When Christmas Lights Are Blue
Rob and Karan are a great couple, but they’re tearing apart under the pressures of modern life. They both work as paramedics for the NHS, and just before Christmas, their plans for the future are in jeopardy.
Rob knows he’s on thin ice with the man he loves more than anyone else in the world, and he’s at a loss to fix it. The job is getting tougher, and Karan, who’s of Sikh descent, is facing violence on the streets in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Financial problems, hostile families on both sides... Their troubles seem insoluble.
An emergency callout stops them on the brink of a final and heartbreaking row. In a forest on the bleak northern hills, Rob loses control of the van in the snow. The only gleam of light comes from a strange, lonely house among the trees. Lost, cut off from the world they know, can they find their way back to one another? It’s the longest night of the year, and spirits are abroad among the pines...
An hour after dark on the longest night, Karanji turned to me and said, “I can’t do this anymore, Rob. I don’t even know how.”
And this was why Control seldom let couples out together on a shift. Tonight was a short-staffed emergency. I pressed my hands against the dashboard. “Karan, no. Don’t do this to me now.”
“We’ve been doing it to each other. We’ve got to stop.”
The minute hand of my watch jerked past the twelve. Karan and I were now technically free to have the miserable fight we’d been putting aside all day. Not a moment before: ambulance paramedics might horse around, make awful jokes and yell at backed-up traffic, but we never dropped the ball. Never let our personal crap get in the way of a callout. Everyone who needed us—from road-crash victims to old ladies mistaking indigestion for a heart attack—deserved better of us than that.
We were off-duty now. One minute past six. My watch had been a Christmas present from Karan the year before. I loved it because he’d ignored all the cheap alternatives I’d suggested and gone right to the jeweller’s for the one I liked best, and it was elegant without being fussy, and so far resistant to hard knocks, vomit and blood. He was wearing the handsome engagement ring I’d bought him, and I was wearing his. He was my Karan, good as gold. I’d found out during the first Diwali celebration I’d shared with his family that his brother called him Karanji, because he was as sweet as the cardamom and poppy pastries piled high on the table, and no-one could get enough of him. For once we’d managed to swing Christmas leave together, a whole blessed week. “Oh, God. Can’t we just go home?”
“You can. I’ve told Mackie I’ll work.”
I finished shutting the satnav down. The ambulance was parked by the dangerous roundabout where the main street of Hollyford met the bypass, a good strategic point for callouts to pub brawls after office parties. Drunken pile-ups, too, and we’d already dealt with two of those today. Karan had been keeping the windscreen clear with an occasional sweep of the blades. The street was deserted now, only the snowflakes disturbing the stillness, wind-blown wraiths. “All right,” I said bleakly—hopelessly, because he never said anything he didn’t mean. I unhooked the radio mic. “I’ll report us off-shift. I’ll get a cab home from the station.”
“No, I’ll drop you. It’s only a short detour. Mackie won’t mind.”
The mic beeped in my hand. I thumbed the button. “Eight-two.”
“Eight-two, three-four. My board shows you two lads still in Hollyford. Is that right?”
The staff shortage must have reached critical for Mackie to be handling dispatch himself. “Yep,” I said, squeezing a passably normal voice through the hot pain in my throat. “Just signing off. Gonna bring Karan back in.”
“Hold your horses. Got a 999 from up in Kielder.”
“Kielder Forest? That’s half an hour away from us, Mac.”
“I know, and it’s a wilderness, and it’s snowing. But all the local vans are working crashes on the A68, and you’re my last hope. It’s a bit of a weird one, too.”
“Elderly lady, very distressed. Says something’s fallen on her house, and people are hurt.”
“Something’s fallen on... What, a meteorite or something? Doesn’t she need the fire brigade?”
“All out on the 68 with tin-openers, I’m afraid. It’s a house on its own, three miles northwest of Greystead. Come on, Robbie—I know you lovebirds need the money. Weddings don’t come cheap.”
“Yes, Mackie. We know.” I reached to flip an overhead switch, and the ambulance, newly kitted out with an on-board computer whose pronouncements and instructions I would never get used to, said 999 mode engaged. “Responding. Eight-two out.”
Karan had switched the satnav back on. “Three miles northwest of Greystead?” he echoed, panning back and forth across the undifferentiated green on the map. “There’s nothing there but pine trees.”
“Pine trees, and a mad old lady who’s been struck by a meteorite. Let’s swap drivers. You’d better grab a nap, if you’re pulling another shift.”
He gave me an odd look, as if he hadn’t expected kindness. What—do you think I’d stop caring , watching out for you, because we’re having a fight? Because we’re breaking up? But words would do more harm than good now. I’d crack into tears if I said them. We’d been set to get married in June.
I pushed my door wide and got out. Caution! Door is open, the computer said, as if I didn’t know. Karan scrambled out on the far side, and we crossed like ships in the night, the beginnings of a blizzard whipping through the headlights’ glare.
The road was long and empty. We’d left the northbound A68 to avoid the pileups, tracking across country on a route at least as old as the Roman Wall whose remains cut a haunting line between two ancient realms. Greystead had been closed up for the night, only a glimmer of coloured lights around the edge of tight-shut curtains. One little kid had peered from a bedroom window as we’d passed, maybe wondering if Santa had come early this year, and in a strange vehicle. Or perhaps he’d just wanted to see the ambulance go by, as I always had, because he wanted to be a paramedic.
As I always had. The village was the last outpost of civilisation before the forest. We’d left it more than three miles behind now, I was sure, although the satnav had lost signal and was keeping its own counsel as thoroughly as the white-coated hills I could see through gaps in the trees, pale crests by starlight. I thought Karan had fallen asleep, but he sat up as the wheels struck hard-packed snow on the verge and the ambulance juddered beneath us. “The plough hasn’t been through here,” he said. “No grit, either. Slow up.”
Anger was easier than pain. “We might’ve saved a whole lot of people on the bypass if I hadn’t slowed up then.”
“Don’t be daft. That was instant. They never stood a chance.”
“Why the bloody hell didn’t that coach driver let us pass him sooner?”
“I don’t think he knew we were there.”
“Blue lights, headlights, a siren like a banshee and paramedic written backwards in six-inch letters across the bonnet. How can you not see that? I swear to God, Kaz, I’ll never get my head around drivers who get in our way when we’re trying to...”
We jounced over a sudden crest. Ahead of us, as if conjured by my temper, a tractor was crawling in the single-track lane. His taillights filled my vision with red mist. “Rob,” Karan said warningly, and laid a hand on my wrist. “Slow the fuck down.”
I couldn’t. Half a hundred demons caught up with me at once. I didn’t care if the callout was a prank, if the old lady in the forest was a lunatic: I was going to get there in time, and in the process outrun my conviction that my beautiful boyfriend, the love of my life for the last six years, was about to break us up.
The tractor driver pulled over as far as he could. I squeezed the ambulance past, slewed back into the centre—swags and swathes of snow from the pine trees hitting the windscreen like a weird blessing—and laid my foot down.
The road ended. Nothing ahead but trees, a spectral barricade of them, rushing at the windshield out of nowhere. I trod on the brakes. Might as well have stamped the gas for all the effect I had: the tarmac was slick with ice beneath the fresh fall of snow. I threw out one arm across Karan’s chest. The van left the ground at sixty miles an hour and sailed high and wide into the dark.