Monday, May 02, 2005

The Lonesome Death of Matty O'Carroll

On a freezing December night, the men of the Clapham Ambulance were huddled round the fire in the messroom, drinking tea and toasting bread over the glowing coals. The room was lit only by the flames and huge shadows danced across the walls and ceiling. The hands of the old brown clock stood at five minutes to midnight. At the table Stan Tablets and Bert Klaxon were engrossed in a game of chess and Albert Harness played a low and mournful dirge on his violin. I parted the curtains and looked out at the snow being driven almost horizontally across the black sky. It was a night for staying in and we didn't expect to be disturbed.

We were surprised then, and not pleasantly, when the telephone rang. Stan's brow furrowed imperceptibly, Bert's hand hovered over a black bishop and Albert's bow was suddenly still. I was nearest so I picked up the heavy bakelite receiver and listened. A man had collapsed outside the railway station and was in need of assistance. I looked over at Albert.

"Come on, lad," he said. "We'll deal with this." He stood and placed his instrument carefully in its black case and took his overcoat from a peg on the back of the door. I followed him out into the yard where the ambulance waited under its corrugated iron shelter. We climbed aboard and Albert drove through deserted streets towards the station.

We recognised the pile of old clothes almost instantly. Matthew Patrick O'Carroll, vagrant of the parish, was slumped against the wall in his customary position on the forecourt, some empty Special Brew cans strewn about beside him, a trickle of greenish saliva moving slowly down his chin. Forgoing the usual formalities, we dragged him by his ankles acrosss the pavement and up the steps into the back of the van with a roughness devoid of pity. Albert started the engine and we headed through the blizzard, though not towards St. Bernard's, but in the direction of the common. Enough is enough, and this, we had decided, was to be the last of Matty's innumerable rides in the back of an ambulance.

We stopped and Albert opened the rear doors. Together we lifted the stinking bundle and carried it about thirty yards on to the snow-covered common where, with a one-two-three, we hurled it across a low hedge into a ditch. I heard the crunching sound of the ice crust breaking and a faint splash as Matty hit the water beneath.

Within five minutes we were back beside the fire in the homely comfort of the messroom. Bert and Stan were engrossed in a game of chess and Albert played a jaunty parody of Chopin's funeral march on his violin, the merest hint of a smile playing about his lips. I sat down in my favourite armchair, took a mouthful of strong tea, sighed with satisfaction and closed my eyes, drifting gratefully towards the blessed peace of sleep.