Saturday, January 30, 2010

Thomas sr. sprawls on his side on the mattress that his wife and youngest son have dragged into the lounge, his lumpish head supported on a stack of pillows, and on the crook of an outstretched arm that overhangs the edge.
‘God. Oh God.’ His breathing sounds like sacks of gravel being delivered in a cellar.
‘Will you go to the hospital, Thomas? Thomas – will you go to the hospital? Your levels are low, Thomas. They need taking care of. Thomas? Thomas?’
‘Will you go to the hospital?’
He groans and pitches massively, a bronchitic walrus languishing on a daisy patterned ice flow, tusks and flippers tipped with blue.
We’ve been in the flat for an hour, trying every angle, every point of leverage to persuade Thomas to agree to the trip to hospital, but despite his extremity, his refusal is clear and unequivocal. He had a bad experience at the hospital last year. He won’t be going again.
The pulse ox clip on his finger is redundant. Any fool could read the insidious blue creep up the fingers, the leeching of vitality from the lips and nose and earlobes. He will not have the mask on his face. He will not be doing with the nebuliser. He wants us to go and leave him alone.
‘Thomas. Thomas. Will you go to the hospital? Will you? We’ve called out these good people and you wouldn’t want to be wasting their time now, would you? Thomas?’
‘Will you go to the hospital and get sorted out?’

His wife, a tidily impatient woman with a voice as bright as a band saw, paces backwards and forwards between the kitchenette and the hairy hollow of his ear. Their son, the focus of a dozen framed photographs on the wall – Liam with his guitar, on stage or in a studio, in jeans or a mortar and gown, his fingers and smile always in place – holds his father’s hand, slapping the back of his wrist for emphasis, tugging at the loose flesh of his upper arm as if his very next move will be to drag his father by main force down the stairs and into the ambulance.

‘Don’t be such a stubborn bastard,’ he says. ‘Come on now. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for Margaret. Do it for Tommy and me. But for God’s sake, Dad, you’ve got to realise. Your oxygen is way down in your boots, your lungs are shot to hell. You’ve got to go with these people and see the doctors. They’ll sort you out no problem. You’ll be back before you know it. So will you go to the hospital, Dad? Dad? Are you listening to me?’
‘Will you go to the hospital?’
Margaret buzzes back to the mattress side.
‘Should I call Tommy, then? Should I get Tommy to the phone? Maybe you’ll listen to him if you won’t listen to us?’
‘Shall I call Tommy?’
Margaret turns to us and hooks her tangled grey and black hair away from her face.
‘Tommy’s the eldest. He’s on a skiing trip at the moment. Oh but by Christ Tommy’d give him hell.’
She turns back to her husband.
‘Thomas? Thomas? Have you heard a word I’ve said, Thomas?’
‘Thomas will you go to the hospital with these people and get your breathing sorted out?’
Liam tugs his father’s arm again.
‘You fucking better go,’ he says.
Margaret gives him a slap on the shoulder and nods in our direction.
‘There’s no call for that now, Liam.’

Rae and I are sitting on the sofa, a stack of kit about our feet – lifting cushions, belts, the resus, drugs and obs bags. All we need is the smallest hesitation, the slightest uncertainty, and we’ll be calling in a second crew to help lift Thomas from the mattress and into a carry chair, down the two flights of stairs and into the back of the ambulance that’s been idling outside the block all this time. Control have made two welfare checks since we’ve been here. Nothing’s moving, nothing’s about to.

‘Thomas,’ says Rae, shifting forward on the sofa and tapping the aerial of the radio on the underside of her chin, as if she were somehow trying to draw exactly the right words to use from the body politic within its range, ‘Thomas – listen to me. You won’t be able to survive on this level of oxygen indefinitely. Something’s got to give, and I’m afraid it’s likely to be your heart.’
Margaret gives a little gasp and puts a hand out onto her son’s shoulder. Liam gives his father another tug on the arm.
‘Will you hear this?’ he says. ‘Will you hear it?’
‘If you don’t come to hospital now, you’re in some danger of having a heart attack. Your heart needs a good supply of oxygen. Without it, it gets tired, and might pack up altogether. You have to understand that by refusing to come with us to hospital you’re putting yourself in danger of a heart attack. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
‘Thomas listen to the paramedic. She knows her job. She says you’ll die of a heart attack if you don’t go to the hospital. Thomas?’
‘Thomas, will go to the hospital? Please? Will you go to the hospital and get your levels sorted out? Thomas?’
‘Will you go to the hospital?’
She stands up straight.
‘You’ve always been such a stubborn bastard.’
‘I know I know. But he has. He’s no different to how he’s always been. Are you, you big old fool.’
She paces back to the kitchenette.
‘Can’t you just take him?’ Liam says for the fifteenth time.
‘If he says no, then I’m afraid we can’t. It’s his decision. I mean – he can’t be thinking all that clearly with his levels this low, but still he seems to understand what’s going on.’
‘Oh he understands all right. Don’t you?’
Liam looks at us both.
‘What do we do now?’
‘We can’t stay here all night. But you can call us back the moment anything changes. And unfortunately, the way things look, that probably means when he goes unconscious and can’t refuse. Then we’ll have him out in no time and down the hospital.’
‘Thanks for coming. I’m really sorry it’s been so difficult.’
‘No worries.’
We stand to go. I start stacking our bags on to the carry chair.
Margaret comes back in.
‘Thomas,’ she says. ‘Thomas?’
‘Will you go to the hospital and have your levels sorted out? Thomas? Will you go to the hospital?’
Liam helps us with our stuff.

It’s still early in the year, the night has been long and cold, but the sky is appreciably lighter now as the late hour segues into dawn. The stars are bright; a plane glides across the vault of it all like a band of tiny diamonds.

Our relief are in early. We get away on time.

Thomas dies of a heart attack mid-morning. The crew call it on scene.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


a sudden fall of silence so deep it cracks with the cold of it

the passing of an instant, in which the accepted procession of things spins on its heels, and the life that seemed to lead on moment through moment drops down, lies flat, and everything happens at once

the blue-lipped girl on the bathroom floor coughs, sits up, and propped on her arms, stares at the mottled legs stretched out in front of her

the dead cat curled on the chest of the dead woman arches back from its front paws, rocks its head back and begins licking its white fur bib, and the woman opens her eyes, reaches both hands up and around from her sides, and scritches the fur between its ears

the smashed man in the smashed van pushes himself back from the steering wheel and, finding his legs, steps out into the road, places his fists in the small of his back and leans in to a stretch as the motorway rushes past

the decayed man by the fence in the field rights himself into a kneeling position, then sits studying those hands in his lap like a man surprised at prayer, as the crows scrawk and fret high in the elms above him

the bloated man on the sofa rolls off sideways onto the floor and stops there, panting, all fours founded, the flat ribbed dog in the corner sneezing once and sitting up to watch him

the dead man in the pub toilet reaches a hand up to feel the wall, slaps the wall, shucks off a walking boot

the dead woman on the red cotton undersheet yawns, licks her cracked lips, pats the bedside table for teeth

the man under the tree in the park sits up and stares ahead at the shadows gliding noiselessly along the pavement

the bloody woman in the bath raises her head up from her chest, and begins to pick the wet strands from her face so she can watch the door

and transport arrives, figures of green and black

and Time through them all, leaning in with light fingers, unzipping the dead to the very atom, scattering what has gone, and passing on

and everything changes

and nothing does

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Ralph, twenty two. Tight leather jacket, slack mouth.

‘I’m tripping, man. I’m buzzing my nuts off. These guys in the pub, they were like – Yay! Having it! And they tipped some stuff in my pint. So I said – Whoa! That’s one thing I don’t do, drugs. So they’re like – Come on, man! But really, I don’t do drugs. Ask my mum. I’ll smoke a bit of weed, but that’s it. So about half an hour later, I’m on my sixth pint and I’m like – Shit! Everything’s fazing in and out and I’m literally seeing double (which I never do). I’m a man, not a mouse. I can take my drink. ‘Cos when I drink I’m flying, but then I’m like – whoosh - straight. So can you take me to hospital so they can do whatever they do to find out what those guys put in my pint? Do you think I’ll have to wait? ‘Cos if it’s gonna be too long, I might just go home and sleep. Stop off and grab a couple.’

Stephen and his sister, Effie, fifty and fifty two. Faces on eggs.

‘She had some cereal about an hour ago. Honey whatsits. You know. Like cornflakes. Bits of nuts and stuff on them. Nuts, honey. Crunchy. Milk, obviously.’
‘Honey nut cornflakes?’
‘No. I know the ones you mean. But definitely not honey nut cornflakes.’
‘No. Flatter than Cheerios. Crunchier. Proper flakes.’
‘Bran flakes?’
‘Bran flakes? Bran flakes haven’t got honey and nuts on them, sis. Bran flakes are just plain. Just plain flakes of bran.’
‘You can put honey on them.’
‘Yes. But I’m talking about ones that come with it all on.’
‘Honey nut cornflakes?’
‘You said that already.’

Siobhan, 18. EMO. Biro hearts up her arm.

‘I was horrible to you. No I was horrible. I was cruel and horrible and I said horrible things and I wish I hadn’t. You’re my best friend in the world and I never want to lose you. I know I bend things around and say things I don’t mean but I never want you to forget you’re the one, true thing in my life, the only thing that keeps me here. Look at this! Look at what she did up my arm! It’s the most beautiful thing. And to think I shouted at you and called you – I’m not going to say it. I was only trying to push you away. That’s what I do when I find something beautiful or something beautiful finds me. I push it away because I think that can’t be me, they must mean someone else. So. I’ve got hyper mobility syndrome, asthma, and I had to be rushed to hospital when I was eight with a silent bowel. The energy from my head got blocked and when it didn’t have anywhere else to go it went down, along here, inside, and stuffed me up. I’m also allergic to spiders. You know when you’re having a stroke? Do you breathe like that when you’re having a stroke?’

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

souvenir of whitby

Janice the carer is standing at the crest of a steep driveway with a phone in one hand and a cardboard list of numbers in the other. First she waves the phone at us, but then, remembering she’s in the middle of a conversation, puts the phone back to her ear and waves the card instead. Then she turns and hurries back inside.

The Close is thawing, its forensically clipped hedges and bushes, pushed out of whack by the week’s heavy fall of snow, are rising up again, the routines and regularities of the place slowly reasserting themselves through the ice. The road widens into a circle, with each bungalow spaced and placed around it like huts around a clearing. I park up and we pick our way up the drive to number thirteen.

Janice is still on the phone, waiting for us in the hallway.

‘The paramedics are here, Deidre,’ she says, giving us a beaky smile. ‘Yes. The paramedics. I’ll give you a call back when I know more. Bye, Deidre. Bye’
She holds the phone right up to her face to find the right button to push, then says: ‘He’s through here.’

She leads us into a canary yellow kitchen with a blue Formica table, two chairs and an elderly man lying on his back on the lino with a voluminous flower-patterned duvet covering him. Only his head shows over the top of it. He looks tousled, grey, embarrassed. A hand appears and he waves it.

Suddenly from a neighbouring room there is a shriek - ‘Daddy! Daddy! Come here, Daddy! Where is he?’ – followed by the voice of Judith, the other carer.
‘Don’t worry, Winnie,’ we hear her say in an earnest voice. ‘Douglas can’t come because he collapsed at the breakfast table, banged his head on the wall, went unconscious and we had to lie him on the floor. I think it’s serious. The paramedics are with him now.’
‘Daddy! Oh Daddy!’
Before I can say anything, Janice turns to me and puts the cardboard list of numbers into my hand, then frowns and takes it straight back to cross something out. Frank’s smile is as open as a hockey mask.

‘Janice, love. Tell us what’s happened here, will you?’

‘Oh. Yes. Well – we were in as usual for our morning set-to with Winnie. She’s got quite bad dementia, and poor Douglas here is the main carer. She’s pretty bad, as you can hear. I don’t know how he copes.’ Then to Douglas: ‘I don’t know how you cope, Douglas.’
‘But Janice. To the job in hand.’
‘Yes, yes. Well – Winnie has been a lot angrier today for some reason. Don’t know why. Sometimes she’s worse than others. The nature of the beast, I suppose. So we were wanting to put her teeth in ready for breakfast, and she was having none of it. Honestly, there’s two of us and it’s often more than we can cope with. Poor old Douglas, I don’t know how he manages.’
‘Let’s focus on Douglas, shall we?’
‘So we were having this fight over Winnie’s teeth…’
‘Janice – how did Douglas end up on the floor.’
‘Your people told us to put him there.’
‘What happened just before?’
‘I was coming to that. We got Winnie’s teeth in – finally – although once they’re in you’ve got to watch she doesn’t take a chunk out of your arm. So then I came in to make a cup of tea and help Douglas get the breakfast things ready. Didn’t I Douglas?’

Douglas adjusts the quilt around his neck. He seems to have got used to the idea of life on the floor. He gives us a tired smile; I half expect him to ask us to put the light out.
‘Winnie started carrying on like she is now. I think the whole thing just got too noisy and too upsetting for him. He went very gray, his eyes rolled up and he pitched head first across the table. He didn’t half bang his head on the wall. Didn’t you, Douglas?’
Janice bends down and strokes the hair away from the side of his head, a tender movement that Douglas submits to with the passivity of experience. ‘How are you feeling, poppet?’ she says.
‘Not so bad,’ says Douglas, looking up into her face with a troubled smile. Janice gleams down at him, then shoves her enormous glasses back up her nose and stares at us.
‘I’ve had these faints before,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing really wrong. There’s nothing anyone can do.’
‘Oh you!’ says Janice, giving him a proprietorial squeeze like a farmer with a champion pig. ‘You’re so uncomplaining, Douglas. Honestly. Let the paramedics do their job. Don’t worry about Winnie. You didn’t half bang your head.’
‘I’m not going to hospital, Janice’ he says. ‘I’m fine.’
Frank bends down to look him over.

From next door we hear Judith say to Winnie: ‘They’ll be rushing Douglas off to hospital in a minute, but don’t worry. We’ll make sure you’re okay.’
‘Daddy! Oh Daddy, don’t leave me!’
‘Winnie. Douglas collapsed and hurt his head. He’s got to get hospital if he’s to have a chance. Try not to worry yourself.’

As Frank takes Douglas’ blood pressure, I pull one of the pine chairs out so I can sit down and start filling in the paper work.
‘Don’t sit on that,’ says Janice, taking it from me and standing it over by the back door. ‘It’s deadly. That’s what did for Douglas. Look!’
She waggles one of the legs, which pops out of its hole.
‘It’s had it, that has,’ she says. ‘I’d put it on the fire. It’s only good for kindling.’
Douglas turns his head.
‘I’ve had it years,’ he says. ‘It only needs a bit of glue.’
The phone rings in Janice’s hand and she almost drops it.
‘Hello? Deidre? Yes – the paramedics are still working on him.’
She raises a finger into the air as if to say: hold that thought, then sticks the finger into her free ear and hurries out into the hallway.

I put the leg back into the hole and give it a tap on the floor.
‘Glue might do it,’ I say.
‘I’ve had it years,’ says Douglas.
Frank unplugs the stethoscope from his ears and flips it round his shoulders.
‘Looking good, mate. Let’s get you off this floor and see what’s what.’

We help him up. The kitchen fills with light as the sun breaks through the clouds and splashes in through the wide metal windows. Everything is brought into focus, the Sudoku book on the kitchen table, the calendar with its closely written notes, a pin board of family photos, postcards, shopping lists, and on the window ledge, a little ruined abbey in plaster of Paris with the words: souvenir of Whitby.

Janice strides back into the kitchen.

‘The paramedics are doing everything they can, Deidre. I can’t tell you more at the moment – Oh my good God! He’s up!’
Douglas smiles at her, then slowly flattens his hair back down.

‘So. A little tea, I think,’ he says.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

waiting for back-up: two

Diane staggers from side to side in front of Rough Head, his hands bunching up the sides of her grey sports top, the whale tail of her thong riding up above the waistband of her jeans.
‘Take her to hospital,’ he says over her shoulder through a tangle of greasy blond hair.
‘That’s what we’d like to do, but if she doesn’t want to go, we can’t force her.’
He gives out a frustrated kind of roar. Diane wrestles his hands away and throws herself down onto the blue sofa, grabbing whatever she can to pile on top of her head.

‘Go away! Leave me alone! I’m not going to no fucking hospital.’

‘This isn’t right, man,’ says one of the other guys. He has his hands in his pockets, as he stands at the head of the sofa staring at us. ‘This ain’t fucking right.’

I hear the lift clank open in the hallway, followed by a ‘Hello?’ from the second crew. There is a pause in the room, and I fight the urge to shout ‘Don’t come in! Turn around and run!’ but a second later two paramedics push the door aside as far as they can and peer round into the room.
‘All right, Helen. Hello Jane.’ Affecting an easy conversational tone that everything about me contradicts. I watch as Helen tightens up. Good.
‘What’s going on?’ she says.
I take a step backwards in their direction, keeping my front to Rough Head and the other guys in the room. Frank has already folded the chair back up and is retreating this way, too.
‘Diane here, twenty-five, may well have had a fit this afternoon…’ I pause, willing Helen to read the subtext quickly. The guy over by the window, furthest from the action but quicker off the mark than the others, says: ‘Hey! What do you mean may have had a fit? She definitely had a fit. You saw her. Fuck me.’

Helen raises her hand up. ‘Just a minute, sir,’ then to me: ‘Carry on.’

I mutter the word pseudo as if I’m clearing my throat, then carry on again at stage volume.
‘She seems to have made a recovery, resting on the sofa now. Obviously we’d like to take her to hospital but she’s adamant she doesn’t want to go. And as I was just explaining to these guys, we can’t just kidnap her and take her against her will.’

‘She needs to see a doctor. She’s not well,’ says the man at the sofa. His gray eyes draw a fibre optic current of discontent up from his trainers along the length of his wasted body. ‘Do your job.’
‘I’m not fucking leaving this flat!’ shouts Diane.
‘Look at this one,’ says the man by the sofa, gesturing with a jab of his chin in Helen’s direction. ‘She won’t even look at me.’ Then he levels his head. ‘Look at me,’ he says.

We really need to go, but it’s getting difficult to find a moment that won’t increase the tension and leave us more vulnerable.

In a move that feels like throwing myself out of a window, I excuse myself past Rough Head and sit down on the arm of the sofa.

‘Diane, listen to me. I want you to come to hospital, but if you say no I won’t force you. It’s your decision. I’m sure your friends here will look after you and make sure you’re okay. But you should go and see your doctor to talk about what happened. D’you think?’
She pulls more clothes over her head.

I stand up and turn to face Rough Head. He holds out his hand, so I take off my blue rubber glove to shake it. I notice he has his little finger crooked inwards – some kind of gang signal?
‘Thanks for coming, yeah?’ he says.
Frank and the others are struggling out of the flat. I follow them, conscious of the word ‘ambulance’ embroidered across my back, a glowing yellow target.

As I reach the door Rough Head holds it for me and says as I pass: ‘Have you got the time?’


Once upon a twenty years I was mugged in London. Hands in the air, knife to the throat, frisked for cash.

I had been walking to the off licence. Late in the evening, spilling with summer. Easy as a ten pound note.

But at the exact moment I walked past an alleyway on my left, a man and two teenage boys stepped out in front of me. I stopped and graciously waved them on ahead of me, but they seemed confused. The group broke right and left; the boys to the front, the man behind.

The boys turned round together.

‘Have you got the time?’
‘I’m not wearing a watch, but it must be just after nine.’
Suddenly the man was at my back with a knife across my throat. He didn’t need to ask me to raise my hands. They floated up by themselves. The two boys stepped in close and dug around in my jeans pockets, pulling out the crumpled note, my house keys, a stupid shopping list. The note they kept, the rest they dropped to the floor.
‘Give us your watch,’ shouted one of the boys.
‘I’m not wearing a watch.’
The boys stared. One of them spat on me, then they both stepped aside as the man gave me a shove in the back.
‘You go that way,’ he said. Then they ran off up the street.
I stood there and watched them go.

I saw a man walking down the other pavement. He was looking across at me.
‘I’ve been mugged,’ I said to him.
It didn’t sound like me.
I pointed up the street at the three of them, as they reached the top and turned the corner. ‘They pulled a knife.’
He shook his head and said ‘Bastards.’ But he carried on walking.


Bad things happen. You survive, you don’t. That’s it. Everything else is the luxury of revision, the paring back of experience to a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Repetition brings a kind of ease; you rehearse the meaning, what you could have done, what you did. You take what you can.

I’ve been attacked before and since, but nothing as bad as the time I stood in the street with a knife to my throat and my hands in the air. It was the utter subjection of it, the surrender of everything I was. They could have killed me, they didn’t. That’s it.


‘Have you got the time?’ says Rough Head.
And once again I’m reaching back through the years to ease my young arms back down to my sides.

‘It’s late,’ I tell him. ‘Look after her.’

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

waiting for back-up: part one

The flat is on the fourteenth floor, but it may as well be on the moon for the length of time we stand waiting for the lift. Ogden House is known to us, known to the services, known. Ogden House, a drab concrete hive stacked up on the cleared ground of forty homes, cruel Jenga school of architecture, whose guiding theory is that the power of a slum will be directly proportionate to the size of its footprint and its degree of contact with the ground. Either way, the lobby stinks.

‘If you get snowed in, I’m sure they’d have a place here for you,’ says Frank.
‘Who do I call?’

The lift clunks down, the door opens. A guy is standing at the back of a deep metal coffin. His arms are folded. He is drawn into himself, and does not look up to acknowledge us.
‘Are you coming out? Only we need to get up to the fourteenth?’
He shakes his head, and as the door starts to close again, he reaches out for the button to hold it.
‘Have you come down to meet us?’
He nods.
We step into the lift. He presses number fourteen.
‘So. We’ve been told there’s a young woman fitting up there. Is she a relative of yours?’
‘No. A friend.’
‘What’s the woman’s name?’
‘Does Diane normally have fits?’
‘No. Don’t know.’
‘Has she hurt herself?’
‘No, man.’
‘When did she start fitting?’
‘About an hour.’
‘And has she stopped at all?’
‘No. Don’t know.’
Between each question I nod and smile with as much warmth and as little edge as I can, trying to slip under the shell of his reserve, but it’s like trying to break into a safe with a wooden spoon. The last few storeys we ride in silence.

As the lift door slides open on the fourteenth, a volume of voices booms around the dark hallway.

‘Left,’ the man says.

A flat door stands partially open in the corner, a pile of tatty carpet segments with a BMX bike on top stops the door from opening all the way. We pick our way over the foothills of it, as a man with a head as nicked and rough as an old ship’s timber waves us through into the living room.

‘Come on! Come on! Fucking help her,’ he shouts.

The room is a junked heap presided over by a large TV with a game frozen on its screen, white scores jumping and flickering. A seamy double bed sprawling with clothes and quilts stands in the centre of the room, with a stained blue sofa against the near wall. There is a young woman lying on her side on the one clear patch of floor, jerking and kicking, Rough Head standing astride her trying to pick her up, three other men watching it all from the window, the TV, the sofa.

‘Let her lie on the floor,’ I tell him.
‘You take her to hospital, man. Do it!’
‘Just let her lie on the floor and ride this out for the moment. It’s okay. Come on. You have to trust us.’

Reluctantly he sets her back down. I guide her head so she doesn’t bang it on the floor; the rest of the space around her is so cluttered up her legs and arms are protected. Still, as I hold her head, it strikes me that this does not feel like a fit. There’s an element of reserve in her movement, of conscious control. It feels more like an angry pseudo fit than the real thing. I slip a SATS probe on her finger and it registers normal levels. Her colour’s good.
‘Has she had any drugs of any kind?’
‘Has she had any drugs? We’re not the police, mate. We don’t care. But we have to know how things lie so we can do the right thing.’
‘No she ain’t had no drugs, man. Fuck.’
‘Yeah, she had some al-K-hol. What’s wrong in that?’
‘I know this is distressing but if you want your friend to get better you have to try hard not to get worked up.’
The other men in the room move in closer. It becomes hard to think.
We know that a paramedic crew was also dispatched to this address as the call was given for multiple fits. They must be here soon. I’m conscious of the radio in my pocket, the little red emergency button.

‘What’s wrong with her? Why’s she doing this?’
‘We don’t know at the moment.’
‘You don’t know? What’s the point in calling you then?’

Frank manages to distract a couple of them, asking them questions, getting them to clear the doorway so we can get out. We swap a wordless look. All our efforts are now focused on getting out.

‘I know this is all a worry,’ says Frank, hauling up an armful of carpet and dumping it to the side. ‘I know you all want to help Diane. The best thing you can do is keep calm and let us do our job. Okay?’

Diane has stopped jerking. She lies still on the floor for a second, then plucks aside some strands of hair that have become stuck to her face.

‘Does Diane have a history of fits?’
‘Is she on medication for anything?’
‘She takes something for her head.’
‘What’s it called?’
‘Risperidone? And something to chill her out. Mirtazapine.’
‘Okay. Anything else?’
‘I don’t fucking know. Are you going to take her to hospital or not?’

Frank has the chair set up ready to go. Just before I kneel back down to begin rousing Diane ready for the journey, she sits up. Rough Head grabs her under the shoulders and together they stand up.

‘I’m not going to no hospital,’ she says, swaying her head from side to side in a clownish exaggeration. ‘I don’t want to be locked up again.’

‘Diane. You could do with seeing a doctor. We’re only taking you to hospital for a check up. No-one’s talking about locking anyone up.’
‘You liar. You want to lock me up. I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m twenty-five years old and I’ve been in prison twenty-five times. I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not!’

The other guys around the room had seemed to lose interest in the whole affair, draping themselves around the place again, settling like the husks of people blown across a blighted landscape and snagging on furniture. But now, suddenly, they re-animate, look up, find their shape again and rise up, moving towards us as we stand there by the door, absolutely ready to go with our bags and our chair, on the fourteenth floor, waiting for back up.

Friday, January 08, 2010

outdoor shoes

‘Just a minute,’ called out in the robotic tone of someone holding their nose.

There are so many locks and bolts on this door, I guess it would take Ms Wilkinson a full minute to open it normally. But reduced to one hand, she struggles first with the top bolt, then with the bottom bolt, the mortice lock, and finally the Yale lock in the centre.

‘He likes it secure,’ she pipes when the door is finally open, then turns to walk back along the hall. ‘Come on in.’

We follow her into the living room, an austere box dominated by an old gas fire in the centre where the fireplace used to be. The wallpaper is so heavily striped it feels like a cream and mustard downpour, ceiling to carpet. There are no pictures on any surface. A few small ceramic figures measure out the dusty wooden mantelpiece above the fire, but other than that the room is empty, except for a TV in one corner, and a three piece suite in a semi-circle opposite.

Ms Wilkinson sits herself down on one of the armchairs.

‘It’s been going on for an hour now and nothing I do makes any difference. I’m sorry to call you out, but I didn’t know what else to do.’
She holds a bunched up bloody tissue in her right hand; her left arm crooked above her head, her thumb and forefinger pinching her nose.
‘The last time this happened I had to have a nostril cauterised. Not very sexy.’

The toilet flushes upstairs.

‘My father’ll be down in a minute. He’s very old and confused, so I’m afraid if we go to hospital he’ll have to come with us. I hope he won’t be too upset when he sees you. He gets worried easily.’

Heavy footsteps to the top of the stairs.
‘Sheila? Sheila!
‘Down here, Dad.’
‘Who’s that with you?’
‘It’s the ambulance. About my nose.’
She gives us a smile, a diffident bob of her head.
‘He does get confused,’ she says.

Mr Wilkinson’s entrance is dramatically heightened by a prolonged clumping down the stairs.
‘Don’t worry. He may be ancient but he’s steady on his pins.’
When he finally makes it to the bottom and enters the room, a lick of cold air swirls in around him. He stands in the doorway, one hand on a stick and the other on the door, glaring into the room like a Dickensian schoolmaster ready to lay in to an unruly class. Except – there is a distinct lack of focus to him. His face and figure may be a caricature of patrician rage, but his eyes are fogged and helpless.

‘Are you going out?’ he says.

‘Don’t worry. You’re coming too,’ says Ms Wilkinson. And she gets up to find his outdoor shoes.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

three old presidents

Mr Samuels is as lean and wiry as any of the three Maine Coon cats that stand about the kitchen ignoring us. Great curls of wild silver hair spring out from his eyebrows, his tufted ears, and from a beard that even Blackbeard, the fiercest and least kempt of all the pirate kings, would have taken the fireworks out of and combed a little. But amongst all this exuberant display, Mr Samuels peeps out with a glittering blue warmth that makes light of his difficulties and the obvious pain he is in.

‘Great stupid that I am – I was taking the decorations down, standing up there on the table to reach the holly on the conservatory ceiling, when I lost my footing and fell off onto the concrete floor. I landed on my right shoulder and by Christ it doesn’t half hurt now. Anyway – what am I thinking? Come on in! Don’t mind the cats.’

They certainly don’t mind us. Three of them, artfully arranged around the old country kitchen, waiting to be introduced formally.

‘This is Thomas Snifferson. He’s the oldest. Rules the roost. Too cool for school. This is Theodore Snoozevelt. Smart enough to write a book. Walked in from God knows where. And last but not least, Rinsey Adams – don’t ask! Three of the most gently intelligent beasts ever to menace a chicken run. Talking of which – who's going to feed my chickens when you haul me off to the Bone Doctor?’

‘Can’t you get a neighbour to come in?’

Mr Samuels studies me for a beat.

‘Unfortunately, I am that neighbour that comes in,’ he says. Then gives a laugh as vigorous as his beard.

Rinsey Adams sits.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

which watch

En route to the hospital I hear an anguished cry from the back. The patient’s mother: Come on, Richard.

Frank shouts through the hatch to me. Respiratory arrest. But we’re only two minutes away from the hospital so he tells me to carry on driving whilst he bags him.

As I swing into the car park I give a meaningful nod backwards over my shoulder to a paramedic sipping tea in the cab of his ambulance. He jumps out to help as I back into a space, opening the door and climbing inside almost before the ambulance is stationary.

The crash team close around us as we barrel into resus.

Half an hour later Richard is tubed. Stretched out in ITU. General opinion: sepsis of the lungs. Prognosis: poor.



Doctor Hall is striding out to his car just as we pull up. He waves his keys in the air to acknowledge us – an energetic movement that rides back the sleeve of his brown corduroy jacket – then jumps in to his silver Mini and revs it up. In his multi-coloured scarf, cream chinos and expensively distressed loafers, he could be a catalogue illustration from Country Doctor Casuals. I watch him skitter up the steep drive out into the lane, then I back in to the top of it.
‘I won’t go all the way down,’ I tell him as we convene outside the winding path that lead to the front door. ‘It’s a little too steep for the ambulance.’
‘Yes. Of course. These country piles. Anyway – the business at hand. Thanks so much for coming. Here’s the thing.’

We follow him up the path through overgrown stands of bamboo and rhododendron. He gives a brief description of the incident, speaking vigorously, laying out his words right and left like an explorer with a machete.

‘Our man here Richard is forty odd, lots going on, poor chap. Latest being a spell in hospital with a liver abscess. COPD. Mitral incompetence. You name it. He says he’s had a chest infection for about a week, but this is the first time I’ve been out to have a look, I’m afraid. Out of hours prescribed antibiotics over the phone three days ago, but it’s worse than that. I haven’t got a sats probe, but you don’t really need one to tell that basically his oxygen levels are crap. I think it’s a ride to A&E for chest x-rays, TLC – ASAP, if you don’t mind, chaps.’

We arrive at the front door. Dr Hall raps twice on the star-frosted pane and we all troop inside.
‘I’ve brought reinforcements,’ he shouts up into the house, a building of steeply shadowed angles, doorways open and closed, a standing air of life lived in antique but neglected compartments.
An elderly woman shuffles into the hallway from one of these rooms. She has on a great black overcoat with a bag draped over her arm.
‘I’ve got Richard’s medications,’ she says, then: ‘Hello – I should say to begin with.’

She watches as Dr Hall leads us up a narrow staircase with an alarming turn midway.
‘Don’t envy you chaps that,’ he says. Up onto a landing, into a small bedroom and a man sitting on the edge of a sofa-bed, struggling to breathe.
Richard looks sideways and up at us; it’s as if someone had drained all the blood from his face, and then underscored each prominent eye with a black marker pen. He looks back, returning to his vigil.
‘We’ve got a chair and some oxygen for you, Richard,’ says Frank, stepping forward and touching him on the shoulder. I fit a mask together and hand it to him.
‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute,’ gasps Richard, patting either side of him, feeling under the rucked sheets, moving aside containers of red grapes, packets of crackers. ‘I don’t want to forget anything.’
‘The sooner we get you out to the ambulance and to hospital, the sooner we can start to get you better.’
‘Wait a minute.’
He shuffles along the bed away from the chair.
‘I’ve just got to change my watch.’
‘Don’t worry about that.’
‘No. I can’t take this one.’
He reaches out to the chest of drawers just beside the bed, a rickety piece of furniture covered with medication packets, tissues, cream pots – and half a dozen wrist watches, some of them with heavy link gold straps, some of them in cheap black plastic, each with its face perfectly in line with the chipped edge of the drawer top. Richard takes off his current watch with trembling fingers, places it at the end of the line, then waggles his fingers backwards and forwards over the others as he makes his selection.

‘Which one can I most afford to lose?’ he says.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


‘Can I put music on? You make me nervous. I need to relax.’
She moves as she talks, someone used to a minimum of delay between the expression of a desire and its satisfaction, skating in her stockinged feet across the blond ceramic floor to a cafĂ©-style table with a laptop, mobile phone, scattering of letters and iPod speaker dock. She moves with a petulant slouch, like a child dragging a sled full of presents it didn’t want. Slumps down on a chair, winds through the iPod, taps on Bulletproof by La Roux.
‘Just turn it down a little bit though, Mila. We need to be able to chat.’
Suddenly she seems to really see us for the first time, a slapped, darkly glittering look. After a pause, she slowly eases off the volume.
‘So. What’s happened tonight, Mila?’
‘My life is over, that’s what’s happen tonight. I’m pregnant and my shitty low-life boyfriend won’t call, won’t answer my messages on Facebook. I don’t want to live anymore.’ She picks up a pen simply to throw it down again. It skitters across the debris on the table and off across the room.

Mila has two friends from the Bi-Polar help group with her. They sit in the bedroom area of the flat, on a narrow sofa just the other side of the arch, a tidy audience of two, coats on, hands patiently folded in their laps. I half expect them to raise up points cards.

This time baby I’ll be-ee bullet proof

She rifles through the cards on the table, looking for something.
‘Where my cigarette? I need cigarette.’
One of the men jumps up.
‘I’ll go out and get some for you, Mila.’
I risk an appeal to her humanity.
‘Do you mind not smoking whilst we’re here? Only we don’t smoke, and we’ll end up stinking of fags the rest of the night.’
Another slapped look. The gothic corset she is wearing seems to shrink a size.
Who call you?’ she says.
‘We did, Mila,’ says the one still sitting down. ‘We were worried.’
‘Get me cigarette,’ she says, then turns sideways on the chair, folds one leg over the other and wraps her leopard-print jacket tightly around herself.
‘Do you want me to go out and get you some?’ Her friend stands irresolutely. If he had a cap he’d be turning it in his hands, but as it is he simply stuffs them into the pockets of his furry gilet to check for money.
He leaves. The other one adjusts his position on the sofa.
‘Mila – we were told you’d taken some pills.’
She shrugs. ‘Paracetamol.’
‘When did you take these paracetamol?’
‘How many did you take?’
‘Okay. Anything today?’
‘No. Nothing. Wine. That’s it.’
‘And how are you feeling now?’
‘How am I feeling? I’m feeling fucking shit, that’s how I’m feeling. My low-life boyfriend make me pregnant and now he not have anything to do with me. I want to kill myself. That’s how I’m feeling. Who call you, anyway?’
‘Your friends.’
She looks through to the man sitting on the sofa. He smiles and nods. She sighs and looks back again.
‘I would show you pregnant stick, but one of the symptoms of the Bi Polar is hiding stuff away.’
The stick is just behind the open laptop. I hand it to Mila.
She holds it up to her face to scrutinise the line, then flourishes it in the air like a tiny flag – ‘Yay!’ – then grunts, and throws the stick away in the direction of the pen.
‘I’m sick,’ she says. ‘But I’m not going to hospital.’
‘Mila – what would you do tonight if we weren’t here?’
‘I would find new way to kill myself.’
‘You see, hearing that makes it difficult for us to just leave you at home. It wouldn’t be right if we just went away and left you in this kind of state. I think you need someone to talk to tonight, somewhere safe.’
‘I’m not going to hospital. I’ve been there before. You wait hours and hours and hours, nothing happens, you go home. It’s pointless.’
Suddenly there is a rush of freezing night air down the corridor, a slamming door, and the other friend hurries in.
‘I’ve got the cigarettes, Mila,’ he says breathlessly, handing her a pack of menthol.
She stands up and shucks off the jacket.
Looking at her standing there, I find it hard to imagine the help group meeting. What would their reaction be to someone in a black sequin corset and gold lame hot pants?
‘It’s cold out, Mila. Are you going to put some trousers on before we go.’
‘What you mean? These are trouser.’
And she stares at me as she slowly unwinds the polythene from the packet of cigarettes.

Friday, January 01, 2010

beneath the bears

The traffic is backed up all the way to Heavenport, a necklace of red brake lights strung along the exposed coast road.
Rae checks the address in the map book.
‘This is one of those out-of-the-way bungalows over to the East.’
‘Deliverance country.’
‘We might need the four by four.’

Fewer cars coming than going. A tidal thing, this passage of metal east to west, west to east, its movement along the cliff top as predictable as the rising and falling of the sea two hundred feet below us.
I force another set of headlights into the bus lane. I fly at them, a howling blue devil.
‘You’d think that white line was a wall.’

The computer bleeps again.
‘Police on scene. Cat A. Sounds like something.’
The ambulance veers across the road, her square bulk exposed to the strong off-sea winds.
‘It’s horrible out there.’

The town marker for Heavenport rears up out of the darkness, a wreathed copper globe on a white plinth, a marker not just of the town’s limit, but of the grandiose ambitions the early developers had for something new. Pre-war the town was a frontier knock-up, rough shacks on rough tracks; but now, a hundred years later, the tarmac roads are as smooth as anywhere else, a well-lit, low-fat spread of mini-markets and salons, lain out in an orderly grid just north of the cliffs, Dunroamin, Dunworkin, Shangrila.

But the incident we are headed to – an elderly woman collapsed, found by police – is in that part of Heavenport that still has unmetalled roads, generators in outhouses. The satnav starts to offer up strange and contradictory routes, so we switch to the map book. As the roads run out we find ourselves at the top of a long, dark path heading down into oblivion.
‘This is definitely it.’
‘What d’you think about the four by four?’
‘Fuck it – let’s see.’

The ambulance dips alarmingly, lurching in and out of potholes, and then almost grounds out as the path levels suddenly at the bottom. There is a sharp turn to the right, and now in the distance we can see a pattern of lights – headlights, windows. Closer to them, we make out a police car, and people standing around a few other vehicles further up. I wind down the window as we draw level to a policewoman.
‘She’s in there. A friend of hers couldn’t get an answer, so we came and broke in. She’s not too good, but you’ll see. Watch your step. It’s dark and – well – cluttered.’
She points with a torch across a rotten slew of mud to a wrought iron fence set in a hedge. Through the fence, down an overgrown path into the hallway of the bungalow.

Everything feels close in and dirty. The hallway, a mean stretch of yellowing corridor with a finger of clearance left and right, leads us on more in the manner of a peristaltic squeeze than a progression through someone’s living space. The air has a saturated feel, powdering wood, spotted paper, sweet, damp wool.

Into the dining room, and two neighbours nod from their point of vantage, standing side by side over the other side of a sofa. The one is so thin and the other so fat it’s like they’re opposite ends of a deflating balloon.
‘Will she be all right?’ says the thin one.
‘We haven’t seen her yet,’ says Rae. ‘So we can’t really say.’
‘She’ll be all right,’ says the fat one, hugging herself. ‘She’s a fighter.’
A policeman steps in from a door to their left and waves us over to him.
‘Through here chaps – chapesses.’
Incredibly, the space get smaller. The policeman, a blond man as energised as the house is dismal, backs into an unspeakable bathroom to let us through to the bedroom.
‘Your community whatsit’s in there with Esmie. We kicked the door down, got her off the floor, so you’re all right there. Down for about sixteen hours, they reckon. Over to you. Shout when you need me.’

Derek, the community responder, is standing by the side of the bed and the body of an elderly woman lying prone, inert, her left leg drawn up, her left arm draped over the edge of the bed, an oxygen mask obscuring her face.
‘This is Esmie,’ he says.
As he describes her condition I glance round the room. What I first took in the shadows overhead to be a monstrous fungal bloom is actually a mass of ancient teddy bears, welded to the shelves over time.
Rae changes places with Derek. We shake blue gloved-hands. Happy New Year, and the rest. He asks about the girls, I ask about his wife’s line dancing injury. A moment of warmth beneath the bears.
‘Chair, incos, blankets,’ says Rae.
We hurry off to get them, working together to do our best to clear a path back through the house.
‘Apparently she doesn’t go anywhere without her bag,’ says the policeman, following us into the sitting room. He swings it over to me. It’s so solid and heavy I look inside: packed out with utility bills.

The neighbours are standing where we left them.
‘You’ll have a job getting her out,’ the thin one says. ‘Ordinarily she’d tell you what for.’
‘Ordinarily – I’d let her,’ says Derek.

We clear a path.