Wednesday, December 28, 2011

the saviour of the streets

Control make it plain.
‘Operation Wipeout is now declared. Multiple red calls stacking without any resources to assign. Please would all crews clear up as quickly as possible. Control out.’
They’ll sit on less urgent calls until the situation eases, but for now it’s looking grim.

Which makes it all the harder to deal with a drunk on a bench.
‘He’s not unconscious,’ I tell the man standing next to him. ‘Look. You can tell by the way he’s holding his eyes shut. His blood sugar is fine, so he’s not having a hypo. All his obs are normal. He’s faking it, I’m afraid.’
‘But I don’t understand. Why would he do that?’
I step back and let Frank torture the guy with a discrete but dreadful range of painful stimuli whilst I talk to the patient’s friend.
‘Let’s start with his name.’
‘I don’t know this. I only met him in morning. We stay at same hostel. He thrown into street for being too much drunk.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘He came with me here – okay - sat on benches. Okay. Then he ask me call for ambulance and lay down like this.’
‘Do you know if he suffers with anything?’
‘What is this “suffers”?’
‘Does he have anything wrong with him?’
The man shrugs. ‘I met him in morning. I don’t know this things.’
I hear an irritated growl and see the man batting away Frank’s hand.
‘Leave me alone!’ he spits through gritted teeth.
‘Come on, mate,’ says Frank. ‘Sit up and be nice. It’s a busy night. There are people out there who actually need us.’
‘I’m sorry if I waste time,’ says the man. ‘I didn’t know what to do. He says “call ambulance” so I call ambulance. Why he pretend is sick?’
I shrug.
‘If he was thrown out of the hostel for being drunk, he might just want a comfortable bed for a few hours.’
‘Like this?’
‘It happens.’
Despite Frank’s best efforts, the man lies as inertly as before, flopping out an arm so that to the late night shoppers passing by he looks dead. They frown at us as they hurry by, wondering why we’re not busily getting our stretcher out, giving him oxygen, doing the ER hustle.
‘The next step is the police,’ says Frank, prodding the guy in the shoulder. ‘Drunk and disorderly. Is that what you want?’
No reaction, so Frank unclips his radio and requests police attendance.

The friend watches the whole thing with his hands buried in the pockets of his jacket and his head on a disappointed tilt.
‘You’re a good friend to him,’ I say. ‘He doesn’t deserve you.’
‘I am from Armenia,’ says the man. ‘I am classical pianist come Great Britain to work. Kitchen, pubs and things. Just to get place, you know? To get a-started. But in my travels through Europe I seen much violence, much unhappy. I don’t like this thing, of course, but I help if I can.’ He shrugs again, but keeps his hands firmly in his pockets. ‘What else to do?’

The police arrive. I explain the situation to them. The Armenian offers them his name and what he knows; they thank him, then go over to the drunk on the bench.

Just then another figure appears on the scene - a tall, well-dressed man in a three-quarter length herring bone tweed coat. His face has a slack and aggressive pallor, as if his big night out turned into an emotional filleting. Without saying or offering anything, he comes and stands close up behind one of the police officers. She immediately turns and holds out the flat of her hand to him.
‘Could you not stand behind me, please, sir? I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.’
‘What? What the fuck? What have I done? Jesus – some people! You have a real problem, lady. A real problem.’
I want the police to deal with the drunk quickly so we can get away and help out with the stacking red calls.
‘Do you know anyone here?’ I ask the man.
He shakes his head.
‘Well in that case could you just keep out of the way? You’re not helping, and it’s really none of your business.’
He stares at me vacantly, then shuffles back to have another look.
‘Seriously – what is wrong with you?’ I say to him, grabbing him by the shoulder and turning him round. ‘Just back off!’
Both police officers turn their attention on the man.
‘Move away now. Now! I’ve told you – don’t stand behind me. So move!’
He shuffles a little way off and then stands in the road, swaying from side to side. And although I know it’s because of the alcohol, it could just as well be the blurring effects of his disdain. He stands there, sneering and cursing, spitting into the road.
I look from the drunk on the bench – who is getting up now, swearing horribly and straightening himself up – to the strange man in the herring-bone coat in the street, and then to the Armenian guy who stands taking it all in with his hands buried warmly in his pockets. It’s strangely comforting to see him there, standing neutrally, a traveller with an instinct for kindness, helping despite needing help himself, doing his best to make things come out right.
‘Thanks for your help,’ I say to him.
He shrugs. ‘What else to do?’ he says.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

criminal crackers

SK: (to man hyperventilating on trolley) Would you say you’d been particularly stressed lately?
He nods
SK: Anything in particular?
MAN: The Witness Protection Programme


YOUNG GIRL: My eldest sister’s coming back from university tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to doing the usual Christmas things – opening presents, eating loads, playing games…
SK: Oh yeah? What kind of games?
YG: Newmarket, Rummy, Cluedo, Monopoly. Cluedo’s a favourite. Which is funny ‘cos my sister’s away studying Forensic Psychology. She always loses, though. I think she’s so busy profiling Colonel Mustard she forgets to mark her cards.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thanks so much for reading this year. I must say I think you all deserve a medal or at least some kind of certificate for wading through some of these descriptions...

Anyway, have a great Christmas - and here's to 2012!


Sunday, December 18, 2011

more bigger magic

The logo for the Woodfield housing estate is an oak tree powering up between the D and the F to spread its canopy right and left over the word. But if the keywords of the logo were maybe ‘shelter’ and ‘protection’, the architects have fixated on the ‘protection’ and translated it into a spread of buildings with the charm of a bunker, the openness of a castle and the joie de vivre of a prison. Three blocks to the Woodfield housing estate, then, each with a sylvan name, each rising up in a generous slab of brick, and each with a parallel sequence of walkways running their length, between stairwells that rise up to the flat roof like gun turrets. And if the logo is based on an oak, it’s not a species that’s been seen round here recently. Nature has retreated to an embattled straggle of drought resistant plants in the flower beds that edge the car park, everything meanly bitten down, strewn with takeaway cartons and drink cans.

We go to buzz the intercom at the bottom of the furthest stairwell, but the door’s held open by a traffic cone so we go up unannounced. The familiar stairwell ambience. You could bottle it. Squaleur by Givenchy. I can imagine the advert – a glamorous model running down the stairs two at a time, shirt undone, chased by the paparazzi. Something like that. As credible as the tree logo, anyway.

Mrs Po lives here with her son, Chen, in the middle flat on the top floor. He meets us at the door, a slim, powerfully built twenty year old soberly dressed in a dark blue suit.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he says, giving us a polite bob of the head and shoulders and then moving some stuff so we can get in the door. ‘Mother’s upstairs in the bedroom. I’m afraid she’s been unwell for a few days now. She’s diabetic and can’t afford to be sick like this for long. I rang the doctor and he said you’d be coming.’
‘Let’s go and say hello.’

Mrs Po is shivering under a mountain pile of duvets, knitted covers and coats. In fact any layer that might possibly give any warmth has been dragged onto the bed. There is a litre bottle of mineral water and a plastic bucket down on the carpet; around the bed, tacked up on the walls, are a disparate spread of Chinese prints, scroll poems, 3D pictures of the Last Supper and out of date calendars.

Chen talks to his mother in Cantonese, and after a pause, she slowly pokes the top of her head above the layers. Chen kneels onto the bed and helps sit her up.
Mrs Po is a petite woman made completely round by wearing just about every article of clothing she owns. It makes me think of how we used to make snowmen – rolling a snowball so that it grew fatter and fatter the more layers of snow it accumulated.
‘I feel hot just looking at you,’ I say. Chen translates. Mrs Po swipes the air dismissively.
We check her over. She has a temperature. Frank sets up the chair and we help her out of the bed and onto it. She agrees to take off some of her coats, but insists on putting on an extraordinary hat – something like a waste paper basket knitted out of turquoise rope and finished with a spray of plastic flowers.
‘Her lucky hat,’ says Chen, moving more stuff so we can manoeuvre out of the bedroom. He wheels aside a tall, rectangular box on wheels.
‘That’s the weirdest shopping trolley I’ve ever seen,’ I say.
‘It’s for my drum kit. It’s got all my stands and sticks.’
‘Cool! A drummer!’
‘Not for much longer. I’m thinking of giving it up. I’m getting tired of hauling all this shit up the stairs.’
‘Have you thought about the harmonica?’ says Frank, putting Mrs Po’s meds into a plastic bag.
‘Often,’ says Chen. ‘Oh. By the way. Sorry about the smell.’
‘What smell?’
‘Tiger Balm. I’m afraid mother is mad about tiger balm. She thinks it will cure all her ills. She uses it for her rheumatism, her asthma, her migraines - everything.’
‘I like the smell.’
‘Really? I suppose I’ve forgotten what it’s actually like, I’ve been around it so long. Mother used to make me wear it to school. It’s even good for exam results, apparently. Although not so much in my case.’
‘Bit like ginseng, is it? A magical herb?’
‘More bigger magic,’ says Chen, holding the door open for me as I wheel Mrs Po out towards the stairwell. ‘And I suppose you can’t have too much of that.’

Thursday, December 15, 2011

jason's mum

‘He’s round the back having a fag.’
It’s five in the morning, but the teenage girl has a chemical vibrancy about her that jars with the low-tide silence of the street. There are screams and shouts further along just out of sight, and she straightens like an animal caught standing too long.
‘Don’t take him to hospital’ she says, and then, just before she runs off, ‘He don’t like needles.’
‘What’s his name?’
She shakes her tangled hair out then sprints away, the sounds of her shouts blending with those of her friends, a wild call and response that echoes around the parked cars and curtained windows.
We pick our way through cardboard boxes, stacks of broken tiles and rusted engine parts to the front door of the house. It’s unfastened and swings open a little when I knock.
‘Hello? Ambulance.’
But Jason appears around the side of the house. A striking looking kid with spikes of ice-blond hair and a preternaturally wide-eyed expression. His left arm is elevated up to his shoulder in a makeshift tea towel sling, parcelled up with tightly knotted rags and strips of cloth
‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Okay. We’ll get you on the ambulance and have a look at your arm there. Is your mum or dad about?’
‘My mum.’ He nods towards the house. ‘But I’m all right if you just want to go.’
‘How old are you, Jason?’
‘So we’ll need to speak to her about all this and have her along as well. Why don’t you go with Frank to the ambulance and I’ll go in and get her.’
He shrugs, then follows Frank through the garden.
I turn back to the house and knock again. The door swings wider onto a darkly narrow hallway with newspaper on the floor and piles of rubbish pushed up out of the way under the stairs. A low grade sweat to the air of dog, dust, smoke and reheated fat; the wallpaper has a repeating flowery motif, but in the general gloom I could swear it was the social services logo and hotline.
A woman appears at the end of the corridor, forty going on eighty, thin and stooped, her long hair almost catching on the tip of her cigarette.
‘Thank you for coming. He’s just outside.’
She speaks in that overly precise way drunk people use when they don’t want to appear drunk. She finishes speaking, and watches her words float away from her like strange balloons down the hallway. Then she nods once and shuffles off into the sitting room. I follow her.
‘Are you Jason’s mum?’
She draws on her cigarette and squints at me through the smoke.
‘I am.’
‘Well – as he’s only fifteen, we’ll need to talk to you about what’s happened.’
She steadies herself against the wall.
‘I’ll just get my bag.’
‘We’ll be outside.’

Frank has already cut off the extemporary bandaging and cleaned the wounds – a gout of flesh from the underside of his forearm, and the tip of his index finger missing.
‘He says they were play-fighting and he fell down on a broken bottle.’ Frank starts bandaging the wounds up. ‘We need to get you up the hospital, fella,’ he says.
‘I don’t want no needles. I hate needles.’
‘Don’t worry about that, Jason. They’re experts at this stuff. They do it all the time. They’ll take really good care of you. I’m not going to say it won’t hurt, mate, ‘cos it probably will. But you’re a tough kid and I’m sure you can cope.’
Jason watches as he gently dresses the arm.
‘Will I lose my finger?’ he says.
‘I don’t think so. But that’s a nasty injury to the tip. That’ll need special attention.
Jason chews his lip.
‘I hate needles,’ he says, finally.
‘Who bandaged your arm, Jason?’
He turns his wide eyes in my direction.
‘My step father.’
‘And where’s your step father now?’
‘I don’t know. Asleep?’
Jason’s mum appears at the ambulance door. She is so unsteady on her feet I have to get out and help her up the stairs. She’s of no use as a guardian, but I want her at the hospital to talk to the staff.
‘There you go!’ I say.
I settle her into a seat and she sits quietly for a moment, catching her breath, hugging a large, brown leather shoulder bag on her lap. Suddenly she frowns, opens it up and starts digging around inside, leaning over so precipitously that only the seatbelt stops her pitching head first into it.
‘Jason stayed round his friend’s house last night,’ she says, finally pulling herself up again, as if she’d just remembered the lines of a script. ‘He fell on some glass.’
Frank has finished dressing Jason’s arm. He tidies all his stuff away.
‘I think we’re set,’ he says.
‘How will I get back?’ says the mum. ‘I can’t find my phone.’
‘Bus? Taxi?’
‘I haven’t got any money.’
Frank hesitates for a second, then snaps off his gloves.
‘We’ll think of something,’ he says. ‘Okay, kidda? Ready? Let’s go.’

Monday, December 12, 2011


I’m a hard man, me. Ex marine commando. Do you know what that means? I don’t think you understand what that means. I’m so full of – rage. D’you know?
‘Who at?’
‘Why are you so full of rage?’
‘Listen. Don’t you take the michael out of me, mister. I’m set to go. I’m ready for anything.’
‘You’ve no call to get punchy with me, Patrick. I’m here to help.’
‘Listen. I’ll try to explain. I’m a hard man. I’m handy with my fists, d’you understand me? Ask anyone. They’ll say – Yep, Patrick. He’s a hard man. He’ll have a go, no problem. And I will. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care what happens to me. I’m ex-army. A boxer. I’ll tell you something. I met a real famous person. Guess who it was.’
‘I don’t know. A boxer?’
His head nods back and his eyes close, like those dolls where the eyelids tip shut when you lie them down. When he raises his head up again they spring back open; he takes a gulp of air and re-orientates himself in the ambulance.
‘Who did you meet? What boxer?’
He breathes heavily through a nose that’s as bulbous and pock-marked as a specimen of alien fruit. Talking is an effort for Patrick. His system is so swamped with alcohol and his senses so numbed by lying on the pavement in the rain, he has to take a series of internal run-ups to find the words and get them out.
‘Listen. I’m ex-army. Marine commando. Tough as you want. And I fancied myself too. I met this guy. He said to me – Do you box? And I said – Maybe. He said – I reckon you’re a fighter. So I said – Yep. You got it. I’m a fighter all right. And I looked him up and down, and I thought - So that’s what you’re after. And I’ll do it, my friend. I’ll take any fucker. So I said – What about you, then? You a fighter? He said – Yep. I do my share. So I said – Is that right? And he said – Yep. And there was something about him. Something – I don’t know. Handy. So we parted friends – bosh - that was that. Then I found out who it was.’
‘Terry Downes. Middleweight champion of the world.’
‘Good job you didn’t start anything, then.’
‘Me? Pah! I don’t care about that. I’m ex marine commando. I don’t give a fuck what I do.’

Saturday, December 10, 2011

lena and sammy

It will be dawn soon. The night is thinning, drawing away from a scattering of lead coloured clouds low on the horizon. The streets are quiet, except for a shift worker in a fluorescent jacket pedalling home, a few cars heading out to the motorway.
Lena is waiting for us at a bus stop. She is wearing a Russian furry hat with ear flaps, and a fake leopard skin coat over her PJ’s. She makes no movement to show that the ambulance is for her, but when we pull up she wanders over to the kerb and waits there, swaying slightly, her mobile phone up under one of the flaps, but not talking into it, either listening to what the person is saying, or pretending to.
‘Are you the patient?’ I ask, climbing out.
She nods – a small movement, as if anything larger would pitch her into the road.
‘Let’s get you on board and we’ll have a chat.’
She drops the phone into her pocket and waits neutrally as I open the side door, then shuffles forwards.

Lena’s eyelashes spike out around her wide eyes like the pupils were black pebbles dropped in a pond. It takes an effort of will for her just to keep upright on the ambulance seat; she holds herself there, a prematurely aged, forty year old woman, reduced by the hour and the hard white light, her body insulated from the cold by the coat and hat just as effectively as her awareness is insulated by alcohol.
‘I want my fucking things back,’ she says. ‘I want them back.’
‘First things first, Lena. Why have you called the ambulance?’
‘I want my fucking things back. She cheated me and locked me out. She can’t do that to me. I’ll fucking kill her. I know my rights.’
‘Okay. But that’s something else, Lena. We’re the ambulance, not the police. We’re here to help you if you’re sick or you’ve hurt yourself.’
She starts to cry, with that calamitous drop into total misery you sometimes see in toddlers.
‘How dare she? I am not a piece of shit.’
I pass her some tissue, and she pushes it into her face.
‘So which one is your flat?’
She shrugs.
‘Flat? I don’t have no flat. I haven’t got nothing, mate. Except my things. Will you go and get them off her for me?’
‘We’re not the police, Lena.’
She blows her nose and then slumps back in the seat.
‘Are you unwell in any way?’
‘Are you in pain?’
She squeezes her eyes shut and taps at the middle of her chest with the ball of tissue.
‘What do you mean? Chest pain?’
She opens her eyes again, turns the corners of her mouth down and wobbles her head slightly.
‘That bitch broke my heart. I thought she was my friend!’
‘Okay. Have you taken an overdose?’
‘No, mate. I haven’t taken no overdose. But yeah - maybe I should. I haven’t taken any of my pills for five days.’
‘What pills are they, Lena?’
She sighs, then names a run of psych meds.
‘You know – if you stop taking those meds suddenly it can really affect your mood. It can make things seem really out of whack.’
‘They are out of whack. I’ve spent my whole life out of whack.’
She leans forward, and I have to put my hand on her shoulder to stop her falling out of the chair.
‘I was eighteen when I was pregnant with my little girl. And do you know what they said to me? They said: “She might take a while to come out”. So I said “What d’you mean? I’m having her out right now.” So I pushed as hard as I could, and she practically flew across the room, along with all my tubes. And now I’ve got pain down there all the time. And I thought Sammy cared about that, ‘cos exactly the same thing happened to her.’
Lena straightens herself up in the chair and blows her nose. I give her some fresh tissue and dump the old. And as if blowing her nose was all she needed to do to put herself in a better mood, she folds her arms across her lap and smiles.
‘She’s a good girl, Sammy. You know the first time I went to stay with her I asked if I could borrow her razor and she said “No – I’m Hep C positive.” She didn’t have to say that, but it just goes to show.’
‘That is considerate.’
‘She’s very considerate, Sammy is. And she’s been through it. She’s had it all happen to her. She was raped. Only I was gang raped. When I was eighteen. And do you know what they did to me after they were done? Do you know what they did after they’d finished and I was crawling around in the garden? They threw food at me. Food! Sammy’ll tell you. She’s been through it. I lived with a man for twenty years and he beat me every single day. He beat me and used me and kept me as a prisoner. But what do you do? What do you do when you love someone like that?’
‘They’re terrible things to have happened, Lena.’
‘They were terrible. And now look.’
She straightens her hat and stares at me.
'I want my fucking things back. Are you going to go and get them for me or what?’

Friday, December 09, 2011

looking for helen

The storm has grown in strength as the day retreated and now it holds dominion, raging along the lane, thrashing through trees and bushes, shivering lampposts to the root, tearing on into the dark in a panic of leaves and twigs and anything else without attachment to the world. It snatches the gate out of my hand when I lift the catch, then bullies on ahead through stands of lavender, a scattering of pots, and up through the pergola of wild rose that frames the little porch of Myrtle Cottage. A police officer in a yellow jacket is sheltering there, directing the beam of his torch along the path.
‘Good timing,’ he shouts. ‘We’re just about to break in.’

A cause for concern. Helen had rung NHS Direct complaining of feeling unwell. But before the call taker had time to give her advice or find out more, there was the sound of a scream and the line went dead.
‘She had a fall the other day. Nothing serious. Given some pain meds and discharged. That’s all we know,’ I tell the officer, leaning in so he can hear.

A dog barks from deep inside the cottage.
‘I think they’re in,’ he says. Moments later, a bolt is thrown and the door opens.

The other two police officers have turned on whatever lights they could as they came through, illuminating a low-ceilinged honeycomb of a building, eerily undisturbed. For a moment or two we stand together in the kitchen and the tiny hallway. Even the dog – an elderly Airedale with a disappointed expression – stands with us, tolerating an encouraging scratch behind the ear from one of the police officers. He looks round at the quiet house as bemused as the rest of us.

We split up to search the place.

Helen? Helen?

Myrtle cottage must at one time have been at least two or three buildings, but in the hundreds of years since the floor plan has changed endlessly. Now it is a muddled affiliation of rooms and annexes, staircases and walk-in cupboards, outbuildings and attic studies.

Helen? Helen?

Leading on with the torch. It’s impossible to predict the depth of space behind each door. Patting for switches that aren’t there or don’t work. Probing ahead, and the torchlight plays across a furry bed cover crumpled at the foot of a bed; a giant teddy on a rocking chair; a dressing gown hanging from a hook; a reflection of light from a framed photo; a glass of water on a side table; across shelves bowed with a weight of books; tables strewn with notebooks, baskets, ornate boxes, saucers of trinkets, little ceramic trays of make-up. Checking the bathroom (the bath). The airing cupboard, the linen closet. At any moment expecting to hear something, to see something – someone.

Helen? Helen?

Nothing upstairs.

Out into the garden, where the storm chases its tail around the house.
The coal shed, a garage converted into a studio, with more shelves of books, musty boxes of children’s toys from the fifties, a clear area at the back with a table set for spraying and stencilling.

Helen? Helen?

The summer house, locked and dark. The torch through the patio doors – Bugs Bunny in a rictus of astonishment, propped up against a stack of spotted chair cushions, a folded umbrella. Round to the greenhouse, the overgrown path at the side of the house, the log pile, the tool shed, a muddled stack of logs, a rusted barbeque equipment, an extension at the back – another studio, with a chair and a desk of papers, a lamp, a book on astronomy, a mug, a plastic kettle.

Helen? Helen?

Nothing found, we all re-group in the kitchen.

Whatever may have happened here, there’s no sign of Helen and no patient to treat. Our best guess is that the call-taker misinterpreted the scream. Perhaps she put the phone down for some other, more innocent reason, and simply left the house to get help or do something unconnected.
‘We’ll stay here and try to find out more,’ says the first police officer. ‘We’ll talk to neighbours, make some calls. The door needs securing too, of course. But thanks for coming out. Sorry it was a waste of time.’
The Airedale accompanies us to the door. I catch a last glimpse of him staring glumly out as we leave. And maybe it’s because the house seems so thick-walled and low and sheltering, with its tiny windows glowing in the dark, but when the old door shuts behind us, the storm seems wilder, ready to jump down hungrily and snatch us up before we make the ambulance.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


We’re sitting in the rec room. One of the older paramedics has got on to the subject of elderly drivers and their adventures in automatics.

‘I remember we went to this job,’ he says. ‘An elderly couple, just back from the shops. His wife gets out and goes to unlock, the husband puts the car in reverse to put it away in the garage. But something happens – who knows what – his foot gets stuck or something. Anyway, the car shoots back, crashes through the garage door, out through the garage wall, ploughs across the garden, through a washing line, the flower beds, on through a brick wall and out into the street behind where it smashes into a passing van. When we get there the guy is still in the driver’s seat looking a bit shaken up but not too bad, considering. He mentions about his wife, but there’s no sign of her. So we put him on a back board and get him on the ambulance. After a little while there’s a knock on the door and there’s a firefighter standing there. “You’d better come and look at this” he says. So I leave the guy with my mate and I follow him back over to the car. The firefighter points to it and says “Have a good look under there, mate, and tell me what you see.” Well there’s a ton of shit like you might expect – rubble, soil from the garden, a rose bush, all sorts. And then I notice a pink slipper. “Can you figure it out yet?” he says. And that’s when I realised what it was – the guy’s wife was wrapped up under the car, her legs over here… her arms over there… but so caught up in everything you could hardly tell it was a person at all.’
I lean forward in my chair. ‘Was she all right, then?’
‘Of course she wasn’t all right!’ snorts Earle, a new paramedic, boots up on a stool, the labels still stuck on the soles. ‘She’s just been run over by a car, mate! What do you think?’
A pause, and then Frank stands up and saves me with his mug.
‘Anyone for tea?’ he says.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

the time or the place

We’ve been standing outside the ambulance station since six o’clock. The sky is lightening now, but heavy grey clouds keep appearing overhead and soaking us. We cradle our mugs to keep warm, shuffle from foot to foot, wave at the cars that hoot as they pass. Three hours already. The march through town is next. It’ll be good to move.

It was fraught at first. Despite the friendly tone, there was still a discernible charge of something between the crews that were reporting for duty in uniform, and those that had decided to strike.
‘It’s a question of conscience, mate. You can only do what you think is right.’
Everyone knows it. But this business of being in uniform, or out of it – the difference is more than just clothing.

People have been passing all morning, and we’ve chatted to some. About how the public sector is being throttled, the cost of living going up, the pay freeze, the pension hike. A cameraman arrives in a blacked-out van. He waits until the current shower passes, then wanders over to take mood shots of our flags. We wonder when the interviewer will come over to ask us some questions, but nothing happens. The cameraman gets back in his van. They drive off.
The march from a nearby hospital is due to pass by soon and we’re getting ready to tag along, when a shabby looking guy in a hunting cap and combat trousers, a black bin liner over his shoulder, pauses by the entrance, and makes a show of reading the signs. Then as if something he read there has interested him, he walks up and sets his bin liner on the wet tarmac in front of us.

‘Have you heard of *** (a minor celebrity)?’ he says. ‘Yeah? We used to hang out together. He was a mate of mine. Twenty years ago he was up on a murder charge. Did you read about it? It was in all the papers. I gave him his alibi. I lied for him so he didn’t go to jail. Then a few years later I was in trouble myself and I asked him for a loan. Ten thousand pounds. That’s all it was. Ten thousand pounds to set me straight. And him a millionaire and everything. But he was like he didn’t know me. Couldn’t care less. Set his monkeys on me. And now I haven’t got nothing. What do you think about that, eh?’
Frank folds his arms.
‘Mate – I’m sorry, but this is a picket line. We’re striking about our pensions and jobs. I don’t think this is really the time or the place for all that other stuff.’
The man shrugs his shoulders.
‘Okay. Fair enough.’
He picks up his bin liner and walks off.
I finish my tea and tip the dregs out onto the grass verge.
The hospital crowd is coming down the hill, whistling and hooting. We pick up our flags and join them.
The man with the bin liner watches from the other side of the road.


In the middle of town. The protest has swollen now, the tributaries of the smaller marches converging into an impressive river of banners, whistles, drums and chants. People hang out of office windows, wave from doorways, the pavements and shop doorways. The atmosphere is good-natured, accommodating.
A man with unlaced boots, a woollen cap tweaked up into a cone on the back of his head, a rucksack on his back, appears next to me.
‘Smash Macdonald’s windows!’ he shouts. ‘Corporate fascism! Batter the police!’
Then he turns to another protestor and says: ‘I’m an anarchist, me. This is all a bit tame, isn’t it?’
His influence is so unsettling it’s hard to think what to do other than blank him out and pretend he wasn’t there. But before we change our mind and summon the courage to confront him, he scuttles on ahead, lacing through the crowd in a curious, loping kind of crouch.


When the march reaches the common I listen to a couple of speeches, then hand my flag to a young kid - ‘Cool! Thanks. That’ll go with my collection! - and make my way back to the car. I sit behind the wheel for a minute or two. Another shower of rain rattles across the roof and windscreen. I let my mind drift across the day, trawling for something definite, some article of faith I could hold on to that was as light and clear and tangible as that flag.

It’s just before one.
I put the news on to hear how things went across the country, and turn the engine over.

Monday, November 28, 2011

out into the square

Lena is stretched out on the stairs, having what would at first glance appear to be an epileptic seizure. But there is something about the way her arms and legs drum up and down, her head nods forwards and back, her teeth clench and then release again, that make us think it’s psychogenic.
‘Slow your breathing down, Lena. Nice and slow.’
She still has the phone in her hand; I take it from her, tell the call taker on the other end we’ve arrived, then hang up.
‘Let’s sit you up and see what the problem is, shall we?’
Together we ease her forward. Her shaking subsides, and she seems to find a measure of control again.
‘What’s been going on, Lena?’
She talks in short bursts, snatched from the tics and jerks that still run through her body.
‘I have – a – movement disorder,’ she says. ‘Here – are some – papers.’
She hands us a wad of folded computer sheets, printouts from a website dedicated to neurological problems.
Frank glances over them, but I can tell he’s thinking the same as me: cyberchondriac.
‘I – have an – appointment soon,’ she says as we hand her back the papers.
‘Let’s get you sat more comfortably on a sofa, Lena, then we’ll have more of a chat about all this,’ says Frank. We help her up. It’s noticeable that when her attention is distracted, either by speaking or doing something – even something small, like reaching out to hand us the papers – her twitching subsides. She walks unsteadily though, her slight frame debilitated by months of these episodes.

Once Lena is sitting down on the sofa, she stiffens up and starts to shake again, drumming her legs up and down so the whole laminate floor vibrates, thrashing her arms on the pillows beside her, spasms twisting in her face, squeezing her eyes open and closed. It’s all strangely comprehensive, the kind of thing you might expect if you asked a member of the public to do an impression of a fit. But then, the difference is that their intention would be clearly readable; with Lena, it’s more complicated than this.
Frank carries on talking to distract her attention.
‘Where did you put that appointment letter, Lena?’ he says. ‘It’d help if we could have a read of it.’
She reaches over to the side of the sofa and pulls her handbag across. The letter is inside – a top neurological hospital. The logo stirs a memory – didn’t my father spend some time there? Is that right?
Frank quickly skims the letter then hands it to me. It’s a full account of her condition – a functional problem, with every other possible cause ruled out, from tardive dystonia as a reaction to meds, to a range of tumours and metabolic disorders. She’s being admitted for a course of botulinum injections to dampen down the tremors, and CBT to address the central cause, a complex and unconscious ‘learning’ of inappropriate physical responses to emotional stress.

Eventually Lena calms down to the level of tremors and shakes she normally copes with. There’s nothing more we can do for her other than take her to hospital, but given that her admission to the neurological centre is just days away, she elects to stay at home and self-manage until then.

We see ourselves out.


That evening I write an email to mum. I mention the neurological hospital, and ask her if I’m right in thinking Dad had been an in-patient there. Even as I write it I’m not at all sure I could have remembered it correctly. Wouldn’t something as significant as that be more clearly rooted in the family history? Maybe this memory of mine is more like déjà vu, my own kind of processing error – the kind that mistakenly dumps short term scraps straight in the long term file.

But it felt so real.

I send the email.

When mum emails me back she says that yes, Dad had been an in-patient there, back in the fifties. He had woken up one morning unable to move his legs, a paraplegic. Eventually, after lots of tests, they took him up to the neurological hospital for three weeks. A difficult time for her – three toddlers to look after, Dad’s mum sick with cancer, no clear ideas about what was wrong with him, no sense of how long it might last.
‘I suppose he must have had a nervous breakdown, looking back at it. John and Ollie used to drive me over there every day. It was a very difficult time which I’ve tried to forget.’
I immediately want to know every last detail about what happened, but then I don’t want to stir up painful memories. Instead I sit back in the chair and try to imagine what it must have felt like to be Dad, walking again, out onto the steps of the hospital, holding onto Mum’s arm (is that what he did?), looking out across the square. I try to imagine what Mum must have felt like standing next to him, the hospital behind them, the rest of the day, the weeks and months and years ahead, so traumatised they could never speak of it again.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

out of it

Bernie has fallen out of the loft. She slid down the ladder head first, scrabbling with whatever limb she could to slow her progress, then crash landing on the wooden floor on the point of her elbow to save her face. She got herself up, hobbled downstairs to the kitchen, sat on a chair to get her breath. Her parents phoned for an ambulance.
Frank was first on scene in the car. He put a collar on Bernie, then stood behind her holding her head whilst he waited for us in the truck.

When we come into the kitchen he greets us with his usual shtick.
‘Here they are, the cavalry. Sorry to roust you out of bed, Spence. He’s such a grouch when he doesn’t get his eight hours, Bernie.’
‘So – guys. This is Bernie.’ He tells us the story of Bernie and the Loft.
‘Wow! That’s quite a way to fall.’
‘It’s no biggie. I’ve done it before.’
‘Any neck pain? Back pain? Numbness? Pins and needles?’
Everything checks out, apart from her elbow. But because of the height she fell and the distracting injury, we play safe and go for a full immobilisation.

Ten minutes later she’s trussed up on the floor and we’re ready to go. I’m with Frank at the head end, Rae at the feet.
‘On your call, Frank.’
We’re crouched down, ready to lift.
He starts to count.
‘On three. One.... two...’
The next thing, he’s pitching forwards, head first into Bernie’s lap. I just have time to put out a hand to deflect some of his weight off to the side. I look into his face which is white and slack. ‘Frank? Frank? Are you all right?’
He staggers about, but I manage to get him away from Bernie – who apart from a little shriek when he began to go seems incredibly stoical about the whole thing.
‘Jeesh!’ she says, looking upwards with her eyes. ‘This is hysterical.’
‘Are you okay, Frank? What happened?’
‘I – erm – I’m not sure.’
‘Sit down for a minute and get your bearings. Have you got any pain?’
‘No. I’m fine. I think it was a postural.’
‘Let’s get Bernie out to the truck, then we’ll come back for you, Frank. She’s no weight. We can manage just the two of us. Then we’ll get you on board and wire you up.’
He sits on the floor with his head in his hands. We carry Bernie out, then whilst I check her over and settle her in, Rae reappears with Frank in tow. She runs through the usual checks. Everything seems fine.
‘He can have the trolley,’ says Bernie, wriggling in her straps. ‘I’m not that fussed.’
‘Are you going to be okay, driving back to base?’ I say to Frank. ‘We can always get someone running.’
‘No. I’ll be fine. I think it was just bending down too suddenly.’
‘Take the rest of the shift off, though. Get some rest.’ I squeeze his shoulder. ‘I’ll write you a note.’
It’s a shock to see him like this, vulnerable, pale, objectified. A patient.
‘Thanks guys,’ he says, ripping off the ECG dots. ‘Sorry to be a pain.’
‘And you’re sure you’re okay to drive back?’
He nods.
‘It wasn’t nearly so exciting last time I fell out of the loft,’ says Bernie, squirming in her collar and blocks. ‘Last time I just got a spoonful of Calpol and a telling off.’

Friday, November 25, 2011


A key worker buzzes open the door to the lobby. He seems surprised to see us. He leans out on the bottom half of the reception door, holding a mug of coffee in one hand and a Snickers bar in the other. A portable TV is playing loudly on a desk behind him; he pushes himself back up, stuffs the rest of the Snickers bar into his mouth, flips the wrapper across the office, then turns the TV down.
‘Just when I was getting into it,’ he says. ‘It’s weird – but pretty good. The Tolpuddle Martyrs. Four hours long, though.
‘I’d rather be transported,’ says Frank, yawning, leaning back against the security glass. ‘But given the current climate, that’s probably on the cards anyway.’
‘Who’ve you come for?’ says the key worker pleasantly, fetching a polythene-covered list from a tray and smoothing it flat on the door ledge in front of him.
‘No name, unfortunately. Room ninety five’s all we have. Twenty six year old female with abdo pain. That’s it.’
He looks over the list.
‘Ingrid,’ he says. ‘Figures. I think she was up the hospital a week ago with K cramps. I’ll take you up there.’
He unhooks a bunch of keys, swings the lower portion of the door open and then locks it behind him.
‘Just to give you a heads up,’ he says, ‘Ingrid’s a sex worker and heroin user. She’s doing her best, but she’s on a last warning at the moment. Just so you know. It might be germane to your cause.’
He leads us up the back stairs to the fourth floor. The hostel is a strip-lit, municipally signed seventies’ accommodation block with a moribund air of chlorine products, cigarettes and damp shoes. With the green paint, alarm consoles, pin boards, extinguishers, posters for activities, emergency hotline adverts, rules and announcements, it feels like an approved foothold on the side of a dreadful decline.
‘Here we are.’
The key worker knocks on ninety five and opens it with his key.
‘Ingrid? The paramedics.’
He steps aside and waves us in.
Ingrid’s room is lit by a desk lamp on the floor. A clutter limited only by the size of the holdall it spilled out of, lies strewn across a plain wooden chair and the open door of a closet. Ingrid is sitting on an unmade bed, with a laptop, a pack of cigarettes and a pack of baby wipes next to her. She is a pretty woman, frail and pinched. In her shot blue silk nightdress and white towelling robe, she has a strangely abstracted look about her, a socialite who lost her way to the bathroom and ended up in a flophouse. She ignores the fact that we have come into the room, and carries on staring down at the mobile in her hand.
‘Hello Ingrid. I’m Spence. This is Frank. What’s been going on tonight?’
She looks up slowly, without expression. Absently, as if her free hand belonged to someone else, she starts kneading her tummy and rocking forwards gently.
‘Ingrid? It’s the ambulance. How can we help?’
‘What’s wrong with me?’ she says, her voice as delicate and indistinct as the trail of glitter above her right eye.
‘Do you have any pain?’
‘What’s wrong with me?’ she says again, then looks back down at the phone.
‘Ingrid? Try to tell us what the problem is. I understand you have some abdominal pain. Is that right?’
She stands up, turns her back on us and walks over to the other side of the room.
The phone lights up. She puts it to her ear, seems to lose the call, then fiddles around with the buttons to get it back.
‘Ingrid? We’ve come here to help you. But we can’t do anything until you tell us what the problem is. Can you come and sit down again and we’ll see what’s going on? Ingrid?’
She drifts back to the bed and sits down again.
‘Okay. So do you have pain in your tummy?’
She nods.
‘Can you point to where it hurts the most?’
She squeezes the middle of her abdomen again and leans forward.
‘What will you do?’ she whispers.
‘What I suggest is we go down to the ambulance and have a look at you there. We can do a few checks, and then run you up to the hospital so you can see a doctor. You’re obviously in some pain. Ingrid? Will you do that, Ingrid?’
She stares at her phone.
‘Come on, Ingrid. Let’s get a bag together – your keys, money, phone.’
But she ignores me, flicking through the contacts on her phone. If we left or stayed, it would make no difference to her.
‘Okay,’ she says, and stands up.
‘Good! You don’t need much. Here are your keys, look. So let’s go.’
To say she follows us out of the room is to overstate the way she moves. It’s an abstracted thing, a dream of movement. If there was a heat sensor up there instead of a security camera, it would pick up three blurry red shapes and something else, something trailing behind, a wraith-like ripple of blue sliding along the corridor.

She stops when we get outside.
‘I’m not going to hospital,’ she says, and wraps her dressing gown around her.
‘Come on, Ingrid. You’ve got this far. I really think you should come with us and get checked out.’
A car pulls up. A dented silver Micra with the backseats flat beneath a dump of possessions. The driver, a pouchy middle aged man in a black suit gets out and stands with one hand on the door and the other on the roof. Ingrid slips her phone away into her pocket and walks over to him.
But she doesn’t look back. She opens the front passenger door and gets in. The man doesn’t even acknowledge us. He sits back behind the wheel and they drive off, both looking straight ahead.
‘So what d’you reckon?’ says Frank, folding his arms. ‘Right or left at the end of the road?’
They turn right.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

life on earth

Alan is waiting for us by the taxi rank, leaning on a cab window chatting to the driver, a grim faced man whose abstracted image is trapped in the glass of his windscreen, staring straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, engine running. Alan looks smarter than normal. In his PVC leather-style bomber jacket, starched white shirt and chinos, Ferrari cap and white trainers, a visitor from outer space who based his earthly disguise on a bad seventies cop show. When he sees us pull onto the forecourt, he taps the cabbie on the arm, straightens up and strides over.
‘It’s Alan,’ I say to Frank.
‘Uh huh.’
I climb out of the cab.
‘Hello Alan,’ I say.
He walks with curious, bobbing little movements, like an alien adjusting to new gravitational environments, with trainers made of sponge.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘I was assaulted.’
‘Let’s have a chat on the back, then.’
I lead him on board.
‘So what happened?’
‘I was in this club, yeah? When this guy, yeah? He threw this plastic cup at me and it hit me here, on the back of the head. And now I can’t move my neck. It’s gone all numb. And my arms and legs feel weird. So what I did, yeah? I drank a double JD and coke – a Jack Daniels. A double. Straight off – like this. To numb the pain, yeah?’
‘And how long ago did this happen, Alan? Given that it’s now half past four in the morning?’
‘I don’t know. An hour?’
‘A plastic cup?’
‘Yeah. He threw it, and it hit me here, right in the back of the neck.’
‘Well I can’t see anything there, Alan.’
‘What d’you mean?’
He has that affronted slack about his face, an expression I’ve seen on him every one of the half dozen times I’ve seen him this year. His brown eyes narrow, drawing a flush of temper up over his jaw line to pulse at the bulb of his nose. ‘What are you going to do?’ he says.
I pause, and in that moment the weight of the long night shift rings around the shell of the ambulance as hard and blue-black as the morning.
‘It’s up to you, Alan,’ I manage to say. ‘If you want to go to hospital, we’ll happily take you. But if you’re complaining of neck pain, we’ll have to put you in a collar and immobilise you on the stretcher.’
‘Are you saying I shouldn’t go?’
‘I don’t know. You’re the patient. You’re the only one who can say how you feel.’
‘You think I’m making this up?’
I fold my arms, cross my legs, lean forwards and support myself there. It’s comfortable. I could sleep like this for a thousand years. You could dry me out and put me in a glass case. Put me on display with all the other mummies. So long as I didn’t have to do anything.
‘Do you remember the last time we met, Alan?’
‘It was about the same time of day. Dawn, I think. Over at the fish market. You were on your bike. You said you’d had a crash and you’d hurt your neck.’
‘I remember.’
‘The police were there, do you remember? You got really cross. They took you in the back of the car. But then they got another call, and let you out again a little bit further up the road.’
He stands up.
‘What do you want?’ he says.
‘I’m in your hands, Alan. It’s very simple. If you want to go to hospital, we’ll take you to hospital. So, Alan – do you want to go to hospital?’
‘You tell me.’
‘You don’t have to go, Alan. You can just go home and rest.’
‘You tell me.’
‘Yes or no, Alan? Do you want to go to hospital?’
He stands up, pulls his cap more firmly down on his head, turns and jumps off the ambulance.
‘You’re useless,’ he says. ‘You don’t do nothing.’
‘Go home and rest, Alan. Where’s your bike?’
But he doesn’t answer. He backs away from the ambulance, and stands watching from a little way off. When I close the cab door it nips off his curses.
I settle into the seat, and push the button to call Control.
The taxi moves off from the rank, but I can’t see anyone in the back.

Monday, November 21, 2011

technical assistance

Mrs Randall is sitting on the carpet, leaning back against an Ercol sofa, her legs in an outstretched V. She looks up at me as I come in to the lounge.
‘I hadn’t fastened the strap on my slipper,’ she says. ‘I’m all right, but I just can’t get up.’
I’m on my own, but the heaviest thing about her is probably that tartan skirt. I lift her up and help her into the nearest chair.
‘Not that one,’ she says, dabbling her feet on the carpet, something like the dance seagulls do when they’re teasing up worms. ‘That one’
I guide her over to a chair of exactly the same height. She sighs when I lower her into it, and places both hands on the table.
‘Now what do you want?’ she says.
‘I just need to get a few details.’
‘I say I just need to get a few details.’
‘You say what?’
We look at each other.
‘Do you have a hearing aid?’
Every time I talk, her eyes drop down to look at my mouth, and her jaw bobs up and down. It’s disconcerting. I feel like a crazy ventriloquist shouting at his dummy.
‘Here,’ she says at last, scrabbling about under a pile of papers and drawing out a lump of misshapen pink plastic. She licks her index finger and thumb, moistens two prominences, then shakily raises it up to her left ear.
‘Just a minute,’ she says, scrunching up her face as she screws the thing into place. ‘There!’
I expect to hear the usual squeal as it comes alive, but nothing happens.
‘Is it working?’
‘Do what y’say?’
‘It’s not working,’ she says, pulling it out again and dumping it back down on the table. ‘The battery’s gone ‘orf.’
She starts trying to open up the battery compartment, but I tap her gently on the arm and take it from her.
‘ALLOW ME,’ I say.
‘Don’t break it.’
‘I won’t.’
There is a fluted glass ashtray amongst the clutter on the table. In it, amongst the paperclips, pennies and drawing pins, a spare battery. I put that next to the aid, then carefully prise open the hatch. It’s stiffer than I expected. I change my grip, apply a little more force – the hatch flips off completely, and the battery that was inside pings off across the room.
‘Let me do it!’ says Mrs Randall, rising about an inch off her chair in alarm.
‘Perhaps you’d better.’
She takes the hearing aid in one hand and holds it up to her face. ‘What have you done?’ she says, putting her left eye right up to the tiny interior.
‘It’s okay. It just needs a new battery putting in.’
She doesn’t say anything, but flicks her eyes to me without moving her head.
‘I hope you haven’t broken it,’ she says.
‘Me too.’
I slide the ashtray towards her. She dabbles around, but her fingers are so gnarled and thickened with arthritis it’s like watching someone trying to pick up a pea with a hand of bananas.
‘I can do it’ I say to her.
‘Don’t break it,’ she says. ‘I haven’t got another.’
I take it back from her.
It’s a horribly old specimen. The mechanism for loading the battery is a strange affair – a flimsily constructed hatch like a hinged J, that carries the battery down into a compartment that doesn’t appear to have any terminals to receive it.
‘Just put the battery in the little door and close it. That’s all you’ve got to do,’ she says. ‘It’s not difficult.’
‘This way round?’
‘Do what?’
‘THIS WAY ROUND?’ I shout, carefully placing the battery in the door and offering it up to her.
‘The other way’ she says. ‘I’d better do it.’
‘No, no. You’re all right.’
I give her the thumbs up with my other hand, carefully turn the battery over in the little hatch, then gently close it. As soon as it’s shut, there’s an ominous rattle. I hand it back to Mrs Randall.
She frowns, sensing my anxiety, but doesn’t say anything. She licks her thumb and forefinger again, wets the two prominences, screws the aid into her ear. She looks at me for a full minute.
‘Is it working?’ I say.
‘Do what?’
I raise my eyebrows and wait a second or two longer.
‘It’s not working,’ she says. ‘What have you done?’
She takes out the hearing aid and puts it on the table.
I undo the little hatch and look inside.
‘It’s not seated properly,’ I say. ‘I’LL GIVE IT ANOTHER GO.’
‘I knew I should’ve done it,’ she says.
But the battery will not come out. I shake it, tap it, prod it with the point of a pin. I make a probe with a tiny roll of tape and try to drag it into position. I use the tip of a knife, a canula. I try forceps. I rattle it, shake it, drum on it with my fingers. I lie back in the chair so I’m almost horizontal, and like a mechanic lying beneath the smallest pink car in the world, I coax the reluctant battery with infinitesimally patient movements to come to the hatch in such a way that it will drop out and let me try again.
‘I’ll get a needle,’ says Mrs Randall, dragging her three wheeler towards her chair and shuffling off to the kitchenette.
I rattle it, flick it, vibrate it, make little circular hopping movements in the air.
‘Come on. Come on.’
I hear Mrs Randall digging around in a kitchen drawer. ‘I hope you haven’t broken it,’ she says. ‘That’s the only one I’ve got.’
Just as I turn to look at her, and for no apparent reason, the battery drops out into my lap.
I retrieve the battery from where I caught it between my knees. But when I look back at the hearing aid, I see a tiny little blue and white wire with a microscopic gold terminal hanging out of the opening.
I put it back on the table with the battery, and sit upright.
Mrs Randall comes back from the kitchenette, both hands gripping onto her three wheeler, a fat bamboo knitting needle poking out from the left.
‘This any good?’ she says, stopping at the edge of the carpet.
But even from over there she can read from my posture and comedy wince that something unspeakable has happened. She sighs, then guides her three-wheeler towards me like a tank.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

mandy's cat

‘I could break the code.’
‘What code’s that then, Mandy?’
‘The street code. The code of honour. I could break the code and blow this city apart. I know every dealer, every smack head, prostitute, bent police. I know where they work, I know where they live. I could take you right there. I could solve every fucking crime that’s ever been committed in this dump if I wanted to.’
‘Okay. But first let’s sort out the cat.’


Eight o’clock in the morning. The plane trees along the street have dumped most of their leaves now; the dark pollarded stumps bristling with shoots make them seem like filter feeding animals at high tide, dragging their filaments in the run of air above the houses.
Mandy is sitting in the back of a patrol car with a tabby cat on her lap. Mandy is as strung out as the cat is inert; it sleeps peacefully, accepting the bangle-jangling strokes of its mistress.
‘I aint doing nothing without my cat.’
‘She can’t go up the hospital though, Mandy,’ says the police officer. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we dropped her back indoors?’
‘What do you care? You weren’t there when I needed you. You didn’t answer my call.’
‘We responded as soon as we heard you were in trouble, Mandy. I don’t know about the other time – let’s talk about that later and focus on what’s happened just now.’
‘Like you fucking care.’
‘We do care, Mandy. We’ve arrested someone; we’re here with you, and we’ve got three other units working on the case. I think that shows a reasonable level of commitment.’
‘A reasonable level of commitment,’ she spits, and strokes the cat a little harder.
I’m standing by the open door of the patrol car.
‘Mandy? Come on. Let’s put the cat back in the flat and get you on the ambulance.’
When she talks she looks up and off to the side, her face slack. There’s a hostility to her, something hard and bitten down, as if she had spent years fighting something so terrible it could never be looked at straight. In her white cowboy boots, buckskin skirt and plaid blouse, she has the raddled look of a rodeo girl ten years too long on the circuit.
I squat by the open door. ‘Just tell me what happened again.’
‘He held a knife to my throat, yeah? He punched me unconscious, kicked me out cold. So I chased him outside and followed him back to his place.’
‘That’s the flat we attended,’ says the police officer. ‘The flat where you were staying. Is that right, Mandy?’
She nods, strokes the cat a little harder, then flares again.
‘Like you were there when I needed you. I had a knife to my throat, yeah? They cut me – look. They beat me bad – here, here, here. Like you fucking care.’
The only sign of trauma I can see on Mandy are three cat-like stripes on her forearm.
‘Let’s get the cat back indoors and then check you over properly,’ I say to her again. ‘You don’t have to come to the hospital with us, but if you don’t it’s against our advice.’
‘I’ll come,’ she says, passing me out the cat, smiling in its sleep as if it were dreaming of flying with all four paws hanging down. ‘No thanks to the fucking police. And I don’t want her coming with me, neither.’


On the ambulance travelling in to hospital. Mandy is sitting on a side seat, digging around in her handbag or biting her nails, one bare and mottled leg crossed over on the other, a cowboy boot tapping in mid-air, kicking the trolley from time to time. She ignores my questions, but uses them instead as bizarre points of connection to a shapeless and general misfortune. The police officer – a colleague of the first, a woman who has been sitting on the seat behind Mandy with a look of emotional ballast about her - sighs and folds her arms.
Mandy snaps her head round.
‘Just ‘cos you know me doesn’t give you the right to judge me,’ she spits.
‘No one’s judging anyone, Mandy. Just answer the paramedic’s questions, can you? We’re all here to help.’
Mandy turns back again.
‘Fucking police,’ she says. ‘Only get involved when it suits. I know how things are. You think you know it all but you don’t know nothing. I could tell you stuff but I wouldn’t dirty myself. I wouldn’t piss on you.’
‘And mind your language,’ says the police officer
Mandy stares off to a spot just beyond my right shoulder. Her volatility is a strange thing. It’s not that she calms down so much as she suddenly forgets what it is she’s angry about, and drifts on.
‘You’re a paramedic,’ she says softly. ‘You know about suicide, right?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘My mum died,’ she says.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Yeah. Well. Not as sorry as me.’
‘What did she die of?’
‘Drink and drugs. Do you think it was suicide?’
‘I don’t know. It depends whether she meant to do it or not. Do you think she did?’
She shrugs.
‘Did she leave a note?’
Then as if she had suddenly remembered why she was sitting there, she tips back her head.
‘He cut me. He held a fucking knife to my throat. Here.’
I lean in. But there’s no sign of anything at all.
She lowers her head again, gives a little shiver, then begins to unbuckle her seatbelt.
The police officer sits up.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

basic obs

We had found Rachel collapsed in a shop doorway, her legs folded beneath her in an uncomfortable, zigzag way, like something heavy had been dropped on her shoulders. She was moaning softly, rocking backwards and forwards, pushing her face into her hands, her long black hair hanging straight down so I had to hook it aside to look at her. Once we had Rachel on board the ambulance the extent of her distress became clear: extremely high blood pressure, a searing, left-sided headache that travelled back into her neck, numbness in her extremities, visual disturbance. We made her as comfortable as we could and rushed her in.


At the hospital a little later, Caroline, one of the nurses, walks out of the department to have a cigarette. Seeing us leaning up against the railings, she pauses to light it, takes a long pull, then comes over to join us.
‘So,’ she says, leaning back, draping her left arm across her stomach to support the elbow of the right. ‘At what point did you find out Rachel was a transsexual?’
‘So she is! I thought she was. But I wasn’t a hundred percent certain, and it’s not the kind of thing you want to get wrong. It was all such a rush.’
Caroline nods and taps off some ash.
‘Take it from me. Transsexual.’
She blows out more smoke and obliterates the moon.
‘Was it a bleed?’
‘Bad enough. But I’ve seen worse. They’re taking her up to neuro in a minute.’
She leans forwards, laughs suddenly, then settles back down against the railings. She smokes hungrily; the cigarette crackles. Another ambulance rolls up the slope. It flashes its lights at us.
‘At least you’ve got the excuse it was dark,’ she says. ‘I had no idea, even when I was doing the ECG. I said “Is there any chance you might be pregnant?” “It’s unlikely” she said. Then she pulled her gown up and showed me her penis. “Oh” I said. “I think you’re probably right” But honestly – apart from the package, you’d never have guessed.’
She flicks her stub away in the direction of the oxygen stack.
‘And I’ll see you girls later,’ she says, and strides back inside.

Friday, November 11, 2011

basement horror

In the mid-nineteenth century, the terrace in Aspern Road was put up to take the workers on the railway that was cutting in across town at the top. The railway is still there – a quieter, commuter-driven line – but the road has grown in stature. Now, the terrace sits back and up from it, a decrepit, ad-hoc levee, the whole thing threatening at any moment to lose its foundation and pitch face first into the traffic. One more passing truck and the whole thing’ll go - the rubbish bags and buckled bikes, the dried out window boxes, the no hawkers or canvassers signs, the peeling railings and buddleia bushes – the whole, red-bricked ruin of it crashing down into the road. And as the last satellite dish disappears downstream, a metro supermarket will sprout in the gap.

Edward is lying in bed in his basement flat, pale and oversized, like a subterranean urban grub. The room is green, a cavern at low tide, its wallpaper bubbled and spotted with mould. There is a miniature set of three shelves on the wall above the headboard, holding a battered Bambi figurine, a discoloured photo in a pewter frame and a snowman cake ornament, its yellowing face turned inwards to smile at the portrait. The facing wall is a shrine to the Spice Girls, a spread of posters and photographs, the brash poses of the women eerily out of place in the gloom.
‘It hurts’ he says, then yawns, stump-toothed.
‘Show me.’
He pulls back his t-shirt.
Edward has a stoma. The plastic circular patch of it riding on a kind of gross abdominal hump that bulges out like the head of something pressing against the skin to listen. The stoma site looks infected.
‘We need to take you in, Edward,’ I say to him. ‘Can you walk?’
He nods and yawns again.
‘I’ll call my cousin about the budgie,’ he says. Then stares at me, awaiting direction.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Through the band of shaded glass along the top of the windscreen, the moon is a tarnished penny, but Venus hangs clear beneath it. Maybe it’ll come down. Maybe it’ll land here soon, touchdown in that back garden, nuzzle in to a heap of leaves and sit there, shivering its light through the hedges, the greenhouse glass and cucumber stems, along concrete slabs and the ribbed backs of slugs, through a stand of bins, the spokes of a rusted bike, the handle of a fork buried in a heap of leaves, to the upstairs window, and the cautious pulling aside of a curtain.
‘Here they come.’
A police car crawls up the road and comes to a stop where our patient lives. Frank puts our lights on and drives the short distance over to join them.
Two police officers, one as short as the other is tall, stand by the gate that leads round the side to the garden.
‘If I have to come back to this guy one more time...’ says the small one. The tall one has his hands buried deep in the armholes of his stab vest and looks down on us all with no comment.
‘We’ve been called because he’s taken an overdose,’ I tell him, holding the gate open for Frank.
‘Sounds about right.’
‘And he’s living in a shed?’
We each use a torch, except the tall police officer, who lights his way with five hundred watts of disdain.
At the bottom of the garden is a shiplap tool shed, the felt roof adrift and hanging down, chicken wire over a plastic sheet window and a muffled voice talking on a mobile coming from under the door.
The small police officer pushes open the door.
‘Hello? Malcolm?’
Malcolm is sitting bunched up on a dirty mattress.
‘Yes. They’re here now. I’ll say bye bye, then. Bye bye.’
He finishes the call and then shields his eyes as he looks up.


Malcolm sits on the ambulance seat and stares at me as I go through the paperwork. A middle aged man as derelict and malodorous as the shed he’s been sleeping in.
‘A lot of boxes,’ he says, folding his arms and settling back in the chair.
‘That’s one way of putting it.’
He rolls his face back over his gums like a contestant in a gurning competition.
‘So. Malcolm. Have you done anything like this before?’
‘Like what before?’
‘Taken an overdose.’
‘Oh yes. Lots of times. And hung myself. And walked into the sea.’
‘Okay. And tonight – did you take this overdose to hurt yourself?’
‘Me? I just wanted to end it all – you know, the usual. Dad died this year.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘I went to prison. When I came out I moved back in with mum. But we don’t get on, really. We row a lot. She says she doesn’t want me in the house, so I’ve been sleeping in the shed.’
‘Isn’t that difficult?’
‘What? Sleeping in a shed?’
‘Well – with your mum in the house the other side of the garden?’
‘It’s all right. I sneak out in the early hours, and then back in again at night. But sometimes she comes down the garden and we have a row. She says I don’t understand this and that. I don’t understand how much she loved my dad. He may have beaten her now and again but she’s lost without him and what have I ever done? That kind of thing. She goes back in. You know.’
He leans over and frowns at the clipboard.
‘Where’s the box for that?’ he says.

Monday, November 07, 2011

behind the mirror

Mr Ellis is waiting for us in the driveway of his house, his soft, elderly frame picked out against the darkness by the flare of a halogen porch light. He stands completely still, his arms straight down by his sides, a garden statue dressed in a knitted jumper and slacks. He doesn’t say anything as we walk quickly towards him, but turns on the spot and leads us through the entrance at the side of the house. We follow him into a broad kitchen-dining room, everything set for dinner, a cooking clutter of saucepans neatly stacked in the sink, two plates of partially-eaten food either side of a sweetly laid table. But the domestic scene is ominously undercut by the bleep-bleep-bleep of a defib metronome through an open door at the far end.
‘She’s in the hallway,’ says Mr Ellis. ‘Is she dead?’
‘We’ll just go and check with our colleagues, then I’ll come straight back out and tell you what’s happening. Are you okay out here for a minute, Mr Ellis? I know this is very upsetting for you.’
‘I’m all right. Do what you can.’
Out in the hall the first crew on scene have been working for three or four minutes. Mrs Ellis is lain out between them, her blouse and bra cut down the middle and spread left and right, a tube tied off in her throat, a cannula in her arm, two pads on her chest, as fallen and exposed as a vivisected angel.
‘This is Mary. Eighty years old. Haven’t got a PMH yet, but fit and active. Was out doing some kind of community work, came home for dinner. Half way through she got up saying she felt breathless. Came out to the loo, was gone a while. Her husband heard her cry out. Found her collapsed. Dragged her out into the hall, phoned us. Was doing some CPR when we got here. So down about ten, I’d say. We’ve been going – how long is it? – six. Asystole throughout.’
Frank stays to help whilst I go back into the kitchen to talk to Mr Ellis.
‘It’s serious, isn’t it?’ he says.
‘I’m afraid so. Mary’s heart has stopped working. We’re doing everything we can to get it going again. We’re breathing for her, and giving her all the drugs and techniques we know of to keep her alive.’
‘I see. Thank you.’
‘And you know – the team with Mary now are about the best you could get. If there’s anything at all that can be done, they’re the ones to do it.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Have a seat, Mr Ellis. John, isn’t it? I need to ask you a few questions, John. To help my colleagues. I’m sorry to have to ask you these things at a time like this, but it might help.’
‘Fire away.’
We run through Mary’s medical history, how she’d been that day, her medications. He tells me that apart from a few minor aches and pains, she’d been perfectly fit. She’d come home to have dinner, and was due to go back out to her next call.
‘I’d better ring Mrs Napier and tell her she’ll be late,’ he says. He pauses as he picks the phone up, frowns, gives his head a little shake, then dials the number.
I go back out into the hall to get an update.
A plain, oval mirror - the kind you might check before leaving the front door – has been taken off the wall, and the picture hook used to hang up a bag of fluids.
Frank checks the timing on the defib, preps some more syringes. They swap around, the bagging, the compressions. There’s a settled, hopeless look to the whole scenario.
Back in the kitchen, John is leafing through a notebook.
‘So many people to ring,’ he says. ‘I don’t know where to start.’
‘Have you any relatives in the area who could be with you?’
‘My son’s on the way. He should be here in about an hour.’
‘Anyone sooner than that?’
‘He’ll be here in an hour.’
‘Okay. Can I get you anything? A cup of tea?’ I ask.
‘No. Thank you.’ He puts the notebook down and looks around.
‘We were just having dinner, you see,’ he says.
He pauses, and the beeps from the metronome measure out the length of it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


Mr Neuberg stands in the doorway of his house, clutching a heavy blue cardigan around him like the figure for anxiety in the psychiatric version of a weather clock.
‘Come in, guys. Come in. I’m so sorry to call you but I was cold and shivering and I just couldn’t warm up. So I started to panic – I know I was panicking – I shouldn’t do it but it just got ahead of me. I’ve taken my medication but look at me! And I feel so cold. And clammy. Feel me! Look. Could the medication do that? Or maybe I have an infection? I took my temperature and it’s low. Thirty-five it said. That’s hypothermia, isn’t it? Can you have an infection and not a temperature? I don’t know these things. I just don’t know. My god. I’m sorry but I couldn’t cope. My girlfriend’ll kill me. Close the door. The rabbits.’
‘In there.’
He nods towards the front room where two tiny rabbits are busily inspecting the back wheel of a bicycle.
Two weeks ago I would have had no idea, but now I’m able to say with some authority: ‘Holland Lops?’
Mr Neuberg grimaces.
Holland lops? Dwarf Lops!’
He hurries on ahead, squats down at the bottom of the staircase and hugs his knees. A quivering gantry of a man, he tucks himself up into as small a space as possible, rocking a little backwards and forwards. On the wall to the side of the staircase is a giant canvas – a still life of sweet jars on a chequered tablecloth. On the opposite wall, a toy moose head. The eyes on the moose are small and dark and glassy with a hint of a spiral twist – much like Mr Neuberg’s.
‘You won’t tell my girlfriend, will you? Please. She’ll kill me.’
‘No. But let’s worry about that in a minute. Just tell us what’s happened today.’
‘Just lately I haven’t been getting much sleep. Or eating. I haven’t been eating. I lost my appetite and I shed seventeen pounds. Look at my arms. Look at that. They used to be out here, but now this. Some of that’s thyroid, I know. And I’m due some investigations for – you know. And that’s a worry. But I’m active. I move around a lot. Which is probably just as well because the house is so damned cold. Does it feel cold to you? I think it’s really cold. My girlfriend doesn’t think so. She won’t have the heating on during the day. She says it’s not the time of year. But I don’t know. What do you think? So anyway. I was sitting at my computer and I started to freeze up. My hands. My face. I got the shivers and shakes. So I put on loads of jumpers and t-shirts – layers, you know? I went for a walk in the sunshine. But nothing made any difference. I just could not get warm. So I started to think something was the matter. And I know I shouldn’t but I couldn’t help it and I just got more and more anxious. I couldn’t break out of it, which is when I called you guys. And I’m so sorry ‘cos I know you’ve got better things to do with your time and I do appreciate you coming out. But please don’t tell my girlfriend about this. Please. She’ll kill me.’
‘Let’s do a few checks, get a few details, then think about what to do next. Okay?’
‘Sure. I’m in your hands. You’re the experts.’
I get out my thermometer. When I put it into his ear Mr Neuberg frowns and swivels his eyes in that direction.
‘It goes in your ear? The one I got goes in your mouth. Look. I only bought it the other day. It cost eight pounds, so it should be accurate. It said thirty-five degrees. What’s yours say?’
I show him the little screen.
‘Thirty-seven? But that’s normal, isn’t it?’
‘Yep. Bang on normal.’
‘Mine said thirty-five. Look. I’ll show you.’
He pops it into his mouth and opens his eyes wide, as if he were trying to inflate a very thin balloon. I take advantage of him being still to take his blood pressure.
‘Normal,’ I say, folding the cuff back up.
Mr Neuberg takes out the thermometer.
‘What did I tell you. Thirty-six. Well – it’s gone up a bit but it’s still low. And you’re saying thirty-seven?’
I shrug.
He looks at his thermometer, gives it a shake, like an old mercury model, then looks at it again.
‘That’s going back,’ he says.
Suddenly the phone rings on the step next to him. Mr Neuberg leaps up and looks at it in horror. He leans in, checks the number on the receiver, blanches, carefully picks it up, then just before he presses the answer button, sights us both along the bony blade of his nose and raises his index finger in the manner of a Judge commanding silence. Only then - when he’s absolutely certain we have understood what’s expected of us - only then does Mr Neuberg answer.
‘Hi Poppy.’
His voice is completely changed. The hyper-anxious patter of the last five minutes has been replaced by the sweetly insipid tone of a man calling home in his lunch break.
‘What? No – I was in the bathroom. Yeah, I’m fine. How’re you? .... No – I ate already. Yeah - I finished off that salad. With some crisps and the rest of that seedy bloomer. I wasn’t all that hungry. Who? Oh - yeah – y’know. Fine. Fine.... No, I won’t.... I won’t....’
He holds his finger up and frowns at us again, as if he thinks we’re becoming restless.
‘Okay, Poppy? I’ve got to go. What? No – you know. The usual. Okay, Hun? Yeah. Okay? Love you. Love you too. Take care. Oh – and Poppy? Could you get some pellets on the way home? Okay? Thanks sweetheart. Love you. Bye. Bye. Bye.’
Very gently he squeezes the phone off, then deflates about an inch.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘That was Poppy.’

Monday, October 31, 2011

true story

Shortly after starting in the job I was sent on relief to work with Charlie, an old paramedic in a station the other side of town. A crotchety piece of work with a crumpled, disappointed look to him. I remember his face, waxy as a burned out candle.
It was a quiet start. I watched telly; Charlie read an old book, sighing every now and then.
It was going to be a long night.
Eventually we copped a job, a smoke inhalation down in Whitby Street. Fire brigade attending. Even though he was a lardy old duffer Charlie seemed to move pretty quick. He was in the cab waiting for me with his eyes closed and his arms folded across his chest.
‘You drive,’ he said.
When we got there we found a woman in the house on her own with two kids. Seemed pretty freaked – said she could smell burning, something electrical, but she’d been all through the house and not found a thing. That’s when she’d called the brigade, and we’d been sent along as standard.
We had a quick look round. I say we. Charlie just stood there in the cellar - a nice enough kitchen conversion, lots of beech and pine - kind of drinking it in. But I was keen then. I wanted to do stuff. I couldn’t smell anything, and to be honest I thought maybe she was having a bit of an episode. To humour her, though, I had a good nose around, upstairs and down. Nothing. Back down in the kitchen, Charlie was still standing exactly as before, almost asleep on his feet.
Great, I thought. Brilliant.
The fire brigade arrived. Three hulking great uniforms coming down the stairs. I told them the story and they took it all very seriously. The Captain sent the Under Captain back to the truck to get a bit of kit – an infrared heat sensor.
‘If it’s electrical, it could be in a cavity behind a wall,’ he said.
Your man came hurrying back downstairs with the sensor – a camera-like thing in the middle of a steering wheel. The Captain held it out and started wandering round, steering himself as he looked through the lens, examining walls and floors and what have you.
‘I’m afraid I can’t find a thing,’ he said to the woman. ‘Maybe it’s coming in from the sewers outside. We’ll go out and check.’
Just before they went back upstairs I asked if I could have a look at the sensor. I’ve always liked kit.
‘Knock yourself out,’ he said.
So I took the sensor in my hands and began steering the lens around the kitchen. The flare from the Aga. Hot spots around water pipes. The woman and her children, hugging each other like beautiful lava people by the cold blue of the kitchen table.
And then I came to Charlie.
Held the sensor there a moment.
Looked over the top of it to check
Pointed it back.
I pointed it straight at him.
And there was nothing. There was nothing there at all.
I lowered the sensor.
He was standing there, like before.
Only this time he was smiling.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

straight to voicemail

On summer nights the beach is spotted with little fires, groups of drinkers, dancers by moonlight, dogs in the water, couples dreaming at the strandline – a soft panorama of beach life running out into the dark from the shouts and the racing neon lights of the pier. But the summer has gone now; the pier closes early, the night is thick and dark, and a sharp wind is blowing in off the sea. Only the breakers stand out in the gloom, rough ribs of foam tumbling in with a roar.
Half way out across the shingle, a huddle of people faintly illuminated with a rectangle of light.
‘Whatever sort of torch is that?’
A little closer, and we can distinguish a huddle of three people kneeling, squatting and standing around a figure lying between them. The standing one is leaning in above the others, lighting the scene with his laptop. A couple of them have taken off their jackets to wrap around the patient. They’re relieved to see us.
As Frank checks the patient – conscious, breathing – a young woman gives us her account.
‘He was standing right at the water’s edge. I thought it was a bit odd, because his feet were getting wet and he didn’t seem bothered. Then he started running up and down, shouting – I don’t know what, I couldn’t really hear – and he started tearing his clothes off and throwing them down. By the time everyone caught up with me he’d stripped down to his boxers and run into the water. He was screaming and crying and thrashing around in the waves for a bit. Then he fell over, went under for a minute but not any longer. And that’s when Billy pulled him out.’
‘I’m okay. I’m okay,’ says Billy, pre-empting a fuss. His hair is spiky and wet.
‘Anyone know his name?’
‘No – but we retrieved his clothes and there’s a phone in his pocket.’
Frank sits back on his heels.
‘There’s nothing obviously wrong with him. He’s deliberately keeping his eyes shut, though – don’t know why. We need to get him on the truck, get him warmed up and have a better look in the light. Let’s get him in the chair and be off.’
‘We’ll help you carry him.’
Everyone working together makes light work of loading the patient onto the chair and carrying him up the shingle beach to the promenade.
‘We’ll take it from here,’ says Frank. ‘Thanks for your help.’ The man shuts his laptop, they swap jackets around so they’re back to normal, and wave as we haul the patient up the steps to the ambulance.
On the truck, we can find nothing obviously wrong with him. But although he’s conscious, he still refuses to co-operate, flopping his arm out in the grand style.
I flip through his iPhone contacts and come across ICE – In Case of Emergency. A man’s name, and a number.
‘Shall I call it?’
‘Call it.’
‘Or shall I let the hospital take care of it?’
‘Call it.’
Straight to voicemail.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

what he'll say

Ellen is waiting for us in the bedroom, so ravaged by cancer, her body so cadaverous, you would think a thousand year old woman had risen from the tomb, put on a fluffy white towelling bathrobe, and sat herself down at the dressing table to reapply her make-up. The skin of her face is tight across her skull, jaundiced and papery, her dry lips drawn back from teeth which seem too big for her head. She sits serenely, blessed by Zomorph, smiling on her family - her husband in a wheelchair, her daughter sitting on the bed, her son-in-law in the hallway, letting us in. We step inside and introduce ourselves.
She’s ready to go, her medications, clothes and things in two bright green plastic bags and a small, black wheeled suitcase with a handle. The daughter wants to travel with her in the ambulance, but Ellen says no, she’d rather they all followed in the car. They watch as we carry her out and make her comfortable on the trolley, then turn back inside to get ready to follow.


‘I’m sorry the ambulance rocks about so much, Ellen.’
‘Oh don’t worry about that, darling. They don’t make them comfortable because they don’t want people to like riding in them. But I don’t mind. I don’t mind a bit. So long as I’ve got someone to talk to and a hand to hold, I’m all right.’
‘I liked that photo in your bedroom, the one with the dog.’
‘Barney? Oh I miss Barney. He was a lovely dog. Lovely.’
‘What was he? An English Bull terrier?’
‘No! He was just a scrap of a thing – a Jack Russell! He just pushed his nose up against the camera and ended up looking bigger than he was. But he always was like that. Getting into mischief. He was a lovely dog. He’d curl up in his basket and wait until the lights were out, then he’d sneak on the bed and cuddle up. And Bill’d say “Can’t we do something about that dog, Ellie?” And I’d say “Well what do you suggest?”. He was a lovely dog. If I’m talking too much, just say.’
‘No. It’s nice to chat.’
‘I think so. I like to chat.’
The morphine takes her away to another place for a while and we travel in silence. But then she moves her head and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.
‘Do you have children?’
‘Yep. Two girls. Six and ten.’
‘Two girls! How lovely.’
‘I’m outnumbered. The only other male is Buzz, our oldest dog, and even he’s been done.’
‘Even he’s been done! Lovely. Still. I expect you’re all right.’
‘Yeah. I’m all right.’
‘I lost my first child.’
‘Did you? I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘She was lovely, lovely. I had her, and then she was gone. You never get over something like that, you know. But I had her for a little while, and that was something.’
She rests her head back on the pillow as the ambulance tips and sways.
‘Can I get you some water, Ellen?’
‘No dear. No - I was just thinking. About a cousin I had once. A long time ago now. He was lovely. Lovely. All the girls loved him. And you know – after he loved them back ...’ She walks her fingers slowly across the blanket. Her fingers are so thin, it seems to perfectly animate the stroll of a man into the distance. ‘And then of course he was off for good. Australia. And we never saw hide nor hair of him again.’
She flattens her hand on the cover, smoothes out a crease there, pats the spot, and then holds her hand out to me. When I take it, she looks at me, and her eyes are dilute and indistinct.
‘Of course Bill will be there at the hospital’ she says. ‘And I know exactly what he’ll say when you open the doors.’
‘What’ll he say?’
She leans forward an inch, squeezes my hand and gives it a little shake.
‘He’ll say “How on earth did you put up with her? I’d have thrown her out at the traffic lights.”’

Friday, October 21, 2011

the wrong hotel

Three o’clock in the morning, parked by the side of a deserted street. Dozing in the low-lit box of our cab whilst the belly of the moon bumps the roof and the ambulance freezes around us. If I half close my eyes, I can turn those streetlights into diatoms of colour; they ripple and stretch and fly apart in strands, swimming through the low voices of the radio.

But then something hooks me back from the brink of sleep: an estate car pulling up to the side of the road in front of us. A man gets out. I watch him as he goes round to the back, opens the boot and pulls out a silver chair. He sets it on the pavement, then goes back into the boot again. I wonder if he’s some kind of street artist ready to perform a bitterly ironic piece – Standby – about the despair of men paid to sit by the side of empty streets at night for no reason. But it turns out he’s just re-arranging the boot. He puts the chair back inside when he’s done, and drives off.

A job comes up on the screen.
Overdose, outside a hotel.

Frank groans, unfolds back into a driving position yawns like Chewbacca as he turns the engine over.
‘Back the other side of town,’ he says, reading the notes. ‘So that was worth sending us here, then.’


The night porter doesn’t wave as we approach. He hugs his arms around his mop and watches us without expression as we pull up.
‘Cold night’ I say.
As if that was all he needed to hear, the night porter unfolds his arms and bends down to pick up the bucket. He holds both – mop and bucket – in one hand, raising the other arm up and out as a counterbalance.
‘Was there a guy sitting out here? Rang for an ambulance? Something about an overdose?’
The night porter sighs.
‘Threw up all over the steps and fucked off. Is that who you mean?’
‘Could be.’
‘I’ve cleared it up.’ He stands there, frowning as if he thinks the whole thing was probably our idea, then turns to go back inside.
‘Speak to Mrs Adams.’

On the Reception desk, Mrs Adams has come out of the back office. She stands with her arms planted across the register like a priestess drawing power from a book of spells.
‘He left as soon as I said the ambulance was on its way,’ she says. ‘He said he’d taken an overdose because he had a row with his girlfriend. She wasn’t with him.’
‘What does he look like?’
She pauses, staring out across the empty lobby.
‘Tall. Thin. Gloomy.’
‘Okay. Thanks.’
‘Anything else I can help you with?’
‘No. Thanks very much. Good night.’
‘Good night to you.’
‘Don’t look back’ says Frank as we walk back across the lobby. But I do. Mrs Adams waves. I wave back, and almost end up in the same segment of the revolving door as Frank.


Control ring us up. Police are on scene with the patient at the Cumberland.
‘Who is this guy? Some kind of fucked-up hotel inspector?’
We drive round the corner and park up behind one of the patrol cars out in the street. As we climb out of the cab again, a police officer comes over.
‘What it is – this fella had a fight with his girlfriend and took some pills she had on her. Went away, came back, punched out a glass door in the lobby. He’s in there sitting on the naughty step with cuffs on. His girlfriend is being a bit difficult at the moment, but you should be all right.’

The Cumberland is a good but less expensive hotel than the first. Some of the letters are out on the name, the doors are thickly painted, whilst in the lobby, a chintz war rages between the repro tables, gilt mirrors, flowery prints and flock wallpaper. A handful of tourist pamphlets and glass shards are scattered across the runner.
Four police officers fill the hallway. Two are with the patient, who sits with his arms cuffed behind him at the bottom of the staircase at the far end. Two more are with the girlfriend, a young woman of twenty who seems even from this distance to have the same darkly wrought intensity as the wallpaper.
‘Don’t you lay a hand on me,’ she says. ‘You’re being completely horrendous. All I want is to make sure Jimmy’s okay. I can’t believe you’re not letting me.’
‘The paramedics are here,’ says one of the officer, glad to have some new angle. ‘Let them do their job, and we’ll see where we go from there.’
As we pass she leans out in front of us.
‘We had a row,’ she says. ‘He took six anti-psychotic pills I’d confiscated off a friend who shouldn’t have been taking them. I’m a reflexologist so I know about this stuff. He’s had some alcohol, he’s been sick a number of times. I’m worried he might go unconscious or have a fit.’
The police officer gently steers her out of the way.
‘Please!’ she says.
‘Let them do their job,’ he says.
‘Let go of me!’
‘Just give us a moment,’ says Frank. ‘It’ll be all right.’

Jimmy barely looks up as we approach. If it wasn’t for the early hour, the handcuffs, the police officers, the flashes of blue from outside, the buzz of radios and the loud protestations of his girlfriend, he could be a disappointed tourist waiting to go back to the airport.
‘How are you on your feet?’ says Frank.
Jimmy stands up, utterly neutral. We walk him out to the truck.
‘I’ll be there in a minute, baby,’ says his girlfriend, touching him on the arm as we pass. ‘Check his blood pressure and heart rate. And check in the manual for side-effects. I’m here baby. I’m here for you.’
‘Just a second,’ says one of the officers. ‘Who’s got the keys to your room?’
‘I know. I know where they are,’ says the girlfriend. ‘They landed in the big ceramic pot to the right of the sofa.’
‘What sofa?’
‘The sofa by the window.’
We all look in that direction.
‘Not this hotel. The other one,’ she says.
Everyone seems to tense up.
Jimmy discretely tests the slack of his cuffs.
‘Let’s get you out to the truck,’ says Frank.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

little rabbits

Alan’s flat is tucked round the side of the main house. Everything is nicely ordered – the roses have been pruned back early, the bark chippings on the soil swept back from the path, the fallen apples from the neighbour’s tree picked up and put in a plastic crate. Alan looks tidily put away, too. He sits waiting for us on an armchair in the centre of the room, a view of the garden off to the left, a large TV to the right. A low bookcase neatly filled with DVDs – Jarhead, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Good, The Bad & the Ugly. To the left of the armchair beneath a picture window is a large wire cage with two tiny rabbits, whose ears hang straight down like the flaps on a winter hat.
‘Did the doctor leave a letter?’ asks Frank. ‘Or was it done on the phone?’
‘On the phone. He said we shouldn’t mess about.’
‘Fair enough.’
I go back out to fetch a chair.


The hospital is as busy as ever. Whilst Frank stands and waits his turn to handover at the desk, I wait alongside the trolley with Alan. He watches the chaos with the same taut readiness as one of his rabbits; I half expect him to leap off the trolley and scamper out the door if I cough or shift my position unexpectedly.
‘So your carer will look after the rabbits?’ I say.
‘She’s very good. I couldn’t manage without her.’
‘How often does she come in?’
‘Every other day.’
‘Do you manage to get out much?’
‘A little. To the corner shop.’
‘How long does that take you?’
‘Half the morning. It’s a major expedition.’
‘I bet.’
Frank waves to us from the desk, then leans back into a semi-conscious slump. I’ve never seen so many nurses, doctors, junior doctors, porters, police, patients, relatives – it’s like a casting call for a disaster movie.
‘Busy today, isn’t it?’ says Alan, studying me intently with his dark eyes.
‘Sorry it’s taking so long.’
‘That’s okay. I’ve got time.’
As if to illustrate the point, he folds his hands neatly on the blanket and sighs.
‘So – tell me about your rabbits,’ I say.
‘What about them?’
‘Erm – they look like baby rabbits.’
‘No. They’re actually quite rare. They’re Holland Lops, a dwarf breed. House trained, of course. Great company. They’ll wander about, then all of a sudden do a complete flip in the air.’
‘I’m glad you’ve got two. I think rabbits get a rough deal sometimes. Kids want them, but they get bored and the rabbit ends up banished to some lonely old shed.’
‘Oh no. Mine are great company. They help me undress.’
‘They help you undress?’
‘Yes. I slip my shoes off, they take a sock each and tug.’
‘They they climb up on my shoulder and we watch a film together.’
‘And what do they eat? Popcorn?’
‘No. They have special pellets that my carer gets. Looks exactly like their poo, but they seem to enjoy it.’
Frank comes over.
‘Sorry it took a while. But we’ve found you a space.’

Mind your backs, please! he calls, Mind your backs! And we nudge the trolley slowly forwards like an ice-breaking ship.