"Mike Delta 592 receiving Mike Delta" my radio encroaches on my rather pleasant chat with Kim in the cafeteria.
Kim is a police constable. She is also married, and I really shouldn't be talking to her at the moment; she's going through a tough time with her husband, who used to be a custody skipper on the borough. Due to the Olympics, however, and as it's causing an additional demand for AFOs (Authorised Firearms Officers), he was lured back to the gun-carrying elite of the Metropolitan Police, and has subsequently been doing a lot of training to get his firearms certificate back in good standing. Kim has been confiding in me about her suspicions of her husband having found someone on the sly, and I'm having to bite my tongue about the indecent fantasies I've been having about her for several years now. I'm recently (I say recently... It happened about six months ago) out of a relationship myself, and have been going through a bit of a romantic dry spell. It's very hard not to offer to take Kim out for a drink or six and see where that takes us, but...
"Hey Matt", Kim says. "It says five-nine-two on your shoulder, I think", she points out drily.
"Uh. Yeah," I reply, before finally reaching for my radio.
"Mike Delta 592 receiving?" my radio rasps at my ear again, before I have time to respond. Several of the people in the cafetaria are looking over at me -- I'm clearly there, and I can obviously hear my radio.
"Go ahead", I reply.
"Are you free to attend a Code Victor?"
I had to rack my brain. I've attended enough Code Zulus in my life to remember what they are (sudden death), and even the odd Code X-ray (sexual assault), but I couldn't immediately remember what Code Victor is. It's bad for two reasons: The Code system is only used for incidents that are serious enough that they don't want to broadcast it over the airwaves, so it's unfortunate that I can't remember what Code Victor refers to, but it's also embarrassing in that I can't ask the operator what it means; the whole point of having these codes is not having to refer to the incident over the network.
I must have looked slightly forlorn, because Kim decided to try and help me out. She started miming something in front of me. In her best mining effort, she was holding something up into the air, tilting her head to the side, and sticking her tongue out.
Oh! It came back to me.
"Yes yes, I'm free to deal", I reply, now apparently being dispatched to -- as it was so aptly conveyed to me in the somewhat unconventional power of mime -- a possible suicide in progress.
"Great, sending deets to your MDT. You're not single crewed are you?"
I was, in fact, single crewed today, but Kim had just come back from a court appearance early. I shrug at her, and she reaches for her radio in reply.
"Show 248 Mike Delta on that one with 592." she said, finished her transmission, and addressed me. "Let's go save a life."
"Received, good luck." the operator replied.
Luck. We might just need some of that.
"Where is it?" I transmitted.
"Westgate Terrace. Number 35, three-five."
"Thanks, on our way. 592 out."
In the car, I flicked on the blues and sirens, and we started heading towards Westgate Terrace. Kim, meanwhile, was wrangling the MDT to try and get the details for our current deployment.
"Goddammit" she mumbles. "I've locked myself out of the bloody MDT again. Every fucking month this happens. What's your login, Matt?"
"My username is papa three four eight five nine two", I say, on auto-pilot.
We're really not meant to share our logins, and giving Kim my login details is most definitely a sackable offence. At the same time, the IT policies of the Metropolitan Police aren't very well aligned with real-world policing: As I'm reading out my login details, we're careening down a busy street, full of shoppers, cars, and cyclists. It's a 30-zone, the roads are bustling with lunchtime traffic, and I'm doing about 40 mph. I need all the concentration I can muster to keep from crashing into anybody. To top off the usual stresses of blue-light runs, we are on our way to a call where we know someone is currently in the process of taking their own life. The correct procedure, in this case, would be to gently pull over to the side of the road, bring the car to a halt, pull the hand-brake, ask Kim in the most polite of tones if she wouldn't pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top avert her eyes from the screen, enter my login (7 digits) and my password (12 digits), wait for the whole system to load up (which takes several excruciating minutes; our bloody in-car computers are built on Windows 2000...), click "ok" on the screen that says that we aren't able to share our logins, check all the details for our currently assigned CAD deployment myself, and then start driving again. Dear IT manager, if you are reading this: Sorry, but that simply ain't happening.
"My password", I say, as I'm negotiating a tight section of road around some roadworks, a red light, and a pedestrian crossing I am passing a centre reservation on the wrong side of the road, very nearly bumping into a completely oblivious driver who somehow managed to miss my (rather loud) sirens and the flashing blue lightning storm that is currently in progress on my roof.
I freeze. I have Kim in my passenger seat. I cannot, I realise, actually say my password out loud.
"Let me", I say, and look down at the screen, starting to press the touch-sensitive buttons.
Kim punches me in the shoulder.
"Don't be a fucking retard, Matt." she shouts. "You're on a blue-light run, on the wrong side of the road. Take your eyes off the asphalt one more time, and I'll stab your eyes out with my pen."
She holds her black Bic ballpoint pen up for me to see.
She's right, of course. Not looking at the road is a bone-head move. And whilst piercing my cornea with an ink-dispensing device would be harsh punishment, I can't really get around the fact that I'm trapped. We need the details for our call, pronto, and I can't type in my own password.
"Right," I say, and start reading out my password using the NATO phonetic alphabet, desperately hoping that she fails to catch on to my hopelessly childish and deeply inappropriate password.
"Upper-case Kilo. Lower-case India, Mike, Sierra. Upper-case Bravo. Lower-case Oscar. Numeral zero. Lower case Bravo, Sierra".
I purse my lips together, and I feel the blood draining from my face and neck.
I have just spelled out "KimsBo0bs"... to Kim. What in the bloody hell possessed me to pick such a ridiculously stupid password? 'Awkward' doesn't come within the nearest country of describing what just happened... I force myself to concentrate extra hard on my driving, so I don't have to catch Kim's eyes.
Kim is quiet, as she's waiting for the CAD screen to load up. She doesn't say anything for a long time. Perhaps she didn't spell out what I read out.
The MDT unit obscures the letters with asterisks as you type them, so it's entirely possible that I got away with it, I think to myself.
"You're such a child, Matt." Kim says. I expected her to confront me, or perhaps be angry, but she sounded gentle, subdued. I daren't look over.
The next period of time consisted chiefly of high-speed driving that seemed to pass in slow motion. When we arrived at the location on our CAD after what couldn't have been more than a half-score of minutes but felt like a decade, there wasn't any more time to dwell on my daft choice of passwords.
"Show time of arrival for two-six", Kim transmitted, as the car pulled to a stop in a parking bay outside the address.
"Cancel cancel TOA fro two-six.", I transmitted in reply. "Show TOA for two-eight."
"Whoops," Kim said, shrugged, and ran up the five concrete steps to the Victorian house; Number 38. She pressed the buzzer for flat B.
I locked the car and bolted after her.
A man opened the door; he was around 35 years old, and looked as if he hadn't had a wink of sleep in the best part of six weeks.
"I'm glad you're here," he said. "It's my mother. I think she's done something stupid."
"Where is she?" Kim said.
"Please take us to her."
The man nodded, and turned around slowly. He walked as if he had lead weights attached to all his limbs. I wondered briefly if this was just an effect of the adrenaline from the brisk drive here -- it does occasionally do weird things to your perception of time -- but Kim seemed to be moving normally, which appeared to indicate that the man was indeed walking as if he was semi-comatose.
When we made it to the end of the hallway about forty-eight hours later, following the man's slow-shuffling gait, both Kim and myself were ready to shove him out of the way and make our own way there. Eventually, he pushed open a door, and held out an arm, as if he were a butler in a 1920s hotel.
A woman, aged around fifty-five or so, was sitting on a wooden chair by the window. Kim walked over to her and sat down on her hunches.
"Hi there Mrs Livingston." Kim said, remembering the woman's name from the CAD briefing.
The woman registered that someone had appeared next to her, and very slowly turned to look. If spotting a police officer next to her made any impression at all, she was spectacularly good at hiding it.
"Hmbl," the woman said.
"Sorry, Mrs Livingston," Kim replied, repeating the woman's name to try to break through the thick woolly wall that appeared to be surrounding her. "I can't understand you. Are you okay?"
"I don't want..." the woman said, her sentence trailing off, as she turned her head towards the window. "Brian?" she asked the window, and settled into her chair, waiting for the inanimate object to reply.
"Who is Brian, Mrs Livingston?" Kim asked, but failed to get a reply. She continued trying to get the lady to talk, and I stepped out into the hallway.
"Mike Delta receiving two-eight."
"Is LAS on their way to our call? This lady seems very hazy. Our CAD mentioned a drugs overdose, but we haven't yet clarified." I said.
"Yes yes. LAS are aware, and are despatching someone as soon as they can. All the ambulances are tied up, but they gave an ETA of about twenty minutes."
"Received," I said, and went back inside the kitchen.
When I came in, Kim pointed to a collection of empty boxes on the table. I picked one up. 'Solpadeine', I read; not a box I recognised. I quickly read the ingredients on the side of the box. Paracetamol and codeine, mostly.
"How many has she taken?" I asked.
"I don't know", Kim said. "These were the ones I found in the bin, but there was nothing else in there, so it may have been recently emptied."
"Where do you empty your bins?" I asked the man who had let us in; he was still loitering near the kitchen door in the hallway.
"Outside," he stated the painfully obvious.
"Did you empty the kitchen bin today?" I asked.
"Did you notice whether there were any packages in there?"
"No, but I didn't look," he said.
I asked the man to come outside with me, and led the way; it seemed as if he walked a little faster when he didn't have to lead, which was a veritable crown jewel of a relief.
"This bin?" I asked, pointing at a gray wheelie-bin at the bottom of the stairs. The man nodded.
Inside the wheelie bin, there were several binbags. I grabbed the one at the top. Opening it, I found two more Solpadeine boxes, and an empty box of prescription medicine. "Accupril", I read, and saw that Mrs Livingston's name was on the prescription label.
I took the boxes back inside with me.
"Do you know how many of these she may have taken?" I asked the son. He shrugged, and looked away.
"Do you think the boxes were full?" I asked. My question was rewarded with another shrug.
Back in the kitchen, I added the three new boxes to the pile, and started opening them, to ensure they were all empty. They were.
"Any luck?" I asked Kim.
"No. It seems as if she took all the pills out of the packaging, but I also found a load of drugs she hadn't taken yet loose in the bin," Kim said. "Just the pills."
I counted the packages. There was one Accupril, and seven boxes of Solpadeine.
"Seven times thirty", I said, trying to do the math in my head. I really need some night classes in simple arithmetic.
"Two ten", Kim said. "Plus the twenty-pack of whatever Accupril is. But some of these Solpadeine packages have old expiry dates on them."
Old expiry dates might mean any number of things; our new friend Mrs Livingstone kept buying the drugs, taking a few, then putting the package away in a drawer, and buying a new pack when she was at the pharmacy, for example. But there could be a dozen other explanations too, none of them particularly useful in trying to determine how many pills she might have taken.
"So, what we're saying, is that she's probably taken less than two hundred, and more than, what... Ten?"
"No idea," Kim shrugged. "There's no way of knowing. She refuses to say anything, but her son seems to think that she hasn't taken all that many. It also seems as if she's finished off a bottle of vodka. She says she misses her husband, and doesn't want to live anymore."
I looked over on the kitchen counter. A half-litre bottle of Smirnoff stood on the counter, next to a freshly washed kitchen glass, upside-down in the drying rack. The bottle was empty.
I turned to the son.
"What happened to her husband?" I asked him.
"He died." he said, simply.
"My condolances." I said.
"He was a bad man," the son volunteered. "And not my father. She re-married, but he died."
"Four years ago."
"Wait, so her husband passed away four years ago?"
"Yes." he replied.
"Has she tried killing herself before?"
"Yeah. She talks about it all the time. In fact," he said, and raised his voice so he was sure his mother could hear her, "I wish she'd do a better job of it."
"Woah, woah," I said. "Come with me, please."
I led the son out of earshot of his mother, towards the front step.
"I'm sorry." he said, and sighed, as we were moving along. "I seem to be rushing over to her house every few days with another suicide attempt, and she forces me to stay with her, refuses to let me sleep. I just want to sleep. I want... Just a full night's sleep. If it means that she has to die so I can sleep -- just once -- then so be it."
Finally, I grasped why the look on the man's eyes looked so familiar; It was quite similar to the thousand-yard-stare you sometimes see on the faces of new parents, after they have been deprived of sleep for just a little bit too long.
He sat down on the step outside the house.
"I'm sorry. I don't actually want her dead, I just want this to be over..."
"I completely understand. Sorry -- I have to ask -- Is this a typical suicide attempt, would you say?"
"No, not really," he sighed. "She normally leaves a lot of empty boxes of pills around, saying she's taken them all, but she usually flushes them down the toilet. She doesn't usually drink either, so I don't really know what is different this time around."
"So the number of packages we found isn't really an indication of anything?"
"No. She has been saving them for many years now."
"And the bottle?"
"I've never seen it before, but for all I know, she may have poured the contents down the sink. Or down her throat. I honestly don't know."
I nodded, and got on the radio.
"Mike Delta receiving two-eight?"
"... ahead", the radio clipped off the beginning of the CAD operator's reply.
"Just a quick update -- The woman has taken somewhere between zero and two hundred painkillers containing codeine and paracetamol, and between zero and twenty..." I ended the transmission, swore under my breath, and ran back inside the house.
"Two-eight, you broke. Repeat your last?"
I picked up the package from the kitchen table.
"... And between zero and twenty Accupril. It appears to be a prescription drug, but I don't know what it's for."
"Received, two-eight. We will pass the information on to LAS."
"Do you have a revised ETA for them?"
"Negative, two-eight. I'll check for you."
"Anything?" I asked Kim.
The woman moved slowly, and turned towards us, as if she wanted to say something.
"I can smell alcohol on her breath", Kim said. "And she says she has taken all the pills."
"Mrs Livingston", I say, gently. She looks up at me, blinking her eyes slowly.
"How many pills have you taken?"
"All of them." she says.
She reaches for the kitchen table, and picks up one of the red packages of painkillers with trembling fingers.
"This one." she says, and points vaguely at the sizeable stack of empty boxes on the table. "And those."
"Were all the boxes full, Mrs Livingston?" I asked.
She looks at me, her eyes glazed, as if she can't focus on my face. I'm not getting through, that's clear.
"She's acting," her son says.
"How do you mean?" Kim asks, sharply.
"She seems completely out of it," the son explains, "but she always does. Normally, she's just depressed, and acting. She's always like this."
The whole situation is utterly unhelpful. We have a son who just wants to go to sleep, and doesn't seem to care whether his mother lives or dies. We have a woman who has a history of pretending to have taken pills, and the only range of pills taken we can guess at is 'probably more than ten, probably less than a hundred'.
"Two-eight receiving Mike Delta?" my radio whispers. I forgot I had turned the volume way down to talk to the mother.
"Receiving," I reply, and turn my volume up a little.
"Just had an update from LAS. They'll be there within the next few minutes."
"Appreciated. Thanks." I say. I wander over to the door to meet the LAS crew.
The ambulance arrives ten minutes later. I welcome them, and spend the length of the hallway bringing them up to speed about the patient. There's surprisingly little to tell them; despite our half-hour of information gathering, we still don't really know anything about her medical situation.
"Don't worry, Delito," the paramedic says, having read the name tag on my stabvest, when I apologised. "You did your job, now it's our turn to do ours."
It often happens that I feel completely helpless in my job. Don't get me wrong; I know that I'm not a paramedic or a firefighter, but as police officers we are fighting a battle against the law of averages: whenever an emergency requires the emergency services dressed in green or red, they probably need the boys and girls in blue as well. There's more of us; we drive smaller and faster cars, and we're more evenly distributed throughout the borough, so more often than not, we rock up at a scene before fire or ambulance services get there. Its often frustrating for everybody concerned: I know some basic first aid, and I suppose I've saved more than my fair share of lives, but really, when people know they need an ambulance, you can often see their hearts sink when they realise that the sirens coming closer don't carry bandages and doctors, but handcuffs and a soothing voice -- neither of which is of all that much help.
The feeling of really wanting to help someone, but simply not having the skills nor equipment to be able to, is by far the most frustrating part of my job. I find it mentally exhausting whenever I have to deal with situations like that.
The ambulance crew decide that since they don't know how many pills Mrs Livingston has swallowed; they're going to have to take her into A&E for observation, and possibly to have her stomach pumped.
Weak as she is, the 57-year old lady has firmly decided she refuses to go with the ambulance crew, and the situation rapidly deteriorates.
"Listen to me, Dottie," the paramedic says; he has clearly managed to extract a first name out of her -- or her son. "You have two choices, either you are going to come with us voluntarily, or we are going to have to take you in by force. That's not nice for anyone."
In the end, Kim and I had to help the ambulance personnel with some gentle persuasion and nudged her towards the ambulance. She was too weak to walk, she claimed, but not too weak to fight off the ambulance crew. They knew a solution, however, and with the help from all four of us, we wrapped Dottie in a blanket, and strapped her in a chair with wheels, before rolling her out of the flat, down the stairs, and into the ambulance.
"They are going to keep her over night,” Kim said to Dottie's son. "Perhaps this is your chance to get a proper night's sleep."
He nodded gratefully, and wandered off down the road, heading for his bed before the ambulance had even pulled away.
The whole scene got to me. There was something incredibly sad about the whole slightly bizarre situation. Kim sat on the steps outside the house, writing some notes. I flopped down next to her.
"You know, these are my least favourite jobs." I said.
"Oh? Attempted suicides?" she asked.
"Well, I suppose so. But really -- really -- this isn't an attempted suicide, is it?"
"Well, she may have taken some pills, but by the sound of things, she's just desperately lonely. Seems to me that she just keeps making desperate pleas for attention, which her son keeps fulfilling by rocking up. It's a nasty, vicious circle that neither of them is able to break out of. She can't because of he loneliness, and he can't, because he just can't let his mother actually kill herself."
"It's not healthy for either of them."
"Precisely. He's half dead due to lack of sleep. She's half dead because of her depression and however many painkillers she keeps taking to keep her son believing she's posing a genuine threat to herself. Something's got to give."
Kim paused her writing and looked at me for a long time.
"So basically, this mother/son dynamic is a nasty little sociopathic abusive relationship," I continue, "But since they don't actually beat seven bells out of each other, we're powerless to do anything. It's obviously gone on for long enough that the son admitted to me -- if only briefly -- that he wished she would just get on with it and kill herself."
"Did he mean it?"
"I don't know. But it's bloody depressing either way, don't you think?"
"Yes" Kim said, looking over at me. "Yes it is."
I glanced at my wristwatch.
"Clock's up," I said. "Home time."
We drove back to the nick in silence; my mind was stuck in a holding pattern, wondering what I would do, if my own mother would somehow have put me in that situation.
I parked the car up in the yard, where Jeremy, an old friend of mine, took the keys and rushed straight out to another job. There's no rest for a panda on our borough.
Back at my locker, I wrung myself out of my uniform, hung my merest back on its hanger, and hauled on a track suit and my motorbike leathers.
As I pulled out of the station on my Kawasaki, and turned left onto the main road, I saw Kim at the bus stop. I pulled my bike over, left it on its side stand, and flipped my helmet open.
"Want a ride?" I said, for wont of anything actually sensible to say.
"Got a spare helmet?"
"Then, no." she smiled. "But I appreciate you asking. Maybe next time."
I nodded, and stood awkwardly for a few minutes. She was looking at me, and I just stared back, trying desperately to think of anything witty -- or even just vaguely less-than-inane to communicate. I couldn't think of anything, so I just kept my trouble-generator shut.
A sound behind me caught Kim's attention.
"We need to talk," she said; kissed me on the cheek, and jumped on board the number 21 bus.
Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well!
If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.