Monday, June 06, 2005

Strange Fruit

Of all the methods people employ in the ever popular pursuit of killing themselves, I have to say that my favourite has long been the good old-fashioned hanging. Unfortunately, by the time we arrive, the drama invariably is over and we are presented with nothing more interesting than a motionless corpse suspended from the neck by a rope or, more commonly, a length of domestic electrical flex or plastic-coated washing line.

If it's been dangling for a few hours, the body might feature a grotesque gargoyle's face, tongue protruding, eyes bulging and that sort of thing, which can be mildly diverting, and now and then with an outdoor hanging, if there's a stiff breeze, we might witness some gentle swaying, but nothing one could legitimately describe as entertainment. Usually, though, the al fresco dangler will be discovered by a dog walker at a time of day when the air has about it that disappointing early morning stillness, although a shroud of mist can add a touch of atmosphere.

Yes, that's all very well for the watercolourist or the amateur photographer, I hear you say, and I agree, but what one really wants to see, of course, is some action.

The last public hanging to take place in England was on May 26th 1868, soon after Nobby Harris was born, but some of us were privileged recently to witness a rare private performance, not at Newgate or Tyburn, but a mere stone's throw from the ambulance station.

At about three o'clock in the morning, Albert and I were sent to an adult male who was reported to be threatening suicide. What this invariably turns out to be is some pathetic lemon who's had a bit to drink and gone all red-eyed and melancholy because his girlfriend has traded him in for his best mate and he just can't stand the pain of being himself anymore. After countless calls trying to have her affections won back, the erstwhile lover, weary of being pestered and fearful of the consequences for her new relationship, phones for an ambulance in the middle of the night just to get him off her back.

Great. But what are we supposed to do about it? We know just by looking at him that she's probably made a good decision, so we tell him this and we reassure him that suicide really is the sincerest form of self-criticism, and under the circumstances, for the sake of everyone else, and so on . . . but they're usually too selfishly wrapped up in their own so-called problems to listen to well-meant impartial advice.

On this particular occasion the door was opened by a pathetically snivelling Asian man of about fifty with a chestnut toupee and improbably long fingernails who told us that his partner had run off to live with another man, and with uncanny prescience that he was at the end of his tether and wanted only to die.

"If it's of some consolation, she's probably done the right thing," I suggested, looking him over. "And maybe you should, too." At this he changed his hysterical blubbering up a couple of gears and thrust before me a tear-stained photograph of a sensitive-looking teenaged boy with cropped blond hair and peculiarly full lips.

"May I use your telephone?" I asked, my hand trembling as I dialled the number of the ambulance station. Two minutes later there was a knock at the door heralding the arrival of Stan, Bert, Bob and Ted, their faces flushed with expectancy and carrying a neat coil of half-inch hemp.

"Come on, Mowgli, get your flip-flops on, we haven't got all night," cajoled Stan Tablets, ever the diplomat, draping a thick arm around a bony shoulder as we escorted the distraught little chap across to the common where we soon found a suitable tree. Not having the means to employ the favoured long drop, we were obliged to do it in the medieval style, which is a less dramatic but longer-lasting spectacle and provides, I would argue, better all round value for the connoisseur.

As he rose slowly from the ground, our patient started to kick and thrash wildly about, but we're trained to stand clear so none of us was hit by flailing limbs or flying footwear. He clawed at the rope around his neck but his long nails prevented him from gaining a good hold on it. He was trying to say something but he had a sock stuffed in his mouth and it was difficult to make out his words. It sounded like keeeccchhh-keeeccchhh-keeeccchhh. I like to think he was trying to thank us, maybe in his native tongue.

We tied off the rope and sat and smoked, watching until he was perfectly still, his trouble and turmoil forgotten for all eternity, finally at peace beneath the starry vastness of the universe and, do you know, I think every one of us there that morning felt just a little pang of envy for that funny little fellow floating o'er his flip-flops.