Immediately upon hearing the kafuffle, Chris and Brian bolted out of the station and dashed towards the benches. The women were in a terrible state. Ellen Mountford had her arms around young Bess, who was white-faced and trembling like an autumn leaf. Behind them, sobbing on Eileen Finnigan's shoulder, was Diane Pearce. Eileen herself shed unchecked tears as she watched Carrie Smith being led away by Doris.
Brian could only imagine, taking account of Fred Smith's recent weight gain and his exceptionally red cheeks that he must have suffered a heart attack. And that sent him sprinting ahead without bothering to ascertain the true facts. On the other hand Chris Beresford, being altogether more sensible, stopped to question the wailing women.
Puffed out and determined to check his own weight, Brian arrived at the Smith household to find Len Bonser's new Volvo parked at the kerb. Brian shot straight in the front door and careered down the hall, following the direction of various voices. In the living room, he found that Steven was the patient, not Fred. The boy was lying awkwardly on the couch, covered to the chest by a honeycomb blanket. Gladys Stanhope was kneeling beside him, speaking softly and maintaining a gentle pressure on his upper arm as if trying to reduce the boy's body tremors. Steven gave her a brave smile and Brian knew by that, and by Gladys's troubled eyes, that he was in some pain, that whatever was wrong with him was serious.
In the corner, facing the wall, Carrie was wringing her hands and rocking from side to side, occasionally pivoting towards the door as if she was searching for a means of escape; then she would spin back and resume the turbulent rocking. If she was crying, she did it silently, but Brian knew by her fitful breathing that she was crying inside … she just hadn't found a way to let it out.
He crossed the room to interrogate Len, who had just finished on the phone, but at that moment the ambulance arrived and Brian was pushed aside to make way for the stretcher-bearers. Contenting himself that everything was in hand, he decided to wait until Steven had been medically dealt with before asking questions. Five minutes later the boy was carried out and Len, Carrie, Gladys, and Brian, in that order, followed in solemn procession.
Chris arrived as the ambulance was driving off. 'Everything all right?' he asked Brian.
'How the hell do I know? I didn't get the story.'
They watched without speaking as the ambulance rounded the corner; thus it was some minutes before Brian learned what had happened.
'Bess and Steven had been playing tennis in Steve's garden,' Chris said. 'According to her, the lad was fooling around and the ball sailed over the fence. She said Steven climbed over, using the oak tree as a springboard. He retrieved the ball, no problem, but on the way back he lost his balance and fell on the boards. They must have been decrepit, 'cause Bess said they seemed to disintegrate into whacking great splinters. Whatever, one of the splinters penetrated his thigh. Nasty gash by all accounts. And the wood was still in his leg when they rang for Len.'
'Has Fred been told.'
'Ron rang him at work.'
It had been ages since Brian attended a case and found things already dealt with and normally it wouldn't bother him, but this catastrophe made him feel inept, as if inefficiency was his second name. In the past, he had been instrumental in saving lives by his speed and quick-witted actions, mostly strangers and usually casualties of traffic pile-ups, but witnessing Steven's bloodless face and natural fright had really got to him; it produced an undeniable dejection, and he said as much to Chris.
'Get on with you,' Chris said. 'What's there to feel dejected about? The lad'll be bragging about this as soon as he's had the injection.'
'It's the business of not being able to help that gets me. I should have been more in control.' He didn't mention the reluctant limbs, or the tiredness, or even the inertia which lately seemed to be more prolonged.
'Things just took their course, you daft ha'p'orth. You can't help every bugger even if they wanted you to.'
But Brian didn't see it that way. What was he in the job for if it wasn't to assist in times of need? No, he thought, today was a poor show, and all because he couldn't run any faster.
That night, still disgusted at his lack of verve, Brian got ready for bed. 'I must be getting really old,' he muttered as he unbuttoned his blue shirt, thinking it might not be a bad idea to join Alan Benjamin's fitness club and get working on those wasting muscles.
He was about to slip off his shirt when he heard a noise overhead: a thud, like something weighty collapsing in the loft; and it certainly wasn't bats. He told himself that now was the time to investigate; his sleep had been disturbed long enough and he wasn't prepared to spend another night listening to the baffling scuffles. Accordingly, he raced downstairs and went straight to the phone.
'Jeez, Brian. What time d'you call this?'
'Can I borrow your loft ladder, Ron?'
'At this time of the bloody night?'
'I need to get in the loft.'
Diane, in the background, asked what the hell was wrong.
Ron snapped his reply. 'Wants to borrow the bloody loft ladder.' To Brian, he said, in a voice laced with sarcasm, 'You wouldn't be thinking of fetching it yourself, I suppose? You really would prefer it if I brought it round?'
'Aw, come on, Ronnie. This is urgent.'
Brian ascended the ladder while Ron Pearce, in his bright tartan dressing gown, waited below with one slippered foot on the bottom rung. Brian wished he wasn’t still wearing his working clothes. Already his best shirt was smeared with oil though God only knew where it had come from. On top of that, his uniform trousers were not ideally suited for shinning up ladders; he could feel the strain around his backside every time he raised a leg.
'You all right?' called Ron.
'As right as I'll ever be, stuck up here.'
Moving the hatch to one side, Brian poked his head through the hole. His ensuing bellow was enough to scare the angels. The ladder shuddered as Ron briefly relaxed his hold.
'Christ Almighty,' Brian cried, when at length the spectacle before him registered, making him fleetingly wonder if his sanity had finally shaken loose. He had expected the loft to be in darkness but there, in a far corner, resting on a stout beam, was an old, densely rusted, hurricane lamp. After the initial, blasphemous reaction, he then completely lost the power of speech, finding the scene too difficult to digest, and it took a verbal nudge from Ron, several minutes later, to make him recover.
'All right?' Ron shouted.
Brian didn't answer. Instead, he switched on his own torch, and aimed it round the various pieces of stored furniture, a gang of battered suitcases, and several cardboard boxes upon which there was an arrangement of clothing. Trousers, shirts, and sweaters were assembled in groups across the top of a large carton; a smaller box displayed items of underwear and socks; a third acted as a store for shoes. Beyond the boxes was a sleeping bag and in that bag was David, with a towel round his shoulders and a book lying on his knees. An incredible tableau, like something out of a film.
'Fuckin' hell, Dad, there's no need to shine that thing in my eyes.'
'You all right, Brian?' bawled Ron.
'I am now, Ronnie.' Brian turned to David. 'And what, may I ask, are you doing here?'
David struggled out of the sleeping bag. 'Got nowhere else to go.'
'How the hell did you get in?'
'Through the fire escape. How d'you think I got in.'
Ron shoved his tousled head through the hole. 'Blimey, what's going on?'
'There must be more fitting ways to encounter my son, Ronald, but at this moment I can't think of any. You'd better come down, David, and explain. And douse that damned light. I've never seen anything so dangerous.'
It was two o'clock in the morning before Brian got to bed. David was installed in the spare room and Ron was, no doubt, tucked up in his own bed informing Diane of the hilarious business next door but one. But Brian couldn't sleep. All he could think of was that David simply could not stay in this house, though he admitted being intrigued by the lad's recklessness. He would never have put him down as doing anything so adventurous as secreting himself for weeks in a loft full of rubbish. And to have his mobile phone with him was laughable. He was homeless, yet still in possession of modern gadgetry.
He had tried to get him to agree to return to his mother's place but David got frighteningly aggressive, accusing him of not wanting him and appending the remark that his mother didn't want him either. The final straw came when David charged Brian with having more time for Audrey than for him, accusing her of flaunting herself at all and sundry. He sneered at her marked face and reviled her figure, the defamation so voracious that Brian hit him; one punch was all that was needed to knock David to the ground. He crashed against the bureau, arms thrashing, but he managed to retain a hold on his mobile phone. Brian stared at him, wishing he had hit him harder and wondering why on earth he hadn't done it months ago.
The episode terminated with Brian agreeing to assist his son to find a flat. In truth he would do anything to get him out of his hair once and for all.
(to be continued)