Saturday, October 30, 2010

cold comfort

In the late 1980s I applied to half a dozen universities to study English. In the end, the only place that made me an offer was Exeter, primarily because I’d applied to study English and Drama combined. Even though I’d given yet another shaky interview, my audition for the drama department had gone well, and it was this, coupled with the fact I was in my twenties, and the admissions department were on a drive to recruit mature students, that swung it for me. Plus my girlfriend Stella was already there. So all in all, I scraped a place.

One weekend in February my old friend Simon came down to stay for a while. To clear our heads that Sunday morning, Simon, Stella and I had a late fry-up in town and then headed out to walk it off in the country. It was a stropped razor of a day; the world hard and blue around us. But it was good to walk; our lives felt as increasingly clear and outwardly bound as the empty road.
We headed North. The road gradually lost its suburban character, rising steadily out of town through open fields and woods, until about an hour later, on a whim, we took a track through an old stand of trees, and found ourselves stumbling up an overgrown track to an abandoned farmhouse.
‘Look at this.’
Stella struck a terrified pose beside a roughly nailed sign in red paint: Keep Out.
Beyond it, angled like so many cartoon warnings: Private Property. You have been warned. Trespassers will be.
‘Trespassers will be what?’
‘He was so furious when he painted that one he bit it in half.’
‘What a psycho.’
But the house was definitively empty. All the panes in the windows were smashed. The front door hung inwards off the top hinge, revealing a dark and destructed interior.
‘I’m not going in there,’ said Simon. ‘Fuck that.’
‘Come on. Let’s carry on round.’
Stella led the way, ducking through a broken up post and stile fence, the timber of which was green with a dusty kind of mould.
As soon as we were through to the field beyond the farmhouse, Simon started. He dropped his face into a Karloff-style deadpan.
‘I’m afraid you’ve treth-pathed on my land and I am going to have to kill you.’
Stella ran with her arms straight up in the air, screaming. She pretended to trip and stretched herself out in the grass. I picked up a stick and machine-gunned Simon as he zombied towards her; he jerked with each bullet but wouldn’t go down. Finally he turned to me, snapped the machine gun in half, grabbed me by the neck and hurled me aside.
I lay still in the grass for a second or two, then sat up, laughing.
I heard Stella say: ‘What’s this?’ in her normal voice. When I looked over, I saw them both standing together, Simon holding out a black dinner jacket at arm’s length.
‘What’s that?’
I went over to have a look.
‘Somebody’s jacket.’
‘That’s quite smart.’
‘It’s soaking wet.’
‘Check the pockets.’
‘You check the pockets.’
‘All right.’
I pulled each one open and looked inside first, then carefully pulled out the contents by fingertip.
‘Any bullet holes?’ said Simon. ‘Any blood?’
‘It’s that crazy farmer,’ said Stella. ‘This is all that’s left of the last guy who trespassed.’
I pulled out a wallet, a pencil, a cotton handkerchief and a ball of rubber bands. The wallet had an out of date bus pass, a library card and a dry cleaning receipt. The bus pass carried the blurry photo of a smart elderly man, peering up into the camera on a photo booth chair he hadn’t been able to wind higher. The cotton handkerchief was stiff with spots of dark matter.
‘Well that certainly looks like blood to me.’
‘And look over there.’
Stella took a few steps on, bent down and picked up a shoe. And then seeing something else, hurried over, and slowly lifted up a pair of black trousers.
We stood there for a minute or two. Stella and Simon were casting nervous glances back at the farmhouse, but my attention had been caught by something else.
‘What’s that?’
‘Over by the fence.’
‘Oh my god. It’s jacket guy.’
‘I think you might be right.’
I walked over, leaving Stella and Simon behind.
‘Be careful,’ she called out.
I smiled back at her, then directed all my attention to the figure.
He was lying on his right side with his back to me, wearing only a white shirt. His legs were obscured by the dip in the ground between the field and the fence; his shoulders looked folded in, like someone so deeply asleep they had moulded themselves to the terrain.
I took a few more steps forward. If it wasn’t for the freezing weather and the fact the man only had on a shirt, it would’ve looked like the most natural thing in the world to be taking a nap on his side in a field like this. But the warm glow from the walk and all our messing about had faded quickly, and even in my fleece I could feel the advancing chill of the afternoon.
Then I noticed something. Bird droppings on his hair. How long had he been there?
‘Hello? Are you all right?’
I reached over and tapped him on the shoulder. It was like rapping on a dense papier mache figure. I pulled him gently towards me, and as he collapsed back further into the dip I saw his decomposed face, spotted and dark, folded in on itself like a rotten apple.
‘He’s dead,’ I called back to the others.
‘We’ve got to call the police.’
Simon pointed out a little cluster of cottages the far side of the field, behind a tall hedge.
‘They’ll have a phone.’

It took us five minutes to reach them. We didn’t say much as we trudged across the grass. Now and again, we’d look back towards the farmhouse, half expecting to see a crazed figure with a shotgun making up the distance between us.
When we reached the hedge, Simon climbed up onto a tree stump and looked over. We peered through beneath him.
An elderly woman was on her knees just the other side, weeding.
‘Hello?’ Simon said. The woman stopped weeding and looked around. ‘Hello! Up here! The hedge. That’s it. Hi. We wondered if you could help us? We came out for a walk and we found a body – a dead one – lying in the field behind me. I wonder if you could do us a favour and call the police?’
The woman stood up, kept hold of her trowel and backed away into the house.
After a while with nothing happening, Simon said: ‘Is she going to phone or what?’
Just then an elderly man came out.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘Ah. Hello. We just wondered – could you call the police for us? Only we came out for a walk and we found a dead body.’
‘I certainly will call the police,’ the man said, frowning.
‘Right. Thanks.’
Simon jumped down.

We all went back through the grounds of the old farmhouse to flag the police down on the road. We stood there, stamping our feet and blowing on our fingers. I looked around to see if there was a warning sign we’d missed: Caution, corpse in field.
Three patrol cars turned up, and about a hundred officers got out. One of them was so tall, watching him get out of the car was like watching a magician pull a ladder out of a hat. When he was finally unfolded in front of us, he stretched about six feet six, his uniform pressed and perfect, silver on his epaulettes, a medal strip across his breast. He paused to put on his cap, adjusting it to the absolute angle, then stepped briskly over to us.
‘Are you the people who found a body?’ he said, chinning the air. ‘Could you take us to it, please?’
We turned and led them all past the warning signs and over to the post and stile fence. I waited for the Chief Inspector to say something about all the signs and why we’d chosen to ignore them, but he seemed content for us simply to retrace our steps and take us straight to the body. Simon and Stella ducked through the gap in the fence, I stood aside for the Chief Inspector to follow.
‘Thank you,’ he said. As he went through, he scraped his back on the panel, leaving a hideous green trail across his uniform. I fully expected to get in trouble for that, too. I followed after, the rest of the posse on my tail.
‘We found his jacket first,’ I said, as we came to the first spot. ‘Then his shoes, then his trousers.’
‘His trousers?’
‘I assume they’re his trousers.’
‘Is the body naked below the waist then?’
I thought about what I’d seen, how it was lying.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘You’re not sure?’
We arrived at the fence, and hung back like naughty kids whilst the Chief Inspector and a couple of his colleagues walked over and prodded about for a moment. After a little while he gave some instructions, then came back.
‘You’ll need to come with us to the station to make a statement,’ he said, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his hands. ‘Separate cars. Purely routine.’


‘So you decided to go for a walk in the country?’ said the policeman in charge of interviewing me.
‘Spur of the moment thing, really. To clear our heads.’
‘Why were your heads not clear?’
‘Ah. You know. Late night. Cheap beer. You know.’
He made a note of it, then clicked his pen and settled back into his chair to review what he had so far. The interview room, a functional box with a high window and a security door, felt super-heated after the frigid winter afternoon. I took off my fleece and slung it over the back of my chair. The policeman looked at me.
‘Seasoned walker, are you?’
‘Me? No.’
‘Didn’t think so. I couldn’t help noticing your gear. Or lack of it. Your shoes, for example. Not what you’d call walking boots.’
I looked down at my trainers, then tucked my feet under the chair.
‘They’re all I have,’ I said, pathetically.
‘And you didn’t take a packed lunch?’
‘No. Like I said. Spur of the moment. We’d only just had breakfast.’
‘No maps or any way of telling where you were or where you were going?’
‘Protective clothing, it being mid-winter and all?’
‘No. Travelling light.’
The more we went over it, the more ridiculous it sounded.
The policeman screwed up his eyes and was quiet again, clicking his pen. Finally he said: ‘Why did you decide to walk in that particular field? The field where the body was?’
‘Why? No reason.’
‘Bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?’
‘Yes. Yes - I suppose it was.’
‘It’s the middle of winter and you decide to take a walk, even though you don’t normally do that kind of thing and don’t have any equipment. You go randomly into any old field. And lo and behold there’s a dead body in it.’
‘That’s it.’
He clicked his pen again and leaned forward, ready to write.
‘Okay. I think we’d better get this all down so you can sign it.’


I was there two hours. Stella and Simon had been dealt with in half the time. They were sitting on their hands in the waiting room, blowing their cheeks out with boredom.
‘Finally,’ they said as I was let through the security door.
‘I’m going down,’ I said.


Weeks later, I was called down to the phone by my flat mate. The coroner’s office. A pleasant, administrative voice. The inquest had been held – all pretty straightforward, no need to have dragged me away from my studies to give evidence. The victim had been an in-patient of a unit for the elderly and mentally infirm. He had absconded one night before Christmas and disappeared. Who knows why he made his way out to that field? Probably succumbed to hypothermia, which would account for the shedding of the clothes. He had hurt his hand on barbed wire or something. His decay had been arrested by the cold weather. Very distressing, etcetera, and so on.

I thanked her for letting me know, put the phone down, stayed sitting on the bottom step for a while. I pictured the three of us, our walk out of town, the farmhouse, throwing ourselves down in the field; the Chief Inspector, catching his uniform on the fence; the old man, stumbling through the freezing dark, tearing off his black suit, ripping his hand, laying by the fence. I reached out to touch his shoulder.

I picked up the phone again.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I show you beautiful

Amira is sitting on the edge of her divan bed, walking stick alongside her, hands palm up in her lap, an inhaler resting in the left, awaiting salvation. The raincoat she has somehow rolled on over the three or four layers of multi-coloured, knitted cardigans and jumpers strains dangerously at the buttons. Beneath the stifling layers, Amira’s legs are planted resolutely apart in brown ribbed stockings and a stiffly woven forest green skirt. Her feet are stuffed into two leather moccasins with homemade slits along the side for extra comfort, looking like two exotic fruit gone to seed. Amira tips her head from side to side, her eyes shut, wheezing out a prayer, whilst her daughter Farah, a twenty year old woman in jeans and t-shirt sets out two chairs for us to sit on the moment we enter the room.
‘Now then. What we can we do for you?’ says Frank, settling himself on the nearest chair and reaching out to feel her wrist.
‘I hurt breathe.’
Farah hovers respectfully. She translates for Frank when Amira lapses into Arabic.
I put together a nebuliser and gently ease it over Amira’s head, then sit back down with the board to write up the observations Frank calls out, along with other information I take from the numerous scripts Farah hands to me. Amira pats her daughter on the arm and speaks rapidly behind the mask.
‘Mama says she does not want to go to hospital. She has a doctor coming later this morning and wants to stay here to speak with him.’
‘Our advice is that she comes with us, of course. Tell her we’ll do a few more checks and decide what to do after that.’
‘Thank you. Thank you,’ says Amira, and reaches out to pat Frank on the cheek.
‘You’re welcome.’
The room itself is simply furnished, a strange mixture of religious icons, cosmetics, a laptop on a pile of college books, a gilt frame of ancient photographs and a Robert Pattinson poster. Amira’s camp bed is so out of place in the middle of the room I imagine it flying in through the window and whumping down in a cloud of scented handkerchiefs onto the stripped wooden floor.
Amira tugs Farah by the t-shirt and speaks urgently to her through the mask again.
‘I’m so sorry,’ says Farah. ‘May I offer you some coffee?’
Amira nods her head emphatically, and gestures towards the little studio kitchen.
‘Well – that would be lovely,’ says Frank.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks Amira.
‘Iraq. Baghdad.’
‘A beautiful city,’ he says. ‘Used to be.’
Amira waggles her head and tilts her palms to the ceiling.
‘Ah! Poor Baghdad. What happen is terrible, terrible. No good. P’ah.’
‘I was there in 2003,’ he says. ‘Dreadful.’
She pats his cheek again and admires him at arm’s length.
Farah comes back in carrying a silver tray with two intricately patterned china coffee cups and a couple of miniature Snickers. I clear a space on a footstool, she sets it down, then retreats back to her mother’s side.
The cardamom scented coffee lifts me out of the chair with its sweetness and strength.
‘Wow. That’s amazing.’
They both smile and nod.
Frank raises his cup to me. ‘This’ll straighten you out,’ he says. Then he knocks back the coffee, wipes his moustache, and takes hold of Amira’s hand again.
‘Habibti. Your breathing’s a little better but we’re still worried,’ he says, Farah speaking quickly and quietly over him in Arabic. ‘You’ve got high blood pressure and your temperature is up as well. When I listened to your chest just now I heard a few noises I’d like to get checked out further. I think we’d better take you to the hospital. And don’t worry about the doctor. We’ll ring to cancel.’
Amira follows each phrase carefully, animating each phrase with another turn of the hand, a tilt and shake of the head.
‘You beautiful,’ she says when he finishes. ‘Thank you. Thank you. When I better, you come Baghdad see me. I show you beautiful.’
‘One day,’ he says. ‘That’d be great. One day.’
Farah quietly collects our cups and empty wrappers onto the tray, then goes into the kitchen to make Frank another coffee. I haul our equipment back outside, stow it, prep the trolley and come back with a carry chair.
Amira greets me like a lost son.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

sea ghosts

Eighteen year old male, overdose/poisoning.

As we drive along the section of road indicated by the Satnav, we see two young men, one leaning back on the other. He manages to free a hand and wave to us; I pull alongside. Frank jumps out, and I follow.

‘What’s the problem?’ Frank says.

Our patient is dressed in a t-shirt and waistcoat and a pair of pink tights. The tights are stained and holed; he hasn’t any shoes, and his toes poke out onto the pavement.
‘He needs the hospital,’ says the patient’s friend.
‘Why’s that, then?’
‘He’s drunk.’
‘Apart from being drunk, is there anything else wrong?’
The patient bridles.
‘There’s nothing wrong,’ he says, suddenly standing upright. ‘I just need some fish and chips. Take me to them.’
‘That’s not really our job, is it, mate? We’re not in the catering business.’
‘Come on,’ says the friend, looking over his shoulder. ‘You can see he’s had too much to drink. How am I supposed to get him home like this?’
‘Why don’t you talk about that whilst you get warm in the fish and chip shop?’
‘He can’t feel his feet.’
‘I would think that’s because he has no shoes on and it’s cold tonight.’
‘So you’re not going to do anything?’
Frank looks down at the pavement for a moment. When he looks back up, he is wearing a smile forged from pure steel.
‘Have you got a phone?’
‘Rupert? Where’s your phone?’
The patient puts his hands up in the air and closes his eyes as his friend kneels down in front of him and starts rummaging around in the front of his tights.
‘I’ve seen enough,’ says Frank, turning round. ‘Let’s go.’

I drive off far enough to keep us out of trouble and park by the side of the road. Frank finishes off his paperwork and we listen to the radio. When he finishes, he climbs out to have a cigarette before we clear up. I join him, the two of us quietly leaning against the bonnet. Night is coming down quickly now and the seagulls are heading out to sea. Blanched in the diffuse margins of light along the main drag, they swoop and call and then atomise above us through the deepening dark like ghosts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

the ventriloquists

There is a little girl working her way up to the top of the spider web climbing frame in the playground behind us, carefully picking a route through the intersecting ropes to the red and blue plastic cap at the top. I wonder if she’s climbing up there to get a better view of the scene: the middle aged woman standing on the pavement speaking urgently into a mobile phone, the three paramedics conferring behind an ambulance, a wild-haired old woman peering out through the window of a neat little corner cottage. But the girl on the climbing frame seems oblivious to all the fuss; once she reaches the top, she waves to a friend who is running over from the far side of the park, then turns and starts to make her way carefully back down again.
‘Betty’s next door neighbour says it’s all very uncharacteristic,’ says Geoff, the paramedic who was first on scene, his ambulance car standing off further off down the street.
‘Let’s hope so,’ says Frank.
‘Apparently she had a fall over the weekend, bished her head, hasn’t been herself since. When I got here she was running up and down the street in her nightie, screaming and carrying on. I tried to talk to her but she picked up half a brick and lobbed it at me, saying she was going to kill me. Then she ran back inside.’
‘What’s she doing now?’
‘I knocked on the door and she came running out again with her nails out like this.’ Geoff extends his hands into two claws, and snarls like a pantomime bear. ‘Wouldn’t listen to reason. So I thought I’d wait for back-up before I did anything else. I didn’t want her to get hurt.’
‘And the police?’
‘Should be here soon.’
‘Let’s go have a look then.’
Frank leads the way.
When Mary, the next door neighbour, sees us coming across, she finishes her phone call and waits, holding the phone up to her chest, gripped tightly, like a talisman.
‘I’ve just spoken to Betty’s son. He’s coming straight over, but he lives quite a way away. He says can you call him back?’
Geoff stays with Mary whilst Frank and I walk up the sheltered little path to Betty’s front door. He reaches out and knocks.
‘Betty? Betty – it’s the ambulance. Could we have a word?’
There is a scraping of chairs from inside, as if someone were making such a rush at the door they came straight through the furniture.
‘I’ve told them! I’ll kill you! Let me – leave me – will you...’
The door is thrown open and Betty stands there, breathing heavily, her loose and mottled flesh showing through the holes in her nightclothes. She is the very model of a crazy old lady, her hair blown out in a tufted shock of white, her eyes two points of black on a narrowing horizon. ‘You!’ she says, turning to look at me and letting go her hold on the door. ‘They said – it’s not – I’ll kill you!’ She steps outside onto the stone flags of the patio, the toes of her bare feet blue and swollen. She tries to rake at my arms, but I step to the side and manage to catch hold of her wrist. Frank catches the other.
‘Betty. Betty. Listen, love,’ he says. ‘Easy. We’re not here to hurt you. We just want to talk. People are worried about you.’
‘Let me go! Let me go!’ she spits, wrestling wildly with us, then suddenly giving up and leaning forwards. She begins sobbing in an awful way, dry and forced, without any natural root. ‘Let me go! Let me go!’
‘This won’t look great,’ says Frank, over the top of her hair. ‘Two grown men wrestling an old lady.’
‘Come on, Betty,’ I say, in the tone of a favourite nephew to an aunt. ‘Why don’t we go onto the ambulance and have a chat there? We’ve got some nice warm blankets.’
She suddenly changes again, straightening up and letting her arms go loose.’
‘I didn’t think,’ she says, looking squarely into my face. ‘They said – what if – why are you doing this?’ It’s a ripped and random monologue, poisonous wisps bubbling up through the vents in her rage.
‘Ha!’ she shouts, then lunges at me in an effort to take a bite out of my face. I’m forced to twist out of the way, and both Frank and I struggle to maintain control. She flops forwards again.
The police arrive; two officers hurry over to where we stand struggling on the patio.
‘This is Betty,’ says Frank. ‘Betty is eighty four.’
‘Hello Betty,’ says one of the officers, frowning at us, reaching out to touch her on the shoulder. But when she jerks upright again like a ghastly ventriloquist’s dummy, he flinches, and I can see he understands.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

two bears

Each floor of the block has an open balcony running the length of the building; here and there a porch light cuts the general gloom, but mostly the place is as warm and inviting as a gun emplacement. Up on the top floor I can see the figure of a man standing in silhouette, smoking, leaning over the parapet, watching as we lock the ambulance and walk across the grass to the front entrance.
Our patient answers immediately; was he waiting by the door?
‘Come on up. Second landing.’

We find Harry standing in the middle of the sitting room in his coat and slippers, a hospital property carrier bag of medication and night things in his hand.
‘Shall we be off, then?’ he says.
‘Hang on a minute. Let’s just get some idea of the problem first.’
He goes over to the armchair that dominates the room, a worn corduroy throne facing the TV, a spindly Ercol table by the side of it with a glass of milk, a TV guide, a pen and a remote control. He sits on the edge of the seat, and begins nervously turning his wedding ring round and round.
‘I’m not well,’ he says. ‘I can’t stay here tonight. Not like this.’
‘We were told in our notes that you discharged yourself from a respite centre this morning.’
‘That’s right.’
‘Why was that?’
‘It was too noisy. I couldn’t get any sleep.’
‘Why were you at the respite centre in the first place?’
‘I’d been in hospital for a couple of weeks with a chest infection.’
‘And how is that now?’
‘Bad. Very bad.’
As if to illustrate, he purses his lips and puffs out his cheeks slightly with each breath.
‘Very bad.’
‘Do you have any pain anywhere?’
‘Where’s the pain?’
‘All over. I’ve got pain all over my body.’
‘Any new pain?’
‘No. I’ve had it for years. But it’s bad. Very bad.’

The room has a reduced feel to it, like someone had decided to dress a set with the smallest number of clues to the occupant’s life: a framed military badge, a boomerang, a toy steam train on a specially constructed shelf, and taking up half of the sofa that faces the armchair, a giant chocolate-coloured teddy bear.
‘Do you live here alone?’
‘My wife’s in a special home. Dementia.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
‘I’m trying to get there myself. You couldn’t take me, could you?’
‘I don’t think it’s going to happen tonight, Harry.’

Frank places an oriental style pouffe by the side of Harry’s chair and runs through the usual observations. Harry offers out his arm with the compliance of the habitual patient. Everything seems fine.

‘So. We need to figure out what’s the best course of action, Harry. Especially given the late hour.’
‘Hospital then, is it?’
‘Not necessarily. Do you have carers coming in to help?’
‘Four times a day. But they’re no good. You see – the thing is – I just can’t sleep. I’ve tried and tried but I just can’t get off.’
‘If that’s the only problem, Harry, maybe we could think of something better and more comfortable than simply dragging you off to hospital. Maybe we could get the out of hours doctor to prescribe you something to help.’
‘I’d rather go to hospital.’
‘It’s highly unlikely they’ll do anything for you. You’ll be monitored on a trolley for a few hours, then sent back home. In the early hours. Freezing cold.’
‘At least I could get some sleep.’
‘It’s even noisier at the hospital, though, Harry. All those bright lights. All that – commotion.’
‘I’d rather go, thanks.’
I put the clipboard on the floor and settle back on the sofa.
Harry stares across at me.
I reach out and scratch the teddy behind the ears.
‘I like your bear, Harry.’
‘Do you? My wife bought it. Two of them, actually. A matching pair. She’s got the other one.’
From outside the flat, the sound of shrieking, a car door slamming.
Harry reaches down, picks up the carrier bag of stuff and stands up.
‘Shall we be going then?’ he says.

Friday, October 15, 2010

whatever you call it

A woman waves to us from the entrance to a partially grassed alleyway, then turns and hurries back along it. We follow her halfway up to where her partner Craig is lying flat on his back, groaning and clutching his arm, his dispatch bike lying on its side nearby.
‘Don’t move your head at all, Craig,’ I say as I crouch down beside him. ‘Tell me what’s happened.’
Between strangled gasps of pain he describes how he was coming out from the garage at the back, riding the bike at a walking pace; how a cat had jumped down off a fence in front of him; how he’d touched the front brake, the wheel had slid out into a deep furrow, pitching him over onto his side, and his left arm.
‘I think I’ve broken it,’ he says.
The villain of the piece, a rough, square cut, ginger and white tom cat, sits on top of a low wall to our right, innocently licking a paw.

The arm seems to be Craig’s only injury; everything else checks out. We give him Entonox to dull the pain, then set about helping him up. It takes all three of us. With Craig bulked out in all his biker gear - t-shirt, sweat shirt, wax jacket, fluorescent jerkin, leather trousers, buckled boots – we’re like three feeble villagers struggling to right a statue that’s fallen off its plinth. Once he’s upright, Craig pauses for a moment to take a few more trembling intakes of gas, then with a series of groans and swearwords, staggers between us to the ambulance. We sit him on the trolley.
‘I have to cut your jacket off.’
He starts to laugh, the gas making the intensity of his predicament – the grinding pain, the sickeningly disjointed sensation in his upper arm, the confined space of the ambulance and who knows what else - profoundly unsettling. He closes his eyes and clenches his face, to ride out the laugh, to escape the pain.
‘Jesus God it hurts,’ he says.
‘Keep going with the gas.’
We cut the jacket off and the layers beneath it, exposing the site of the injury. Gross mobility in the centre of his upper arm; the skin bulging dangerously when he repositions himself on the trolley. We immobilise his arm as best we can with a vacuum splint, then set off.


Back at the nurse’s station later that day a doctor obliges us by tapping Craig’s name into the computer and bringing up his x-ray.
‘That’s the fellow. Ouch.’
Through the translucent ghost of Craig’s flesh the outline of his fractured humerus, the central section neatly punched out in a ragged, trapezoid shape.
‘Is that what you’d call a comminuted fracture, then?’
‘Yep. That’s it.’
Another doctor who’d been standing alongside him at the counter writing up a report looks up, leans across, and taps the screen with his pen.
‘Actually, no. Not anymore. We’re supposed to call them multi-fragmentary fractures these days.’
‘Multi-fragmentary? Since when?’
‘Since – forever.’
‘Why did they change it?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says, going back to his report. ‘Maybe they thought comminuted was too obscure.’
‘It took me ages to remember comminuted.’
‘Multi-fragmentary’s more descriptive.’
‘Well, hello! Welcome to the world of medicine! The whole thing’s founded on obscure words no-one can remember.’
The other doctor shrugs again.
The first one looks back at the screen.
After studying the screen for a second or two more he sighs, shuts the window down and says: ‘It’s going to hurt, whatever you call it.’

Monday, October 11, 2010


Hassan is waiting for us in front of the department store window, lit from behind, looking up and down the high street with a mobile phone in one hand, one hand pressing a handkerchief to the side of his face, as if one of the mannequins had magically stepped through the glass and was standing there waiting to see what would happen next. When he sees us pull up he finishes his call and walks over.
‘Hi. Guys. Thanks for coming.’
‘What happened to you?’
‘Oh. These guys. They jumped me as I came past, punched me in the face, stole my bag. Fuck. I’m okay, though. I’m okay. I think.’
I open up the side door of the truck and he sits down on the forward seat.
‘Thanks. Thanks a lot,’ he says.
I turn on the examination light and check his injuries; a few scuffs and lumps, a line of blood running down the side of his face and congealing under his chin.
‘Were you knocked out?’
‘No. It’s fine. I’m okay.’
I carry on checking him over. There is a coolly competent air about him, something contained, that makes the whole job clean and quick, like opening up a car bonnet and checking the oil. I hand him some cleansing wipes.
There is a knock on the door – a police officer, taking off his hat and smiling up into the truck.
‘Sorry it took a while,’ he says.
‘Ah. No worries,’ says Hassan. ‘I’m okay. Really.’
Frank has filled in most of the form. He hands me the clip board.
‘So. Are you working or studying?’
‘I’m a student at the university. I started my course a couple of weeks ago.’
‘What are you studying?’
He stops wiping his bloodied hands for a second and smiles.
‘Disaster management,’ he says.
Frank laughs and folds his arms.
‘What’s this, then? Homework?’

Saturday, October 09, 2010

another drinking thing

A stooped, liverish man with heavy framed glasses and a white stick meets us at the entrance.
‘It is Geri you’ve come for?’ he says, leaning forwards and tilting his head in an effort to eke out what vision he has with as much other information as he can. ‘Is it?’
‘Flat 93’ I say. ‘We don’t have a name.’
‘It is Geri,’ he says, confirmed, then turns round to hold his electronic key fob against the plate. ‘Thanks for coming.’
‘Are you a relative?’
‘No, I’m Tom. Just a friend. We were all in the pub together, but Geri and Paul had another big fight, and she came back on her own. She gave me a call about an hour later to say she’d taken this overdose. Oh God I hope she’s okay.’
He leads us into the lobby, a resonant cube of cold green tiles, the air metalled with chlorine, wet denim and urine.
‘These damn lifts,’ he says, as we wait together.
‘Has Geri done this before?’
‘Oh yes,’ he says, quite matter of fact. And then: ‘Paul’s up there with her now. He’s had a skin full, so watch out.’
We ride up to the top floor together. The down lighters in the ceiling wash us of vitality; our reflections stare back at us as we rise up, a huddle of fish in a neglected aquarium. We judder to a halt.
‘This way.’
He shuffles along a corridor to a sudden turn at the end that brings us to a half-open door. He pushes it aside and calls out ‘Paul.’ We follow him in.

From one of the rooms that lead off inside a large man lurches out in front of us, a phone gripped in his fist. Tom steps neatly round him and on into a bedroom. We follow on, the man turning slowly as we pass.
Inside the bedroom a fried blond, middle-aged woman is lying flat on her back on the bed, her coat still on and damp from the rain, her hands stuffed in her pockets, puffing out her cheeks and snoring like a drunk on a bench. Frank goes over to assess her; just as he does, the large man comes into the bedroom behind me. I turn round to tell him what to expect, what our plan of action is at the moment. But before I say a word, he shouts at me.
‘Where the fuck were you?’
Without waiting for a reply he raises his chin, and fixes me with a contemptuous stare as he puts the phone back up to his mouth. ‘I hope you’re making a note of the time?’ he bellows, presumably to the ambulance call taker still on the line. ‘Half a fucking hour. Half an hour!’
It throws me so much I don’t say anything. I drove to the address as fast as I could, as soon as we took the job, because it was given as a Category A, and I had just eight minutes to make it from the far side of town. And despite the heavy rain and the dark and the traffic, I made it in eight. What could he mean?
‘Yeah! You go on, mate!’ he says. ‘You go on with your innocent looks,’ waving the phone at me. ‘I know what you’re like, you paramedics. I know how it is with you bastards. Leaving people to die you don’t like the look of.’
I had been completely wrong-footed by his hostility; in fact I had fully expected him to thank us for getting there so quickly. The injustice of it sparks me into a flare of my own.
‘Get out! You’re rude, you’re aggressive and I want you out. Out! Now! Or we’ll get the police up here and have you arrested for obstruction.’
Before he can say anything else I push him backwards and slam the door in his face. My heart is thumping and I find it hard to say anything more for a moment. I fully expect him to come crashing back through the door, but after a moment or two it seems he has gone off to some other room. I turn to the others. Tom lowers his head and taps the bed thoughtfully with his stick.
‘Like I said, they’ve had a skin full.’
Frank shrugs and directs his attention back to Geri.


The overdose isn’t as serious as all that, but we can’t leave her. She wants to sleep it off, but although she consistently bats away our efforts, Tom uses some leverage to coax her out of the flat and down to the ambulance.
Paul emerges as we head for the lift, but doesn’t say another word.


At the hospital whilst we’re waiting for Frank to come back from the desk with a cubicle number, I ask Tom how he came to be partially sighted.
‘Oh. Another drinking thing,’ he says. ‘I was in the pub. This guy fell off his stool and put his hands out to save himself. Unfortunately I was standing next to him. His fingers went up under my glasses and his dirty old nails dug into my eyes. They got infected. I lost all the sight in this one, and eighty per cent in this one.’
Geri coughs and retches on the trolley between us.
‘Anyway. Thanks for coming out tonight,’ he says, touching her on the hand and giving it a comforting squeeze. ‘Don’t pay any mind to what Paul says. He doesn’t mean it. It’s just the drink talking.’

Monday, October 04, 2010

big happy birthday

This junction is one of the busiest city intersections, dividing it cleanly east-west, north-south. On one quarter of the compass, the Red Hat, a trendy coffee bar with silver tables and chairs outside and crazy decals on the windows; on the point opposite, an ethnic grocery store, slanted tables stacked with beef tomatoes, okra, corn on the cob, garlic ropes, buckets of olives and a stretched canvas awning to keep it all dry; diagonally across, a row of smaller, less well-appointed businesses – Spirited Away, a cheap wine, beer and DVD shop, and its next door neighbour, a wire-mesh protected internet café (cheap international calls / SIM cards unlocked), and then, on the final quarter, a supermarket’s latest castle of occupation, slick and efficiently rendered, like an architect’s model instantly built to scale.

But it’s late now and everything – even the internet café – is dark.

Approaching along the high street from the east we can see a sparkle of blue lights cannoning off the buildings – a police van, parked on a skew, and on the pavement beside it, a man face down, his arms held behind his back by two police officers. A third waves to us. I hit the at scene button, and climb out.

‘We’ve got a chap here, don’t know his name, can’t get much sense out of him. He was involved in an altercation with some other people. There was a fight and this one hit the deck. Not exactly sure of his injuries, because he’s – erm – difficult to talk to. I should imagine he’s taken some kind of drug because he’s pretty fired up. Anyway, see what you think.’

The man would seem to be about thirty, dressed in a neat check suit and suede shoes, his shirt unbuttoned to his belt buckle and his wild black hair whipping round as he strains to lift his head and curse everyone within range.

I walk over, squat down. He whips his head round to look at me.

‘Fuck you, my friend. Yes, that’s right – fuck you. Who do you think you are? Hmm? Get off me! I’m going to kill you all.’
‘Just try and slow it down for a minute, will you? My name’s Spence. This is Frank. We’re with the ambulance.’
‘Oh. How nice. The ambulance, ay? Well you know what you fucking ambulance? Why don’t you go and fuck yourself, and when you’re done, why don’t I kill you and throw you on a heap with the rest of them? Hmm? Do you like the sound of that, ambulance? Hm?’
‘Well. No. Not particularly. Listen – what’s your name at least?’
‘My name? You want my name? Fuck you. How’s that name for you? Fuck you.’
I stand up. ‘Well he’s quite lucid at least.’
Suddenly he makes another crazed effort to wrest his arms away from the two police officers. But they have him under control and finally he gives up with a scream of unsuppressed rage. A crowd of clubbers try to walk around us and the other officer has to usher them to a safer distance.
‘Good luck to you mate,’ one shouts out to the man on the ground.
‘Leave him alone, you fascist.’
No-one pays them any attention. More people are gathering on the street corners, entertainment on a slow night.
‘What do you want us to do with him?’ one of the officers says.
‘Let’s stand him up and see if we can make out what’s going on.’
‘We’ve already called a van up, by the way. We’re quite happy to take him off to the cells on a D&D if you think there’s nothing medical.’
‘Let’s see.’
They explain to the man what they want him to do; he listens, breathing hard, obviously biding his time for an opportunity to escape.
‘Yes, sir,’ he says. ‘Of course, sir.’
Eventually they manage to get him back on his feet. He stands there, his arms behind his back, staggering from foot to foot, breathing hard, his long hair swinging in saturated coils and his eyes flicking around him like a bated animal in a pit.
‘What’s happened to you tonight?’ I ask him. ‘What’s brought you to this?’
Suddenly he seems to collect himself. He takes a deep breath, then raises his head up slowly to look me full in the face. I wonder for a moment if he’s about to spit; he has blood on him, and I don’t want to catch any in the eye. I can’t help but take a step back, which he reads with a sly smile.
‘Ah! Look at this doctor! Okay, Mr Doctor. I tell you what happen to me, Mr Doctor. It is my birthday. I come out tonight. I drink with friends. We have good time. This man fight with me. I fight with him. The police they come and throw me on the ground like a dog. Okay, Mr Doctor? Yeah? You fix me up? Yeah? You like that? Big Happy Birthday?’
He screws his face up and begins to cry.
‘First things first,’ I say to him. ‘Do you have any pain? Did you hurt your neck when you fell?’
I reach forward and feel the back of his neck. ‘Does that hurt?’
He looks up again.
‘Do you have any pain anywhere?’
‘My whole body is pain. My whole life is pain.’
‘What’s your medical history? Are you diabetic, for instance?’
‘Fuck you, Mr Doctor. Fuck you and your big idea. Fuck this shit. Let me go.’
He arches his back and drops down in an effort to wrong foot the officers and break free of their grip. But they anticipate his move, and use his momentum to put him back on the ground. Another police van pulls up.
‘I don’t think we’re going to get very far with this guy. If you’re happy to take him to the cells, I think that’s going to be the safest place for everyone. He’ll just be a liability down the hospital.’

We climb back into the truck and finish the paperwork, the screams of the man as a team of officers drag him into the truck fading as the ambulance window slides back up into the closed position.

Sunday, October 03, 2010


Night across town. A light rain sweeping in, but the air is warm, and the effect is of a feverish, humidifying spray in a hot house. The serious hours now, that gruelling stretch between midnight and dawn when the crowds re-form in the streets and migrate along well-worn routes to the hardcore party territories of the clubs and late licence bars along the front. We run from job to job; we need a different kind of ambulance, a Saturday night special, a cow-catcher at the front, a side-grabber for easy loading, nothing on board that can’t be jet-washed or thrown away.

Jake is led out of the club by an honour guard of arm-banded bouncers and police in fluorescent jackets. He is bloodied, ragged, his arms passively down at his sides, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, a strangely passive demeanour, that in this thumping element has the effect of a saint being led through a mob to the scaffold. We help him onto the ambulance; he bows his head when he sits on the chair.
‘So what happened?’
He looks up without expression.
‘Julie accidentally spilled her drink on another girl. She apologised, it all seemed okay. I’d gone to the loo, but when I came back the girl was there with a couple of her friends and they were screaming at her. So I just touched this girl on the arm and said something like just calm down or something. Next thing I know there were all these guys. One of them threw a glass in my face. I was punched and fell over. When I was on the floor someone was jabbing a glass in my face, and there were kicks and punches coming in from everywhere. I tried to curl up and protect myself as best I could.’
He has several cuts over his face and hands – a deep one behind his ear that somehow misses his major blood vessels.
‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’
I pull up his shirt. Amongst everything else his back is patterned with a dreadful series of deep, strawberry coloured wheals, finger-width apart, as if someone has clawed at him with a garden rake.
‘Yeah. The girls joined in,’ he says. Even the police woman lowers her notepad.
‘Why would they do that?’ she says.
There’s a knock on the back door.
Frank opens it to see: a pale young girl who’s been crying so much her mascara is spread around her eyes in two watery patches. Jake slowly turns his head.
‘Come on in,’ says Frank.
But the girl doesn’t move. She stands outside in the rain, seems to ripple in and out of focus, slowly puts her hand to her mouth and stares.
Frank opens the dressings bag.
‘O-kay’ he says.