Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's edge

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

half past five

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


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

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

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

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

But he’s missing.

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

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

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

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

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

I feel a pulse.

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


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

Monday, December 14, 2009

a scratch nativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

mary's advent windows

mary, smoking a cigarette

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

mary, sitting on a window ledge

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

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

mary, hiding under a duvet

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

mary, sitting on a chair

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

mary, sitting on a chair, in a christmas hat

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

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 07, 2009

a strange, heavy man

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 04, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 03, 2009


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