Thursday, August 27, 2009

feeding the poor

When I last saw Zachary he was held between two policemen, blood on his face, his chest bare, the samurai sword he’d fetched from his flat to attack his neighbour with lying on the back seat of the patrol car. Now he is sitting quietly on his own at a table for two in a gastro pub, a fluorescent Little Monkeys baseball cap pulled down low, one hand on his lap and the other draped across a chess board.

One of the bar staff points in his direction and waves us over. The pub has been open half an hour, but even though it only has a scattering of customers, there is a strong sense of margin around this particular section of the bar.
‘Hello Zachary,’ I say. ‘We met a few days ago. You’d been in a fight.’
‘Fight? I’d hardly call it a fight.’ He bobs his head and smiles with a patronising stretch of the mouth. ‘A fight is when two warriors come together for the purpose of practising their art. A fight is a mutual exchange of physical power. I was engaged in a struggle for my very existence on this so-called planet. For some reason – and I’ve studied the problem at a very high level for many years, my friend – as I say, for some reason, there are forces in this world that simply do not want me to live. Can not allow me to live.’
‘Would you like to come with us out to the ambulance, and then we can see what we can do to help?’
‘Of course. Could you just help me with my chess board – careful! It’s a thousand years old, almost certainly the most valuable object in town today.’
He hands me a crudely knocked up article in pine with a chipped walnut veneer and a rickety drawer slung underneath.
‘Oops! Looks like the drawer’s coming off.’
‘It’s a thousand years old. What do you expect? Be very careful my friend.’
The barman smiles and waves.

Outside on the ambulance Zachary lowers himself carefully into one of our chairs, and I sit opposite him on the trolley. I put the chess board down next to me.
‘It’s an exquisite object,’ he says. ‘I acquired it in my travels. Hand built by one of the sacred knights of El Cid. I expect you’ve seen the film. Have a look at the figures. Incredible craftsmanship.’
The drawer has lost its ability to slide out. You have to lift the board up to get to the pieces – a throw of roughly cast nickel figures. I hold up the king. His beard looks like a glob shaken off a soldering iron.
‘I had to come in to town to find food and water. I have no “money”, so I brought something to trade with. You’d think that I could swap a thousand year old chess set for something to eat and drink, but this world has no honour, no love, nothing for me or my kind.’
I put the king back.
‘So how can we help today, Zachary?’
‘I need to go to Southview and talk to the medical experts there. It’s been a difficult time for me and I need some help.’
‘We can certainly take you down the hospital and find you someone to talk to, if that’s what you’d like?’
He winces and bends at the waist.
‘I have pain all over. Chest pain, stomach. My arms and legs are full of cramps.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
He takes off his baseball cap and lobs it onto the trolley. He has dyed his stubby Mohican purple and orange. It runs back to front along the crown of his head like a strip of carpet, whilst around it the scarred and lumpen skin of his skull rises and falls, features on a raised-relief map, the hard ground beneath his shifting monologue.

‘I'm a samurai - but you know that. Since I saw you I’ve had three fights in the temple. Training fights, I can’t say much. But I’m sorry to say that I've been thrown out. Yakumoja has spoken. He has said, and I quote: “You have chosen the way of the fool and not the way of the wise man.” I think that was from Lord of the Rings. Saruman vs. Gandalf. Christopher Lee vs. Ian Holm - or Ian Mckellen, I can never remember which. One of them is gay. Don't know about the other one.’

The ambulance lurches off the pavement. Zachary groans, but quickly recovers himself.

‘I'm a genius. It may sound big headed to say it. Maybe it doesn't. But a fact’s a fact. Anyway, it's not my judgement. Mr Stephen Fry has met five Prime Ministers, and he has put it on record that not one of them could stand toe to toe in the grid against me.’

‘My daughter is amazing. She’s confounded all the experts. She's like Mahatma Gandhi, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Barack Obama and Jesus Christ all rolled into one. Elvis Presley himself would not have a thing on her. She's incredible, remarkable. Maths, Physics, Cookery, The Arts. So why society has such a problem with us, won't let me be with her, won't allow me to live .. I don't know.’

‘We're going on a world trip. We’re getting out of this place. Europe, Africa, South America. Perhaps I'll meet ambulance people in those countries. Or maybe not. Hopefully we'll just be travelling around, quietly and anonymously, following The Code, learning, teaching, observing.’

Zachary stares through the slats of the window at the busy afternoon crowds, gently spidering his fingers backwards and forwards along the multi-coloured strip of hair.

‘Feeding the poor,’ he says.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

that woman upstairs

It’s a substantial front door, all right. A heavy black affair, panels studded with thickly painted iron rivets, the kind of thing you might see recessed in a castle wall.
‘But we don’t need to force this one. We can get one of the other flats to let us in.’
Three in the morning, and we stand on the steps reviewing our options. The windows off to our right would break open without much problem, but below them is a drop of fifteen feet or so down into a dark basement. Blondin would blanche.
I push the buzzer to flat number one and we wait. A couple of minutes later I push it again. Another couple of minutes, the hall light goes on, a bolt is drawn back and the door swings open.
‘I’m so sorry to drag you out of bed at this ungodly hour…’
‘It’s Vera, isn’t it? She’s fallen again, hasn’t she?’
‘Is there access round the back?’
The woman stands swaying slightly, yawning and rubbing a finger into the corner of her right eye, grubbing out the sleep crust. She drops her hand and looks at me, as if she really expected to have rubbed me out at the same time.
‘We’re really sorry to have got you up like this. We couldn’t think what else to do.’
She gathers her nightgown more tightly across her chest.
‘Why the hell she won’t give us a key I don’t know. Or get one of those little black boxes for the outside. This is the third time this year. You’re going to have to call for a locksmith, maybe even the fire brigade. Last time they needed ladders to get in. You won’t be able to kick the door down. It’s got special locks on it. She’s very suspicious.’
She stands aside and we troop in.
Vera’s door is right in front of us, narrow and solid looking, not an obvious candidate for a swift kicking. I foot it speculatively and it gives at the bottom, but the rest of it seems to have a number of locks.
‘It might go,’ I say, putting my bag down.
‘It won’t,’ she says. ‘You’ll have one hell of a job.’
‘Stand back, anyway. I’ll give it a try.’
‘He likes doors,’ says Rae to the woman. They watch me from the stairs.
I draw myself back and then land a heavy kick squarely on the door just below the Yale lock. My pelvis almost flies backwards out of my trousers.
‘Told you,’ the woman says. ‘I’d call a locksmith if I were you.’
‘I’ve got one more thing I can try,’ I say, trying not to hobble. I unroll our tool kit and pull out a crowbar. I want to say: Say Hello to my leetle friend… but the woman looks at me with such a flat expression I just say: ‘This may make a bit of noise.’
I slam the flat end in the gap between the door jamb and the door, and then lever it back a couple of times as hard as I can. The wood splits, the door booms and shakes, and on the third pull I feel it give enough to stand back, take another big kick and the door flies open in a shower of splinters and unseated screws.
‘Who needs locksmiths?’ I say, dropping the crowbar back onto the roll.
‘Well you certainly do now,’ the woman says. ‘I’ll be upstairs if you need me.’

We go into Vera’s flat.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
Vera is sitting on the floor of the bedroom, comfortably arranged with her legs stretched out in front of her, leaning back on the bed, talking on the telephone.
‘Yes, yes,’ she says. ‘That was them. They’re in now. Thank you. Goodbye.’ She gently places the handset back in the cradle, and turns her face up to look at us.
‘I slipped out of bed and couldn’t get up.’
Vera has a way of talking that seems as doughy as the rest of her, an air of lumpish passivity that makes her many years older than her given seventy seven.
‘Is that woman from upstairs still there?’ she says. And then: ‘It’s my knee. If you could just give me a hand up.’
We help Vera to her feet and get her back to bed. I check her over whilst Rae arranges for an emergency locksmith to come and fix up the door.
‘I’ll need to be able to let them in the front door,’ Vera says. ‘Perhaps I’d better wait in the living room.’
She hauls herself up and then moves slowly and carefully but without too much difficulty with a couple of sticks through the flat to the living room.
‘That woman upstairs is so stuck up,’ she says as she goes, her words fogging out around her in a monotonously soft and strangely sapping cloud. ‘When she first moved here and I fell over she was around straightaway, of course. Looking at her watch. Saying she had to get back to bed ‘cos she was due in court that day. So I said she shouldn’t worry about things like that. It’s like my husband always used to say: There’s no sense worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. You’ve got to wait until they do happen, because it’s never what you imagine, and never as bad as you think it’s going to be, so all that worrying would’ve been for nothing, and wouldn’t have helped you with what the problem really was in the first place. If you follow me. He put it better. But do you know what she said? She said: Well I’m due in court Vera because that’s my job. I’m a lawyer. Stuck up cow. ‘Scuse my whatsits. But there you are. I take people as I find them and expect them to do the same. Doesn’t always work, though, does it? Shall I put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea?’
‘I’m afraid we have to be going soon,’ I say. ‘Vera? We need to arrange for the Falls Team to visit you. Check the flat out. See what can be done to make things easier. Get a Key Safe put outside, so we don’t have to keep busting your door down in the early hours.’
‘That would be nice. You do that.’
‘We have to be going now.’
‘Look. That’s me when I was a little girl. Scrappy little thing, wasn’t I?’
Perhaps its the early hour, or perhaps the subject moved slightly just before the picture was taken, but the image is smudged and unreal, a hoax ghost, or someone standing off to the side whilst you look straight ahead.
‘Cute,’ I say, struggling to find anything else. I hand her back the picture.
‘I’m sorry Vera. We really have to go.’

Splinters of wood crunch underfoot as we pass back through the hallway.

Monday, August 17, 2009

taking away the power

End of the day and the sky is a ringing, Wedgewood blue. There are two ambulance men standing outside the station, the younger one leaning back against the bonnet of an ambulance, smoking, left arm crooked under the right, the short sleeves of his green shirt rolled up an extra inch to emphasise his bicep, a Maori pattern tattoo stretching and shrinking with the regular backwards and forwards of the cigarette. The other guy, an older figure, a curious mix, peat-digger crossed with primary school teacher, stands with his legs planted shoulder-width apart and his lumpish hands linked together on top of his head.
The younger guy blows out a stream of smoke.
‘We had a hanging today.’
‘Oh yeah? What was that, then?’
‘Young girl. Dressed all in black. Strung herself up in the woods. There was a note in her bag, explaining everything. Why she’d done it. Addressed to her family. All very organised. She’d been there a few days. We heard the buzzing before we saw her.’
The older guy unlaces his fingers, moves his hands down from the top of his head to his forehead, gives it a rub, then folds his arms and looks off into the chestnut trees growing along the front of the station.
‘Pretty bad.’
‘A dog walker found her.’

There is a brief pause, and then a shift in the conversation, a distinctive lurch, like a handle being thrown on some battered old machine.
‘It’s always a dog walker.’
‘Always the same dog walker.’
‘Excuse me sir. I just need to ask you and your dog a few questions. How is it that you decided to go for a walk in this particular neck of the woods, pardon my French?’
‘We just had a feeling. Or rather, the dog did. He got the map out, put a paw on it and started whining.’
‘I see. And that’s the tenth time this week?’
‘And it’s only Monday.’
‘I know. Jeez! What d’ya gonna do?’
‘What sort of dog might this be, sir?’
‘He’s a Corpsehound. Part Bloodhound, part vulture.’
‘And what do we call it? Damien? Old Nick?’
‘Very nice, sir. Very nice. I especially like the red eyes. Glowing like coals, I see. Healthy.’
‘It’s all those walks. There’s a lot of ground to cover.’
‘What do you feed him on?’
‘Well, there’s a saving right there, officer. He’s been dead a thousand years.’
‘One last question sir – sir?’
‘But there was no-one there, nothing but a black cape lying on the ground and some cackling in the trees.’
‘You can’t beat a nice bit of cackling.’

The younger guy flicks his cigarette off towards the grass verge.
‘That’s me,’ he says, arching his back. ‘I hope you have a quiet one, mate.’
He picks up his kit, and slouches off towards his car.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

pam penistone vs. the covenant

The police have taken Zachary’s samurai sword from him. It lies sheathed on the back seat of the squad car, whilst Zachary stands between the two officers, hunched over and groaning, his bloodied green shirt unbuttoned to the waist. As they lead him to the back of the ambulance he stumbles and winces and holds the sides of his chest. When he reaches the steps he swears bitterly, slows up, but eventually makes the climb and settles himself back on the trolley, one hand up to shield his eyes from the light.

He has been beaten up. His nose is broken, and there is an s-shaped gash in the centre of his forehead; the blood from both injuries has fanned down across his face and dried into an inverted V.

He has shaved his head to the skin except for a strip of hair along the middle. His eyebrows are gone, too, and beneath the crusted blood you can just make out a minutely shaved goatee beard tracing the outline of his lips and mouth. Zachary’s head has a dreadful topography; his face is something crudely sketched onto the edge of a monstrous broad bean, the forehead overhanging the eyes which glitter in the shadows beneath it. The wide spread of his skull seems soft, swelling in unexpected places, almost as you look at it, like someone squeezing a water-filled balloon. And when he talks, the pressure of that invisible hand seems equally present in his words. They patter out quickly and quietly, hissing little rushes of violence that whistle out through his teeth.

At the end of each phrase, he purses his lips and gives his head a little sideways wobble, as if the terrible injustice of his case hardly needs repeating. But he needs his audience to be quiet. If I say anything, he looks in my direction only for as long as it takes to gauge the distance between us.

‘Pam Penistone. Bitch witch. May she rot in hell for all eternity. As if the Devil would want her down there. He’d never get the stench out.

‘I am an incredibly educated man. I speak ten languages. I can do any accent there's ever been. I can quote Shakespeare, the Greek philosophers, the Bible. And yet that maggot-ridden hag Pam Penistone and her halfwit boyfriend Tony think I'm nothing but a bag of shit to kick to the floor. Do they think I have no power? Do they think I don’t know what they’re about?

‘I’ve had the country’s best psychiatrists working on my case. They don’t know what to make of me. I can sing any opera that’s ever been written. (whistles a snatch of the Toreador’s March.) Carmen by Bizet is as Spanish as the Champs Elysee.

‘My daughter is the only thing worth living for. But Pam Penistone, the Poisonous Minge has taken her over, turned her against me, her and that retard boyfriend of hers. But she knows who I am and what I’m capable of, even if they don’t.

‘I’m not a samurai. I wouldn’t put myself in the same class as those mythical warriors of old. I have too much respect for who they are and what they can do. There is a code that needs to be observed. But I’m not giving too much away if I tell you that I am a member of a secret and highly trained covenant. There's an underground army of warriors I can call on at any time to do my bidding. And I’m certainly going to instruct them to kill that whore Pam Penistone and Tony, her worm of a sidekick.

‘I'll have them killed. Or maybe not killed, but forced to suffer each other for a thousand years. That would be punishment enough. A thousand years to roll around in each other’s shit. And then be killed.

‘When I married the Witch Penistone I was desperate to leave home. I was being abused. I didn’t know the first thing about anything. But that first night we slept together, when she was sleeping, I looked inside her knickers. And you know what? They were caked in shit.

‘I didn't know then what I know now. I’m an expert on the classics. I'm like Achilles, or Hector. She could've been my Helen, Helen of Troy. But if the thousands of ships had any idea what they were really sailing towards, they would have turned round and come straight back.

‘I’ve studied military history. I used to have a set of Napoleonic soldiers. A thousand pieces, worth ten thousand pounds. But that whore Pam Penistone stole it. She stole it whilst I was in hospital last time. When I came out I couldn't prove it but I knew she'd done it. I'll have my justice, though. I'll see she pays. I'll make it my dying wish. My one true aim in life.

‘See these scars on my chest? I did those. I don't choose to call it self-harm. That's someone else's label. I don’t live by labels. These are simply the marks I make on myself to remind me of all the times I've let my daughter down. To remind me not to be late in future.

‘Tony was a gentleman to begin with. Pam Penistone led him on, she forced him to act like a monster. He's a trained killer. He respects what I can do. But just then I chose not to take action. I just stood there and let it come. He could've killed me, but he saw what I was about and held back out of respect. He knows. But Pam Penistone has her claws into him too deep.

‘I've had forty five of the top psychiatrists in the land. They call me a genius – well, that's just their words, their understanding. Genius? No - just someone with special powers who's been shat on for so long he can't take any more.

‘I kicked the drugs and the drink. I only used to smoke because I liked to see the little red point of light at the end. I'd take a drag - see it glow and think - ooh, what's that? - then - here, you take it. Not bothered. Done. Kicking the drink was harder than kicking the drugs. Legal drugs.

‘This world is fucked up, my friend. Fucked up and finished. There's no honour or love any more.

‘I just feel sorry for them. They don't have the love that I do. So I’ve decided I’m going to handle this all legal and above board. I don’t seek vengeance. That is not the way of the Covenant. But I do seek justice, and I do seek punishment. And if I don’t see justice, and I don’t see punishment, let me give you all fair warning, you and your newspapers. Write this down. There’s a bloodbath coming the likes of which this world has never seen.’

Saturday, August 08, 2009

four sitters

#1: Man, thirty. On the end of an empty row of sculpted blue plastic seats in the town’s new walk-in centre. White shirt, wide grey fabric braces, khaki trousers, heavy walking boots, everything muddied, as if he’d just walked in from an eighteenth century harvest. His face is long and dusky, pointed at the bristled chin like an ant in close-up, his hair tangled, desiccated. When I ask him his name he smiles efficiently, watching me closely.
‘I don’t believe in possessions. I suffer from Dextroprodesiacondraplasia. Hah! Spell that! I suffer from Memory Ankylosaurusemia. Second formation. You’d know. Something like. Mmm. And in the evenings I’m surrounded by voices. Etcetera. But you don’t want to hear about them.’

#2: Woman, ninety. On a rustic wooden chair in a bright blue hallway furnished like an art gallery with framed ceramic tiles of fish and farm animals, broad abstract oil paintings and delicate swatches of Chinese silk. She is wearing a simple white robe gathered loosely around her waist, open at the chest, one leg tucked in to her and one off to the side, an arm draped over the back of the chair, in a pose you might expect from an artist’s model.
‘Fallen on the floor? What nonsense. I’m absolutely fine,’ she says. ‘Who called you? I’m simply waiting for my carer.’

#3: Man, forty. Sitting on the edge of an unmade bed, his arms close in to his sides to keep him propped upright, legs apart to make room for his grossly distended belly, a veined and vegetable thing, laparotomy scar zipped up from groin to middle like the linea nigra of a pregnant woman.
‘It’s the ascites again. I’ve been a silly boy. Drinking all week. Totally my own fault. I expect I’ll have to go in again for another drain.’

#4: Man, twenty. Sitting bare-chested in a dark shop doorway, his face and body smeared with the blood that has run down from the cut on the crown of his shaved head and the split on the bridge of his swollen nose. He has his legs drawn up, resting his hands on either knee. He looks like a wounded hunter, staring out into the crowds, wondering where his prey could have gone.

There is another young man standing leaning over him. His arms and hands are covered in blood, too, the hunter’s blood. He is shouting down at him to go on to the ambulance to get some help. An ambulance man taps him on the shoulder and asks him to stand to one side; he tells him to be careful about getting the wounded man’s blood on him; there are antiseptic wipes and gel on the ambulance if he’d like to get cleaned up. The man says he doesn’t care. He says if he saves one life tonight and dies as a result it will all have been worth it.

The hunter jumps up, pushes the man aside and runs off down the street.

Monday, August 03, 2009

bear knows best

‘I really don’t know what he wants with me. I think he thinks I’m gaga.’
Deidre loons at us through her glasses and taps the side of her head, missing with the last tap and almost falling out of her arm chair with the momentum of it. ‘But it’s all there,’ she says, righting herself. ‘I just wish I could find my glasses.’
Frank looks up from his clipboard.
‘You’re wearing them, Deidre,’ he says, then carries on writing.
Deidre makes a whooshing noise.
‘Not these glasses, silly,’ she says, taking them off, waving them around, then holding them at arms length and frowning. ‘My other glasses. The ones that help me see.’
Frank sighs.
‘As you have probably worked out, Deidre has been drinking this afternoon.’
‘I like a drop of whisky and I don’t care who knows it,’ she says, straightening up and scrunching her face into a dreadful mug of indignation. But just as suddenly she deflates onto her right arm which struggles to keep her propped up. ‘What on earth does he want with me?’
There is half a bottle of Teacher’s by the side of her chair, and the mahogany sideboard opposite is bright and clink-full of spirit glass. Deidre’s flat is an overheated, lace-edged box of disorder, just one neatly arranged bookshelf of hardback first editions standing like a last stockade of sobriety and reason.
‘I found her crashed out on the landing,’ says Frank, clicking his pen shut. ‘I woke her up and helped her walk into the flat. There doesn’t appear to be anything wrong, so would you mind if I push off now? I finish in quarter of an hour.’
Deidre reaches out to tug at his elbow.
‘I know you,’ she says, wagging her finger at him. ‘I’ve seen that handsome face before.’
Frank takes her hand.
‘Deidre. Take care of yourself. Don’t drink too much and don’t go worrying the residents by falling asleep in the hallway.’
She stares at him, focuses, then splutters into a laugh.
‘I love you when you’re cross,’ she says. ‘I absolutely love you, pet.’
Frank shakes her hand.
‘I love you too, Deidre. But I have to be going.’
Suddenly she wraps her other hand around his, and Frank struggles to pull away, caught like a careless diver in a giant clam.
‘What have you done with my glasses?’ she says.
‘These lovely people will help you with that,’ he says, and smiles across at Rae and me. ‘Won’t you?’
I sit down on the sofa and grab a teddy bear onto my lap.
I’ll find your glasses, Deidre,’ I make it say. It leaps off my lap and stomps off around the edge of the sofa.
‘Look at that silly bear,’ she laughs, throwing her hands up to clap them together, allowing Frank to go free. ‘He hasn’t got a clue. As if I’d have dropped them down there.’

Sunday, August 02, 2009

last delivery

The garden centre is on the outskirts of town, high on the edge of a ruck of ground, its pointed canopies dark against the sky.

Man collapsed. This has to be a member of staff. The place won’t have opened yet.

Rae swings the ambulance round into the broad and empty car park, up towards the glass frontage of the building. There is a man standing just off to the right of it, and he points with a straight arm off to his left, to a track that runs around the side of the building.
‘He’s in the loading bay,’ he says as we draw level. The only way to get there is to go back out of the car park and drive round, but that’ll take a while, so I jump out, grab the resus bag from the back, and tell Rae I’ll see her there.
‘We’ve been unloading the lorries this morning,’ the guy says as we walk quickly, side by side. ‘This was the last delivery. The driver fell asleep in the cab and we can’t wake him.’
There’s one lorry parked with its cab towards us at the end of the track. I can see the driver high up behind the wheel, leaning back in his seat with his head resting to the side against the window, his eyes closed and his mouth slack.
‘We don’t know anything about him. He’s not a regular.’
I open the passenger door and climb up into the cab. Before I even touch him I know he’s arrested. I brace myself between the steering wheel and the chair, give him a thump in the centre of his chest, and start compressions as best I can in that position. He’s a heavy man, probably twenty something stone. The cab is about six feet off the ground. The man who brought me here is looking in through the passenger door.
‘We’re going to need you and a couple of your mates to get him down onto the ground. Quick as you like.’
But Rae is here now and a couple of other centre workers have come out by themselves. Rae tells them to grab hold when I open the door. I pull the latch, the driver sinks out head first into the open air and is handed down in a lurching descent to the ground. The workers step aside. I get back on his chest.
‘Anybody know anything about him?’
‘He’s from up North.’
‘How long do you think he was like this?’
‘Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Not much longer.’
A second ambulance arrives.
We follow the protocol, but get nothing.
I check the man’s pockets. A handful of coins, some keys. I ask one of the garden centre workers to look for ID in the cab. He comes back with a wallet and a mobile phone. I read out the man’s name from his driving licence.

We can’t do any more here, but the patient is still well perfused.
We scoop him onto our stretcher and run him off to hospital.

There is a crash team waiting for us in resus. I call out the story as we slide him from our trolley onto theirs.

When the team are well into their run, I leave the room to go and book the patient in and start on the paperwork. I’m half way through when one of the crash nurses comes out to me.
‘They’ve called it,’ she says. ‘Someone has to ring the family.’
And she taps his mobile phone gently, absently, in the palm of her opened hand.