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.