Friday, November 29, 2013


Manning House has the glass and brick functionalism of a seventies telephone exchange, and it may once have been that. But now it serves as a hostel for rough sleepers, and if there are occasionally people to be seen sitting on the steps outside the door, smoking, their complexions are too blasted and their expressions too wasted for your average telephone engineer. Not that you see them outside for long, though. The staff controlling the entrance from their Plexiglas reception like to move them on pretty quick.

Lance has sliced the top of both his legs open. He is sitting with both legs raised and crudely bandaged, two members of staff standing right and left. He has a rolled cigarette between his bloody fingers, and waits patiently to be allowed to smoke it.
‘What did you use?’ I ask, shearing his blood-soaked jeans away.
‘The lid of a baked bean can. You know – the ring-pull kind. It’s pretty sharp, and you get a really nice grip.’
I’ve never thought about it before, but he’s right – it’s perfect. He’s neatly parted the flesh of his legs almost to the bone.
He stares down at his handiwork, the other side of some brutal, medieval practice that successfully opened a door and let the demons out.
As I’m re-dressing his wounds I ask about the other, older stripes on his calves and ankles.
‘I know,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry to waste your time.’
He fiddles with his cigarette, which adheres to his tacky fingers and almost tears.
‘Can I smoke this or what?’ he says.
‘Wait till you get outside,’ say the staff.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I’ve no doubt these were once fine houses. But the tide of urban prosperity has fallen right away in the last two centuries, leaving the buildings decrepit, semi-derelict, the fine clothes and gorgeous attitudes that once graced the street nothing more than the echo of a smart shoe on the rubbed stone flags leading up to the door.

The array of bells on the side is so chaotic it’s difficult to figure out which is number five. I press the middle one and hope for the best. After a long delay, the door release rattles, and we go inside.

It’s colder inside than out, and outside is freezing. There is a massy sense of damp in the hallway, colonising the far corners of the ceiling, feeding on what warmth there is in the bare, energy-saving light bulb.

None of these bedsit rooms have numbers on their doors. The only difference between them is the number of kickings each has taken, or the disposition of litter on the landing, a bike without wheels, a stained mattress, a carved plank of wood I could swear was a wormy old stocks. Three floors up I stop and call out Number Five? After a pause, there’s a shuffling and grunting, and the door in front of us opens.


Mike is a fifty-year-old man who could comfortably stand in a casting line-up for a biopic of Charlie Peace. Consumptive, greyed, gripping the collar of his shirt, he nods once and shows us into his garret. It’s a mean affair, magazine pictures peeling on the walls, a coverless duvet on the sofa, a coffee table piled with cans, scattered letters, a composting pyramid of fag butts.

‘My chest hurts’ he says, dropping himself down on the sofa, jabbing a yellowing finger into the belly of the butts to find one with enough of a draw. Everything’s so damp I can’t imagine he’d be able to light it, though. Or even strike a match, because surely this atmosphere is incompatible with fire. With life.

Rae is attending and asks the questions. I stand back a little, ready to help, but ready to go, too. I know that Rae will want to get him down to the ambulance as soon as she can, for our sake as much as his. You wouldn’t want to stay in this place longer than absolutely necessary. You can hear the spores rustling with interest, orientating themselves to the heat from our necks.

The patient stands up and pulls his coat on.

I open the front door and pat the wall trying to locate the landing light, but it’s absolutely dark and the switch isn’t where I thought it was.

I take out my pocket torch and shine it about. And then, for some reason, I direct the beam up the stairs that carry on opposite.

Nothing there.
Which, given the feeling I’d had, is somehow worse. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Rae presses clear, and we wait to see what happens next, standby or job.

We’re one of four ambulances parked up outside A&E. Another one is just coming up the ramp. You can tell by the sound of the engine, the spread of the lights. One to our right sparks up and leaves. It’s like we’re drones servicing an enormous hive. Not cells, but cubicles. Not honey, but saline.

The car park in front of us is the usual muddle of taxis, police cars, private cars parked haphazardly, people hobbling in and out of the two entrances, smoking in groups, with drip stands or draped in blankets, squatting by the wall or sitting on the edge of the concrete planter. Any time of day or night it’s the same. Some we recognise, from earlier in the shift, earlier in the year.

The moon is just rising above the resus training block, waning now, but resonantly bright.

The screen remains inactive.

‘It’s amazing how quick the moon moves, when you think about it.’
Rae looks up from her phone.
‘It’s lighter ‘cos it’s missing a chunk,’ she says. ‘I can’t believe I’ve eaten all my lunch all ready.’

The sky is clear. It makes me wish I had an app that tells you what the stars are when you hold the phone up. I look at Orion’s Belt. I know one of the stars is Betelgeuse and one Rigel, but I can’t remember which is which, or what any of that means. A long way away, whatever the name.

A plane tracks across. It’s funny to think of those lights and what they represent. People, doing people stuff. Looking down at the city lights, wondering about them.

Still the screen remains quiet.

The last shift I worked we had a newbie, third-manning. He was so enthusiastic, he spent the entire shift with his head poking out of the little hatch that links the back with the cab, excited by the blue-light drives, and by the details of each job as it came through. I remember being that enthusiastic, terrified almost. The seriousness of each incident seemed overwhelming. You still get a flavour of those early anxieties when you’ve taken some time off, a couple of weeks or so, and it’s the night before your first shift, and you catch yourself thinking dreadful things, those Final Destination scenarios that are going to catch you out and expose you for what you are, an incompetent, a fraud, a chancer. But it only takes the first job to shoe you in to the usual run of things. Letting the jobs unfold in their individual way. Doing what you need to do. Coping, with the help of your colleagues, and the public, and a little luck.

Whaa-whaa-whaa. Whaa-whaa-whaa.

‘Why do they have to use such an angry noise?’ she says, jabbing buttons. ‘Why can’t they have something soothing?’ She puts on a bland, computer voice: ‘Rae? Sorry to bother you, Rae. But someone's in trouble.’
‘Maybe you could have a selection of voices. Darth Vader: Chawwwww. I feel a disturbance in the Force. Chawwww. Category A. Mobilise the fighters.’
Rae scrolls through the details.
‘Twenty-four year old female. Chest pain. Numb left arm. Familial cardiac.’
I put the ambulance in drive and we move off, passing another coming up the ramp.

We wave.

Friday, November 22, 2013


There’s an electricity sub-station opposite Alice’s bungalow. A low, bare industrial spread, cones of ceramic insulators, fans revolving behind grids, pylons running cables. A low thrum, accentuated by the cold, clear blue of the sky. It feels like the whole morning is being powered by this place.

We find Alice lying in her hallway, the top of her body covered by a brown fleece she’s pulled over herself. It’s difficult to figure out exactly what’s happened. She doesn’t appear to have hurt herself. She doesn’t have any major health problems. She’s sixty, and in reasonable shape. Gradually it seems as if this is more a mental health issue than anything else. As gently as we can we help her up and into the sitting room, where she curls up on her side in a voluminous electric recliner, covers her face in her hands, and sobs.

Alice’s bungalow is scrupulously tidy, with the rubbed, almost scorched smell of cheap carpet vacuumed every day to the corner. I go into the kitchen for her care folder and find it on top of a free-standing cupboard, a retro, glass-fronted affair. Inside is a tin of salmon, three packets of Angel Delight and a month’s supply of instant porridge.
I take the folder back into the lounge, where Rae is finishing off the obs.
‘I can’t tell you,’ says Alice. ‘I just can’t. It’s too shameful. It’s a secret.’
‘It’d really help if you could tell us,’ says Rae. ‘Is it something you’ve done to yourself?’
‘No. I’m not saying. You’ll call the police and I’ll be carted off. My daughter has enough troubles of her own without that.’
I flick through the folder. Alice was assessed by the community mental health team a year ago, but refused all help and was signed off as low-risk.
‘What medications do you take?’ Rae asks.
‘Not much,’ says Alice, suddenly sitting upright, conversational. ‘Something for blood pressure. Pain pills for my back. They’re in the bedroom. Excuse the mess.’

I go to fetch them.

Alice’s medication is in a plastic toilet bag on the dresser. I half expect to see a scattering of empty packets, and glance at the rubbish bin to see if she’s tossed any there. But like the rest of the bungalow, everything is tidy and unremarkable. The only jarring detail is the number of handwritten notes Alice has placed about the room – all in shaky block caps, all describing various ailments, how she was feeling and when, what the doctor did or didn’t say, who did or didn’t come. It’s like a paper chase, except all the clues are on display, and don’t lead anywhere.

I go back to join Rae and Alice in the sitting room.

‘My gentleman friend has got a mobile phone but he never has it switched on,’ says Alice. ‘ He won’t be home because he likes to get out early, and I don’t know when he’ll be back. His sister might be home, though. I could give her a call.’
‘Would you like me to speak to her first?’
‘Could you?’
Rae makes the call. I can hear the woman answer on the other end – a warm, confident voice, immediately concerned. Rae explains what’s happened, then hands the phone to Alice.

‘Hello? Vera?’ says Alice, but then chokes up, and simply presses the phone to her ear whilst she cries, as if really that was the essence of the whole affair, the simple truth she needed to transmit down the wire.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

a nice surprise

To look at Ellen you’d think she was dead. But it turns out she’s just deeply asleep, propped up on a stack of pillows on the sofa, her ancient face slack, her eyes not quite closed.
Her daughter, Sophie – an elderly woman herself – tells us about the doctor’s visit earlier in the evening.
‘Sorry to come barging in when it’s so late,’ I say to Sophie.  ‘It seems almost criminal to wake Ellen up now. But the doctor wants her in tonight, so we have to go with that.’
Sophie nods.
‘Last time she was in for weeks with her chest, so it’s best to get it sorted earlier on this time.’
Rae fetches in the chair.

* * *

The difference between Ellen asleep on the sofa and Ellen awake on the ambulance trolley is as marked as the difference between Off and On. She is sitting upright, swaddled in blankets, her hands resting lightly in her lap, the nails perfectly painted coral pink. There’s a sparkling focus to her attention, accentuated by the overhead spots. With a flush to her cheeks and her mouth rolled up in a smile, she looks like one of those ancient Chinese carvings, a wise old woman, laughing at the endless mischief of the world.
‘Comfortable?’ I say.
‘Oh yes. Very comfortable, thank you.’
‘How’s your chest feeling?’
‘Fine. Fine.’
It’s not, of course, but the fact we both know it only seems to add to her appreciation of the joke.
‘I would never have guessed you were ninety-eight’ I tell her.
She stares at me, glittering.
‘Nineteen-fifteen!’ I say, writing it down.
She laughs.
‘A nice surprise for my parents,’ she says. ‘Well – they needed one!’
‘I bet.’
‘It’s a long time ago, isn’t it?’ she says.
‘It is.’
‘My father had a motorcycle. GCF One Two Three. I used to ride pillion with him.’
‘What sort of bike was it?’
‘A Calthorpe.’
‘Calthorpe? I’ve not heard of them. Was that a British bike?’
She nods.
‘I’m impressed you can remember the bike’s plate.’
She nods again, then adds:
‘He was an excellent rider, my father. Mind you, I was absolutely fearless.’
Her hands flutter in the air.
‘Who does your nails?’ I say. ‘They look amazing.’
‘My daughter, Sophie. They’re pretty good, aren’t they?’
She holds out both hands for me to look, thumbs together, the fingers all in a row. Suddenly she starts a strange little mirror exercise, moving out each little finger together, then the little and third fingers in pairs together, then middle, third and little together, then splitting the fingers in pairs... it’s hypnotic, and extremely difficult to copy.
She laughs at my clumsy attempts.
‘I worked in a telephone exchange,’ she says, relaxing her hands back on to her lap.

I have to finish off the paperwork before we get to the hospital.
She watches me as I write, the ambulance gently rocking and hushing along.
Suddenly, she starts singing: ‘z y x, w v, u t s, r q p, o n m, l k j, i h g f, e d c b a
‘Oh my good God,’ I say. ‘Is that the alphabet backwards?’
She nods.
‘That’s incredible! Now, Ellen. One last, quick question for the notes. Are you allergic to anything?’
She studies me a moment, like she’s finally found it, the most endearingly ridiculous creature ever to walk the earth.
‘Now how on earth would I know that?’ she says.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

body language

Jenny has taken an overdose of pain meds. Nothing immediately life-threatening, but serious enough to warrant a trip to A&E. Her partner Geoff doesn’t need to get anything ready. Jenny was only discharged from the psychiatric hospital yesterday, and they haven’t unpacked yet.
He kisses her goodbye at the door, tells her he’ll be up later. It’s difficult for him, what with the pets and everything. But he’s used to it. Jenny’s been overdosing like this for years. The only surprise each time is the ease with which she’s still able to get hold of pills, her own prescription tightly regulated.

She takes my arm. I lead her to the ambulance.
‘Cold tonight,’ I say.
She doesn’t answer.

* * *

At the hospital the charge nurse greets us wearily. It’s been another busy night, but the crowds are thinning now and he’s got time to think.
He grabs the clipboard and wheels the portable obs machine in our direction.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘My name’s Jack. What brings you to A&E tonight?’
He starts copying down some information from my sheet whilst I tell him the story – the overdose, the reason she took it, what it was and when.
‘Ah-ha,’ he says, putting the clipboard aside and wrapping a cuff round her arm. ‘Have you done this kind of thing before, Jenny?’
She nods.
‘Yeah – I thought I recognised you. Weren’t you in last week?’
She nods again.
‘Oh-kay. So tell me what happened tonight. Your man here tells me you took all these tablets. Why’d you do that, Jenny? Was it deliberate?’
She nods.
‘And would you go so far as to say you intended to kill yourself? Is that what you wanted from all this?’
She nods.
‘Okay. That’s fine.’
He writes down the blood pressure, SATS and pulse, takes a quick temperature then unwraps the cuff from her arm.
‘I just need to have a quick word to see where we’re going. Back in a minute.’

Jenny shifts restlessly on the chair.

‘I don’t like him,’ she says after a while. ‘He thinks I’m a burden.’
‘Oh no, Jenny. I don’t think he does. It’s been really busy here tonight. He’s probably just exhausted.’
‘He thinks I shouldn’t be here. I can tell by the way he looks at me. He thinks I’m a waste of time.’
‘I don’t think he does, Jenny.’
She’s not convinced.
She sits in the chair, holding on to the suitcase, jigging her leg up and down.
We both watch as Jack hands over to the main desk. The cubicle board is full, closely written in black and red, hectic as the tote board at a racetrack. Jack is there a little while. At one point he hangs on to the counter and stretches his back. The charge nurse takes a cloth, makes a change to the board. When Jack straightens up, the charge nurse is biting the end of the pen, studying the board. Then he tosses the pen back into the clutter on the desk and says something to Jack. They both laugh.

Jenny’s leg stops jigging and she straightens in the chair like she’s just been slapped.
She draws her suitcase closer in.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


‘I used to chase people for debt.’
Charles rearranges the blanket over his legs, and then adds: ‘But I was never mean to anyone. If they didn’t have it, I didn’t mind.’
Mean or not, Charles’ chasing days are over. Now, he finds it difficult making it to the bathroom without collapsing.
‘You’re not taking me to hospital again,’ he says.
‘Not if you don’t want to.’
‘No I don’t, thank you very much. I’ve seen quite enough of it – just as I have absolutely not a shred of doubt they have seen quite enough of me.’
Despite the ravages of his various illnesses and the depredations of age, Charles still has a certain poise about him, sitting straight-backed in his chair by the window, suspended by an invisible chord like a palsied but resolute puppet.
‘Have you been to America?’ he says, pointing to a postcard on the mantelpiece. A city at night. Welcome to Chicago busting over the skyline in block yellow.
‘Only New York,’ I say. ‘And some of the west coast. I’d love to see the Great Lakes, though.’
‘I’ve not been either,’ he sniffs. ‘But I understand my great nephew is having the most wonderful time there. Studying. For six months.’
‘What’s he studying?’
He looks at me for a moment, then blinks, the left slightly slower than the right.
‘Your great nephew. In Chicago.’
Charles thinks about it, but the moment has crumbled away from him again. The little tremors in his neck and face intensify for a second, then pass. Finally he says:
‘I did my national service in India you know.’
‘Oh, really? My dad was there, too.’
‘Is that so? Where did he serve?’
‘I don’t know! He didn’t ever talk about it and I never thought to ask. I have a feeling he was a gunner, but that’s about it. Do you fancy a cup of tea?’
‘That would be marvellous. I’m quite parched after my ordeal.’

He watches me from his chair as I crash about in the galley kitchen, finding things. As I set the kettle to boil and sniff the milk just in case, I shout over my shoulder:
‘You and dad must have been in India around independence, and the partition and everything. That must have been difficult. But the only pictures I can remember seeing of him were when he’s got one foot up on a truck wheel with a fag in his mouth, or when he’s fishing in some river. It’s funny, really. I wish I’d asked him a bit more about it. Anything about it.’
I can sense Charles isn’t listening.
I find a box of sugar lumps behind the tea bags.
I turn round and rattle it in his direction.
‘One lump or two?’ I ask him.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

through the rain

The Deer Valley estate is a synonym for trouble, even though outwardly it’s pleasant enough. A high escarpment rises around the edge of it like the rim of some gigantic broken bowl, whose absent fourth side leads down through a tangle of houses and flats to the older part of town, and the ocean. Five thousand years ago this was a valley and there were deer – giant antlered varieties, chewing the vegetation whilst keeping watch for wolves or hunters. If they were here now, the deer would have to watch out for that kid on the mini-moto, too, ducking their heads as he comes leaping over the crest of the landscaped communal garden.
You have to admire the kid’s toughness. It’s been horribly wet all day, and now the rain has settled into an endless flow of super-saturating fog. No-one else is out.
I’m working on the car, called out to a woman who lives on Deer Valley. Because of the tortuous road layout, I can’t drive up to her door. Instead, I have to walk across the park area, timing my crossing with mini-Knievel, who I have to admit, is pretty good on that thing. I’d wave if I didn’t have so many bags.
I find the house and put the bags down just inside a tiny overhang like the trim of a sports car nailed above the door to serve as a porch. I narrowly miss squashing a cat that’s sheltering there, too. When I apologise, move the bags, and crouch down to hold my hand out in the universal cat-language of friend, it slowly turns its head in my direction – not a look so much as a curse. The poor cat is soaked, its thick chocolate fur limp with water. I’m sure if I picked it up and gave it a squeeze I’d get about a gallon, but I can tell by the way it’s staring at me half of that would be my blood.

When the woman answers the door I say hello, pick up my bags – and then hesitate. I look down at the cat, expecting it to run inside ahead of me. It stays where it is, though, staring off into the foggy distance, as if it can still see the giant deer feeding, all those thousands of years ago.

‘Come on. Don’t worry about Claudie’ the woman says, waving me in. ‘Claudie loves the rain.’

Thursday, November 07, 2013

K9 to the rescue

Charlie’s sister Christine lets us in.
‘You don’t mind Coco, do you?’
Coco is an old, soot-brown Cairn terrier who looks like she scurried down the chimney when she heard the doorbell.
‘All bark and no bite, thankfully. Charlie’s still in bed.’
Coco frowns and huffs then retreats back into the sitting room as Christine takes us upstairs.
‘He’s been having a rough time,’ she says. ‘Four hospital trips this year with vomiting. Sometimes they give him drugs, sometimes they put him on a drip. Nothing seems to stop it coming back though. I know he gets worked up with everything, but still, it’d be nice to have the whole thing sorted. I can’t have him stay with us much longer. He’s upsetting the kids.’
She pushes open the bedroom door, shouts: ‘It’s the ambulance, Charlie. Be nice.’ Then stands aside.

A cramped, child’s bedroom. Charlie is lying on the top bunk of a bed covered with stickers. Facing us as we go in, amongst the general clutter of toys that spill in an unstoppable mess from two open cupboards, standing proudly on its own on a low table, is a model of K9, the robot dog from Doctor Who.
‘Hello Charlie. Can you pull the cover back so we can talk to you?’
A muffled reply.
‘Charlie? It’s the ambulance. We just want to talk to you and see if we can help.’
‘I don’t want no fuckin’ help. I want this fuckin’ pain to go away. Make it stop! Please, please make it stop!’
‘We’ll do what we can, Charlie. But first things first. Can you pull the duvet down so we can talk to you?’
Suddenly the cover launches into the air as Charlie thrashes his arms and legs, whilst at the same time he screams out: I don’t fuckin’ want this! I can’t... I want my life back, man.... I want my life back.
‘Charlie? We’re here to help, but you’ve got to do your bit, too. You’ve got to stay nice and calm so we can figure out the best thing to do. All right?’
He slaps his head and kicks his legs, but at least he’s pointing in our direction now so we can get a look at him.
A man in his early thirties, his face has a scooped and waxy look, sharp cheekbones, and large, papery eyes. After a moment he starts thrashing his head from side to side, moaning and baring his teeth. The next moment, he’s sitting up, hunched over to the side, and started jabbing the fingers of his right hand down his throat. It’s not a gentle movement – more like someone furiously trying to unblock a drain. He makes such monstrous growls as he does it, I half expect K9 to swivel its head and shoot him.
‘Don’t make yourself sick like that, Charlie. You’ll just hurt your throat. You’ll make it infected and that’ll only add to your woes.’
‘I don’t fucking care. I just want it out of me.’
‘Want what out of you?’
But then suddenly he relaxes, and flops back down on the bed.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he says. ‘I’m really, really sorry.’
The change in him – and the oddly deferential tone – puts us even more on our guard.
After a pause, I ask him what his past medical history is.
It jump starts his fury again.
‘Aaargh! You know all this! Why do you keep asking me? Just take me to hospital and make me better. Fuck’sake!’
‘I’m sorry we have to ask you these questions, Charlie, but obviously we’ve never met you before and we don’t know the story. It’s like I said at the beginning, if you could do your best to stay calm, it’d really help us get you the treatment you need.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,’ he says, instantly deflating. Then moans, rolls over, and buries himself in the quilt.

We go back outside to talk to Christine.

She’s in the bathroom, hanging out a trug of wet washing on a dryer.
‘So what’s the story with Charlie?’ I ask, handing over a sock she’d dropped on the landing.
She takes it from me with a tired kind of smile, drapes it over the dryer, then begins pulling the arms of a child’s pyjama top right side out.
‘He’s under a lot of stress,’ she says. ‘He fell out with his cousin and lost his job. Then he’s been looking after his own two kids in the holidays, and there were some issues there. He lives up north but came down to look for work, only he’s been having all this vomiting and stomach cramps, and it’s all getting out of hand. The doctors don’t know what’s going on. They’ve given him pain killers, stomach antacids and even some stuff to chill him out, but none of it’s helping. I can’t cope with him here, not with kids in the house.’
We tell her that we’ll take Charlie to hospital for another review, then go back to the bedroom to help get him ready.
‘I can fuckin’ dress myself!’ he screams. ‘Wait outside!’
And we hear him crashing around, swearing and cursing and crying, trying to find his boots.
‘Charlie – they’re here, where you left them!’ says Christine coming and putting them outside the door. Then she shakes her head, and goes back to the bathroom to hang out the rest of the washing.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

the business of death

I know the entrance to the crematorium. I’ve been here before, a couple of years ago. Then, we’d turned into the top of the drive just as two men in black suits and sunglasses, smoking cigarettes, were walking out. It was a hot summer’s day and the ambulance window was down. As we slowed to make the turn, one of the men took the fag out of his mouth and shouted: You’re too late mate.

I got the joke. But even though it must have looked incongruous to see a big yellow truck pitching up to a crematorium, in fact it hardly needs saying that there are no places beyond our reach. In my short time as an EMT I’ve turned up at schools, hospitals, factories, homes, gardens, holes in the ground, holes in buildings, cars, boats, trains, railway tracks, woods, swimming pools and the sea. Anywhere that people go, an ambulance may follow.

This time, though, there are no smart jokes, just a gardener, waving frantically over by the Garden of Remembrance.
As I drive over I suddenly catch a glimpse through the arched gate just behind him: another gardener, kneeling beside a sprawled figure, pressing up and down on her chest.
I leave the engine running as we throw open the doors and drag out all the bags we’ll need. Over to the scene, and we find an elderly woman lying at the foot of some concrete steps. I take over chest compressions whilst Rae cuts through the woman’s top and slaps the pads on. There is vomit over the woman’s face, and blood from a grievous wound at the back of her head which fans out in thick, geometric lines along the joints in the pavement. Asystole. Rae tries to intubate, but the woman has aspirated so much it proves difficult to visualise the cords; the suction unit keeps getting clogged with chunks of food; we get little or no chest rise; her pupils are fixed and dilated, her skin the colour of pumice stone. The second crew turn up and between us we try every drug and procedure we can think of, but at the end of half an hour or more the woman is as flat and dead as before.

Police have turned up. They help liaise with the relatives, the crematorium management, gathering information and controlling access to the scene.

We call the resus, and drape a clean white blanket over the woman. We start to tidy up. The police call for the coroner to attend, so we stay to finish the paperwork and liaise with them. Also, it helps that our ambulance is parked in front of the garden entrance; there’s another funeral gathering out in the car park, and the truck is acting as a screen.

Rae and I go with the police to where the woman’s relatives are waiting by a car. Most of them have gone now, leaving just the immediate family. We tell them that she has died, and how sorry we are. We tell them what we found, what we tried to do, what we failed to do. They cry, and tell us some things of their own. Then we leave them with the police and go back to the scene.

That’s when I see two men, dressed in black, peering round the corner of the crematorium building. I’m not surprised; it’s unusual to see an ambulance and police car there, and they want to know what’s going on. When they catch my eye they nod and wave a little shamefacedly, as if they were embarrassed I’d caught them rubber-necking, and quickly duck back. But I don’t blame them. Out in the street it might be different, but this is a crematorium, a place dedicated to death, the business of it. And now with us, with me here in my uniform by this big yellow truck, the police car, the body on the ground, it’s like a piece of scenery has fallen down and revealed the staff who work the ropes.

I’d be curious.

All the same, I’m glad when the Coroner arrives, so we can finish tidying up.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

the lair

The house hasn’t been decorated so much as riotously possessed by junk. The little front garden has been filled with every kind of cheap plastic nic-nac, from action figurines in bizarre poses to a line of perished toys strung out on a washing line like cruel reprisals from a raid on a toy village. The bricks of the wall are individually painted in white or red enamel, adding to the hectic feel of the place, whilst in the window of the front door, along with skeins of fairy lights and a scrawled sign saying: Welcome. Ring both bells is a collection of skull masks, spiders and joke snakes you’d think were there for Halloween were it not for the perished, sun-blasted look of the plastic. It’s all been here for some time.
‘Oh – my – God!
Rae knocks – then rings both bells. There’s no reply.
She shades her eyes with her hand and peers through the glass. I stand next to her and have a look, too.
Just visible in the gloom, Mr Robinson, sitting in his wheelchair right at the back of the house, staring back at us. He waves to say the door’s open. We go inside.

If this bungalow is a giant fruit, Mr Robinson is the bug who maintains a wheelchair’s tunnel from bed to kitchen to TV lounge. There’s so much stuff here, on all sides, even hanging from the ceiling, we have to stoop. Our senses are completely overwhelmed; even though we’re with him for half an hour, in retrospect it’s difficult to remember what was there. Only two things stick in my mind – a little framed drawing of a cock and balls signed and dated with kisses, and a model of King Louie from The Jungle Book, sitting at the wheel of a toy Cadillac, one fist in the air, one fist beating on the bonnet.
Mr Robinson is too drunk to tell us clearly what the problem is. Amongst a pile of ambulance sheets on the kitchen table I find one dated earlier the same day. The crew had established he was unhappy with his pain relief regime and had arranged a review with his doctor, but Mr Robinson had hung up when the doctor phoned, so it hadn’t been resolved. There’s nothing acute going on. We finish our visit, contact the out of hours service on his behalf, make our goodbyes and leave.
There’s an elderly woman in a pink tracksuit waiting for us outside on the pavement.
‘Can I ask you something?’ she says, her arms folded across her chest.
‘Yes. Of course.’
‘Not being funny or anything, but can you explain to me why there are ambulances here three, four times a day, or the early hours of the morning? Police cars. Fire engines. Yesterday there was an ambulance car and an ambulance.’
‘I know it must be a nuisance.’
‘A nuisance? Do you know how noisy these things are? Those big engines rattling on? Doors slamming? It’s terrible!’
‘You get it a lot, then?’
‘Yes, we get it a lot. And it’s driving us out of house and home.’
‘I’m really sorry.’
‘It’s not your fault, love. But it can’t go on. It really can’t. I know what he’s like. He gets pissed, rings the ambulance, then hangs up in the middle of the call so they’re bound to turn up. Then he refuses to go in. And when you’ve gone, he nips out in his wheelchair to the off licence round the corner, stocks up on beer, and when he’s pissed does it all over again. How would you feel?’
‘I’d feel murderous.’
‘But what can we do?’
‘I do sympathise. But the way things stand at the minute, if anyone rings for the ambulance, they’ll always send one, regardless of how many times they’ve rung before. Because they think: “Well – it might be for real this time”’
‘We’re going out of our minds with it. I know it’s not your fault. I’m not having a go at you, love. You’re just doing your job. But look what happened the other day. Nancy’s husband Reg took ill, and they were over an hour waiting for an ambulance. No doubt because someone like old Robinson here had got one instead. And then Reg goes and dies. Now how is that fair?’
‘It’s not fair. I think that’s absolutely terrible. Look.  I’ll flag this up with our control. Maybe if you talk with Citizen’s  Advice they’ll be able to tell you where you stand with the law on this. Or someone in the council. But it’s a tricky situation, and I don’t envy you. If it’s any consolation, we hate it, too.’
‘Sorry to go on. I just wanted to say something, you know.’
‘Good luck with it. I think if you and your neighbours all act together something might get done. Like I say, I’ll talk to Control.’
She watches as we drive off.

I get on the radio.
Control know all about it.
‘We’ll pass your concerns on,’ they say. ‘Maybe something’ll get done.’

Saturday, November 02, 2013


The only thing I can think of is the gardening I did earlier in the week. But it’s what I normally do; I didn’t fall over or lift any heavy bags. Pull any deep roots. Ooh – it hurts like hell and nothing seems to help. I’ve got to get it sorted or I’ll lose my mind.’
Mrs Allen shifts her position in the armchair, then stares at me with a baleful expression, her thick glasses magnifying her anxiety.
‘I tried to ride it out but these pills are just no good. I can’t go on like I am.’
‘Well, look. There are two things we can do, Mrs Allen.’
She leans forward.
‘One is to get the out of hours doctor involved again, the other is a trip up the hospital.’
‘The hospital please,’ she says. ‘Here – when I’ve locked up can you pop the keys round to number eight so she can feed the cats?’

* * *

Mrs Allen sits on the ambulance with a walking stick planted firmly in front of her, both hands resting on the curved handle.
‘I’m not the old lady you think I am,’ she says.
‘In what way?’
‘I’m normally so fit! Fitter than this! I do my yoga every day. I don’t eat wheat or animal products. Oh – it’s terrible what people do to animals in this world. I keep in touch with things on the internet and television but sometimes I wonder why I bother. It’s so depressing. So much cruelty. I think basically, people are horrible – present company excepted. Don’t you think? The things people do to animals? And now my hip’s gone, I’m in pain all the time, and I think Why go on? What’s it all for? Not that I’ve planned anything, you understand. It’s just a low mood. But it gets you down. ’
‘Well it’s not a nice thing, being in constant pain. We’ll do our best to get it sorted.’
‘Last night when it was bad I felt like praying to God, but I didn’t, because I thought He’d probably got better things to do with His time.’
She pushes her glasses back up her nose and stares at me.
‘Do you believe in God?’ she says.
‘No, I’m afraid I don’t.’
She leans away from me.
Don’t believe in God? Oh my love. Why not? You must!’
‘But why go on? What’s to live for if you don’t believe in anything?’
‘It’s not that I don’t believe in anything. I just don’t believe in God.’
‘But if there wasn’t a God, there wouldn’t be any morals. There wouldn’t be a point to anything. The world would be full of cruelty and pain.’
‘It’s pretty bad as it is.’
I don’t feel able to carry on the conversation. It’s interesting, but I don’t want to upset her. It comes down to personal choice, after all, and this isn’t the time to explore these things. But Mrs Allen won’t let it go. She’s genuinely appalled that I can think of carrying on without a belief in God.
She’s quiet for a moment, frowning at me. The she raps her stick on the floor, like Black Rod at the doors of Parliament.
‘But what about Hell?’ she says.