Tuesday, August 02, 2005


I was working a shift with Stan the other day and we had a non-runner in Marshmallow Road, so we decided to pay a call on old Fred Ventricle whose house was just a few doors down. Neither of us had seen Fred for a few years, not since his leaving do back in '96, in fact, which isn't surprising, one of our numerous traditions being that once you're gone, you're more or less forgotten, existing only as a kind of imaginary character in the general lore of anecdote and myth, devoid of form and substance, a wraith living only in the world of the past. Perhaps that sounds unkind, but we are nothing in the Clapham Ambulance if not unsentimental.

And surely there can be no sadder sight than the retired employee who, with nothing better to fill his lonely days, pops in to visit his old workmates. The forced bonhomie soon peters out to be replaced by an embarrassed silence as, out of a sense of well-intentioned but ill-judged respect, current topics become taboo and everyone waits with polite patience for the silly old duffer to get lost so that normal life can be resumed. The rule is very simple. Never go back.

To be perfectly truthful, our main reason for calling on Fred was merely to confirm his passing. He'd been barely alive when he retired and after seventy years on a diet of pork pies and Old Holborn nobody would have expected him to be still breathing.

The house bore the unmistakable Ventricle stamp: barely visible through the jungle of bindweed and buddleia in the front garden was the rusted and decrepit shell of what once had been his pride and joy, a 1968 Hillman Superminx; the paintwork on the house itself had peeled to such an extent that its original colour was anyone's guess and behind the windows' coat of almost impenetrable grime, hung filthy, never-washed net curtains. I dreaded to imagine what lay beyond them. In lieu of a knocker or a bell, we banged on the front door with our fists.

After a minute or so the door opened to reveal an immaculately dressed old gentleman with neatly cropped grey hair and an expression of faint distrust upon a suntanned face. For several seconds we stared in bewilderment at this apparition, which bore a striking resemblance to our old mate; a younger brother, perhaps, recently returned from the colonies, or . . . The suspicious look left the old boy's face and his mouth widened in a dazzlingly-dentured grin.

"Hello, lads, there's a surprise; come on in," he said, and we entered the crazy world of a very much still-breathing Fred Ventricle.

"How's the car going, Fred?" asked Stan, going straight for the jugular, but Fred wasn't biting and remained curiously serene, a faint smile on his lips and the makings of a merry twinkle about the eyes. He ushered us into the drawing room, bade us sit down and left the room to make tea.

I looked about in awed fascination. The room was spotlessly clean and sparsely furnished with what looked like very new and expensive items. Here and there were various sculptures and paintings and I thought I recognised a Kokoschka and a couple of Giacobettis. Was this the Fred Ventricle I knew? I was examining what looked suspiciously like a genuine Maillol, when the door opened and Fred entered, carrying a silver tray.

According to Albert Harness, who knows much about the subject, the life expectancy of a retired ambulanceman is similar to that of a subaltern at Ypres. Most of us, it seems, already declining rapidly through a combination of the physical attrition and mental debilitation that inevitably afflict the lifelong shiftworker, find the change of circumstances too harrowing to endure and tend to die within a year or two, in accordance with government policy. Those of us fortunate enough to cling on grimly to our mortal continuance are usually removed hastily to the Home for Retired Ambulancemen, which, as you probably know, is an annexe of the Clapham Lunatic Asylum. No, the retired ambulanceman's lot is not one of great happiness; unless poverty and madness are your thing, of course. But what was Fred Ventricle's secret?

He poured the tea and told us that he hadn't left the house for more than eight years. He could remember well enough what was out there and would only be disappointed to see how it had changed.

"I get everyfing I need delivered, don't I?" he explained and showed us a machine he said he'd acquired some time ago. "It's called a computer." Stan and I exchanged a meaningful glance; the old codger was evidently completely bonkers. "I can get anyfing I want off the Internet, see. I ain't got no reason to go out, have I?"

"Listen, Fred," I said, adopting the generic, patronising tone of the healthcare professional. "Why don't you come with us, see the doctor, eh? Just for a check-up. What do you say, old mate?" But before he could answer, we were interrupted by the sound of the front door opening.

"That'll be the missus," said Fred with a deranged gleam in his eye; we both knew that Agnes Ventricle had died many years ago; we'd attended her funeral, for heaven's sake.

"Now, Fred," I began, but was silenced by the sight of a beautiful young woman entering the room laden with carrier bags. By the look of her she was from somewhere in the region of Siam and couldn't have been more than seventeen. She smiled at our host with a look of complete adoration. I turned, open-mouthed, to Fred, who winked lewdly.

"Like I said, the Internet. You should try it."