You know how you’re walking down the street one day, and you spot something. Not something big, like a road accident, or a bank robbery, but just something small. Just one of those niggles that, while it doesn’t make things better, it doesn’t really make things that much worse. A broken piece of pavement you nearly trip over, for example, or a dog mess you step in because someone was too lazy to pick it up. It happened to me like this one night when I’m out walking the dog.
We go past this apartment block, near the school, and there’s a piece of grass as you round the corner. Ginger takes a good sniff at the garden and circles trying to find that exact, perfect spot. Eventually he squats down like he’s in training to become a contortionist and makes that “don’t look at me” face. I have to look away, of course, because otherwise, nothing’s going to happen. He’s just going to keep staring at me, realise I’m not going to stop looking, and give up. So I turn away.
The apartment block is a kind of grim grey affair, punctuated by outdoor lights here and there. There’s four in a line between the second and third floors, and the end one is flickering.
“Ugh, Ginger, look at that,” I say. “I wish they’d fix that.”
Of course, Ginger doesn’t reply. Dogs are not great conversationalists at the best of times. I risk a quick glance behind but he’s still crouched there like some scatological version of Rodin’s “Thinker”.
And then looking back at the light, I start watching it. Three short flashes, three long, then three short again.
“Ha,” I mutter. “SOS”.
Ginger replies by starting snuffling round my legs, and I grab a bag out of the little bone-shaped holder attached to the lead. Why did I buy this thing? It doesn’t take standard size bags. And why does everything for dogs have to be bone shaped? Ginger isn’t going to care. He’s never seen a real bone in his life, anyway. Sausages, on the other hand, I think he could get behind.
By the time this train of thought has run its course, I’ve cleaned up the poop and I turn back, have another quick look at this light. Because it’s annoying me. And there it is again: three short, three long, then three short: SOS. And a gap. Followed up by three more short, three long, and three short again.
“This is not random, Gingy my boy.”
Ginger ignores me, and wanders off to sniff a lamppost and then pee against it. Facebook for dogs. He starts pulling on the lead in the direction of home, and we move off.
We get to the corner of the road, and I stop. Ginger looks up at me, big eyes asking to go home. I look at him, look back at the apartment block and the flickering light, and make a decision.
“Come on boy,” I nod in the direction of the apartment block and we start back the way we’ve just come.
I stand underneath the flickering light, wondering whether I’ve actually lost my marbles or not, and then decide that if I don’t do this, and I read about this in the news tomorrow, I’m going to regret it.
“Hey!” I shout. “Does someone need help here?”
The light starts flashing faster: long, short, long long, pause, short – and I realise my knowledge of Morse code isn’t up to it.
“I don’t know Morse,” I shout. “Sorry.”
The light goes out.
“Do you need help? One flash for yes, two for no.”
“Ok,” I murmur. What now? How do I find out where they are?
“What floor are you on? One for the ground floor, two for the first floor and so on.”
Two flashes. First floor.
“Which apartment? One flash for A, two for B, and so on.”
Two flashes. 1B.
“Is there anyone there that can let me in?”
A pause. A long pause.
“Hey,” I shout. “You still there?”
One flash. Yes.
“Is there anyone can let me in?”
Two flashes. No.
“I’m gonna call the police,” I shouted up. “Just wait.”
I got my phone out and dialled.
“Emergency which service please?”
“Police,” I reply. “Probably.”
Reality starts to hit me. How am I going to explain this to the operator? I’ve been shouting at a light, and it’s been answering me? They’ll drug test me to make sure I’m not hallucinating, and that’s if they don’t hang up on me.
But it doesn’t turn out that way. A couple of minutes later, I’m talking to PC Dawson. She’s slightly shorter than me, with dark blonde hair tied back in a bun, and blue eyes.
“Let’s see if they’re still okay, first, shall we?” she remarks, making notes furiously in her notebook.
“No answer from the doorbell.” The other copper nods at me. He’s taller and thin, and looks like one of those guys you instinctively don’t mess with. He’ll never be the one to start a fight, but he’ll always be the one to finish it, if you know what I mean.
“Are you still OK up there?” Dawson yells up.
One flash. Yes.
“This is the police,” she goes on. “Are you able to let us into the apartment?”
Two flashes. No.
“Are you sick?”
One flash. Yes.
“Do you need an ambulance?”
One flash. Yes.
Dawson gets on the radio, starts talking to Mission Control, or whatever they call them these days, asking for an ambulance. The guy has gone back to the door bell panel and is calling other flats.
“This one will let us in,” he beckons us over as the door buzzes.
“Can you stay down here sir,” Dawson asks.
“You might need me.” I grab my work ID from my pocket and show it to her.
“Registered nurse,” she reads. “Come on then.”
I follow the two police officers up the stairs, leaving Ginger tied to the tree, wondering why he’s not going home.
Apartment 1B is small, but comfortable looking. There’s bright wallpaper, beige carpets and it looks clean and tidy.
“We’ve got one down,” Dawson says, and I follow her into the hall. I can hear Ginger outside, barking.
There’s an old guy on the floor, unconscious. It looks like he’s hit his head on the way down as there’s a blood splatter on the wall.
“Where’s the ambulance?” I look at Dawson but she shrugs. “This could be concussion or worse. Sooner we can get him into hospital, the better.”
Dawson frowns and gets on the radio again. I’m not concentrating on what she says, but there’s sirens in the background.
“In here,” the other copper shouts.
“We need a blanket for this guy,” I tell Dawson and she nods.
“Go see what he wants,” she points a thumb in the general direction of the voice. “I’ll find a blanket.”
I walk through a small kitchen and through a door to a small bedroom. In the bed is a woman, about my age, maybe a little younger. Late thirties, tops.
“Hi,” I say. “You were signalling?”
She looks at me, blankly.
“Let me take a look at you.”
She looks at the policeman, who nods. “He’s a nurse.”
It’s not difficult to work out she has a temperature, and a sore throat. She can talk, but in a whisper.
“I moved in when my mum died, to take care of granddad,” she explains. “I work, but he stays home. Now I’ve got the flu he said it’s his turn to look after me.”
“And then he fell and hit his head. You couldn’t phone?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “We couldn’t afford the last bill. So they cut us off. Is he OK?”
The ambulance finally arrives, and I go to the hall, speak to the paramedics about the old man. They bundle him up on a stretcher and the next thing I hear is sirens, blaring.
I go back to her and explain what’s happening. She nods, accepting.
“How did you signal me?”
She looks at me, puzzled.
“The light,” I point out the window. “You were switching it on and off. Bad connection? Loose wire?”
She shrugs, nonplussed.
“Can I look?” I ask. Nobody says anything, so I open the window and look outside. The metal cover leading up to the light looks intact, there’s no break in the wire that I can see. I reach over and touch it – nothing. It’s not live.
I lean back in and shut the window again.
“So how did you do it?” I ask her.
“I don’t know,” she whispers. “I was dreaming of a knight in shining armour, and I was in a lighthouse. And all I had to signal with was a blanket.”
I start to feel cold. Outside, Ginger begins to whimper.
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