‘This is our block!’
‘We were ‘ere first, you bastards!’
John Ward shoves away from his desk, limps to the window and peers into the damp street below. A jostling crowd of young people, two rival gangs squaring off, around fifteen altogether. He watches the posturing, the bragging, the shouting and swearing of ‘these’re our corners’, and ‘shove off, you cunts!’
Terrific. Three weeks into his new life at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, three weeks back from a dusty life of sand and bombs and hissing bullets. Three weeks of looking over his shoulder and sleepless nights from those bloody boy-racers tearing down the street past midnight, bass throbbing through the shoddy walls of his flat. Three weeks of too much caffeine and late-night shifts and the cramp twinges in his leg and the echo-screams of wounded men ripping him from his fever dreams.
And now there’s a turf war right outside, barely ten yards from his front door, half-past ten on a wet Wednesday night. Bloody marvellous.
He sighs and slips on his old combat boots, the sandy worn comfortable ones that carried him through Afghanistan. To be fair, it’s only because one pair of shoes have dogshit all over them and the other pair are spattered with a patient’s vomit. But once he’d scrubbed up the sick ones and thrown out the dogshit ones he still prefers his boots. They make him stand straighter.
Don’t do it.
He thinks of his sidearm, safely locked away in his bottom desk drawer and not tucked into his waistband, cold and familiar.
Don’t get involved – close the blinds – get some bloody sleep –
The meaty thud of an ugly punch. More heckling.
‘Beat ‘is arse, Stevie!’
‘Fuck ‘im up, Jordan!’
Ugh. He picks up his medical bag.
Christ, does he feel old sometimes, and he’s only thirty-eight.
Puddles everywhere. The sour reek of a nearby piss alley. He keeps to the shadows and scans the scene. Two idiots circling. The silver flash of knives. Both are injured; an arm hanging limp, an ugly gash across the other’s cheek. Lucky his eye wasn’t damaged. Definitely battered ribs judging by the way they’re moving awkwardly, stiff like they’re hurting bad.
Enough of this bullshit.
He braces himself one, two, three before launching himself into the fray, sending both knives skittering into the gutter.
‘That is enough.’ His best Captain Ward voice; the calm, icy growl that made sulking cadets and even his old commanding officer flinch and listen goddamnit to what he had to say. Because John Ward, RAMC Captain, Military Cross and St Bart’s second-best GP, is usually right.
They all stop. And stare. Not surprising. He knows he’s short and that his shirt’s untucked with rolled-up sleeves damp from the washing up, but he makes it crystal clear who’s in charge through his rocksteady posture and stern expression. Uses every trick he’s ever learned to make himself the most important person in the space. It all works a treat.
‘Everybody sit down.’ Most of them do, only three don’t. He recognises one; he came into the surgery two days ago with a desperate need for allergy medicine. ‘Andy Macintosh, sit down.’ Andy Macintosh hesitates, then sits. ‘Nice to see the anti-histamines are working,’ John adds lightly, because he knows that will throw them off. He sits the two fighters down safely away from each other, ignoring the surly glares as he carefully removes jackets. He ties a quick pad around the slashed arm to staunch the bleeding and goes back to deal with the cheek. The cut is shallow, only needs sterile strips and a smear of glue. Having to do this by a flickering orange streetlight doesn’t bother him. He’s done this by moonlight, starlight and in no light.
‘Right, whoever has spray paint get the brightest colour you have and spray a line across the road thirty yards from here, both directions. Then come back.’ A boy – and god, he is just a boy, can’t be more than thirteen – runs off to do both lines. John turns back to the glowering lad with the sliced tricep. ‘Name?’ he barks, cleanly gliding scissors up the shirtsleeve.
‘Jordan,’ the fighter grinds out. ‘Watch the shirt.’
‘I don’t care about the shirt,’ John growls as he cleans the area around the wound and gives the anaesthetic a few seconds to start working. ‘I do care if you never get to use your arm again because this wasn’t stitched properly. Right.’ He pokes the puckered flesh. When Jordan doesn’t react he starts sewing, using tweezers to pull the needle through. ‘You all see those lines; they mean no fighting in between them. I don’t care what about. No fighting.’ He ties off the thread, starts wrapping Jordan’s arm in gauze.
‘Jordan, you come to the surgery in five days to get those taken out. In the meantime, we’re going to sort this out like I did in Northern Ireland. All of you lot,’ he looks at the group all wearing patches of green somewhere, ‘are going to bring a few packets of chicken breast to the community centre, five o’clock tomorrow. They’re three for a tenner in Tesco’s. All you lot…’ John looks over at those in black and red and feels suddenly exhausted. He’s not used to this, giving orders like the hushed stillness before the bullets start flying. ‘Bring whatever veg you think are good for a curry. You’re all expected to show up or you won’t get a say in the marking of the boundaries. We’re going to sit down and eat like civilised people, not the cavemen you seem to think you are.’ He’s learnt a lot about expressing scorn just by watching Major Lewis deal with stupid cadets. God, he misses that stubborn bastard like hell.
‘Doc,’ says Andy, and John blinks away the flashes of being Captain Ward and his medics screaming Doc, we need you! ‘What do you mean like in Northern Ireland?’
‘Thursday,’ is all John says, and waits for them all to scarper off before he methodically packs up his kitbag and limps back inside.