Friday, January 30, 2009


The house is easily identifiable. There are two police cars and a fire truck outside, the focus of all the neighbours in their front gardens and driveways. Although this focus is a shifting thing, turning inwards to chat, or shuffling about in the cold to keep warm, or looking up at the sky, or laughing and pointing at something, or simply watching, these are the eddies and swirls of a river flowing in one direction, an irresistible pull towards the open door we now walk briskly towards.

A bulky fireman burdened with equipment struggles out of the doorway before we reach it. He smiles and nods: ‘Hello, mate. All right to go in.’

A narrow hallway leads us through to the kitchen out back. I can feel a strong through-draught of cold air running along the floor, and by the afternoon light tipping in through an opened patio door ahead of us we see a policeman leaning over the figure of a man stretched out on his back on the floor. The policeman has the man’s left arm upright in both his hands. He looks our way and shouts: ‘Through here.’

My first thought is ‘What’s happened?’, but the second is even more specific: ‘Where can I stand?’ The man is lying with his legs up on a toolbox, surrounded by a large pool of blood which someone has tried to cover with kitchen cloths, towels – anything absorbent. I pick my way over to the policeman.
‘Let me take that,’ I say to him.
‘Thanks. I’m starting to cramp up.’
‘So what’s the story?’
‘He’s called Eddie. Forty-odd. His wife came home, found him like this. He’s cut his arm with a razor and by Christ there’s a lot of blood. Check the sink!’
Eddie is barely conscious, shivering beneath us, waxy, breathing hard.
There’s no room to get a trolley in; there’s barely room for us.
‘Chair please, Claire’, I say, then ask the policeman to help set some oxygen running.
‘Look on the side there,’ he says, fumbling with the strap around the back of Eddie’s head. There is a Leatherman on the kitchen counter, next to a green plastic safety razor. The blade has been torn out.
‘That’s what he used.’
‘And what’s the story about a gas leak?’
‘Yeah – he set that going, too.’
There is a boiler cover dumped on a plate rack, its white metal surface smeared with blood.

The mass of extemporary bandages around Eddie’s arm is stained through, but it’s not getting worse. When Claire comes in the with chair I get her to wrap a couple more bandages around the site just to be sure, then between us we haul Eddie up and on to the chair. He flops about, in this dreadfully emptied and unstrung state the purest measure of his weight. We hurry him out to the truck.

When he’s on the trolley, it’s a simple calculation: the time it would take for a paramedic to get here and set some fluids running, compared with a straight run to the hospital. I choose the latter.
The policeman comes to the door of the truck with his arm guiding a thin young woman who has a mobile pressed to her ear.
The policeman asks me: ‘Are you all right with Cheryl in there? Or do you want me to follow up with her in the car?’
I look at her. Her narrow face seems emptied of everything but a frown, a dark line low across the top of her eyes. She looks to the side, as if the phone is some independent, alien thing offering bizarre advice.
‘I don’t know about that,’ she says. ‘We’re going to the hospital. No, the other hospital. I can’t talk now.’ She lowers it to her side without seeming to hang up. The policeman helps her up the steps, then with a wave is gone. She sits down.
‘Is he going to be all right?’
‘He’s lost a lot of blood, but he’s still conscious, he looks strong, so I’d say he’s got every chance.’
I can hear Claire putting the ASHICE through in the cab.
‘I’ve got to ask you a few questions, Cheryl.’
‘Ready to go?’ shouts Claire through the hatch.
‘What do you want to know?’
The ambulance sways violently as we drop down off the curb, and we’re away. I check that everything’s okay with Eddie, then sit down and reach for the clipboard. Cheryl moves forward in her seat so she can take Eddie’s hand in hers. I think of the policeman, and how he had stood crouched over him, with his upper arm clamped in his hands.
I start in with the usual questions: date of birth; past medical history; allergies; GP. Cheryl is crying now, but despite her grief there is still a part of her that is able to tell me everything I need to know.
‘Sorry for asking you all this.’
‘That’s okay.’
‘Has he ever done anything like this before?’
‘No. No, I don’t think so. Maybe ten years ago. Before I knew him.’
‘How was he this morning?’
‘No suggestion he might do anything like this?’
‘So tell me exactly what happened?’
She makes a small, forward and backward rocking motion in her chair, urging the ambulance on.
‘I left for work, usual time. I was meant to be out till three but I came home early. There was a note on the door saying Keep out / gas. The chain was on the door and I couldn’t get in. I rang the police, and they broke in. We found him in the kitchen.’

She kisses his hand, touches it to her forehead, kisses it again, holds it in front of her, closes her eyes, starts in on a low, choked-up prayer, with the little red ball in the mask valve clicking up and dropping back, and the sats probe flashing, and the siren drawing and wailing and spinning away from us, flying out, falling across town like a furious, glassy blue web.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Even though it is late there is still some light left in the sky, a watery smear of slate gray at the vanishing point where the coastal road becomes the horizon. A ripple of blue marks a spot just down from there. It swells with definition as we get closer, and then separates. A police car, with its scene lights illuminating a group of four on the pavement: a woman and a policeman sitting on a low wall; a woman and a policeman standing. Frank parks the truck. I jump out and walk over to the seated couple.
‘Hello. My name’s Spence.’
The woman is sitting with one leg hooked over the other, bouncing the foot about, resting forward on the knee, using it as a smoking prop. Steve, the policeman beside her, seems professionally relaxed. He is studying his hands, turning a wedding band round and round whilst the woman blows out smoke and smiles at me despite her eyes. I feel like I’m interrupting a couple having a discussion about the state of their relationship at a party.
‘I’m fine,’ she says, tapping off the ash from her cigarette. ‘Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with me.’
‘Okay. Good! But you know, the message we were given was that a woman had tried to throw herself under a car.’
She laughs bitterly.
‘Oh for goodness sake. This is ridiculous. Look – I’ve had a bit to drink. Obviously. I’ve had a bad day. People do. Things were getting a little bit on top of me. I tripped on the pavement and I found myself in the road. And that – is – it. That’s all. What have I done wrong? Where’s the crime in that?’ She takes another pull on her cigarette and squints at me through the smoke.

Steve straightens up. Some policemen are burdened by their own equipment, but Steve seems lighter, more adaptable. He has the quiet self-possession of a craftsman who would only pick up a tool exactly when he needed it.

‘Hilary. We’ve been called, these ambulance guys too, because you threw yourself in front of a car. It was only your friend here that stopped you from succeeding, as well as that other guy who came over to help. They had to wrestle you to the ground. Do you remember, Hilary?’ He looks at me and says as an aside: ‘Amazing, the guy helping like that. Don’t know where he went to.’
‘But I’m fine.’
‘You’re not fine, are you, though? You’ve got to admit, none of this would look fine to a reasonable person. I mean, we all like a drink. But we don’t tell the person we’re with we want to die and then throw ourselves into the road.’
‘But really. Honestly. It’s a misunderstanding.’
‘No, listen to me, Hilary. What we’re all here to do now is figure out A, what happened and B, what we need to do next. Our main concern is you don’t do yourself any harm tonight. We need to get that sorted. So - as a first step - I suggest we get off this wall, go onto the ambulance and have a chat in private, out of the cold. Okay?’

Hilary flicks her cigarette out into the road and watches where it lands. Then she leans forward to tap the side of her boot.

‘I’m fine. Really. I twisted my ankle a little, that’s all.’

Steve gets to his feet. I take one step forward to help her up. At that moment she suddenly sprints off to the side, snapping away like a dog after a stick, her handbag slipping off her shoulder and flying up, her coat opening out like wings. Steve is ready for her, though. He intercepts her in one stride, and scoops her into his arms. As soon as he has hold of her she gives up, and when they’ve both found their balance, slowing down like a couple after a drunken waltz - she stands neutrally. Steve releases his hold. She repositions the strap of her bag onto her shoulder.
‘Let’s not be silly about this, now.’
‘I don’t want to go on an ambulance,’ she says, with the glittering tones of someone explaining a faux pas. ‘I want to go home.’
‘Come on, Hilary.’
He leads her to the truck. We sit her in a forward seat, and then take up positions around her. After the damp road the ambulance smells aseptic, anonymous. The light’s too bright and the trolley creaks when the two policemen sit on it. Hilary’s friend leans forward and touches her on the shoulder.
‘You so need help, Hillie,’ she whispers. ‘I’ve seen you bad, but not this bad.’
‘And what do you think they’ll do for me at the hospital? Hey? What would they do for me? You know exactly what they’d do for me. They’d say: let’s sober you up and see how you are. Let’s keep an eye on you and keep you waiting for fucking hours. Let’s give you some diaze-fucking-pam and send you home at five in the morning. There’s nothing they can do for me. I’ve been there and done that. God knows I’ve been there and done that. There’s nothing anyone can do for me. I lost my licence because of the last time. Six months. How did that fucking help? I just want it all to end.’

And more awful than the tears that run down her cheeks is the polite smile she dredges up from beneath it all.

‘I manage a large business,’ she says. ‘I’m fine. Really. I just need to go home, get some rest. I’m always like this when I drink. I’ll be fine in the morning.’ She pats her face with a wad of tissue. ‘I’ll go to work and no-one will know.’

Martin, the other policeman, is standing at the back of the ambulance. He takes a notebook out as if he’s going to write something down, but then stuffs it back inside his jerkin. Hilary’s friend sits absolutely still.

Steve says: ‘I’ll be perfectly honest with you, Hilary. Going home tonight is not an option.’

She makes a gasping noise as if he’s punched her in the stomach, but he says: ‘Just hear me out, Hilary. It’s not an option and I’ll tell you why. Our first responsibility is to see that you don’t hurt yourself. We all care about you here. There’s no way any of us would say “Okay Hilary, off you go” if there was a real chance you’d put yourself under a car or throw yourself off a cliff, or whatever.’
‘You just don’t want it on your conscience,’ she sniffs, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands so vigorously it’s like she wants to rub them clean away.
‘It’s nothing to do with consciences, Hilary. We’re doing our jobs, and that’s it. So. The options are: you go with Spence and – who is it? – Frank, here, to hospital, and get assessed by the medical team there, or I arrest you and take you to the cells. What’s it going to be?’
‘I’m fine. This is ridiculous. I just want to go home and go to bed.’
‘Hospital or the cells, Hilary?’
She drops her chin and whispers: hospital.

Steve tells Martin that he’ll be riding up in the ambulance, and that he should follow in the car. With a timid inclination of the head, Hilary’s friend agrees to come along, too. Whilst I put a seat belt on Hilary, Frank puts the step up, shuts the door and gets into the cab to drive.

We move off.

I ask Hilary her last name. She mutters a reply, seeming more interested in picking fluff off the front of her coat. When I ask her to speak up, she raises her chin slowly and looks at me, a wide and watery look that doesn’t see me at all, but rather seems to suddenly process the fact that the ambulance is moving.

And in one movement she unsnaps the seat belt, throws open the door and makes to leap out. But Steve is already behind her, both arms around her shoulders. I grab her round the waist, and between us she screams and kicks and pushes out the door whilst the ambulance lurches to a halt, but she’s slight and drunk and desperate, and we keep her on board. I can see the reflection of the blue lights of the following police car flicker up, guarding us from the traffic.

When Martin appears at the door, Steve simply says: ‘Cuff her.’ And then: ‘Let’s do this sensibly, Hilary. Arms in front, please. And then a nice, calm walk out to the car.’ He begins to explain what will happen to her – how she’ll be taken to the cells, stripped, searched, assessed by a doctor.

As Martin unclips the cuffs from his belt, Hilary looks round at her friend and shouts: ‘I hope you’re proud of yourself.’ But her friend says nothing in reply. Instead, she stares fixedly at her hands and wets her lips with her tongue.

Then Hilary seems to weaken. She shrinks back into her seat as the black and silver bracelets clack and snap round her wrists.

Martin produces a tiny key on an extendable line, and locks the cuffs into place. He gives them a little jangle for security and comfort.

Hilary looks straight at me. Her face is radiant with despair.

‘I was only going out for a drink,’ she says. Then she presents her hands out to me, gently wagging them backwards and forwards, as if to say: ‘Happy now?’

Martin stands to the side of the door, Steve moves up behind her, and I make room for them all to leave. The night gathers in around the doorway, thick and cool with the threat of more rain. She stares out into the darkness for a moment, sighs, then glances back at me.

‘Have you any idea,’ she says, pleasantly, ‘any idea at all - how difficult it is to kill yourself?’

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

check for fruit

We are running out in response to a personal alarm, one of those big red buttons worn around the neck or wrist to push if you need help. It’s come through as a silent activation; meaning that Button Control has not been able to talk to the client. If the person sets the button off accidentally – and they do, all the time – Button Control can reassure themselves that everything’s okay by speaking to them over an intercom system. A silent response is invariably a bad sign.

The instructions we have been sent to gain out of hours access to this flat are complex. There is a code for the front door, a code for a safe that contains a key to another safe that holds, amongst other things, the master key for all the rooms in the block. We are also to pull a chord to let the office know what we’re doing.

But it all works. The master key is hanging on its own peg inside the safe; I grab it, we re-shoulder our bags, and haul ourselves up to the third floor.

An elderly woman shuffles past us in the corridor.
‘Good evening to you both,’ she says, pleasantly. I’m struck by the thought that had we been dressed in gorilla suits, she would have been equally indifferent.
We reach the door and I knock twice.
‘Hello. Ambulance.’
Not waiting for a reply, I use the master key and we step inside.
The hallway is just big enough to accommodate the front door and access to the bathroom, kitchenette and sitting room. The door to the sitting room stands a little open, and I push it inwards.
There is an angle poise lamp up on a writing bureau over at the far side of the room, dumping a pool of bright light onto the high-backed chair beneath it. On the chair is the lumpish figure of an elderly woman, slumped forwards, motionless.
I stride over and touch her on the right shoulder.
She jumps backwards into the chair and lets out a yelp.
‘Hello – it’s the ambulance.’
‘The what?’
The woman is clutching a pear in one hand and a little curved knife in the other.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Am I what?’
‘Your button went off.’
‘I know that.’
‘People were worried about you.’
‘I heard them calling. I was on the loo. And they’d gone when I’d finished.’
‘So you’re okay?’
‘I’m having a pear.’
‘Who called you?’
‘The Button people.’
‘But there’s nothing wrong with me.’
She shakes the pear at me, as if that proves it.
And, I suppose, in many ways, it does.

Monday, January 19, 2009

cans & birds

The son meets us at the garden gate with a wave and then a rub of his hands.
‘Before you go in, let me warn you – it’s cold. Very cold. But that’s just how we like it. It’s not ‘cos we haven’t paid the electric. It’s our choice.’
He nods and grins, looking in all his layers of clothing like the mystery package in Pass the Parcel. Without that belt straining around his middle, he would probably explode with the pressure of extra shirts and trousers he has on. His face has that shiningly radiant scarlet you see on long-term alcoholics and rough sleepers; his metal specs glimmer icily beneath the porch light.
‘What it is, Jack’s had a bit of a turn. We’d just got back from our daily jaunt, he sat in his chair, next thing I knew his eyes had turned up in his head and he’d gone all limp. I had a job to rouse him, but then when he did come round, he acted like nothing had happened.’
‘Let’s go inside and see how he’s doing.’
He leads us inside a dark hallway, clear of any of the usual hallway ephemera. No coats hanging up, pictures on the wall, boots lined up or kicked off, no bag dumps, brolly bins or boxes of junk to go; only a line of bare boards stretching off into the gloom. We follow the son deeper into the shadows, passing a couple of closed doors. He pushes open the furthest one, and takes us into a wide, square room sparsely lit by a standard lamp in one corner, and the gas flames of a portable gas fire waggling anaemically in the middle of the room.
‘Hello chaps,’ says the elderly man sitting in a threadbare armchair by the fire. ‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance.’
‘It’s no bother, Jack. Listen – Graham here says you had a bit of a turn earlier. Can you tell us what happened to you tonight?’
He looks up at us, a vision of his son accelerated forty years into the future: the same roly-poly agglomeration of clothes, the same red face, the same crooked turn of the mouth and set of the eyes that links them as securely as the photos of them on the mantelpiece, holding up a fish, waving spanners beside a motorbike, hanging off a carousel.
‘I’m all right,’ he says. ‘I’m eighty four, you know.’
Graham sits on the arm of the chair and straightens his Dad’s cap. When they talk, they fit their words around each other as precisely as the pieces of an intricate jigsaw puzzle.
‘Eighty four, walks fifteen miles a day.’
‘Up hill, down, back again.’
‘We collect aluminium cans from all around, you see. We take them down to Reynaud’s the scrap merchants.’
‘Everything we make we donate to the cancer charity that looked after mum.’
‘Well, we did most of the looking after. But they gave us a lot of help.’
‘At the beginning of it all they said she’d probably end up having to go into one of them special places, but we said “no, she’ll stay here, we’ll do it ourselves” – the washing and cleaning, the lot. It was difficult, but we managed it.’
‘Yep, we managed it.’
‘Lifting, washing. The whole bit.’
‘She died here, at home, and then after that, we started on the cans.’
‘And if we’re not picking up cans, we’re bird watching.’
‘You’d be amazed what you see.’
‘What a song.’
‘An Arctic Tern.’
‘We think.’
‘Late heading off.’
‘On next door neighbour’s pond.’
‘We help him with his washing.’
‘The neighbour, not the bird.’
They both laugh.
And then there’s a silence, riding on the spluttering sounds of the fire. They look at us.
‘We need to find out what’s caused this little episode,’ I tell them. ‘How about we get you out on to the vehicle, do a few tests…’
‘I’m not going to hospital. I don’t need to.’
‘Well, we’re not going to kidnap you. But let’s take it one step at a time, see if everything’s okay, and take it from there.’
He insists on walking out to the vehicle, Graham one side and me the other. The sky is a glassy blue-black vault above our heads. An excoriating frost is working its way to the centre of everything tonight.
‘I don’t envy you that cold room,’ I say to Jack as we reach the vehicle and open the doors. ‘I bet it’s colder inside than out.’
He laughs. ‘All the better for it,’ he says. ‘All that central heating – it makes you ill.’
The inside of the ambulance is a sweat lodge in comparison. But the only concession the two of them make to the raised temperature is to take off their caps, which they both clutch in front of them. I wonder what experiences they’ve had in ambulances in the past.
‘Let’s have a look at you then, Jack.’

He settles himself down on the trolley.
It takes us five minutes to find our way to his chest.

Friday, January 16, 2009


‘So it’s pretty much always the same then? A fuck off through the letter box? That’s what happened the other day when we got a call out here, anyway.’
‘Yep. Same old same old. I’ve been out to Miranda maybe half a dozen times last year, and every time the same. But, we’ll see.’
George adjusts his heavy glasses and writes down the incident number and address as I pull away from the station. The ambulance doesn’t seem big enough for him. As he drops the clipboard back into the plastic well that separates us, out of the corner of my eye I half expect to see a great clawed paw rather than a hand. But even though he is too big for this cab, he’s otherwise perfect for the job. Strong enough for the lifts, empathetic enough for the patients, funny enough to do stand-by with. He has a slight under bite, his lower lip forward of his upper, which, with his scraggy beard and magnified dark eyes, gives him a lugubriously tolerant air. He reminds me of Spike, the bulldog in the Tom & Jerry cartoons, but crammed into greens and fresh out of anger management class.
‘What did you do before the ambulance?’ A lame thing to ask, as hackneyed as the so, do you actually drive the ambulance question that you inevitably field whenever someone finds out what you do for a living. But still always a surprising thing to ask, for all that. The ambulance service has something of the Foreign Legion about it: a place of mixed backgrounds, from teachers, plumbers and dental nurses to photographers, soldiers and horologists. Not a blue or white collar environment so much as a grey collar affair. We’re a mixed bag, a lucky dip of talent, and all the better for it.
‘I worked for a recycling company, doing the rounds on a big electric cart. I was one of the guys standing on the back, dumping cans in one stack and papers in the other, trying to hold on whilst the spliffed up driver ambled along the streets. I enjoyed it. It was a great craic. Hard in winter, but you had a laugh. There’s only so far you can go with that stuff, though, and your hearing takes a pounding. I studied music, originally. I’m a flautist.’

We pull up outside Miranda’s bungalow. We’re here so often I wouldn’t be surprised to see a space marked out for us. George hauls himself out of the cab and I follow him up the narrow concrete path to the front door. He knocks and we wait. He’s big enough to huff and puff and blow this house down, but he waits patiently, and then knocks again. There’s a dull stirring behind the net curtains. A shadowy figure leaves the living room and moves into the hallway. Any moment now I expect the usual expletives and half-hearted negotiations through the letterbox – but, incredibly, the door cracks open and she peers around the edge.
‘What do you want?’
‘It’s the ambulance,’ he says. ‘Are you all right?’
‘No of course I’m not all right.’
‘Well. Then. Can we come in and have a chat and see what the problem is?’
I half turn to go, but the door opens fully and Miranda says: ‘If you must.’
George looks at me, I look at him, and in that neutral little exchange there’s a great, psychic crashing of cymbals.
She leads us into her living room.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ she says, but the room has a measured tidiness, with magazines and papers and books forming regular margins of space that couldn’t happen by chance. Miranda takes up her position on a padded, high-backed chair, an orthopaedic throne within reach of a rack of remote controls, in front of a little plasma screen TV. There’s a DVD playing. Josh Groban in concert, singing with a curly haired sincerity that seems to be killing the audience. To the right of the TV is a sideboard of ceramic Arthur Rackham fairies, each one looking meticulously placed and dusted. Next to the sideboard is a stand of DVDs, each one concert footage, Bocelli, Bublé, Ball.
‘I want to die,’ she says.
George adjusts his glasses again and says, ‘Right.’
A scraggy black cat wanders into the room to investigate.
‘But I don’t want to waste your time.’
‘It’s no bother,’ he says, putting his clipboard to one side. ‘So what’s happened today? We were told you may have taken some pills.’
‘Temazepam. I just want to die.’
‘So how many temazepam did you take?’
She makes a vague gesture with her hand.
‘Not enough, obviously.’ Then she looks at him carefully. ‘You remind me of my son.’
‘Oh. That’s a good thing. Hopefully.’
‘He’s just like you. Big.’
‘And where’s your son now?’
‘Gone off and left me. Like all the others.’
‘Miranda? Would you mind if we checked you over? Did your blood pressure and that sort of thing?’
‘Do what you like. I don’t care.’
I get the kit out of the bag and start noting down the results. Alcohol fumes ripple off her like heat from a radiator. ‘How much have you had to drink today?’, I ask.
‘Not nearly enough.’
The cat noses around in the bag.
‘What’s your cat’s name?’
‘Atticus. Guess how old he is.’
‘Fourteen? Fifteen?’
‘He’s a hundred and twenty. Cat years.’
Atticus looks up at me as if to say I am, you know.

Miranda’s obs are fine.
George taps the board.
‘Look, Miranda,’ he says, ‘so far everything looks okay but obviously we’re very concerned. Not only that you’ve taken these pills – which may have a delayed effect – but also for the reason you took them.’
‘I’m not going to hospital. Last time I was there the security guard broke my jaw.’
‘Surely not.’
‘It’s true. He asked me to leave, punched me in the face and broke my jaw.’
‘Well I can guarantee that won’t happen this time.’
‘I’m not going.’
‘Whatever sort of person would I be if someone told me they wanted to die, and I just turned around and left them? Mm?’
‘No. You can’t make me.’
There’s a brief stand-off. I cut in from another angle.
‘But didn’t you call the ambulance, Miranda?’
She turns to look at me. For a moment it looks like my intervention may have nixed the whole peace process. But before she flicks off the safety catch, George speaks up again.
‘Miranda? Who’s going to look after Atticus if you kill yourself?’
She turns back to him.
‘Have you got a cat?’ she says.
‘Yes. I have a twelve year old tabby.’
‘What’s she called?’
‘Yep. And two dogs.’
‘We used to have dogs. I couldn’t have them, now.’
‘So what are we going to do then, Miranda? Are you coming with us to the hospital?’
‘Have you seen your doctor lately?’
‘He doesn’t want to see me.’
‘Don’t you have to see him at least to get your repeat prescription?’
‘He faxes it. He doesn’t want to see me anymore.’
‘Well – Miranda - if you won’t come to hospital, there’s nothing more we can do for you here. So if you’re absolutely sure you’re staying at home, I’ll just need you to sign my paperwork.’
‘I’m not signing anything.’
He shows her the board.
‘Will you sign?’
‘What – that you’re leaving me here to die?’

Josh Groban leans in to another ballad on the TV. She turns to look at him, folding her arms across her belly, the deep blue light of the screen reflecting in her glasses. Atticus rubs up against her leg but she doesn’t seem to notice it.

‘We’ll be going then.’
‘Suit yourself.’
We leave her sitting there, as fixed in her pose as any of the ceramic fairies on the sideboard.

Outside in the vehicle George finishes the paperwork, then gets on the phone to control to tell them everything that happened. Another crew pass us, waving and laughing and pointing. We all know it’ll probably be them sitting here tomorrow.

Monday, January 12, 2009


‘He’s walking funny. He’s got to be our man.’
‘I think he’s just drunk, Rae.’
‘Flash your lights.’
‘No. I honestly don’t think he’s the kiddie. If he is, why hasn’t he waved?’
‘Would you?’
‘Why not?’
‘Why not? Well – I don’t know – the golf ball stuck up his arse, for one.’
‘Who’s gonna know that?’
‘By the way he’s walking. D’uh.’

The front of the station is quiet, with a four in the morning, littery look to it. I slow down and give the man a meaningful stare, but he hobbles past without any sign, all his attention directed at staying upright, making progress.
‘Okay. So where’s our man, then?’
Rae gets back on the radio to tell them that we’ve made a couple of drive-bys of the area and not found any golfers in distress. Control says the man was a little vague and not terribly helpful, but they’ll ring him back to get a better location. I pull over and we wait.

‘So did they teach you much about fishing golf balls out of arses on the para course then, Rae?’
‘Yep. That was my most successful module. I got the golden plunger.’
‘Plunger? Too high spec for me. I like the old school, up to the elbow technique, like James Herriott.’

Control calls us back. Apparently our man is wandering up the road that runs along by the side of the station. He’ll flag us down.

I drive up that way, and half way along, opposite the great arched canopy of the station, we see a shadowy figure take a step into the road with one hand raised. I draw alongside. A curiously self-contained, drawn-out figure, with dark, razored stubble running unbroken from his head, round and down into a beard of the same length, he nods at us as we jump out of the cab, puts his mobile into his back pocket, then stands slightly stooped, perfectly still, studying the pavement.
‘So – what can we do for you?’
He looks up and to the side, and whispers something.
‘What? Sorry, I can’t quite hear.’
But instead of talking the man suddenly gives a little flap of his hand for us to follow him into the entrance of a block of flats. He pushes a button, and then smiles at us, raising his eyebrows with an awkward grimace, like we’re a group of strangers all waiting to use the same lift.
‘So – what’s been happening then?’ Rae asks him.
‘I – er – we were having sex tonight.’
‘And – er - we were using some golf balls, three – or…’ he looks up and to the right, moves his lips in a whispery little audit, then back down to the ground, then up again. ‘Yep, definitely three. Size 8s. And – er – only two came out.’
‘So it’s your partner who has a golf ball still inside?’
The intercom crackles, and an angry sounding voice blasts out: Who the hell is this?
‘It’s me,’ says the man, quietly, his face pressed to the door. And then, as if he were checking for rot, he raps lightly a couple of times on the wood with a knuckle.

The door buzzes, he pushes it open and we follow him into a bare hallway with four doors and some concrete stairs leading up. The lock on the door straight ahead of us clunks, the door gets thrown open, and a man of about sixty years and two hundred and sixty pounds presents himself to us, rearing up like a walrus on some wild shore, a walrus dressed in a Tweety Pie t-shirt and no underpants, his pendulously fat penis swinging like a grotesque beast in a nest of silver wire. The man’s yardbrush moustache seems actually to vibrate, as he stands there shooting holes into us with his eyes and chuffing air through his nostrils.
‘What the fuck are you doing back here? And who are these people?’
‘We’re the ambulance,’ says Rae. ‘Can we come inside and have a quick chat?’
‘A quick chat? Who are these people? And what the fuck have you come back for?’

In the time it has taken the Walrus to take in the scene before him, the thin man has stepped up to the open door and insinuated himself half-way in, slope shouldered, like a dog that knows the risks.
‘Get out of my flat!’, the Walrus roars, grabbing him by the corner of his leather jacket. And then to us ‘Get him out of my flat! I don’t want him here!’
‘We’re not the police, we’re the ambulance…’
The thin man lifts his chin and says: ‘You have a golf ball inside you,’ then tries to move deeper into the flat.
‘A – what? A golf ball? Are you insane? What are you doing back here? And who are these people?’
Before we can say or do anything else, the walrus has grabbed the thin man round the neck and tried to tip him out of the flat. But the thin man spreads his legs and puts his arms out to be as awkward as possible. They stand there, wrestling ineffectually, whilst Rae says: ‘We’re just going to go outside and call the police, guys.’
We step outside, and the door closes behind us on sounds of crashing and swearing and shouting.

Ten minutes later the police arrive. We tell them what has happened so far.
‘A golf ball?’ says one of them, a policemen so young he must surely be a teenager on his way to a fancy dress party. ‘A golf ball?’
‘Well what kind of ball do you use?’
‘But a golf ball?’
His colleague steps up to the front door and presses the Walrus’ door button. It takes four or five goes before the intercom crackles alive.
‘It’s the police. Could you open up for us, please?’
There is a pause, and then the door is buzzed open.

We all troop into the hallway. The Walrus is standing at his front door as before, but this time he has a smart blue dressing gown tied securely around his waist.
‘What can I do for you, officer?’ he says.
‘The ambulance crew here tell us that a man reported you as having a – an injury. To your person. And that when you opened the door to him, you ended up having a fight. Is that correct?’
‘So that didn’t happen?’
‘Well – a man did come here. A friend of mine. And we had a disagreement, and some things got knocked over. But it’s all okay now, and everything’s calm, and as it should be, thank you.’
‘Can we just come in and reassure ourselves that everything is okay? We’ve been called, so we’ll need some details before we walk away.’
The Walrus pokes at us with his eyes as if he still can’t figure out who we are, then smiles at the policewoman again.
‘Of course. Come in – but just you two.’
‘Not the ambulance crew?’
‘So you don’t need any medical attention?’
‘Of course not. I have diabetes. But it’s under control.’
‘Something about a golf ball?’
‘A what? No. No – balls.’
He turns and leads the two police officers into his flat.
Before they disappear, the young policeman turns and gives us a wink. ‘We’ll take it from here, guys,’ he says. Then he taps the side of his nose, and treats us to a tiny little mime: Fore!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

the lodger

The police car sits like a scandal outside number thirty seven, a tall, doll’s house residence as perfectly turned out as any of its neighbours. There are two policemen and two women on the chequerboard path leading up to the front door, standing as a square four at the end of a line of carefully clipped box. One of the women – a bearish figure in a dark fur jacket against which her face looks like a fresh batch of dough - steps forward.
‘Let me fill you in. Giles is really very unwell. He simply has to go to hospital. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, I can’t afford not to. He’s an alcoholic. He’s been drinking non-stop for a week. He has ulcers on his legs and they’re infected. He’s desperately sick and not taking any of his medications. He saw the practice nurse three weeks ago and that’s it. The smell’s unbearable. He’s been aggressive to me and I can’t cope. I’ve done my best but I’ve run out of energy. I simply have to go to work tomorrow and there’s no way he can stay here on his own. You have to take him with you.’
‘Okay. Sorry – are you a relative?’
‘My name’s Ferdie. And no, I’m not a relative. Giles is staying here as my guest. He’s been here for three years.’
‘And can I ask – how aggressive has he been?’
One of the policemen tells me that they came in response to Ferdie’s call. The address isn’t tagged. As far as they can make out it was verbal aggression only; no violence, and the patient is calm at the moment.
‘Shall I go up and have a word with Giles then?’
‘Yes. Please. Top of the stairs, straight ahead. Just follow your nose, really.’

We step past them through a lead-lit doorway into what feels like a home improvements show: I can hear the anodyne jazz-funk soundtrack, and the modulated voiceover guiding us through the light and tastefully appointed hallway with its stripped pine floor and rich Persian runners leading the eye naturally into a reception area of comfortable conversational nooks. Here, stylish modern artworks rub up against a modest but intriguing selection of antique ceramics and pierced carvings, all of which lend a touch of opulence to this fantastic reception area, perfect for those vivacious meet-and-greets, as well as a private chill-zone for when the kitchen-diner becomes just too starry and loud.

A wide stairway takes us up onto a landing where there is a note lying on the floor outside a closed door. Scrawled on the back of an envelope: Please let’s not fight about this any more. Leave me to take care of myself. I’m going out later. We’ll talk when I get back. Giles x
I knock on the door.
‘Giles? It’s the ambulance. Can we come in?’
‘Yes of course. Please excuse the mess.’
I push open the door, but it only opens a little way. I look round it.

Giles is sitting on a two-seater sofa beneath the only window in a small, square room. A portable TV is off to his right on a plain wooden bookcase: on, with the volume right down and the colour up high. The door is stuck because the entire left side of the room is piled high with a great heap of discarded stuff – mostly books, DVD cases, clothes – as if the contents of all the drawers and bookcases and wardrobes in the house had been emptied into this room and then pushed up into an unsifted heap by a small bulldozer. Giles only has enough room on the sofa to lie down with his legs crooked up; every other available space is given over to trash. And lying over everything, as palpably as a mist over a swamp, the cloying odour of ulcerated flesh.
‘My name’s Spence,’ I say, as brightly as I can manage. ‘Do you mind if I come in and have a chat, take your blood pressure, that kind of thing? Ferdie’s a bit worried about you.’
‘No. Please do. Look. I know she’s worried about me, but honestly, it’s all in hand. I’m responsible for my own care. I know exactly what I’m doing – sorry if I appear rude, but probably much better than you or anyone. I’ll admit I’ve been a bit careless lately what with one thing and another. But I’m going to get myself cleaned up today and get myself down to the practice nurse tomorrow.’
He has exactly the voice that I imagined for the TV voiceover – blandly modulated, conscious of the appropriate intonations, entirely unconvincing.
‘Well let’s just see where we are now and take it from there,’ I tell him, looking for a reasonably flat surface to put the bag and board down. There’s no room for Rae to come in. She goes back down to talk to Ferdie and the police.

Giles sits neutrally on the sofa, his crazy, peppery black hair sticking out like a chimney sweep’s brush, and his teeth as grey as if he’d been snacking on ash. Both his legs are bandaged from knee to feet in thick swathes of dirty bandages. Rank fluid has seeped through both at the heel and instep, spreading out in flowerings of black and brown. I take his baseline obs, and they all come back fine.
‘That all seems okay, Giles, but it hardly needs me to say that your legs need attention,’ I tell him, folding away my stethoscope. ‘You’re absolutely right – I’m no expert. But these dressings haven’t been changed for awhile and there’s a bad smell in here. You must know you’re at risk of developing an infection – if you haven’t got one already. As soon as one takes hold, it can make you dangerously unwell very quickly. I really must insist that you come with us to hospital.’
‘Well, that’s awfully good of you, and I do very much appreciate you taking the trouble to come out here to see me like this. However, I reiterate. I am responsible for my own treatment. I’ve been a bit slack lately, I’ll admit, but that’s all going to change. I just need some time to myself to get things in hand, then I’ll be fine. I’m seeing the practice nurse tomorrow. So thank you, but I will not be travelling with you to hospital today.’
‘Okay, Giles. But if you won’t do it for me, will you come with us for Ferdie’s sake? She’s very upset about things at the moment. She’s worried about you and she wants to know you’re okay. Won’t you come with us to hospital just to set her mind at rest?’
‘Sorry but no. I’ll square things with Ferdie, don’t worry. That’s all I have to say.’

I leave the room and rejoin Rae and Ferdie downstairs.
‘There’s been a development,’ says Rae. Ferdie hooks some loose strands of hair behind her ear, closes her eyes as if she’s disclosing a grave confidence, tells me Giles has been stealing from her.
‘Somehow he got the pin number for my credit card and maxed it out. Cash from my purse, too. I know it’s his addiction to alcohol fuelling all this, but I just feel like I’ve reached the end of my tether.’
We try to persuade Ferdie to make a formal accusation of theft to the police so they can arrest Giles. ‘At least that way we can start to get him the help he needs. It’s more than just his legs, Ferdie, even though they need the most urgent care. He needs a thorough-going health assessment, for his drinking, his mental health. His living conditions up there aren’t good.’
‘I know,’ she sighs. ‘But I just couldn’t bear to do that to him. I couldn’t bear to have him arrested, to think of him lying in some cell somewhere.’
‘But as things stand, we can’t simply frogmarch him out of the house and into hospital, Ferdie. That would take a Section order, and I’m not sure he’s quite there yet.’
‘So do you want the police to arrest him for stealing from you?’
‘No. I couldn’t.’
‘Well then. He’s refused to come to hospital, so all we can do is report what we’ve found to our Control. But if anything changes, call us again.’
‘Thank you so much for coming.’ She shakes our hands, and the blue enamelled bracelets jangle round her wrist.

The second woman steps forward to shake our hands, too. Her sister? Neighbour? Whoever she is, she seems relaxed, radiantly content, beautifully framed as she is by the tapestry hanging behind her on the wall, a flock of doves on a pale winter oak.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

incident at the mountain view

The Mountain View Hotel should be better than this.

The Mountain View Hotel should be made of pine and glass and quarried stone, be up on stilts, have a great sloping roof dressed in snow, have a balcony holding colonies of expensively casual people sipping glühwein and basking in the brilliant sight of each other behind wrap-around shades.

It should at least have a view of the mountains.

It needs renaming. The Poor Outlook, maybe. The Dim View. A tall, thin building, so shabby you might put its thinness down to malnutrition and neglect. Stuffed into the shadowy top right corner of a not-so-nice square, shielded from all but the highest and fiercest mid-summer sunlight, it’s a roost so bleak even the seagulls and starlings leave it alone.

We’re bluing our way through town to get to The Mountain View and a resident who has suffered a cardiac arrest. A crew is approaching from the other end of town; we meet at the entrance to the square, the others decide to drive the wrong way round it, so we meet nose to nose outside the hotel’s discrete front door.

A woman is standing there, waiting to let us in. She has her arms folded across her chest, and stamps her feet on the icy pavement. From the cab she looks dressed for a party, in a low-cut red silk dress and a sparkly cardigan; her long straight hair shining like yellow nylon. Up close, and the effect is slightly different. Her teeth are greyed with cigarette smoke. The makeup is thick. The hair’s a wig.

‘He’s right at the top,’ she says.
There’s one of those awkward little shuffles between Frank and the woman, when they both go forward together, then both hold back.
‘After you, love,’ he says, gesturing forward with a big hand, ‘You know where you’re going.’
‘Sorry there’s no lift,’ she says.
She leads our galumphing troupe up the narrow staircase.

Just as the building has not - never will have – a view of the mountains, it is not, and probably never will be, a hotel. It should more properly be called a hostel. Each landing has a bathroom and toilet, servicing three rooms. The woman leads us up five flights, arriving on a landing that has just two rooms and no bathroom.

‘We hadn’t seen Jed for a day or so, and we wondered if he was all right. I had a key to his room, so I came and had a look. Found him on the floor like you’ll see. I think he’s dead. I know he’s dead. But you’ll see.’

She reaches forward with her key.

‘Have you got a torch? Only there’s no power on in the flat. Jed had to top up his key at the post office, but I don’t think he’d done it for a while. It’s freezing in there. That’s what probably killed him.’

She opens the door. The light from the landing spills around and over us into the room, illuminating the facing wall and a spread of twenty or so baseball hats hung all over it, an unmade bed beneath them, a calor gas fire, and the body of a man curled around it. He is lying on his back, his legs drawn up, his mouth gaping open. His skin has a dull and waxy tinge, as devoid of human warmth as the air in this freezing black box of a room.
‘He is dead, isn’t he?’
‘Yes. I’m afraid so.’
‘I thought he was.’
‘When did you find him like this?’
‘About an hour ago.’
Frank raises his eyebrows.
‘An hour? If you don’t mind me asking – why the delay?’
‘Oh. Well. We didn’t know who to ring. Police? Ambulance? Relatives? We just didn’t know.’
She pauses and looks between us.
‘Did I do wrong?’
‘No, no. It’s just we need to be clear about the sequence of events. Who else was with you?’
‘Jack, another one of Jed’s friends.’
‘And where’s Jack now?’
‘He’s gone downstairs to get some fresh air. Look – did I do wrong or something?’
‘Don’t worry. We just need to be clear, that’s all.’

As the second crew, we’re no longer needed here. Frank asks us if we’ll take a couple of bags back down to the vehicle for them. The woman nods and gives us a terse smile as we pass.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ I say. She nods again.

As we reach the lobby the front door opens and a short, red-faced man puffs his way inside, alcohol fumes swirling around him like an invisible cloak. When he sees us he performs an oddly vaudevillian gesture of surprise, leaning back against the door, his arms crooked, his fists balled up to his mouth.
‘Aargh!’ he says. ‘You’ve seen him I take it!’
‘Do you mean Jed?’
‘Yes. Jed. Is he – ?’
‘Yes. I’m afraid he is. Dead.’
‘I’m sorry. Are you okay? Are you going to be all right?’
He suddenly takes a staggering step towards us, straightening his arms down by his side but keeping his fists tight.
‘That bastard landlord!’ he shouts, jerking his fists down at the floor with each phrase. ‘The bastard! He did this! He froze him out! He killed Jed!’
‘Try to calm yourself…’
‘Take pictures! I want you to take pictures! I want the police here. This is terrible.’
Then, just as suddenly, he seems to run aground. He relaxes his fists, pulls out a filthy handkerchief and pats it across his forehead.
‘I don’t know. I’m terribly sorry. It’s been something of a shock. Jed was such a nice man. A nice, gentle man. He shouldn’t have gone like this. It’s so unfair. But of course it’s not you I blame.’
He stuffs the handkerchief back in his pocket, then stands in front of us, waiting for some kind of direction, blinking under the harsh fluorescent strip.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


I push past a ragged budleia that’s growing out across the steps, and press an old bakelite bell. A sonorous buzz sounds deep inside. I step back. The house is dark and quiet.
‘Get ready,’ says Rae. ‘Assume the position.’
We shouldn’t be here. Man attacking woman with walking stick. The police should go in and secure the scene first. But this is an over-run, and we can’t afford to hang around. The police are busy tonight, it’s so cold even the moon seems frosted over. We need to wrap this one up quickly. I need to be home, sliding into a snug bed and cuddling up to my wife. Such an absurdly rich vision of paradise. Am I that lucky? I stamp my feet and rub my hands to hurry things along.
A light goes on above the heavy black door.
Our breath hangs on the air.
A chain comes off the door and it opens.
‘Hello. Ambulance.’
An elderly woman stands there. From the dim overhead hall light she seems okay. No great gashes, no clumps of matted hair. She stands holding aside the heavy curtain that hangs just behind the door, smiling like an indulgent grandma, short and rounded out with layers of clothing, finished off by an apron whose string tie cuts into her middle and makes her upper half seem independent of the lower. When she turns around I expect her to swivel, those hefty legs to follow later.
‘I can’t go on like this,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
She tells us that her husband, John, has Alzheimer’s but doesn’t know it. She tells us he hit her with his walking stick.
‘Not badly. Just on my lower leg. And I’m ashamed to say I slapped his face.’
‘Are either of you hurt?’
‘No. But I can’t go on like this. I packed my bag. I was going to leave tonight. But I couldn’t think where to go.’
‘Shall we come in and see what we can do?’
‘Yes. Please.’
She turns round and we step inside.
Another curtain hangs across the bottom of the stairs. We follow her up the treads which creak alarmingly. The house is utterly quiet, heavy with it. The thick brown paint on the stair panels and skirting boards, and the candy-striped, board-like wallpaper, yellowing and sliding off in places, gives the place a cloying, weighty feel. It’s like walking through an enormous old chocolate cake.
‘He’s in there,’ she says puffing slightly and pointing to another curtain that hangs across the entrance to the living room.
I pull it aside and go in.
Over the other side of the room an elderly man is standing in front of an armchair, his arms straight down by his sides. He has an intensely watchful expression, accentuated by great tufts of grey hair that sprout from his ears and a pair of wiry grey eyebrows that grow down over his eyes and make me think of the budleia outside.
‘Hello, John. I’m Spence and this is Rae.’
‘Yes,’ he says, glittering.
The woman wheezes past me and lowers herself into the armchair that faces his. She straightens her glasses, and then holds on to the armrests as if she thinks it’s going to take off any minute.
‘What do you want? Who are you people?’ he says.
‘We’re with the ambulance, John. Your wife…’
‘Your wife Vera is worried about you. She says you’ve been quite upset tonight. She says you’re not yourself and she’d like you to see a doctor at the hospital.’
‘Why would I need to see a doctor?’
‘Just for a check-up. To make sure everything’s okay. Will you come with us, John?’
My bed may as well be on the moon for how soon I’m likely to find myself in it. It feels as if we’ll be trapped in this room for hours, as motionless as those vast cream underpants drying by the fire, as fixed and foxed as that dog picture on the opposite wall. I look at John and he looks at me.
‘What doctor?’ he sneers.
Rae steps up to him.
‘Shall I get your coat, John? And you’d better wear a hat or something ‘cos it’s bitterly cold out tonight. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it's taters.’
‘Coat? Oh – yes – it’s over there on the chair.’
Vera struggles up again. ‘I’ve got his hat.’ She places it on his head. ‘There. I’ll come up and see you in the morning, darling.’ They both fuss around him. Vera gives him a kiss on the cheek; Rae helps him on with his coat. ‘You’ve got your good slippers on, they’ll be fine.’
‘There. What a picture!’
Rae offers him her arm. He takes it. She looks at me.
‘Oh. Right. Yep. Let’s go then.’
I get the door.

When John is safely stowed on the back of the ambulance, Rae gives me a wink, slams the door and we set off.
We haven’t far to go. John studies me as I race through the paperwork.
‘What do you do, then?’ he asks.
‘Good question. One I ask myself a lot.’
He frowns.
‘I had five brothers. Five. Count them. All went in the army. All through the war. All came out. Imagine that. Not easy places, neither. Egypt. Libya. Terrible.’
‘My uncle’s the same age as you. He was in Italy.’
‘Italy? Oh.’
He frowns at me again.
‘Where are we going?’
‘To the hospital?’
‘To the hospital? Why’s that, then?’
‘To get you checked up.’
He folds his arms. ‘We used to go to school through a hedge at the bottom of the garden. Out onto the lane, just a little way, and there it was.’
He smiles at me. ‘Handy, eh?’

Monday, January 05, 2009

seasonal lights

Behind the dark and padlocked toilet block in the frozen municipal gardens, a man lies on his side amongst the rhododendrons. Way over the other side of the park, through the tangled silhouettes of the railings, the trees and the park café, beyond the lines of ice white fairy lights strung from low branches and out on the bright artery of Christmas activity that runs along the far side, the man dimly senses a change there – undercutting the street lamps and the spilling, front of house glow of the theatre, now there is a clamorous rack of blue. And whilst all the other kinds of light meld and wash out only a little way into the park, these new lights leap out to him, glitterballing blue fragments careening off the trees, the frosted grass, the low night sky. And it seems to the man that these blue fragments spin and jump together, moving to a dance he is falling away from. And then the heroin draws his head back to the ground, and the fragments sweep across and over him.

And time slows with each further breath he takes.

And the man finds he can reach up and catch hold of these blue fragments as they turn past his face. He holds them against the sky, and finds that each one has a picture inside – images of other calls visited through the year – night scenes like his own, locked in the strange blue amber:

the hallway of a block where a young woman lies on her back amongst the junk mail, staring up at the ceiling rose, people running up the stairs, talking in phones;

a bedroom where a housewife sits on the corner of a bed with her hands clawed inwards, chest rising and falling, eyes unblinking, whilst her husband bustles about making tea down in the kitchen, discharged today after trying to hang himself from that dressing gown hook;

the car park of a hotel where a splinter-thin young guy struggles to find his pockets so he can put his hands in them and be sober;

a bench where a middle aged man is slumped over asleep, or dead, or as good as, t-shirt ridden up, inflated belly on display like a prize watermelon, the drool from his mouth as glittering as the interval drinkers who stamp and chatter out on the theatre steps opposite;

a spot-lit front room of a new-build, where a mother clutches one child, and where a father kneels by the side of another that lies on a blue yoga mat in the middle of the room, jaws clamped shut by a convulsion that rides her on and on and will not let her breathe;

a new-born baby wrapped in white towels, working its hands and feet in protest as its puckered face is gently cleared, launching a scrawling yowl onto the air;

a room of die-cast planes and cars and miniature whiskies and leather bound, back copies of the Radio Times, by the side of an elderly man on a red patterned rug, wrong side down with his catheter tube tangled around his ankles;

a shed at the bottom of a garden, where a camouflaged young guy emerges, swollen and pained, stumbling, his head laced with dried blood, his nose reduced to a flattened whistle, his sleeping bag rolled up;

a tasselled living room and a cherry-red Christmas of a man choking on an olive, his neighbour tapping him on the back with one hand, martini glass in the other;

a jetty, black water slopping up between the slats, where a young man’s black buckled boots poke out from a wrapping of foil and blankets, and a lifeboat crew stand around in orange survival suits;

But the blue fragments speed up again and the man lets them go. They snap away, and as they do the man turns his head and notices a different light approaching, two torch beams, rocking from side to side and sweeping the ground before them. And one of the beams catches him in the face and he raises his hand.

The ambulance men crunch across the frosted grass towards him.

He closes his eyes, opens them again at A&E.