Wednesday, July 21, 2010

in like jack

It was the park warden who told me the pond was originally a Victorian roller skating rink. A hundred and twenty years ago there was a craze for it, apparently. The shallow concrete gradients of the rink would have resounded with the rumble of vulcanised rubber wheels and the shrieks of skaters holding on to their bonnets and dignity. But the fashion waned by the turn of the century, the rink was filled, a waterfall dropped out of the rockery at the northern end, and an island for geese and ducks set in the middle.

Now, the water is only ankle deep, thickly congested with duck weed, over there a litter bin lying half-sunk, as if it tore itself free from its mounting and threw itself in to chase the bottles and cans and crisp packets.

Jack is sitting on one of the benches that border the pond. His legs are crossed and his arms folded contemplatively across them. He smokes, poised and relaxed, and chats to a neater, younger guy standing near to him, who waves over to us. As we get closer we can see that Jack is covered from head to foot in duck weed, his old denim jacket and jeans plastered with the little green leaves.

‘So what’s the story, Jack? What happened to you?’
‘I’m fine. Honestly. I saw a duck in trouble. I went in to help it. That’s it. That’s all there is.’
The young man chips in.
‘He waded out there. I wondered what he was doing, so I called you guys. I hope that’s all right. I thought he was – you know.’
Jack smiles up at him.
‘You’re a good kid. Do you know?’
‘Did I do the right thing?’
‘Sure. So – Jack. Did you go under the water at any point?’
‘Did you hurt yourself at all?’
‘And you feel all right in yourself?’
‘Of course. Look – what would you have done? Would you have helped the duck?’
‘I don’t know. What was it doing?’
He makes a drunken mime, vaguely waving his cigarette around in front of him.
‘And how’s the duck now?’
‘It flew off.’
‘I bet.’
The kid points to the pond.
‘You can see the route he took.’
He’s right. There’s a clear, meandering track through the otherwise unbroken surface of green, right out as far as the island.
‘So what do you intend to do now, Jack?’
‘Finish this, then go home.’
‘Where do you live?’
He says his address, a homeless hostel in the middle of town. I can’t imagine what people will think when they pass him in the street, a shuffling figure covered in drying weed.
Jack taps the ash from his cigarette off to one side, and looks up at us.
‘One does what one can,’ he sniffs.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

crazy blue hand

Stepan answers the door. His eyes are hooded, and he speaks with the slurred precision of a bottle of vodka and five o’clock in the morning.
‘Come. You help me, please. Is having diabetic problem.’
With an audible effort of will Stepan turns his body – a plucked and rangy affair in the ruins of a business suit – and shuffles back through the flat into the kitchen, where a man lies slumped across a melamine table.
‘A relative of yours?’ I ask him as Rae checks the guy over.
Stepan throws himself down in the opposite chair, studies the man for a moment, then flops his head back and shakes his hair out.
‘Kevin? Oh, please! I don’t know, honey! It’s first date.’ Then he ducks his chin back down again and lowers his focus onto me. His blue eyes seem to be covered in translucent skin. ‘Do you have somebody, baby?’, he drawls.
‘1.6,’ says Rae, tossing the kit back in her opened bag. ‘Can you draw up some Glucagon?’
I prep the syringe, bunch up the flesh of Kevin’s upper arm and jab him.
Rae makes some more checks and starts filling in the form. She speaks briskly to Stepan.
‘So tell us what happened, Stepan. How long’s your friend been like this?’
But Stepan doesn’t answer the question. He continues to stare at me. After a moment he waves vaguely behind him: ‘His medication is in box on fridge.’
‘On a first date?’ I say, going over to it.
Stepan absorbs the comment, then says: ‘You wearing ring like married man. You like women, honey?’
‘Stepan, let’s concentrate on your friend for a moment, can we? He’s not at all well.’
‘I know. I call you.’
‘So when did you become concerned?’
‘He diabetic. He tell me.’
‘How much has he had to drink?’
Stepan smiles and makes a proud gesture around the flat. There are bottles standing, lying down, all over the place. Suddenly he starts pulling on an old pair of blue examination gloves.
‘Count,’ he says.
‘Why are you putting the gloves on, Stepan?’
‘Is my business.’
‘It’s peculiar.’
‘Is my business.’
‘The glucagon we gave him is a quick fix, Stepan. It won’t last long. Kevin needs something to eat to bring his blood sugar back up to scratch. Could you make him some toast, please?’
‘Yes. Yes,’ says Stepan, frowning as he struggles to get his fingers in the correct holes of the glove.
‘Like now,’ says Rae. ‘It’s important.’
‘Yes! God!’ says Stepan, still wrestling and snapping the blue rubber gloves.
‘Do you have any food in the house?’
‘Of course I have food.’
‘Your friend will need to eat when he perks up. Can you please make him some toast, or something?’
‘You don’t speak to me like this.’
He gives up trying to get the gloves on and stands up. The chair scrapes backwards and topples over, and Stepan has to grab the table to stop himself falling with it. Kevin groans and stirs.
‘Okay. This is hopeless,’ says Rae. ‘Can you get the carry chair please, Spence?’
This galvanises Stepan.
‘No! What you say? You are not to take him to hospital. I am lawyer. This is my house. You do not do this please.’
‘But Stepan. Your friend’s ill. You’re drunk and in no position to do anything to help him. He’s not safe, so we have no choice.’
‘I know law. This is my house and you leave now please.’
‘Of course. With pleasure. With Kevin.’
‘No! Look! I make toast.’
He staggers over to the fridge and throws the door open. Inside, pathetically illuminated on a plastic tray, a couple of tomatoes and a single, mummified cocktail sausage. Stepan stares at this for a moment, then slams the door shut again.
‘I go to shops.’
He struggles to push his deformed blue hands into his trouser pocket, looking for change.
‘It’s not happening, is it, Stepan? I’m afraid we’re taking Kevin with us, and that’s the end of the story.’
‘No! You leave my house now please.’
Suddenly a young woman appears in the doorway, her hair all knotted up and her Snoopy night-shirt slack with exhaustion.
‘Stepan,’ she whispers. ‘What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck is going on?’
‘Fuck you!’ he shouts.
‘No. Fuck you, Stepan. Do you know what time it is? You’re fucking crazy. You’re a madman. I want you out of this flat tomorrow. Do you understand? Jesus fucking Christ!’
‘No! Fucking Jesus Christ fucking you! I not go anywhere. You go anywhere.’
‘Fuck you, Stepan.’
‘Fuck you.’
‘Can you call for some police assistance, Spence?’
The girl turns and silently withdraws, gliding like a sleepwalker back into the deeps of the night. Kevin sits upright suddenly and starts looking around. ‘What happened?’ he says.
‘You’ve had a hypo, Kevin, and we’d like to take you to hospital.’
‘Fine. Where are my trousers?’
‘No! You not call police! I cannot have scandals. I call you to help my friend, and now he’s better you can go, please. Thank you. Go. Go on.’
‘No. Stepan. Ssh now. It’s no good. Kevin is coming with us. We’ve called for police to make sure you don’t try to get in our way.’
Stepan produces a mobile phone from somewhere and struggles to hit 999 with his fingers bunched crazily in the glove.
‘I call police to have you thrown out.’
‘Fine. They’re coming anyway.’
He throws the phone across the flat.
‘What?’ says Kevin.
‘Why are you wearing the gloves anyway?’ I ask Stepan.
He stares at me again, breathing hard. But over the next moment or two his breaths slow and even out. He manages to right the chair, and when he sits back down, he tries to pick some strands of hair away from his face with a crazy blue hand.
‘One day I tell you,’ he smiles. And then playfully, he bites the slack blue rubber tip of his thumb.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

the blue and the brown

The only person not to respond to our buzzing is the patient. His neighbours – draped out of various windows like so much washing – are more forthcoming.
‘That won’t do you any good, mate.’
‘He’s not in his flat.’
‘He’s out on the landing.’
‘As usual.’
‘Top floor, mate.’
‘Can’t miss him.’
‘But you might want to.’
One of them rouses sufficiently to duck back inside and release the door, then drifts back to the window to carry on with the vigil.
We go in.

The block is a multicoloured stack of glass and brick, each floor strangely staggered, so that the whole building has the feel of a drunken experiment in Lego. We walk to the sixth floor up a floating concrete staircase.

Mr Sylvester is leaning with both arms on the balustrade, his lips pursed in an O. In his flat cap, blazer, tie and slacks, he looks like a retired Major taking his ease on the veranda.
He makes as if to touch the rim of his cap with his index finger as we rise up level with him.
‘Hello chaps,’ he puffs. ‘Sorry to trouble you. It’s the old asthma.’
He has a brown inhaler in his hand and as if to illustrate his condition, takes a couple of ineffective toots.
‘Where’s your blue inhaler, Mr Sylvester?’
‘My whatsit?’
‘Your blue inhaler? Where’s your Ventolin?’
He looks at Rae.
‘What’s he saying?’
‘He’s asking where your blue inhaler is? Have you got one?’
‘No. I ran out.’
‘Well there’s a problem for a start.’
He stares at us for a moment, then says: ‘I suffer with asthma. It’s my asthma playing up.’
‘Let’s go inside the flat and have a chat.’
He pushes himself away from his perch and we follow him into a boxy flat so stuffed full of craft material it’s like stepping into a giant workbox: a work table whose sewing machine is stacked around with boxes of thread, bags of scrap material, tiny drawers of pins and buttons, and neatly stacked piles of books on sewing, doll making, embroidery; there are shelves and shelves of DVDs – from Pilates for beginners to Advanced Origami – with just enough room for a black cat asleep next to a book on quilt making; fat reference books, collections of craft magazines in gilt pressed binders, the history of furniture; a knitting machine with a pattern half finished, and bags and bags of yarn overflowing underneath; and then to finish the flat off, in a heaped tangle of colour, a balcony crowded to the panes with potted plants, spindly hanging baskets and trays of little green seedlings.
‘Someone’s good with their hands,’ I say.
‘I say someone’s good with their hands. Does a lot of craft.’
‘I don’t know about that. I don’t like to get involved.’
Mr Sylvester sits down in the chair that’s obviously his, a saggy, worn-bare throne with a copy of TV Quick and a half-finished pint mug of orange squash.
‘How’s your breathing?’
‘Terrible. Absolutely terrible.’
But there’s no wheeze, he has no trouble talking, and his complexion is as brown as the chair. The SATS probe reads 98 per cent.
To emphasise his plight he takes another couple of toots on the inhaler.
‘The thing is, Mr Sylvester, as I’m sure you know, there are two types of inhaler. There’s a blue one that you use when you get an acute attack. You can use it as much as you need, and it’s really good in the short term for helping you get your breath. And then there’s a brown one, which is longer-acting – good for building up your lungs over time, but not much good when you’re feeling puffed. So you really need to get yourself a repeat prescription for the blue inhaler, if you’ve run out.’
‘How am I supposed to do that, then?’
‘Do you not go out much, then?’
‘Go out?’
‘Do you go shopping?’
‘Yes. I get the bus into town.’
‘So you could make an appointment at the doctors and get yourself a repeat scrip, then?’
‘I don’t know about that.’
I give up and start taking some obs.
‘Do you live with someone?’ Rae asks him. ‘Who’s your next of kin?’
‘Next of kin? I share the house with Kathleen, if that’s what you mean. She’s not my wife. I don’t want to rock the boat. We’re happy as we are.’
‘That’s lovely. So – is Kathleen at work?’
‘Yes. She’s at work, yes. She’s a good woman. None better.’
‘Where does she work, then?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t like to pry. None of my business.’
‘Is she due back soon?’
‘That’s why I like Kathleen. She’s punctual.’
‘So when’s she due back, then?’
‘Due back? Three, four hours? I don’t know. I don’t like to ask.’
Then he reaches behind him on the mantelpiece, pulls a blue inhaler out from underneath a stack of paper that I realise is a pile of old ambulance forms, gives it a shake, and puts it in his mouth. But the thing just hisses empty. He gives it a couple more shakes, tries once more, then tosses it into a wastepaper basket.
‘That’s it. That’s the one you should be using!’ I say.

He stares at me, then slowly, without saying a word, raises up the brown again, and takes a couple more squirts of that.

Monday, July 12, 2010

the war of two belles

The flat feels like an adult space catastrophically overrun by children. On opposite walls, just out of reach, some club posters, framed rave artwork from the early nineties, and over in a corner, propped up by a computer station, a guitar and a keyboard, both in protective flight bags. But the rest of the room - it’s as if a river of toys has burst its banks and flooded the place; half-opened boxes of games, disassembled dolls, a great tidal line of brightly coloured plastic washed up on every surface when the day receded. There’s just enough clear space for Belle to sit on the edge of the sofa and cry, whilst her husband, Tom, picks through the wreckage in a hunt for tobacco.
‘I can’t do it,’ she says. ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’ Then adds almost immediately, in a strangely off-to-the-side voice, ‘Listen to her. What’s she got to moan about?’
Belle has only taken a small overdose. Six citalopram hardly counts, even with the bottle of wine she washed them down with. But the fact she took them, the fact she came to press the tablets out of their blister pack into her palm, this has flipped her upside down.
‘I’m not normally like this,’ she says. ‘But it’s just all too much for me.’ She smiles at us. ‘Sorry. You’ve got better things to be doing. I don’t want to waste your time.’
‘Come on, babe,’ says Tom, sitting down next to her and putting his arm round her shoulder. ‘I love you. Yeah?’
‘I love you, too, honey.’ But her shoulders are stiff, and very soon Tom gets back up. ‘Where’s the tin?’ he says.
‘I don’t know.’

Tom stays in the flat whilst Belle walks with us out to the ambulance.
‘Can I have a hug?’ she says.
‘Not from me, I’m afraid,’ I say, opening the ambulance door.
‘How embarrassing. Everyone’s looking.’
‘I don’t think so. I don’t suppose they’ll even notice.’
She throws herself down on a seat, and folds her arms and legs.
I sit opposite, Rae next to her.
‘Tell us what happened tonight, Belle.’
She blows her nose, then looks at me with watery eyes.
‘I do my best. I really do. I try and try and try. But it’s hard. I don’t want to put the kids into nursery. They’re not small for long. I wanted to enjoy them, give them as much as I could. I take them to play groups, they get out and about. But Tom’s started a new business, he’s out all the time – and I mean, all the time. He’s never home. It feels like I’m bringing the kids up by myself. And I get so tired. The kids bicker and fight. They’re having a horrible time. All I do is shout at them. They’re so incredibly demanding. And I get absolutely no time for myself. None. I’ve lost sight of who I am. What I want. I don’t know who I am anymore. We went on a little holiday last week, down to see friends in Dorset, surfing. Well, actually I was looking after the kids. Tom did the surfing.’
Then again, she drops her hands and the other Belle speaks.
‘Hark at her and her poor little hard luck story. God, some people just don’t know when they’re well off.’
I put the clipboard down and rub my eyes.
‘It’s hard,’ I say. ‘Bringing up small children is very, very hard. It’s no wonder you’re struggling. Anyone would.’
‘Would they?’ she says. ‘Did you?’
‘Well for a start me and my partner put both our girls through nursery, even though it was a stretch. We couldn’t have managed if we didn’t. I’m not saying it’s wrong or right. It’s just how we did it. My mum would never have put any of us into nursery even if she could’ve afforded it. She wanted to stay at home and look after us, which isn’t better or worse. It’s just different. Although I think she’d say looking after kids at home is better. Whenever I spoke to her on the phone she’d always end up asking how long their day was, and then sound really shocked. But you have to look at your own circumstances and decide what suits you best.’
‘I don’t have to go to hospital, do I? I don’t want to be locked up and never see my kids again.’
‘No-one’s going to be locking you up tonight, Belle. The only reason to take you to hospital would be to get you to talk to someone about what happened. Our worry would be if you stayed at home you’d do something else to hurt yourself. But you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. We can think of something else.’
‘I feel so stupid. Such a fraud. You’ve got better things to do.’
‘Nope. Not at the moment.’
‘Tom doesn’t understand what it’s like. He’s never there. He comes home and all he wants is something to eat and then go to sleep. He’s exhausted – but so am I. I’m completely exhausted. I get up in the morning and it’s like I never went to bed.’ She looks down and speaks in the other voice. ‘Some wife. There’s her husband trying to make a go of it and the mad bitch brings him down.’
‘I think it’s very difficult to be clear about what you want, and to go about getting it. I think that can make you feel very guilty, which just adds to the pain.’
‘I am guilty,’ she says. ‘My poor kids. They deserve someone better.’
She cries some more. Rae gives her fresh tissues.
When the crisis passes she asks me if I’ve ever done something similar.
‘I’ve never taken an overdose,’ I say.
She laughs.
‘You could at least have lied about it to make me feel better.’
‘I was on anti-depressants for a while, when I got really stressed towards the end of my teaching career.’
‘Did they help?’
‘Yeah, they helped.’
‘They let me stand back from it all and realise that teaching was driving me crazy.’
‘I’m just terrified I’m going to get stuck on them for the rest of my life.’
‘Not this sort. I know what you mean, but they’re not like tranquilisers or sleeping pills. If your doctor’s any good they’ll be able to reassure you. Is your doctor any good?’
‘I don’t like to bother them. They’ve got more important things to be doing.’
There’s a knock on the side door and Tom climbs in.
‘I can’t be long ‘cos of the kids. You going to be all right, babe?’ he says.
She smiles, and accepts a kiss on her forehead.
‘You taking her up the hospital?’
I look at Belle and she nods.
‘Here’s your keys, then, your phone and your purse. Get a taxi back, hon,’ he says. ‘Okay?’
He kisses her again and jumps back out.
‘Let’s go,’ she says, this other, tougher Belle. ‘Take the crazy bitch away.’

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

thirty, thirty-two

Geoff is sitting on the edge of the sofa, his legs pressed together and a pillow clutched to his middle. What light there is spilling in through the sitting room window is absorbed by the pallor of his face, flat as cream.
Alan, his partner, stands over by the mantelpiece and folds his arms.
I go over to Geoff and squat down beside him.
‘What’s happened, then?’
‘I was sick,’ he whispers. ‘I threw up blood.’
‘He threw up loads of blood. Three times. I’m so worried,’ says Alan, unfolding his arms, then straightaway folding them again.
‘Have you been feeling unwell through the day?’ I ask Geoff, feeling his pulse. Regular, sufficient.
‘No. I was fine.’
‘Did you get any warning you were going to be sick?’
‘Some. We’d eaten, I felt a bit dizzy, and when I came in here to lie down on the sofa I had to rush into the bathroom.’
‘Have you flushed the toilet since?’
‘I left it in case you wanted to look.’
‘Let’s see.’
I leave Geoff sitting there and follow Alan into the bathroom.
It’s a startling effect: the bathroom brightly lit, scrubbed and neat, a linear pattern of clean grouting, bleached white shower curtains, chrome towel rails, cute trinkets and mirrors – and then a splattered brown and red mess around the rim of the toilet. Inside, the bowl is full and dark.
‘And Geoff has thrown up like this three times?’
‘Yes. God – what do you think it is?’
We go back into the sitting room.
‘Do you have any pain at the moment?’ I ask him, putting on a SATS probe.
‘Any other strange feelings anywhere?’
‘No. A bit dizzy still, that’s it.’
‘What medical problems do you have?’
‘Any family history of anything? Stomach ulcers, digestive problems? Anything like that?’
‘Any recent operations?’
‘No. Except for some root canal treatment. But that was two years ago.’
‘And your health has been okay recently?’
‘Let’s have a feel of your tummy.’
He lies back and pulls up his t-shirt. Everything looks okay.
‘Tell me if anything hurts.’
The only time he winces is when I press to the right of his abdomen, about where his liver is.
‘Eating and drinking okay?’
‘What about alcohol? How much would you say you got through a week?’
‘Nothing much. Hardly anything.’
‘Bowel movements all right?’
‘And nothing out of the ordinary in any other respect?’
‘No. What’s wrong? What’s the matter with me?’
‘I don’t know, Geoff. It looks like you’ve had a significant bleed either from your stomach or high up in your digestive system, but I don’t know why. It’s a trip to hospital, I’m afraid.’
He starts to cry.
‘Why didn’t I listen? Why?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You have to tell them everything, Geoff. They have to know.’
‘Know what?’
‘It’s so embarrassing,’ he sobs. ‘I can’t bear it.’
‘What? What’s been happening?’
Alan sits down with him on the sofa and takes his hand.
‘He’s been using pain killers. Nurofen Plus.’
‘Okay. How many?’
Alan hands him a tissue. Geoff blows his nose, collects himself, then stares down at his hands as they gently tear the tissue into pieces.
‘Thirty, thirty two,’ he whispers.
‘A day?’
‘I knew it was bad but I just couldn’t help myself.’
‘For how long?’
‘Since the tooth operation.’
‘Two years?’
‘About that.’ He looks up. ‘I’ve done some damage, haven’t I? I knew I would but I couldn’t stop myself. What’s going to happen to me?’
‘First things first,’ I say. ‘Let’s get some shoes on, keys, phone, wallet. Let’s get you up the hospital where we can start to get you better.’
Alan gets the stuff together whilst Geoff sits quietly.
‘It’s so embarrassing,’ he says.
‘It’s an addiction, that’s all. It’s been a problem for a while, but today’s the day you start to do something about it.’
‘I’ve taken so many, though.’
‘You have. But it’s surprising how many people are in the same boat. One step at a time, though. Let’s get you to a doctor and see what they have to say. There’s lots to be done.’
He rolls the shredded tissue into a ball and tosses it into a bin.
Alan comes over with his slippers.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Lucy plucks at her nightie and grimaces.
‘It’s bothering me now, this pain,’ she says. ‘I woke up with it.’
‘Are you all right, Loo?’ says her identical twin sister Margery, leaning forward in the chair opposite. ‘Should I fetch the doctor?’
‘We’re taking Loo to the hospital,’ Frank tells her. ‘They’ve got doctors there.’
‘I’ll be fine, Moo,’ Lucy says. ‘Don’t fret.’
Ninety-five the pair, the only difference between them is their dress. Lucy is still in her nightie, a long and rigid thing that could well be made out of greaseproof paper. She has a handful of curlers carefully rolled up in her hair and kept in place by a hairnet, and a pair of clumping slippers like scooped white tin loaves on her feet. Margery has dressed herself already, though, even though it’s barely five in the morning, the sky a luminous aquamarine and the sea slopping gently over the shore just a zimmer’s throw from the kitchen window. Her red cardigan matches her lipstick, which she has put on as carefully as she can, most of the way across.

Standing here in their flat is like standing on the set of Poirot, every detail meticulously observed, from the Bakelite switches, the silvered mirror hung by a chain, to the mahogany standard lamp, the gramophone and the ceramic dancing girls wafting about on the mantelpiece.
‘Moo will have to come,’ says Lucy. ‘She can’t stay here on her own.’
‘No. That’s fine. Just so long as you realise that you may be in for some time and she’ll have to make her own way back.’
‘Well she obviously can’t do that. I shall have to bring her. How long did you say I’ll be in?’
‘Hard to say. Quite long. And then they might decide to keep you in.’
‘Keep me in? Why ever would they keep me in?’
‘I’m not saying they will. I’m saying they might.’
‘Well if I’m to be kept in, Moo will, too.’
‘In a bed, of course.’
‘It doesn’t work like that.’
‘Why not? It’s a hospital, isn’t it? They have beds.’
‘Yes, but..’
‘If I can have a bed, so can she.’
‘Maybe hospitals used to do that, Lucy, but they don’t any more. They don’t have the room.’
‘You are taking me to the big hospital? In town?’
‘Then they’ll have room. Moo can’t stay here on her own. Someone has to make sure she takes her medicine. She’s not well, you know.’
Whilst we talk we make steady but irresistible movements towards going. I put the carry chair together. We shepherd Lucy into it.
‘I need to take Moo’s medicine with me. It’s in a big green plastic bag in the second bedroom. Could you fetch it, please? And my address book. I shall need to make some calls once I’m there. You’ll find it on the hall table. And there’s a small blue bag of toiletries in the bathroom.’
‘Let’s get you on the ambulance, Lucy. We’ll come back for all this stuff in a minute.’
‘So long as you don’t forget.’
Margery stares vacantly as we click the strap around Lucy’s arms.
‘Where are you going?’ she says.
‘To the hospital.’
‘And you’re coming, too,’ says Frank.
‘Oh. Good. Just a minute,’ she says, making a tiny movement forwards, but then immediately stopping, and forgetting what she was about to do, settling back down in the chair.


A few moments later I’m climbing back into the ambulance after having fetched the bag of medicines, the address book, the bag of toiletries. Lucy is sitting on the trolley, with Margery holding her hand from the nearest seat.
‘Here you are,’ I say, handing her the bag.
‘That’s the wrong bag. And did you get the address book?’
‘Yes. Look. Here.’
Lucy takes it, flicks through, sighs heavily and tosses it back.
‘And that’s the wrong address book,’ she says. ‘It’s out of date.’
‘It was the only one on the phone table,’ I say pathetically.
But I flip it open, and it strikes me that not one of the spidery numbers written there has an area code.

Monday, July 05, 2010

in a passing place

Looking out through the ambulance window is like looking through the side of a spinning zoetrope, the dark countryside cut up, run off in rippling blue panels of detail. We’re a long way out now. The road leans and turns, banked up steeply on either side with trees, stone walls, the sudden shock of a lighted window, a figure pressed back in a hedge, everything snapped and gone before you’ve really seen it, whilst high around us, beyond the manic play of our lights, bearing down like a wave, the massy black curve of the downs.
‘Half a mile. Should have its hazards on.’
The notes tell us the baby’s head is crowning.
‘Five hundred yards.’

And then we see it, tucked over in a passing place, an estate car with its lights flashing, the front doors open.

Frank puts the ambulance behind it, shielding it from the bend, and leaves the scene lights on. I hurry out of the truck to the passenger side of the car, whilst he fetches out the maternity pack.

Melissa is half-lying back on the seat that her husband Seth has wound down as far as he can. She is holding a glistening baby to her breast, wrapped in a bath towel; Seth is sitting sideways in the driver’s seat, his arms outstretched around the two of them.
‘Thank God. Thank God,’ Melissa says, her lips cracked and dry. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ says Seth.
‘Let’s have a look. It’s a boy!’
‘Hello Eli,’ she says. ‘Welcome to the world.’
Eli squalls and hollers, bunching his wrinkled mitts in his face, blindly fumbling towards her breast.

More blue lights; a police car pulls up behind our ambulance.
‘A driver rang saying he’d heard screaming in a lay-by,’ says a police woman, striding over then hanging back, rising up on her toes for a peek, smiling.
‘Ahh!’ says her mate.
‘This is hilarious, ridiculous,’ says Seth. ‘I never imagined anything like this.’
‘Everything’s fine. You’re doing brilliantly.’
‘What happens now? I just don’t know what to do,’ says Melissa.
‘You’ve done it, Melissa. You’ve given birth to a beautiful little boy. All we need do is get ready to deliver the placenta. We’re ready to clamp the chord now - look. Would you like to cut it, Seth?’
I hand the scissors to him, he makes two or three snips, and the chord is through. I give him a couple of clean white blankets; he takes Eli out of the soiled towel, wraps him up snugly, then hands him back into Melissa’s arms again to suckle. After ten minutes I try to help the placenta along by rubbing up some contractions; Melissa begins to moan harder and push, and eventually in a slow gush of blood and liquor, the placenta flops out into my hands. I put it into a bowl and pass it back to Frank. I wave a bloody glove in the air at the two police women, and they wave back.


Five minutes later we’re posing for photos at the back of the ambulance. Seth’s camera gets passed around, variations on angles and backgrounds, but central to it all, Melissa and Eli enthroned on the trolley, the baby happily suckling, and a pale host of moths tumbling around us through the night.

A car drives past, slows briefly, speeds up.

‘What must they think?’ laughs Seth.
‘A major incident.’
‘A little miracle.’
‘We’d better get off.’
Whilst we load the trolley Seth packs the child seat back in the car and makes himself ready to follow.

We leave the police women standing by their patrol car, speaking into their radios, as we set off in convoy for the hospital.