Monday, January 27, 2014

temporary ice

A linked metal walkway runs from the park entrance across the grass to the temporary ice rink, a long, white marquee cut out against the night by a sequence of halogen lamps. The whole thing has an Arabian feel, its domes swooping and sharp. The sides of the marquee are made of glass. You can just make out all the people inside, drinking and eating and watching, sitting on the benches taking their skates off, or putting them on. Outside, ropes of coloured lights trace the square of the rink in the air above, whilst below, louder and louder the closer you get, the fuss of the skaters, the frenetic cut and slush of their blades across the ice.

Rae knocks on the door marked First Aid. Josh, the paramedic on duty, comes outside to talk to us.

‘A bit of a strange one,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really want to call you but in the end I didn’t have much choice. What we have is a twenty-five year old guy, collapse query cause, not even on the ice. He was strapping his skates on when he went over. I thought it was just going to be a faint, but then he was complaining of chest pain, so I did the works. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then this chest pain started to become a bit more generalised, mixed in with a spacey kind of attitude. So whether it’s medical, psychiatric, drugs…? I don’t know. In the end I thought I’d better get him off to hospital.’
‘And what’s his story? Where’s he from?’
‘Apparently he’s a student from miles up country, doing something post-grad and high-end. No relatives here. Nowhere to stay. Is a bit vague about the whole trip. So – who knows? Come and say hello. He’s called Adnan.’
But Adnan opens the door before we have a chance to go in. He stands there smiling at us, and I wonder how much he heard.
We introduce ourselves and ask if he’d like to come to the ambulance so we can have more of a chat there.
‘I want my money back on the skates,’ he says, and walks over to the kiosk before we can say anything. We wait just behind him whilst he explains the situation to the attendant. The attendant is confused, says there’s a no refund policy. For whatever reason, possibly because the manager knows the situation and sees us standing in the background, authorisation is given and Adnan gets his money back. He accepts it without much response, and follows us out to the vehicle.

I know what Josh means. There’s a strange disconnectedness about Adnan. He doesn’t behave in the way you’d expect from someone who’d collapsed at an ice rink and had the ambulance called. He answers our questions without offering anything else, with the kind of brittle, synthetically amused air you might expect from someone who thought they had nothing to explain. We re-do all the checks. Everything seems fine. When we ask how his studies are going, he shrugs and smiles. He has an exam tomorrow, but he’s not worried.
‘It’s a long way for you to get back tonight. How were you planning to do it?’
By train, he says. But he can’t tell us what time, or what he’ll do to get to the station.
We tell Adnan that we’re concerned about him, for the unexplained collapse, and for his well-being tonight. He smiles again, says he’ll be fine, and can he go now?
We finish the paperwork and show him off the vehicle. But instead of walking in the direction of the station, he heads back to the rink. We follow him, out of curiosity, and also to explain to Josh what happened.
Adnan buys another ticket, and then goes over to the kiosk to hire some skates. I can tell that the attendant is as confused as we are. He looks over in our direction for guidance, but we can only shrug. He takes the money from him – the money that he had only a little while ago given him back – and holds it in his hand as he watches Adnan go over to the benches, take off his shoes, and quietly strap on the skates.

Friday, January 24, 2014

too good to be true

Ian holds a flannel to his left eye. As the right one is covered by the slant of his gelled hair, it makes him effectively blind. The flannel is the only jarring note in an otherwise perfect outfit: skull & crossbones t-shirt, stonewashed denim jacket, studded leather bracelets, metal belt and silver plated pointy boots. When he shakes his head to clear his thoughts, his stretched earlobes waggle from side to side.

‘I knew today was too good to be true,’ he says. ‘It was my girlfriend’s birthday, so she came round to mine. We spent the day watching horror films. Got a stack of pizzas, had a smoke – you know, one of those classic days in. Things turned a bit amorous, of course, which was also nice.’ He pauses, but when I don’t say anything he gives his head another little shake – as if maybe I had said something but his injuries meant he couldn’t hear – and carries on.

‘Anyway, I walked her home, but when I came back through the alley they were all waiting at the other end, blocking the exit. About a dozen of them. I said could I get past but they said no and by the way, could I give them my phone? When I said it wasn’t worth much they all started in, punching and kicking, going mad, basically. I think one of them had a crowbar. Anyway, I tucked myself up as best I could and eventually they got bored and left me alone.’

There’s no sign of any major injuries. The only thing we can find is a bruised eye, with a small cut to the brow. As soon as he’s back on his feet he walks up and down, shaking his legs out.

‘D’you think I’ve got a limp?’ he says. ‘It’s funny really. I used to be a backyard fighter. I did this shit for money. I actually enjoyed the pain. I thrived on it.’

He drops the flannel and stands there with his hands by his sides, chin up, like he’s posing for the prize photo. But I find it hard to believe. The EMO Kid? His signature move, an existential put-down.
He presses the flannel back to his eye.
‘I knew today was too good to be true,’ he says.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

fashion shoot

The contrast between Isla, the young hostel officer, and Jake and Siobhan, the two NFAs on the bed, could not be more pronounced. In fact, if I didn’t know the details of the job, and didn’t have all the other corroborating evidence – the late hour, the familiar surroundings, the sounds and the smells – I’d think that I’d wandered onto the set of a fashion photo-shoot, Beauty and the Beasts, where the model’s perfect skin and figure look even more incredible against the harsh urban backdrop.
Isla leans in the doorway, her right hand elegantly draped over the gentle curve of her belly, her left resting on the radio slung at her hip. The radio is the heaviest thing about her, a jarring piece of kit, set against the abundant and glossy tangle of her auburn hair , her long neck, and the pearlescent clarity of her skin.
‘Go away! There’s nuffin’ wrong with me’ says Siobhan.
‘We’re here to help,’ says Isla. ‘You had a fit.’
Jake leans in to apologise.
‘She don’t mean to be rude,’ he says.
‘And you had a fit, too,’ says Isla. ‘Buy one, get one free.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I know. But it’s the drink, mate. We’re both alkay-holics you know what I mean? We’ve been trying to cut down, but I think we went a bit too far, too quick. Like the alky bends. I think we need some help with it.’
‘I think that’s a good idea.’
Both Siobhan and Jake have the blushed and blasted look of drunks the world over. It’s a Before and After shot of the most extreme order: Isla, young, healthy, with an empathetic side to her that only heightens her beauty; and the couple on the bed, utterly cast down by their experience of the world, at the lowest point bar the street, with a sense of themselves reduced to a point of sickness that can only be relieved by the very thing that brought them low.
Jake vomits.
It’s an extraordinary thing, more like the possetting of a baby. He doesn’t move at all, doesn’t heave or retch. He simply opens his mouth and releases a spillage of milky white substance that runs down his chin and onto his lap. It’s only then I realise he’s wearing a pair of waterproof over trousers, despite the humid atmosphere of the room.
Isla passes him some tissue.
‘Sorry. Sorry,’ says Jake, dabbing himself dry. ‘I’ve been having this lately.’
Isla resumes her position at the door, a little further out.
It’s so hot this high up in the hostel they’ve set up a big fan one end of the corridor. Isla is standing in the draught of it now; the current of air gently pushing her hair about, so it glints richly, vibrantly, in the light from the overhead strip.
‘Faak orf,’ says Siobhan.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

eve in the garden of fog

The fog has come in quickly from the sea tonight, running cold through every aspect of the town, past the dark windows of the houses and offices, across the pavement flags, even into the breath of the people huddled at the taxi rank. The fog is claiming it all, freezing it, possessing it utterly, reducing the town to a particled grey blur, a bark in the distance, a hush.

‘I suppose they mean this fountain.’

We take a torch and climb out of the ambulance.

The gardens spread out in front of us, massy and dark, a muddle of trees on the periphery, silhouettes of shrubs and benches, whilst in the centre, rising silent and black, the fountain itself. Across the other side is a public convenience converted into a cafe. We can just make out two NFAs sheltering under the overhang of the roof, but they seem happy enough, so we ignore them. Instead we walk on towards the fountain, to see if our patient’s there.

I put the light of my torch around the bottom of it, the empty basin, and then up the central column. Three grotesque iron fish lie on their chins, twisting their tails and up together to support the first of three scallop-shaped bowls. Duck-lipped, bug-eyed, the nearest one stares back at me. I get the feeling if I stayed here much longer the fog and cold would creep up my legs until I was petrified, like him. Because of course, this is the secret, this is how these things are made, in fogs like this. In five minutes I’ll be just another public sculpture, in a black iron Hi-Vis, with a caught expression, like the fish. In memoriam: EMT. A traffic cone on my head every summer.

‘Over here.’

Rae’s found him – I can’t believe I walked right past – an elderly man, lying on his side beneath a bench, scrunched up as small as he can make himself, hidden beneath layers of jumpers, coats, a hood and a beanie.
‘Are you all right, mate?’
He groans awake.
Meanwhile, the two figures from the cafe have wandered over to see what’s wrong.
‘It’s only Jed.’
‘What’s he done now?’
‘Someone passing on a bus saw him lying on the ground and thought he’d died or something.’
‘No! He hasn’t died. Has he?’
‘Jed? Jed? Have you died, mate?’
Jed groans some more, and pulls his hood more firmly over his head.
Rae plays the light over him.
‘We’ve just got to reassure ourselves you’re okay and don’t want our help, Jed. Sorry to bother you, but it’s a bit cold to be lying out here like this, don’t you think?’
‘What’s the alternative?’ says one of the guys.
‘Round to your place?’
The other one stares at Rae like the fountain fish.
‘You’re nice,’ he gapes. ‘You can come and stay in our Garden of Eden anytime.’
‘Yeah,’ says the other. ‘Come on, Eve. I’ll let you lick my apple.’
‘Okay, guys’ she says. ‘That’s enough.’ Then to Jed. ‘Do you want our help, mate, or shall we just leave you to it?’
‘Go away.’
‘Well that’s pretty clear.’
She straightens up.
‘It’s just drink,’ says one of the NFAs.
‘It’s a good job he is drunk n’all,’ says the other. ‘Otherwise he’d get a bit...’ He adopts a gentlemanly fisticuff pose. ‘Know what I mean?’
‘Anyway, if you could keep an eye on him,’ says Rae when he’s done. ‘Try and persuade him to sit with you by the cafe. It’s too exposed out here.’
‘Right you are, Eve,’ says one.
They turn and head back to their pile of things over at the cafe; we go back to the ambulance.

‘Hang on a minute,’ says Rae.
She nips inside the cabin, fetches out a blanket, then walks over to Jed again and drapes it over him.
‘There you go,’ she says. ‘Keep warm, mate.’

Sunday, January 19, 2014

one hour, thirty years

To Cripps Court, so mean and bitten down you can only wonder about Cripps. A front door, battered white paint and ply; buzzed through, to a narrow stairway of plain red tiles, the flat numbers for each landing stencilled on the lintel. The echo of our progress makes it sound like an army of paramedics going up the stairs, not just me and Rae. Out onto a walkway with a black net stretched across the gap, presumably to stop pigeons flying in, and anything else flying out, and down, into the bins and bikes and junked-up planters in the courtyard six floors below.

To Julius’ flat, where the door stands open and in it, a friendly middle-aged woman talking into a phone. When she sees us she smiles and holds a finger up. They’re here now. Thanks very much, then. Bye, bye.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she says, slipping the phone into the pocket of her cardigan.
‘I’m Serena, one of Julius’ care workers. He’s just inside.’

Julius is over by the window, smoking a cigarette. When I introduce myself he lurches towards me with his hand outstretched.
‘How are you, bro?’
‘I’m good, thanks. How are you?’
He shrugs, and drops himself down on the bed.
‘I wanna die, man. If I had a knife, yeah? I’d cut myself here and here. I’d slice my belly open and pull myself all insides out. I just wanna die. You know what I mean?’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Or throw myself out the window into the traffic. I tried running out in the road the other day and this taxi driver saved me. The police came and they ended up putting me away in a cell, but then all them doctors and nurses got their heads together, yeah? And they sent me back here.’
‘And that was yesterday?’
‘Yesterday, yeah, yesterday. So now I’ve had like a bottle of brandy and a couple of cans and I just wanna die.’
Serena goes over to the window and opens it.
‘You smoke too much,’ she says.
She hands me a grab sheet with all his details, sits down again and folds her arms.
Serena’s a reassuring figure, soaking up Julius’ rage with a tired kind of warmth, as loosely knit as her cardigan.
‘Julius has got a few problems, as you can see from the sheet,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to call you because I know he’s so drunk they won’t assess him for hours. And there is actually a safe house I can take him to. But he was so adamant he didn’t want to go to the house I didn’t really have any other choice.’
‘I ‘aint going to no house,’ says Julius, struggling up again. ‘I wanna join my lil’ twin sister. She died ‘cos she got this hole in the heart.’
Julius stares at me, his mouth slack, his eyes heavy, the smoke from his cigarette curling up from his fingers.
‘I don’t want to cause my mum no pain,’ he says. ‘I’m like a em-barr-isment, yeah? I should jes’ throw myself out the window and be done.’

After some negotiation, more with Serena than Julius, we decide the best course of action is to take him to the safe house after all. There’ll be someone to keep an eye on him whilst he sleeps off the brandy, and in the morning when he’s sober they can review things then.
Julius is so drunk he’s not in a position to argue. He’s happy enough to be led out of the room and down the stairs, though – a strange, rolling kind of lope, like a marionette forced to move with its strings in a tangle. He’s like that when we open the main door and step out into the street. There’s a night bus waiting at the lights nearby, its windows misted up with all the people on board heading into town for the clubs. A young woman wipes her window clear with the sleeve of her jacket to get a better look.
 ‘Thas’ where I went into the cars,’ says Julius, dropping his head to the right and immediately lurching off that way until I work him upright again. ‘Jes’ there. Right there.’
The bus moves off, the woman still watching.
‘My sister,’ he drools. ‘My poor lil’ sister.’
‘How old was she when she died?’ I ask him.
‘I don’t know. Like a hour or somefing?’
He stops to stare at the tarmac a second or two, then comes back to himself – enough anyway to make it up the ambulance steps and pitch head first onto the trolley.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

a mess

If this is a test, I’m failing.

We’d been lucky up to that point. The last hour of the night shift snoozing on standby. We had just been debating whether it was a good time to call Control and start lobbying for a return to base when the radio pre-empted any discussion: a fall, the other side of town. Still, if we were quick and the job was as straightforward as it sounded, we’d still be able to finish on time.

But then the added details. Fallen just behind the door. And some complicated instructions on how to locate the key.

‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’

When we get to the block of flats, it’s hard enough just to find the entrance, set back as it is behind a high laurel hedge. The first thing we do is buzz the flat we want, but there’s no reply, even though the notes had said the patient’s wife was on scene. Looking at the liberal spread of Key Safes across the left hand wall, the instructions we’ve been sent – second from left on bottom row – might be helpful if the boxes were actually in rows, but they’ve spread out over the bricks like a colony of mussels on a harbour wall. We’re driven in desperation to flip the lid and try the code on each one starting from the bottom. Finally, one drops open and we let ourselves in.

As soon as we crack the door open the smell hits us.

Mr Samuels is lying on his side in the hallway, naked, covered with faeces.
‘Can you help me?’ he says. ‘Oh. Oh. Are you there?’

He’s been on the floor several hours. Mr and Mrs Samuels sleep in separate beds. When he got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and fell in the hall, Mrs Samuels hadn’t heard anything. It was only after several hours she realised something was wrong and picked up the phone.
‘She’s got flu,’ he says. But I begin to wonder what else.

Mr Samuel’s in such a mess it’s hard to know where to start. He’s breathing, has a radial pulse, he’s only complaining of abdo pain, so at least it looks as if we might have a little time.
Rae goes back downstairs to fetch a chair, inco pads and blankets.
I fill a washing up bowl with warm soapy water and using a dishcloth make a rudimentary start at cleaning him up.
‘We’ll have to take you to hospital, Mr Samuels,’ I say as I slop him down. ‘Will your wife be okay on her own till the carers get here?’
‘I look after her.’
‘I know, but will she be all right for half an hour or so?’
He doesn’t seem sure. She has mobility problems, but self-mobilises with a frame. Nothing else diagnosed. They’re quite young to be needing care at home – both in their early seventies – but it’s impossible to know without studying the folder. I think that when Rae gets back I’ll have a quick scout around.

I’ve used another bowl of suds by the time Rae struggles in with the chair. I tip the foetid water down the toilet; the hospital will have to see to the rest.

With some difficulty we manage to lift Mr Samuels off the floor, wrapping him in several blankets. Once he’s up, the margin of time we have has shrunk. His breathing is more laboured, and he looks dreadful. There’s just time for me to stick my head round the bedroom door.
Mrs Samuels is lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling.
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘How are you doing?’
She turns her head to look at me but doesn’t say anything.
‘Your husband’s had a fall this morning. He’s not very well, so we’re going to take him to the hospital. We’ll just pop him down to the ambulance, then I’ll come back up and see you’re okay.’

She turns her head back, slowly, like she dreamed the whole thing.

I’m tempted to take them both in, just in case. But that would mean one of us coming back with the chair to deal with Mrs Samuels on her own, which is unthinkable, given all the obstacles. I consider calling out a second vehicle, but I delay making that decision until we’ve got Mr Samuels on the vehicle and started on some therapy. We struggle out of the flat around the mess.


Mr Samuels blood pressure has dropped. With his high temperature and tachycardia, it looks like he’s septic – so we set about correcting what we can. Once he’s relatively stable, I hurry back inside to make a final decision about his wife.
I knock and go in, picking my way around the mess.
But Mrs Samuels isn’t in bed. She’s got up, negotiated the hallway, made herself a cup of tea and is sitting watching breakfast news in the living room, smoking a cigarette.
‘All right?’ I say.
She turns to look at me with exactly the same expression as before.
‘Will you be okay until the carer gets here? They won’t be long.’
She stubs out her fag.

I have a quick glance around for a care folder, but if they have one it’s not immediately apparent. I’m conscious of the fact that Mr Samuels is very unwell down in the truck, so I can’t be long. I decide that as she’s been able to get herself out of bed, make some tea and smoke a cigarette, she’ll probably be all right on her own until the carer gets here. Surely if things were more serious, the care package would be more comprehensive, more obvious? I’ll report it to Control and hope for the best.
‘Just tell the carer your husband had to go to hospital,’ I tell her. ‘I’m sure they’ll be able to sort things out.’
She nods, picks up her tea, and turns back to the TV.

I see myself out.


After we’ve handed Mr Samuels over at the hospital, I mention the situation with his wife to one of the nurses. I don’t think she’s convinced there’s a problem, and saying it, neither am I. Mrs Samuels seemed quite self-sufficient. She’d managed to get out of bed, get herself some tea, put the TV on. A carer was due. The whole story sounds thin even to me. Maybe it’s just a function of my exhaustion, the fourth of four nights, the end of it all, a mess.

‘Anyway. Just thought I’d say.’

I hand in the paperwork, say goodbye.

We finish late.

The rush hour is in full flow. I don’t so much drive home as drift there on a river of metal.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

smiles / frowns

The church has been converted into a homeless shelter. Just inside the worn arched entrance, a smart Plexiglas security door with electronic key pad. Laminate steps into a blond-wood lobby, potted plants, counter like a smart hotel, a little backroom of monitors and screens, and remote control of the doors that lead left and right into the body of the place. A rack of donated, expiring sandwiches: Help yourself.
The only sense of the church around us are in certain features that have been left on show for architectural interest: a worn angel buttress, a limestone pillar, a stained glass window protected by a grille.
‘She’s sitting on a sofa.’
Buzzed through the door on the left.

Even though we’ve been told Jade is thirty, looking at her sitting there, her body wasted by years of drinking, face blurry and red, hair as sharp as a nylon wig, you can only trust she is actually that age; like the bad waxworks model of a celebrity, you only get it if you unfocus your eyes and think around the fact.
‘Why’ve we been called tonight, Jade?’
‘I feel like I’m going to fit.’


Even though Rae is extremely thorough in her examination, everything seems normal. Jade becomes more restless as the meeting goes on, changing her story to introduce other, non-specific complaints in a fishing kind of way, but Rae establishes that nothing acute has happened tonight. There are no worrying symptoms, nothing that needs urgent attention.
‘But I might fit,’ says Jade.
‘Well if that were to happen, the staff here can call us back. As it stands now, though, Jade, I’m struggling to think of a reason to take you up the hospital. Especially tonight, with it being so crowded. If we took everyone up who thought something was going to happen, you wouldn’t get in the door. It’s a job to get in the door as it is.’
‘I want to go on the detox.’
‘I think that’s a good thing to do,’ says Rae, quietly folding her steth away. ‘But that’s something you need to arrange through your GP, okay? Not at the hospital tonight.’

There’s another church feature on the wall just behind Jade: a broad commemorative mosaic, a group scene, Jesus seated in his robes, a child on his lap, a crowd of people around. Jesus is resting his right hand on the child’s head, reaching out to a kneeling woman on his left. There are sculpted trees around them, a sky in three kinds of blue, the whole scene vibrantly alive in the way that mosaics often are. It strikes me that you could put together a similar plaque for Rae, seated in green this time, a crowd of patients around her, some dressed in slacks and dirty tees, some in nicer things. But if you wanted to be true to the experience, you’d have to mix up the expressions on the faces as well as the clothes. You’d need some looking on gratefully, happily, relieved – and then just a couple, in the foreground maybe, or sat on a nearby wall, looking like Jade does now. But it might be too difficult in a mosaic. Maybe beatific smiles are easier to catch than frowns.
‘So you’re not taking me?’
‘No, Jade. You don’t need to go. But there’s nothing to stop you taking yourself up there if you really want to go to hospital tonight.’
We stand to go.
She calls to us just before the door closes.
‘What am I supposed to do then?’
‘Get some rest,’ says Rae, gently. ‘Just – rest.’

A dark figure is smoking outside under the security lights. Smoke billows around him, drawn up by the thermal action of the lights. Just for a moment it looks like he’s falling, a devil on fire, spiralling into the earth. But if he is, he’s pretty sanguine about it.
‘Busy?’ he says, tapping the ash to one side.
‘You know.’

The cab of the ambulance feels good and warm.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

cocktail for one

It’s late, and the last customer is hurrying out of the door of the takeaway with her food. She’s followed not long after by the man who served her, carrying a big black bag of trash that he tosses without looking into the paladin just outside. He wipes his hands on his apron and glances at us as we stand waiting outside the neighbouring door, then goes back inside, flipping the ‘Closed’ sign behind him.

Rae raps the knocker one more time.

Finally, just as we’re wondering what to do next, the glass above the door lights up, and a moment later a young woman is standing in front of us.
‘Are you the patient?’ says Rae.
She nods.
‘Do you want to come out to the vehicle?’ says Rae. ‘Have you got everything you need? It’s cold tonight. What about a coat?’
The woman touches the sweatshirt tied round her waist.
‘This’ll be fine,’ she says.
She follows us onto the truck.

Meg is twenty. Even though it’s freezing tonight, she’s just wearing a Goth-black singlet and jeans. She has an intricate tattoo on her shoulder, a burlesque figure, with roses and lilies trailing down the forearm, almost hiding the puckered stripes where she cut herself with a razor tonight.
‘We were told you took some pills too. Is that right, Meg?’
She nods, and reaches down into her bag, pulling out a bundle of empty packets.
‘Have you taken all of these?’
She smiles and nods, her hennaed hair mussed and tumbling over her face.
‘Why did you take these tablets, Meg? What did you want to happen?’
She shrugs.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I just took them.’
‘I’m sorry to ask you these questions, Meg, but we need to be clear. Did you want to kill yourself tonight?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘And did you call the ambulance?’
She nods, and apologises whilst I put the BP cuff round her good arm.
‘Sorry it’s cold,’ I say.
‘That’s okay.’
‘So I’m guessing that because you called the ambulance you changed your mind about killing yourself. Is that right?’
She nods.
‘Good. I’m glad you did, Meg. Because now we can start getting you some help. Talking of which, I’ve got this lovely black milkshake...’ She shakes the activated charcoal up and down like a cocktail waitress in a bar. ‘It’ll start neutralising the tablets whilst we get you to hospital. I can’t promise it’ll taste all that good, but it’s important you drink it down. At least it’ll give you some interesting teeth.’
Meg smiles, and hugs herself when I take the cuff off.
‘There,’ says Rae, unscrewing the cap and handing her the bottle.
Meg takes it in her hand, puts it to her nose, gives it a sniff. Then she offers it to Rae.
‘Want some?’ she says.

Friday, January 10, 2014

space cowboys

A waxing moon hangs low over town in a sky finally clear of rain.

‘Set the controls,’ I say to Max, settling lower into my seat and folding my arms, ‘the Sea of Tranquillity.’

‘I saw this film about the moon once,’ says Max, one hand lightly on the steering wheel with the insouciance of a twelve year old in a stolen truck. He glances sideways to see if I'm still awake.

‘Space Cowboys. You should see it. It’s about these four geriatric pilots. Apparently they’re supposed to be famous actors, but I've never heard of them. Anyway, it turns out they all used to fly with the United States Air Force, and then worked on space stations after that, until eventually it all gets too much and they retire. The thing is, there’s this Russian satellite that’s going to crash back to earth, but then it turns out that the Russians loaded it up with nuclear weapons in the Cold War. But now they don’t have the rockets to go up and sort it out. So they ask the Americans to help, and it turns out the only people who still know about the old guidance systems are these four geriatric airmen. So they all go up and try to fix the controls so it’ll fly off and explode in space. But there’s some kind of problem which means someone has to sit on the satellite and steer it manually. Luckily it turns out one of the old astronauts has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, so he says he’ll go. So they leave him on the satellite and he heads off to the moon, because he always wanted to go there. And at the end you see his body crash-landed on the moon, looking back at the earth. You should see it. It’s amazing.’

Monday, January 06, 2014


Mr Baxter and his son, Michael, stand shoulder to shoulder. Unblinking, they lean forward together, peering into my face like I’m a ghost that’s materialised in the dim red hallway.
‘She’s been in bed a good while,’ says Mr Baxter. ‘The doctor said on the phone he wants her in.’
‘Mum’s got a lot of problems,’ says Michael. ‘A lot. And now she’s not eating or drinking.’
‘Let’s go up and see her, shall we?’
‘Mind the carpet.’

The whole house feels slack, a rotten hush about it.

‘To the left,’ says Michael, too close behind me on the stairs.
Into a cluttered bedroom, the wardrobe right up against the door so you can only open it half way and squeeze in sideways.
Cloyingly sweet air. Mrs Baxter on a double bed.
‘She can’t talk much,’ says Mr Baxter, standing at the foot of the bed. ‘But I can tell you everything you need to know.’
‘Has the doctor been out?’
‘No. He did it on the phone.’
‘And what did he say?’
‘He wants her in.’
She certainly needs to go. Sepsis, and whatever else. She’s in poor condition, her long hair dragged in filthy strands across her scalp.
‘How does she make it to the toilet?’
‘She doesn’t. She’s got pads.’
‘Does she have carers?’
‘No. What happens if she fills her pads and they’ve just gone out the door? If I do it, I’m here all the time.’
‘That makes sense.’
Except the lack of contact has meant Mrs Baxter has fallen off the radar somewhat.
‘We’ll need to get the chair in somehow.’
‘Mind the carpet,’ says Michael.


It is a struggle to get Mrs Baxter out, but we make every movement, every little rearrangement of furniture as slow and calm as we can. Between Rae and I we keep up a bland commentary: Now the blanket. That’s it. We’ll just make a little hood here. To keep you snug, because it’s been so windy today. There. Great. Now if you could just... lovely. The whole time Mr Baxter and his son watching us carefully, too close in front, too close behind, breathing through slack mouths.

If I could just get a little room there, Michael. Fine. That’s great.

As we’re setting the chair down at the bottom of the stairs, I notice what’s on the wall opposite. An old display case with a tableau of stuffed animals – a snake with its tail round a mouse. The snake’s fangs flare; the mouse strains forward with its paws.

We’ll just need to swing out a little so we can clear that step. Brilliant. Thank you.

It’s great to be outside. The air is so fresh.


Once Mrs Baxter is safely on the ambulance trolley and we’ve concluded a round of obs, I head back to the house to get a contact number. Neither Mr Baxter nor his son are coming with us; Mr Baxter can’t leave the house, Michael has work in the morning.
‘I hope that’s all right,’ he says, the two of them standing together in the hallway as before.
‘Of course. Whatever suits. It’s late anyway. You’re better off ringing in the morning to see how things are. If I could just get that number off you...’
Whilst I’m writing it down, there’s a movement from deep inside the house. An elderly woman appears, loping up from the shadowy interior, heading for the stairs. She pauses, and turns to look at me as she puts her hand on the rail. One of her eyes is completely white.
‘Hello!’ I say.
She gives me a pained kind of smile, like the rictus on the mouse in the case, then turns and trudges up the stairs.

Mr Baxter closes the door.

Sunday, January 05, 2014


‘Another interesting fact about the sperm whale,’ says Cory, yawning, leaning back against the metal of the pissiliferous lift as it rattles us up to the top floor. ‘They don’t eat plankton, like your normal whale. They eat giant squid. Which sounds more like the kind of thing a whale should be eating. But they can’t digest the beak, you see. So to ease its passage, it gets covered in this protective gunk called ambergris. So then the sperm whale does his business, swims on, the shit gets rolled around in the surf, and if you’re lucky enough to find any on the beach you can sell it for a thousand pounds because it turns out it’s an expensive ingredient in perfume making.’
‘That sounds about right. Don’t they use secretions from some anal gland somewhere? A Musk? Is that right?’
‘What’s a musk?’
‘I don’t know. Some kind of rat?’
‘I think there’s been some musk in here recently.’

The door opens.
The automatic landing lights flicker on.
The storm is getting worse. It moans beyond the black of the opposite window, hurling sudden fistfuls of rain like gravel against the glass.

Mrs Adams’ door is unlocked. Cory knocks. We walk in.
Hello? Ambulance?
A light on in the room at the end of the hallway. Mrs Adams, shouting into her phone, no doubt to Control.
‘...Now you listen to me. My sheets are wet through and I want them changed. Do you understand? It’s simple enough. Who are you exactly? Hmm? What are you saying? .. I’m not interested in your stupid questions. What have they got to do with anything? I’ve told you what I want and fail to see where the problem lies...’
The phone is so big it makes her seem small, its buttons so big you could put it on the floor and dance the number out. But I’m guessing Mrs Adams’ dancing days are over, these past seventy years or more. She is sitting in a saggy old armchair, her shoulders and lap heaped up with an assortment of shawls, crocheted throws, jumpers – all this despite the fact that the room is so hot even an orchid grower would faint.
‘Who are these people coming?’ she says. ‘Perhaps they’ll know.’
I introduce us and ask if I can speak to the person on the phone. She grumbles, and thrusts the handset in my direction.
‘It’s the ambulance,’ I tell Control, smiling at Mrs Adams, who ignores me, and irritably plucks at her clothes.
‘Good luck,’ they say, and hang up.

I put the phone aside and crouch down in front of her.
Cory tries to find a care folder.
‘Hello Mrs Adams. What seems to be the matter?’
‘Oh don’t you start,’ she says. ‘Look – this is wet through. Can you sort this out for me, please? I don’t know how I’m supposed to sleep like this.’
‘Hang on a second. Let’s just take a minute to find out what the problem is,’ I say, bundling the blanket up and putting it aside.
‘Don’t do that!’ she says. ‘Why are you doing that? How on earth is it supposed to dry if you just screw it up like that and drop it on the floor? I thought you were here to help me, but you’re not, you’re just making things worse.’
‘We’re an ambulance crew, Mrs Adams. We need to reassure ourselves that you’re okay. Your job is to stay as calm as you can and try to tell us what the matter is.
‘I’ve told you what the matter is. My sheets are wet through, my bed is damp, I’ve got a sore throat and I need to get this sorted. Now look...’
‘So you have a sore throat? Do you have pain anywhere else?’
‘Pick that blanket up and hang it on a radiator, would you? And look – I’m all undraped. I’m going to freeze.’

The fact that it’s half past three in the morning doesn’t help, but I have the fevered impression that I’ve blundered into the burrow of some crotchety old mouse. The walls of the burrow are covered in a crude mosaic of postcards and pictures cut from magazines, pictures of actresses from the twenties and thirties, cupid bow smiles, faerie poses, Laurel and Hardy in rabbit costumes, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Mrs Adams at the centre of the burrow, raging, covered in leaves. A huge cardboard sign propped up on a little bookcase covered in dusty books: Patricia in shaky black pen, and a telephone number.

‘When are you going to do something?’ she says. ‘Don’t touch that! Now what have you done?’

What little checks she allows us to make don’t point to anything serious.
Just as we’re starting on a new approach to find out what the matter could be, the phone rings.
‘Hello? Steven? Thank goodness. I’m sorry to ring you like this but I was at my wits’ end. My blankets are soaked through and I’m absolutely wretched with it. There are some people here who want to speak to you. Just a moment.’
She hands me the phone.
I introduce myself. It turns out Steven is Mrs Adams’ son, in Miami.
Hi there, Spence. Thank you so much for coming out tonight to see my mother. Now Spence. The thing is, my mother is terribly independent and has a hard time accepting help from anybody, apart from Patricia, an old family friend, and even Patricia gets the run around. The thing is, Spence, my mother has always had a flair for the dramatic, shall we say, and it’s not anything that’s been improved with age. She also tends to get a little freaked out whenever she has a cold, which is what she has at the moment. It appears tonight as if she’s become worried about a certain level of dampness in her bedclothes. Is that correct?
- So she says, but to be honest, Steven, they don’t feel at all damp to me.
Okay. Yes. Well. Could you do me a huge favour, Spence?
- Of course.
Who did you say you worked for again?
- The ambulance service.
Okay, fine. Good. Now then Spence. Could you go down to your ambulance and bring up a change of clothes, Spence? Blankets, sheets, that kind of thing? Even if you don’t think hers are all that damp? Because I think the gesture might be enough to calm her down. Could you do that for me, Spence?
- We’ll certainly do what we can to see she’s okay.
I do appreciate that, Spence. Thank you so much. Now, I wonder if I could have a quick word with mother again before I go?
I hand him back.

Whilst she’s talking to him I go over to the little camp bed she has set up in the room, just to see if that’s damp at all, or the sheets need changing. Without taking the phone away from her mouth she shouts across at me: ‘Oh now look what he’s doing! Don’t fiddle with that! You’re making a mess.’
She forgets about Steven on the phone, angrily pulling her coverings  about her, cursing and tutting. I say goodbye to Steven properly, reassuring him that we’ll do what we can, and hang up.
‘Pass me the phone’ says Mrs Adams. ‘I need to talk to the Actors’ Benevolent Society.’
‘The who?’
‘The Actors’ Benevolent Society. If it’s any of your business. I have an important message for them.’
‘Couldn’t it wait? It’s half past three in the morning.’
‘They have answer machines. Now look, stop making a dreadful mess of things and hand me the phone.’
She jabs out a directory enquiries number, and almost immediately launches into an argument with the operator.
‘It’s in London!’ she shouts. ‘London! Unless it’s moved.’
But then, incredibly, it seems as if they may have put her through. The tone of her voice changes, quite markedly. She stops grabbing at the shawls and throws, and starts stroking them instead, in an abstracted, genteel way, like she’s stroking some particularly fine needlework she’s proud of.
‘Oh hello, ‘ she simpers. ‘Mrs Adams here. I just wanted to phone to offer my sincerest congratulations to Penelope. Penelope Keith, that is. Dame Penelope. I just wanted to say many congratulations, Penelope. And not before time.’
She leans forward and leers into the mouthpiece.
Very well done. She’s achieved such a lot. Long may she reign. It’s not an accolade I would seek for myself, particularly, I have to say. But some people set such a lot of store by these things, and it would be churlish of me to say more. Anyway, I just wanted to add my congratulations, and to say if you would like a donation to your benevolent fund, then do let me know, and I’ll send you a little cheque. Goodbye.’
She hands me the phone.
‘Were you an actress?’ I ask her.
‘An actress? My dear, anyone who can stand up straight and string two words together can work in rep. Now will you stop all this messing about and do what I have asked you do to do?’

I carry on writing out the paperwork whilst Cory has a go at reassuring Mrs Adams that actually everything is fine. He’s much better at it than I am, absorbing her fury, smoothing it over, settling her down. By the time I’ve finished she’s even talking about making a donation to the ambulance benevolent fund.
‘If you have such a thing,’ she sniffs. ‘Now then, where’s the phone? I’m going to call Patricia.’

Friday, January 03, 2014

porridge is good for you

Mr Wiltshire’s house feels more like the crowded hold of a tramp steamer. There are boxes of records and CDs stacked precariously around the place; boldly-marked folders bulging with leaflets and articles and letters;  full bags tied off at the handle; clothes hanging from the picture rail, and up on the landing, a tall wooden ladder lashed with clothes line to the handrail.
‘I’ll just sit myself down here if you don’t mind,’ says Mr Wiltshire after opening the door to us.
‘Oof!’ he says, lowering himself onto the steps. ‘My word. That does hurt there. Now – I have had some attention already, from your colleagues and from the doctors and nurses up at the hospital. They ran all their tests and I must say they were pretty comprehensive.  I was on the Clinical Decision Unit for a couple of days after the fall. They took X-rays, blood tests, urine dips – you name it. Yes – uh, uh, uh – a most comprehensive series of investigations. And the end result of all their shenanigans was a diagnosis of a possible cracked rib. Now – they discharged me as I say, after a couple of days, with some pain relief and some advice. I was all right at first, but I have to admit I’ve just felt more and more pain there, until this morning I couldn’t even make myself breakfast. I mean, how tragic is that? Starting the day without my cup of tea and my bowl of porridge? I used to have cereal but I find now I need that extra boost.’

Mr Wiltshire is ninety-four. As a young man he’d fought for his life at the Battle of the Bulge; now, seventy years later, even without his porridge, he’d still be an asset.

‘I know you think there’s a lot of clutter about the place and of course you’re absolutely right, there is. But let me tell you something and I know you’ll think it a terrible digression but there’s a reason for it as you’ll no doubt see. Now, I’m sure you’ve seen those things advertised: Get your home insulated for free. Lofts, pipes, that sort of thing. Well of course I had already insulated these things myself. Not particularly beautiful, you understand, but perfectly functional, and my pipes never froze, not even in the harshest conditions. Now then, as I say, I saw this leaflet and I thought: Hm. Buckshee. Can’t harm to look. So I contacted the agency responsible and I said I was game if they were. Well – they came round, and I must say they were a thoroughly nice and professional operation. Hm  they said, opening cupboards and whatnot, and shimmying up the ladder into the loft. Hm. We can do a lot to help you they said. About a week later it was all done, and they did a proper bang-up job, I can tell you. But there was this one unforeseen complication, you see. They’d lain all the insulating foam right across the rafters, so I couldn’t see where to put my feet! And now I can’t put my records and papers back up there, because they’ll just come straight through the ceiling!’


We arrange for someone to come round to assess his pain meds and living conditions. One of his neighbours has already popped round to make breakfast.
‘No sugar, please, Bet,’ he says. ‘Treacle, if you have it. I need that little something extra.’
We settle him into his favourite chair in the sitting room, surrounded by all his boxes.
‘I know it’s all a bit much but I just can’t throw music away,’ he says, taking some tea. ‘I’ve got some pretty racy stuff, you know. Stuff the BBC banned.
He closes his eyes and sings a few verses from a George Formby song: I’ve gone and lost my little yo-yo.
‘You knew what he was really singing about,’ says Mr Wiltshire, opening his eyes again. ‘And so did the BBC, of course. Oh yes, lots of good stuff. If I could only put my hand to it. The trouble is, I must admit it’s getting in the way. That’s why I fell, you know. Arse over kettle on the landing. At least I didn’t go all the way down the stairs, which would’ve been worse.’

And he tucks into his porridge.