It’s a quiet Wednesday afternoon in First Base. I’m just back from dropping off a week’s worth of food parcels to a guy in Beeswing. A Hanzel and Gretyl little cottage on the edge of a wood. Hedges full of finches. A rickety old fence. A guy still all smashed up by the car accident two years ago. Citizens Advice tell me that his benefits are all screwed up. And it is going to take ages to sort out. And his three kids are here for the summer holidays. And he ain’t got a penny to his name.
And the last time he tried to step up onto a bus it buggered up his ruined spine and it sent him to bed for weeks.
And a return taxi fare from Beeswing to Dumfries is £24.
Which might as well be £2400.
So I took a week’s worth of groceries.
Like I did last week.
Like I’ll do next week.
Until the kids go back to their mum.
It’s rural poverty picture postcard style.
It’s rural poverty complete with skylarks and butterflies and goldfinches.
I arrive back at First Base at 1.30.
Have we been busy?
No. Not really. Only ten today.
Only ten. I smile at that one. Five years ago we gave out ten parcels a week. Now it’s a quiet day when it’s only ten.
But of course the world is a different place to the world of five years ago.
The bell on the front door rings through the quiet building. Lesley goes down. I add some numbers into my petty cash spreadsheet.
Usually I can hear the conversations at the counter downstairs clearly enough. The all too familiar details to explain why a person cannot feed themselves.
Once surprising and shocking.
Now common place.
Now every day and run of the mill and common or garden.
Now the accepted norm.
But right now I can’t hear anything. Which is a little strange.
“Are you still coming down Mark?”
Am I still coming down? I wasn’t aware I was supposed to be coming down at all. Which makes it a pretty odd thing for Lesley to say. Which makes me think she is speaking in some kind of code.
I go down.
Lesley gives me a questioning sort of look. It’s an ‘I’m not sure if we have a problem here’ sort of a look.
I take her place at the counter and there is a lad standing there.
It takes about half a second to establish the fact that he is completely out of his tree.
Dunno. Early thirties. Tall and bloody strong looking. A lean kind of strong. You could see him playing on the wing for the local rugby club. Or humping an 50kg load down a trail in Helmand Province.
Smart clothes. Well cut hair. Clean finger nails.
He is trying to string together some sort of a sentence but he isn’t getting anywhere near to achieving his goal.
Oh the lips are moving all right. But somehow his vocal cords lack the strength to come up with anything more than a whisper.
Are there any words there?
I don’t think there are.
“Look at me mate, will you?”
With a Herculean effort he pulls his head up and manages to look me in the face, all the while trying to shape a few words.
His pupils have packed their bags and left for Singapore.
We’re talking seriously pinned.
I look for some kind of focus. There’s none to be found. Windows on an empty house.
By now his hands are trying to hang onto the counter like it is a life raft.
It ain’t good. It ain’t good at all.
I look at Lesley. Lesley looks at me.
“There’s no smell of alcohol, is there?”
Forty a day for twenty five years means I have little faith in my sense of smell.
“Best make the call.”
By now his knees are barely managing to do any kind of job for him at all. He’s going down in stages.
I dial 999 whilst Lesley guides him down to the floor. She gets him into the recovery position. She puts a cushion under his head.
“Emergency, which service please?”
They come on the line and I run through the details. Who we are. Where we are. A man down. All the way down.
I look at him and he is starting to look like a corpse.
All of a sudden the clock is ticking down way too fast.
“He is deteriorating very quickly now. I think this is very urgent”
“The ambulance is on its way. Please call back if anything gets significantly worse.”
I say I will. But it is hard to see how much worse things can get. Lesley has his wrist between her fingers and she isn’t finding much sign of life.
Come on come on come on…...
I check the referral slip he has managed to put on the counter. Maybe they will have some facts to help the ambulance crew.
I get Mike on the line. Bloody hell. You’re kidding. He only left here at half past one. And he was fine.
So he has used between your place and our place?
It looks that way. And we both know that the Scousers have been back in town for a month now and people are dying at the rate of one a week. Because Scouse Smack tends to be at least three times as strong as the kind of Smack that our Dumfries users are accustomed to.
A bag of Scouse Smack can leave you counting down the minutes to finding out the answer to the biggest question of them all.
Go on Willie Shakespeare.
Tell it like it is.
‘That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns….
Lesley shakes her head slightly. And I can see it in her eyes. He’s fading to black.
But I can hear the siren on the phone now.
“Looks like your ambulance.” Says Mike.
I kill the call and I can still hear the siren.
Thank Christ for that.
I look down at him. His face is completely at peace.
Somewhere deep in the caverns of his waning consciousness he is in complete Nirvana. Clients have told me about this land of milk and honey many times before. Arriving at the gates of an overdose death feels like floating in a Walt Disney dreamland. It is the easiest death in the world.
Until they are dragged by the collar back into the cold, greyness of the world.
It occurs to me somewhere out there old pictures are probably lined up on a mantelpiece. Or a favourite sideboard. Mum's front room? Gran's front room?
A beaming face in the middle of the P6 class photo.
Part of school teams. A new football kit. On the beach somewhere. Making sand castles. Riding a donkey. Dressed for Halloween. Blowing out candles. With the whole family at Christmas. Holding a new puppy.
That scene from Blade Runner jumps into my head.
A dying Rutger Hauer. A drenched Harrison Ford.
“All these moments will now be lost …. Like tears in the rain”
Memories and hopes and dreams all down on the floor in our reception area. Only the merest hint of life now.
The last flickering of a tired candle.
And who would have ever thought this was how it would all end? When he was six? When he was in the school team? When the new puppy arrived?
Down on the floor.
They are here.
Two of them. Exuding efficiency. They absorb the facts and they do their thing. Heroin overdose is nothing new. They do this every day.
I hear one of them say he is down to four breaths a minute.
But four breaths a minute turns out to be enough.
They jag him with Narcon and the opiates are slammed into reverse.
He jolts back into the world. His eyes stare about the place in bemused surprise.
One minute he’s floating the soft clouds of paradise.
The next minute his on the floor in First Base.
But he can speak now. Just about.
He wants the rest of the apple he was eating.
He wants to say thank you to everyone.
But he doesn’t want to go to the hospital.
Oh he really, really doesn’t want to go to the hospital.
He confirms that he has used two tenner bags.
And eventually he agrees to be strapped onto the fold-up wheel chair and taken out to the ambulance.
And all the way he keeps saying sorry and thank you and sorry and thank you.
So here are the bare facts.
The ambulance arrived less than five minutes after I made the call. Which quite frankly was superb. And the ambulance team were completely superb. Would he have made it if they had taken 15 minutes?
I doubt it.
I think they would have arrived to find a corpse.
Another victim claimed by overly pure Scouse smack.
Without the absolute brilliance of the local ambulance service, I hate to think how many would be dying.
Three a week?
But not today.
Not today on a quiet Wednesday afternoon in First Base.
Today it has been ten food parcels handed out and one life saved.
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