‘Only When We Want Them’ by Emily Harrison

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The weather was caustic. You know – when it can’t decide what it wants to be. Bubbling up in the sky. Either it’s going to burn hot all day, really blister the skin, or it’s going to rain so hard it’ll bounce back up from the ground when it hits the tarmac – like firing a bullet and watching it fire back at you.

I can feel sweat sticking my shirt to my shoulder blades as I watch a guy in front of me – an older guy, past the pension age, drop to the floor in a heap. His wife tries to stop him by grabbing at his arm, but he’s tall and she isn’t so it’s in vain. Some people just walk straight past him as it happens, like you do when there’s a car accident – driving on by but hoping for some gore. Another guy on the market stall directly parallel comes from behind his table and pulls at some yellowing towels that he’s selling to give to the man who’s now face down.

I’m late for lunch. Not just a little late. Not just a few minutes late. I’m a whole forty minutes late. I’m not so well myself. I should have cancelled but I didn’t want to let my friends down. They haven’t called yet to ask where I am, but I made sure I’d stopped being sick and then walked into town. Now there’s a man collapsed in front of me. I’d literally have to step over him to carry on to Tejano’s, and I’m feeling pretty faint myself.

I stop, because I’m not heartless. I did debate it for a moment. Just turn around, walk home, walk back the way I came, pretend my phone’s ringing. But I’m an adult and I feel as though I have a responsibility to help the man who hasn’t moved since he fell. His wife is crying. I crouch down to her level like she’s a child and tell her I’m going to ring an ambulance, saying it soft to keep her calm. There’s more people now, as though the man is a piece of food and they’re the seagulls, pecking around him, saying unhelpful things like ‘is he alright’ and ‘what happened?’. His suffering like bait to the hungry bored masses. A woman announces she’s going to ring for an ambulance and I hear myself shout ‘I’m doing that now.’ She looks perturbed, but I don’t care because this isn’t about her and she’s definitely the type who steps into situations for the sole reason of getting a pat on the back.

I dial 999. If you’ve ever dialled 999 for an ambulance, then you’ll know you get asked lots of questions. Questions, in my case, I couldn’t answer. Is he breathing – sort of. Then they ask if he has any medical conditions, his date of birth, whether this has happened before, and I’m thinking ‘fucked if I know’ and I can’t ask his wife because she’s inconsolable next to him. The operator knows I’m getting stressed. They can sense it through the phone. I say, ‘look that’s all I can tell you, please just send an ambulance’ and they say they will, and not to worry. By this point the sweat that’s been settling on my back is reaching round and across my chest and I’m starting to taste sick again.

We prop the guy up on the scratchy towels the Indian man plucked from his market stall. I know him. He runs the Jaipur Spice at the other end of town. He has a compassionate face – the reassuring kind, and when this is all over I make sure I eat at there regularly.

Then we wait.

I sit down with the woman and try to centre myself before I throw up, so I start thinking. Musing on all the times I’ve helped people. The times I’ve done them a favour. The times I’ve put myself out there.

There was this girl at school once. I gave her a CD I’d got signed because she loved the band and I loved them too but maybe not as much as she did. There isn’t a measuring stick for those things. I got it from a gig my Dad took me to. The band did a signing table and because the CD wasn’t made out to me – just had their signatures on it – I figured she could have it. She said, ‘are you sure’ and I said, ‘yeah of course’. I wasn’t totally sure, but she seemed happy. Then a few years later I saw her. I was only young when I gave her the CD – twelve I think – but when I saw her again she looked straight through me. I bet she couldn’t even tell me where the CD was if I’d asked. I smiled at her, like you do, being friendly, but she didn’t acknowledge it. I knew what I did never meant as much to her as it did to me.

Then there was Anthony. I’m not sure if what I did was a favour, not in retrospect. Maybe it was a deal – an unspoken one. I can’t really say. I met him at a club where your shoes stick to the floor. The sort of place where everyone spills drinks and chucks half empty cups on the brown carpet. It was a few weeks before I was about to go to university and believing in all the shit you get told and all the pressures of society – the small stuff you know – I decided that I needed to lose my virginity because no way could I be a virgin at university. I’d smack myself around the head if I could now. But that was my conclusion and that’s exactly what I did. Except Anthony was 25 and I was 17 and sometimes I think I should have known better but he should have known better, too. I’d got it in my head that it might be romantic but of course it wasn’t, and as I drove to his house, thinking ‘this is going to be it, it’s going to be amazing’, it hadn’t dawned on me that Anthony wasn’t actually prince charming. It dawned on me when I was naked though, and I said, ‘actually I can’t do this’ and he said, ‘yeah you can’. He didn’t have any condoms, so I said ‘fine, we can do other stuff’ but he begged me to let him put it inside me, ‘please, just for a bit’ and I didn’t let him. Didn’t really say yes. Or maybe I did. I was naked in his bed, wasn’t I? He did it anyway. And it hurt. Really hurt – because I wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t wet, and these things make a difference, but I didn’t know any of that then. He apologised, said sorry over and over. I went home and washed my skin so hard it felt like I was a snake that needed shedding. I never spoke to him again. I’d lost my virginity because I didn’t want to be a virgin at university and in the end, I never went to university anyway. Bottled it at the last minute. It’s the sort of irony that makes you want to fall off a cliff.

I blink over. The woman has stopped crying now. I ask what her name is. ‘It’s Jean’ she says, and I hold her hand because she looks like she needs an anchor.

The ambulance is taking an age. I’m back to daydreaming again. Thinking on all those times I’ve done people’s shifts for them at work and they’ve never done one for me. Covered for them and got nothing in return. There was one time I couldn’t come in. Not at all. So, I asked one of the guys I’d covered for if he could cover for me. Do my shift. All he said was ‘I thought it was a favour’ and I said, ‘it was’ but he said, ‘clearly it wasn’t because you want something in return.’ So now when he asks me to make him a drink at work, I stick a little water from the toilet in with the milk and tea and give it a good stir.

There are other times too. Like how I always make sure I’m never late – today being the exception – but people are always late to see me. Tell me a time and I’ll be there five minutes before. Tell my sister a time, for instance, and she’ll be there when she wants because she’s busy and I’m not. Apparently.

Then there’s mum. She hurt her wrist earlier in the year. Broke it clean. And I changed around my work schedule to take her to hospital. Drove her the thirty miles and back because our local one didn’t have the equipment and consultants to do whatever was needed. And that was fine because she’s my mum and that’s what you do. Except when I hurt my hand. I burnt it on the electric hob that she’d left on. Properly burnt it. It felt as though hot pins were being stuck all over my palm all at the same time, I rang her and said, ‘I need to go to A&E, can you come home and drive me?’ because I couldn’t drive, could I? I couldn’t even take my hand out of the ice water I’d submerged it in, but she said, ‘no I’m at work, you’ll just have to wait.’ So, I walked to A&E, tears stinging my eyes, hand holding some ice. She called me hours later asking where I was, because in A&E you can age a couple of years just waiting to be seen. I told her, and she said, ‘why are you there, is that why tea isn’t cooked?’ so I hung up and didn’t speak to her for the rest of the week.

The ambulance is here now – sirens blaring. I get up and wave them over before going back to Jean and her husband. He’s come round now but he looks worse for wear. Got a lump on his head where he whacked the pavement. A man and a pretty woman hop out of the van and drag some equipment over, ask questions, do some tests, and decide that he’d best go to hospital to double check it isn’t anything more sinister. I know that between here and Tejano’s I’m going to have to be sick again. Jean looks over and thanks me for keeping her calm. She’s watching the sweat that’s started to form on my brow drip down onto my nose as she says it. Asks if I’m okay. But I tell her that I’m fine and it’s no problem and I hope he’s alright.

I get to the other end of the street before I throw up into a bin. Clinging to the sides of it like I’m about to abseil down. The woman who I shouted at about the ambulance struts past as if she’s walking on some specially imported air. She looks down, smirks, and keeps going. Fuck her. I’m about to resign myself to fate when I hear the ambulance sirens again. I’m thinking ‘who else has decided to hurt themselves’ when it stops in front of me. I’m near a taxi rank and it’s pulled onto the boxed bit of cobble that says taxis only. I look back but there’s no one in need of an ambulance so I just watch it instead – I throw up in my mouth again too, and because this day couldn’t get any worse, and I couldn’t be any worse, I forget to spit it out and instead I swallow it back down.

Jean appears next to me.

She puts her hand on my shoulder and I ask her what she’s doing. She says, ‘I thought you better come to the hospital too’ and I’m puzzled because why would I do that, her husband doesn’t need me to be there does he? She just looks at me softly, like I’m a little bambino, and calls over to the two paramedics who help me up and into the back of the ambulance where her husband is strapped in. He’s awake now, and I give him a little nod.

I tell Jean later, when she comes to see me on my ward – I’ve got acute food poisoning apparently – that she didn’t need to do that for me. That I wasn’t being kind for any selfish reason. I just wanted to help. But I think I missed the trick – or the point. Blacked out for some of the conversation. Because she doesn’t say anything, nothing it all. Just picks up my hand and holds it for me. Really tight.

A young writer from North Yorkshire, Emily has recently discovered that she actually likes creative writing, despite everything she may have previously said. She can be found on Twitter @emily__harrison, and has had work published with Storgy, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press.

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