Five-minute memoir: Louise Doughty recalls a drunken night out that ended with a 999 call
'He stood swaying and swearing, before head-butting the door'
Saturday 17 August 2013
My 11-year-old is going through a fearful phase. She doesn't like me or her big sister going out in the evening. She wants to know what to do if a burglar breaks into the house during the night – she also worries about a plane falling out of the sky. Recently, she asked me to describe, in specific details, the circumstances under which it was appropriate to call 999, and asked me if I had ever had to do it. It reminded me of an incident that I haven't thought about for years.
It was the 1980s. I was a student at university in Leeds when it was a very different town from now. It was the height of Thatcherism and the social divisions of that time; the miners' strike, "Loadsamoney", the north-south divide. Leeds felt like quite a tough town if you didn't have any money – or perhaps any urban centre would have felt like a tough town to an impoverished student in those days, especially one like me who had had a relatively sheltered upbringing in a rural area of the East Midlands.
In many ways, Leeds was a student-friendly city – there was certainly a huge transient population, although the corollary of that was a lot of tension with local people. When we would go out to pubs and nightclubs, fights were common; my boyfriend had been punched in a pub in front of me just for having a Brummie accent. We generally stuck together in large groups.
One such night, about eight of us had been in a pub and there had been various tensions, partly from a heaving pub full of drunken young people of all sorts, but heightened by something that was nothing to do with outsiders. One couple in the group had been bickering all night, the kind of vicious, out-of-control sniping that happens when you put alcohol on top of a relationship that is already melting in acrimony.
Eventually, the rest of us prised the couple away from each other and outside, and we all walked back to the combative boyfriend's rented house through streets that teemed with voluble youngsters on the edge of good times about to go sour; the mugginess of a hot summer night, the occasional shriek or shout, the smash of glass.
On the doorstep of the young man's home, he was so drunk he was unable to get the key into the lock. He stood swaying and swearing for a minute before, in one swift movement, head-butting a glass panel in the door, then shoving his hand through the broken pane and undoing the lock. (He later told me he had got the idea from the scene in East of Eden where James Dean head-butts a train window.)
Suddenly, we were all inside the house. The young man and the other men in our group had run upstairs and there was commotion. His girlfriend was wailing in distress. In the dim light of a darkened hallway, I could see a vast splat of blood sprayed up the wall, more blood on the stairs. One of my housemates yelled down the stairs, "Louise, call an ambulance."
"What, 999?" I asked, stupidly. It seemed an extreme thing to do.
"Yes, now!" he yelled back.
There was an old-fashioned grey payphone screwed to the communal hallway wall. As I made the call, I stared at the blood on the wall. There seemed quite a lot of it. "Has he been fighting, love?" asked the operator, no doubt wondering if she should send a squad car while she was at it.
"No," I said, "it was an accident," although I knew it had been anything but.
The ambulance came; the young man was carted away, covered in blood and with a serious head injury, still drunk and still snarling at his sobbing girlfriend, who insisted on getting into the ambulance with him. He needed a quantity of stitches. I can't remember what the rest of us did but I imagine that, shocked and sobered, we probably made tea. I don't think any of us bothered to clear up the blood; who knows what the young man's unfortunate housemates thought when they got home.
What stays with me from the incident are not the facts of the act itself but the feeling of the hard plastic telephone receiver in my hand, my sudden sobriety and calmness as I repeated what little I knew, my sense that it felt no more than the culmination of a very bad night out undertaken in a city in crisis in a country that felt dangerously at odds with itself. I did what I tell my daughter to do: stay calm, keep everyone safe, call for help. I do not mention that what remains with you after such incidents is the pictures: the dim hallway, the grey telephone, the blood on the wall.
Louise Doughty's latest novel, 'Apple Tree Yard', is published by Faber
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