Even before we saw him we were late. We had guests coming and we needed to clean the flat. It was Friday evening. We walked, hands clasped, towards St Paul’s Church; the church clock, hands clasping, said it was coming up for six thirty already. They were going to be here at seven.
B saw him, sitting on the bench in the square just away from the church door. A hoodie, a thin jacket, some tracksuit bottoms.
“What’s he doing?” B said.
He was slouched forward, head bowed. Like he was asleep, but he was leaned so far so forward, he couldn’t have been. A sleeping man would have fallen.
“Don’t know. Drunk I guess.”
We were about ten metres away when he slumped forward. He made no attempt to protect himself. He ended up kneeling, weight resting on his forehead. His arms hung uselessly, one either side. Ridiculously, his arse stuck up in the air.
“What should we do?”
I didn’t know.
So he wasn’t totally unconscious. A good sign. I crouched beside him, keeping B behind. You heard stories about drunks getting aggressive; I didn’t want her to get involved. I didn’t want to get involved either, but here we were.
“Hello? Are you alright?”
The stupid questions we come out with in unfamiliar moments. I nudged his shoulder. No reaction. “Can you get yourself up?”
“Be careful” B said.
“Don’t worry. He’s in no state.”
He was belly down with his hood tight around his head so I couldn’t see his face. If this wasn’t unconsciousness, it was a good impression.
“Come on mate, you can’t sleep here.”
I stood back from him. What to do.
The church clock chimed for the half hour.
What to do. Fucking selfish. Can’t you see I have things to do?
We can’t leave him. I want to leave him.
We can’t leave him.
There is cleaning to do. I hate cleaning.
I can’t leave him.
I stood up. “Look” I said. “We can’t leave him here. You go on ahead. I’ll follow as soon as I can.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to call for help. The police station is round the corner, there’s probably a guy on the beat who can help.”
B looked unsure. “I’ll wait with you.”
“Please, go back to the flat. We can’t both wait here. It’ll be fine.”
She wasn’t happy but before she had chance to say anything more, I ended the discussion by dialling the operator. I got a glare but she walked away. I felt relieved. I couldn’t say how much of the relief was due to her being safely away from the drunk, or because she would be able to make a start on the tidying.
I went through directory enquiries through to the central police station, then to the local police station. After explaining the situation, at length, twice, I gave up.
I called for an ambulance.
I explain that my girlfriend and I have come across a man on our way home. Looks unconscious. No, we haven’t met him before. He looks drunk. Maybe- and it is only now I think it-maybe it’s drugs. No I don’t know his name, we found him walking home.
A paramedic is on the way. Two minutes. Does he have anything with him?
There is a bag on the bench.
Yes. A bag. It’s open.
I look in the bag. Before I even see them I know this is heroin, and he is overdosing. Don’t put your hand in. What’s that?
They look like contact lenses in their plastic wrappers. A couple are loose near the top of the bag. Don’t put your hand in.
I pick one up. A metal foil spoon, for cooking up the drug. They must give them away at the clinics, like they give condoms to teenagers.
“It’s heroin,” I say. I realise I’m concerned that I sound too knowledgeable, like I know all about this. As if it matters.
As we talk I realise there is a woman, and a man beside me. They want to help too. We stand in a triangle protecting our find and I relay instructions.
Yes, recovery position yes. Yes grab his hands, turn him, yes clockwise, yes, one two three…
He’s been sick. Bright orange on grey paving. Perhaps he’s been drinking lucozade.
We stand up, we stand back. A good job. He is smeared in sick now. The least of his worries.
His face as grey as the paving stones. Mid twenties? His face looks old. Light brown skin behind greyness.
Heroin overdose. Well. What to do now. I still have the phone to my ear, they are still talking. Professional. Unsung.
What to do now?
Nothing. Nothing we can do. Wait. The clock above us ticking time away. Paramedic here any moment now.
Time seems to be running slow today.
This is the longest two minutes ever.
Finally I see the blue light. I wave.
Has he seen me? No. Where’s he going?
Ah yes. The one way.
He has seen us. I say goodbye to the voice on the phone. Thank you, thank you. He drives the bike over into the square. A clean machine. He is all bustle. He leaves the light flashing and removes his medical bag from the bike’s equipment box.
He isn’t wasting any time. I repeat what I told the lady on the phone. He listens but is always moving.
“What have you had, mate?” He has a torch and shines it in the man’s eyes. No response. He goes to the bag and empties it onto the ground. A few coins, a sweater that is little more than rags, some papers, spoons, syringes, a plastic bag of something.
The paramedic is moving fast, speaking instructions into his radio headset at the same time. An ambulance is on the way.
“Help me move him,” says the paramedic.
We help him shift the man again, onto his back. Sick everywhere.
So much equipment. He’s looking for something. Scissors. He slices up the sleeve. Oh dear. His only jacket.
Back into the bag. Another syringe. Quick, careful. Into his arm.
Back to the bike. A gas canister and face mask. Oxygen.
He puts the mask over the man’s face and sets the oxygen going. He watches. Something is wrong.
The man does not appear to be breathing.
“Come on,” he says. A different tone. Back to the bike. He gets a rubber tube. It is wide in diameter and terracotta coloured. “Come on.”
The man is not breathing.
Suddenly time seems to be running very quickly.
I should have called sooner. How much time did I waste before I rang the ambulance. A minute? Two?
What is he doing? He inserts the tube into the man’s nose. It won’t go in. I realise I am holding my breath.
He has to try and ease it in with what appears to be vaseline.
Come on. Come on.
The tube is well in when the man splutters. He wakes up.
The paramedic moves back, gives him space.
“Easy. Welcome back.”
“It’s ok man, I’m not the police. You’re not in trouble.”
The man says something, but it doesn’t make much sense. He has curled away. Trying to stand.
“Sit down minute. I’m not the police …”
He’s desperately trying to stand, but can’t get his balance. A tortoise on its back, circling round.
“Now that’s not very nice, is it, when people are trying to help you.”
The Paramedic leans over him. “These people called for an ambulance for you. You overdosed. You weren’t breathing.”
The sound of retching, then drips of vomit onto stone.
For about the first time since he arrived, the paramedic looks up. A sense of calm returning. The crisis has passed. “He’ll be alright now. The ambulance lads will be here in a minute.”
We must have looked doubtful. “Oh don’t worry, he won’t get anywhere. It’ll wear off in a minute.”
“It wears off?”
“Yes. He needs more. This will last him until he gets to the hospital. I could give him more, but he would just get aggressive and we wouldn’t be able to stop him from going. It sounds harsh, but he’d just wander off, and when he stopped breathing there probably wouldn’t be anybody to call the ambulance.”
“Lemego….I’m alright, alright…”
We all stand there watching down over him. The paramedic is right; he’s going nowhere. The drug has done just enough to keep him ticking over.
“Do you get many?” the girl says. “Like this, I mean?”
“All the time” he says. He doesn’t sound bothered at all. “A good night’s when you get there in time.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” she says.
We all stand there watching, under the old church clock. We know we can go now, the danger has passed, but we will wait.
We will wait for another ten minutes or so, watching a man we don’t know, splayed on the ground, too weak to stand, next to an emptied bag of rags. We will stand there watching as the ambulance finally arrives, making a slow spin around the square. We will wait as the ambulancemen take their merry time to get the stretcher and trundle it across to where we stand. They will refill his bag and carefully strap him onto the stretcher and the ambulance will go, light flashing, as the bells of the church ring. Then we will go our separate ways. I will go home to where B has half-tidied the flat and our guests are arriving, and I will tell them my exciting little story. Later we will go out to the bars of the city centre and we will get drunk and forget a little, just like every other Friday night. On Sunday morning it will be just B and I, and it will be unseasonally sunny, and we will go, clasping hands, to the Rosevillas for a roast lunch, next to the old clock that commemorates old Joseph Chamberlain and that was paid for by him too, and after ordering my roast beef I will pop over to the Tesco Local opposite for a paper and as I come out there he will be, and I will watch him walking in clean clothes, jauntily waving a golf umbrella of all things, and with a great big smile, and to my surprise he will head straight into the Rosevillas, and I will follow but he won’t be in the bar, of course he won’t, he will have gone to shoot up in the toilets, and I will get a sense of things of starting all over, repeating in endless waves, over and over and over, but what else could I expect, and I won’t be able to relax until I go into the toilets and wait for him again, washing my hands, washing, washing, until he comes out of the cubicle, whistling, and he will walk past me and out the door and I will watch him walking down the street, past the clock, the umbrella swinging in his hand, the umbrella tip ticking its steady rhythm on the paving, that soft click that says everything is fine and ticking over, click, click, click, and it will be that umbrella that always stays in my mind, that and the question how has he got it, the umbrella, because he didn’t have it on Friday evening, and why does he have a golf umbrella of all things on such a sunny day, an umbrella when he doesn’t even have a proper coat, yes, that will be the thing above everything else that will strike me as odd afterwards.