‘Can you tell me what’s happened Alice?’ says the calm voice on the end of the phone. My heart is thudding, squishing around in my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. I can feel the thump, thump of it in my ears.
‘It’s my best friend,’ I gasp, my voice rising involuntarily, shrill with fear. ‘I think she’s tried to kill herself.’ I look at the smashed whisky bottle at Gretchen’s feet, shards of glass mixed in with the scattered pills. ‘Please, someone needs to help her!’
I manage to stay coherent enough to give them the address and then with my useless, rubbery tubes of fingers that seemed to bend off the buttons seconds ago when I dialled 999, I hang up, slip-sliding the phone back into the holder. Then it’s just me and Gretchen, in the quiet of her sitting room. Despite the fact that it’s early evening and people in flats and houses all around us are probably getting home from work, tiredly kicking off shoes and putting on kettles, there isn’t a sound in here – everything has gone eerily quiet. No TV, no radio, no sign of life.
I back up, not taking my eyes off her, and when I feel the wall behind me I sink to the floor. All I can hear is my own ragged breath as I try to get it under control.
Gretchen is seated, not with her usual sassy poise, but slumped in the corner where two walls meet. One knee is hitched up, her head is lolling forward and one arm is stuck out rigid. She looks as though she’s had too much to drink and, from standing, has now just slid down the wall gracefully, to a stop.
There is a sticky, sickly smell of alcohol in the air and a dark pool of it by her feet, dotted with confetti-like small white pills. I can’t see her face; her long, wavy blonde hair is covering it. She is silent and still. I don’t know if she is unconscious or – oh God – dead. I can taste vomit in my mouth and my teeth are starting to chatter. I know I ought to be doing something, trying to put her in a recovery position, but I can’t for the life of me remember what that is and I’m scared of touching her. She looks like a heroin awareness poster I was shown in sixth form – only that girl had been dead for three days before anyone found her.
I pull my knees in tightly to my chest, bury my head, close my eyes really, really tight and picture the ambulance, forcing mopeds and four-wheel drives alike off into bus lanes as they come to rescue us. I am aware that I am rocking slightly on the spot and whimpering, but I can’t seem to stop.
After what feels like for ever, I hear distant wailing sirens becoming louder and louder. Then blue lights flash on the wall above Gretchen’s head.
The buzz of the door makes me jump violently, even though I am waiting for it. I clamber stiffly to my feet and rush across the room. A male voice says my name through the intercom and I press the release for downstairs, saying urgently, ‘Third floor – we’re up here!’Then I hang up and open the front door to the flat. Immediately I can hear feet clattering up the iron stairwell and then they’re here. A man and a woman, both older than me – dressed in green uniforms, moving across to her quickly, taking over. The relief is immense but then everything becomes a blur of questions: ‘Do you know if she took all of these pills Alice? Has she ever done anything like this before Alice?’
I can see what they are doing, using my name, trying to keep me connected to reality, and I try to be helpful. I tell them everything I can.
Then we’re in the back of the ambulance. The woman is driving, which surprises me, although I’m not sure why it should, and the man is quietly sat behind Gretchen’s head, adjusting a tube as I grip the side with one hand and try not to slide off my seat. I’m also trying not to look at her body, bound to the stretcher, rocking from side to side with the motion as we slam through traffic, all sirens screaming.
My fingers are starting to shake and it’s suddenly getting very hot in this small space full of unfamiliar machines and wires. I let out an involuntary gasp and the paramedic looks at me sharply. I think he said his name was Joe – I can’t remember.
‘It’s OK, Alice,’ he says reassuringly. ‘We’re nearly there now.’
I think this must be what shock is.
‘So Gretchen’s your best friend then?’ he asks above the noise of the sirens, like we’re having a conversation over a drink in a bar. ‘From school? University?’
‘Er,’ I try to drag my mind back.’No, I met her through work.’ I think of LA; us giggling like crazy as we walked through the Sky Bar, arms linked as Gretchen whispered to me delightedly, ‘You’ve got to see this!’
‘What is it you do?’ he says.
‘I’m a photographer.’
‘So does Gretchen work with you too?’
What the hell does it matter? ‘No, but I met her through work,’ I say in an effort to be polite, and instinctively glance at Gretchen, lying there on the stretcher, strapped in. The ambulance seems to slow and weaves jerkily from side to side – I guess we must be cutting through heavier traffic – but then suddenly it slams into fast forward again. My head snaps to the left. Gretchen stays completely motionless, although the trolley holding her slips slightly and slides an inch towards me. If it came loose at this speed it would crush me against the side of the ambulance. The paramedic puts out a hand to steady it. ‘Whoops!’ he says.
We slow to a stop.The doors swing open, the cold January air blasts in like a slap round the face, but I feel a little better for it. I can see the gaping hole of the double doors to A&E, and nurses waiting, looking up at us from their lower vantage point down on the ground. I sit still as Gretchen is taken out first, then stumble out after her. She is wheeled straight past the staring eyes of bored, zombie people who have minor twisted ankles, light bangs to the head and have been there for hours, condemned to read ancient copies of women’s magazines bursting with reader letters about their grandchildren’s ‘hilarious’ antics, tips on how to get oil stains off a silk blouse, knitting patterns and a fat-free cheesecake recipe. I follow the stretcher uncertainly, then I feel a light, firm hand on my arm guiding me to one side as Gretchen is taken into another room and the doors flap shut behind her. I can see through the porthole; heads of medical staff are moving urgently round the room.
‘Alice?’The nurse is speaking. ‘Can you come with me? We need some information.’
She takes me to a small room which contains a chair, table and a sink, above which is a PLEASE WASH YOUR HANDS sign. She asks me who Gretchen’s next of kin is and if there is anyone I would like them to call.
‘Er, her brother, Bailey … my boyfriend … Tom,’ I say, dazed and automatically. Then I remember actually that’s not true any more and I should say ex, but the moment has passed. ‘Bailey is in Madrid – at the airport, or at least he was. He rang me from there earlier to ask me to go over to Gretchen’s. Tom is at a work do in Bath …’
‘Do you have a contact number for Bailey?’ she asks. I start to shift through numbers in my head. ‘He has a work mobile. It’s not often switched on though. It’s 079 … no, hang on … 0787 … Sorry, I can’t think straight, I can’t …’
‘Take your time,’ the nurse says kindly.
I get there eventually and, having written it down, she looks up from her pad and says, ‘What about Tom’s?’
’07 …’ I begin, then hesitate. ‘Actually, can I phone him myself please? If that’s OK?’
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Now, do you know how we can contact Gretchen’s parents?’
I shake my head. ‘She has a difficult relationship with them. Bailey is the one who—’
The nurse cuts across me. ‘Her parents really should be called,’ she insists gently, and that’s when I realise what she is saying … without actually saying it.
‘I don’t know their number,’ I reply hopelessly.’I’ve never even met them! Where’s Gretchen now? What’s happening to her?’
‘She’s in Resuscitation,’ she says soothingly.’I’m going to give this information to someone then I’ll be right back. I’ll just be a second.’
Once I am alone, I reach for my handbag and pull out my phone, but in this small room I have no signal and anyway, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use it inside the hospital. I slide it back into my bag – I will have to wait until the nurse returns. I stare very hard at the PLEASE WASH YOUR HANDS sign and try not to panic.
She isn’t long. They have found Bailey at the airport on standby for a flight back to London; his phone was on but, typically, he had barely any battery left and apparently it cut out just seconds after the nurse told him I was here with Gretchen and what hospital to come to. I imagine him waiting, alone and terrified on those rows of airport seats it’s impossible to get comfy on, powerless to make his wait go faster – or maybe by now he’s boarding the plane.
I ask if it is possible to use my mobile to call Tom and she shakes her head regretfully. ‘Only outside, I’m afraid.’
I tell her I’ll be right back and make my way purposefully through A&E, into the car park. It’s a typically cold and dark January night. I shiver involuntarily in my thin tracksuit bottoms, finding his number and waiting as it connects, my breath clouding in front of me, one arm wrapped round my body, my hand in my sleeve for warmth. It goes straight to voicemail. Either it’s switched off or he busy-toned me.
‘Hi, it’s me,’ I say after the bleep,my voice shaking. ‘Tom, I’m at the hospital with Gretchen. You need to get here. We’re at A&E. I have to go back in a minute and I’m not allowed to have my phone on, so you can’t call me – but please just come straight away …’
I give him the address, more or less, and hang up. Was that the right thing to say? Should I have told him what’s happened? Or is the less he knows until he gets here the better? I don’t want him driving in a blind panic, feeling like he’s having to race death and crashing. Suddenly I see why practised hospital staff make these calls. I wait for a moment or two – just long enough that he could check his voicemail – but he doesn’t immediately call back, so very reluctantly I switch my phone off and go back in.
Forty minutes later I’m given a message that Tom has called the hospital to say he is on his way and by nine p.m., Gretchen has been moved to intensive care, or ICU as they call it. She is still unconscious but I’m told Bailey asked for me to sit with her. There are three nurses buzzing around her efficiently, murmuring to each other in a technical language that makes no sense to me and includes words like pumps, drips, sats and pressure drops.
I’m sitting as far away from the hospital bed as I can, letting Gretchen’s name trip across my tongue soundlessly, like a mantra to focus my very chaotic mind. It is a name that suggests a little doll with a porcelain face, plaits weaving round her head and eyes that do not close when she lies down. She certainly looks breakable now, lying in this hospital bed, all hooked up to machines and tubes, silent apart from mechanical bleeping.
Her skin is a little waxy and where she would normally have a faint flush to her cheeks, she is pale. She is closer to Coppélia than a little girl’s plaything, just waiting in the workshop to come to life. A real life-sized, creamy-skinned girl who might sit up in the bed and pull the covers back; but her eyelids don’t lift, she doesn’t flinch and her mouth stays forced wide by the tube that is keeping her burnt throat open, making me think in turn of a blow-up plastic doll being forced to perform an obscene act.
I look at her hands. Thumbs, fingers. With their small, neat, square nails. They don’t and have not moved – not even a flicker. Her long, loose hair has been combed back by someone and tucked out of the way, which I know would piss her off. Gretchen’d want it to be spread about her on the pillow; she’d appreciate the theatrical potential of her situation. She still looks ethereal though. Gretchen has the kind of beauty that can’t be diminished by dull hair or a lack of make-up.
There’s a painting I’ve seen, I think maybe in the National Gallery. A girl is being floated down a river to her grave, clutching pale pink flowers to her chest in a locked grasp of icy fingers. Her wavy blonde hair streams out behind her like seaweed and her limpid green dress trails over the edge of the funeral pyre and drags lightly through the surface, causing ripples. That’s what Gretchen looks like now.
I am horrified to find myself wondering if she will look that beautiful dead, or if at the crucial moment, something will wisp away from her, unseen, up towards the ceiling on its way to Gretchen’s version of heaven. Tears flood to my eyes and I start to shake slightly again. One of the nurses glances at me curiously and I manage a frightened, watery smile. She smiles sympathetically back and I wonder if she can see everything written all over my face. I don’t think she can, because she turns away and then writes something down – there is just the rhythmical bleeping of machines helping Gretchen breathe. Outwardly, it looks like a scene under control.
Except in my head, even though I am trying to ignore it, to push the thought underwater and hold it there until it stops breathing, I can’t stop thinking:
Please don’t wake up, please don’t wake up, please don’t wake up.