He wasn’t quite a regular, but I knew his face. A few months ago we found him sitting on the pavement outside a children’s play park, reaching out with wobbling hands to steady himself on the smashed kerbstones. He was guttered, the smell of cider rolling off him in fetid clouds. His cheek was broken, one eye swelling shut. The victim of a misunderstanding? A mugging? Maybe he’d been mouthy and taught a lesson?
Perhaps he’d just happened across one of Edinburgh’s more delightfully racist inhabitants who’d decided that physical violence was the best way to express his political views.
His English wasn’t up to much, though whether that was through linguistic inability or intoxication it was hard to tell.
I reached my hand out to him.
He dug a card from a wallet stuffed and bulging with notes and photos, I didn’t recognise the identification – maybe a driver’s licence? Maybe state ID? A stark, angular eagle shimmered at me from its holographic perch. I managed his first name, “Sergei”, but struggled with his family name, probably mangled it.
He gave me a wan smile for my troubles.
Another guy from Eastern Europe, his identity hidden by a state that struggles with his language. Polish? Chechen? Romanian? Czech? Serbo-Croat? Another face to join the legion of young men seeking their fortune here. I say, good luck to them, make your money where you can.
I know I am.
They all wear the same uniform, baggy street/sports wear, big trainers, cropped hair, high cheekbones. The women carry impossibly huge gold handbags, totter on precarious heels.
These people hardly ever call us, they’re self sufficient to a fault. I once attended a young Polish man who’d sutured his own abdominal stab wound before calling for an ambulance. Another family called me with a sick toddler. His parents had been carefully dosing him with over the counter medications, meticulously recording his temperature through the day. They knew his weight, his age to the week and they gently, gratefully and proudly cooried their baby into my jacket, total trust, total respect. They ‘d called for a paramedic when they had no more ideas, instead of most of my British clients, who phone because they can’t see a GP on order.
There is no escaping, however, that Scotland and Eastern Europe share one thing in common. We’ll take a drink.
A fair percentage of these young men (and it’s always the men) are hardened alcoholics. Vodka, beer and cider, mostly. As paramedics the drunks all blur together into an amorphous conglomerate of vomit and air freshener, shit on the mattress and another bag of intravenous fluid. Scots, English, Polish or Russian, a drunk is a drunk. Pick him up, roll him into A&E and go out for another one.
There’s always more.
But back to our patient.
The scar on his cheek is readily visible, but this time he’s lying in bed, a duvet pulled to his chin. His brother, sober and speaking English like a BBC broadcaster, explains that last night he’d been drinking, again. They’d had an argument, he’d stood up and jumped from the balcony into the garden below.
I lean over the balcony and have a look. The flat is on the first floor, but the garden begins at the basement, rising in a gentle slope away from the building. Two storeys. Thirty feet or so. Like a super-hero shattering the pavement in a gaudy blockbuster, two foot-sized craters in the bark around the rose bushes.
“It’s his legs…”
I pull back the duvet. His ankles are black, purple, yellow, swollen to the width of his thighs. His feet aren’t much better, the tissue around his heels fat with fluid, he growls when I palpate them. Impossible to tell without an xray, but I’d put money on his calcanei being fractured; stalwarts that have carried him around for thirty years now rough lumps of chalk, grating and rubbing against themselves. His metatarsals, once filligree roots for dancing, sprinting, twisting now a jagged mess, wet branches splitting down their own length.
“When did this happen?”
“How did he get back up here?”
“I carried him.”
Any damage to his cord would be done by now, but I check his C-spine for signs of fracture. We find none, so pad and splint his mangled feet as best we can. My partner raises eyebrows at my old first-aid “pillow splint” concept, but it holds things steady for the trip down the stairs. Thankyou, voluntary service background.
In the vehicle I talk to the patient’s brother, while Sergei stares at the ceiling, muttering to himself in a haze of pain, hangover and the morphine I dribble into him.
“What brought you guys over here?”
Sergei’s brother starts to explain, unravelling the political mess of his home country for me, laying it out at my feet like a blanket. Here is the corrupt emperor, here the politicians who lined their own pockets with taxes. Here is the collapse of industry, here the civil war over the border that killed his cousin. Here are the exorbitant business rates that closed his father’s shop. Here is the burned out shell of their holiday home in the mountains, here is the crowd of fascists that gathered in a town square when he was out shopping with his children.
“And what did you do back home?”
He points at Sergei.
“He drove an ambulance….I was a chef.”
“Now we work in a factory. We gut chickens and package them for restaurants.”
“Is the money worth it?”
“It’s better than at home. But him? He doesn’t like it here. He didn’t drink at home. It’s hard.”
Sergei is paying fierce attention to our conversation, I suspect he understands more English than he speaks.
He asks his brother a question in their mother tongue, listens to his response and viciously, vehemently spits out a minute of raging diatribe. He removes his wallet from his jeans, the same as he showed me months ago and pushes a sheaf of photos at me.
A pretty woman, blonde, Jackie-Ohs and sandals dances on a beach with two children. The sun is shining. The sea is blue.
A little girl, maybe six years old, turns from a piano’s keyboard and smiles at the camera.
A wee boy, pressed and coerced into a suit and tie, holds the hand of the blonde woman at the door of a church.
Sergei, his wife and kids and a host of faces, old and young, men and women cheer at the lens; a man (an uncle, perhaps?) is flush-faced and out of line, clearly having raced the camera’s auto-timer to get into the photo.
His brother translates for me.
“He has been here three years. Every month he sends what he can back home. His wife, Katja? She was here also, the children lived with their grandparents. But his father was very sick, so Katja went home to care for him.”
Sergei is still speaking. His brother placates him with gently waving hands, he smiles apologetically at me.
“He has not seen his children for three years. Last month his son started high school. He came here to make a better life for the four of them, now he can’t afford to go home and they can’t afford to come here. He says “Wouldn’t you drink?””
Yes, I think I probably would.