this going to cost?'
We help him into the ambulance and sit him down. His girlfriend sits next to him, and hitches up her halter-neck. She has his blood on her hands and arms. She rubs his knee reassurringly as we check him over. The blood pressure cuff creaks around his thickly muscled arm.
'First night out in a year. Can you believe it? I knew it would be trouble, going out with a load of kids.'
'So what happened, Paul? Can you remember?'
'No. Not all of it. Some guy - he got arsey with one of the boys in the pub but I smoothed things over. He even shook my hand. I didn't think any more about it. But then outside, he started in like he wanted to fight him again. The bouncers didn't want to know. They didn't do anything. So I stepped up to sort it out. Then he smiled, shook my hand again - and wallop. He must have just hit me in the face, one hell of a punch. The next thing I remember I'm at the top of the stairs, Chrissy is hanging on to me screaming and the guy is chasing the boys across the car park. Unbelievable. Is my nose broken?'
Chrissy tugs her top up again, tells him that the man had jumped into a taxi with another guy, and the police say they have a witness who got the number.
'I just want to know who it is so I can pick him up myself and take him somewhere quiet. I mean - what a coward. Look at my teeth. He knew I wasn't expecting it. Couldn't ask me for a fight straight out. Just took advantage. Well, I'll recognise him if I see him again.'
A policeman looks in the ambulance and asks if he can get a statement. I tell him to meet us down the hospital, so he closes the door and we set off.
Paul cautiously dabs at his nose with some gauze and then says: 'Chrissy? If we go out tomorrow, let's go on our own. Somewhere quiet.'

Pigeonfist and Yellowtit
Pigeonfist is lying on the floor of the all-night takeaway pizza place beneath a silver thermal blanket. A security guard stands off to the side, chewing gum, occasionally repositioning his earpiece with a gloved finger, whilst behind him, slumped on a chair with a bloody wad of tissue pressed against his nose, sits Yellowtit.
I kneel down beside Pigeonfist. Tell him not to move whilst we check him over. Yellowtit tells us what happened.
'Bastards jumped us. God knows why. Animals, a bloody pack. We didn't say or do a thing. Absolutely nothing. Two of them started in on Mark, knocked him to the ground, no reason at all, started jumping up and down on his head. The other two threw me against the wall and kept me there. I had an armload of pizza boxes when they came in. It was all over in a minute. A pack of dogs. Is he all right?'
I can see a trainer tread pattern on the right side of Pigeonfist's face, and all around it the flesh is rising up mottled and plump. When he tries to talk it sounds as if his mouth has been reconstructed using a bathroom sponge, but incredibly, other than his facial injuries, he seems relatively undamaged. We help him to his feet.
Both men are wearing bright purple sweatshirts with their stag names printed cheaply in big yellow letters on the back.
'We're from Gloucester. We were having a good night of it before this. Bastards. What's everyone going to say?'
We lead them both on to the ambulance. Clean them up a bit and take some observations. Yellowtit may have had his nose broken. Pigeonfist seems concussed.
'I don't know how you do this job,' says Yellowtit. 'Dealing with arseholes every night.'
'Sorry?' I'm finding it difficult to understand him. 'What did you say?'
'It's my accent, isn't it?'
'Well - I'd say it was more to do with the state of your face.'
'Oh. Yeah,' he says, and dabs at his nose with the tissue as the ambulance moves off.

The Big I Am
'I'm standing there waiting for the bus and this gang of kids rolls up, giving it the big I am.' He tips his chin up, rocks his shoulders, holds his arms out from his body, turns his mouth down at the corners and squints, all in a cartoon imitation of The Big I Am.
'I tell them all to fuck off. Why would I be having time for any of that. Next thing I know I'm on the ground and there are four or five of them jumping up and down on me. And I remember - one of them kept saying to me "Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?" Well, what do I care who the fuck he is?'
The man has a gash above his right eye, and the blood from this has run down to mix with the blood from his squashed nose. He speaks as though he has the flu, aching and swollen with fluid.
'Look at the state of me. What will my kids say when they see all this? I'm thirty three. What am I doing?'
He shakes his head as I help him onto the ambulance. His friend climbs on board, too. He is wearing a white shirt with not a mark on it. He keeps quiet as we drive on to the hospital.

Birthday Girl
In the centre of town, outside the Paradise Hotel, the police are talking into their shoulder radios and wandering round with their arms spread wide trying to shepherd the crowd on to the pavement. It isn't working. I can see our patient, a tough looking man sheltering in a doorway with his girlfriend, a policeman of their own waving us over. The man is holding a wad of tissues to the top of his head, whilst the girl is skipping from foot to foot with a jacket hugged round her bare shoulders.
'What's happened?' I ask as I approach.
The man smiles at me and raises the wad of tissues as if he's tipping his hat.
'I got bottled mate.'
'Knocked out?'
'Nah,' he sniffs. 'Take a lot more than that to put me down, mate.'
The policeman help us load the two of them on to the ambulance where we go through the routine of checking wounds, cleaning up and taking basic obs. He has a gash on the crown of his head with a small raised skin flap. There are several other, smaller wounds where the glass has shattered; tiny fragments of glass glint like water amongst the thickly gelled strands of his short hair.
'So what happened?'
He winks at the girl. 'It's her birthday today.'
'Happy Birthday,' I say. She starts to cry.
'I just want to go home. I hate this. Why do people act like animals? I just want to go home. I'm never coming out again.'
He leans across to give her a hug, smiling at me as he does this. 'Come on, darl'', he says, 'let's go to the hospital, get patched up, and we'll still have plenty of time to meet up with the others and take the limo home like we said.'
The back door opens and one of his friends pokes his head in.
'All right, mate? When shall we see you, then?'
'I'll give you a ring when we're done at the hospital. Maybe you could come and pick us up, and we'll take it from there.'
'Okay,' and he shuts the door.
He asks me how long I think they'll keep him at the A&E. I tell him that I can't really say. It depends on how busy they are tonight - but being a Friday night, it might be a while. He settles back into his seat and groans. 'It's throbbing a bit, now. Although that might just be the drink.' He sniffs. 'Shame to waste a good night out.'
The policeman who led them over to us knocks on the door and leans in to ask if he wants to make a statement. The man grins. 'Nah - I know how these things work,' he says. 'Just leave it with me.'
The policeman slams the doors shut and we head off to the hospital.
His girlfriend cries again. I give her some fresh tissues.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A quiet pint

Saturday afternoon and these pedestrian backstreets are thick with people walking and eating and busking and window-shopping and drinking and staring blankly at the ambulance with the blue lights nosing impatiently through to get to the pub in the square where, we are told, a man is lying on the floor not breathing. It has taken me so long to get this far that I don't have time to think about parking the vehicle ready for a quick getaway. I put on the handbrake and we jump out, make a grab for the resus bag, and bully our way through a narrow passageway to the pub door. A woman is being helped out, an arm round her shoulder. 'He's gone', she says.
Inside the pub the first thing that strikes me is that one half is busy and the other empty. The landlord has cleared the section off to the left; he has put a menu board sideways across the little step to delineate the two halves. Like a comic book version of a normal pub, Lounge and Bar, this is one with two areas marked out: Living and Dying. Between the round tables, I see a man lying on his back with a white handkerchief over his face.
'Did anyone see what happened?', as I snatch the handkerchief away. (D. asks me: 'Is he breathing?' and then: 'Done a resus before?')
The landlord is standing over us as I check the man's airway and whether he's breathing or not. He isn't.
'What can I tell you? He's a regular. Nice enough. Comes in on his own. Told someone a while ago he'd got cancer and not long to go. Who knows? Never any trouble, though. Came in as usual for a quiet pint. Next thing (slaps his hands) - crash! off the stool, on the floor, gameover. I think he's probably dead, mate.' Checking his watch, hurrying things along. He turns to wave instructions to the girls behind the bar.
No pulse, either. D. has already cut down the centre of his shirt and pullover, exposing his chest. I start compressions.
Above my head on the wide plasma screen TV, it's half time and the experts are dissecting the match. As I call out every ten compressions I look to my right. The punters are well-provided for, dividing their attention between the TV, the resus in progress and their mates. Crisps, peanuts, another pint of guiness, a spritzer and a pint of lager, don't care what. Cheapest.
A man leans in at the window and says something like: 'I can see you're doing your best,' like he's giving encouragement to some clumsy painters and decorators.
D. asks the landlord to at least close the window. He does that, and then hangs the dog's blanket over the door window. He's not letting any more people in. This is a grim lock-in. He probably thinks it would be too much to explain to anyone new.
D. has placed the defib pads on. I stop compressions to let him evaluate the heart rhythm. Asystole. I'm back on the chest again whilst he calls for back-up on his mobile. Control says that they don't have a paramedic available nearby but will try their best. Police, too, he says.
This is his second resus today. I smile at him. 'Jonah' I say. This is my first ever. I wonder if I'm doing it right.
I look at the man's face. His skin is as grey as his long greasy hair. His eyes are like doll's eyes, dilated, immutable. There is nothing in this pub, not me, the TV, the noise of the drinkers or the buzz of the crowds outside that can reach him now.
We work for half an hour but the heart rhythm remains unchanged. A paramedic arrives and unpacks his kit but notes the time and declares the scene moments afterwards. The police arrive and clear the pub. I bring the trolley in as a policewoman searches his pockets for identification. She also takes his rings off and puts all his property in a bag. We lift him onto the trolley, and disguise the fact that he is dead by putting an oxygen mask on him, the blanket up to his chin. We wheel him out into the sunny, Saturday afternoon.
The landlord thanks us for our help as we leave. I know that he's lost a fair bit of money this afternoon, but he hides his frustration well.

Behind us, the bar staff clear the dead man's drink.

Monday, October 09, 2006


I knock once and then test the door. It's open. Calling 'Robert?' and 'Ambulance' we step into the flat. The first thing I see are a pair of legs in a room off to the left, and then as we push our way further inside, the whole man, lain out on his back on the dirty brown carpet, his shirt off, his arms outstretched, his head turned to one side, spread out like the martyred lord of all studio flats.
I step quickly across to him, kneel down and say loudly 'Are you all right?' into his ear. I pinch his earlobe. No response. 'This is for real' I think, and am just about to check his airway when F. leans in and rubs him vigorously with his knuckles in the centre of his chest.
Robert grimaces and opens his eyes wide. 'Ow! What did you do that for, man? That really hurt.'
'We were worried about you, Robert.' And then, covering my surprise. 'We didn't know if you were alive or not.'
'But you didn't need to do that. Why did you have to hurt me like that for? Fuck.'
F. withdraws his rough healing hand. Robert sits up. An invisible cloud of rancid sweat and alcohol rises up with him. There are several little bottles of pills on the floor next to him, some empty, some half full. I pick one up and ask him what he's taken.
'Who cares?' he says, swatting the question away. His eyes are fat, and there is a line of dried red wine running from the corner of his mouth to his ear.
'We care, Robert.'
'Just leave me alone. Just get out and let me die.'
'We can't do that, mate. We need to know you're okay.'
The room has so little in it, it seems emptier than if it were actually bare. A television in one corner. A sofa, an armchair, a bookcase with a packet of cigarettes and a mobile phone. Two dumbells on the floor. Every piece of furniture, even the paper on the walls, seems to be losing its light to the corrupting brown tide of this carpet. Robert suddenly looks up at us.
'What do you want with me?'
'We want to help you, Robert. We think you should come with us into the ambulance so we can check you over, and then maybe come to the hospital.'
'I'm not going. I just want to die.'
'Who called us, Robert?'
He passes the tip of his tongue over his chapped lips and then says quietly:'I did.'
'Well, then. That makes me think a part of you really doesn't want to die.'
He follows the logic of this, through a fog of nausea. Then: 'I couldn't hurt my parents. It would kill them.'
'So for their sake, come with us to hospital. Give yourself a chance. Give them a chance. And then take it from there.'
Robert rubs his chest. 'Okay. First I need a piss.'
We help him up, and he staggers off into the bathroom. Whilst he's in there, above the torrent of his urine, I hear him muttering intensely: 'I’m going to hurt someone tonight,’ he says, ‘I’m going to fuck someone up. Badly. Two hits.'

Out in the ambulance F. drives and I sit in the back. Robert refuses to give me any other details, not his last name, his date of birth, his GP. He lies back in the seat with his eyes closed and his forehead crossed with uncomfortable thoughts. I ask him a few times if it would be okay for me to take his blood pressure and other obs, but I'm cautious. He's been co-operative up until now, but I don't want to provoke him.
The journey to hospital is short. I wake him up when we arrive, and when F. opens the doors we help him down into a chair and wheel him in. I handover the details to the nurse in charge who listens with a blank face.
‘Last name?’ he drones. I tell him that he would only give me his first name.
‘Cubicle Three,’ he says with a sigh. When we wheel Robert past the desk, he looks up sharply and says: ‘What’s your last name?’
Robert makes a drunken pantomime of ignoring this question, but the nurse suddenly stands up and says: ‘Hey! Give me your last name.’
Robert says ‘Redland’
‘Redford?’, he snorts, ‘Don’t tell me we’ve got Robert Redford in tonight.’
‘Redland’, says Robert again. I’m astonished he’s being so coherent and submissive.
‘Okay Mr Robert Redland.'
We wheel him to Cubicle Three. Robert slumps back into the chair and puts both hands over his face.
As we pass the desk the nurse in charge says: 'There’ll be someone over in a minute.' And he writes his name up on the board with a fat blue marker.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Ten o'clock and the night has the city cupped tightly in its hands. The pubs are crammed, their summer windows and doors swung wide, loud knots of people spreading and sprawling over the tables and pavements and traffic barriers. A generalised, insectivorous swell of noise, cut with clacking heels, beery chants of bravado, car horns, whistles, low beats and thumps, polyphonic ringtones and urgent conversations face to ear along the streets and at the bars and in the alleyways.

The streets are narrower here, darker, less populated. I drive slowly, reading the numbers, but even though I take my time, we realise that the address we want must be off a turning behind us, and this is a one way street. Rae jumps out to guide me back. As I reverse past it and then drive forwards to go in, Rae points to a dark gated opening. At the same time I see a man step out of the shadows in front of her. I drive up to them quickly and jump out, taking the keys but leaving the engine running.

'He's in there, man', he says. 'I've never seen him like this before.'

The weak overhead light dimly illuminates the heavy gold chain round his neck, his white teeth. I check myself to see if I can feel any greater sense of danger than my eyes can make out. Rae is standing with a studied neutrality; I know she is poised, too. She has the radio.

We follow him through the archway, which opens out into a large, rectangular courtyard, each side boxed in with two storeys of flats, some with lights on in the windows but mostly dark. There is just enough light spilling across the flagstones to pick out a tall, pale figure with a white handkerchief knotted around his face like an outlaw, pacing around and around a circular washing line.
'I've never seen him this bad.'
'Sorry - what's your name? Is he a relation of yours?'
'My name's Jon. He's my half-brother. I haven't seen him for two years. He just disappeared. Then he comes round looking like shit and talking nonsense. I heard he was having problems, but - this.'
'What's his name?'
'Eden', and then he shouts out: 'Eden! Someone here to see you, bro.'
Eden stops and watches as we walk across to him.
'Eden? My name's Rae. I'm with the ambulance. We're a bit worried about you, mate.'
Eden pulls his mask down. His hair is sticking up in spiky blond clumps. His face has a pinched intensity about it, a worrying hybrid of hunger and astonishment. His tracksuit bottoms are filthy and his shirt is unbuttoned to the waist. His feet are bare.
'What's happened tonight, Eden?'

And then he talks.

I have never heard a language like this. It is dangerously brittle, a crazy white boy patois, a pidgin jumble of mispronounced words, cut-and-shut clichés, backward intonations, a flickering bedsit TV patois, a language so tangled to be almost incomprehensible. And yet, incredibly, it insinuates a meaning when I stop trying to understand.

He stops talking, takes out a small notebook, and begins urgently riffling through the pages.

Jon gives me a look. Rae touches me on the arm and we turn away briefly to discuss what we should do. Eden is obviously vulnerable, and may even pose a danger to others. I ask Jon if he would come with Eden if we were able to persuade him to come to hospital; Jon says he would normally, but he has some kittens up in his room and they can't be left alone. Rae says she will ask the police to attend. A Section 136 is perhaps the best thing in this case. She goes to make the call, whilst Jon and I turn back to Eden.

We lead him onto the ambulance, coaxing him delicately. I promise not to run any tests, and to leave the door open so he can leave at any time.

So we all sit in the ambulance, the three of us hoping that the police will turn up soon and Eden telling us about Jesus and faces and other questions. The pages of his notebook are almost black, written through with words. I can only make out two of them: ghost and structure.
The police don't come. Control tells Rae that they are hard-pressed tonight and can only do their best. Eden becomes more and more restless. Occasionally he falls out of his weird-speak into a relaxed, normal phrasing. It is startling, like a crowded room suddenly falling silent. But then the noise picks up again as strongly as before. He stands, and pulls up his mask. We cannot restrain him. He jumps out of the ambulance and lopes off down the road, his half-brother following him for a short distance, before he turns at the top of the road and is gone. A loud group of girls come round at the same time, and whether their shrieking laughter is directed at Eden or not, they jostle each other with their beautiful, bare shoulders, their sleek, Saturday night normality, and the night clatters on.

Jon comes back.

We make our apologies, goodbyes, green-up, run red to the next job.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Suspended animation

Betty was sitting so upright and still in the chair it looked as if she was a shop display, immaculately dressed and pressed in a white blouse and tartan skirt, her hands neatly folded on her lap. Only the eyes gave away that she was real, dilute and watchful behind the great round lenses of her spectacles.
I knelt down next to her. 'So what's happened, Betty? What's wrong?' Barely moving her head she said: 'Well, you'd best ask my daughter that. I'm not sure myself. All I know is I had more trouble than usual with my legs when I woke up this morning.' Those enormous eyes turned down to look at me. 'I'm ninety four you know. Worked all my life.' The essentials.
Her daughter, an old woman herself, rubbing her hands with the worry of it all, told me the rest. Normally quite mobile - can manage by herself but I call in every day and the carers come in morning and night - takes water tablets for her legs - badly swollen today - couldn't get out of bed on her own - due a health check next Monday but GP said to call for an ambulance today. Hope that was okay.
The care centre manager, who had been standing in the hallway, swinging a bunch of keys, chipped in.
'Betty wears an emergency call button round her neck but she'd lay on the floor all week and never use it. She's an amazing woman - aren't you Betty? - so independent. Strong-willed. Only does what she wants to do - isn't that right, B?'
'That's right, dear.' She looked down at me, sadly. 'They're all such good people.'
My crewmate Helen and I reassured them that it was fine and that we'd certainly take Betty to A&E if that's what she wanted. It was probably the best thing to do. The doctors could run lots of tests and find out what was happening. Betty squeezed my hand. 'It is what I want, dear. I'm not myself. I'm normally pretty good. I don't like to make a fuss.'
We took a few basic observations, all of which seemed normal for her age, and reassured ourselves that she hadn't suffered a stroke. The daughter loomed over us. 'Okay, Betty,' I said brightly, let's get you down the hospital and sort things out.'
The daughter took me by the elbow. 'We - erm - didn't make it to the commode just now. I don't want to let her go down the hospital all wet like this. Could we change her before we go? Have we time?'
So as not to embarrass Betty, Helen helped the daughter get her ready whilst I filled in the paperwork with the care centre manager, who had all her details. Finally, we lifted Betty onto our carry chair and wheeled her out to the vehicle. 'Mind you don't hurt yourself,' she said, a number of times, as we negotiated lift doors and stairways. She waved like the Queen Mother to the other residents who'd come out to watch.
'You're no weight at all', I said, 'You must eat more.'
'You don't eat,' she said, feebly, 'not when you're ninety-four.'
'Definitely not herself,' the daughter said, then gave her a kiss before we loaded her up into the vehicle and made her comfortable on the trolley. 'I'll see you down there a bit later,' she said, then gave us all one last anxious smile as we closed the doors.
During the journey I tried to chat to Betty, but she seemed locked into position again, her enormous watery eyes fixed straight ahead. I let her rest.

At A&E I described the case to the sister in charge, who came over to introduce herself to Betty. I stood at the foot end of the trolley, with Helen up at the top.
'What's happened today?' she said. A thrill of attention seemed to energise Betty. She pushed her glasses firmly back on to her nose and looked around.
'Well. I don't know why I'm here, that's for sure.'
The sister glanced at my name badge. 'Spence says you had trouble with your legs this morning.'
'No. No more than usual.'
The Sister, Helen and Betty all looked at me. Alarmed, I touched Betty's foot and gave her toe an encouraging wiggle. 'Don't you remember, Betty? You couldn't get out of bed? Your daughter said you were quite bad this morning?'
Betty frowned at me disapprovingly. 'Did she? Well I wasn't. I feel fine. What's all the fuss about? There's nothing wrong with me.'
The Sister pulled back the blanket and looked at Betty's puffy legs. She did some strength tests, asking Betty to raise each leg in turn, to flex the ankle, to push against her hand - all of which Betty did perfectly well.
'Okay Betty,' said the Sister. 'Let's have you in cubicle three.'
'I don't like to make a fuss,' Betty said, and then, giving Helen's hand a squeeze and nodding in my direction added: 'Is he always like this?'

Friday, September 08, 2006

Strange trip

Nicky and Stacy, Enid's two carers, not having any reply from the front door, walked round to the back of the bungalow and peered through various windows. Eventually they made out the shape of Enid on all fours by the side of her bed, not moving. She did not turn round when Nicky banged on the glass, so whilst Stacy looked around for a way of getting in, Nicky got her mobile phone out and called for an ambulance.

When my crewmate and I stepped into the house we found them all in the bedroom, Enid sitting hunched and furious on the edge of her bed, sipping from a mug of tea, her brittle white hair tufting away from her head at all angles. 'Clear off,' she growled. Nicky told Enid not to be so rude. Stacy laughed and glanced at her watch.
'What's happened?', I said, whilst E. got out the kit we needed to take some obs.
Before Nicky had a chance to say anything, Enid slopped the mug down towards her lap and said: 'Nothing's happened. Who are you, anyway? What do you want all that for? This is my house and I don't want you in it.'
Nicky told me how they had found her, and added that she thought Enid wasn't herself.
I looked around the room. Above the bed, a low shelf with a couple of crucifixes, a few lurid prints of Jesus, and a bear with 'Best Nan' on its chest. The room was small and boxy, with just the bed, a rickety wardrobe, a zimmer frame and a commode. The air was as thick and yellow as the light.
'She's ninety-two', said Nicky, and then added in a confidential whisper, with a dip of the eyes to indicate something bad below: 'cancer of the lung'.
'Enid', I said, 'we're all a bit worried about you. We want to know what happened, how you came to be on the floor like that. We need to do a few little tests just to see how you are in yourself. Will that be okay?'
Amazingly, she gave the mug of tea to Stacy and submitted to blood pressure, BM and SATS measurements. Whilst E. took all these, I asked her to tell me what happened.
'I was just about to go to bed when those men who stay here sometimes came over and took me to Bognor. We were down on the front, by the sea. I hadn't been there for a while, and I felt a bit lost. I asked for help, but everybody just stood around, not looking. There was a crowd of them, very tall, with big elbows, sticking up, you know. Anyway, they brought me home again. And then when I was walking round the end of the bed to get into it, one of them waved his arms or something and it took me by surprise. What did he do that for? Anyway, I ended up on the floor. But I hadn't been there long when you came in.'
'Who did you say these men are, Enid?'
'You know who they are. Don't try and pretend you don't. The ones that come here. They live here sometimes.' She suddenly reached over to the side of the bed to grab a walking stick that was propped up there. 'If you don't get out of here I'll hit you with this.'
For the next hour we tried to convince Enid to come with us to hospital, but she was adamant that she would not. We could not leave her on her own so obviously confused, so I called her GP. Enid demanded to speak to her.
'Hello?' she said 'Dr Barnet? This is Enid. Now, you know me. You know I'm allright. Tell these people to go away and leave me alone.'
There was a pause whilst Dr Barnet asked Enid to tell her what had happened. Enid went over the story about her trip to Bognor with the gang of men with large elbows. She finished by saying: 'I'm not crazy. You know me, Dr Barnet. Don't let them force me out of my home. I want to stay here.' Dr Barnet asked to speak to me again. She agreed to come round to see Enid immediately she had finished the morning surgery.
Nicky and Stacy said that they couldn't stay any longer as they had a busy morning ahead of them and were already very late. Stacy found the name of Enid's granddaughter who lived nearby, so I rang her to ask if she could come over and stay with Enid whilst we waited for the GP to arrive. It took some persuading, but eventually she agreed.
'I'm not well myself.' she said.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Nancy's story

When Nancy talks, her ill-fitting teeth portion out her phrases like pastry cutters.

'There's a man who owns everything - all this land around us now - as far as the eye can see. But he only had one daughter, a beautiful girl. And she went on a cruise. Or was it a cruise? No! It was a horse thing. And the girl was coming out of a horse box, and she took a turn - and she died. And the man was never the same again. You wouldn't ever get over something like that, would you? It's my birthday today. I've got a cake for my husband in my bag.'
'Oh! Happy Birthday! What flavour's the cake?'
'Who made it?'
'Marks and Spencers.'

Friday, June 02, 2006


Mr Bennett sits straight and tidy in the chair with the day's newspaper folded on his lap. As he talks he punctuates the details of his story with a benign little fall of the mouth, as if this is a story that even he is finding difficult to follow or believe.

'I was an international salesman in the 1960s and 70s. I was abroad more than I was at home - my poor, poor wife - selling power cables to countries like the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus. They all wanted electricity, you see. I went all over the world. Beirut was amazing. Everyone went there to let their hair down. They had a casino with a river running right through it - literally, right past the tables. Then one day they drained it and staged a horse race along it. Amazing. Incredible. Not that I gambled much.'

'My wife saved my life you know. I was in Cyprus, staying at a hotel before flying on to Israel the following day. I had taken a shot of insulin ready for the evening meal, and was having a quick drink beforehand in the bar when the waiter stood in the doorway and announced that there was an international phone call for Mr Bennett. I ran upstairs to take it in my bedroom. It was my contact in Israel, ringing up about arrangements for the following day. So we chatted about it for a while, then I hung up and went back downstairs to the restaurant to start my meal. But before I could eat a thing, the waiter came over and tapped me on the shoulder and said that I had another phone call. So I ran back upstairs - and it was Israel again, with some silly little piece of information he'd forgotten to give me. When I put the phone down I knew I'd made a terrible mistake with the timing of my insulin and what have you, and fell on the floor. A few minutes later the phone rang again, but this time it was my wife. I managed to reach the phone, but all I could was make a few slurred sounds. She immediately realised I was having a hypo attack, and that she had to act fast. She also knew that the line to Cyprus was volatile, and that it sometimes happened that the line would go dead and there would be no connection again until the following morning, by which time it would be too late. Anyway, she managed to get back through to the hotel, and persuaded the manager to look in on me. He came back on the line after a minute or two, very cross, and told her that she was to ring back in the morning as I was lying on the floor, drunk. She told him that I certainly was not drunk, that I was going into a diabetic coma. The manager said that he was sorry to have to tell her that I certainly was drunk. I'd been seen drinking in the bar that evening, and I was lying on the floor in my bedroom making disgusting noises. Jenny told him that if he did not give me some sugar immediately that I would die, and he said that he didn't know much about diabetes, but what he did know for sure was that sugar was the last thing he should give me, and hung up. Amazingly, she managed to find the number of a nearby hospital, and they sent a doctor round. It saved my life.'

She was an amazing woman. So strong, and funny. We were both on the same ward six weeks ago, me with my knee and Jenny with her lupus. And that's when she died - I still can't believe it - I was just across from her when it happened, but I didn't know. So of course I couldn't go through with my operation. I doubt I'll bother now.'

Mr Bennett smooths the paper on his lap.

'Another time I was packing the bags away in the lockers over my seat on a flight to Frankfurt when an Indonesian man passed me in the aisle and shook my hand. I knew the face but I just couldn't put a name to it. Anyway, he turned out to be the General Secretary of the United Nations, Mr U-Mant, shaking just about everyone's hand as he made his way down to his seat. And the only reason he was on this particular flight was because he'd swapped planes at the last minute as a security precaution. And we found out later that an hour or so after he got on our plane, the one he was due to fly in was blown up and everyone on board killed.

Oh yes - my life, my life reads like a thriller.

Monday, May 29, 2006


I knock at number forty-two. After a couple of minutes an image of Mrs Dillon comes slowly together behind a frosted glass door. 'Just a minute, love' she says - and then dissolves again without explanation. I'm already late, and spend the time looking from my watch to the ambulance to my watch - and then to the flowers in her tatty front garden, trying to relax. After a long five minutes her image re-assembles and the door slowly opens.
'Ambulance,' I say, unnecessarily.
Mrs Dillon stands frowning at me. She is dressed like an amateur actor, having overdone the character details with a cliché headscarf, thick-lensed glasses, overcoat and a filter cigarette which she snaps away into the privet. 'You're late. I phoned to see what had happened. I didn't know whether it had been cancelled or what.'
'Sorry. I'm a bit behind.'
'I suppose it can't be helped.' She slams the door shut. 'Let's go, then' she adds, as if I might want to do anything else.

This is an area I don't know well, so when I've picked up the second patient - a politely flirty woman with a leg that won't bend, and helped her to her seat, I ask them both if they could direct me back to the main road without going via the busy High Street, to save time.
'Of course' says Mrs Dillon 'I've lived here twenty three years. I could do it blindfold. Straight over the bridge and then left at the mini-roundabout. We'll go through the forest, that's probably the best way.'
'Don't forget that I don't know this area at all. So I'm relying on you to tell me where to go.'
'Just carry straight on. I'll set you right.'
Twenty minutes later we're driving through the Forest, over the speed limit to make up time, but there's only so much you can do with the roads so twisty and obscured, and the threat of deer.
'Keep on through here, then you go left and right.'
Eventually we come to a main road. There are no directions from the back, so I'm forced to ask: 'Where now? Left or right?'
'I don't know' she says 'I've not come this way before. Why don't you look at your map book?'
There's a long queue of traffic behind me.
'I thought you knew the way.'
'Well, I do - but not from this direction.'
Horrified, I turn right, and then pull over as soon as I can. The map book shows me that we're heading completely the wrong way, so I work out what to do and make the correction. I can hear Mrs Dillon telling the other patient how the hospital car drivers never get it wrong - they always know where they're going.

On the return journey, she swears at me when I refuse to drop her in town to do her shopping.

'I didn't want an ambulance in the first place,' she says.

Carry On

Five feet six inches, curving over forwards to just about five feet. A tam o'shanter hat, frizzy brown scarf, white beard. He carries a plastic shopping bag, hanging from the crook of his right arm, and a newspaper rolled and tucked under his other arm. He shuffles along uncertainly, speaks with a voice cooked by cigarettes, has an excoriating cough.
'Where's Robert?'
'He's on holiday all this week. I'm afraid you're stuck with me'
'That's lovely. A change is as good as a you know. Har har haaaaar'.
I help him into the ambulance, and then, when I'm taking my seat behind the wheel, I accidentally lean on the horn. I apologise to the patients behind me, saying: 'Sorry about that' and then, in a Kenneth Williams voice: 'I leant on me 'orn'
'Oh, you don't want to do that, sonny,' he says ' Noooooooh, or it's straight down casualty with you. Har har haaaaar.'

Monday, May 22, 2006

Down the stairs

We brush past thickly growing camelias and ornamental acers to the front door of the maisonette where Ella lives, and ring the bell. Immediately from high up inside we hear her terrier, Jodie. It comes thumping angrily down the stairs like someone's just kicked a small footstool down from the landing, arrives in the hallway and punches its head through the cat flap. It doesn't make any difference that I've met this dog before and know its name. It ignores my attempts to quieten it down, snarling and licking its bared teeth, making hideous feints at our ankles, periodically withdrawing and then bashing back out again.

A huge man suddenly opens the door. Jodie rushes out and begins sniffing innocently around our boots. 'She'll be down in a minute,' he says, hauling out two bulging bin liners and putting them by the gate. 'She's not happy.'

Ella starts coming down the stairs. The big man nods to us, then disappears back inside.

'Jodie, come on - leave the men alone.' Jodie trots back inside.

Ella emerges. She is wearing a tatty brown coat with a fur collar that must once have been a luxurious piece of trim but which now only serves as a pillow for her lank yellow hair. 'We're late', she says, 'and I'm not on my medication.'

On the ambulance she sits tensed up behind the seatbelt. She tells me that she's not well, doesn't know what she'll do.
'It's not fair. I've spent the whole weekend with the DT's.'
What's that like?'
'Disgusting. I see things - crawling up the walls. I went to A&E twice. I know they're fed up to the back teeth with me. I'm fed up to the back teeth with them - and I haven't even got any back teeth. My last husband knocked them out for me.'
She folds her arms into her stomach and rolls her lips over her gums.

I try to think of a subject that might take her mind off things. I tell her that I think her front garden is looking good.
'Well I want to move.'
'But it's such a nice flat!'
'You can hear everything, everything. Every last word. They like a drink, Jan and Michael. They drink every night. But I suppose they can handle their drink. Not like me. Anyway, I want somewhere without any stairs. God knows I've fallen down those stairs enough times. I'm famous for it. I bounce when I'm drunk.'
'Where are you looking to go?'
'I don't know - anywhere. Anywhere where I can be separate from people. I definitely don't want to live above a big dog. Their dog Pylon's getting old now. He barks and and then he stops and then he barks again - day and night - big, single woofs that drive you insane. When he was younger, he used to be such a playful thing. Jodie adored him. She'd run down the stairs, scoot underneath him, lie on her back and lick his teeth. Now, he's not bothered. Doesn't get off the sofa. Couldn't be arsed.'
Her cheeks twitch beneath the smears of powder she's put on for this. She uncrosses her arms, pulls the belt of her coat even tighter, and then re-folds her arms.

'I hope I get an emergency prescription,' she says, staring out at the shoppers in the high street, 'because this is ridiculous.'

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


'My husband was only fifty three when he died. He had a lovely life but it wore him out.'

Emily gives me and the other patient on the ambulance another of her emphatic nods, a curious sideways bob of the head that waggles the folds of skin beneath her chin.

'I'm eighty four now,' she says. 'I've lived most of my life on my own.' The other patient gives a small nod of her own but says nothing. I guess she's not as old, or as healthy.

'We met during the war at the De Havilland factory. He was one of their top engineers. I just worked in vibrations.'

'After the war, Arthur got a job as a ship surveyor. Sent all round the world fixing ships. It's so expensive, when they're laid up in dry dock. They just have to get someone out to get them going again. He was sent all over the place - Japan, the Philippines, India. I was looking at a photo of him the other day, standing outside a shipping office in Manila in a loose white suit. He looked so - bright. You'd never think that just a little way down the street there was such terrible poverty. Japan's the same. You'd never think a place like Japan would have slums - but it does.'
'Then we lived just north of Philadelphia for about nine years. Arthur had got talking to a man in a hotel and ended up working for General Electric, something to do with the Space Race. Re-entry. Then Nixon came in and it was all that stuff about the Brain Drain, and Arthur had to go. But he was offered a job as a Special Systems Engineer for a diesel engine factory in Michigan. Then he died. So I came home.'

Saturday, May 13, 2006

My husband

'Oh, God!'
Iris is suffering, despite riding our stretcher on the lucky feather pillow that she has provided. Her wasted frame just does not have the padding to absorb the shocks of everday movement anymore. When we helped her out of her wheelchair onto the stretcher, it was like handling a loosely articulated mannequin; her tracksuit bottoms and salmon pink cardigan felt empty.

'Comfortable?' I ask. She grimaces.

We are taking Iris home from her final dialysis session of the week. She seems sapped and vulnerable, but she smiles, her tidy yellow teeth glinting in the dull interior of the ambulance.

Iris asks me if I can guess where she comes from, and then immediately tells me she comes from Gedling near Nottingham. Could I tell from the accent? I tell her I thought Birmingham. It doesn't worry her.

'We came down here twenty years ago, in an Austin Cambridge,' she tells me, and then frowns. 'Do you know, the day before we moved there was a terrible murder in the woods. And an Austin Cambridge was seen nearby. Well, the police appeared the day after we'd moved in to our new house and asked my husband all sorts of questions. Apparently someone thought the murderer looked like my husband, and what with the car and the move, well, they thought they were on to something. But of course he was innocent, so the police went away. But that wasn't the end of it. They came to talk to him quite a few times over the next few weeks. After it all blew over, and the police got their murderer, we didn't even get an apology.

'The fact was, of course, they didn't know my husband. We were married fifty years, in the end. I knew him very well. And I knew that he could never hurt a fly.

'To give you an example. We used to have a canary. One day I looked at this canary and I saw that all its feathers had fallen out. It looked a right state. Poor thing. Well, it obviously couldn't go on like that. So I said to my husband: "We're going to have to do something about that bird, you know." So he thought about it, and decided that the only way he could kill it was to gas it in the oven. He had it in there for about two hours until I said: "I think it's probably dead by now, don't you?"'

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Engineering and Jewellery

Mr Stevens worked all his life as a lift and motor engineer, machining new bearings, trouble-shooting malfunctioning lifts. He lived in Essex and worked in London.
'I've always been a bit wary of electricity,' I say. 'It's one thing that I'll always leave for the professionals.'
'It's like anything else. As long as you're careful,' he says, making a shaky little adjustment to the bridge of his glasses.
'I'd be forever worried that I'd get a shock.'
'Well, yes, Spence, that is something you have to watch out for.'
'Ever had one?'
He places the glasses back on his nose and looks at me. 'It's unavoidable.'

He tells me that Hatton Garden was an engineering and jewellery district just before the war. There was a lot of precision work done on machines in small rooms and back gardens. His job as a lift engineer was a reserved occupation; he helped out the Home Office with motor orders that needed to be done as quickly as possible. It was quantity not quality. Always lots to do.

When his wife died Mr Stevens carried on where he was for twelve years until his failing health and advancing age encouraged him to move nearer to his only daughter. She wanted to be able to see him every day. Now she does that, along with his shopping. He manages a walk to the local supermarket for any extras, and can just about make it to the pharmacy on his own.

He shows me his wedding ring, a plain band.
'You should've seen the way rings were made back then. By hand. Now they're all machined, just pressed out in one motion, rounded and sized in another.'
Then he folds his hands back together in his lap, and stares out at the scenery rushing by.

A hard game

Mr Reeve's sallow face is dominated by a considerable nose, the nostrils and tip inflated into a drinker's bulb, purple, veined. The rims of his eyes seem to be pulled down by the gravitational pull of this nose.

Mr Reeves has been to the eye specialist, who has put dye into his eyes to illuminate the corneas. This has turned them yellow. The spill-over of the dye mixed with Mr Reeve's tears has left trails of yellow paint down his cheeks. He looks like a broken Mr Punch, attacked with a brush by the puppeteer after a drinking session.

On the ambulance, he wheezes out the story of his working life. He was a printer, on Fleet Street, first on the Evening Standard, and then on some other journals I haven't heard of.

'What a great life. I miss that life. Do you miss London? I lived in Old Street. Oh yes – a real Cockney. All round there I knew. Ironmonger Row. City Road. All around and about. But my sister moved out to H., and she was always on at me to get a place near her. I came out to see her plenty of times, and I must admit it did seem very countrified and clean. No foreigners. So when my wife died I sold up and moved down, and spent the next three years catching the early train to London. That was a hard game, that was. Sometimes I'd be working nights and not get home till a couple of days later. It all got a bit much, so I gave up completely and retired. But I miss my working life. And I'll never see anything like it again.'

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The old vicarage is on a dangerous bend now.

Mrs Kimberly lives in the basement, down a steep flight of concrete steps. I walk through a rotten, half timbered door into an ill-lit anteroom with a concrete floor. There are empty plastic plant pots, boxes, picture frames, farmyard implements and ten-year old feed catalogues. The air visibly stirs as I move through it. There is a smack of uncut dust about the place, of unlit corners and earth. There is another door that must be her front door. I knock, and after a while I hear Mrs Kimberly shout 'It's open.' I walk in. 'Hello?'
Mrs Kimberly shuffles towards me with a zimmer frame from the shadows of her back kitchen into the better light near the centre of the room. Her long black t-shirt hangs straight down from her rounded shoulders. Her face has an erased look, as if living in this basement is slowly rubbing her out. The most real thing about her is her teeth, prominent and yellowing.
'Gosh. You're early.'
'Let's get you in nicely on time, for a change.'
'Did you hear about the other two appointments I had this week? Late, both times. I don't understand why these things should be so difficult. I'll just get my coat. Do I need it? Or would a waistcoat do?'
'A waistcoat would be perfect. It's not cold.'
'Won't be a tick.'
She shuffles back into the gloom.
On her mantelpiece and on the walls there are photos of her as a young girl, beside, on top of, pointing to horses. There are statues of horses on the mantelpiece, and prints of horses on the walls. There is a black cat curled on the tartan cover of the bed.
'Your cat looks comfy.'
Well what a perfect kind of life it is, really, when you're a cat. You just lie around a lot. Pleasing yourself.'
'I wouldn't mind it.'
The cat flicks its tail as I close the door behind us.
On the way up the stairs to the ambulance, Mrs Kimberly tells me what happened to her. She was having problems with her balance, and fell down the concrete cellar steps. She had been sitting on a low wall at the top, chatting to a neighbour, when she had suffered another bout of dizziness and fallen backwards. She woke up in a hospital bed, and was told that she had been unconscious for a month. She has a shunt in her head to ease the pressure, shuffles along with a frame, and can only make her words carefully, like a drunk trying to seem sober.
On the ambulance I say: 'Did you used – do you still – have much to do with horses?'
'All my life. When I was little I used to get on my horse in the morning, ride off with my friends and be out all day. We'd stop by a little shop in some village, get some milk and something to eat, and go and canter over to some trees. Back in the evening, just before dark.'
She stops to get her breath.
'They won't let me near a horse now, in case I go under its hooves.'

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Mrs Barnegat does not have her teeth in. It's as if her face is folding in over a crevasse. She tells me she's ninety seven, but she looks older. She has deep lines etched into her face, and the skin on her withered claws is blotchy and thin. She tells me about her life:

She was born in Margate, but the family moved to North London when she was small. She remembers playing in Clissold Park. She had several brothers and sisters. Her father worked in a factory. When the First World War started he went to enlist but was rejected as his lungs had been corrupted. He was put to work in a munitions factory, and in the evenings watched for fires around London. Mrs Barnegat married her husband when she was nineteen, and they had four children. She didn't work when the children were young, but as soon as she could she worked in the factories, too. After her husband died she was still there.

The last factory she worked in was owned by Philips.


Michael leans on his stick so hard he seems to want to push it through the floor of the ambulance. He thumbs his enormous glasses back up his nose, and asks me in a shout:

'How old do you think I am?'

I guess he must be at least eighty, so to be safe I say 'Seventy something?'

'I'm eighty nine. Eighty nine! Imagine how old that is!'

'You look very well on it.'

'Do I? I'm not. My wife died fifteen months ago. We were married seventy years. They burned her all up, and then we put her in the garden, under the trees. When she died I couldn't eat. First this leg went, then this arm, then this leg. I was mad with it all.'

I remember coming to pick him up a few months ago. A young man with a silver stud in his eyebrow had wandered out to me as I pulled up in the drive. Grandad was in the hospital, the psychiatric wing.

'We run a cattery. Or she ran it, I should say. I don't do much now. I'm no good. We bought the place years ago. Fourteen acres. I used to drive the van and whatnot. I'd carry the cats out to the van, and then I'd carry them back in again. We did all the cat shows. Manchester. We had about thirty cats, all the best sorts. Then later on it was rescue cats. My wife knew everything there was to know about cats. Me, I didn't pay them much mind. I'd help her out, and then I'd go down the pub. I've got a son - well, I say he's a son, but he's sixty himself. He's a barrister, and it's his son who looks after the cats now. The other daughter, she's a barrister, but she lives in Hong Kong. I just want to die now and give it all over to whoever, I don't care.'

At the house I help Michael out of the ambulance and up the steeply sloping drive to the back door. An old dog limps out to say hello, and a plump ginger cat looks up from a cardboard box. Michael almost falls sideways into a hedge when he bends down to stroke the dog; I only let go of his arm when he is safely up against a kitchen table. The dog sniffs my trousers, then follows him inside.

'They must be down in the sheds,' he says. 'Don't hang around.'

'Goodbye Michael, take care of yourself.'

As I turn to go he shouts after me: 'Do you want a cat?'

Monday, May 08, 2006


Mr Tindall comes down the stairs tentatively, but greets me firmly. He touches my shoulder and smiles when I tell him that I've 'come for him'. I follow him back upstairs and help him choose a jacket to wear.
'Is it cold?' he asks.
'No - bright, chilly, but not exactly cold.'
I tell him he'll be fine if he puts a light jacket over his jungle green cardigan, the pockets of which bulge pendulously with paper tissues.
'I'm used to the warmer weather you see,' he says, as I help him on with the jacket.

On the ambulance he tells me his story:
'When I came out of the army I was apprenticed to a jeweller. I learned the trade inside out in six years, and worked at it pretty hard. Eventually I was able to set up in a little shop in H. Did very well, very quickly. Lord knows why. Loads of people wanted me to fix their watches, sell them rings and such. They threw money at me. I didn't know what to do with it. Piles of money, silly really. In the end I thought: What do I really need with all this? So I sold the business to a man who wanted to set his son up. I stayed there with him for three months to teach him the trade and to make sure that everything was fine before I left. It didn't work out, though. Poor man. I could understand what he wanted to do for his son, but the trouble was his son was lazy, you see. Had absolutely no interest in the business. Really no interest at all. He'd just sit there on his stool, smoking cheroots. Went bankrupt within the year. Anyway, I went to live in Spain, there thirty years, did nothing, drank beer with my friends, slept by the pool, until I caught the flu and my sister came over and said "Right, you - you're coming home."'

Sunday, May 07, 2006

In September

Edith is enjoying the ride.

'I'll be 90 in September. Guess what day I was born. Know your history?'

I try to think of famous days in September. Armistice? That's November. VE Day? Agincourt? I try them out on her.

'I'll give you a clue. September 11th.'

'Oh, well,' I say, 'September 11th, of course, the World Trade Centre. Terrible.'

'September 11th, 1916. A Zeppelin came down in Cuffley. Shot down, by a Mr Robinson. My father was there. He saw him do it.'


Mrs Levington is quivering on her doorstep.
'Can you help me on with my coat? Are we going to the hospital? Will you check the door shuts properly behind me? Shall I take my frame? Will you take me all the way to the department?'

I help her outside.

'I use this to go to Age Concern' she says, inexpertly pushing a three wheeled walking aid. She doesn't know how to operate the brakes, and says she prefers using it half folded, so she can get through gaps.

As we drive along I ask her about her family.

'My eldest son - don't ask me what he does - it's complicated - he tried to explain it to me - it's so complicated. He's gone to London today. He had to go to London to work, that's why he couldn't drive me. I used to drive. For a company - what was it called? I used to go to London. I've got a daughter in B. and another son further up country, don't ask me where. It's complicated. None of them are married apart from the son who's gone to London. My daughter used to work for a travel agents but she didn't like it so now she's got something else - which she found difficult to get into, but now it's not so bad. Don't ask me what she's doing. She never did settle at anything. The other one is married and lives much higher up. I don't see him that often, and no idea what he does - it's complicated, I get confused. I used to drive, you know. I only stopped a little while ago. Where was it I used to work? I used to live in W. Then I had to sell up to move here. It's a brand new house. Three bedrooms. I live on my own, you know. But I used to live in W.'

Gut doctors

'Gut doctors are the best. A lot of stomach problems are related to the mind, of course. They're affected by stress and things like that. Maybe even psychosomatic. Hypochondriac. God knows I am.
Gut doctors know about people - they know what makes them tick. They spend all their time looking through peoples' guts and finding out what's wrong with them. I think they can develop a real sense of the person through their guts. They can tell where the problem is just by getting a good feel of the guts. It's almost magical.'

What can you say?

'I keep up with the news. I watch the news pages every morning on TV and read every one. Isn't it terrible about those earthquakes? I blame the French. All those atom bombs they tested under the sea. Well it's got to do some damage, hasn't it?

'It's my diamond wedding next week. Sixty years. We're having a big do at the Service Club. I'm supposed to make a speech and I'm dreading it. What can you say after sixty years? But I've got eighteen grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren - I think. But you see I've got no mates. Or I haven't got what you might call a mate. Just people you see. I used to have Bill M. Although he was never really what you might call a mate-as-such. I'd go round there, we'd spend some time. He doesn't want to see anyone now. His wife, kids, anyone. He's got this thing up his nose. A whatsit, tube. Runs down to a container by the chair, full of terrible stuff. He's gone a bit strange in his head.

'I was eighteen when I was finally called up in 1944. I got sent up to Scotland to train. Freezing cold, practising the D-Day landings up in the Orkneys. Then six a.m. one Sunday I found myself up to my chest in sea water, wading ashore to France, and everyone shooting at me. I was in those wet things all day, and didn't get anything to eat till nine that night. You see the Germans were pulling back. They'd had enough as well. But then a few of them decided to make a stand, so they started hitting us with mortars. The very first one they sent over landed next to me, knocked me off my feet, ripped my leg open and blew my ears out. I was in a right old state. I got dragged on to the Bren gun carrier. This Red Cross guy, he says "You ought to get a toornikee on that, mate" but he didn't do anything. Later on I woke up on a transport ship headed for Southampton. I didn't like that too much, either. Lying there waiting to get bombed any minute and no way of getting out. Still, I made it to Southampton, and got loaded onto a mail train. They'd converted the letter shelves to take patients, and we rode like that all the way to Carlisle. Horrible journey. I was six weeks convalescence there, and that was it, back to BH.

'But my leg was never right. I grew this terrible ganglion on the back of my left knee, and I had this limp. I kept going back to my doctor until he gave in and had me take an x-ray. Well they saw it immediately, this dirty great lump of shrapnel still wedged in there. They said I'd more than likely lose the leg, but they managed to get it out. The surgeon came up to me after and said "Cyril, I'd like to keep that piece of shrapnel if you don't mind". I said to him "But you were the last one to have it." He said "Well in that case the cleaner must've thrown it out." And that was that.

'Before the war I turned my hand to most things. Farm work, building, factories. One time when I was very young I had this job working on the carnations. They grew up to your chest, it was quite something. One morning I ducked down to have a fag. Next thing I knew I was waking up, it was six o'clock in the evening and everyone had gone home. No one seemed to notice or say anything the next day, so I thought I'd got away with it. But come the Friday when the boss was handing out the pay packets he shook my hand and said "Cyril, you could've tried a little bit harder", and that was that. I was out.

But I learned how to milk a cow, build a wall, fix an engine. I bought an old van, filled it with odds and ends and whatsits and drove it all round selling them.

'I come from a big family of fourteen but we didn't get on. Mum and Dad, they didn't celebrate Christmas or birthdays. It just wasn't their nature. The only present I ever got was from my Mum when I was nine - a pocket watch. Other than that, nothing. But my wife comes from a big family and they were fine. And she's always sending cards. Her Dad was mean though. He hated her going out with me. I was just about to give her a kiss outside their house one night and he leant out of an upstairs window and shouted "Leave that". But even my wife didn't want to see me at first. There was a big fire and party on VJ Day, and she said to her sister "Walk me home, Violet. I want to keep him off of me." But she ran away from home to live with her aunt and nine months later we were married with one pound to last us two weeks. But we managed, and now we've got our own house, double glazed, centrally heated, the lot.'

Hard B's

She takes a long time coming to the door. I try to look through the letterbox. I'm not sure whether I heard someone cry out or not. But the letterbox has those thick black brushes on the inside, and whilst I'm trying to push a hole through them I hear her say 'The door is open you know.' I straighten up and open the door.

Mrs Baxter stands wheezing in the hallway. It's difficult to guess how old she might be; her face is swollen, and the lines she probably would have are all smoothed away. She is wearing a custard-coloured mackintosh, plate-size dark glasses, and her hair is swept up in an orderly bun.
'I have been in The Big House. I spent two weeks there after my last operation. But you wouldn't believe how noisy it is in there. Ninety-two, one hundred and two - they're the worst. You wouldn't think they'd be so noisy, but it's terrible. What they do, you see, they sleep all day, and then all night it's ping ping ping on the buttons. I'm not ready for that. I value my independence.'

'I used to be a store detective for C&A. I loved my job. I did it for ten years. As soon as the children were old enough to look after themselves I said to my husband "That's it. I've had enough. The kids are gone and you're certainly no reason to stay" - and I walked. Best thing I ever did. Got the detective job and I loved it.

'You wouldn't believe the people who stole. Mostly women, and always rich. Always had notes in their purses. It was never the poor. You'd get prostitutes coming in after a night's work, buying a whole new set of clothes and paying cash. But these other women, they'd swan through the doors in big fur coats, and the next thing you know they're rolling trousers round their arms and pulling their sleeves down over them. I've seen it all. Coat hangers in the toilets and all sorts.

'My eldest son and his wife never come to see me. It's always "Well we need more notice than that". He said to me one day "Don't think we'll be giving up our weekends just to come and see you." The eldest daughter's the same. They both take after their father, sorry to say. He was stubborn and mean and they were always going to be one thing or the other. But my youngest daughter, she's a different prospect. She comes and does my shopping once in a while. I see her quite a bit. And I've got a good nephew.

'I wasn't too happy with the nurse in the Big House. She kept impersonating my accent. She said I had "Hard B's". I said I was from Cumberland. I didn't appreciate that.

'I just wish the doctor could sort my legs out. I've got polymyelitis on top of the usual rheumatism and it's honestly terrible. I can't bear it. Nobody seems to know what to do. I've been for every test you could think of, x-rays, blood, the works. I'm on steroids, and they play havoc. Sometimes I get this feeling in my head, like a thousand bees stinging my brain. Urgh. But if they could only take me in and make my legs work as well as my arms, I'd be happy with that.'


Nora has a strangely immobile face, a slack expanse of cheek falling to a cupid-bow mouth. She wears a headscarf and a heavy blue overcoat, and walks very slowly, hunched over two sticks. She speaks quietly, in an East European accent.

The ride in the ambulance upsets her. It is too bumpy, and she complains about feeling sick.
'How much would one of these vehicles cost? Is this the best they can do? I find it criminal that they cannot design something better.'

When we pick Nora up from the day centre she demands that we take her back 'for the bottle of water they promised me.' The nurses smile at us when we tell them what Nora has said. 'Buy her some from the shop', they say, and exchange a confederate look.

In the shop Nora demands that we buy her 'sweeties' as well as water. When I say that we don't have time as there are patients on the ambulance waiting to go, she makes a brush-aside movement and says 'That doesn't matter. I had to wait, didn't I? It won't kill them.'

On the vehicle she starts complaining about the bumpy ride, so to take her mind off things, I start to ask her some questions.

'Where are you from, Nora? Your accent.'
She looks up at me suspiciously.
'In 1986 I was in St Paul's, Minneapolis. Is that far enough back for you?'
'Were you working there?'
'I was in education.'
'Higher or...'
'All education is "higher"'
'Were you in research or something?'
'Why do you want to know these things about me?'
'I'm just curious.'
'Well maybe I won't satisfy your curiosity.'