Security were supposed to meet us but there’s no sign. We just have the name of a boat – Trixiebelle – and two numbers – 8:12 – which Rae figures out means jetty 8, berth 12. Gloops and slops of water jump up through the slats of the walkway; the boards are becoming more slippery, and we walk flat-footed to avoid slipping off sideways into the drink.
A small yacht, as superficially impressive as any of the others along this branch, except the closer you get the more you notice the black and green spots of mildew on the cockpit canvas, the cleats and winches covered with plastic bags and sealed with masking tape; a dander of neglect about the whole vessel.
Through the yellowing plastic windows of the cockpit canvas we can see two middle-aged figures – a woman, waving to us with her free arm, her other hanging on to the shoulders of a man. We leave the bags on the jetty, step up onto the narrow walkway of the yacht, and pick our way across a tangle of steel cables towards them.
‘John was unconscious,’ the woman says as we lift the canopy flap aside. ‘He was dying. But thank God I managed to pull him round. He’s been drugged, by those damned lesbians. I’m afraid when John came to he reached for a glass of water and downed it before we realised it was neat vodka, so that hasn’t helped.’
‘Okay.’ Rae settles herself into the cockpit and I squeeze in beside her, the only free space being the narrow bench seat of the wheel.
‘And you are...?’
‘Dorothy. His wife.’
She lowers her chin and frowns, a strangely petulant response to a simple question, but Rae continues to focus on the patient. ‘John? Hello – it’s the ambulance. How are you feeling?’ His eyes are open but unfocused. He gives little drunken nods of his head, and swivels his attention suddenly in the way that intoxicated people sometimes do. A line of chocolaty drool quivers from his lower lip.
‘I gave him some chocolate in case it was diabetes,’ says Dorothy, by way of explanation.
‘Is John diabetic?’
‘No. He’s perfectly fit and healthy.’
‘What’s the matter with him?’
‘I don’t know. Do you have any tissue? So we can wipe his mouth.’ Dorothy doesn’t respond, so I head down into the cabin to find some kitchen roll. The little kitchen area is crapped up with dirty plates and saucepans, carrier bags stuffed with lager cans, a liberal scattering of paperback books, correspondence and other detritus. When the two of them come down to sleep, I imagine them turning round and round amongst it all, two large, middle-aged hamsters forcing a space in the garbage. But I find a roll of kitchen towel and pick my way back up to the cockpit. Rae tears off a piece and wipes John’s mouth.
At first it looked like John might be having a stroke, but he passes all our assessments. He needs to go in to hospital to be checked over more thoroughly, but getting him off the boat is going to be difficult. I leave Rae on the boat and take the long walk back to the ambulance to fetch the trolley and to call Control and ask to chase up the security team that was supposed to be here. But half-way back I’m joined by one of them – a compact, weather-beaten figure zipped-up to the eyes in a mariner’s waterproof.
‘Need some help then?’ he says. The storm rages around us as he takes the foot end of the trolley and helps me back down to the yacht.
‘Ever had any problems with these people before?’ I ask.
‘The Trixiebelle? No. But I wouldn’t be surprised.’
But it’s impossible to talk and negotiate the trolley across the jetty, so I wait for an opportunity to ask him what he meant later. Back at the yacht we somehow manage to work John’s arms and legs sufficiently to guide him off the boat and onto the trolley.
‘No!’ he says. ‘Don’t!’
When he’s safely on the trolley, Dorothy cradles his face in her hands and kisses him. ‘John – you nearly died!’ she sobs. ‘You nearly died!’
The storm hurls buckets of water across our backs.
The ambulance is a blessed sanctuary. It rocks gently from side to side as the storm rages around us; never has a space felt so dry, so warm, so deliciously protected. I take off my fluorescent jacket and hang it where it can drip down over the steps.
‘Now, John. What’s all this about a party you went to this morning?’ says Rae, wrapping a blood pressure cuff around his arm.
‘Should I tell them who I am?’ slurs John. ‘Shall I tell them about the MOD?’
Dorothy shakes her head, then looks straight at us.
‘John got up this morning in the early hours and went to the toilet block. Apparently there was a group of lesbians having a party there. They forced him to drink alcohol, then injected him in the penis with a clear liquid. When he came back he could barely stand, and then his whole left side went numb and he almost died. That’s when I called you.’
‘But shouldn’t I tell them who I am?’ he says. ‘Shouldn’t I tell them about the MOD?’
‘What do you mean, the MOD?’ asks Rae, as casually as she can, but giving herself away in a sideways look to me.
‘Be quiet, John,’ snaps Dorothy. ‘That’s got nothing to do with anything. It’s those damned lesbians and their constant partying,’ she says.
There’s a knock on the door. I open it a little and the security guard is there, his grey eyes smiling above the high chin-line of his hood.
‘Everything all right now?’ he says.
‘Yep. Thanks for your help. We’re away to the hospital in a moment.’
‘Righto.’And he turns and hurries off before I can get my jacket on, jump down and ask him what else he knows about the strange crew of the Trixiebelle.