Sunday, July 24, 2011

two weeks!

On holiday for a couple of weeks, so I won’t be able to publish or reply to any comments. But thanks so much for reading, don’t work too hard – and I’ll see you all when I get back! (And I’ll raise a nice, cool bottle of beer or three to you all…) x

something else entirely

We force a path through the heavy lunchtime traffic heading out for the suburban reaches east of the city and the scattering of boxy white bungalows overlooking the sea. With the morning so wide and blue, the sea such a pearlescent green, it seems incredible we’re in England and not racing along a coast road high above the Aegean. Some notes come through on the job. I have to shield the screen with my clipboard to read them: son forced entry; life status questionable.
Frank turns up into a steeply sloping road. At the far end is a police car, and a gathering of neighbours nearby.
‘Is everything all right?’ one of them asks as we park and jump out.
‘Let’s hope so,’ I say, hauling out the resus and drugs bags.
A police officer stands in the garden talking into his radio. He gives us two nods as we approach – one to acknowledge, one to direct. He carries on without any kind of break in his conversation.

Inside the bungalow, another police officer is talking smoothly and quietly to a bearish man whose distraction is so profound it threatens to swallow everything – me, Frank, the policeman, the religious icons on the walls, the mirrors and trinkets, books and paintings – the walls of the house itself, every last thing – teetering on the black precipice of his grief.
‘It’s no good,’ he sobs. ‘She’s gone. She’s gone.’
‘In the bedroom, guys,’ says the police officer. ‘Just through there.’
We haul our bags past them both and go into the room.

Mrs Davis is lying on the bed, curled up on her left side, her left arm and wrist crooked up under her cheek, her right hand clutching at the bed clothes by her hip, the sheets riding up round her legs. Mrs Davis’ eyes are papery and fixed, staring out over a long, black and brackish stain that runs from the lower corner of her mouth, out across the mottled flesh of her arm, down over the pillow corner and to a dried pool on the sheets beneath.
The police officer comes in from the hallway and stands beside us.
‘When was the last time anyone spoke to Mrs Davis? Or saw her?’ I ask him.
‘The son spoke to her on the phone last night just before she went to bed. No sign of anything untoward. They were meant to be going shopping today. When he got here and found all the curtains still drawn he knew something was up and broke in.’
‘Have you checked her over yet?’
‘No, not yet. We thought we’d wait for you guys to call it, even though it’s obvious.’
‘What was her health like, do you know? Anything much wrong with her?’
‘No. The usual old age things – but actually, not too many of those, it sounds like. Active and independent.’
‘It looks like she’s had some kind of upper GI bleed, but other than that, who knows?’
‘Will you tell him?’

We walk out of the bedroom and into the lounge where the son is sitting on the sofa. He looks up.
‘It’s bad news, I’m afraid,’ I say. ‘Your mother has died.’
He gives a deep sigh and looks down at his hands, turning them over and moving the fingers as if they didn’t quite fit.
‘I know,’ he says.
‘I’m so sorry for your loss. Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? Glass of water?’
‘Some tea would be nice. Thanks. And one for yourselves, too.’
I leave Frank to finish off the paperwork and go through into the kitchen. The police officer waves a gloved hand when I offer him a cup; he has been joined by the officer in the garden, and the two of them go back into the bedroom.

The kitchen is meticulously tidy, everything falling to hand. There is a calendar stuck to the boiler above the fridge – a portrait of the Virgin Mary, her arms outstretched. Beneath her, the month’s events carefully written out in block capitals. On the counter by the sink, a Sudoku puzzle book lying open, a pen resting in the spine. I finish off the teas, put them on a tray, and go back into the sitting room.

Over by the window a parakeet is gripping onto the bars of its cage, jerking its head from side to side to get a better view. I put the tray down on the table in the middle of the room, hand out the cups, then find a place to sit down, as conscious as anyone of the empty armchair and its little wooden work stand, carefully laid out with a remote control, a magazine, a bundle of wool with two needles sticking out of it, and a dish of toffees.
‘She was supposed to be going on a pilgrimage next week.’
‘To Walsingham. Norfolk. She went on quite a few of those. Here and abroad. She was pretty active considering.’ He pauses, takes a sip of his tea, then puts the cup back in the saucer without making a sound. ‘That’s someone else I’ve got to ring,’ he says.
There is a pause. Frank writes a few more things down on the form. Suddenly the parakeet squawks in the cage, a fierce and rasping sound, then leaps across from one side of the cage to the other. It hangs onto the bars there, scrutinising us fretfully, whilst its little plastic mirror swings from side to side behind it. We all look at it. Finally the son says: ‘And that’s something else entirely.’
He takes another sip of tea.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

mum and dad

Guy is waiting outside in the garden. As soon as I’m close enough I ask him if he’s the patient. He nods, shifting from side to side, his hands up to his face to gnaw at the corner of his thumb, and then down, and then up again, all the while glancing along the street and shifting from one foot to the other like the film portrait of an anxious man, run through the camera at double speed.
‘Shall we have a chat on the ambulance?’
He almost sprints to the vehicle. Frank just has time to clear the blankets aside and put the back up before he clambers on.
I shut the door quietly.
‘Or would you rather I left it open?’
He nods. I open it again.
‘What’s been happening then, Guy?’
‘My heart started racing and I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t breathe. I got a crackling feeling up and down my arms, my hands – I couldn’t control it. I got tight across here. I thought my head was going to explode. I’ve got these lumps. See? Here – and here. All along here. I went to the chemist and he said I’ve got lymphoma. Do you think I’ve got lymphoma? I looked it up on the internet and I’ve got all the symptoms. Jesus fucking Christ I don’t want cancer. I’m scared – d’you know what I mean? Look. Here – here. I itch all the time. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My girlfriend’s stuck in a traffic jam because there’s been a crash. And the chemist said I’ve got lymphoma. Do you even know what that is?’
‘Guy? Just slow your breathing down. Nice and slow, like this – in through your nose – hold it – then out through your mouth. Nice and slow. You’re breathing too fast and that’s what’s giving you the funny feelings in your hands and arms and the tightness in your chest. Do you suffer with anxiety, Guy?’
‘What? What do you mean? Look. Look at these lumps. What are they?’
‘Guy – slow, slow, slow. Your heart rate’s fine. You’re getting plenty of oxygen. What you’re having at the moment is an anxiety attack. You just need to spend a minute or two slowing your breathing down. Okay? Nice and slow.’
‘But what do you think? I looked it up. On the internet. It’s all there – I’ve got all the symptoms. What about these lumps? Here, and here.’
‘Well to be honest Guy I can’t see or feel that there’s much there. I mean it’s a bit red where you’ve been scratching it, but nothing major. Maybe a mild touch of heat rash, but nothing I’d describe as lumps.’
‘But the chemist?’
‘Maybe you misunderstood. I’d be surprised if a chemist came out with a diagnosis of lymphoma over the counter.’
‘So you don’t think I’ve got lymphoma?’
‘I think it’s extremely unlikely, Guy. Have you spoken to your doctor about any of this?’
‘Yesterday. I told her I thought I had cancer.’
‘What did she say?’
‘She changed the subject. She didn’t want to talk about it.’
‘Did she prescribe you anything yesterday?’
‘She gave me something to help me sleep and chill me out.’
‘And have you taken those?’
‘No. She just wants me to leave her alone. She knows I’ve got cancer and she’s too scared to do anything about it. Oh Jesus Christ!’
‘Have you ever had anything like this before, Guy?’
‘What? The lumps?’
‘No. These anxious feelings?’
‘I had a nervous breakdown a couple of years ago. I got sectioned. My mum and dad were killed in a car crash. They never came home. I ended up in a police cell. You won’t take me there, will you? You won’t take me to a police cell? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go back there.’
‘We’re not taking you to the police station, Guy. But I think we’d like to take you up the hospital, just to make sure you’re okay and safe, and maybe find you someone to talk to about how you feel.’
The trolley creaks as Guy perpetually changes position, crossing and uncrossing his legs, grabbing on to the little black rails, dropping his head back to stare at the ceiling, jerking back upright again.
‘Just try to slow things down for us, Guy. Nice and slow.’
He gnaws his thumb again and stares at me. Finally he says: ‘I’ve tried ringing them but I get no answer.’
‘Mum and Dad.’
And he looks away from me to the open door.

Friday, July 15, 2011

getting through

‘Wait a minute. I’ll just give Barbara a call.’
Dorothy is holding a scrap of paper with something like runes written on it in shaky black marker pen.
‘The number’s upside down,’ says Frank, reaching across and turning it the right way up for her. ‘Would you like me to dial?’
‘No. Thank you. I can manage.’
She picks up the receiver, puts it to her ear suspiciously to check the tone, scrutinises the scrap of paper a nose and a half distant, then extends a withered finger. ‘Eight....’
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an old phone with a circular dial. I love the way Dorothy jabs a finger in each number hole, drags it round with that congested whirring noise inside, then pulls it out and lets the dial wind backwards with a clatter. It all seems so mechanical, agricultural. Amazing that anyone should be on the other end. And of course, they’re not.
‘Out,’ she says, replacing the receiver. ‘Still at work, I ‘spect.’
‘You can always ring them from the hospital.’
‘Can I?’
She looks pained.
‘What’s the matter, Dorothy?’ says her friend Sylvie from the opposite chair. ‘What are you worrying about?’
‘Where’s my purse?’
‘In the kitchen under the monkey. Shall I get it for you?’
‘Could you, pet? And whilst you’re there, could you fetch me in my glasses? And a dress – the white cotton one, not the one with pleats. And my best slippers. And I’ll need a coat. And shut the window ‘cos I’ve left it wide open.’

Dorothy is ninety three but only looks seventy. She’s had hip pain all week, but today it’s much worse and she hasn’t been able to go outside. She could see Sylvie waiting for her on the bench down in the square, and shouted out the window for her to come up.
‘I’ve never seen her like this,’ says Sylvie, her head waggling from side to side with the excitement of it all. ‘Never. She’s normally such a fighter.’
‘Yes. Well. I am a fighter.’
‘I know.’
‘But sometimes you just run out of fight.’
To illustrate the point, she sighs, and rests her head back on the cushions Sylvie has plumped up behind her. After a second or two when everything goes quiet and nothing seems to happen, she opens her eyes and lifts her head again.
‘Oh – and while you’re in there, can you bring me my green cardy hanging off the back of the door? And a bottle of water out of the fridge?’
Sylvie smiles and crowbars herself out of her chair with her walking stick. She seems even more decrepit than Dorothy, even though she’s twenty years younger – a fact that Dorothy has emphasised at least four times since we got here.
‘It’s bad,’ says Dorothy, ‘Very bad. I’ve never known pain like it.’
‘If you had to give the pain a score out of ten, with ten being unbearable pain and nought being nothing, what would you give it, Dorothy?’
‘Well I wouldn’t say it was unbearable.’
‘So – marks out of ten?
‘It’s not too bad when I sit still like this.’
‘No – but when you move, what score might you give it?’
‘Score? I don’t know. What do you think?’
‘It’s not what I think. It’s what the pain feels like to you.’
‘Excruciating hot. Right deep in here.’
‘Does it go anywhere else?’
‘Right in deep.’
‘And what mark would you give it out of ten? You know. For the pain. Marks out of ten.’
Sylvie comes back in with an armful of stuff.
‘Where do you want it?’ she says, breathing heavily.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ says Dorothy, holding the scrap of paper up to the light again and almost pressing it to the tip of her nose. ‘I just wish I could get through to Barbara.’

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

clang! pow! thunk!

When another job appears on the screen, the student paramedic riding in the back of the truck stuffs his head through the hatch.
‘Anything good?’ he says.
I’ve been wincing so much this shift I’m developing a twitch. The student means well, but carries himself awkwardly, like a kid in dressing-up clothes pretending to smoke with a pencil. When he speaks to the patients it’s such a disaster I half expect to see comic book sounds in the air. Clang! Pow! Thunk!
To the alcoholic: ‘How many units of alcohol do you drink a day?’
‘What do you mean? Units?’
‘Well how much do you drink, then?’
‘How much do you drink?’
‘Obviously not as much as you.’
To the woman who took an overdose:
‘What made you take the pills, then?’
‘My husband of thirty years decided he doesn’t want me anymore. He’s moved in with the lodger.’
‘Where does she live?’
‘In the room across the hall.’
‘Oh. So are you moving out, then?’
To the old woman who just wants to die at home.
‘Let me do your blood pressure.’
‘I’m not going to hospital. I will not go to that place again. I would rather die here in my chair and be done. I’m ninety one, for goodness sake. What’s the point of dragging things out? I’ve had my time. I’ve enjoyed it – I’ve had a lovely marriage, three beautiful children, and I simply think it’s time for me to move on. All I do is sit in this chair staring out of the window. Where’s the life in that? Ouch! That cuff’s rather tight again.’
‘Well if you’d only stop talking for a moment I might be able to hear.’


Three o’clock in the morning. Six years of shift work heavy inside me like the fossilised remains of something. I can feel it sitting there, as scuffed and cold as the moon that drifts up over the sea. I climb into the cab with a cup of tea, look for my book, click on the overhead light, settle back for a five minute read.
The door opens.
‘Do we have a traction splint on the vehicle? Did you check that earlier?’
‘A traction splint. I need to have a look at one to get it signed off in my book.’
‘Look – I, erm – I really don’t want to be getting any kit out right now.’
‘But I need to get it signed off.’
‘It’s three o’clock in the fucking morning.’
‘It’s got to be done.’
‘Some other time, mate. The day time.’
‘I’ll ask Frank.’
He closes the door again.
‘Good luck with that,’ I say to myself, then settle down lower – much, much lower – so low it’s apparent to anyone, even to me, that I am now more chair than man.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

the little details

Miss Ellingham is lying on her side on the rough path that runs above the harbour. A woman is crouched down beside her holding a golfing umbrella to shield her from the sun; the woman’s husband stands beside them both with a border terrier straining impatiently on a lead. There is an audience of tourists outside the cafĂ©, sunning themselves like seals on the ice flows of the picnic benches. They nudge each other and raise their ice creams as we approach.

‘It’s my stupid arm,’ says Miss Ellingham. ‘Or to be more anatomically precise, my wrist. I think I may have fractured it.’
‘First of all, let’s make sure you haven’t hurt yourself anywhere else.’
‘Of course. Yes. I know you have your routine. I’m a first aider myself.’

When everything looks okay, we help her into a sitting position.
‘Of course my instinct was to go onto all fours and push myself up, but that was impossible with this injury. One feels so stupid.’
The tourists nod, pointing out details to each other, enjoying the scene as much as the cones that they turn expertly round and round.
‘Thank you so much for your help,’ says Miss Ellingham, squinting up at the umbrella woman as Frank ties a triangular bandage. ‘Most kind.’
‘Are you okay to walk over to the ambulance?’ I ask her.
‘Yes. I only lay there because I knew you would expect me to. I would’ve been quite happy to have got myself up and sat on a bench. As soon as I fell I checked myself over mentally and I knew it was just the wrist. But I’m fully aware of the procedure. I’m a first aider myself you see and I’m used to giving directions. I asked this kind lady to take my rucksack off me and use it as a pillow, then lay still and waited for the emergency services to give the all-clear. Look – could you clip my hip pack back around my waist again? It’s got all my essentials and I need to have it on me at all times. I like to be ready to go. When I’m hostelling I sleep with it over my pyjamas. Well – if there’s a fire in the middle of the night and you have to walk straight out, at least I’d have my essentials. I might not have any clothes but at least I’d have my essentials. That’s why I don’t go swimming in the sea. I wouldn’t want to leave them on the beach.’
‘Come on. Let’s get you on board.’
‘Thank you.’
I half expect the tourists to clap and throw coins.


‘I like to get out and about,’ says Miss Ellingham. She is eighty going on twenty, her lank, grey hair cut in a youthful bob and held in place with a flowery clip. She wears an arctic fleece and walking boots so massively squared off with tread she could be trekking in the Kush. But despite her survivalist presentation she looks at us with a brittle, slightly pained expression, like an ancient girl-guide used to making the best of it.
‘I suppose it’s fractured,’ she says.
‘I think so. It looks like a Colles’ fracture. Just here at the end where your radius joins the wrist.’
‘Yes. I know. Well. What a nuisance. I suppose they’ll be putting it in a cast, then? So I won’t be able to go for my swim tomorrow. I won’t be up to much with my wing in a sling, will I?’
She smiles, a thoroughly brave affair, and then looks blankly around her as she carries out a further audit. ‘No cycling,’ she says eventually. ‘No St Johns. Baths will be tricky so showers instead. Half my clothes won’t fit. Still. When you live on your own you get used to coping with these things. I suppose many of your customers would be feeling pretty down on their luck. But what’s the point? It’s happened, there you are. Deal with it. At least it’s only my wrist. And at least I fell where there were people to help. What would’ve happened if I’d been way out on the shore? And fell more heavily, so I couldn’t get up? And my phone was broken. And the tide was coming in?’ She grimaces at the thought of that. ‘Well – I suppose I’d have got up somehow in that instance. But the important thing is I’m here, it’s done, minor injury, there you are. We’re coping. Have you got my bag?’
I point to the trolley.
‘I’ve got my essentials in my hip bag.’ She adjusts her pack with her good hand and smiles at me again. ‘You might think I’m too independent but I say there’s no such thing. I never have appreciated fuss. I’ll be eighty one in December and I’ve just learned the front crawl. I did a quarter mile the other day. John is doing his best to get me to do what he likes to call alternate breathing but I have to admit I pretty much drown if I don’t stick to the right, but I do understand what he means about balance. I’ll get there. If you set your mind to it you can do it.’

I put my hand on her shoulder and apologise when the ambulance goes over a bump, but the rough road only seems to be shaking more words out of her.

‘I’m particularly interested in geology, you see. I used to be an accountant but now I’ve got the time and opportunity to look at other things, things that really interest me, so why not? I’m doing one of those degrees at the university of the third age. Earth Sciences – how the land was formed, rocks and fossils and so forth. That’s why I like to get out, to see as much of it as I can, to see how it was all made. I’ve always liked the outdoors. It’s one of the benefits of living on one’s own. You don’t have to think about anyone else. You can just take off wherever you like and please yourself. It may sound selfish but I enjoy it. It’s how I live. It’s how I’ve always done it. You don’t suppose I could have a sip of water do you? I’ve got a sports bottle there in my rucksack?’
‘Just a little sip to wet your mouth,’ I say, passing her the bottle.
‘Thanks.’ I offer to pull the tip of it out for her but she shakes her head, bites it out, and takes a slug.
‘How long will I be in a cast?’
‘A few weeks,’ I say. ‘And then some kind of physiotherapy, maybe.’
‘Damn,’ she says, and takes another slug of water. ‘I feel so stupid. Still – that’s accidents for you.’ She pushes the tip of the bottle back into place with her chin and then hands the bottle back to me.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘I’ll be going home from a different train station. I wonder if they’ll honour my ticket?’
‘Oh, I’m sure they will. You’ll have your arm in a cast. You’ll have the paperwork. I can’t think they’d worry about a little detail like that.’
‘Ah yes – but you see, it’s just precisely the little details one worries about.’

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

investment opportunity

A man appears at the ambulance window, raps twice, then casts a look up and down the road. When I lower the window, he discretely pulls a bundle of folded white documents from hip pocket and rests them on the edge. It feels as if we’re suddenly in a spy thriller.
The oranges will be ready early this year in Seville
Yes, but many villagers pray for rain.

Instead he says: ‘Hello.’
‘Are you the social worker?’
He nods. ‘My name’s John. Thanks for coming. I don’t know if our man is at home. We’ll just take pot luck, shall we?’
We jump out of the cab and follow him across the road.
John is a relaxed, pleasantly crumpled individual. In his loose black bowling shirt and scruffy chinos he looks as if he’s just been called away from his newspaper and espresso.
‘I don’t know if you’ve been told,’ he says, as we walk up the littered pathway to the main entrance of the block. ‘Mr Gerhardt is a Section Three. No history of violence, but won’t want to go, so be prepared for a lot of discussion. I think we can manage without the police, but of course that’s always an option.’

Mr Gerhardt’s flat looks out front onto a small swatch of grass. All the windows are shut and the curtains drawn, except for a central window that is cracked just enough to let out a hosepipe, which snakes across the patch. At the end of the pipe and spreading all around are dozens of roughly dug holes with dried sticks poked into them. By each stick is a crudely cut notice as big as your thumb, with strange characters inked out in black.
‘His flat’s filled with maps and models,’ says John. ‘He’s just started work on the main event out back. I don’t know what all these sticks mean. Part of the overall scheme in some way. He’s looking for forty million pounds to build a ship to take him to Mars, where he’s been elected to represent earth at the interplanetary Olympics. Him and Tutankhamen.’
‘Worth a punt,’ says Frank, trying to peer in at the window. ‘He could go on Dragon’s Den.’
‘Let’s see if he’s in, first,’ says John, pressing the flat number. After a few goes, he turns back to us.
‘Shall we have a look round the back?’

The C-shaped housing block has at its centre a cracked and scrubby patch of ground, more like an exercise yard than a communal garden. The yard is ringed by a rusty chain-link fence. A family sits out on their balcony as we crawl through a hole in the fence and walk over to the back of Mr Gerhardt’s flat.
‘He’s not in,’ shouts a woman. ‘He went out about ten minutes ago.’
‘You’ll have to catch him later,’ says her friend. ‘With a big net.’ But neither of them laugh. They smoke and stare, and the heat hangs over the yard like the haze on a dry griddle.
John smiles and raises his hand in thanks.
‘Oh dear,’ he says. ‘We might have to re-think.’
Just outside Mr Gerhardt’s back door is the beginnings of a large, crude structure. Planks of wooden decking, bound together at right angles with gaffer tape, and beside it, a pile of scavenged pots, boxes, tangles of string, half a skateboard and some pram wheels.
A woman comes out of the neighbouring flat.
‘Have you come to do something about Hans?’ she says. ‘Because he’s not right.’
‘Yes,’ says John. ‘We’re going to get him some help, but unfortunately he doesn’t appear to be in.’
‘He was out here all last night, moving stuff about, cursing, carrying on. I put my head out the window and I said Hans, please! Some of us are trying to get to sleep. There’re children live here, too, you know. But he just carried on like I wasn’t there. It’s about time something was done. I’m not well myself.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. But don’t worry. We’ve got things in place, now. Guys – sorry to have called you out for nothing. I’ll stand you down and we’ll have a re-think.’
The woman folds her arms and watches us as we climb back through the fence.

Outside the front of the block again, John has one last look up and down the road.
‘So what does this Mr Gerhardt look like?’ says Frank.
‘Oh – about six foot four. Powerful build. Shaven head. And a rather – I don’t know – intense look about him.’
‘I bet,’ says Frank.