I had burnt the dinner again. There was no time for a cover up as the acrid smell of burnt meat wove its way through the kitchen and into the lounge, desperate to tell tales on me.
He marched into the kitchen and looked from the scalded pan in the sink, to me. Old injuries started to throb, his gaze making them remember. Aching ribs and bruised eyes.
I reached for the phone on the wall.
With shaking hands I dialled 111 and asked for the police.
“No,” he growls.
“No,” I say. Stronger this time. It had only been seconds, but I willed the wail of sirens to surround me.
“My pager’s beeped.”
“No! Not today.” Anika turned to face him, the toddler’s fat ankles caught in her left hand. “Pass the wipes?” The room was airless, her body too heavy for kneeling, and the baby inside her kicked in protest. “Can’t someone else?”
“I’ve checked; they need negotiators.”
“Please, not you. The baby’s low — I’m scared it’ll be today.”
“I have to; they need me.”
She finished the nappy change and stood her son on his feet. “What is it?”
“A guy threatening to harm his child.” Her husband juggled his keys. “Could your Mum help?”
“Yes.” Anika touched his arm. “My family’s here, you go and help. Be safe.”
The client is still on the line when my hands start shaking uncontrollably.
We are very close, I repeat.
No response, just the sound of sobbing. It takes a long time to get to these rural areas.
I can almost see her lying on the cupboard floor, lit by the blue of her phone, listening.
I sit on my hands and vow to stop drinking coffee. My face is hot. My heart is pounding.
I ask the client to breathe with me. She does — in, out.
I pause, wiggle one headphone away from my head and lean forward.
Something drips onto the keyboard, warm and clear. These are not my tears.
She hesitated on the doorstep. Hands sweaty, she wiped them down the sides of her perfectly-pressed trousers. She removed her hat, slotted it under her arm, and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
This was her first one. Two years into the job, her boss had told her she was ready. But can you ever really be ready?
Stomach sinking. A deep breath. She lifted the heavy brass knocker, aiming for gentle beckoning rather than a thud of doom. Behind, in the hall, shuffling then the metallic click of locks. The instant look of concern induced by her uniform.
“Mrs Wilson? I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
A first, all the ambulance crew can see are two strips of rubber snaking down the highway and disappearing over a bank. Down the hillside, torchlight picks out a car steaming and creaking against a tree.
Crew members scramble down.
The tree has won this argument. Paint flakes off twisted metal. Beads of glass glisten like glowworms amongst the bush. A dark form lies hunched over the steering wheel.
They expect the worst, but then a slight movement gives them hope. Heartbeats race. A door is wrenched open.
A blood-covered man tilts his head back, spits out two teeth.
“Where’s my phone gone? Was just texting the missus I’m nearly home.”
There was no time. There were no seconds. Only force, air, tarmac. Pain, light, dark.
I am upside down. I am falling. I am spinning. I am inert.
I am sick. A hand on my shoulder. A voice. Voices. I gather fragments.
“Call an ambulance.”
“Where’s the car?”
“What’s your name?”
“Harry.” And that’s me, and it’s all I can muster before I turn and I hurl.
And the pain is a thousand knives in my abdomen.
And there are sirens.
But who will tell him?
Thumb-swiper, validator. Nice one. Six connections. Four interests.
Who will tell him? The café on the corner, that’s where.
Arms, stretcher, elevation. Slam, shut, black.
Barbara brandished her new Gold Card as she caught the 10 am train to town. Stepping onto the platform, she tripped and fell. With a loud crack, her ankle snapped beneath her. A crowd gathered.
“Call an ambulance. Dial 111,” someone shouted.
“Don’t look at your foot,” urged another. It stuck out at right angles like the wing of a roast chicken.
“What’s the pain out of 10?” asked the paramedic, lifting her onto a stretcher.
The ambulance driver called ahead to A and E. “We are on our way with an elderly lady on board,” he said.
“Poor thing,” muttered Barbara as the siren started up. “I hope she’s okay.”
It was quick, unexpected, and painful. Jim writhed as ambulance staff worked to examine him.
“I suspect your appendix is infected. You will need further tests at the hospital.”
Expletive laden groans escaped as they eased the stretcher through the hallway.
The siren faded, leaving a compelling quietness. This was not the time for indecision.
“Wake up girls, we have places to be.”
I paid for petrol with cash I found in his wallet. With the car now full, the prospect of free choice was intoxicating.
“Are we going home, mummy?”
“No we aren’t. See up there, we’re going to follow that star. Anyone know a good song about stars?”
Meet Frances. She’s feisty, friendly and can bench-press more than you. She’s grinning, the way a woman does when she knows how to lay her hands on an axe.
Next to her: Amber. Calmer than her sister, more outgoing than her brother (he’s just to her right). If she told you everything was going to be okay, you’d believe her.
Paul’s the tallest. He has a high tolerance for beer and a low tolerance for tempers. His dad always said he looked good in blue.
They’re triplets. Their mother was astonished.
That’s their big sister, Debs, the one at the end. She’s a funeral director.
The black sheep, you could say.
Pile upon pile. Blue jeans, denim-hard and crunchy. A red sweater, unravelling. Trackies, black-fleeced.
Add silver trainers, white-laced.
White business shirt, pristine-creased. Fanta-orange tie. A Warehouse T-shirt, ginger fur sprinkled.
Work overalls, darkest of grey, two pairs of dress trousers, one nut-brown, the other, creamy-fudge.
Arms and legs, intermingled. Like her and Ethan, once upon a time.
Higher and higher it grows. A tower of sad love, discarded dreams.
Ellen flicks the lighter close, sees fingers of red circle his jeans, slowly lick the sweater, rush to the T-shirt.
She waits. Now a furnace of lost innocence, out of control. She draws the phone from her pocket, dials 111.