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.’