Samsung Galaxy and Lloyds TSB vs. Emergency Services (April 20)
Walking home late from the studio last night, I saw a man in a grey tracksuit gesticulating towards me as I emerged from the dark avenue of the old Sneinton fruit and vegetable market and waited to cross Carlton Road. When I reached his side of the road, instead of the cigarette or couple of quid I’d assumed he was probably going to ask for, he’d said he wanted me to call an ambulance, or the police, on my phone.
I have a phone, but it’s been disconnected for outgoing calls ever since someone paid an invoice late and the bank bounced their direct debit over a month ago. Having paid that bill weeks earlier, the service still hasn’t been restored and the customer service line of Virgin Media isn’t working either, though an automated message seems to think it is, and I gave up trying to sort it out a fair while back. So, I have a phone in my pocket but know it isn’t working.
When I answer him, I simplify this to ‘Sorry, I don’t have a phone’, at which point he leads me towards a litter bin beneath a gigantic set of billboards, advertising (improbably) Samsung Galaxy mobile phones (catchline: “Do Two Things At Once!”) and Lloyds TSB Bank, that’s to say, the very brand of useless phone equipment in my pocket, and the bank that had bounced the direct debit in March. A third billboard showed (not Virgin Media, sadly, though it might as well have done) but a queue for an NHS A&E facility, each member labelled with a reason why they shouldn’t be there.
The relevance of this became clear when beside the bin I noticed the twisted body of a man, probably aged somewhere between his late 20s and late 30s, his grey hooded top ridden up over half his skinny torso, showing protruding ribs and scuffed skin, collapsed or fallen, but either way, clearly unconscious, if still alive. The man who’d asked to use a phone had already tried the pub and a small queue of four or five people at a bus stop on the other side of the road, but nobody there had a phone, or so they’d told him.
Now, I didn’t have a phone either, or at least, not one of any use. A few doors along was a corner shop – Gully’s News And Booze: The Nip-In Express, to be exact – and as it was still open I asked the shaven-headed asian man behind the counter if I could use the phone, explaining the situation: the explanation went roughly like this: that (only slightly untruthfully) I didn’t have a phone, and (entirely truthfully) that it seemed necessary to call an ambulance.
The shop owner, or the man behind the counter, at any rate, among his fags and booze and confectionery, pulled out a white eighties-style land-line with big push buttons that looked tiny in his big hand, pressed 999, then handed me the plastic receiver. There were the usual questions and answers. The directions were given. I was still answering questions about the man’s condition (the answers to which were mostly ‘I don’t know, but he’s definitely out cold’, and ‘white male, 25 to 35 at a guess. He’s not looking good’) when a paramedic pulled up outside the shop in an estate car with ambulance markings.
I put down the phone, thanked the man behind the counter – maybe Gully himself, maybe someone else – and stepped outside to speak to the paramedic as he leaned from his car window, reversing slowly down to the spot I’d pointed him towards. The body was still out cold by the bin, under the billboards. The paramedic got out, followed me, leaned down to check the body then returned to his vehicle to get his kit. The friend, or other passer-by, whoever he was, the man who’d asked for the phone, was still hovering nearby, but it still wasn’t clear if he was involved, a friend of the unconscious man, or just a slightly drunk character who was concerned and trying to help.
‘Do you need anything, any help or details?’, I’d asked the paramedic, but the answer was ‘No, I can take it from here’, his tone of voice that of a man for whom this was routine stuff. The man who’d asked for the phone was worried the medic was leaving, ran after him shouting, but was reassured when the medic hauled out a bag and a small case and headed back towards the litter bin, beside which the body – or the ‘patient’, as the woman who’d taken the details had been careful to say – still lay, not having moved or changed his position since I’d first seen him ten or fifteen minutes earlier.
His fingers were clenched in a kind of lifeless empty grip position, his shoulder turned into the pavement, one arm sticking out at an odd, uncomfortably severe angle: he clearly wasn’t sleeping, but at this point I wasn’t any help, and would just be getting in the way: the paramedic was now in charge and had returned to the body, or the patient, whatever his true state was, so I said ‘OK’ to the medic, turned and carried on walking towards home, wondering what might happen next, knowing I’d probably never find out what had happened, or what would happen after I’d left.
Still, it felt like an image for the times: a man unconscious, a man desperate to call an ambulance – but not, it seemed, the sort of man who looked like someone you’d show your phone to, if his luck to that point had been anything to go by – all unfolding underneath a gigantic billboard extolling the virtues of instant communication, convenience, the connectedness of people across the globe, the myriad ways you could chat and stay in touch, even as a body lay there and someone struggled to find a way to get help; a billboard showing a picture of the mobile phone that weighed down my own coat pocket, reduced to a plastic and glass fob-watch the approximate size and shape of a bar of black soap.