Sunday, February 26, 2012

watch this space

We’re standing outside the lobby wondering about access when Mrs Goldman buzzes us in. A smart lift panelled in polished burr walnut takes us up to the top floor where Mrs Goldman, a ninety year old woman in a yellow turban and silk housecoat, is waiting by her open door. She waves us inside, shuts it behind us then immediately drops herself into a gold and red throne to the side.
‘He’s in the bathrump,’ she says, waving a heavily jewelled ring in the direction of the hall. ‘I can’t do nothing with him. He has been stuck forever.’ And she slaps the hand over her forehead, leaning into it with a theatricality that would make Gloria Swanson blush. ‘What to do with him? They have set him free of the hospital too early.’
We walk along the hallway to the bathroom. Mr Goldman is sitting on the toilet, comfortably set with his trousers round his ankles and the fingers of his vast, liver-spotted hands evenly spread on his knees. He lifts his head and regards us with the baleful look of an old dog who expects any moment to be put back on the lead.
‘Yes?’ he says.
‘It’s the ambulance, Mr Goldman.’
‘The ambulance?’
‘Yes. Your wife called us because she was worried about you.’
‘She called you?’
‘She was worried.’
He leans forward to shout past my shoulder.
‘You called these people?’
She shouts back. ‘What did you think I would do? I thought you was having a stroke or something maybe. You’ve been sitting there for an half hour or more. I can’t stand it.’ Then she mumbles some other stuff we can’t hear but the tone is clear enough.
‘So – are you okay, Mr Goldman?’
‘I’m having a little trouble going.’
‘A little!’ laughs Mrs Goldman. ‘There’s nothing coming out of there. Trust me.’
‘And is that normal for you?’ I ask him.
‘Is it normal for you to have trouble going to the toilet?’
‘He takes everything he can swallow and nothing makes the difference,’ shouts Mrs Goldman.
Mr Goldman shrugs. ‘Nothing works.’
‘Well shall we help you up and into a more comfortable chair?’ I say to him. ‘Then we’ll have a chat about things.’
He is so thin, even when his belt is tied his trousers sag dangerously at the waist. We help him to shuffle out of the bathroom, across the hall and into a brightly lit sitting room with a view of the sea on two sides. There are pictures hanging on every available wall space – lusciously dark oil paintings of forests and farm yards, modern abstract prints, broad and brilliant watercolours of ships at sea. Mr Goldman sits in a chair as extravagantly opulent as the one in the hall and lets out a great, deflationary sigh.
Mrs Goldman hobbles into the room and sits in a chair next to him. She sighs, too – and then they both look at us.
‘Do you have any carers to help?’ I ask them.
‘One girl, she comes on a Wednesday with the shopping. But my daughter Sarah comes in every day so we don’t need nobody else.’
‘Does Sarah live nearby?’
‘Not so far. She should be here soon. I call her after I call you.’
‘Sarah’s coming?’ says Mr Goldman.
‘I said she’s coming. Why don’t you listen?’
She widens her eyes and holds her hands out to me, palms up, appealing for a witness to her ongoing troubles.
‘That’s good news about Sarah. So, what I suggest we do – we check you over to see everything’s okay, Mr Goldman. Then when Sarah gets here we all have a chat about what to do next. Okay?’
Mr Goldman sighs again. Mrs Goldman shrugs, and begins twisting a fat, turquoise ring round and round her finger.


‘Mama? Papa? There’s an ambulance outside? What...?’
Sarah sweeps into the room and drops a bulging leather handbag down on the floor.
Mrs Goldman waves her hand backwards and forwards in the air as if she were brushing something aside to make their meeting that much quicker. Sarah reaches over and gives her a kiss, then touches her father on the shoulder.
‘What is it? What’s happened?’ she says, finally turning to us. Her eyes behind her glasses are two diminishing points of anxiety.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ I say to her. ‘Your mum was worried because your dad was taking a long time on the toilet and she thought maybe something was wrong. Which is why she called the ambulance.’
‘What do I know?’ says Mrs Goldman. ‘I thought it was like the last time. And he wasn’t answering, he wasn’t talking to me. Why don’t you talk to me, at least?’
‘I do talk to you. When I can.’
‘When I can, he says. What you do to me? What you do?’
‘Mum, Dad. We have company.’
‘They’ve seen this and worse. Two old people who should be dead arguing about a toilet. This is news to them?’
She settles herself back into the chair. Mr Goldman turns himself to face the other way, as far as is still in his power.
‘It’s okay, Sarah. We don’t mind. We’re just glad everything’s all right.’
‘All right, he says. Maybe for you.’
‘All right in the sense of nobody being ill or hurt or anything.’
Sarah nods for me to follow her into the kitchenette.
She leans back on the counter and folds her arms.
‘I’m so sorry to have wasted your time,’ she says. ‘It’s difficult for them these days. They hardly ever get out of the house, and I think they just drive each other slightly mad.’
‘It must be difficult.’
‘It is difficult. When you think how active they used to be . I mean they’ve still managed to hang on to their lovely flat and everything. And each other. But how long can they go on like this?’
‘How long can you?’
She smiles at me, something tentative and fragile and nearing the end.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Watch this space.’

Saturday, February 25, 2012

egg wipes

Mrs Clark quietly watches over her husband from the end of the sofa. They’ve been together since the war, but whilst his face is reddened and blasted by age, hers is paler, more ghostly. The papery flatness of their eyes and their arthritically wooden gestures put me in mind of Punch and Judy, retired from the hectic violence of the seaside booth to a nice, quiet bungalow with a wet room.
‘Thirty year I was in the whasname. Lied about me age, of course. Straight in the ranks, worked my way up. Company Sergeant Major in the end. Fought the whole match. I remember we were at er... we were making our way er... across this river. At the whasname. Only lost one. But what we didn’t know was the er... the whasname had been up there on the ridge for months, digging in, getting themselves ready, you know. So there we were, over the river thinking ‘this is all right, this,’ when the call comes to carry on up and take the ridge. Well. We knew the er... the whasname were there .. the er....’
‘The eighth panzer division,’ says his wife.
‘Thas’ it. Yep. Well they had their tanks and we some heavy whatnots and we knew it’d be a bit lively but we were young, you see? We didn’t think much of it in them days. So anyway, up we went. I started blasting away. But you see, the thing about the er.. the er...’
‘Bren gun,’ says Mrs Clark.
‘The thing about the old Bren gun was it shoots in a dead straight line. So they just drew a line straight back and caught me right in the old er.. you know.. the whasname.’
‘In your right hip,’ says Mrs Clark.
‘We lost one hundred and sixteen men that day, but I made it back, somehow. Three months up to me neck in plaster of Paris, arms and legs out here, upside down, the lot. The nurse would come over and she’d say to me “I’m sorry it’s so awful for you, Bill” but I’d say to her “Nah, mate. This is a bleedin’ holiday camp.” Because it was.’
Mrs Clark stands up and offers us tea.
‘Anyway,’ says Mr Clark, ‘I stayed on after the war. We used to get sent all over, anywhere there was a dust up. We did that old Sewage Canal down in the old er... over in the old er... the whasname. Egg Wipes. You name it, we got sent in to sort it out.’
He draws his face up into a ghoulish smile and swivels at the hip.
‘Mary. Show ‘em the shrapnel they took out of me last year. Go on.’
She hobbles over to a drawer and brings back a surgical sample bag. Inside are two sections of some kind of modern, articulated titanium joint, the undersides roughened with calcium deposits.
I look at Mr Clark.
‘And that’s what your German’ll stick in you given half the chance,’ he says, jabbing the air between us with a finger.
Mrs Clark puts her hand on my arm and speaks in a whisper.
‘He gets confused,’ she says.

Monday, February 20, 2012

duvet sharks

‘If it’s gross, I’m not going anywhere near it.’
‘How bad can it be?’
‘I’m just saying. I had a tough night last night and I’m still feeling a bit delicate. I know what you’re like. You’ll want to throw whatever it is wide open and dive in up to your elbows. But I’m just giving you fair warning, Spence. I’m not in the mood for any Sweeny Todd.’
To be fair, Frank does look pale. If I showed him a mirror, he’d probably hurl. But at least he’s driving and gets to sit in the front. If it does turn out to be noisome, he’ll be fine in the cab with the radio on and the window open.
And the weather must surely help. It’s been freezing for the past week; when we turn on to the estate, everything is fixed beneath drapes of snow and ice.
A man dressed like a superannuated lumberjack waving stiffly from the far corner.
‘Just through here,’ he says. He shows us in to a low and boxy flat, the light of the snow caught in the metal frames of its windows. There is a penetrating, crystalline tang to the air, so cold I would expect anyone living here to be swaddled in furs.
Our patient is in the bedroom, up to her neck in a duvet.
‘What do you want?’ she says. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘I understand the doctor’s been out?’ I say, nodding and smiling, rubbing my hands like a vicar at a jumble sale. ‘Has he left anything? A letter, or...?’
Her husband snorts and shuffles round to the other side of the bed. ‘Here,’ he says, handing me a print-out of information with some scrawled notes on the back. ‘I couldn’t make head nor tail. But he wants her in, and she doesn’t want to go.’
‘Thanks. We haven’t been told much, but there was something about a fall...?’
The husband folds his hands in front of him.
‘She went over a couple of days ago going from the bed to the commode and scraped her leg on the frame. I wanted to call the ambulance but she wouldn’t hear of it. She’s scared of hospitals, you see.’
‘Me too,’ I say. No-one reacts. I glance back at Frank. He is frowning at me, willing me not to pull back the duvet.
‘Hospitals,’ she says. ‘I won’t go.’
‘So it happened two days ago. But you’ve only just got the doctor in?’
‘I knew what he’d say. And I don’t want to go to hospital. You can treat me here or not at all.’
‘We won’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to do,’ I say, glancing down. ‘But let’s take it one step at a time. Tell me again what happened.’
‘I don’t know. I got up to go to the loo, lost my balance, caught my leg. It’s nothing. I don’t know why they’re all wasting your time like this. I’m not going to hospital. They’ve got those killer germs and bugs. I’ll never make it home again.’
She has the most incredible mouth. It swings open and shut like one of those curve-topped kitchen bins, two blackened tooth stumps at either corner.
‘Is it giving you much pain now?’
‘And how’s your health normally? Suffer with anything?’
‘I’m not getting up, if that’s what you mean.’
Her husband leans in.
‘Joyce has – social problems. She doesn’t get out of the flat all that much.’
‘Anything else? Osteoporosis? Heart problems? What kind of pills do you take, Joyce?’
‘He’ll tell you.’
‘It’s all on the sheet.
‘I’m not going anywhere.’
I take hold of the duvet.
‘There’s nothing for it,’ I say. ‘Would you mind if I had a look at your leg?’
‘Please yourself.’
‘Let’s see what’s been going on. Are you decent under there?’
Frank moves back a foot.
I gently pull back the cover.
Her leg is crudely wrapped in inco pads, taped with brown parcel tape.
‘Who put this on?’
The husband nods. ‘She wouldn’t let me do anything else. I wanted to, but she wouldn’t have it.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’ she says. ‘I wish you’d all just clear off.’
‘Has it been changed since?’
‘No. I didn’t want to disturb it,’ he says, shifting uncomfortably.
‘Let’s have a look. See what we’re dealing with. You don’t mind, do you? At least we can get something a bit cleaner on it.’
I flip open my bag and pull out a pair of shears.
‘Here we go.’
I snip through the layers, and then open a sachet of saline to soak the last layer free. I peel it back and reveal the wound, a devastating injury to the skin and muscle of the lower leg, a laying open to the bone, with pale globules of adipose tissue nestling amongst the darker meat, the whole thing as horrific as if a shark had swum up on her beneath the duvet and taken a bite.
‘That’s quite a - significant wound,’ I say, underplaying the shock of it, exploring the extent of it, irrigating as I go. Frank has overcome his queasiness and moves in with some fresh dressings. ‘No wonder the doctor wants you in.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ she says, then grimaces and bares her stumpy teeth again.
I straighten up despite myself.
The husband taps me on the shoulder.
‘Good luck,’ he says.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

the good runner

Margaret had sat down to lunch in the restaurant – special midday menu, low, low prices, eat as much as you like – having elbowed a space with her husband amongst the brutally enthusiastic, mostly geriatric herd of mid-week grazers, when she turned pale and slumped in the chair. When we arrive she was still there, pale but otherwise okay, the smiling centre of an epic painting entitled: The fallen woman.
‘I’m perfectly all right,’ she says. ‘I just had a turn.’
We help her outside.
‘It’s been a while since I had a man on my arm,’ she says. I smile apologetically at the husband, but he hasn’t heard.
‘Is this really necessary? I only went a bit woozy,’ she says.
‘Just a quick MOT, Margaret and then we’ll think about what to do.’
We help her into the truck.
Everything checks out, but to be absolutely certain it’s nothing to do with her heart we have to run a twelve-lead ECG.
‘How do you want me?’ she says, sitting up. Beneath her tweed combo there’s a formidable range of slips and tights, thermal body stockings and a vast, cantilevered bra, but she unbuttons, out-tucks and de-hooks herself to skin level with Olympic dexterity.
‘There! Don’t mind me. I know you have to be thorough.’
She lies back on the coach and receives our attention as if we were exceptionally attentive waiters. Her husband stands at the back of the trolley, surveying the scene with sixty watts of satisfaction.
‘I wasn’t always such an old croc,’ she says as I stick on the dots. ‘I used to be a champion runner. Can you believe that? Champion runner. Now it’s as much as I can do to stay upright with a plate of chicken.’
‘Almost done… one more…’
‘Good thing I could run, too. I had a stalker.’
‘A stalker?’
‘I was eighteen, and I’d just come out of the pub where we’d been rehearsing this play – I can’t remember what it was, don’t ask. Anyway, I came out of the pub, and it was a full moon, bright and round, so I thought I’d walk home and save the fare. So I started walking, and there was no one around. Except for this man, who started to follow me on the other side of the road. Well, I knew what that was all about. So I started to run, and he did, too. So after a while I thought I’ll cut through the stadium and lose him there. And that’s what I did. He chased me through the stadium, but he had no chance. I skipped over the fence the other side and that was that.’
‘It sounds pretty terrifying.’
‘Ay – it was. But I was such a good runner in those days. He didn’t really have a chance. How’s my ticker looking?’
‘Fine. Absolutely fine.’
‘I could’ve told you that. Now – what’s next?’

Sunday, February 12, 2012

he'll never change

Mr Abbott has already had an ambulance out to him in the morning. Then, as now, his neighbours found him on all fours, staring at the carpet, unable to get up.
‘He’s been heading this way all year,’ says Geoff, one half of the elderly gay couple who live in the flat below. ‘Won’t see his doctor, won’t have any help, won’t look after himself. Isn’t that right, Alan?’
Geoff stands in the hallway, an inflated parka of a man, plump shopping bag in either hand presumably to stop him floating away. The enormous clear plastic frames of his glasses give him a stupefied look – unlike his partner Alan, gaunt as a monk, smiling benignly over the scene with a mouthful of crooked teeth.
‘We do what we can,’ says Geoff. Don’t we Alan?’

Mr Abbott is looking quite comfortable in his mothy old armchair, one leg crooked jauntily over the other, his unwashed hands laced happily round the knee. He has one of those any-way-up faces, the wrinkled dome of his head emerging from a great wraparound beard like a brown and yellow muffler.
‘How are you feeling, Mr Abbott?’
‘Ah! You always say that! You’ll never change, will you?’
I bob down beside him and pat his hand.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever met you before, Mr Abbott…’
He pats my hand back.
‘I like that! Never met me before! Hah! You always say the same thing. You’ll never change.’
‘Mr Abbott?’
‘What’s the matter now?’
‘Everyone’s a bit worried about you. You’ve got a temperature for one thing. And I don’t think you’ve been taking enough care of yourself just lately.’
‘Enough care? I like that. Isn’t that just like you?’
He looks up at Geoff and nods in my direction.
‘He’ll never change, will he?’
Geoff goes to say something, but adjusts his grip on the bags instead.
Alan widens his smile an inch.

Friday, February 10, 2012

drifting away

The snow holds everything in a hard, blue-white light.

This must be the turning, even though the signpost is completely rounded over.

A press of car tracks heading up the road, presumably the response car that made it here first about ten minutes ago. Despite the early hour, all the estate kids are out on the green, throwing snowballs, dragging mounds of snow together with their boots for snowmen, or towing plastic sledges off to find a slope. A hyper-morning of novelty – snow, ambulances, there’s no end to it. They hardly know which way to go.

The house we want is in the far corner. We take a couple of extra things the paramedic might need and head that way, the snow crumping and squeaking beneath our boots. The front door stands open; we kick the wall to clear our boots, call ahead and go in.
A woman and her son in the kitchen.
‘Upstairs,’ she says, trying to light a cigarette. ‘Will you – tell me?’
‘Yep. I’ll come right back once we know what’s happening.’

The familiar beeping of the metronome as we go upstairs.

A man lying on his back in the bedroom, a paramedic compressing his chest. He tells us what he knows – Mark, forty, no previous medical history; sick in the night and went to bed; wife woke up and found him unresponsive; they got him on the floor and the son started CPR.
‘I’m afraid he’s been asystole throughout, guys. Pupils fixed and dilated.’
We divvy up the duties – airway, compressions, drugs. When it’s all running along and I can be spared for the moment I go back down to get more details. There’s not much to add.
‘What’s happened?’ she says. ‘Has he died?’
‘Mark’s heart isn’t working at the moment and we’re doing everything we can to get it going again.’
‘His heart? Was it last night?’
‘Could’ve been. It’s hard to say.’
The ash of her cigarette bends out precariously. Her son leans back against the sink with his arms folded, the snow-light blazing around him through the window as fiercely as his eyes.
‘I’ve got to go back and help them some more,’ I say to her. ‘But I’ll come back and give you an update.’

But despite an hour of advanced life support the man remains in asystole.
The lead paramedic reviews the situation for the final time. At the end of it he says: ‘All agreed?’
We switch off the monitor and start to tidy up.
‘He was found in bed, so let’s put him back. It’ll be easier for the wife to see him like that.’
I go back down. She’s sitting at the bottom of the stairs with a blanket draped over her shoulders. She looks up at me as I sit down next to her, and knows what I’m about to say before I say it.
‘We did absolutely everything we could, but I’m afraid Mark has died. I’m really sorry.’
She doesn’t cry, but her face crumples in a little, like something vital has been drawn out. Her son stands in the hallway, shaking his head.
‘We’re just making him comfortable upstairs, then we’ll give you time to be with him. Because it was an unexpected death, the police will be coming but don’t worry – it’s just a procedure we have to go through. They’ll tell you all about the next step. Okay? I’ll be back in a minute.’

Up in the bedroom the scattering of wrappers, boxes, syringes, pads and equipment has been tidied away. We all take hold and lift Mark back onto the bed, sorting out the pillows and drawing the quilt over so that now he looks like a man slowly waking up, resting his eyes in the reflected white of the snow rushing in above the curtains, listening to the shouts and screams of the children outside.
‘Do you think we should turn the quilt over?’ says the paramedic.
A motif of cartoon words on the cover: drifting away, zzzz.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


James is being transferred from the CDU to a secure bed at a psychiatric hospital, with a diagnosis of hypermania. The nurse looks red in the face, relieved that we’ve arrived early to take him. He gives a discreet nod of his head to indicate the bed James is in, then tells us he’ll get all the notes and the transfer papers together.
‘You shouldn’t have any trouble,’ he says, then adds, ‘Nothing physical, anyway,’ and smiles thinly as he ducks back to his desk to sort out the paperwork.

James is sitting on his bed, a fifty-year-old man with a forty-year-old pony tail. It hangs down the centre of his back, a grey and greasy length of rope tied at the ends with string. Over his black t-shirt he wears a grey waistcoat; round his neck he wears a cloth pouch on a long leather thong – it swings forwards when he leans over to tie up his boot laces.
When I step over to say hello he looks up, and begins speaking:

‘So you’ve come to take me to the loony bin have you? Well – I say loony bin. Bit disrespectful but you know what I mean. Where’s your syringe and your net? Hey? I was expecting someone in a big white coat, you know. Bit of a cliché, I know. A tranquiliser dart in the bum and a ride in a wooden box. But that’s not how it’s done, I’m kidding. I know that’s not how it’s done. I don’t doubt you’re very professional. So I’m going to the psychiatric hospital because I’ve been a bit stressed lately – well, I say stressed. I can get a bit manic sometimes and things have been building up lately. But I’ve got my beads to keep me on the straight and narrow. They’re like Catholic prayer beads, but without all the crap that goes with that particular faith – although I shouldn’t really say that. I don’t know enough about this stuff. But yeah, as I say, I have my prayer beads made of sacred wood cured over sacred fires, you know, and I wear them round my neck all the time so I can take them out whenever I need to, whenever I have to pray to get myself back into line. So look, I fiddle them round like this and for each one I make a prayer. Hanuman for courage, Shakti for balance, Vishnu for mercy and so on. Matangi for creativity. I don’t know all of them. I’ve never been there, you know. I wouldn’t mind going. I’d love to learn about their culture. Not like this one. What culture? Hey? That’s what I’d like to know....’

He talks in a whiskery patter of words, without apparently drawing breath. There is a glassy sheen of saliva on his goateed chin that he dabs at from time to time with the back of his hand, but the flow of words is uninterrupted. And the monologue floods out of him without any real effort, a generator of words. His long face remains slack as a camel, but now and again he rolls his dark eyes to the side, the absolute minimum he need do to check his audience is still conscious.

We walk with him out to the ambulance, and he carries on talking regardless.

‘... I ditched my copy of Men Only the other day when I got this (he hands me a copy of an Islamic guide to women) I think that explains all the basics. It’s very interesting. I was always the one walking into the lamppost when a pretty woman caught my eye in the street, but not any more, not after reading that. I know they put stuff in the bible, the Koran and what have you, man does, not God, their God, whatever. Stuff that wasn’t there before. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but they eat meat, don’t they? I went to Sunday school, me and my brother. Well we bunked off more than we were there but it was a start. I know I’m not educated, I don’t know nearly enough to speak on the subject. I’ll leave that to the experts. But I don’t mean politicians. I certainly wouldn’t leave anything to the politicians. I won’t vote again. It’s like Russell Brand says. Don’t encourage them. Not that I’m a fan. He goes on a bit, but very bright. He went to Oxford and ran rings around them. Couldn’t talk for laughing. But you definitely can’t trust politicians. Back-stabbing bastards. Looking out for themselves, big business. They’re no good. I remember when I was in the Gambia. There was this young girl riding on the back of a cart. Giving birth, actually. On the back of a cart, going through the streets, dust, flies, you name it. And the baby was the wrong way round or something. You’d know. Not my thing. Anyway, she couldn’t get it out for whatever reason, and they were taking her to hospital. Terrible really, but I suppose they’re used to it. I wasn’t used to it. I was at the front on a big white cushion and my arse had gone to sleep....’

Every now and again James punctuates his monologue with a grimace, a pained drawing back of his lips, exposing a crooked set of yellow teeth. The skin of his arms is angry with a rash that he scratches from time to time, idly raking over it with his nails.

‘... I remember this African boy. Only about twelve or so. I got him into trouble, kind of. He was cycling fifteen miles a day to work in this white guy’s fancy house. Fifteen miles there, fifteen miles back, all for twenty pounds a week. I said he’s taking advantage, but what can you do? The thing is this obsession with money and wealth. This crazy running-after stuff. It’ll only get you so far and then what do you do? For the great prophets have said, you can’t go to heaven with your pockets full of gold. You’ll die with a grimace – all that worry about money, it won’t do you a bit of good. You come into the world as you went out, and comeback maybe worse. I was on the streets for a long time. I slept out in the cold. You keep yourself to yourself. You don’t want to be noticed. I think they should force the politicians to do it. Every politician should have to sleep out, for two weeks every year. Maybe more, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I haven’t had the education. Anyway, do you like my shoes? I got them from the church. You should see it. These big black, beautiful women there, waiting for you, in the doorway of this church. And when you walk up to it, do you know what they do? They throw their arms wide – like this – and they draw you right into them, right in to their lovely squashy tits, and give you the biggest hug in the world. Just like that. Don’t know you from the next man, don’t care. Dressed in these big, colourful clothes, they hug you right there in the doorway for all the world to see. And then they give you carrier bags of clothes – all good stuff. Sandwiches, shoes. What do you think would happen here if you went into a pub and a woman gave you a hug like that? Her husband would come over and tell you to fuck off, or worse. Kick you in the ribs. But it’s not like that there, it’s not their culture. And what’s our culture? I’ll tell you. I lived on the streets and I know the places where things happen. There’s this cafe, right? You wouldn’t want to go there. Where all the Romanies hang out. Well – I say Romanies, not the proper Romanies. Nothing wrong with them – not all of them, anyway. But this cafe, there are people there who the police hire to take out anyone they don’t want around anymore. The drug dealers, paeds, you name it. They go to this cafe, and they hire who they want. They threatened me with diazepam once, but I won’t have nothing to do with it. I know I get a bit – you know – chatty at times, but I’m not violent, never have been. I’ve got my beads. I’ve got the things I need to do and that’s all there is to it. Well – I say that’s all there is to it. But what do I know? I leave stuff like that to people who do. What? Are we there?’

I open the door and we step out into the hospital car park. James is quiet for a moment, looking around, almost steaming in the cool light of the afternoon. He shakes his head and his pony tails swings out to the side. Then he touches the pouch of beads around his neck, and carries on talking.

Monday, February 06, 2012

out of the same camp

Mr Elliott sits on the ambulance trolley, his jointy fingers laced together in his lap, his eyes circumscribed by shadows.
‘I had some shrapnel taken out of my hip last year,’ he wheezes. ‘Copped it at Normandy, but no idea what it was so I just carried on. Well you do when you’re in your twenties. Anyway, this surgeon who did me up in London – looked about ten years old. Turns out he was French. When he showed me the x-ray and pointed out all the metal work, I told him where I think I picked it up. So he turns to his team and says: “People? We must take care of this one. He liberated my country.”’
‘That’s a good one.’
‘It was a good one. Good as new.’
Mr Elliott slaps his thigh and settles back into the trolley.
‘Just after the war they put me in a special detail and we went into this concentration camp, gathering material for the war crimes lot. And I never really made all that much of it, till a few years ago, all those years later, when I’d had my family, finished my working life and retired and all this and that, and then it all came back, and it really started to bother me. So I thought I’d better do something about it, you know, before it was too late. So I started going into schools and telling them about the Holocaust. I mean, you can’t really tell them what it was like, not really, not so they’d understand. Which bothers me, because you see the whole thing just get played out over and over again. You see it in the papers all the time. No-one’s learned anything. Look at that Cambodian guy in the news the other day. And Yugoslavia, Rwanda. Nothing changes. But it made me feel better.’


Mr Leyton, later that same day, sitting on the same ambulance trolley, hugging his toiletries bag, radiating good humour.
‘…So we finished up a couple of miles outside this concentration camp.’
‘Did you go in?’
‘No – I didn’t. But one of the adjutants I knew did.’
‘So what did he say about it?’
‘Not much. He came out with a German attaché case full of watches.’
‘Yeah. He wanted five pounds but I didn’t have enough. He was a Cockney and wanted cash, but I didn’t have enough.’
‘Yeah. Buried in the ground. But he wanted five pounds and I didn’t have enough.’

Thursday, February 02, 2012

a little carrier bag

‘We were given this job – male, unco in an alley – and we thought – yeah! Here we go! Usual stuff. When we got there he was quite nicely dressed in a business suit and good shoes. The only slightly weird thing was the number of jumpers he was wearing, but not your usual NFA, by any stretch. No one with him, no ID, completely unco, GCS three, barely alive. Didn’t smell of alcohol, but there was this unpleasant, undercooked thing about him. And then when I went to put an airway in, his mouth was swollen and crusty yellow. The only thing he had with him was a little carrier bag. So anyway, we ASHICED him in, and the team there said they reckoned he’d drunk sulphuric acid like drain cleaner or something and as it was probably a little while ago there wasn’t much they could do. And then the police said they’d had reports earlier of a man matching his description hanging off the end of the esplanade looking like he was going to jump, and then climbing back down and wandering around in the traffic. So then they showed me the bag – and guess what was in it? ... Rope.’