It’s been so hot and humid, all the windows of the office are thrown wide. Despite this, there’s not a breath of air. The only things moving are the fingers of the nurse on the late shift typing out her report, and the swifts outside, shrieking and swooping through the tall brick canyons of the place.
I think if our team had a flag, the swift would be the perfect animal to have on it. They travel thousands of miles each year, living entirely on the wing. They’ve even evolved so that half their brain shuts down and sleeps without them falling out of the air – a talent we can all applaud. And despite the swifts’ roving ways, they always come back to the same spot to lay their eggs each year, the gaps and cracks in the craggy bricks and eaves of the old Victorian hospital. So having a swift for the flag seems about right. A heraldic flag made of yellow line bandage, with a sharps bucket in one corner, a bunch of swifts in the other.
A late job comes through. Urgent bloods requested on a patient in a nursing home. The only people who can do it other than me and the lead coordinator is the nurse at the other desk, but she’s already up against it. When she hears about the job she looks up with such a panicked look on her face I really can’t do anything other than offer to take it myself. The phones are quiet, so we should be okay. And anyway, it’s nice to have an excuse to get out. An easy win all round.
I fly off, shrieking and swooping.
* * *
Maple Court is tucked away at the top of a drive so winding and confusing you feel like the architect must’ve had an ammonite on her table when she drew the plans. The whorls of the drive are deeply screened by trees and shrubs, too, and the building itself deceptively shallow, built into the hill so that if from the front it looks like a single storey place, it’s actually two or three. If you had to find a headquarters in a zombie apocalypse, you couldn’t do better than Maple Court. Low, defensible, anonymous. With a surprisingly good view over the city out the back.
The main doorway is shut, secured by a code. There are two people sitting in lobby armchairs just the other side of the door – an elderly man with his back to me, and an elderly woman facing him. He’s wearing a surgical mask, she isn’t. They don’t seem to be talking or doing much, but then the glass is thick and I might be wrong about that. The man seems to sense from the reaction of the woman that I’ve approached the door, because he turns round with a sudden, melodramatic start. After tugging his mask down to get a better look at me, he reaches over to punch the code into the panel, and the doors slide open.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘I’m Jim from the Rapid Response team. I’ve come to take some blood.’
‘You don’t want me,’ he says. ‘You want Kim, the manager. I don’t work here.’
‘She’s gone off somewhere. I don’t know when she’s coming back.’
The old woman frowns and leans forward.
‘What does he want?’
‘He says he’s come to take some blood.’
‘Goodness!’ she says. ‘Whatever for?’
I’m just about to suggest that I come in and ring a bell or something when the woman I guess is Kim comes striding round the corner.
‘Is it for Ken?’ she says. ‘About time! Follow me…’
I put on my PPE as we go, through fire doors, up stairs, through more security doors, onto a scrubbed and ruthlessly bright level.
‘He’s in the garden,’ says Kim. ‘Wait in there and I’ll bring him through.’
The waiting room is boxy and bright, a square table with four square chairs in the middle, padded chairs around the walls, a tea making place with some magazines, a television and a water cooler. The water cooler looks like a happy face, with taps for eyes and a drip tray for a mouth. I take a photo with my phone, because I like things that look like faces – and then hurriedly put my phone away when I hear Kim and Ken coming down the corridor.
I can immediately see why the doctor wanted the urgent bloods. Ken looks terrible. He’s sitting in an electric wheelchair, slightly slumped forwards, his right hand draped over the controls, Kim shouting ‘left a bit, right a bit’ from behind. She stares over his head at me and winces, like a scientist who’s presenting a reanimated mummy to the Royal Society but suddenly having second thoughts.
‘Made it!’ says Ken with a grimace, running up against the table and then turning the power off. ‘Which arm d’you want?’
‘Ken is getting good at this,’ says Kim, pulling up a chair with a terrible scraping noise. ‘You’re used to the old vampires, aren’t you?’
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Less of the old.’
‘Get on with it,’ he says. ‘I want a smoke.’
I lay my kit out on the table, put a cushion under his arm, tighten the tourniquet, tap up a vein.
‘Have you tried those vapes?’ I say. ‘They’re supposed to be good. And they’re better for you.’
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘You may as well smoke Glade. Besides – I’ve got cancer, mate. I think the time for worrying about fags is over. Don’t you?’
‘Well,’ I say. ‘Yep. You’ve got a point.’
‘Are you going to say sharp scratch?’ says Kim. ‘That’s what they all say, isn’t it? Sharp scratch? Why don’t you say just a little prick?’
‘Because I’m not Dr Evil. Anyway, I don’t usually say anything.’
‘What? You just jab them?’
She strokes Ken’s other arm.
‘I don’t think he’s going to jab you,’ she says.
‘I don’t give a monkey’s.’
‘So what do you say, then?’ she goes on. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking. I’m just interested.’
‘I don’t mind. No – I think what I do is I say: okay, here we go, then… or something like that. Sometimes I might say: take a breath in … and out…. and that’s when I put it in. I got that from the tattoo woman who pierced my ear. It seemed to work.’
‘Less talk and more work,’ says Ken.
‘Sorry, mate,’ I say. ‘Here we go. Sharp scratch…’