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.’