Thursday, August 29, 2013

the old swimmer

Stanley is stretched out on the floor of his bedroom, covered in a quilt and with a pillow under his head. He looks comfortable enough.
‘I’d get him up myself but I lack the whatchamacallit, the oomph,’ says Barbara, his carer, standing over us all, wiping her hands dry on a towel.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ says Rae. ‘That’s what we’re here for. This is our bread and butter.’
‘Speaking of which – he’ll be wanting his breakfast. You don’t think he’ll be going in, do you?’
‘I shouldn’t think so. Do you want to go to hospital, Stanley?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I’ll get busy then.’
She goes down the steep staircase to the little galley kitchen. We hear her clattering about.

Barbara had undressed Stanley ready for his bath, then left him sitting on the side of the bed whilst she went to turn the taps off. When she came back in she found him on the floor – a gentle descent with no damage done, and no doubt the UTI he’s being treated for a factor in all of this – but she couldn’t get him up on her own.

Stanley bears his weight well for a man of ninety-odd. The liver-spotted parchment of his skin is stretched over his frame so you can see the exact construction of it, every nub and rib. Putting a dressing gown over him is like throwing a drape over an old canoe.
We settle him in a comfy chair.
‘Do you two want a cuppa?’ shouts Barbara up the stairs.
‘No thanks. We’ve only just put one out.’
‘It’s no bother.’
‘We’re good, thanks.’

The sitting room is hung with several framed photographs of men in swimming costumes, either posing in ranks, arms folded to accentuate their biceps, in front of promenade arches, or coned and hatted Bank Holiday crowds, or striding purposefully down an empty beach through a snowstorm. In the earliest pictures he looks about forty; in the most recent, he looks only slightly fuller in the figure than he is now.
‘Stanley’s one of the old Helmstone swimming club lot,’ says Barbara, coming up with a tray. ‘Every day since god knows when. Didn’t you, Stanley?’
‘Never missed a day, apparently. Rain or shine. That’s probably what kept him so young. They say it’s good for you. A cold dip.’
She hands him a slice of bread, which he starts to eat in a series of gummy and convulsive snaps.
‘Oh Stanley. What’re we going to do with you?’ says Barbara, putting a beaker of tea in his other hand.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


The psych nurse is in his office, hunched over the desk in a bubble of light, finishing off the paperwork.
‘Go ahead and introduce yourself,’ he says, without looking up. ‘I won’t be a minute.’

The corridor is dark, but all the lights in the assessment room are on. Despite this, Geraldine has managed to fall asleep, curled up on her side on two foam chairs pushed together. Her mother is awake, though, watching from an opposite chair. A worn, desiccated woman in her late seventies, she leans forward on her knees almost in an attitude of prayer.
‘Hi. We’ve come to take Geraldine to Willow Brook.’
Her mother smiles, then reaches out and gently rests a hand on Geraldine’s shoulder.
‘Come on darling. Wake up. Time to go.’
It’s like her mother has touched a switch. Geraldine instantly rights herself, glances around.
‘I’m cold,’ she says.
‘We’ll fetch you a blanket.’
She stands.
‘I’m sorry we’re having to take you so far out of town,’ I say. ‘Bed shortage, I’m afraid.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ says the mother.
Maybe it’s simply a function of the medication, or Geraldine’s condition, or both, exacerbated by the early hour, but whatever the reason she seems strangely docile, like a robot perfect in every detail except the emotion.
‘This way.’
Her spangly flip-flops swish and slap along the floor as she follows us along the corridor; her long, black hair hangs like filament wire.

On the ambulance Geraldine lies down on the trolley with the minimum amount of adjustment and fuss; she is asleep again by the time her mother has kissed her goodbye, thanked us for our help and walked back down the stairs.
‘See you tomorrow, darling,’ she says. ‘Sleep well.’ And hurries away.


A psych nurse meets us at the main entrance to Willow Brook. As wide as she is tall, she looks like someone sealed off her uniform at the cuffs and shoes and pumped her full of gloop.
‘Ah. Another customer,’ she says. ‘Welcome. Welcome.’ She turns and leads us back through a laminate floored atrium decorated with paintings and abstract sculptures, more like an after-hours art gallery than a psychiatric hospital.
‘You could hold dances in the corridor,’ I say.
‘Oh we do, we do!’ she wheezes. ‘We have a lot of fun here, believe you me.’
Eventually we arrive at the ward door and she swipes us in. There is a security-glassed office to the right, overlooking the spot-lit zones of the communal area, and the shadowy reaches of the corridors beyond.
‘I’ll show Geraldine to her bed,’ says the nurse. ‘Why don’t you go in the office and I’ll bring you both in a nice cup of tea. Milk and sugar?’
I watch them go, the nurse rolling ahead, Geraldine drawn in her wake.


A doctor is in the office, finishing a report. Behind her is a wipe board with all the names of the patients, their section status and length of stay, a couple of filing cabinets, and then an imposing rack of shelves, full of reports and journals, box and clip files, psychiatric text books and a range of more populist self-help guides. It’s absolutely quiet, apart from the scritching of the doctor’s pen, and the slurred buzz of a wasp, butting around the casing of a fluorescent light.
‘Here we are then! Two teas!’ says the nurse, struggling in through the door. ‘That’s okay – I can manage!’
She sets them down on the desk then sits on an office chair. It creaks alarmingly.
But someone has come to the door. A gaunt face, pressed up against the glass.
‘Mary!’ says the nurse. ‘No! You’re not going home today!’
She struggles up and goes over. When she opens the door, Mary tries to walk in, but the nurse simply stands in her way and Mary can’t get past.
‘My friends will be wondering where I am. They’ll be worried.’
‘They know exactly where you are, Mary and trust me, they won’t be worried at all. We’re not going to discharge you now, are we, sweetheart? Not at four o’clock in the morning! What would people think?’
‘No, Mary. Now go on back to bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning. Go on. Back you go.’
Mary leaves, pausing only briefly in front of the main office window, staring inside at us like we’re disappointing fish in an aquarium.
‘Go on, Mary!’
She glides away.
The doctor looks up – whether at Mary, or to think about something, it’s not clear – then down again.
The nurse swishes back over to her chair and plumps herself back down again.
‘Like we’re going to let her loose in the streets in the early hours! What would the papers say! I don’t know. They act like the Queen Mother, half the time. Working to their own little timetables. Up all hours of the night. No concept of what normal people do.’ But then she frowns, as if she’s inadvertently said too much. ‘Bless ‘em!’ she adds.
The doctor sighs, puts the report in her bag, goes out.
‘Do you want me to get that wasp?’ I ask the nurse.
‘Oh no! Don’t worry. He doesn’t bother me,’ she says.

We watch the wasp for a while.

‘I saw a patient bash a hornet’s nest with a broom,’ says the nurse. ‘It was absolutely appalling. We didn’t know it was there till he did it. Out in the garden, the old apple tree. It was big, like an enormous acorn made of paper. Like a lantern. Quite impressive really. It fell on the floor, and then all these hornets started pouring out of the hole at the bottom. Long, nasty looking things. And the nest kind of speeded-up, rolling round and round, all by itself. It was mad. Like something out of Carrie.’ She pauses to take a sip of tea.
‘So don’t worry,’ she says, putting the mug down again. ‘I think I can handle him.’

Monday, August 26, 2013

passing time

I recognise the priest standing at the church gate.
Gerry! How are you?’
‘I’m – fine. How are you?’
‘Fine. Fine. God it’s been years. Thirteen, actually. Almost to the day.’
Gerry is still smiling, but in more of a maintained way.
‘I’m really sorry,’ he says, reaching out and touching me on the shoulder. ‘But ... I – don’t think I know you.’
‘Spence! Spence Kennedy! You married me! Well – me and Jenny. Thirteen years, hey? Who’d have thought...’
‘I married you.’
‘Yes! Well – you took the blessing. We got married at a registry, but had a blessing at the reception in the old school.’
‘The old school?’
‘Out in Applehurst. That old medieval hall. You took the blessing. It was really lovely. We had some readings, some music – you remember. We all had a big old dance.’
He stares at me, still smiling, but sweating a little.
‘I’m – really – sorry...’ he says.
‘I suppose I’ve grown a beard since then. Changed jobs. Maybe that’s it.’
The smile dims a little.
‘Not to worry, Gerry. It was a long time ago. Anyway – that’s for another time. Tell us who we’ve come to see today.’
He’s relieved to move on to more solid ground – to the NFA with the gangrenous leg he found sleeping in the grounds of the church.
‘Poor Gem got shot a year or so ago and his leg hasn’t been the same since. I could smell it from here and when he pulled his jeans up to show me – well, I’m no expert but even I could tell there’s something not right there.’
We chat to Gem, give him a hand up, help him over to the ambulance, settle him on the trolley.
‘This looks pretty bad,’ says Rae.
The smell is noxiously sweet. I open the hatch as wide as I can and put the air con on full.
Gem shifts his bulk on the trolley. Rae puts a thermometer in his ear.
‘I can’t believe you’ve been able to walk on it, to be honest,’ she says.
‘Walk? What else have you got to do when you’re homeless but walk? I’ve walked just about everywhere you can think of. And then walked back. I’m like Forrest Gump. And d’you know what? It’s boring.’
Rae obviously wants to make this as short a journey to hospital as possible, so I jump out ready.
Gerry is waiting for me by the cab.
‘Look – I’m really sorry but I just can’t remember you,’ he says. ‘I’ve racked my brains. It’s all a bit embarrassing.’
‘Ah don’t worry, Gerry. I’m sure you’ve had a hundred other weddings since.’
But then something occurs to me.
‘You used to work with my sister-in-law Alicia before you became a priest,’ I say. ‘That’s how we came to give you a call in the first place.’
‘Alicia!’ he says. ‘Of course! How is she?’

Saturday, August 24, 2013

a cat

The hall light keeps clicking off. But if the setting is too quick, at least the button glows orange so it’s easy to find.

Sarah takes a long time coming to the door. We can hear her talking on the phone to ambulance control. I knock with increasing loudness; when eventually she lets us in it’s with a friendly nod, more like a young woman greeting a couple of heating engineers, rather than an ambulance crew at four o’clock in the morning.

‘Excuse the mess,’ she says.

‘Oh – don’t worry about that,’ I say. An automatic reply, but she’s right, it is a mess. Empty Special Brew cans amongst piles of letters, discarded clothes, food cartons, tossed shoes. It’s an effort to pick our way through.

I make a show of the introduction, casually putting my bag down, resting the clipboard on my knees, leaning forward on it, but no matter how I try to normalise the situation, there’s no getting round the fact that we’ve been called to a young woman who’s tried to kill herself by throwing herself down the stairs.

‘How can we help?’ I ask.

She sits on the sofa facing us. Pleasantly square face, muss of blond hair, cool t-shirt, dance pants. All it would take is a rack of studio lights, a little make-up, a film to promote, and we could be journos come to interview some up-and-coming actress about the next big thing.
‘I wish you could,’ she says. And then: ‘Dad’ll be so angry.’
‘What’s happened tonight?’
‘I don’t know. I had friends round. We had some drinks. I got a bit down. And when they left, I tried to kill myself by throwing myself down the stairs.’
‘Did you hurt yourself?’
‘No. Nothing. Just bruised my arm a little.’ She touches the corner of her eye, a shaky, hesitant gesture, like she’s trying to arrest an imminent breakdown by tidying her mascara. ‘I can’t even do that.’
We talk about it, her history, her father, a famous actor who never once told her he loved her. ‘He’ll be so furious,’ she says. But she seems detached, something dark behind the buffer of alcohol. She describes her suicide attempt like she’s telling a banal but funny story about someone who had a series of humdrum problems putting out the trash.
‘I can’t even do that,’ she says. ‘It’s probably a sign. And dad’ll be so mad when he hears about it. He’s found me unconscious before. Stretched out on the floor. I promised I wouldn’t do it again.’

She touches the corner of her eye again, then drops her hand, and smiles. ‘I should probably just get myself a cat,’ she says. ‘If I had a cat, it’d be all right.’

Friday, August 23, 2013

fist pump

Early morning, and the road sweepers, litter pickers and seagulls are clearing up along the promenade. A mist hangs over the sea, like it’s still too early for landscape of any description.
‘Over there.’
A police officer, standing with a huge, nub-headed guy.
We’d been given the job – partial amputation of lower lip / 3 mugfuls of blood – as a high priority, but Barry is relaxed and smiling.
‘Oh hello’ he says. ‘Here they are, then.’
He’s like a pantomime dame without the make-up; stepping onto the ambulance I half expect to see him hitch up the hoops on a ludicrous ball gown, but this is a dress rehearsal, and he’s wearing jogging bottoms.
The police officer sighs and steps away to make a call.
Barry takes a seat, slaps the palms of his hands to his head, then laughs again.
‘What a night, mate,! Honestly, what a night!’
‘So tell us what’s been going on?’
He straightens in the chair.
‘Can’t I have a fag first? Only I know how long these things take n’I’m busting for a fag.’
‘Let’s hear why we’ve been called first, then we’ll see.’
‘Okay. Right. There were these two fat lesbos...’
‘No – come on, Barry. Just tell us how you got your fat lip and how you came to ring 999.’
‘I’m telling ya! So – two fat lesbos. I’ve seen them around before, they don’t scare me – them, and about ten others – and we had this massive fight . It were amazing. I was standing there like King fuckin’ Kong. I was shaking em off like planes. Fifteen of em, all piling in. It was mega. Massive. All these lesbos, all coming at me. But I stood me ground all mean and sturdy like, and we had this lovely big fight. But this particular one, the really mean one, the Big Boss, she had a red glove on, with studs – not real diamonds – you know – diamante. And she caught me a right good clatter fat in the mouth, and I reckon that’s what did the damage. Look – can I have a smoke now or what? Cos I have got to have some nicotine before I go to any hospital. Sorry n’all that. But I know how long I’ll be up there and I’m gonna need a little sommat to tide me over.’
The officer looks in again.
‘Are you going to be wanting to take this any further, Barry?’
‘No, mate. I’m no grass, me.’
‘Okay, fine. In which case, I’ll say goodbye.’
‘Here...’ Barry holds out his hand, grubby with blood.
‘No offence, Barry, but it’s a little grimy.’
Barry laughs, bunches his hand, and holds it out. ‘Fist pump!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

ned kelly

Mark is staggering along the narrow street, crashing from the doors on one side to the doors on the other. His shirt is long since gone, and the belt of his jeans hangs behind him like a tail – that, and the strange way he lopes along, almost dragging the backs of his hands along the pavement, makes him look like some crazed, denuded monkey. There’s a big patch of bloody hair on the top of his head, a freely flowing cut over his left eye, scuffs and red patches all over his torso, but none of his injuries seems to have done anything to dampen his drive to get along. Every so often he stops and gives out an open-throated bellow, swatting at the space around him like he’d blundered into a hornet’s nest. Then his spine straightens again, enough to give him the spring and the gravitational wherewithal to carry on, this time headfirst into a post box.

‘I think he must’ve taken something,’ says the woman who called us, hanging over the terrace of the bar that overlooks this street like a nervous punter at the zoo.

We thank her for the call, park up, and approach.

Mark has come to another stop, propped up against a wall with one straight arm; with the other he has lobbed his penis out, a gross appendage, hairless as his chest, blanched by moonlight.
‘Can you put that away and talk to us, Mark?’
He sniffs the air, his arm retracts, leaving him upright just long enough to stuff his penis back in his pants. Then with one tumultuous heave of his jeans, he frees his legs sufficiently to start moving away from us, further up the street.
He howls and roars.
Two steps more and he almost pitches backwards through a plate glass window.
When we try to calm him down and guide him back towards the ambulance, he spits, bunches his fists, and tries to focus on the threat.

We call police to scene, but there’ll be a delay.

Whilst we’re waiting, another man appears. Rangy-looking, with a wild beard and dirty teeth, like he’s not just been drinking in the park but running a still.
‘Jab him,’ he says. ‘He’s had a legal high, that’s all. Jab him and chill him out. He’ll be fine.’
‘We’re just a bit worried about his head injury. He should really go to hospital to get checked out.’
‘What are you, ambulance or police?’
‘Ambulance. But we have called the police. He almost went through that shop window.’
The man’s beard twists into a sneer.

Meanwhile, Mark has moved on. He leaves the side street and staggers out onto the main road. He lies down in the middle and starts rolling around, slapping the tarmac. Buses are brought to a stop. Taxis scuttle away down alternative routes.
ETA on police, please?
Three minutes.

Mark’s friend has grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. Mark responds by jumping up, hooking his legs round the man’s hips, then lying backwards with his arms resting on the tarmac.
‘Jab him!’ says the friend.
‘Sorry. It’s not something we do.’
‘Fucking ambulance,’ says the friend. Somehow managing to keep his balance, he sets Mark upright again and props him up against another shop window.
‘Careful now,’ I say.

The friend is leaning in to Mark and talking urgently into his left ear, whilst he takes Mark’s belt out of the remaining loops, and coils it round his knuckles. Every so often Mark laughs, showing a rack of bloody teeth. He tips his head back and howls when the friend leaves off.

I heard it all. What he said to Mark was this:
You take the tall one, I’ll take the shortie, yeah? You go up, and you punch him, hard as you can, right in the middle of the face? Yeah? Hard as you can, mate. Hard as you can. Smash his nose. Let’s make some blood.
Then he straightens up, looks at me and smiles.

We turn and walk back to the truck, Mark’s friend following. We get in the cab and lock the doors just as he reaches us. I expect him to start punching the windows, but he doesn’t. Instead, he looks up and down the street, smiling and shaking his head. Then he turns to look at us.
‘Can you help me with my bag?’ he says.
‘Your what?’
‘My bag. I put it down over there somewhere and I, err... I can’t seem to find it.’
We move off.

A bottle bounces off the side.


At first it’s two officers in a car. One of them helps my partner shepherd Mark into the ambulance; the other addresses Mark’s friend. Even though I’m standing next to him for support, it’s impressive to see how the officer persuades the guy to put his hands behind his back so he can cuff him. The officer takes a step back when he’s finished; at the same time, a police van pulls up and reinforcements pitch out. But even though his hands are tied and he’s massively outnumbered, Mark’s friend doesn’t appear at all cowed or disadvantaged. He stands there watching them all, his feet planted square, Ned Kelly versus the Traps, swearing and cursing through the bucket vent of his mouth. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

a plate of cakes

We’re talking outside the hospital about strange jobs we’d been to recently. Gary tells us about the guy with the creatures in his arm.

‘He’d already been up the hospital with it. Even a referral to that specialist place, but they didn’t find anything and wrote it all off as Delusional Parasitosis. Anyway, nice chap. Normal as you like, but his arm was scabbed up like he’d been having a real old go of it, and it was obviously a problem. There! he says. Right there! Can’t you see ‘em? I was pretty neutral about it and didn’t say anything, but to be honest it did look like there might be some tiny little black things in there. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. That’s just what I thought. He wanted me to take a photo with my camera, but I said it wasn’t good enough to pick anything out. Anyway, he said he felt sick with it all and would I take him up the hospital. He went to get his coat and I was standing there, finishing the paperwork. There was this plate of cakes on the table, French Fancies. You can’t beat a nice French Fancy. Help yourself! he says, coming back in. And he picks the plate up and holds it under my nose. I mean, I particularly like the yellow ones – but I’d started to see worms in everything, in that little blister of cream on the top. So I said no thanks.’

Sunday, August 18, 2013

the day is

Five to six in the morning, worn out, but safely back on base. Or semi-safe; we finish in just over half an hour, and the sweat dread of A Late Job has come upon us. But really, it’s looking good. There are two crews due to start in five minutes, a night crew ahead of us. What can happen? We allow ourselves to settle.

All the radios sound at once.
The first crew’s job: round the corner.
Great. Crank this out, we’re done.
Our job: twenty miles cross-country, with the prospect of a trip to the A&E department ten miles further on. A late job from hell.

I’m on the radio as we’re walking out the door, squeezing it like a sponge and struggling to keep my voice steady.
Obviously we’re mobile on this job, Control, but what’s the likelihood of a more local crew coming clear and relieving us? Otherwise we’re looking at a significant overrun.
-          I’ll do my best, but they’ve had a strange job spike over that way and I’m afraid they’re a bit light on resource at the moment. Leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do, but it’s not looking good.

A one-hundred-year-old lady who is semi- conscious, breathing / son on scene for access.
‘A hundred?’ says Gary, turning the engine over. In this crazed funk of exhaustion and despair, it feels as if the poor woman has had a hundred years to make the call and only chooses to make it now out of cussedness. ‘Jeez.’

Gary drives faster than anyone this side of the Bonneville flats. The nose of the ambulance ripples, glows red. No talk; no room, not for anything that would slow us down. Everything else burns away in our wake, leaving Gary, pure driver, me, pure attendant, and a fissile heart of injustice.

But five seconds – and five miles – further down the road, I make an effort to break out of that way of thinking ,which actually is just making me feel grey and quite sick. I put the clipboard away, relax my hands.
I focus on my breathing.
I try to pay attention to what’s happening right now rather than what I would like to happen. To let it all go.
It’s morning, and will be, regardless of who I am, what I think, or don’t think.
Things are as they are. That’s it.
The radio remains silent, goddamn it. But that’s okay too.

When we eventually pull up outside the house – a faded but solid family home in a quiet street – the son is waiting for us by the front door. An elderly man himself in trousers belted under his armpits, socks and sandals, he stands aside as I hurry up the path.
Into the front room, and at first I think his mother has died. She’s sitting slumped over in a high-backed chair by the French windows, partially covered by a blanket, perfectly still.
‘Mrs Duckworth? Hello?’
I pull the blanket aside and gently touch her hand. She wakes up.
‘Oh! Who are you?’
‘The ambulance. I’m Spence, this is Gary. How are you feeling?’
She pushes herself upright and grips the armrest.
‘Have you come to take me away? Because I don’t want to go. I want to die here, at home.’
‘We won’t do anything you don’t want to do,’ I say to her. ‘We just want to see how you are. If there’s anything we can do to help.’
Mr Duckworth is standing over me, smiling in a fixed and slightly hazy way, looking tearful.
‘Mother fell over at the beginning of the week,’ he whispers. ‘But she didn’t want me to call anyone.’
‘Did you hurt yourself when you fell?’ I ask her.
‘I can’t walk, if that’s what you mean.’
‘She’s been in the chair ever since,’ says Mr Duckworth.
‘How have you managed for the toilet?’
‘I’ve been changing her pads and cleaning her up.’
‘Eating? Drinking?’
‘Yes – she’s not too bad with that.’

Mrs Duckworth agrees to let me check her over.
Gary fills out the paperwork.
All her obs are fine, but the fact remains she’s off her legs.
‘You know what I think we should do, Mrs Duckworth?’
‘What’s that?’
‘I think we should arrange to get you to hospital so you can see a doctor and a thorough examination. But I think we can afford to do it in your own time, so you’re not rushed. In a couple of hours, say, when you’ve had a chance to change your things and have some breakfast. We’ll order up another ambulance, they’ll help with everything. They’ll take you to hospital, get you settled.’
‘But I don’t want to be kept in. I want to stay at home.’
‘You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, Mrs Duckworth. But hospital’s the best option. The doctors and nurses will have a chance to see if anything’s wrong. They’re the experts. They’ll know what to do to get you back on your feet. And if you need a little help at home, they can arrange that, too. So don’t worry.’
‘All right then. But I’m coming back home.’
‘Great. We’ll order that second ambulance.’

Control are happy. It gives them a chance to cover the changeover and deal with the last minute flurry of calls. Mr Duckworth looks relieved.
‘I’m sorry for calling you like that,’ he says. ‘I thought you’d tear me off a strip.’
‘You shouldn’t worry. Glad to help.’
Everyone shakes everyone’s hand.
‘And happy birthday for next month, Mrs Duckworth. Happy one hundred and first!’

Outside, the day is as bright as it was when we set off, and drove, and arrived.
We throw our bags inside the truck.
I drive back

It feels good.

Friday, August 16, 2013

the vanishing point

Pull-along suitcases, handbags and briefcases, strollers, bikes, phones, watches, coke cans and coffee cups, suits, shorts, skirts, hats, flats, heels – all moving out across the booming concourse, through the archways and ticket halls, beneath the iron and glass canopy of the station forecourt, around the taxis and the buses and the cars, out into the bright afternoon sunshine, and on into town.

Around a man in a fluorescent tabard, a man in a wheelchair.

I recognise the man in the wheelchair: Matthew, a frequent flyer.
‘Hello!’ I say as we approach.
‘This is Matthew,’ says the railway man, leaning in. ‘He told a member of staff he’s got chest pain.’
‘Chest pain? Okay. Have you still got the pain, Matthew?’
He nods, reservedly, not looking up.
‘Let’s get you on the truck and talk there,’ I say. ‘It’s a bit more private. Is this your chair?’
The railway man nods.
‘We’ll just use it to get Matthew on board if that’s okay, then we’ll give it back.’
We do that, whilst the railway man talks into his radio.

Matthew sits neutrally on the trolley, hands in his lap, spindly legs stretched out. He describes his symptoms.
‘Let’s see what the ECG shows,’ I tell him.
Everything checks out. It always does with Matthew – although to be fair, he normally presents as leg pain / weakness and / or stroke.
‘How are you feeling now?’
He stares at me, his eyes rounded out, filmy and grey. I feel like I’ve broken into a mausoleum and woken him up.
‘I’ve been better,’ he says.

The last time I saw him it was late at night and he’d just been discharged from A&E. He’d made it about five hundred yards down the slope to the main road, then lain himself down on a grass verge. It had just started raining, a heavy shower, the kind that when you tip your head back and look straight up, the droplets strike your face in hard, cold lines running out endlessly from the vanishing point.
You can’t just lie there, Matthew. It’s the middle of the night. It’s pouring with rain.
We help him up.
Where’s your rolator?
He shrugs.
In lieu of anything else, we take him back up the slope.

I show Matthew the ECG strip. He turns his eyes in that direction, then back again.
‘What would you like to happen now, Matthew? We can’t find anything wrong, but obviously these tests aren’t definitive. Would you like to go to hospital?’
He considers that a while, then nods.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Stephanie waves to us from the top of the concrete ramp that runs up through the garden to the front door. The lilac print dressing gown she wears barely seems to make contact with her slight frame.
‘Richard’s on the floor again and I’m terribly sorry but we just can’t get him up. He’s in an awkward position, you see, sort of wedged up on his side under the radiator. I don’t think he’s caused himself an injury, but we’ve tried everything to get him up and in the end we had to admit defeat and call you out. I’m so sorry.’
Charlotte, Stephanie’s old friend from up country, is waiting in the bedroom. She could almost pass as a successful clone of her friend, the only difference being a foot less in height, an avian perkiness , and roses instead of lilacs on her dressing gown.
‘Here they are, Richard. We’ll soon have you up for tea and biscuits.’
Whilst we check him over, Stephanie tells us about Richard’s condition, a rare Parkinsonism diagnosed four years ago, just as they started on their retired life together.
Stephanie’s right – Richard hasn’t hurt himself. We go through our routine, and after five minutes or so, have him up and sitting on a chair.
‘Let’s give you a thorough examination,’ Rae says. ‘And decide if anything else needs doing after that.’
We help walk him through to the sitting room, to his electric chair. Stephanie arranges the orthopaedic cushions, the foot support, the napkin, everything exactly so.
‘I’ll make tea,’ says Charlotte. ‘Early Grey all right? Milk and sugar?’
‘I feel so wretched about this, Charlotte,’ says Stephanie.
‘Oh don’t be silly.’
‘We had such a nice day planned.’
Stephanie turns to us. ‘I’ve known Charlotte for years. Well – since nineteen sixty-four, to be precise.’
‘Nineteen sixty-four!’ says Charlotte.
‘She lives quite a way away...’
‘It’s not that far.’
‘So we don’t see each other as much as we’d like.’
‘I’d come down more often but I’m a big cowardy custard when it comes to the motorway. All those lorries thundering down on you from all directions. I’m like this...’ She mimes someone gripping onto a steering wheel, head down, peering up right and left. Then she relaxes again. ‘So I take the train.’
‘You should see her bags,’ says Stephanie, handing me a neat file containing all Richard’s medical notes.
Charlotte laughs.
‘I’m a regular pack mule,’ she says. ‘Is that the expression? Pack mule? You see, the day before I have a monstrous baking session. And next morning I’m on the platform with a little tow-along suitcase with my clothes, and a special trolley for all my cakes. There’s a chocolate sponge, a Victoria sponge, a date and walnut special, a box of nutty nobs and a case of shortbread. It’s a wonder they can fit me on at all. Now then – just remind me. Who’s sugar and who isn’t?’
She hurries into the kitchen.
 ‘We were going out to the local National Trust gardens,’ says Stephanie, taking off her glasses and cleaning them with a little yellow lens cloth she takes from the glass case on the arm of the chair. ‘But I don’t think I’m happy leaving Richard when he’s had this fall. His nerves have been all jangled up.’
Charlotte appears back in the doorway.
‘Honestly, Stephanie. I’ll be more than happy with a stroll round the block. More than happy.’
She goes back into the kitchen.
‘Anna the carer is due round at ten, so he wouldn’t be on his own,’ says Stephanie, putting her glasses back on, refolding the yellow cloth, putting it back in the case. And it’s only twenty minutes away, so if anything cropped up we could be back in no time.’
‘It’s important for you to take time for yourself,’ says Rae. ‘We don’t want you falling ill with the stress.’
‘Do you think that might be all right, then? Twenty minutes away, if that? I have my phone on the whole time.’
‘I think that’ll be fine.’
Charlotte comes in with a tray of tea and cake.
‘There!’ she says.
‘I love the park,’ says Stephanie, taking a mug from the tray. ‘I go there with Richard just about every week.’ She sips her tea. ‘It’s lovely to see the gardens at different times of the year. The daffodils and bluebells in the spring. The rhododendrons and azaleas around the lake. You get to know all the little quirks. The individual specimens, how they change as the seasons progress. That’s my rest, really. My prayer. It keeps me sane.’
Charlotte puts her mug down and hands round a plate of shortbread. ‘The thing is, once I’ve off-loaded all these cakes, I’ve got plenty of room in my trolley for some of the wonderful plants they sell in the shop,’ she says. ‘But honestly, Stephanie, I’d be more than happy if we just took a stroll around the block.’

Thursday, August 08, 2013

a thin blue thread

Late afternoon. The day has been so hot, but now the sky has lifted clean away and a refreshing breeze is animating everything: the trees, the air, even those kids, shrieking across the park on their bikes, standing up on the pedals – full tilt, like the summer.
She left a message saying she was going to hang herself in the woods. Can you RV with the police near the football pitches?
Two patrol cars parked up at the far end of the access road.
Three officers are slowly making their way out across the football pitch area of the park, heading towards the perimeter of trees. The two that are left wait for us.
‘We’ve got another unit at the other main access point, guys. The helicopter’s about a minute away, so that’ll help. It’s needle in haystack time, but look – it’s a nice day.’
‘We’ll head over there’ I say to him, pointing west. ‘There’s no sense in us all grouped up. If you find anything, get in touch via our control.’
‘Will do.’

Rae and I chat about this and that as we walk across the grass. It’s an odd feeling, a sunny day in the park, looking for a girl who may have hanged herself.
As I’m walking, I think to myself: Where would I go in her situation? I’m almost embarrassed, like I’m a cliché character in a crime thriller. But no sooner have I had the thought, in spite of myself, the idea that I can align myself with the girl starts to take over. Did I feel something just then? In that direction?
‘Over there,’ I say. Rae follows. She seems happy just to be out of the cab in the fresh air.
We reach the wire fence. Beyond it, the woods rise up cool and restless.
I’m a psychic hunter now, someone who can divine the faintest traces of a person’s progress by the way the grass is lying, a damaged leaf. And there – what’s that hanging from the fence post? A blue thread caught on a nail. I pick it off, stretch it out.
‘What was she wearing?’
‘I don’t know, Sherlock. They didn’t say.’
I drop the thread and watch it curl away on the breeze.
The police helicopter passes overhead. On the other side of the field, the officers are shakily climbing over the fence and dropping into the wood.
‘We’re never going to find her like this,’ says Rae, leaning back against the post and rolling a fag. ‘We may as well wait until we hear something definite.’
She smokes, whilst I scrutinise the wood.
‘Hayley?’ I call out in a stagey kind of voice. ‘Hayley – are you there?
Nothing, just the drone of the helicopter making another pass. But then instead of banking round in another loop, it carries on straight, and disappears into the distance.
A moment later, Control calls us on the radio.
Stand down they say. The patient is safe and well at her friend’s house.
I look back across the field.
Those kids on bikes are charging our way now, really leaning in to their pedals, shrieking and laughing.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

not required

Saturday night, and the town centre has reached that tipping point between the closing of the pubs and the opening of the clubs, when everyone’s drunk as much as they need or want, taken as much as they need or want, and spilled out onto the streets, loaded with just enough to make the distance between here and there. It’s an impressive, natural phenomenon, a migration along ancient pavements, pineal glands fizzing like sparklers.

Alexi hasn’t quite made it, though. She’s in a heap of friends on a bench in a pedestrianised street, but it’s difficult at first to work out who’s who amongst the tangle of flamingo legs, spangly tops, fright mascara. Somehow, almost by weight, Alexi rises to the front, surrounded by anxious faces & words.
She was unconscious!
She has a head injury!
She fell over!
Help her!
Oh my god!
Alexi we love you babe…
Alexi is the least concerned of all of them. When I touch her on the arm and lean in to figure out if she’s the patient and if she actually needs any help, she leans in to me in a mirror image of concern.
‘I didn’t call you!’ she says. ‘Whoever you are.’
‘We’re the ambulance, Alexi. Your friends say you banged your head.’
‘I did. I fell over in the toilets and banged my head. But I’m fine. Honestly.’
‘Would you mind coming on the ambulance and having a chat? It’s a bit noisy here.’
The way her friends react you’d think I was inviting Alexi into theatres to have a heart transplant.
Oh my god!
Shall I call your mum?
Is she going to hospital?
She was unconscious, officer
Alexi we love you babe…
A biblical wail as I shut the door.

Alexi flops down on a chair, pulls out her phone and starts texting.
‘Alexi? I won’t keep you long. I just need to find out what’s happened and whether you need hospital or not.’
She lowers the phone, and then squints at me.
‘Hospital? Why’m I going to hospital?’
‘You’re not, at the moment. We’re just trying to figure out what happened.  Your friends said you fell over and banged your head.’
‘I did.’
‘In the pub toilets.’
‘Have you hurt your head?’
She leans forward. I root around her extensions, but don’t find anything other than glitter.
‘I didn’t call you,’ she says, straightening up again and flicking her head to settle her hair back in place. ‘This is so embarrassing.’
‘What do you remember about the accident?’
‘I don’t want to remember it, thanks very much.’
‘I need to hear you tell me what happened.’
‘God! I went to the loo. There was a big queue. I was dicking around. You know. Kung fu. But there was a load of water on the floor and I slipped over and bumped my head. That’s it. About a thousand people saw me do it. I just want to go home and kill myself.’
‘Your friends seem to think you were knocked out.’
‘I wasn’t. I may have closed my eyes for a bit to make it go away, but that was all.’
She frowns and leans forward to look at me again.
‘Who d’you say you were again?’
‘The ambulance, Alexi. How’s  your vision?’
She snorts.
‘All over the place. But I think that’s probably the vodka, mate.’
‘Any nausea, vomiting?’
‘No. I’m fine. I’m fine. Look – can I just go, please? I’ll sign anything, anything you like.’
We release her back into the wild.
Her friends close around her, bear her away in a shrieking mass

Just as I’m about to get back in the cab, a woman from the pub comes over. She’s wearing a fluorescent armband, but I don’t think she’s a bouncer. She carries a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other.
‘Not going to hospital, then?’
‘Er – no. She bumped her head in the toilets, but her recall’s fine, she’s not showing any concerning symptoms, she doesn’t want to go to hospital, so…’ I shrug and smile. The woman doesn’t return it.
‘So – not going to hospital.’
‘No. She doesn’t need it.’
The woman frowns at me.
‘In your opinion.’
‘In my opinion.’
The woman writes something on the form, and talks as she does it.
Alcohol plus head injury, but in medic’s opinion, doesn’t need hospital.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘She’s fine.’
The woman clicks her pen.

‘Let’s hope so,’ she says. 

Saturday, August 03, 2013


Mark flags us down from the side of the road. A jumpy figure in denim and pointy boots, his hair wild and white, he looks like an aged cowboy who had to run into town when his horse died. I wind the window down before I get out; Rae leans forward against the wheel to take a look, keeping in drive just in case.
‘She punched me! In the mouth! I’ve been going in and out of conscious.’
He tips his head back and uses a filthy finger to hook his lower lip down.
‘Art ee i a arf. Oo.’
‘We’ll have a look at that in a minute. So you’ve been assaulted, then?’
He lets his mouth go back, and stares at me through the window. ‘Yes,’ he says.
‘Have you called the police?’ I ask him. As much for our benefit as his.
‘I don’t want the police,’ he says. ‘I just want someone to kick her door down so I can get my stuff.’
‘Well we’re not really in the door-kicking business. We’re the ambulance. I think you’re probably going to need the police.’
He glosses over that.
‘I went round to get my gear and they wouldn’t come to the door. But I knew they were in. I could see them through the curtains. So I was banging and banging, and the next thing I know she’s out on the front step screaming. I didn’t do nothing. I just wanted my gear back. And then she punches me. In the mouth. And then slams the door and won’t open it.’
He hooks his lip back again.
‘Okay. Let’s get you on board and see what the damage is. And let’s get the police running, too, because something’s obviously happened.’
‘You’re muckin’ right something’s happened. I want my stuff, that’s what’s happened. She’s got no right. She knows what I’m like. She knows I’d never hit a woman. Never. And that muckin’ useless boyfriend standing in the back of her, laughing his face off. I want my stuff!’
I show Mark round to the back of the ambulance and onto a chair. But he’s so pumped-up it’s impossible to get him settled. He can’t focus on my questions. He goes to take his jacket off but then thinks better of it. He shifts and stands and sits and crosses his legs, all in time to some furious internal metronome.
A police car pulls up and two officers get out.
‘All right?’ says one.
Mark immediately swings himself out of the ambulance.
‘Come with me!’ he says, striding out into the road, straight in front of a car that somehow manages to stop a denim’s thickness from his legs. Mark holds a hand out, pats the bonnet, and hurries on.
‘Hey! Fella! Easy!’ says the police officer, whilst the other one waves an apology in the direction of the driver.
The three of them head off in the direction of the woman’s flat.

We lean against the ambulance and wait.

It’s dawn, the edge of town, and although everything’s quiet here now, if you close your eyes you can feel the pull of the late night clubs in the city centre threading beneath your feet like neon mycelia. Nothing seems real, not Mark, us, the shops and streetlights – even those seagulls, squabbling over a spilled kebab.

One of the police officers strolls back.
‘Stand down,’ he says. ‘I haven’t a clue what’s going on, but Mark’s pretty emphatic he doesn’t need you.’
He yawns, takes off his cap, stretches, puts his cap back on.

‘In fact, our friend Mark’s emphatic about a lot of things,’ he says.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

φωνές των σειρήνων

We’re play-fighting in the sea, me versus Chloe and Rose, and their five year old cousin, Scarlett. Sharks versus Pirates. Unfortunately, when Scarlett lunges forward to escape, she back-heels Rose in the mouth with her flipper, knocking one of her baby-teeth back at a slant. Rose cries with the pain of it, but when we gently probe the tooth it doesn’t seem quite ready to come out. It’s fixed there, slanting back, like a – well, like a shark’s tooth.
‘Work at it with your tongue a bit,’ we tell her. ‘It’ll soon be out.’
Later that evening we’re sitting down for supper at a taverna in the old part of town. A mulberry tree in the middle of a courtyard, gnarled old trunk painted white, branches hanging low over a spread of tables. An old man plucking a Bouzouki, a thin ginger cat prowling the gaps between the diners. Poor Rose is miserable because she wants to tuck into the basket of bread but her tooth won’t let her. I take another look. It’s still pretty firm. ‘Keep working it,’ I say.
Melita, the woman who runs the place, comes over.
‘Come on. Let me see.’ She has a feel.
‘You need piece of string, like this.’ She mimes a hideous yanking movement. Rose shrinks back in the chair. ‘S’okay,’ says Melita. ‘Don’ worry. And when tooth is out, pah! You throw it up on roof, and the fairy she come down, you get two euros. Two! You believe?’
She cups Rose’s face in both hands, then goes away again, whether to get some string or to take some food orders, we’re not sure. Just in case it is for string, I have one last feel of the tooth. I can handle most things, but it has to be said I’m pretty squeamish about pulling teeth. But the urgency of the situation – and the whisky I’ve just drunk – makes me bold. I give the tooth a good downward twist, and out it comes. Rose’s shock quickly blossoms into triumphant relief. After everyone’s had a good look at the little tooth, I gauge the distance from the table up to the nearest roof. I decide not to throw it because we’re all worried it’ll just bounce back and land in someone’s moussaka. Instead I tuck it safely away in my pocket to put under Rose’s pillow later on. When Melita comes back she’s particularly pleased. She applauds the cute gap, and promises to send her out a special chocolate mousse at the end of the meal. Even the old Bouzouki player celebrates the pulling of the tooth. He strolls over, and lets Rose strum a few chords.
‘Ómorfi kopéla’ he says, playing a D.

The girl outside the Attikon open air movie theatre is chewing up a smile. She’s trying to be enthusiastic, but I get the feeling her scooter key is tingling in her pocket, and anyway, the prospect of hearing the Mamma Mia soundtrack one more time is gathering darkly in her eyes. I’m sympathetic, but it’s not so bad for me. I love this theatre and I’d happily watch anything. The Attikon looks like a converted fruit warehouse, its roof lifted off, holes knocked in the back wall for a projector, a whitewashed concrete screen up on the stage where the melons were probably loaded onto trucks. The auditorium is a spread of canvas director’s chairs, each one slightly tipped back on wooden wedges and screwed into the ground. There’s even a bar at the back for Mythos and water, birds ghosting overhead through the pale reaches of the cinema lights.
All in all it’s pretty comfortable. At one point I must have dozed. I open my eyes and sit up. Pierce Brosnan is wandering around in pressed white trousers, killing a song with the same look of refined cruelty he used when he was James Bond. I take another sip of beer. The film sails on. At one point, a whole crowd of people driven crazy by Dancing Queen follow Meryl Streep’s example and throw themselves off a jetty into the sea. Here in the cinema, suddenly half the audience jump up onto the stage, all dressed in board shorts, snorkels and flippers, dancing around, which helps.
There’s still a big Mamma Mia presence in Skiathos, even though the film’s been out a while. A small armada of boats heads out to the locations every morning, most of them starting from the Old Port, where the film begins. Alicia has seen some of these places. That church on top of the hill, for example. Not so long ago she took a ride out there, to Skopelos, a neighbouring island, bigger, but no airport.
‘The church is beautiful, but nothing like the film’ she says. ‘More like a shrine, really. After you’ve slogged all the way up the steps, you can barely fit your head round the door, let alone Colin Firth.’

One thing the film does capture is the sea, though. A rich cobalt blue, enfolding the island, and such a heat lying across it all, bright and dry, thrumming with crickets. We spend most of our time in the sea. I feel like a guest in some vast and brilliant aquarium, whilst a cast of fish busily fan burrows in the soft sand, or flash past in silver shoals, or swim up to investigate your toes. It’s handy that the apartment is right on the beach. Out of the front door, two flights of cool white marble steps, along a grey flagstone path with lizards skittering across the walls and spiked red flowers lolling overhead, a blaze of garden, rough grass, the slatted shade of a palm, a battered wooden fence and suddenly you’re on the sand, you’ve dropped your towel, the chill shock of the water.

I’ve never swum so much in my life. The girls have practically grown tails. We swim out to explore the coast. We laze on our backs in the shallows, make faces underwater. The girls practise elaborate routines with their lilos, synchronised falling off, climbing on, swimming under, tipping up. We sit on the beach and give marks out of ten, until the heat becomes too much and we’re driven back in again.
My back browns first because I spend so much time scooting around, duck-diving, hunting for shells amongst the coral and rocks. A swimmer’s tan.
On the way back in on the second day, Pippa, one of the kids from the apartment opposite, asks me what I’ve found. I empty my pockets - some sea urchin shells, a couple of delicately banded cockles, a gastropod as whirly as soft ice cream.
‘Yeah. Loads of them,’ she says with a sigh, squinting past me out to sea. ‘My Daddy takes me in the boat to this place where the fishermen empty their nets. You can get any kind of shell you want. Too many to carry, really. Bye.’

The sea’s so flat calm it’s easy to swim distance. When the water gets really deep, the sunlight starts to ray up in spokes. It’s all so clear, warm, encouraging. I start to find my way as much by underwater markers as anything above the surface. A sunken dinghy, a submerged buoy, the dark fold in the floor of the bay where the sand gives out and the rocks begin.

I swim out at night beneath a full moon, and each time I turn my head to the side to breath the water flows over my mouth like liquid silver.

We go up to the Monastery of Evangelistria, in the mountains north of Skiathos town. I follow the rental car on a battered 80cc moped where the throttle grip keeps slipping off and the clutch needs adjusting. But at least the brakes work. Chloe has let me borrow her tiny clip-on digital camera to film the ride. It should be great - a series of sharp bends, cypress trees, sheer rock faces, sudden vistas of blue. I forget all about the camera on the journey up, because at several places on the road there are spills of sandy rocks, and I have to concentrate to stay on. When we reach the monastery car park, I switch the camera off and think how great the film will look. A biker’s eye view of a steep ascent. Fantastic.

The monastery is a tranquil place.
We wander round, hats off, admiring the ancient slate roof, the beams and buttresses, olive presses, pots of hyacinths, the shade of the lime trees. Scarlett runs about, exploring. We calm her down for a look inside the chapel; when we come out again she frowns, jams her hat back on her head and says ‘Why was that chipmunk sitting in there not saying anything?’ She gets cross when we laugh.

Later in the morning, we’re up at the monastery cafe, eating toasted cheese sandwiches, taking in the view. Scarlett is jumping round, chasing crickets, being a cricket, until she spots Marta, the monastery bull terrier, lazing under a cart. She immediately switches tack and spends the next few minutes trying to catch Marta and snatch the Frisbee out of her mouth. Suddenly, one of the senior monks steps out onto the veranda, a man as darkly impressive as his beard. Scarlett immediately forgets Marta. She runs straight up to the monk, pushes the hair out of her eyes, and looking up the sheer vertical face of him shouts: ‘I am five years old.’ The monk smiles, puts his hand out, rests it on her forehead. Suddenly a mobile phone rings, cutting across the moment. The monk sighs, takes his hand away, reaches into his cassock, pulls out the phone, starts talking.

I make sure I have the digital camera pegged to my shirt front again for the ride back. It should be an even better view: the downward-curving road, the mountain forests, the blue sea – spectacular. I want to get it all.

When I pull up outside the cafe in town, I park the bike, switch off the camera and put it in my pocket. Back at the apartment I plug the camera into the laptop and download the film. It quickly becomes apparent that my shirt front had sagged, so all you can see either up the mountain or down is my sandals on the running board, an occasional flash of tarmac, the mad sound of a 80cc engine buzzing in the background.
‘Never mind, darling. The main thing is you saw it,’ says Jenny.

The night before we’re due to fly back we all decide to have a meal at the taverna in the bay just round the headland. Jenny and I decide to swim there; Alicia will take the girls in the car and meet us on the beach with some dry clothes. It’s a beautiful swim, even more so because it’s just the two of us, cutting through the water, breaking the surface and breathing in unison. We’re like a couple of dolphins. The sea is where we live; it’s how we get about. Admittedly the feeling gives way to something a little less euphoric when we reach the choppier waters round the point of the headland, but we’re fine, we make it through, and soon find ourselves approaching Vromolinos bay. In contrast to the wild feel of the swim we’ve just done, the beach is packed with people playing in the early evening sun, bat and ball, splashing around, parading up and down the beach or standing in the shallows with their hands on their hips looking out to sea. We can’t see Alicia and the others yet. We tread water and catch our breath for a while.

Supper at the taverna is fantastic. We stuff ourselves: calamari, sardines, fried potatoes, fried cheese, Greek salad, roast courgettes... an endless procession of dishes, toasting each other with coke zero, rose wine, vodka tonic. The sun goes down. The beach empties. Ice cream, coffee. It’s our last day, the big splurge. When we’ve got the bill it occurs to me I can swim back – how often do you get to swim home from a night out? Once I’ve had the thought it feels impossible to go back on the idea, even though I can tell it makes everyone uneasy, even though truth be told it makes me a little uneasy, too. But it has to be done.
I take off my shirt, pick up my goggles.
‘See you back at the apartment,’ I say, and jump down onto the beach.
All the sun loungers are empty. The blue of the sea has given way to an inky heaviness. When I wade in, it’s a different feeling, not a home to playful dolphins, but creatures I wouldn’t recognise, that wouldn’t recognise me.
I dive in and start swimming.
Because it’s darker I find it more difficult to keep to a line. That happy feeling of having someone with me has utterly gone; now I plough through the water with purposeful strokes, trying to leave in my wake the fuzz of all the alcohol and food. And the sea absorbs it all, the noise of my breathing, the splash of my arms, the kick of my legs. It takes it, endlessly folding itself around my bravura plans, my heat.
A few lights on the horizon. A yacht, a ferry.
I remember a story I heard about a swimmer who was hit by a speedboat. He’d been swimming across a bay at night when a boat piloted by a couple of drunk guys ran him down. The propeller cut him badly and he would certainly have drowned, but if it was bad luck to have been hit by a boat, it was good luck that the pilot was a doctor. They fished him out, spun the boat round and headed back to the hospital whilst the doctor staunched the blood flow and kept him alive.
I think I hear something.
I stop and tread water.
Nothing. No drunken doctors roaring down on me.
I swim on.
Round the headland. I take a wide berth, because it’s impossible to see the rocks. The water is even rougher now that the sun has gone down and the wind picked up, but I make progress. When the water calms down again I pause to get my bearings. In the distance, beyond all the boats moored in the bay, I can make out the apartment lights, and those of the taverna next door. I carry on. Breast stroke, because I want to keep an eye on where I’m going. I pass a brightly illuminated yacht. There are people moving about below deck laughing, shouting, holding drinks. I slip by like some kind of amateur commando. Dinghies, rowboats. The splash and swish of my progress through the black water. But the margins of panic I felt earlier have retreated, and I feel safer.
Twenty minutes more and I make the shore. I put my feet down and walk out of the sea, across the sand, through the gate, across the rough grass to the flagstone alley, up the marble steps. Take the key from under the mat, let myself into the apartment. Hang my goggles on the hook by the door. I feel light-headed, dizzy. I stand there dripping, like a ghost who doesn’t yet know he’s a ghost. But when I go into the shower the beads of warm water fall on me beautiful and fresh, and I feel better.
I hear the door open, the glorious fuss of everyone coming in.
Hey! We’re home!