Thursday, April 28, 2005


Sitting around this morning, listening to the rain beating against the window, an atmosphere of nostalgia seemed to pervade the messroom and the conversation turned, as it does so often these days, to times past. Heavy clouds gathered ominously and a clap of thunder boomed across the dark sky as we huddled round the open fire, the wind whistling in the chimney, safe for now from the outside world and all the misery and destruction it was about to heap upon us.

Bob Slogan, our Moscow-trained shop steward, was asking what were the most horrific injuries we'd all seen, and then Stan Tablets was telling his grisly anecdote about the man who'd fallen up to his hips in an industrial wood chipping machine. We all know the story more or less word perfectly, but it's a good one nonetheless and we listened politely as if hearing it for the first time. Stan brought it to its usual conclusion with the bit about never finding even a trace of the man's boots and then it was the turn of Ted Canvas to recount the case of the suicidal man who jumped forty feet from a window and landed on some iron railings, impaling himself perfectly straight, face down along the top. Ted ticked them off on his fingers: one right between his eyes, out the back of his head; one through his neck; one through his chest; and so on to the part about him turning out to be one of Ted's former crewmates. We shuddered with appreciation and then it was my turn.

When I was fairly new to this line of work, Fred Ventricle and I were sent one evening to a road traffic accident alongside the common. A motorcyclist had been clipped by a car, lost control and slid beneath a cement lorry, somehow getting himself wrapped around one of its rear wheels. All that was visible of him was a pair of heavy-duty engineers' boots sticking out from the top of the wheel; the rest of him, presumably, being somewhere in the vicinity of the axle. His bike was a twisted mess, having been crushed by the back wheels of the lorry and his crash helmet had come off and was sitting upright beside the wreckage. There were firemen and policemen already there and another ambulance had arrived before us.

While others scrambled beneath the lorry to assess the unfortunate man's injuries, I walked over to his bike. To this day I can't explain it, but some urge within me drew me to the crash helmet and I stooped to pick it up. Inside it was the man's head. As I recoiled instinctively from the horror of it, I saw that his eyes were open, looking at me, and I saw his mouth move slightly. He was trying to speak. I heard no sound, but the words were as clear as anything. "Please," he said. "Help me."