Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's edge

Craig makes progress, black leather jacket and criss-cross seatbelt, arms crooked racing-style, chin-down, ripping through the late afternoon traffic, pools of standing water exploding left and right, the whack whack whack of the wipers pushing everything aside, the traffic, the water, the seconds.

Suddenly he hits a deeper patch of water and the car twitches violently, seems to rise up. The wheel wraps hard, to the left, to the right. He brakes, the car kicks back, snaps around in a lost spin through panicked gaps in the traffic. Misses stuff. Lumps up on a low grass rise at the side of the carriageway, smashes backwards through a barrier, slides down an overgrown slope to stop in a clump of gorse.

Craig sits gripping the wheel, slowly becomes aware of the limp and tick of the cooling engine, the whoosh of passing traffic on the road above, slowly moves his arms and legs, finds he can, looks around, faces peering down from above.

He is still in the car when two yellow jackets climb over the barrier and slip down towards him. Ambulance, he realises. The one in front tells him to keep looking straight ahead, hauls open the passenger door; the other holds it open whilst he crouches down and looks inside. He speaks quickly. Reaches in, feels his neck. Asks him to move his legs and arms. Asks some questions, tells him to swing his legs out of the foot well. He reaches in, takes his hand and hauls him out of the car. The other one, a woman, grabs hold of him, too. Together they pick their way up the ploughed bank to the barrier, and the ambulance waiting beyond.


‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it happened.’
‘It’s pretty wet out there.’
‘I know. But nothing I haven’t seen before.’
Craig pauses, rubs his face, then apologises as he’s upset the working of the BP cuff. He puts his hands back in his lap.
‘It’s so ironic. I was going to put slicks on this morning. I didn’t want to be held up.’
‘Just a minute.’
He stares straight ahead.
‘God. When I think. What might’ve happened.’
‘Concentrate on what did happen. That’s the thing with these accidents. There are so many what ifs. They can drive you crazy. You’ve just got to focus on what did happen. You lost control, but no-one got hurt, everyone’s safe, you get to go home. That’s it.’
‘But just think. I could’ve been killed. All those worries. All those stupid little things – you know? Your life. The whole bit. Gone, just like that. When I think what could’ve happened.’
‘You made it out. That’s it.’

We don’t tell him what he doesn’t appear to know.
The other side of the gorse bush.
A flimsy wooden railing, a twenty foot drop onto an underpass.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

half past five

It’s a blessing to sleep, but sometimes waking up is better.


Ona is the mother of two boys: Jaime and Yossi.

When the boys were growing up, Yossi had been the warped, slightly comical tail on an otherwise perfect dog, dragging along behind the body golden as it grew strong through endless hunting and fighting games in the fields and ditches and dilapidated barns around the village. People loved and trusted Jaime, but Yossi - that febrile, fuzzy-edged boy – Yossi they preferred to keep at a good stick’s length. Yossi they saw as the lumpen weight you need to measure the riches in the opposite pan of the family scale of happiness.

Jaime and Yossi both went off to fight at the same time, but whilst Jaime won medals, Yossi was medically discharged and sent home early.

I am a stranger, but somehow I know this story. I am here in an ambulance to drive Yossi to hospital.

But he’s missing.

‘Please find him,’ says Ona. ‘I know he’s round here somewhere.’

I drive round the village. The place is deserted, raked with heat, a monstrous kiln piled full of baked white bricks and dusty dogs and streets of impacted sulphur. I pass an abandoned field, so blasted the hedges are just clumps of grey wire. Someone has been digging in a corner; by the edge of the hole I see a pile of suitcases. I wonder what that could mean?

I drive back to the house empty-handed. As I approach I see Ona standing talking to a man in blue scrubs, his surgeon’s mask pulled down below his chin. As I jump down from the cab and walk up to them he smiles and hands me a plastic DHL envelope.

‘Here. We operated, but it was too much. I’m afraid that’s the best we could do.’

There is something sloppy and warm in the package. Is this Yossi’s heart? But it’s so small? I gently press the top of the envelope. The contents slip from side to side beneath my fingers. It’s like rolling the knotted veins in the back of an old man’s hand.

I feel a pulse.

‘He’s alive!’
I put the envelope down on the floor and begin pressing up and down on the top of it with my index finger. The surgeon stands over me and laughs.
‘It’s pointless,’ he says. ‘It’s a blue heart.’
So I put my face to the top of the envelope and gently blow into it.
The beat inside the envelope gets stronger.
I carry on with my these micro-compressions, furious the surgeon won’t take me seriously. Doesn’t he care?
The thing in the envelope jumps and twitches. Finally I stand up and hand the envelope back to the surgeon.
‘There’s got to be a chance,’ I say.
He takes the envelope and shakes his head.
‘Do you think hearts are like memory sticks? Do you think all I need to do is find a new body, plug this thing in and send him on his way? You are seriously confused, my friend.’
I look at Ona. She shakes her head, and draws a finger across her mouth as if to say: Enough. No more.


I wake up. My mouth is dry and my lips are glued and ripped.
I wonder if I’ve been calling out in my sleep. I unfold my arms and struggle to sit up. The air is a stew. There are dark shapes in the chairs around me, but no-one else stirs. I raise the dial of my watch close up to my face and read the time: half past five. I’ve been asleep for twenty minutes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

a scratch nativity

The cold has really come down tonight, a mantle of frost unpinned from the sky and draped across town. Cars, bushes, people – everything and everyone seems fixed and brittle. Even the amber light from the streetlamp hangs in the air like a breath.

Outside the police station a young woman is lying on a low wall, her pale face resting on the pillow of her right hand, a jacket draped across her body. A man stands with his arms folded, staring at his shoes, then briefly at the ambulance as we approach. There is a police woman with them, speaking on a mobile phone. She waves with the other hand as we pull up at the pavement beside them all.

‘First off, they don’t speak a word of English. I’ve got the translation service on the line, and I’ve managed to get the basics. They’re asylum seekers. Set off from Iraq the end of October, travelling in the backs of lorries and so on, via Turkey, apparently. She’s pregnant – don’t know how much by. He’s with her but not sure to what extent. She’s got pain, been sick a lot. I was coming back to finish my shift when I found her lying on the wall, him standing like he is. And that’s it so far.’
‘Did you get their names?’
‘Yep. She’s Amina and he’s – Hafiz, is it?’
Hafiz looks up, looks between us all, then looks down again.
‘I’ll keep the translation guy on the phone as much as you need him. He said not to worry.’
‘That’s handy.’
‘I know! They only recently gave us the cost code for it.’

I squat down beside Amina and touch her wrist. Beneath the refrigerated light from the street lamp she seems pitifully reduced, her nose a sculpted blade, a smudge of oil on her cheek. She gives a mewling cry like an injured cat, and draws her legs up further.
‘First off we need to get her on the ambulance and into the warm. Whilst we do that, can you get the translation guy to ask Hafiz how long Amina’s been unwell and what she’s been complaining of? We’ll get all the other stuff when we’re on board.’

It seems Amina can stand. She allows me to take her by the arm and after a moment to ready herself, she stands and moves soundlessly over the pavement, floating up the back steps of the ambulance as insubstantial as a bundle of clothes magically carried on the air. Hafiz shuffles close behind.

Another two police officers arrive, and the first police woman stands with them to give the story so far.

Amina curls up onto her side on the trolley, making a protective nest of it. Even without the language difference, Hafiz would be difficult to reach – he sits on an ambulance seat, studying and picking at his grimy hands, looking up only when it seems he might be expected to do something. There is an air not of defeat about him, but of an exhaustion thickened over days and weeks into a mute shell of acceptance. Diesel fumes hang around him, cut with sweat and dirt and scavenged nights in the cold.

I roll up her sleeve and go to put the blood pressure cuff around her arm.
‘We’ll need the paediatric one, Rae. How old is she?’

The police woman comes on board and hands me the phone.
‘Hello? Sir? Yes, please - for your requests. I will do whatever I can for you.’
‘Can you ask Hafiz how old Amina is? I need her date of birth, and her past medical history.’
I hand the phone to Hafiz.
As we run though our tests I think how much I would love to know the cost code for this translation service, the simple sequence of numbers that would summon up a translator for any language, any time of day or night. Easy as rubbing a lamp. What would we have made of all this without it?

‘Hello? Sir? Yes. Amina is sixteen years of age and Hafiz is seventeen years of age. Amina has been pregnant for approximately twenty weeks. She has no previous medical experiences. Hafiz says they are a couple but they are not married, if you understand. This is why they asylum seeker from Kirkuk, Iraq.’

Rae examines Amina’s abdomen.
‘She could well be twenty weeks. Her abdo’s a bit quiet, though, and she’s sensitive RIF. Definitely malnourished, dehydrated.’
‘Her temperature’s up, too. Hello? Mr Translator?’
‘Can you ask Amina how she’s feeling?’
I hand Amina the phone, but she doesn’t take it, and doesn’t speak when I hold the phone to her ear.
‘Never mind,’ I say to him. ‘I’ll hand you back to the police woman. We’re off to the hospital. Thanks for your help.’
‘Not at all, not at all. Goodbye, sir. Good luck.’
The police woman finishes the call as we make sure Amina’s comfortable and offer a blanket to Hafiz.
‘I’m off duty now, but these other two’ll follow you down,’ says the police woman, excusing her way past Hafiz and picking her way out to the back door. ‘All right?’
When she has stepped down to street level, she turns and gives the phone a victorious shake in the air before stuffing it back in a pocket. Then she stands still for a moment, and the other two police officers move in either side, and the three of them look into the truck - this crowded, brightly-lit box by the side of the road, late on a freezing night on the second to last Saturday before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

mary's advent windows

mary, smoking a cigarette

She pads quietly slipper to slipper on the spot, casting her big eyes around the desolate A&E car park, taking breathy little puffs on a filter tip, tapping off the ash before it’s grown overmuch, watching the flecks of ash dance away on the wind. With that fake fur coat rounding off her figure and concealing her legs down to her ankles, she looks like a cartoon bear loitering outside a cave.
‘Hello Mary.’
‘Oh. It’s you. What you doing here?’
‘I work here. Kinda.’
‘Oh. Yeah.’
‘You all right?’
‘Yeah. You?’
‘What are you doing up here?’
‘It’s my breathing, love. I can’t breathe.’
‘The usual then?’
‘Yeah. The usual.’
She taps the cigarette off to the other side.
‘I didn’t recognise you,’ she says. ‘Outside of my flat.’
‘Who brought you up?’
‘Richard, is it? Stefan? New boys. I haven’t met them two before.’
She raises the cigarette. In the unexpected quiet of the place I can hear the red tip crackle back to the filter.
‘I’d better get back. I don’t want to miss my place.’
‘See you later, Mary.’
‘See ya.’
She drops the butt and shuffles back into the cave.

mary, sitting on a window ledge

When the crew arrive she is sitting with her legs dangling out of the window of her boyfriend Paul’s flat, ready to jump. Three floors, straight onto concrete. They know the window; they’ve been here almost as many times as they have to Mary’s own flat the other side of town. But whilst the call is normally to breathing problems, and whilst the window is normally open to let the cigarette smoke out before the crew arrive, today they can see Mary sitting on the ledge, her legs hanging out into space, her red slippers idly swinging backwards and forwards.

‘It was like she was just waiting for the truck. Anyway, we’d only just parked up by the police car when we heard a shout and a scream and then saw this furry bundle madly flapping as it fell. Totalled her legs and hips, of course. Lucky that was all really. Didn’t you wonder where she’d been all this time?’

mary, hiding under a duvet

‘Mary? Mary it’s me, Spence. Remember me?’
No movement from beneath the duvet.
‘Come on, Mary. Let’s see your face.’
The social worker stands over by the open window. She seems to be guarding it, as well as the official-looking packet she has clutched to her chest.
‘Come on, Mary,’ she says.
Two policemen wait outside in the hallway.
Mary’s flat is filled with smoke, as usual. It seems much as it always does – a secret den in a junked-up storeroom, a scattering of medication blister packs, cigarette cartons, a pub ashtray with a pyramid of butts. Things are slightly different today, though. Her single bed has been moved into the centre of the room, whilst Paul’s is where it normally is, squashed up against the far wall and piled with clothes.
‘Come on, Mary. We have to take you to the hospital. Take my arm and I'll help you out to the truck.’
Frank sighs and goes to sit down on Paul’s bed.
Frank jumps up. Paul is hiding in bed, too.
‘Sorry mate.’
Everyone laughs.
‘Frank just sat on Paul,’ I say to Mary. ‘Come on. You can’t miss this.’
I gently pull the duvet from her face. She lies there, pale and blinking.
‘Come on, Mary.’

mary, sitting on a chair

‘What do you think of my hair do?’
‘You look like Annie Lennox.’
She stares up at me, her banana yellow bob shining in the light from the open window.
‘Why don’t you get your hair done?’
‘I used to. I used to henna my hair.’
‘I can just see you with red hair. Why don’t you do it anymore?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe I will.’
‘You should.’
She sighs. Frank is looking at a Japanese print of two sparrows eyeing up a praying mantis.
‘Nice,’ he says.
‘Do you like it?’
‘Yeah. Where d’you get it?’
‘I can’t remember. When I look at it I think: Which one’ll get the bug? The one on the left looks like the quickest. But then I think: Maybe neither of them will. Maybe the bug’ll get them.’
‘A praying mantis won’t get a sparrow. Even in Japan.’
‘Maybe this one will.’
I finish writing the paperwork. I’ve written all the details - date of birth, doctor, next of kin, medication, past medical history – everything from memory. I can even talk as I do it. We all can. Mary is our most regular customer.
‘Have you moved into Paul’s flat permanently now, then?’
‘Yeah, I have.’
‘Where’s Paul today?’
‘What? So you can sit on him?’
‘Schoolboy error,’ says Frank, moving over to look out the window, the window that Mary jumped from.
‘I won’t be doing that again,’ she says, as if she read our thoughts. ‘Things are better now.’

mary, sitting on a chair, in a christmas hat

The window is closed. The flat is smoke-free.
‘I’ve given up,’ says Mary.
‘I never thought I’d see the day.’
‘Yes. Well. I did it.’
She scratches her nose.
‘I have the occasional one,’ she says. ‘Only now and again.’
‘Oh, well.’
‘But not nearly as many as before.’
‘My breathing’s just as bad, though.’
‘They say you go through a rough patch immediately after.’
‘It’s been a month.’
‘Up to a month or so.’
‘But then it gets better.’
‘It definitely gets better, does it?’
I carry on writing out the sheet.
‘I’ll look forward to that, then,’ she says, and straightens her red party hat.
‘Do you like my hat, Spence?’
‘It’s okay. I’m not mad on Christmas hats myself.’
‘Spoil sport.’
‘I know. It’s a bit of a thing. I’ve always had this big head. Paper hats split when I put them on.’
‘Just don’t pull them down so far.’
‘Maybe I’ll try that.’
‘You should. It’s Christmas. You’ve got to wear a hat.’
‘Maybe they do crackers for people with over-sized heads.’
‘Jumbo crackers,’ says Rae, helpfully.‘Freak crackers.’
‘Let’s have a look at this so-called head of yours,’ says Mary. She struggles up and then studies me, left and right. Her fur coat smells like my cat, a musty, night garden kind of smell. She tuts, pats me lightly on the top of the head, and sits back down.
‘It is big,’ she says. ‘But not disastrous.’

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


‘You must see this all the time.’
‘You see a fair bit.’
‘Quite a strange job, when you think about it.’
‘You get used to it.’
‘I mean – for us, this is a terrible emergency. Ping! Pow! This, then that. But you? I suppose for you this is your bread and butter. Just an average day.’
‘You do get used to it.’
‘Walking in through the door to God knows what. To us!’
‘Never a dull moment.’

I have no idea who this family member is. We’re standing shoulder to shoulder in a wide white hallway. An elegant metal staircase rises up in front of us, past discretely illuminated alcoves set with oriental marionettes, ceramic horses, a reclining abstract in gleaming black stone. The atmosphere of the house is one of thoughtfully modulated space, a domesticated art gallery, spot lit, clutter free, recesses lined with fascinating books, chairs to read them in. But for now, the two of us stand at the foot of the stairs like two amiable critics at a three act domestic farce, our arms folded, slightly back on our heels, enjoying the comings and goings, the calls and confirmations, the runnings up the stairs with shoes and jackets, and the runnings down with slippers and bags.
The call was to an unconscious twenty two year old female. When we arrived, the panelled front doors threw themselves open before Rae had even touched the lion’s head knocker. Suddenly we found ourselves hitched to the back of a cross-talking, cross-purposed mob of elderly, middle-aged and young people, all speaking at once, all with a different view of events, covering everything from the patient’s condition, the school she went to, travel arrangements for a recent festival and building work scheduled for the kitchen. We fought this Hydra with our bags and clipboard all the way up the stairs to where Gemma lay groaning on a rucked double bed, her legs drawn up to counter the pain.

It took some firm talking and strategic coralling to clear space enough in the room to establish the facts: which were - no immediate danger, but did need a hospital examination. Gemma was sufficiently self-possessed to insist on putting some clothes on before coming out to the ambulance, so I left Rae and Gemma’s mum to help with this whilst I went to get the vehicle ready. As I excused my way through the crowd on the landing, I scattered grains of reassurance and comfort behind me, and sauntered back down the stairs. The man was waiting patiently for me at the bottom.

‘I’ll read that as a good sign, then,’ he said, taking off his silver specs and rubbing them clean on his linen shirt. ‘Unless you always take bad news that way.’
‘It’s fine. Gemma needs to see a doctor at the hospital. It could be appendicitis, but there are other things, too. It’s difficult to tell.’
‘Can I help get anything?’
‘No thanks. You’re good.’

A minute later and we’re standing at the foot of the stairs waiting for everyone to come down.
‘So. How do you get in to this line of work?’
‘I had a temp job in a hospital and got talking to some of the crews who came in. I was looking for something permanent. It sounded interesting.’
‘What did you do before?’
‘I taught English at a secondary school.’
‘A teacher!’
‘Yep.’ I rock backwards on my heels and struggle to contain a yawn. ‘But this is less stressful.’

Monday, December 07, 2009

a strange, heavy man

Barbara, an elderly woman pop riveted into a substantial, tobacco brown combo, hairdo struck from a block of granite, steps out onto the porch to greet us. The door clicks shut behind her.
‘Oh shit! I’ve left the damned keys inside.’
‘Do you have a spare anywhere?’
‘Hang on, now. Let me think. There’s a set with Mrs Ferguson at number twenty eight, but she’s out at the centre till lunchtime at least. Shit, shit, shit.’
‘There’s a key safe down there. Might there still be a key in it?’
‘Yes! Yes! My God, you’re a genius!’
Despite the suit she manages to bend sufficiently to begin dabbing at the key safe buttons with a leathery finger. The front garden of bolting roses, dark veins of clematis and bramble-spoiled thickets of juniper and lavender, thrashes behind us in gusts of wind as we shelter in the porch.
‘I just need to fill you in on a few things before we go in,’ she says, straightening up and brandishing the key in the air. We take a step back. ‘Mrs Adams has dementia, no living relatives. I’m Barbara, neighbour and friend of some forty years. I have full power of attorney, over everything.’ She squints at us as if to make it clear this means us, too. Then with another abrupt change of pace she turns again and sticks the key in the lock.
‘She falls quite a bit, especially this past year. I only live round the corner so you see I’m here a great deal. And then there are the carers who come in four times a day. Crack squad of angels, to a man. But between us we simply can’t provide twenty four hour protection. Of course we can’t. We’re not nurses – or prison wardens, goodness knows. We’ve tried, but no power on earth can stop Stephanie attempting to do the impossible – by which I mean the things she used to be able to do but can’t anymore. It’s a sad fact, but time moves on. I mean look at this place. There’s only so much one can do.’
‘Okay. Fair enough. Shall we get inside and see how Mrs Adams is doing?’
‘Yes. Of course. The job in-hand. Follow me. She’s in the bedroom.’
Barbara opens the door and leads us inside.
‘Stephanie,’ she calls out, leaning forwards with the deferential stoop of a private secretary. ‘Stephanie? The ambulance people are here.’
Then she turns to us in the hallway and whispers: ‘Mrs Adams has fallen from the bed to the floor whilst trying to get on the commode. I don’t think she’s hurt herself, but I couldn’t get her up on my own, and anyway I thought it best to leave her in situ. I chucked a blanket over her, though. Hope that’s okay. Over to you, the experts.’ And she stands aside.

Mrs Adams’ bedroom has that yeasty odour of rooms lived in too long with the windows closed. Spotted wallpaper rises up to a margin of shadows, a ceiling rose in the middle of it all, cracked and obscure, like a planet viewed through a dirty telescope. And then around us on the walls, a dozen pound-shop portraits of Jesus, the Polish Pope, The Holy Virgin, and stretched on the wall over the headboard, a faded panorama of a convent school, class of fifty two.

Mrs Adams lies on the floor between the bed and the commode, bundled up in a coverless duvet. When I crouch down next to her and ask her how she got there, she says:

‘There was a man in here. A strange, heavy man. Bald. Squinty. I don’t know what he wanted. He just appeared at the foot of the bed. Didn’t say a word. When I asked him what he wanted, he shook his head. So I went to get up, but fell down, and then he came and lay on top of me. All night. And the best I could do was lie there quietly and hope he’d go. Which he did. Most peculiar.’

I look at Barbara. She smiles, shakes her head, and tosses the key from one hand to the other.

Friday, December 04, 2009


We can see them down by the water’s edge, a disparate huddle of fluorescent yellow, dark denim. A quad bike. Two guys in orange – a signal to us from them. The sea is murderous today, a lumpen beast falling on the body of the shore. The air is filled with a chaotic roar, and rags of foam tumble through the air like spit from the mouth of a rabid animal. Even to paddle at the edges of this thing would be sufficient grounds for a straitjacket - but to walk in?

I park the ambulance, we haul out the bags and blankets we’ll need and set off down the ramp to the shingle beach. A crowd has gathered on the walkway to watch the action.

Nearer to the group, and we can see a middle-aged white man standing Christ-wise, his arms straight out to the sides, a policeman clamped on either end. Two beach guards are drying and warming themselves up around the quad bike. A young black guy in a long trench coat hugs a briefcase to his middle and stamps around on the pebbles, his coat tails snapping in the wind. A third policeman comes up to us and shouts an explanation: threatened suicide, walked in up to his waist, pulled out by the lifeguards, freezing cold, wet through, can we check him over before they take him off to the cells?

The man starts trying to pull away from the two policemen, who have to readjust their grip and their stance to control him.
‘I want to die,’ he shouts. ‘Let me go. You can’t do this.’
His face is flushed red, slapped with cold, his walrus moustache matted with water and snot. Everything about him is sopping wet – his denim jacket and jeans, his trainers, his stripey woollen jersey, saturated, hanging.
‘Come on, mate. Let’s get you into the warm.’
‘Let me go.’
The man in the trench coat stands off. I go up to him. I guess that the two men are probably a couple, but I need to make sure. I nod and smile as I get up close, then lean in to shout above the wind:
‘Are you related?’
He looks sideways at me.
Related? Are you mad? I’m black! He’s white! Of course we’re not related!’
‘No, no. What I meant to say is: are you partners?’
Yes, we’re partners. Yes, we’re gay. So shoot me! Oh my God!’
‘Apart from walking into the sea, has your partner done anything else to hurt himself? Has he taken an overdose?’
‘No. He’s not that stupid.’
‘Stupid enough to walk into the sea, though.’
‘That really was stupid.’
‘So what happened?’
‘What happened? We came down for a break. Some break! We had a stupid argument – I can’t even remember what. He said he didn’t want to carry on. Said he was going to drown himself in the sea. So I said fine, and went off to get some help. When I came back he was up to his waist.’
‘Did he go under at any time?’
‘No. He just stood there til they pulled him out. God knows what I’m going to tell his mother.’

The police start to march the man up the beach, but he resists, crumpling at the knee and collapsing to the shingle. The other policeman goes to help. They half carry, half drag him up the beach, sprawling and wriggling between them, until finally they land him on the concrete of the promenade, laying him gently down, like some giant, sad, strangely-marked starfish for the crowd to wonder at.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Connor stares at Karen, the police sargent, through the safety glass panels of the basement door, his arms down by his side, gently swinging a carton of milk in his left hand. His eyes are two perfectly scribed, bright blue animalistic buttons. In his peaked sports cap, with his twitchy movements, he could be a gaunt bird of prey, a self-lacerating eagle cornered in a zoo. Both Connor’s arms are a mess of stripes and bloody, elliptical wounds.
He flicks his head and smiles coldly at the police sargent. She holds her right hand off to the side, waving for me and Frank and the other police officers to stay concealed off to the side and up the basement steps.
‘Come on, Connor. Let us in. You know me. You know what I’m like.’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘I know what you police are like. You make me crazy. You make me want to do bad things.’
‘Come on, Connor. The last thing I want is to have to break down the door.’
‘You better not.’
‘I won’t, mate. Not if you let us in. We’re worried about you. That’s it. That’s all I’m here for. We’re worried that you’ve hurt yourself.’
‘Hurt myself? You haven’t seen nothing.’ He takes a swig from the carton. ‘I’m not going down no custody suite. I swear to you on my life. I’m not gonna be locked up in no cell. I won’t answer for my actions if you try to take me down the custody suite again.’
‘That’s not what I want. All I want is to make sure you’re okay. That’s it. That’s the only thing. But you’ve got to meet us half way. Come on, mate. Open the door and let’s have a proper chat.’
‘No way,’ he says, taking a step back. ‘No fucking way.’
The care centre manager appears at the top of the steps. ‘Hi,’ he says, shivering in the early hours cold, tightly folding his arms. ‘Hi.’ Then settles in to stand-off with the rest of us.
‘Come on, Connor,’ says Karen. ‘Why won’t you let me in?’
Connor takes a step towards the glass, holds a bloodied hand out and mouths the letters POLICE written across the sargent’s stab vest. Then retreats again.
‘I’ve got the paramedics with me,’ says Karen. She gestures for me to step into the little pool of light that spills out through the glass. I smile and hold my hand up.
‘Hello, Connor,’ I say.
‘Who the fuck is that?’
‘It’s the ambulance, Connor. We want to make sure you’re okay.’
‘OK?’ he says. ‘OK? Read my lips: FML. FML, mate.’
‘FML? Sorry, Connor. I don’t know what that means.’
He sneers. ‘Call yourself an ambulance man.’ He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘FML. Fuck my life. Fuck my life. I’ve had enough. I’ve done bad things. You’ve no idea. FML. That’s what that means.’
He suddenly reveals a small craft blade in his other hand. He puts it in his mouth, takes a long slug from the milk carton, then throws the carton back down the corridor.
Karen gives a big sigh. ‘Mate – we’ve got to get you some help.’
‘I might let you in,’ he says, ‘but only after I’ve finished my coffee.’
Then he turns and goes back into the room just off to the side.
Karen asks me what the consequences of swallowing a blade like that might be, but before I can say anything a young girl comes out of the room and reaches out to open the door.
‘He’s gone out the back,’ she says.
Karen and another police officer go inside, the others hurry back up the stairs, jump into their cars and drive off right and left. I follow Karen into the basement, but stay in the room to ask the young girl some questions. She studies me with a curiously neutral expression, like a hard white sugar-coating. She stands swaying coquettishly from side to side in front of a tatty old poster for The Nightmare before Christmas.’
‘So - you’re the ambulance,’ she says. ‘Is that interesting work?’
‘Charlie,’ says the centre manager. But then he seems to run out of energy. ‘Charlie,’ he says again.
Outside, heavy boots along the road above us.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

the bad part

Someone has opened a box of devils tonight; they howl through the dark canyon of these houses, mauling the trees, whipping the parked cars with great tails of rain, rocking the ambulance from side to side as we come to a stop outside the only house with a light in the window.
Madre de Dios.’
‘Police en route.’
‘Let’s have a look anyway.’
A woman calling about a nine year old girl; the call taker heard screams in the background.

Even though I have a good hold of the ambulance door, my arm is almost wrenched from my shoulder as the wind snatches it away. I struggle to slam it shut, then with one hand holding the edges of my jacket together and the other gripping onto my bag, I step across black water to the pavement and then up an overgrown path to the front door where a woman stands jiggling and swaying with a baby on her hip.
‘What a night,’ she says as we stamp into the hallway. I don’t think she means the storm.
From upstairs, a child screams out. The mother absorbs the sound, as glassily subdued as the baby on her hip.
‘I don’t know what to do any more.’
‘Who’s that?’ shouts the child upstairs. ‘Who’s come in? I want to see them. I want to know who it is.’
‘It’s the ambulance, Tammy. They’ve come to see if they can help.’
‘Oh my God! Oh my God! I’m not going to hospital! I’m not going! I have to see them. I have to explain. I’m in such pain. Send them up to me! Send them up!’
Frank stays to talk to Mum in the kitchen. I go up.

Tammy is scrunched up in the middle of the bed, her knees drawn up with her hands elbow to elbow beneath them. A pillow rests on her legs, just in front of her face. She turns and stares at me through a curtain of sweated yellow hair as I step into the room.
‘What a night, Tammy!’
Outside the wind rages along the house front; the curtains fill and turn in the draught, as somewhere off in another room a door bangs rhythmically. Even though the windows are closed, it’s as if the storm had found a way through and torn everything up. The carpet is scattered with picture books, magazines, CDs, half-dressed dolls. The chaos extends up the walls, where certificates, photos and drawings jostle amongst the pulsing red hearts of the wallpaper. With the banging of the door and the twisting of the curtains it’s easy to imagine the whole room turning over and over like the drum of a washing machine, everything mixed and falling inside, wall to floor to wall, with Tammy’s drawn face peering anxiously through the glass.
‘Hello. My name’s Spence.’
‘No one understands. No one cares and no one does anything. I know I should sleep and I want to sleep but I can’t because if I do I’ll only wake up feeling like I do now, so bad and just so fed up. I’m fed up!’
Suddenly she pushes her face into the pillow, takes a shoulder full of air and screams as loudly as she can.
I push some books off an armchair and sit down.
The pillow soaks up the scream. Finally she raises her face again. She stares at me, then starts in again as quickly as if nothing had happened.
‘I feel so bad. I feel as if my arms and legs are going to fly away and leave me on the bed like a – like a dead dog. Does anyone know what’s happening to me? I’m sick and I’m never going to get better. I desperately want to go to sleep but the bad part won’t let me. I’ve got a good part and a bad part, and the bad part’s taking over.’
She lowers her face to the pillow and screams again. When that one passes and she raises her head again, I say as calmly as I can:
‘Tammy? You’re perfectly safe here. There’s nothing bad going to happen and there’s nothing can hurt you. You’re safe in your lovely room, in your comfy bed. Mum’s here, your little baby sister, we’re all here, and I know the wind’s going mad outside but it can’t get in and everything’s okay. You’re feeling bad at the minute but that will pass. You’re very tired and soon you’ll be asleep, and in the morning you’ll wake up and feel so much better.’
‘There are monsters in my sleep. They’re waiting for me. They’ll get me.’
‘No they won’t. We won’t let them. When you go to sleep you’ll be completely relaxed and rested, and in the morning the sun will shine and you’ll be fine.’
My words sound written out in crayon, phoney, unbelievable.
Tammy stares at me.
‘I’m not going to hospital.’
‘I’m not going taking you to hospital. It’s horrible weather outside. You’re much better off all tucked up and cosy in here. We’ll think of something else.’

Frank appears in the doorway behind me.
‘Can I borrow him?’ he says.
‘Won’t be a second.’
I follow him back downstairs to where the mother stands waiting with the baby.
‘Tammy’s been like this for a month or so,’ he says. ‘She’s been checked out by the doctor a few times, nothing wrong. There’s a referral to the child mental health team – next week? – but we’ve got to think how mum’s going to get through tonight.’
‘She won’t go to the hospital,’ says the woman, kissing the baby on the forehead.
‘She said.’
‘But we could get the doctor out tonight. At least they’d be able to give her something if talking doesn’t do the trick.’
The woman leans back against the wall and gently nuzzles the baby’s hair.
‘Can you believe it? Their useless father says he doesn’t want to come round and see them.’
Tammy shouts down the stairs again.
‘What are you saying? I can hear you. What are you saying?’
She screams again.
The police arrive outside.
Frank goes to meet them as I go back up the stairs.
‘Hang on, Tammy,’ I say. ‘It’s okay.’ But when the front door opens a sudden rush of air pushes past me, as if the wind is reaching in through the house to snatch the girl away, up from the bed and out through the window, gathering her shrieks to its black and furious centre.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

signs and symptoms

The CPN lets us in at the front door and leads us through. Annie is sitting in the front room, surrounded by bags of clothes, Tupperware containers filled with pill packets, a scattering of magazines. She is carved upright, pale and alert, glasses so thick they dilute the central portion of her face.
‘Annie is having problems with her right side,’ says the CPN.
‘I’ve had a stroke.’
‘Annie’s been an in-patient with us at the psychiatric hospital for about six weeks, due for home discharge but delayed a couple of days as she’d complained of feeling unwell, loss of feeling and so on. The doctors had a look at her, couldn’t reach a conclusion but decided she was okay to come home as planned. Unfortunately when we eventually got home things seemed worse. She said she couldn’t move her arm or leg at all, so I got the GP in to discuss everything, and she recommended a trip up the hospital, just to be sure.’
‘Is there a letter from the GP?’
‘No, but I’ve got a copy of all the recent hospital notes for you.’
I read the final entry.
‘Annie? It says here that at the hospital you were having problems with your left side, but now you say it’s your right.’
‘It’s always been my right. They got it wrong.’
I look at the CPN and she smiles with a level strength that wills me to understand the situation.
‘Annie’s been very worried about coming home today,’ she says.
‘What do you think? Do you think I’ve had a stroke?’
‘I don’t know Annie. It’s certainly unusual, what’s happened to your arm and leg. The doctor wants us to take you to hospital to get to the bottom of it, so that’s what we’ll do.’

On the ride to A&E, Annie keeps flopping her right arm over the side of the trolley, even though I secure it with a blanket, and then a belt.
‘I can’t control my arm,’ she says. ‘It’s completely numb. What do you think’s the matter? Do you think I’ve had a stroke?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How does my speech seem to you?’
‘It sounds ok to me.’
‘Am I speaking more slowly?’
‘I don’t know what you sounded like before, Annie, so it’s difficult to tell.’
‘Do you like your job?’
‘It’s got it’s good points. I like the time off.’
‘I think you should be reassuring me a little more.’
‘I’m sorry, Annie. I’m doing my best.’
‘What will they do for me when we get to the hospital?’
‘The nurses and doctors will take a look at you, see what they think.’
‘But what do you think?’
‘I don’t know, Annie. I’m not a doctor. But all the tests we’ve done look okay.’
‘But I can’t move my arm and leg. That’s not normal.’
We go round a corner, the ambulance sways. Instinctively Annie reaches her right hand out to steady herself on the cot. She stares at me.
‘Well, that’s encouraging,’ I say.

A concerned huddle at the end of the store by the pharmacy counter. No one notices me as I walk up, but when I say hello the group thrills and breaks apart, revealing an elderly woman sitting on a chair and a middle-aged daughter kneeling by her side. There is a momentary beat whilst each member of the group – shop assistant, assistant manager, manager, a couple of elderly shoppers, the woman and her daughter – checks the uniform, checks the name badge, checks the big yellow bag, allows that help may finally be at hand, then:
‘You were quick.’
‘Thanks for coming.’
Weren’t you quick?
Aren’t they quick?’
It feels like I’ll be signing autographs in a moment, but instead I say: ‘Don’t get used to it,’ then squat down by the woman’s feet. ‘What’s been happening?’
The daughter, a woman whose wild blond hair seems animated more by intense concern than bad weather, rubs her mother’s neck and looks down at me.
‘Poor mummy went woit as a goost.’
I look at the mother.
‘Why was that, then?’
‘I dunno. I had this sudden tarble spraint down the side of me face, I come over all unnecessary, then the inside of me mouth went mumpsy.’
Frank comes up with a chair, sets it up with a couple of blankets to the admiration of the two elderly shoppers.
‘And how do you feel now?’
The daughter rubs her mum’s neck some more.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘It just feels like I’ve gone and lorst me pip’.

Friday, November 20, 2009

cats and cakes

Even though we can hear earnest and anxious words from just behind the door, no-one opens it.
I knock again.
Eventually, a distorted eye appears, pressed up against the pasty white rectangle of glass in the middle of the door. It’s like being scrutinised by an octopus in an aquarium, but eventually it withdraws, followed by the sound of bolts and chains being loosened.
‘Just a minute,’ says a voice, half way through the security procedure. After another minute of rattles and scrapes, the door finally cracks open. Mrs Whittington looks out round the gap.
‘Ambulance,’ I say.
‘Just a minute,’ she says again, and retreats back into the hallway.
‘Can we come in?’
I push the door open.

Mrs Whittington is patting her pockets, turning round and round on the spot, examining the floor and tutting. Her friend Mrs Cheshire is struggling into the hallway hugging in front of her a large chocolate and brown cat, its legs all-angles, an expression of the purest hatred on its face.
‘Where shall I put Suki?’
‘Don’t let her out!’
I push the door to with the back of my heel.
‘Where’s Conrad?’
‘Conrad’s on the stairs, love.’
‘No he isn’t.’
There is another extravagant bag of fur sitting on top of a dark mahogany dresser across the way. It had been licking its front paw, but it guiltily freezes in position when it catches our eye.
‘It’s up there,’ says Frank. ‘Unless that’s a pillow.’
‘Mrs Whittington? Are you the patient?’
‘Don’t bother me now. I’ve got a million things to think about. What am I going to do about the cake?’
‘Ooh. I’ll go and turn the oven off,’ says Mrs Cheshire, handing me Suki, then hurrying back into the kitchen. That cat starts to wave its legs about, so I put it down on a stool. It immediately jumps down, takes a few steps away from us, then struts slowly across to the dresser, its tail twitching in disgust at the whole shoddy episode.

‘Mrs Whittington? Can we just go into the sitting room, have a seat and find out what the problem is here tonight? We haven’t been told much, and we need to get an idea what’s going on so we can figure out what’s to do. Is that all right?’
She pulls her woolly hat down more firmly on her head and fixes me with an expression Suki couldn’t better. But eventually she sighs and says: ‘I suppose so,’ then leads us into a room dominated by a tocking grandfather clock and an atmosphere of baking cake as rich as the wallpaper.
‘That smells good,’ I say.
‘It’s the Christmas cake. But if I go to hospital what’s going to happen to it?’
‘Bake it another time? What’s more important, the cake or your health?’
But apparently the question has unexpected depth. She stops to think, and is still stuck for an answer as I help her sit down into one of her chairs.
‘So. Now. What’s been going on tonight?’

Mrs Whittington thinks she’s having another mini-stroke. She can’t quite seem to get her words out, she says, but then that might just be stress.
‘I’ve had a very stressful day.’
‘The cake’s off,’ announces Mrs Cheshire, waddling through with a floral shopping bag and a bunch of keys. ‘I’ve never seen her so stressed. She was locked out, for one.’
‘Luckily, tall John was in. He reached through an open window and unlocked the garden door for me, otherwise I’d still be there.’
Suddenly the two cats stride onto the carpet in front of us. They jump up onto the sofa, break right and left, make a couple of heavy, settling turns, then collapse in two opposing heaps.
‘Oh, Jenny!’ says Mrs Whittington.
‘Those cats,’ says Mrs Cheshire, handing her the bunch of keys and me the shopping bag. ‘My God it’s been a stressful day!’

Thursday, November 19, 2009

last laugh

The patient is as upside-down as his name, but his friends help me out.
‘Is it John Jackson or Jack Johnson?’
‘Well, it’s not Jack Johnson. Jack Johnson’s a singer.’
‘Just Jack.’
‘Just Jack as in the singer, or just Jack, as in it’s just Jack?’
Frank spreads his fingers and mimes Just Jack from Will & Grace.

John is hanging face down into a bucket over the edge of a crumpled double bed, both arms stretched forwards ahead of him to the floor: Superman down, ditched in a squat, steamed not on Kryptonite but cheap supermarket vodka, his super pants a tatty and washed-out pink. His girlfriend, as perfectly made-up as he is wrecked, kneels at the business end hooking his straggly hair out of his face and ripping tissues from a roll.

Two of John’s team mates offer encouragement from the subs bench on the other side of the bed. They groan as he pleads with us to kill him or make him sick, whichever’s easiest.
‘We’re not going to make you sick.’
‘Not intentionally,’ says Frank, studying some film posters on the wall.
‘Put your fingers down my throat.’
‘That’s not the best invitation I’ve had all night.’
‘Do something!’
‘First of all you need to turn yourself over and sit up on these pillows so we can get a proper look at you.’
‘I can’t’
‘Come on John,’ say his mates. ‘We’ll help you.’
‘Fuck off.’
‘Well if you won’t turn over, at least I can get a few details. How old are you, John? What’s your date of birth?’
He shakes his head.
‘You don’t want to tell me?’
For some reason, he turns his head and whispers to his girlfriend. She laughs, and then says the date out loud. We all laugh – but I’m not sure why.
‘You’re really going to have to try a little harder, John,’ I say to him, pushing a space clear amongst the DVDs and books on a packing case and propping myself up. It’s four o’clock in the morning and I’m looking for comfort wherever I can find it.
‘Make me sick!’
‘Okay. Let’s see. I took the dogs for a walk yesterday, and Lola the whippet ate the maggoty corpse of a rabbit.’
John groans.
‘Well I nearly chucked. All those little bones. Crunch, crunch, crunch.’

The room seems to ripple and shrink. I’m in danger of falling face down on the bed next to John, cracking out a twelve hour coma right there and then.

‘I’m dying!’
I push myself away from the packing case.
‘John. I can say with almost complete certainty that you are not dying. What you described as chest pain is actually pain in your epigastrium – just here – where the top bit of your stomach is. From drinking too much vodka and then straining to throw up. But we’d need to get you out to the vehicle to make absolutely sure. Will you come outside with us?’
He shakes his head.
‘Will you sit up so we can look at you?’
‘Come on, John!’ say his friends.
He shakes his head.
‘Then our work here is done. One of you sign the paperwork.’

The two friends follow us to the door in their bare feet, folding their bare arms close to their chests and shivering in the early morning chill.
‘Thanks for coming out, guys. Sorry to waste your time.’
‘Just make sure someone’s with him so he doesn’t pass out on his back and choke. Give him water, maybe the odd Paracetamol – nothing Aspirin based. Keep an eye on him. Something.’

We all laugh, me slightly out of sync, and loudest.

They carry on smiling, but hug themselves a little tighter.

Am I really that crazy?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

where the wind blows

Barrelling up under a pier around the creaking iron legs, through the gobs and spits of foam, the shrieks of gulls, the wild and ratted ropes, the snagged bags and the momentarily peaked blue corner of a hood on a body rolling in the swell;

Through a shattered kitchen door and a scattering of glass shards, across the rooted feet of two young girls to the legs of a boy who lies shivering on the floor in front of them, a bloodied towel crammed beneath his arm;

Around a police car, up the concrete steps, past the splintered lock of a door, along the hallway to the crossed legs of a naked man, the filthy blanket on his shoulders and then round to the policeman standing behind him, flowing up his neatly zipped jacket to the small black camera on the side of his hat;

Through a fretted iron gate, whipping through stands of rhododendron, viburnum, hydrangea and jasmine to the tufts of fake white rabbit fur on the shucked slippers of an elderly woman lying on her back amongst the recycling bins;

Pouring down a steep metalled driveway to the old man emerging from the house in a carry chair, up his blanketed legs, over the shaving bag of medication he clutches in his lap to the lustrous white shine on the bones of his cheek;

Along past fences frantically pulling at their posts, over the milk bottles, the dried up tins of paint, the clattering litter tray and the gently turning wheels of a discarded bike, on up the toyed stairs to the bathroom on the landing, the heaps of bloodied towels and flannels, the red fingerprints on the white plastic envelope of maternity notes, up against the speckled white legs of the woman on all fours, and the scrunched-up face of the baby as it emerges, as it begins to turn slowly to the side now, blindly, irresistibly, orientating itself to the air.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

man, sitting

A rain storm as crazy as a car wash has lowered itself across town. Just one minute more and we’ll be paddling like rats. My torch picks out a series of flat numbers. The sequence isn’t encouraging; I’ve parked the wrong end of the block. But now that we have come this far, it makes more sense to carry on to the incident and move the truck later if I need to.

We may as well be hunting for an address on Mars. The colony – it feels like a colony – rises up around us a bleak stack of flats whose every face, every angle has been exposed to its starkest line by a designer with one hand on a balance sheet and one hand on the Geneva Convention.

Rae finds some concrete stairs and we scurry up, along a cruelly exposed balcony to where an elderly neighbour stands half in and half out of a door, waving us on.
‘They’re in there,’ he says. ‘I’m just here if you need me.’ And he’s gone.

We stamp and shake ourselves in the hallway. A policewoman and an elderly woman watch us from the other end.

‘What an entrance,’ says the woman. ‘You poor things.’

‘Hi guys. This is Mrs Turnbull. I’m afraid her son Jeremy has had a bit of funny turn tonight. He got quite violent, shouting and swearing and carrying on, punched the television off its stand then threw poor Mrs Turnbull up against the wall.’
‘I’m all right,’ she says. ‘I’m all right.’
‘He’s in the sitting room just now with my colleague and a neighbour, quite unresponsive, with his head in his hands. Can you have a look and tell us what you think?’

Mrs Turnbull, a woman with that dry economy of movement you sometimes see in people used to living alone and closely ordering their affairs, leans in to tell me something.

‘Jeremy woke me up a few nights ago, the early hours. Shook me by the legs whilst I lay asleep. When I opened my eyes his face was right up against mine – like this. But he didn’t say a word. When I asked him what the matter was he just put his finger to his lips and said sshh. Then he crept back out of the room, got in his car and drove off along the coast. Got a ticket for speeding.’

She re-adjusts her heavy glasses.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s not happy. He had a bit of a do two years ago when he was in Spain. Drove his car into a vineyard, then got hit by a car when he wandered back into the road. He was in a psychiatric hospital there for a couple of weeks, after they fixed his legs. I’ve tried to get him to see the doctor here about it, but he just won’t admit anything’s wrong. I wish he could get better and be well. He’s such a talented boy.’

We go through into the living room. Jeremy is sitting forward on the low brown sofa, his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands. A policeman is next to him on a low wooden stool just to the side. In front of them both, knocked backwards off a rustic blanket chest, a TV lies face up, a fist-sized dent in the centre of its screen.

The room has an austere simplicity: a plain wooden bookcase with a selection of reference books - history, engineering, art, Europe on a budget; a drop-leaf table with a laptop, a scattering of closely scrawled notes and a book on the money markets; a crate in the corner marked DE, and a poster of a medieval icon tacked to the wall above the gas fire –shining angels playing lutes and fiddles in heaven.

The storm moans beyond the window.

‘Come on, Jeremy. Tell us what’s wrong,’ says the policeman, laying a hand on his shoulder and nodding at us as we come further into the room. ‘The ambulance is here. We’re all a bit worried about you, mate.’

But Jeremy maintains his position.

Whilst Rae goes over to him, Mrs Turnbull taps me gently on the elbow and motions for me to come back into the hallway.

‘Some other things you ought to know,’ she says. ‘He’s been filling up his head with all sorts of nonsense from the internet. Lots of guff about ancient societies, secret international organisations and this kind of thing. How they’re all keeping the little man down, making plans, deliberately starting wars for this, that and the other. He started to get mad at me for watching television, reading the Daily Mail, for goodness sake. The Daily Mail! He said they were feeding me lies, controlling me. That’s why he punched the television. He said it was trying to take over. He’s not well. And he didn’t get the job he was going for. After all that re-training. It’s definitely made it worse.’
‘Do you think you’re in danger from Jeremy?’
‘Oh yes. No question. I can’t have him in the house. He was only supposed to be staying a couple of months whilst he got himself back on his feet, but it’s gone on too long now and you know he’s become such a tyrant about everything.’

The policewoman joins us in the hallway.
‘No change, I’m afraid,’ she says.
‘He really can’t stay here, you know.’
‘I know.’

Back in the living room Jeremy is sitting as before, his face covered with his hands. He is like one of those figures from Pompeii, fixed in an attitude of despair as the ash came roiling down the slope.
‘Come on, Jeremy. Let’s go to the hospital and find you someone to talk to. Come on. Help us to help you. Let’s get your socks and shoes on, for a start.’
He ends up putting them on for Jeremy, who passively allows the policeman to dress his feet.
‘There you go, mate,’ he says. ‘Let’s get going, then.’
But Jeremy will not talk or move.
The policeman stands up.
‘Let’s be clear, Jeremy. You either walk out nicely with us now, or we get a load more people over to carry you out. That won’t be nice, for you or for us. So this is your last chance. Are you going to walk out with us?’
Mrs Turnbull sighs, and touches my arm.
‘Right,’ says the policeman. He touches his radio.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Outside the bus, beneath a sudden curtain of rain, a queue of people stand quietly waiting for the replacement to arrive. They are so patient and still, when I look at their feet I expect to see little plastic bases. It feels like we’ve been miniaturised and driven into a model village.
‘She’s just inside,’ the driver says, a man whose round enamelled badge is only marginally less bright than his face. He hops on board ahead of me.
Mrs Jackson is sitting on a forward seat, bulging with layers, her knitted white hat pulled low on her forehead, her mittened hands folded in her lap.
‘I’m wearing so much I didn’t hurt myself at all,’ she says. The bus driver laughs and gives her an encouraging chuck on the shoulder.
‘You’re a wonder,’ he shouts, leaning in.
Mrs Jackson’s daughter, an elderly woman herself, soberly composed in a grey woollen coat and black shoes, steps up to me and tells me what happened.
‘We’d been waiting for the bus for quite a while when Mum suddenly collapsed. She just gave out a little sigh and went down, but I think she’s all right. She’s wearing so much today it must have been like falling onto a bed. We helped her up and then when the bus came this kind gentleman got everyone off and sat her down to wait for you.’
I crouch down next to Mrs Jackson.
‘How are you feeling?’
She stares at me.
The daughter taps me on the shoulder. When I look up at her, she raises her eyebrows, smiles, and discretely tugs her ear lobe.
‘Oh. Yep,’ I say.


We unwrap Mrs Jackson on the ambulance. Beneath a full-length scarlet waterproof she has a purple fleece. Beneath the purple fleece she has a bear fur gilet. Beneath the bear fur gilet she has on an aquamarine paisley silk blouse, with a floral patterned thermal one piece and a banana yellow alpaca scarf.
‘I feel the cold,’ she says.
‘I can’t believe you're ninety eight,’ I tell her, struggling to find space to put on the ECG dots. ‘You’re a phenomenon.’
‘A what?’
‘A phenomenon.’
‘Oh. That’s good. I think.’


All her observations are so perfect you might doubt the equipment.
‘You’re healthier than me,’ I tell her.
‘Oh. I doubt that very much. But I’ve always been pretty good.’
No medication, an episode of cancer a decade ago that resolved without further complication, nothing else to declare.
She does not want to go to hospital.
‘I just want to go home and have a nice cup of tea,’ she says. ‘Karen will look after me. Won’t you dear?’
‘I think I can manage that.’
Mrs Jackson looks around her.
‘This is all so exciting,’ she says. ‘I think you do a wonderful job. Of course, many years ago I used to drive these things. During the blitz. A dreadful time. We didn’t do half what you do now, though. It was a very different kettle of fish. All we could really do was dust the poor people down – there was a lot of dust then, you know – give them a thoroughly good dusting, and then drive them off to the hospital.’

Sunday, November 08, 2009


No answer.

Above the dark garden, the morning is sliding into definition, washes of blue and black.

There is a wide and brightly lit picture window to the left of the door, spilling light across a landscape of slabs and snails.

I pick my way over and peer inside.

Tristan is stretched out on his back on a sofa against the far wall of the studio, a mobile phone tucked beneath a shag of fried blond hair, one arm trailing down onto the laminate flooring. In a pleated white shirt unbuttoned to the waist, a dark satin waistcoat, tight black jeans and snakeskin boots that, toe to heel, he rocks gently from side to side - in those clothes, surrounded by this arty scattering of books and CD cases, he looks like an MTV riff on The Death of Chatterton.

I knock on the window again.

He pauses, turns his Kohl-rimmed eyes in our direction, but carries on with the call.

‘This is ridiculous,’ says Frank, stamping his boots on the paving stones, his breath misting in the early morning air. He turns away and then back again, inescapably roped to this place, this dead-or-alive hour.
‘I don’t think I can do this anymore.’

The update said that a crew had already been out to this address, to an overdose/poisoning. A twenty-one year old called Tristan had called for an ambulance at half past three, but refused hospital and sent the crew away. Two hours later, here we are.

I knock again, louder.

‘He’s coming,’ says Frank, ominously dropping his hands to his sides. ‘He’s coming. Right.’
Tristan opens the door.
‘Sorry, guys, sorry. I thought my flat mate was here. I thought I saw him walking towards the door.’ He frowns, and his gaze wanders off behind us to a point in mid-air, as if his flat mate was hovering somewhere above the hedge-line. Eventually after a few seconds he gives himself a little shake and refocuses. ‘Oh. Sorry. Thanks for coming, guys.’
Even though Tristan’s frame is slight, his voice has a rounded, melancholy tone, like someone blowing across the top of a milk bottle, or a bittern booming out on the marsh. Taken with his dark eyes and his abstracted gaze, he stands in the doorway with the wispy physicality of a rock’n roll sprite.
‘What am I thinking? Come in, come in.’
He shuffles ahead of us into the studio room and sits back down on the sofa.
‘My flat mate should’ve let you in.’
‘So why have we been called this morning, Tristan?’
‘I injected some heroin last night, and snorted some Methedrone to balance it all out. Methedrone, you understand? Not Methodone. Two very different things. Methadone’s a heroin substitute, yeah? Methedrone’s a stimulant. You can buy it on the web, man. It’s cool. Herbal. Cheap, too. But this weird thing – I rolled a cigarette, and then when I went to smoke it, it was already burned up, and the flat was all dark. I felt proper weirded out. It was like – woah! And then I got the shakes, and everything seemed to spazz out on me. I was a bit concerned, yeah? I’ve done this loads of time before, and that’s never ever happened to me. So I phoned up you guys for some advice. And the next thing I knew the ambulance people were here – just where you are now – all in green, like you. So they checked me over, and everything was fine. Then they said come to hospital. Which I didn’t understand. I mean, they’d checked me out, they said everything was fine, so why should I want to go to hospital? I’d only have to go if something was wrong, wouldn’t I? But everything was okay, and I felt much better about things, so they went away.’

Frank sighs and shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

Behind Tristan on the wall there are tiny art prints arranged in a diffuse grid from floor to ceiling. Except at the end of the sofa, where a three-quarter-sized photocard of a business man stands, his head replaced with a skull, smoking a giant reefer. A dusty folk guitar is propped up in the corner just behind him.
Tristan stares up at us.
‘What do you want me to do?’ he says finally.
‘What do we want you to do?’ says Frank. ‘What do you want to do? Why exactly have you called us?’
Tristan frowns, tilts his head to come at the problem from another angle, and starts again.
‘I took my normal drugs but they didn’t really work like I’d expected them to. I lost track of time, yeah? It was like falling into a black hole. I don’t know where my flat mate’s got to. I don’t know where anything is anymore. I’m feeling all … I don’t know … scattered.’
‘Look. Tristan. This is the second ambulance you’ve had out tonight. What did you want when you called us again?’
‘I thought it’d be the same people. I thought they would come back and we’d have another talk about what happened. What time is it?’
‘Do you want to go to hospital?’
‘You think I should go? Why? What’s wrong?’
‘You’ve taken some drugs, Tristan. They’ve made you all - scattered. I think you should go to hospital so someone can keep an eye on you.’
‘Well. If you think so.’
‘I think so.’
Frank turns round and walks out of the flat.
‘You’re going to need a coat, Tristan,’ I tell him. ‘It’s cold outside.’
‘Oh. I’ll be fine. I don’t need a coat. I don’t feel the cold. Or do you really think I’ll need a coat?’
‘Take a coat, Tristan.’
‘Oh. Okay.’
He stands up, but instead of moving off to look for his coat, he holds his position, listening.
‘Can you hear that?’ he says, turning his eyes on me. ‘There! There it is again.’
‘It’s the wind.’
‘No. I think it’s my flat mate.’
‘Come on, Tristan. Let’s go.’

He drifts after me into the garden, without a coat.

Friday, November 06, 2009

10 to the 5!

One hundred thousand hits!

An enormous thank you to everyone for reading Siren Voices over the past three years, for all your comments and support.

I suspect that it’s a frustrating read sometimes, little character fragments that don’t seem to lead anywhere, that hang in the air without resolution. But then I suppose that reflects the job: a scrappy succession of insights into other people’s lives. Anyway - thank you so much for persevering!

I thought I might run a little competition to celebrate passing such a significant marker, but I couldn’t think what to give away as a prize, apart from a drawing or two, a t-shirt, or maybe a book on prescription drugs. I’ll think about it! Watch this space.

Meanwhile, thanks again!

with lots of love


Thursday, November 05, 2009

new magic windows

The last of the day’s light is flying in exile ahead of the great lidded storm rumbling in from over the sea. It crashes up against the white facades of the Georgian terrace, bringing into focus the knotted wisteria stems, the thick black railings, the cracked mosaic steps. Stepping up onto the raised pavement that runs along in front is like stepping onto a great stone stage; two hundred years of comings and goings. And so onto the next scene – An ambulance calls for Mrs Winifred Carter-Hains in the ninth year of the Twenty First Century.

Her carer opens the door.

‘I’m not normally here,’ she says, then lets the enormous door swing open fully and stomps ahead of us up a delicately turning staircase two flights and on to a creaking landing. A long, lopsided vista, a wallpaper of shadows set with endless photographs - a pilot, a punt beneath some willows, two boys on a swing, a dog in a hat. In an alcove, there is an old sea chest, open and spilling with lace and books and old boxes.

‘She’s in the bedroom and she needs the loo.’

The carer goes ahead of us into a high-ceilinged, dusty-dry room smelling of perished leather and Cuticura talc.
‘Hello Mrs Carter-Hains. It’s the ambulance.’
‘Call me Winnie,’ she says, swiping the air in front of her with a claw. ‘What did you say your names were?’
‘My name’s Spence and this is Rae.’
‘Ray? How peculiar. The man who painted that was called Ray. I won’t forget that in a hurry.’
She gestures to a small picture, a confusing scene, something like a wooden jetty in a hail storm. The little gilt frame seems to vibrate against the wall with the power of the strokes.
‘It’s lovely,’ I say.
‘Thank you. Now, would you be a dear and help me to the toilet?’
The carer tells us Winnie is ninety four, had a fall in the early hours, crawled back to bed, called for her doctor to visit her at home, and the doctor had arranged for us to take Winnie to hospital to investigate her hip.
‘Are you in much pain? We have something here if it’s too much.’
‘No, darling. Only when I move. Then it’s a bother. But look – could you help get me to the loo? I’m desperate to spend a penny or three. Except I haven’t any drawers on. Celia, could you oblige?’
I tell Winnie I’ll give her some privacy, and walk over to the windows opposite. Through the distorting panes of old spun glass the approaching storm is even more darkly furious.
‘We saw lightning on our way here,’ I say. ‘Great rods of it, way out over the sea.’
‘Did you really, darling? How wonderful. I absolutely love storms. And of course you have a marvellous view from up here.’
Her drawers securely in place, I join them round the bed again.
‘Are you really ninety four?’ Rae says. ‘You look amazing.’
‘Thank you darling, that’s so sweet of you.’ She grasps Rae’s hand and gives it a squeeze. ‘But do you know? I’ve never seen a ninety four year old, so I’m not sure what they’re supposed to look like.’
I click the carry chair into position.
‘There we are, Winnie’ I say. ‘Your carriage awaits.’
‘Well goodness me, what a thing,’ she says, leaning out and patting the canvas seat speculatively. ‘Do you know, that’s the second amazing object I’ve had in this room in just two days. You’ll never guess what was set up yesterday. Exactly where you are standing now, Ray. A theodolite.’
‘Are you having building work done, then?’
Winnie taps her nose.
‘Yes I am. And it’s all part of my plan. See all that there?’ she says, with a grand gesture to the windows I had just been looking out of. ‘That’s where the new magic windows are going in.’

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

door man

There is a battered old works van parked on the verge by the corner of the block of flats we have been called to. As Rae pulls up behind it, a section of plasterboard seems to walk itself around from the side of the van, and it’s only by looking closely that we see a pair of legs and scuffed white trainers staggering along beneath it. We jump out of the ambulance, I grab my bag, and we follow the board.
‘Do you need a hand with that?’
‘No. Thanks. I’m okay.’
A thin boy in a fat man’s overalls, he’s struggling to make the distance. It’s like watching an ant carry a leaf.
Suddenly from round the corner of the block strides a man whose geometric proportions seem more in keeping with these things.
‘There you are!’ he says, planting a great calloused mitt on my shoulder and leading me forwards at what he considers to be a more appropriate pace. The boy drags himself after us with the board.
‘We didn’t know what to do. We haven’t got a key. He was supposed to let us in this morning like he always does. I bet he’s fallen over or something worse. Do you think it could be serious? I suppose you’ll have to break the window. I don’t mind doing it. I’ve got a hammer. Or I could put my shirt over my arm. I don’t mind doing it.’
‘Let’s just have a look first.’
Rae darts ahead into the little lobby, looking for the key safe.
‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘I’ll try the laundry room and wherever.’
‘We were given the number to a key safe,’ I tell the builder, who has rescued the plasterboard off his assistant and leant it against the wall. The boy tries unsuccessfully to straighten up as he staggers off to fetch another.
‘I’ve not seen no key safe,’ says the man, smacking his hands clean on the back of his tracksuit trousers. ‘I’d say he definitely needs a key safe, though. He’s always falling over, from what I hear. You should see it in there. Life of Grime, mate. Life of Grime. Terrible, really. Shouldn’t you be breaking in? Isn’t this what you’d call an emergency?’
‘Have you managed to make contact with Mr Jeffries?’
‘I’ve been banging on all the windows, shouting through the letterbox, but I can’t say I’ve heard much back. He likes to keep his curtains drawn. He’s a strange old fruit. Nice, but a bit – you know - strange. I don’t know what the proper word is these days. Look. I’ve got a tool kit somewhere. Do you want me to smash the window and climb through? I don’t mind.’
Rae comes back into the lobby and says there’s no key safe anywhere and none of the neighbours are answering. Before I can say anything else the builder takes off his shirt and drops it on the floor.
‘It’s a tough door, that one, but I’m happy to break it down. Do you want me to do that? Come on. How else are we going to get to him? Unless I go in through the window. But it’s cheaper to repair a door than a window.’
I foot the bottom of the door. It gives, but the centre feels solid. The mortice lock must be on as well as the Yale.
‘Here. Let me do it,’ says the builder. ‘You’re the brains of the operation, I’m the brawn.’
The boy has dropped off another board outside. He comes into the lobby and settles in to watch, glad of the break, wiping his forehead with the palm of his hand and leaving another long smear of plaster dust. He nods at the two of us, and then encouragingly at his boss.
The man gives a little rocking motion from one foot to the other - testing the solidity of his parquet floor base, or dancing up the aggression inside himself, it’s difficult to tell - then with a determined set to his shoulders he turns sideways on to the door, draws his right arm inwards across his body, and with a bullish grunt launches himself off his left foot and crashes into the door. There is a resonant whump as he connects, a shock wave that ripples through him. It’s like watching a jelly smacked with a wooden spoon.
‘Are you okay?’
The builder walks away from the door, rubbing his shoulder.
‘I’ll go through the window,’ he says.
‘Just a minute.’
‘It’s no bother. I’ve got the tools. It won’t take a minute.’
He turns towards the boy, who jerks back upright and drops his arms like a puppet suddenly thrown back into the action. ‘Don’t just stand there like a lemon,’ says the boss. ‘Get me my tools.’
‘I’ll just have a quick go,’ I say, putting my bag down.
The builder turns to me.
‘Don’t kill yourself,’ says the builder. ‘That’s a solid door there. I’ll go in through the window and we’ll be inside before you know it.’
‘I’ve done a few of these.’
‘Seriously mate. One second and we’re in.’
‘Yeah – but – there’s a technique.’
I swing my leg up and bring my right foot smashing in to the centre of the door. There is a great cracking and splintering of wood; the centre holds, but has moved inwards half an inch. I kick it again, and the door smashes open.

‘Ambulance!’ I shout, and we all charge in.

Monday, November 02, 2009

hauling up the pots

Evening was coming on. The river was flat calm, every yacht and dinghy, every fishing smack and weekend skiff set back from its mooring as precisely as toys placed on a ribbon of mirrored glass. The tide was out, the light following, and everything perfectly still apart from the distant squabbling of gulls way out on Havergate Island. A bank of cloud was piling up on the horizon. Rain would be coming in. But for now, the sky stretched away a deep and opaline blue.

I pulled on my walking boots and headed off along the levee.

By the time I had made the first stile, I became aware of the flug-flug-flug of a diesel engine, and then washing along with it, even at this distance, the sounds of people chattering and laughing. A heron jumped up from a mud bank as The Regardless came into view, labouring round a dark elbow of land, heading back to the quay after its final trip of the day.

We’d ridden it that morning.
‘So who was it going to pull some pots for me?’
I put up my hand.
The fisherman nodded at me, then smiled conspiratorially at the rest of the people sitting on the bench that ran around three sides of the boat. As he talked he shook a blue plastic crate filled with stinking scraps of skate and crayfish. The children on the boat made vomiting noises.
‘Feeling strong, are we?’
I put up my arm, flexed it.
‘Look at that puppy,’ I said.
‘Well. Never mind. Perhaps you’ll be all right. Now. My advice to you is: hook the line up, grab onto it, haul the pot aboard hand over fist in the time-honoured fashion, and we’ll all have a laugh at how wet and muddy you get. Quick as you can, like, and don’t fall in.’
He tossed a flap of dead fish back into the crate and wiped his hands on his filthy jeans.
‘We’ll be sliding into the buoy from the side. If we set straight on, we’d get our propeller all tangled up in the rope and I wouldn’t be happy. You’ll see. It’s tricks like this my old mate.’
He stepped back into the cramped cabin of the Regardless and span the wheel to turn us in the direction of a half-dozen yellow buoys.
‘Get ready.’
I picked up the boathook and braced myself up on a bench between the cabin and the port side.
The boat slowed but as we closed on the buoy it came up fast. I just had a chance to snag the line with the boathook, pull it up sufficiently to grab onto it with my left hand, and then dropping the hook, begin hauling on the green and slippery line. The pot was deep. It took a dozen passes to bring it to the surface. Everyone stood up as I hauled it first onto the edge of the boat, and then sideways onto the motor housing in the centre, next to the basket of bait.
‘Let’s see what we’ve got, then,’ he said. ‘Huh. Not much, by the looks of it.’
A handful of undersized crabs skittered out with claws raised. They scattered down amongst the screaming children.
‘So what we do now is stuff some more bait in, close the doors, throw her back in, and hope for better luck next time. You should’ve been here yesterday. We had a couple of old monsters in there. But that’s the way it goes.’
He grasped the wicker pot with both hands and swung it in one easy action back out into the water. It bubbled near the surface for a moment, then disappeared down into the gloom, the line snaking after it, followed by the buoy.
‘And on to the next.’
He looked at me, at the mud on my jeans and t-shirt.
‘Up for another?’
‘Let’s go!’
‘All right.’

We tried just two more. The second was the same as the first – a desultory gang of crabs, more embarrassed than angry, clicking off stage as quickly as they could to spare us the shame.
‘I thought that would definitely have had something,’ the fisherman said. ‘I left it alone special.’
The third one felt even deeper than the others. As I hauled up on the line the fisherman got the other people on the boat to chant lobster! lobster!
‘That always brings ‘em on,’ he said.
The pot broke the surface and I swung it up onto the engine housing with a splatter of mud.
Just visible behind the sopping fronds of weed, a lobster.
‘That’s more like it,’ said the fisherman, unhooking the door and reaching inside to pull it out.
He placed it in the middle of the bait basket, where it spread its tail, raised its claws and flipped its stalk eyes about. Everyone stood up again and moved closer. An alien dragged from a spaceship could not have provoked more interest, more excitement, more probing fingers. Eventually the lobster seemed to deflate a little, then lie in an attitude of surrender, the strange fins of its tail shining in the bright October sunshine.
The fisherman looked at me, gave me a nudge with his elbow.
‘So what do you do for a living?’
‘I’m in the ambulance.’
‘Bit of a change for you, then?’
I looked at the people clustered round the lobster.
‘I’m not so sure.’
He nudged me again, then set to stuffing more bait into the pot. Everyone stood back, the smell was so overpowering. He hooked the door closed again and threw the pot, line and buoy back into the water. Then he smacked his hands together, straightened his shoulders stiffly and said: ‘Okay. Let’s see what else we can find in this river.’

Thursday, October 22, 2009

miss flite

Lloyd House, an architect’s scale model in clean white card, a meticulously detailed blank, rising up above a line of model trees with municipal functionality.

Lloyd House, a simple, well-disposed block set back from the road, ramps for access, balconies for fresh air and views, an accommodating lobby with twin lifts and a generous allocation of stairs.

Take fifty years. Pan slowly down towards the main entrance. For every centimetre you travel, watch the card acquire colour, texture, definition, a wash of reality rippling out into courses of brick, squares of dirty glass, a notice: no ball games. As you descend and become smaller the ramp roughens beneath your feet, the trees crack and spread up into life, dark green and grey and black, leaning over - real trees now, filling the air with a resinous tang.

You’re at the front door. A WKD bottle, a scrunched Coke can, a scattering of fag butts.

Look at your clipboard, read a number.

Punch it in and wait.


When we make it up to Miss Flite’s flat, the front door is on the latch. I knock and push it open in one movement.
‘Hello. Ambulance.’
A muted hello from somewhere inside. We walk in.

We find ourselves on a fetid black carpet, tacky beneath our boots. Corners of spotted wallpaper loll out from the walls; a fan heater whirrs somewhere, stirring up sweetly malodorous currents. The room has a sofa and an easy chair, a coffee table and a sideboard, but the surface of each of these - and everything else - is covered with a tumbling crust of old newspapers, grimy faced dolls, a plastic rose in a dusty bell jar, a desiccated sandwich, a family portrait in a cracked black frame, a fish tank whose stones can just be made out pressed up against the mouldy green glass, a dirty telephone with plate sized numbers, a bronze eagle, and a thousand other pieces of junk which have lain so long they would leave an outline if they were ever lifted. Clusters of tiny white feathers drift here and there across the scene, catching on corners and surfaces. They have come from three rusting bird cages, each containing a spindly yellow and green budgerigar. The birds chip and squawk as we move further into the room, gagging and pulling our gloves on.

‘Over here.’
Miss Flite is lying on her side between a chair and one of the bird cages. She is propping herself up on her left arm, struggling to get a better look at us.
‘I just need a hand back up,’ she says. ‘I’ve been rather stupid.’

Miss Flite is only seventy but she could pass for ninety, so deeply have the marks of physical and social neglect been etched into her face. She has a full goatee beard that with her square face and hooked nose makes her look like a mischievous old man in drag; her nails are yellowed and ingrained with dirt. She wears an emergency call button around her wrist on a padded cream strap.

‘Help us up, there’s a fellow,’ she says.


Miss Flite sits nicely upright in her favourite chair with a hand placed neatly either side on the armrests, frowning, looking slightly bemused, like a High Court Judge challenged to live a life of destitution for the day. Behind her through the window, the sky is a deep and resonant blue.
‘I must say you came very quickly,’ she says, her smile revealing a spread of waxy yellow teeth. ‘Very quickly indeed. Most impressive.’
‘Miss Flite, what we’ll do is refer you to our Falls Team. They’ll give you a ring to arrange a time when they can come and have a chat. I’m sure there’s lots that they can do to make things better for you here.’
‘Oh I don’t doubt it. I know I’ve let things go a little.’
‘And then maybe they could get some other help started. You really need your damp problem sorting out, for one. What have the council said about it?’
‘The council? My dear – they’re not the least bit interested in me.’
I finish writing up the paperwork, aware that Miss Flite is staring at me, her head tipped slightly to one side, like one of her birds.
‘Do you have children?’ she says quietly.
‘Two girls, four and eight.’
‘What a charming age. Just coming into their own.’
Then she looks at the cages, and the three birds all hop up onto their perches.
‘They think I’m going to let them out,’ she says, extending a claw to the nearest of the cages and rapping gently on the bars. ‘I do indulge them from time to time. Maybe when you’ve gone I’ll let them fly about a bit, poor things.’
Then she turns back to offer her thanks again, and waves to us, as we pick our way back out towards the door.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

bert hurts

Half past goddamned five in the morning, the last hour of the shift, a full fat and featureless sixty minutes but it may as well be six hundred and sixty. If my hands get any heavier they’ll be bumping along behind me on the pavement. A Neanderthal would laugh to see us pick up these bags and trip on the stairs. Not such a great evolutionary leap after all. I know with numbing clarity there is nothing for us and nothing to do about it and no-one can help. We have no future. We will be late finishing. We are the kind of zombies even zombies would disown.

It rings the bell.


Buzz. Blah.

Up the stairs towards the flowery robed figure of a woman who peers down at us through glasses the size of dustbin lids.
‘Bert’s in the sitting room.’
She turns and slippers ahead of us into a cluttered and super-heated sitting room. A great, rounded knuckle of a man reclines over on the sofa, his t-shirt riding up over his gut, his left hand tragically resting palm-uppermost on his forehead, the other draped on his right flank.
‘There,’ she says, as if he might be overlooked.

Rae is attending. She kneels down next to the man whilst I stand with my giant hands folded carefully in front of me, swaying slightly and periodically straightening up with a startled squeak.
‘What’s the trouble, Bert?’
‘I’ve been getting these terrible pains in my side.’
‘When did it all start?’
‘I don’t know. When did it all start, June?’
‘My whatssit. When did it all start, she wants to know.’
‘I don’t know, Bert. Last week?’
Bert turns to look down at Rae.
‘Last week,’ he says.
I know Rae very well now. I can even read her hair. Her hair is telling me that Rae would consider a life stretch fair exchange for the pleasure of violent homicide. Anything to leave this flat. Anything for a bed. This sofa, for instance, bloodied or otherwise.
‘Have you seen your doctor about it?’
‘I thought I’d see what happened first.’
‘And what sort of pain is it?’
‘It hurts.’
‘But what sort of pain? Can you describe it? Is it sharp? A dull ache? Is it like cramp, or more like someone’s stabbed you as hard as they can with a kitchen knife.’
‘I don’t know.’ Bert looks over to his wife and laughs. ‘It’s just a pain type pain.’
He laughs. His wife smiles, and shifts her weight to her other leg. She looks at me and smiles. I smile back. The process is complete. I am now Stan Laurel.

‘Okay. So you have a pain here. Does it come and go? Or is it there all the time?’
‘Oh no. It’s there all the time. Sometimes I hardly notice it. Sometimes it’s completely gone. I don’t know. It’s just a pain.’
‘Let me have a feel, if I may? Tell me how it feels as I do it.’
Rae exposes the great dome of his abdomen and begins rolling her fingers into the flesh, working from the furthest point methodically back to the danger area.
‘No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Wait a minute…. No. No. No.’
‘So it doesn’t even hurt in the place where you thought it did?’
‘No. Typical. Just like when you go the Dentist.’ He looks at his wife again, who is now more intent on cleaning her enormous lenses with a dish cloth.

Covering the far wall is a collection of novelty clocks: a giant wrist watch, a clock in a racing tyre, a cuckoo clock, a Simpsons clock, a Playboy clock, a Mickey Mouse clock, a pixie alarm clock with two red and white spotted mushrooms on the top. I stand with my hands patiently folded in front of me, swaying slightly, staring at the clocks. I have stood here for all time and always will be here. Future generations will pay to come and walk around me. The lights will come on at the beginning of the day, go out at the end of it. Someone will dust me once a month. A scrawling tide of graffiti will rise up my legs and arms.
‘You do the obs, I’ll do the writing,’ says Rae, loudly.
I rummage around in the bag for the kit.

‘All your observations are fine,’ says Rae, dotting something on the form. ‘But that still leaves you with this pain, of course. How is it now?’
‘It’s gone.’
‘So that’s good, then.’
‘Yeah. But it might come back.’
‘Bert, we’re quite happy to take you to the hospital if you want, but you’ll be there a few hours.’
‘Will I?’
‘But something else you could do is wait until the surgery opens and make an appointment to see your doctor.’
‘They don’t do that.’
‘Do what?’
‘They’ll only see you in three days’ time.’
‘They have emergency appointments though.’
He closes his eyes and shakes his head.
‘They’re obliged to offer emergency appointments.’
Bert shakes his head sadly.
‘Tell them we’ve been out. Show them the paperwork.’
‘I could try I suppose.’
Rae tears off a copy of the form, folds it up and hands it to Bert. He takes it uncertainly, like a motorist accepting a parking ticket.
‘Anyway,’ he says. ‘If the doctors can’t do anything, I can always phone the ambulance again and they can take me to hospital.’

I only close my eyes for a second, but when I open them again I find myself walking down the stairs.

Monday, October 19, 2009

a sign of good will

Beneath the cold black early morning sky this high street has a blasted look. Saturday night has machined a path through town, leaving in its wake a trail of burger cartons, kebab wrappers, cans, bottles, club flyers, heels snapped off at the root and people lying in doorways. But by the time the sun has risen all traces of the evening will have been erased; the street cleaners have emerged to put things right. They move methodically along the pavements, singly, and in twos and threes. They pack it all away like drones.

There is a man standing at a telephone kiosk in the high street, leaning away from the perspex booth with the phone cable stretched out tight and an aluminium crutch dangling from his other arm. When he sees us pull over he replaces the receiver, grabs the crutch back into play and limps quickly across the road to intercept us. A taxi is forced to stop. I get out of the cab and wave an apology to the driver. He shrugs, and then raps his fingers impatiently along the top of the steering wheel as the man moves across his path.
With his Russian cap jammed low on his head and the collar of his combat jacket turned up, the man looks drawn in and contained, as if this were dangerous territory, and nothing should be left exposed. As he comes towards us he mutters spittily, his teeth clamped together, spiking out looks from side to side.

As he gets closer I hold up my hand, palm up, just like that image of a human being NASA scientists engraved on a plaque, the universal sign of good will tacked onto the side of a satellite and sent out into space.
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘What’s the problem?’

The taxi accelerates past.

‘I have fit, more bigger fit, another come. You take me, soon. You help me. God fucking damn these people. I take my pills, they not work. I fall down, I hurt myself little bit, here. I live like pigs and you, you don’t even care to help when I tell you what problem is. You think you know better.’
‘Just try and calm down, okay? First of all, can I ask your name?’
‘Tell me this. Tell me that. Gil. Now. Good. So now you have name. You tell me your name. What matters this bullshit? You get me in and you take to hospital. Here. I give you ‘scription, you give to doctor. Last time they never did give ‘scription and I not get good medications. All you fucking bastards.’
‘Listen to me, Gil.’ He stands in front of me, swaying from side to side, grinding his teeth. I think I recognise him, but it’s early in the morning and this whole roadside confrontation has come on me unexpectedly, more like a waking dream than a real experience.
‘Listen to me, Gil. No! Listen! I want to help you. That’s why we’re here. But you are not coming on this ambulance if you don’t calm down and ease off the aggression. Do you understand?’
He flicks me a look and gestures to the side door of the ambulance with his crutch.
‘Come. We go now.’
‘Do you understand what I’m saying, Gil?’
‘Come now.’ But he seems cowed, less certain.
Rae is next to me. For a minute we both watch Gil without doing anything. We stand there, a tight little triangle of disaffection, as the sweepers advance towards us along the pavement.
‘Okay. That’s better. You can come on board, and we’ll take you to hospital. But you must behave, Gil.’
He grunts as Rae opens the door and the perforated metal steps hinge outwards and down. He shuffles towards them, hops up all three with surprising agility, and plumps himself down on the first available seat.
‘Let’s just head straight off,’ I tell Rae. She nods and slams the door to behind me.
Gil wriggles about on the seat, fussing with his coat and his crutch, grumbling and mumbling and grinding his teeth like some dyspeptic old goat re-working a belly of bitter grass.
But the jolt as the ambulance moves away off the pavement suddenly brings him back to his furious monologue.
‘I have fit and fit and fit and medications no good no more. I give you ‘scription, you give to doctor. Last time he say get lost someplace. Last time them fucking bastards. I have hip replacement. I have pain here, here, here. I have no place to live, nothing, no damn nothing. I have fit and fit…’
I put my hand on Gil’s shoulder, and he flinches.
‘Gil. Calm down,’ I say. ‘We’re helping you, okay.’
The hospital is five minutes away.
He doesn’t turn to look at me so much as insinuate his eyes slightly off to my right.
‘I know you. I know you think clever.’
‘I’ve never met you before, Gil.’

But I think I have. I know I have.

‘I see what you do. But listen to me. I give you ‘scription and you give doctor. You tell doctor give me medications.’
He pulls out a tattered scrip and unfolds it.
‘You take now.’
He holds it out to me. His nails are bitten right down, his fingers leathery with neglect.

Two minutes from the hospital.

‘I’ve written them down on my form,’ I say to Gil, handing him back the scrip. ‘You’d better look after this now. For safe keeping.’
He stares at the paper.
‘What means this?’
‘Have it back. I’ve written down all I need. I think you’d be better off looking after this.’
He moves his eyes from the paper slowly up to mine.
‘You wouldn’t want to lose it,’ I say.
He turns in the chair, snatches the scrip from my hand and shakes it in my face.
‘You think you better. You think you easy clear. I know what you do. Well all I say is I hope your son fall like me. I hope your family and your fucking son get put on the street, live like pig. I see your family. I make sure. They go there. I meet with them soon, my friend.’
The ambulance pulls up onto the hospital forecourt. I stand up and move to the back. As we slow and park and I jump out, just as Rae comes to the door.
‘Call security, Rae. He’s being aggressive and threatening.’
She hurries inside to reception. I stand there looking in to the vehicle. Gil sits hunched forward on his seat, muttering and stamping his crutch on the floor of the ambulance. Just by chance, a policeman comes outside. I nod to him and he walks over.
‘What’s up?’ he says.

Five minutes later, Gil is backed up against the A&E railings, shouting ineffectually at the policeman and two security guards who’ve been rousted from their office. One of the guards detaches himself from the group and comes over to us.
‘Who the hell is that?’ he says.
‘I recognise him now. I brought him in about a year ago. He got aggressive then, really nasty for no apparent reason, threatened me and the staff, got thrown out by security.’
The shouting stops and we look back over. Gil is stamping off down the ramp out of the car park, waving his crutch and throwing curses backwards over his shoulder. The policeman comes over to join us whilst the remaining security guard makes a call on his radio.
‘I explained to him he’d be arrested if he carried on like he was,’ he said. ‘Anything wrong with him you could figure out?’
‘Nothing obvious – apart from the obvious,’ I say.
‘Steaming drunk of course. Whack job. Anyway – he’s off, I’ve passed his details, and I finish in ten.’
‘Thanks for your help, mate.’
The policeman smiles and holds up his hand.
‘No problem,’ he says.