So we’re walking back to the car just before midnight, down Upper Street, Islington’s main thoroughfare. We’d been to see an action movie, full of blood and sweat and desperation, not a great film, but one that makes you think about how much you care about strangers. What would you do to help save the life of someone you’d never met? How much do we care?
When we walked this way earlier, we pushed past crowds of people. The street smelled of cigarettes, curry and beer. Now we’re walking along, past closing restaurants and bars, avoiding the last drunks weaving down the street. It’s a little bit eerie,there's a touch of menace. ‘It’s dodgier round here than usual,’ I say to my husband, and he points out that it’s quieter because it’s a Sunday.
We walk past a bus stop with a queue of people waiting for the last night bus. And then we see him. A young man, stretched out on the pavement. He looks like he’s asleep. But his phone is on, cradled between chin and shoulder.
We’re looking down at him. His eyes flicker open and closed. ‘He’s probably just drunk,’ we say. He's about 20, wearing loafers and jeans, a woolly jumper. ‘He’ll get up in a minute.’ But nothing happens. So I get down and shake his arm. ‘Can you hear me?’ I ask. ‘You’re going to lose your phone.’
We’d seen other people up ahead walk straight past this spot. The bus queue are all looking the other way. We call to them: ‘Did you see what happened? How long has he been here?’
One lady approaches. She doesn’t come too near. Her English isn’t very good. But we think she says that she saw him stagger along then collapse. Maybe he was trying to call for help on his phone.
‘I’m calling an ambulance,’ I say, and I pull out my mobile, looking around for a clue which will tell me where we are on Upper Street. A sign on the bus stop says ‘St Mary’s Church’ - just as my husband says ‘We’re opposite the Nag’s Head.’ Suddenly the scene is filmic - the sprawled body in front of the grand church’s pillars and steps, the brightly lit pub. And a red London double decker pulls up and the lady gets onto her night bus.
Just as I’m telling the ambulance operator where we are, the young man’s phone rings. Confusion. We don’t get it in time. So we stuff it into his pocket, and follow the operator’s instructions: place him on his back, check his breathing, tilt his head backwards. I’m suddenly terrified that I’m going to be asked to resuscitate him. ‘His breathing seems to be OK,’ I reassure the operator, placing my hand on the man’s chest, feeling it moving up and down. His eyes flicker and close, a small smile on his face.
‘If he vomits,’ says the operator, ‘Place him on his side and check his airways are clear.’ I pray silently that he won’t vomit. Just yesterday I’d been joking with my sister about how useless I am when family members are ill. ‘I’m the last person on earth who would be a nurse,’ I’d said. Now I’m wondering how would I clear the airways of a vomiting stranger? Could I?
Another couple stop and ask what’s going on. They think we’re with him - can they help? We explain that we just stopped and helped and we stand and tut at all those others who just walked past. ‘You can’t just leave people lying there,’ we agree, united in our self-regard. ‘OK, he’s probably just drunk, but even so. What if he chokes on his vomit? What if he’s a diabetic? Maybe he’s had a brain haemorrhage?’ The man says: ‘He ought to be on his side,’ but I tell him that the ambulance operator has told me to put him on his back, head tilted back. He looks dubious. He leans over the man and says loudly; ‘Can you hear me?’ A slight flicker of the eyes. ‘Help is coming soon, says the operator.
And then a paramedic arrives, all alone in a car not an ambulance. ‘What’ve we got here?’ he asks, pulling on some grubby-looking rubber gloves. ‘Thanks for this,’ he says. We’re dismissed. We walk away. I feel deflated, unsatisfied, curious. I want to know what happens next. I want to know what happened before.
We get into the car. ‘Have you ever called an ambulance before?’ I ask my husband. No, he hasn’t. I have. Twenty years ago, my flatmate was having an asthma attack. We called an ambulance. It didn’t arrive. So I drove her through the empty streets of early morning London, listening to her gasp and wheeze, terrified that she was about to die in my car.
I know the end of that story - we got to hospital, her breathing was stabilised, she was fine. But the young man in the street – what was his story? And how much do I care?