I threw up at work for the first time a while back.
It was after spending three hours on scene at a flat that was damp and mould ridden . . .
The call came down as ’65 year old male, unwell ?cause’. That narrowed it down then.
It was about 3am and we’d been knocking on the front door for a few minutes with no answer. The police soon arrived as they’d also been called out – something to do with suspicious circumstances.
We were about to kick in the door when we heard movement from within. The door very slowly creaked open to reveal a small wildly unkempt old lady standing half hidden and nervous behind her door. The hallway disappeared into the darkness beyond and the smell that poured out from the tenebrous depths made us all reel backwards and catch our breath.
When the woman spoke it was with a piercing Gaelic whisper and a sidewards glance. One eye stared larger than the other but both seemed to burn right through your soul.
“He’s not well,” she paused for perfect effect, “and only a doctor will see him, so he will”
I think I swallowed. Loudly.
One of the police officers stepped forward to speak but the woman backed away bringing the door to. Her voice raised in pitch but not in volume.
“Only a doctor mind – it has to be a doctor” We could barely see her now in the darkness.
“We have Paramedics here dear, they can hel-”
“No! Not the ambulance men. No. Only a doctor. It has to be a doctor to see him. He’s not well so he’s not”.
This went on for about ten minutes until the police finally persuaded the woman to let us in. We could just make out her frightened expression in the darkness. It almost resembled a plea for help but was too wild or frightened to seem obvious. She kept glancing over her shoulder at something in the darkness but this only added to the suspense of what might be going on within.
Eventually she allowed us through. None of the lights were on so we crept in slowly. The floor was matted with years of filth and dirt and whatever we stood on clung to our boots like ghostly hands pulling us down into the sticky depths. The stench ripped through our nostrils and tore at the insides of our lungs. Stagnation, mould, damp, faeces, urine, infection and rotting all moulded into one overpowering maladour. Within seconds our clothes were stuck to our skin as if we’d stood in a steam room for half an hour.
The woman led us to the first room. Her fear was heightened now. The door opened and the stench tripled. The policeman’s mini-torch darted round the room revealing nearly all the walls pouring with decades of mould and damp. His torch came down to bear on the bed. An old bed from the fifties it seemed – and within it there lay a figure, still and motionless.
I felt round for the light switch.
“No, please don’t turn the light on” The woman pleaded. But it was too late – the old 40w bulb sprung into life and dispersed a flicker of low light around the room. The room was cluttered with boxes and things that had clearly not been moved for over half a century. The walls looked like the setting of some ghostly dungeon – blackened, wet, dripping and foul. The bed was old and bowed in the middle and a harsh brown woollen blanket lay neatly across it covering an old man.
The woman’s voice was tear ridden now, “no, please don’t wake him, please don’t wake him”
The policeman and I snatched a glance at each other and both knew instantly what we needed to do. He gently took hold of the woman and moved her aside to start asking her deflecting questions whilst I approached the man in the bed. His eyes were shut, his mouth was open and his skin was that deathly pale and yellow tightness of someone who’s not been of this world for a long while. My god, I thought, how long has she been harbouring her dead husband like this? I knelt across the bed and rested the back of my hand on his cheek to see how cold and stiff he was . . .
. . . His eyes snapped open. Terrified, the old man jumped to his side with a start. But not as bloody terrified as me!
Every synapse in my body sprung into life and I near destroyed the wardrobe behind me as I flew backward into it letting off the most high pitched shriek of fear ever.
“Wh-wh-what’s going on?!” The old man stammered.
“Oh, I’m so sorry Patrick,” the woman went round to his side to stroke his hand, “I called for a doctor for you so I did”
I eventually stopped biting my fist and turned to the policeman. Simultaneously we both let out a huge sigh of relief – and then proceeded with laughing hysterically.
“Right then,” the policeman clapped his hands together and eyed the exit, “um . . . you won’t be needing us anymore then will you?” He was practically out the door before he’d finished his sentence.
“Nope. No, you guys can go. Thanks and thank fuck” I was still reeling at my instant cure of constipation.
The rest of the time there was spent organising an on-call Doctor to come and visit the old man. It turned out that he had recurrent back pains that hadn’t been resolved. However, his bed was so old it had an actual 3 foot hole in it where his back was and he’d simply ‘plugged’ it in with news papers and magazines! God knows how many years he’d been sleeping like that.
They were recluses and had no family – and clearly needed help. I spent about three hours there gathering as much details and information as possible so that I could try and build a case for social services to help.
Upon return to station I sat and completed all the relevant paper work but eventually the stagnant mouldy damp air got to me. Overwhelmed by nausea I ran off to be sick in the staff toilet. Walking back to the mess room I was met with a barrage of mocking laughter and abuse – the type only your friends and workmates can get away with but the type that ultimately makes everything better in the long run.