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 clich├ęs, 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.