Wednesday, June 30, 2010

strawberry wedge

Marion is wedged tight, utterly filling the narrow concrete space, like a character balloon inflated to fit a shoebox.
‘I’ve made a right fool of myself,’ she gasps. ‘I’ve ruined your strawberries, Geoff.’
‘Never mind about the strawberries.’
Geoff is standing next to me, a big man himself, sweating in a plaid shirt. ‘We’ve tried everything but we ran out of ideas,’ he says.
Behind us on the unlit patio, the other party guests carry on drinking and smoking at a picnic table as if nothing of any note is happening. I feel like a magician in a downbeat club, his flashiest trick – freeing the lady from the box – falling flat. No one’s the least bit interested.
‘How long’s she been down there?’
‘About half an hour. We gave her a drink.’
I run the flashlight over her again.
Marion has fallen backwards into an unguarded light well – a narrow concrete box about a foot wide, three deep, five long. Her knees are crooked up and her arms pushed forwards at the shoulder. The only injury she appears to have is a sprained wrist, but that’s the least of her worries.
Frank shakes his head. ‘Let’s get another crew along,’ he says.
Whilst we wait for them to arrive, I climb down into the tiny space available at the head end, and explore the problem from close up.
‘I need to pee’ she says. ‘That’s where I was headed when I fell in.’
‘We’ll soon have you out,’ I say to her, but it’s not going to be easy.
I unhook a hanging basket of strawberries swinging from an ornate iron bracket over our heads.
‘I’m lying on the other one,’ she says. ‘Sorry Geoff.’
‘Never mind about that,’ he says. ‘I can grow more strawberries.’
Someone laughs in the group around the patio table, but I think it’s unconnected. Cigarette smoke drifts across. The night is tall and cool above us. ‘Good job you landed face up,’ I say to her. ‘Could be worse.’
‘Could be worse,’ she says, bug-eyed, her face congested in the flashlight. ‘Can’t think how, but I’m sure you’re right.’
Frank reappears with a big grey bag full of manual handling equipment. He takes out the Mangar Elk – an inflatable mattress designed to lift heavy people off the floor. I slide it as far as I can under her back, and we inflate a few layers. It helps raise her up a bit, but not enough to get her out, and the confined space stops it inflating any more. Frank produces a lifting belt around her waist, and we’re struggling to fit it into position just as the second crew arrives. It breaks when we all grab hold and pull.
‘Much more of this and we’ll have to get the Brigade in,’ says Frank.
‘What will they do?’ asks Geoff.
‘Smash up the concrete with jack hammers I should think.’
‘Are there any more crisps or have we run out?’ someone shouts over from the picnic table.

Frank produces a couple of detachable seat belts from the lifting bag. We slip them around her shoulders and hips, then tie off the loose ends down her middle, an arrangement that makes her look like a big punnet of fruit with an orange handle. But even with this we can’t get her up; the flesh of her sides and hips is pressed against the rough plaster of the box and won’t let her up.
‘Let’s get the brigade running,’ I say to Frank. ‘We can try with the sliding sheets whilst we’re waiting.’
He makes the call, then fetches out a sliding sheet. Between us we tuck it as best we can between Marion and the wall. When we’ve all got a good hold and our feet in position, we haul on the orange belts. She lets out an enormous fart.
‘Sorry!’ she says.
‘Well I think it made a bit of room,’ I say – and she does rise up an inch or two more. But there’s still just too much friction between her sides and the wall, so we relax her back down again.
‘Let’s try stuffing the sliding sheet down both sides. If that doesn’t work, the brigade’ll have to tear the place up.’
Geoff blanches.
‘In a controlled way,’ I tell him.
‘Let’s get her legs up and lying on the edge of the wall first. She can’t weight bear, so we may as well.’
I manage to pull her legs up and out. Marion moans; I ask her if she’s okay.
‘I just feel such a fool,’ she says. ‘And I’ve ruined your strawberries, Geoff.’
‘Are you sure you didn’t bang your head?’ I ask her.
‘Positive. The only thing I’ve hurt is my wrist and my dignity.’
We rearrange the sheets again, then take a fresh grip and count down to the final effort. Just as the fire brigade are coming through the house, we haul Marion out of the well and up onto the patio flagstones, where she lies panting and swearing.
‘Everything all right then, chaps?’ says the fire officer.
‘Yep. Just managed to get her out.’
He looks down at the hole and frowns.
‘Oh dear. Doesn’t look all that safe. You should really have that covered. Someone could have an accident.’
Geoff slaps him on the shoulder. ‘I’ll see to it in the morning.’

We help Marion into a sitting position. One of her friends hands her down a cigarette.
‘Can I have this?’ she says, already puffing away.
‘I think you’ve earned it.’
‘I bet you all think I’m a right fool.’
‘I’m the fool,’ says Geoff, wiping his face with a handkerchief. ‘All those hunky firemen and I didn’t get a single number.’

Monday, June 28, 2010

sirens or seagulls

The church has been converted into a hostel for the homeless. The old, iron banded oak doors stand open, but the security doors at the far end of the lobby are controlled by staff from behind a Plexiglas control room. We’re buzzed through. A young female warden with a radio shows us up a wide steel staircase that leads up a couple of turns to the first mezzanine floor and its living quarters. But there is another female warden kneeling on the floor on that landing, beside the supine figure of a man. The bottom part of the central stained glass window of the church rises up beyond them; behind a dirty grill, crapped up, barely distinguishable, a huddle of angels looking up with dread towards the next steel joist.
‘Nick has had a lot to drink. He suffers from psychotic episodes, which the drink only makes worse, obviously. We were escorting him off the premises because he’d been aggressive to some of the other residents, and he fell down a couple of steps and landed with a bit of a thump. We just wanted you to reassure us he was all right, really. I think he is, but there you are. We’ve called the police but we’ve no idea when they’ll get here. Could you find out for us?’
Frank radios control whilst I check Nick over. He opens his eyes to look at me. He’s obviously drunk, but seems oriented and doesn’t have any obvious injuries. He hasn’t fallen far, and I’m not about to try to restrain a drunk psychotic patient on a back board. He sits up of his own accord, then pulls himself up to full height.
‘Take it easy, Nick.’
I move the bag and board off to one side, out of the way.
‘What are you doing?’
‘We’re just checking to make sure you’re all right, mate. You had a bit of a fall.’
‘I want to go to my room.’
The second warden puts her hand on his shoulder.
‘You can’t go back, Nick. You’re going to have to leave for the night. You know why.’
‘No. Why?’
‘We’ve been through all this.’
He looks around him with low-lidded vacancy. He’s wearing a denim cut off jacket but no shirt; his skin is covered with crude tattoos pricked out in blue black ink. Dragons, skulls – and the word GOD, with the O centred on his belly button.
‘I want to go to sleep. I want to go back to my room.
‘Why don’t you come with us to the hospital so someone can keep an eye on you, Nick?’
‘I don’t want no fuckin’ hospital.’
‘Okay mate.’
‘The police haven’t got any units to assign just yet,’ says Frank. ‘They’ll update us as soon as they can.’
The second woman looks at me.
‘What do you think? Do you think he’s all right? He went down with a crash, but he didn’t knock himself out or anything.’
‘I would think he’s probably okay, but I can’t say for sure because of the drink.’
‘We’ve got to have him out, I’m afraid.’
Nick turns slowly to look at her.
‘You throwing me out?’
‘Not throwing you out, Nick. You just can’t stay here tonight. You know why.’
‘You throwing me out?’
‘Tonight, yes.’
‘I have to go back and get my fags.’
‘You can’t go back to your room, Nick. I’ll get your fags for you if you go with these gentlemen down to the lobby. I’ll fetch your fags.’
‘I want my fags.’
‘We’ll get your fags. Just go with these kind people.
Frank steps in.
‘I’ll give you one of mine outside and we can have a smoke. Come on. Let’s go.’
Nick turns to walk down the stairs. I’m by his left side, with Frank and the two wardens going ahead. I hand one of them the board and bag. ‘Hold these for us, would you?’ I say.
Two steps down and Nick suddenly climbs up onto the railings and tries to launch himself down the stairwell. I just manage to grab the lapel of his waistcoat – enough to slow him up and for Frank to reach over and grab the belt of his jeans. We have him suspended over the drop, twenty feet down onto the tiled lobby below. Nick whips and turns, trying to free our grip, reaching out beyond himself and grabbing on to the railings the other side of the drop; he tries to pull himself out of our control, and then go. But with my other hand I manage to loosen his grip, and then with one main effort we haul him back over the railings and down onto the stairs. As soon as he lands he starts trying to get up, to punch Frank, kicking and writhing, but I’ve still got hold of his top half and block off his swing so he can’t connect; Frank kneels on his side and finally we manage to close down his options. We’re all sweating, and breathing hard.
‘Could you get the radio out of my pocket?’ Frank asks me. I alter my grip enough to free a hand up to do that. Frank makes a Code 20 emergency call.
‘Police back up urgently, please.’
One of the female wardens is sobbing in a corner of the staircase. The other one speaks to her and she runs off to the office.
‘Are you guys okay?’ she says to us.
‘Yep. We’re fine.’
‘My god.’
Nick lies beneath us breathing heavily. Then he slows down and starts to talk.
‘I’m a freak. I’m not afraid to die,’ he says. ‘I’m a freak and I’m going to find out where you live. I’m going to put you in so much pain. I’m going to put you in pain you wouldn’t believe, and then I’m going to kill you. Are you afraid to die, my friend? You will be.’
I try to counter his aggression with banality.
‘Dear oh dear,’ I say to him. ‘I think that’s a bit of an over-reaction? We’re only here to help, Nick. I think you’re being a bit silly.’
‘Silly?’ he says. ‘You’re silly, you cunt. You’re silly and I’m going to kill you.’
The remaining warden says: ‘I can hear sirens.’
We all listen.
‘Sirens – or seagulls,’ I say.
‘Don’t’ she says.
But it is sirens. A minute later two police officers come running up the staircase. Frank briefs them, and they take over control of Nick with brutal efficiency. When Nick is safely cuffed and trussed, we help them haul him down the stairs.


Outside in the street, we watch the van arrive and Nick get loaded up. Frank smokes his fag. The moon is full and bright in the sky.
‘So where are all these football jobs then?’ I say, arching my back, stretching my arms left and right.
Frank spits into the gutter.
‘They’re all too fucking depressed to be any trouble,’ he says.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

a triple alignment

2010. Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere, six days past Summer solstice, 23° 26', the point of maximum inclination of the earth’s rotational axis towards the sun. The nights will lengthen, the days shorten. There will be a full moon on Sunday 27th June.

2010. FIFA World Cup. England will qualify as Group C runners up for the last 16. Through to the knockout stage, they will play Germany at the Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein at 3pm, Sunday 27th June.

2010. A weather system of high pressure will settle over the south, leading to a continuation and intensification of unusually high temperatures for the time of year. The hottest night of the year - light winds, clear skies - will be on Sunday 27th June.

Moon. Match. Mugginess: a triple alignment.

Working a night shift. [Holy crap]

Thursday, June 24, 2010


The house door is held open by an iron cat. We ring the bell and hear something like a rusty shop bell clattering deep within.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
Frank pushes the door open a little further.
‘Someone’s not paid the bill.’
A long and narrow hallway leads off ahead of us, utterly dark, what little light there is from the street lamps unable to penetrate the dense gloom further than the threshold.
Frank fumbles around on the wall to his right trying to locate a switch. Suddenly a voice from the end of the corridor: ‘Hey guys. Come on in.’
There’s something coolly settled about the voice, like a birdwatcher speaking in a hide. Frank finds a switch and an overhead bulb snicks on, lighting up a tall man standing at the far end hugging a carrier bag of possessions to his chest. The man seems momentarily stunned, then says: ‘Did you guys want to come in and chat, or are you fixing to go straight off?’
‘Well seeing as you’re on your feet, let’s just go out to the vehicle.’
‘Sure. No problem.’ As he turns to lock his door we both go back outside.
‘Yeah – like I’m going down for a chat in there,’ says Frank to me out of the corner of his mouth.
‘Champagne service,’ the man says loudly, suddenly right behind us. He strides on ahead to the ambulance.
‘Right,’ says Frank.


Even though the man is sitting down, his long frame fills the ambulance to such an extent it seems to tip in his direction. He is wearing a knitted black suit and patterned blue shirt, with an expression on his face as heavy as his clothes: his widely-spaced brown eyes are strangely flattened out, and there is a slack fall to the cheeks beneath them, a smooth drop, livid as wet clay.
I offer to take his bag, but he grips on to it.
‘No. Thanks. I’m good with that.’
‘So,’ says Frank, sitting down on the trolley. ‘We haven’t been told very much.’
‘What’s to tell? Unless you know more’n you’re letting on – which wouldn’t surprise me. Do you?’
‘No. We were just told breathing problems?’
‘Breathing problems? No. That’s not it at all. Breathing problems? Why would they say that? Jeez. Now you really do have me worried.’
‘Never mind. Just tell us why we’re here tonight.’
‘I bet you’re thinking – damned Yankee! I wouldn’t blame you. But I’ve been here a while, just never lost the accent. So I s’pose I must qualify for something or other. I married a Brit, but she left me. I guess she had her reasons, nothing no rational person could identify.’
‘How are you in yourself?’
‘Me? Good. I’m good. Excepting for this damned infection I can’t seem to get on top of. I was in hospital with it, discharged, but now it looks like it’s flaring up again.’
‘And that’s why we’re here? You have an infection somewhere?’
‘That’s why you’re here, sir.’
He looks at us.
‘I don’t want to be a nuisance,’ he says.


At the hospital he ducks quickly out of the ambulance like a marine sprinting out of a helicopter.
‘I gotta have a cigarette before I go in that place,’ he says, pulling a pack out of his jacket and shaking it. ‘You guys don’t mind, d’you?’
‘I’ll go on in and book you in.’
‘Thanks, man.’
He sparks up, and leaves the cigarette in his mouth as we talk. It bobs up and down at the corner of his lips.
‘So why were you sitting in the dark?’ I ask him.
‘Why was I sitting in the dark? Because I wanted to see that no-good son-of-a-bitch landlord if he came in. I wanted to have the drop on him.’
‘Why? What’s going on?’
‘Nothing. He’s crazy, s’all. He tried to have me killed.’
‘When I first move in I pass him and his girlfriend in the hall. So I was nice and polite, say hi and how’re ya, looking straight at her – and there’s my mistake right there. Turns out he’s jealous. Next thing I know, he’s hiring three guys to whack me in the pub. But I’m pretty handy. I went to him next day and say “Hey, fella. What’s going on? What were you thinking?” Of course he said nothing, being a rather yellow livered individ’al. But from then on he’s been up to stuff.’
‘What like?’
‘Banging on the walls, constantly. All through the night.’
‘Can’t you move?’
He looks at me, takes the fag out of his mouth and spits off to the side.
‘Where?’ he says.

Silence. The A&E parking lot is filled with vehicles, but strangely there’s no-one about. It feels eerie, as if people have abandoned everything in a hurry.

‘Yeah,’ he continues. ‘My wife left me. I tried to find out why but there’s a point where logic and emotion separate. And you know what? I think there’s a whole area for research that’s being neglected because it ain’t PC and it don’t make for comfortable reading.’
‘What’s that, then?’
‘The effect of hormonal imbalances on the female psyche. I’ve done some work on it myself, but you meet the same, stonewalling attitudes. I rang up this female neurologist. As soon as I started to ask about the effect of oestrogen on a woman’s ability to think rationally, she hung up on me. It’s obvious, but you’re just not allowed to even think it. Women are making bad decisions day in day out for no other reason than their hormones are up the shit, but nothing’s done about it, families suffer, marriages break down, all for what?’
Frank saunters over.
‘All booked in,’ he says. ‘Finished your cigarette?’
The man drops it and grinds it out beneath is boot.
‘Breathing difficulties!’ he laughs. ‘Well I reckon the smoking’s fixed that.’

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

how do I look?

The scaffolders have taken their shirts off. The younger one has a smooth, wiry body, and the few tattoos he has up either arm look as fresh and unconvincing as stickers. The two older guys are tried and tougher versions, though. They parade the area of pavement between the truck and the building, great urban silverbacks, territorial grunts and shouts, low-slung bellies on lower-slung jeans, slopping the dregs of their tea into the gutter whilst scrappy England flags snap against the blue sky on poles stuck up behind the cab.
‘Oi oi! Here comes the cavalry!’ they shout as we walk towards the door with our bags. One of the bigger guys grabs the smaller one round the neck and rubs the top of his head with his knuckles. ‘Take him. He’s useless. I think his brain’s gone off in the heat.’
There’s a tray of tea things left on the little stone steps outside the house, china cups on a dark wooden tray, a stainless steel tea pot.
‘Where are our biscuits?’ Frank says back to them as I ring the buzzer.
‘Fackin’ hob nobs, mate. We scarfed the lot.’
Frank shakes his head.
‘You’re gonna need a bigger ladder.’

The tall Regency house rises up behind the scaffolding like an old weathered cake on a seaside theme, a lighthouse set against a cliff of butter cream. The central frontage is a delicate semi-circle, each floor marked with a sash window, the whole building more attractive for the battered face it presents. It looks like a well-loved toy; if the scaffolding was taken away, you could imagine a giant hand unclipping the front, swinging it out, and reaching in to arrange the furniture.

We’re buzzed through.

Inside the hallway a serpentine staircase rises up steeply through the core of the building, a dizzying six storeys, to a skylight visible through the centre, a bright cupola of glass and iron and the segmented sky beyond.

We begin the ascent.

Half way up we hear a woman calling down to us.
‘Keep coming. Don’t give up. Almost there.’

Diana is waiting for us on the top landing. A small, square woman in her eighties, she seems as well put together as the house, a formidable pastel construction, the light pink of her lipstick matching the darker pink of her skirt, her arms folded across a lavender silk chemise, her white hair tightly coiffed like a mother of pearl hat, each earlobe clipped with an ivory button.
‘The silly old fool’s through here,’ she says, turning. ‘He bished his head on the wall.’

We follow her into the flat.

Stanley is sitting on an Ottoman with a bloody tea towel tied around his forehead.
‘Are they here, darling?’ he says, turning his head awkwardly and seeing nothing. ‘Are they here?’
‘Hello, Stanley. We hear you’ve had a bit of a fall. Try not to move until we’ve had a look at you.’
He has a faded military bluster. Prominently displayed on a shelf behind him is a portrait of a man in uniform, straight-backed and serious with a young family beneath the protective wing of his outstretched arm. Time has moved on from that formal arrangement, effecting its usual blessings and depredations, but one thing that hasn’t changed over much is the moustache. Sixty years and still twitching, a bristling little Captain’s nose brush, ready for action.

Whilst I clean and dress the cut over his eye, Frank sits on the edge of a tasselled foot stool and asks him to tell us what happened.

‘This damned slipper,’ he says, stamping his right foot. ‘It tried to kill me.’
‘Darling. Please.’
‘Well honestly. It’s the stupidest thing. I was getting up to go to the lavatory when this damned slipper..’
‘Well it is! And I give you fair warning, this wretched article is headed straight for the bin. Followed by me, no doubt.’
‘I don’t think it’s that serious.’
‘No? Then why can’t I see out of my left eye?’
‘Because the tea towel has fallen down over it. There. Better?’
‘Oh. Right. Anyway. This damned slipper. It’s been waiting its moment for years and now this. Pitched me head first into a wall. Darling, did I damage anything?’
‘Your head do you mean?’
‘No. The wall.’
‘Darling there’s just the teensiest smudge of awfulness there but I can clean that up. It’s you we’re worried about.’
‘Me? You needn’t worry about me. Tough as old Harry.’

The living room has a studied air, discretely hung with framed prints and paintings of Georgian ladies strolling along the promenade; barges on the Thames; elongated horsemen riding to hounds; decorous skirmishes on the Hindu Kush. Tastefully arranged ceramic pigs ranked in strict height order to a tall floral lampshade and a bronze St George apparently pole vaulting over a dragon.

‘Are we done?’ he says, impatiently bobbing his head. ‘How do I look?’
‘You look an absolute fright,’ his wife tells him. ‘Now be quiet, darling. I have to phone and cancel my appointment with Dr Nick Nack or whatever he’s called.’
She hangs on the phone, playing with the white lead and tutting as she makes it through each of the automated options.
‘Really!’ she mutters. ‘I simply want to be connected.’

Stanley has to go in to have the cut above his eye properly cleaned and glued.
‘Will you be okay on the stairs?’
‘If I can hold on to you I’ll be fine,’ he says. ‘Lead on.’

At the top of the stairs he grips the banister and builds himself up for the descent. I stand in front of him, ready to walk down backwards and play catch if necessary, with Frank on his left holding on to his arm. We’re all set to go when Stanley suddenly shouts ‘Kelly! Kelly!’ as loud as he can down the stair well. Diana comes rushing out.
‘What on earth are you doing? You’ll have the whole building out. Be quiet!’ she says.
Stanley turns to look as far as he can over his shoulder.
‘I just wanted Kelly to see me in all these bandages,’ he says.
‘Oh darling,’ Diane says. ‘Do you really think she’s interested?’
‘Who’s Kelly?’ I ask him.
‘Kelly! The other love of my life.’
‘Come on, Casanova,’ says Frank. ‘One step at a time. Down we go.’

Friday, June 11, 2010

henry upstairs

The additional notes to the job are succinct: man, hates himself. We see a police car outside the entrance to the flats, so there’s no need asking for anything else. I park up behind it, slowing to a crawl to allow for the crowds of lunchtime shoppers to make room. We jump out and ring the intercom.
‘Has someone been murdered?’ asks the owner of the shop next door.
I shrug and smile. We’re buzzed through.

Dove Court has an out of time feel. The arcade of shops beneath the Thirties flats must once have been smart haberdasheries, milliners, gentleman’s outfitters. But those high end businesses have been superseded by charity shops, gift shops, everything under a pound shops, the arcade’s former glories detectable only in faint architectural traces – a fan of leaded glass there above a doorway, the elaborate black and white mosaic beneath our feet.

The lobby to Dove Court is protected by a substantial oak door. It has a besieged look, battered and scoured by the intervening years. There is an automatic closure arm above it, a mechanism so fierce it only allows us the minimum of width or time before it slams shut again.

In contrast to the bright high street, the lobby is cool and shadowed. There is a rounded oak desk to our left, but the last concierge must have palmed his last threepence fifty years ago. Now the office behind it is boarded up, and the counter littered with uncollected post. There is a cakey scent to the air, a spidery-footed mustiness that would have even the most negligent surveyor reaching for his damp meter. But at least the lift works. We head up to the fourth floor.

Incredibly, the first and second floors seem to be given over to offices – a furtive little import/export business, a herbalist with a human figure covered in arcane symbols and a name scrawled in thick green ink. The lift passes on up and then judders to a halt. We are confronted by an elegant wooden board with gilt arrows pointing left and right. The flat we need has no number but we could guess which one it is; the pane of glass in the front door has been put in and replaced by a rough piece of plywood; the lock edge of the door has recently been reinforced.

We knock once and step inside.

The tacky grab beneath our boots confirms what our noses already tell us: this is a filthy place. The carpet, such as it is, has a patchwork flowering of puce, brown and black stains; bin bags spilling with rubbish are placed here and there, clouds of flies bustling up as we pick our way around them; empty bottles of vodka are interspersed with two litre plastic milk cartons filled with urine; there is a half eaten plate of macaroni on the floor beneath the computer table, so dreadful even the flies seem to be erring on the side of caution.

A long, thin man in a shiny grey nylon shirt is sitting up on a camp bed. He pushes his filthy glasses back up his nose and smiles at us, a ghastly expression, involving a dropping of his scrubby white jaw and a generalised exposure of a rack of glistening teeth. A police officer is standing with his hands tucked inside his stab vest, looking at him. The contrast between the two is profound: the man, in a state of utter degradation, the police officer, fit and sharp and powerful. We nod and say hello to them both.

‘Guys, this is Henry. I’ve only just got here myself so I can’t tell you much. We got a call to a possible suicide, not sure where it originated. Your man Henry obviously has a few problems at the moment – I’ll leave you to get some more information whilst I just go over here – and open… this… window.’

We need to work quickly – for our benefit, not the patient. It doesn’t seem as if Henry has taken an overdose or hurt himself in any way, but he obviously can’t stay here.
Henry puts his hands together in an attitude of prayer.
‘Please help me,’ he says. ‘I’ve reached rock bottom.’
Rae sends me back down to the ambulance to get a chair.

I’m as quick as I can be. Back at the front door I try the ambulance trick of taking off my gloves and using them to stop the door closing, but the robotic arm is so fierce it spits them straight out onto the pavement. It’s just started to rain and the air is wonderfully clear and fresh. I look out for the inquisitive shop keeper, but he’s gone back inside. The crowds along the street are busy and bright and full of the affairs of the morning. The contrast is dizzying - the shoppers on one level, the destitute man on another, living in close proximity but as removed from each other as two entirely distinct species.

I troop back upstairs with the chair. Henry throws his arms and legs about in a panic about leaving his bed. It takes some firm persuasion and tactical manoeuvring to get him into the chair whilst maintaining minimal contact. Once he’s on board we wrap the blanket around him. We leave enough to make a little hood – ostensibly to guard against the rain, but in reality to put something between me and his fetid hair.

‘Bit of a fly problem you have here,’ I say as Rae straps him in.
‘I know,’ he says, struggling to free his arms. ‘It’s those bloody foreigners.’

The police officer shakes his head grimly, and holds the door.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

strictly for the horses

Emil is waiting outside the house as we pull up. He sprints round to the back of the ambulance as we park; by the time I make it round there, he has the door open and is busy packing himself up into a tidy bundle.
‘I’m not as bad as I was,’ he says, gripping on to the arm rests, scrunched up on the seat with all the ease of a daddy long legs hiding in a matchbox. ‘I couldn’t get my breath, but I had a cigarette and that took the edge off it.’
‘So,’ I say, settling down opposite him on the stretcher, Rae standing by the ECG and BP machine, unfurling the cuff and probe. ‘Tell us all about it.’
‘I’ll be honest with you, yeah? I did a line of Ketamine. I’ve done it before, I’ve done it a thousand times. I’m getting help for it. It’s nothing.’
‘What’s different today?’
He licks his lips and his focus scatters around the inside of the vehicle. After a while it comes back down into him, and he reabsorbs it, and carries on.
‘So. Oh. Yeah. I snorted the gear, lay down and drifted off. But then Gary came in and asked if I wanted anything to drink, and I said yeah okay, so he got me some tea, and when I went to drink, my throat had gone all weird and I couldn’t swallow. So then I got a bit panicky, and Gary kept asking me if I was all right, which made me worse, and then my face went all numb, and I proper freaked out, and called you guys. And I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time.’
‘Don’t worry about that, Emil. Just tell me – have you had an anxiety attack before?’
‘Yeah. Anxiety. Yeah.’
Rae reads out the BP and SATS results. As I write them down I say to him:
‘A bit ironic, isn’t it?’
‘What is?’
‘You take Ketamine. A hard core tranquiliser. And you get an anxiety attack.’
He stares at me, his eyes fat with chemical, then after a pause that lasts about a hundred years, he says very carefully:
‘No. Ketamine is a dissociative anaesthetic.’

Thursday, June 03, 2010

early morning speechless


The teenage girl is down on all fours on the pavement outside the pub, a look of anguish on her face, her long hair hanging perilously close to the splatterings of vomit beneath her; she looks like William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, but given a Miley Cyrus makeover: fluorescent yellow micro-skirt, crop top and – in the hands of her boyfriend – a spangly bag.
‘The taxi won’t take her,’ he says, swinging the bag like a lure and casting his eyes up and down the street. ‘We’ve been here an hour.’
Suddenly a woman appears at my shoulder.
‘Just look at you,’ she says, her tone surprisingly affectionate.
‘Are you a relative?’
‘You could say that. I’m the mother.’
‘Do you know what’s been going on?’
‘I know exactly what’s been going on. She’s had too much to drink.’
‘The problem is the taxi won’t take her in this state.’
‘She can stay with me, then.’
‘Okay. Sounds good. Where do you live?’
She jerks her thumb behind her. ‘Over the pub.’


When the grandmother has made herself comfortable on the trolley, I hand her the four month old baby.
‘I don’t think this SATS reading’s accurate,’ I tell her. ‘He doesn’t look like he’s short of oxygen. But just in case, let’s give him a little bit extra, shall we? I won’t use a mask – I don’t want to upset him any more than I have already.’
I take the tubing from the pack, uncoil it, plug one end into the oxygen spigot.
‘Okay. Good.’
The grandmother and the child watch me, equally wide-eyed.
‘Now. What I want you to do is just hold this end of the tube and waft it in front of baby’s face. Like that. Just to give him that extra little boost.’

I smile reassuringly and hand the tube to the grandmother.

She sticks it in the baby’s ear.