Saturday, August 27, 2005

A Crack in the Dam

The madman was in the sort of position one instinctively assumes when addressing one's remarks to Allah, but he was pounding the ground rhythmically with both fists simultaneously and wailing a vaguely interrogative sound that sent a shiver down my spine, followed by a blood-curdling racket which I took to be a response to his own question. Waaarrrggghhh!

Usually, like all ambulancemen, we simply would have driven past and left him to it; after all he didn't appear to be suffering from any illness other than some version of one of the numerous locally endemic, nameless psychoses that afflict ninety-eight percent of the local residents, and as far as I could see he'd sustained no injury. But something about his demeanour and the timbre of that terrible lupine howling, which seemed to emanate from the darkest reaches of his very soul, must have hit my own frequency, resonating through me, and it elicited from me a most uncharacteristic sympathy, the suddenness and depth of which caught me quite unprepared, and without thinking I asked a furiously incredulous Stan Tablets to pull over while I went to investigate.

Stan naturally recited a profane litany of personal abuse which addressed fundamental questions concerning both my sanity and my suitability for ambulance work, but he graciously stopped the van beside the kerb and picked up the radio microphone to inform Clapham Ambulance Control that we'd stumbled upon what's known in the ambulance game as a running call.

Now a running call can be the greatest of inconveniences for the ambulance crew if they are, for instance, about to partake of a spot of lunch or, worst of all, returning to station at the end of a long and arduous shift. It can add an hour or more to their working day and make them very cross indeed, resulting in their patient receiving only the very barest 'economy service' in terms of treatment. On the other hand, a running call can be a godsend. En route to that long-distance late job, for example, what could be more fortuitous than to chance upon a small, inebriated man lying in the road just around the corner from St. Bernard's?

This, however, fell into neither category.

As I sauntered towards the wailing figure with my hands in my pockets I became aware of a most peculiarly disorienting sensation that words cannot adequately describe. It was as though I were looking down upon him while at the same time looking up to see myself approaching, as if I were closing in on myself from two directions, the present walking forward to meet the future, and my head grew dizzy and faint and I thought I would pass out. The howling grew ever louder as I came nearer and it drew me inexorably towards it, as though I were becoming a part of the fearful noise, as if it were an integral part of me, my own voice calling out to me; and the words of Albert Harness came suddenly into my head and all at once I knew what was happening to me, for I'd seen it happen to others once or twice. I was teetering precariously above the precipice of compassion.

"Never allow yourself to care," I remembered Albert telling me when I first joined the Clapham Ambulance. "Not even slightly, not even for a moment. It's like a crack in a dam - once it's started, it can never be stopped; it begins with just a few drops forcing their way through and then the pressure builds and builds until eventually the whole thing bursts and the unbearable sadness and futility of all existence sweeps you quickly away into madness and your only possible comfort is the eternal oblivion of death."

Or you can beat the ground, howling.