I’m standing in the bus shelter on Union Street, and the number twenty-three has been ‘due in two minutes’ for the last five minutes. People troop past on the pavement; hoods up or heads down or fighting with umbrellas. Alone together in the shelter, we happy few peer through the drizzled glass and check our watches. A splinter of Leonard Cohen is stuck in my head: Suzanne.
Someone shoves me from behind. I grab the strap of the computer bag that’s slung from my shoulder and put a hand against the glass to stop me falling forwards. I twist around and there’s mousey permed hair in my face; dry and brittle, like my mother’s used to be. I wait for the woman to push herself back off me, but she begins to slip down.
The mobile phone chatter has stopped. Everyone’s staring at us and someone asks, Are you okay? but they mean her. The woman’s legs give way and I catch her before her head hits the pavement. People crowd in: Is she okay? / Is she with you, mister? / She’s dead / What’s wrong with her?
Buggered if I know. Why do they all have to speak at once? And why to me? I kneel beside her and turn her onto her back. I learned CPR long ago, when I was a police officer, but I’m not sure if I can still remember it. I fumble at her neck, feeling for a pulse. She flinches at the touch of my cold fingers and the warmth of her breath brushes the back of my hand. It’s all an act – a distraction.
I look around for her thieving accomplice. An evil-eyed, shaven-headed youth looks me in the face. Gotcha. But then he pulls off his sweatshirt and hands it to me. ‘You could put this under her head,’ he says. Stripped to the waist, he’s whip-thin and covered in tattoos; prison ink. If he’s a pickpocket or a snatch-and-run thief, he’s got a lot to learn about being inconspicuous.
I bundle up the sweatshirt and put it under the victim’s head. No, not ‘victim’ – ‘patient’. She’s fiftyish and slightly built; her face slack and sallow – tired-looking – her eyes shut. My police years come tumbling back and I can’t be bothered with this. I should go, but I’d have to push through the crowd and it would look as if I was abandoning her. I feel the old pressure to take responsibility, or at least look as though I am.
We should get her up / She’s okay. Give her a minute / Did somebody call an ambulance?
A woman kneels on the other side and takes the patient’s hand. I think what nice hands she has – the woman, not the patient. She wears her rings like my wife did, with the wedding ring at the bottom and the engagement one higher up so she can take it off when needs be. That’s the rule, isn’t it? The wedding ring stays on forever. Mine’s at home in a drawer.
The kneeling woman says, ‘Can you squeeze my fingers?’ The patient doesn’t respond. ‘Can you squeeze?’ Nothing. ‘Can you speak?’ Nothing. I should say about the faking but I’d look a total twat if it turned out I was wrong.
Maybe it’s a fit. What if she’s epileptic? / She’s no shakin’
‘I’m epileptic,’ I say, ‘and I don’t shake.’
‘People don’t, necessarily,’ says the woman at the other side of the patient. ‘I’m Suzanne,’ she tells me. ‘I’m a nurse. Let’s take this away.’ She removes the sweatshirt, hands it back to its owner, and rests the woman’s head on the pavement. ‘It’ll be easier for her to breath with her head back.’
There’s a momentary confusion of familiarity and light-headedness, and I think of the song and close my eyes and wait. The lifting wave and the bright sherbet-lemon light don’t come; I’m anchored by the calm of Suzanne’s husky voice, though I can’t focus on what she’s saying. I open my eyes and she’s still there.
Aye, here’s the boys / She’s collapsed.
Blue lights are flashing and two paramedics push through the crowd. ‘Did anybody see what…?’, but then they’re looking down at the patient and one of them says, ‘Jenny, is it? Did we not see to you last week? I’m pretty sure it was this same bus stop. We’ll have to sort things out, eh?’ His voice is calm and authoritative. Obviously, this woman has a medical history. Why do I always have to think the worst?
I stand and make way as the paramedics kneel beside her. ‘Is it a stroke?’ I ask. One of them looks up for a moment but then carries on taking her blood pressure. I suppose it’s none of my business. Time to leave. The bus indicator says that the next number twenty-three is in twenty-three minutes. The ‘due’ one’s been and gone.
Suzanne, sees me looking at the indicator and smiles. She’s thirty-two and the familiar smile is lovely; her make-up careful and precise; her long fair hair in a loose French-pleat, drawn forwards over her left shoulder. She’s pretty, elegant, and not over-stated. She wears a black leather bomber jacket over tight black jeans and ankle boots with heels.
‘How long was she out? Sir?’ The paramedic is talking to me. ‘How long was she out?’
‘I’m not sure she was. It was five or six minutes maybe – not long.’
‘Thanks.’ I’m dismissed.
I hear Suzanne say, ‘How lonely do you have to be for this to happen?’ She’s talking about the collapsed woman. Isn’t she? I’m distracted by a hint of citrus-spicy perfume and finally the wave rolls in under my feet and lifts me into the bright sherbet-lemon.
The rush of exhilaration lasts only a moment. I’m released and Suzanne has gone. I try to find a trace of her perfume in the air, but that’s gone too. The splinter’s still here though. It hurts.