Wednesday, June 01, 2005


The job ambulancemen dread more than any other is the maternity case that goes horribly wrong, resulting in the deaths of both mother and baby. Thankfully it's quite a rare occurrence and in all my long years on the ambulances I've witnessed it only about a dozen times. Well, maybe twenty. When all goes as nature intended and a healthy baby is born successfully, we pat ourselves on the back and think it's a great achievement, insist that the child be named after us and wonder how on earth women have managed without us for hundreds of thousands of years.

Seriously though, all ambulancemen without exception would rather the whole messy business of childbirth was left in the hands of women, who are, let's face it, far better equipped to deal with such matters. Some of them actually like babies, if you can imagine such a thing. Indeed, it's the best argument I've heard yet for the otherwise preposterous notion of employing female ambulancemen, but until that dark, sadly inevitable, though hopefully far-off day, we are obliged to turn out in all weathers and at all hours to lend our assistance.

Which reminds me, we went to an unusual one last year where an eleven-year-old was in labour in a horse-drawn caravan on the common. Her family was passing through on its way to the hopfields, had parked for the night, when her waters broke and the baby decided, with remarkable insight for one so young, that Clapham was the finest of places in which to be born.

The first thing that struck me as odd upon entering the caravan was the constituency of the family unit: a man of around fifty living with seven young women, the oldest of whom was maybe seventeen, the youngest about nine. Because of their similarity to each other, I assumed they were his daughters but the affection he displayed towards them was hardly paternal and the one giving birth spoke to him in the harsh, nagging tones of a wife. And then I twigged - they were simultaneously his daughters and his wives, and the newborn, had he survived, would have been a son, a grandson, a nephew, a half-brother and no doubt a husband as well one day to someone or other in the cramped little van.

Alas, for reasons he did not articulate, the man found the baby not to his liking and with his calloused hands about its tiny throat, the poor scrap lasted barely a minute. The oldest woman wrapped the little body in a piece of cloth and took it outside where we helped her to dig a hole and bury it beneath an elm tree. The family gathered around and spoke a few solemn words in a language not familiar to us, the women sprinkling strange, sweet-smelling herbs in the makeshift grave. When the job was done we wished them luck and went about our business.

Shortly before the end of our shift we passed by again but the horse and the caravan had gone, leaving no sign of their ever having been there. Nothing stirred the early morning mist, save a couple of crows pecking and clawing frantically at a tiny mound of fresh earth beneath a distant elm.