All around, festive lights are flickering. On trees, in windows, in truck cabs and shops. Some windows have candles alight. It seems that everyone needs some extra light at such a dark time of the year. The short days bring only temporary respite from the long nights. Even then they're merely a dim glimmer of hope, the cloudy skies preventing the sun from breaking through and showering some of its warmth. For so many, this time of year, far from being a time of joy and family gatherings, is a time of loneliness, fear, and heartbreak.
Having never before had the need to break into a house, I found it a difficult decision to make. It had always been the police's job to break doors down. This time they had no units to send, and the report I'd been given was one of a child, possibly a baby, crying continuously. The call had come from a concerned neighbour, who'd heard crying when they went out for the evening, and had returned hours later to still hear the same noise. There were no lights on in the house.
As we arrived (I was in the FRU (fast response unit), but had an observer -a nurse turned medical student- with me for the night), we could hear the whimpers through the letter box. We called, yelled, banged on the door, rang the bell, all to no avail. No lights came on, no curtains twitched, no movement. Throwing caution to the wind and cursing Health and Safety rules, I looked at Beth, my observer, told her she never saw a thing, and broke the door down with two swings of an oxygen cylinder. Note for future reference - they make damned good battering rams.
The first light switch clicked ominously like an empty rifle. No flash of light, just an echoing click. The second did the same. As did the third. I went back to the car and found a torch, and carried that and the newly redefined oxygen cylinder as self-defence. Just in case. I had a quick look up and saw that none of the light fittings had any bulbs in them. We searched every room, and tried to follow the sound of the cries. It was like trying to find the end of a rainbow. Every time we thought we'd pinpointed it, it seemed to move, and we started wondering if we were actually chasing a cat rather than a baby. Ominously, after a few minutes, the noise stopped.
Having found nothing downstairs, other than a framed photograph of a soldier standing proudly in dress uniform, we started up the stairs, a double flight, with a small landing half way up. The darkness seemed even heavier here, the torchlight making minimal difference. In the dull glare of the torch I checked the first set of stairs, skipped the landing, and looked directly upwards. My heart rate doubled and I could feel the sweat starting to build as the adrenaline pumped itself round my slightly terrified system. I still don't know why I kept going, rather than waiting for back up, either in the form of another ambulance or the police. Stupidity rather than bravery, I assure you. Reaching the top of the first flight, and stepping on to the landing, I tripped over a boot, and yelled in fright. The boot was attached to Sim.
Sim looked like a ghost, a pale, almost skeletal ghost, hands nothing but skin and bone, terrified, wild, bloodshot eyes sunk deep into his head. He was cowering in the corner, legs folded up into his chest. Then the tears streamed, and the all-too-familiar cry that we'd heard from outside returned. Sim was no baby, or child. He was a fully grown man, looking decades older than the mid-30s that he was, a shadow of what he probably used to be.
He wouldn't, maybe couldn't, talk for a long while. I'd informed control that we'd found him, that there was no child involved, and they in return told me that they had no ambulance to send, and that the police would be at least an hour as well. Beth and I were ready for a long stay, unsure of what to expect. We asked questions, made statements, promised help, if only he would talk to us. Beth tried to put an arm around his shoulders, a gesture that at first he repelled, horrified, but then accepted with a look of desperation. Sim cried into her shoulder for a full ten minutes, before at last regaining some composure, and whispering a barely audible "Sorry".
We talked some more, Beth and I, while Sim would only answer by nodding or shaking his head. There were intermittent sobs, long silences while we searched for the right questions to give us the answers we needed. The photo downstairs eventually registered in the recesses of my mind, and I realised that this shadow was once that same proud soldier.
"Is that you? In the photo downstairs?"
A nod of the head confirmed my suspicions.
"I was a soldier once. Miss it too! Miss the friends, the closeness, the action. Would go back tomorrow if I could." I told him a little of where I was, what I'd done, what I'd seen, and what it meant to me. Slowly, the tears dried.
For the first time, Sim looked me in the eye. I'd found it. The connection we needed. And then he talked. For the next 20 minutes, uninterrupted, he talked, and we listened. About the Army, about his life without it, about the injury he'd received that meant he could no longer serve his country. He spoke of the nightmares he has, the flashbacks, the friends he'd lost. He told us that the Army was not only his life, but his friends, his family, his support. He cried about being jealous of his friends who were still serving, how they couldn't visit him while they were away on a deployment. How he was left all alone, now that they'd been away for three months. He had no food, no electricity, no money, and not a soul in the world to turn to. He couldn't bring himself to leave the house, the thought of the outside world terrifying him. Tonight was the night he was going to end it all, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He sat on the landing and cried for hours, until we arrived.
We talked some more about how we could get him some help, and reluctantly he'd agreed to try. He'd come to the hospital, talk to the doctors, the crisis team, the social workers. He made no promises about succeeding, but at least he'd give it a go. "At least I'll try to get to see one more Christmas."
Weeks later, and after a few days off, I returned to station for my next shift to find a card and an almost empty box of chocolates, just sat on the table. I looked in the card, expecting to see another "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year" message from a grateful member of the public, or maybe even from our management. Happens sometimes. Instead, it had two sentences inside.
"Thank You for understanding and saving my life. From one ex-soldier to another".
Sim's chocolates were gone.
Sim's card is still safe.
Hopefully, Sim is too.