Do something

While I was writing the previous post, on a table outside my flat, I noticed some sort of commotion in the street. Then somebody shouting from the third or fourth floor of the block: “There’s…someone behaving…oddly in the road…do something”.

Looking across the street I could see some people who might be doing something, and a young man walking in circles in the centre of the road with his eyes shut and arms extended, among live traffic, and at this point I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I took the first break in the traffic to run over and join the rest of the group trying to shepherd him off the carriageway. Various people were stopped, involved, but so far nobody was trying to approach him. I walked up and found: a young man, early 20s, tall, wiry rather than skinny, tanned, vaguely dishevelled but not more than could be a fashion statement.

Although: he is staring fixedly, without blinking or giving any response, at me, bleeding from a wound over one temple. His movements are tense and robotic. I try to engage him. He is not talking. He veers back towards traffic in one direction, we herd him back, but he won’t get onto the pavement. Then he marches down the main road in another direction. I keep pace. He heads directly towards me, staring, and we manoeuvre in an awkward circle, until he starts to close in, staring, suddenly threatening, to the point I stick a knuckle into his breastbone to keep an arm’s length of distance. Now he reverses.

More of the same. He finally responds to a question: how did you hurt yourself? “BUMPEDINTOAPOLE!” Now he reaches out with both palms upturned. I take his hands. Perhaps physical contact, a gesture of fellow feeling, might get us somewhere. Instead he keeps staring but begins to transfer weight, relaxing his legs. I’ve done this as a dance technique exercise, it’s bizarrely familiar. I can support him like this and perhaps it’s because he realises I’m not going to let him collapse that he pulls out of it, and moves in for a blank hug.

I was hoping to avoid hugging strangers during the respiratory virus pandemic.

This sounds like progress, but in fact it gets us nowhere. Hug done, he pulls away, marches up the street, towards my sudden friends in coping with him. They have hardly approached him when he makes for the grille of a moving vehicle again. Baulked, he turns and heads up a side street that at this season and hour points directly into the sun, stare now directed right into the star, moving in a weird crouched half step. Someone has called an ambulance. Where is it? Eventually he tires of this direction and step and countermarches back the other way, towards the traffic.

We go through several loops of this. At some point he asks another passer-by to kill him.

He seems to be calming down a bit and we’re getting closer to a bench where he might possibly sit down. But then he breaks frankly into a run back into the major crossroads I have been trying to protect him from all this time. Someone else, another total stranger, appears to intercept him. For a moment he seems reachable, with my hand on his upper arm, but then the ambo shows up and he immediately dissolves, dropping himself to the floor. He doesn’t flop or crash but executes something controlled. Again it’s weirdly familiar. In any case I support his head, put him into the recovery position, and check his pulse (racing) and breathing (normal) and decide not to stick my hand in his airway on the basis of these results and general prudence.

To my enormous relief, Nicole the paramedic rolls up. I give the utterly minimal case history I know. She wants to take his blood pressure, a sample, an ECG. It’s about possible to do the blood pressure but the finger prick causes more drama. By now he is lying flat, staring up at the sky, eyelids fluttering, but as Nicole’s colleague observes, his eyes are not displaying any sign of neurological trauma. The prick causes him to roll up from the floor and lunge towards the traffic again. Back on the floor he complies, a bit, with being lifted to his feet and walked towards the ambulance, but he folds again and then again closer to the vehicle, and shouts: “LOVE ME!!” And then he bolts; up the road.

Fortunately someone has already started improvising traffic control on one side and I do so on the other, and he chooses to kneel and pray in front of some Range Rover, before moving on up the street. Now the traffic is moving again at speed, we’re right in it, and half the gang is divided between the two incident sites. Our man now crumples to the ground and sits there with a sad-on, except for the continuing weird stare. At least he is not going anywhere for the moment. We put our act back together, trying to comfort him, engage him, perhaps get any scrap of information towards why and how this is happening. Occasionally he yells for help, but help is what we are trying to offer.

The police have been called by the ambulance crew. I was hoping we would get away without them – he didn’t look like someone who needed them in his life any more than they were already – but I was also hoping they would turn up. But there were no units available, said the radio.

Nicole has another go with the assessment. This time she gets a blood pressure reading, pulse oximetry, and a sample before he executes a perfect hysterical arc, like someone in a 19th century textbook of psychiatry, and screams at the top of his lungs. Done screaming, he tries to bash his head into the tarmac. Eventually Nicole parks the ambulance across the road while her colleague tries to soothe him. The stretcher is rigged out of his sight. He stands up but yells “BALANCE!” and sinks to his knees. At this point Nicole and colleague lift him on the stretcher. He stops making any fuss as they secure the straps, but remembers to yell as he goes into the ambo. (By this point my patience was wearing a bit.)

We thank each other. They shut the doors and get ready to move. I walk home, wash my hands, spray disinfectant on my shoes, strip, shower, sling my clothes in the wash, spray more disinfectant on everything I used, and get dressed. Then I hear a terrible prolonged screaming from outside. Someone on the pavement is staring around the corner. What, again? I ask her: a young man with tangled brown hair, blue eyes? Yes. I head back outside. He is there, in the cross street, exactly in the middle of the road, screaming, as Nicole bends over him, this time with a copper. The ambulance has made about a hundred yards’ progress before whatever new drama has blown up, blew up.

Every time something like this happens I am amazed by random Londoners’ willingness to pitch in and help, and their ability to do something useful. On this occasion, I was also struck by the ambulance medics’ patience and forbearance. They could easily have taken a punitive approach, his behaviour was infuriating, and realistically he won’t have been the first or the hundredth.

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