Monday, August 08, 2005

A Snake on a Stick

As I entered the messroom last Monday morning, I was dumb- founded by the sight of a blond boy sitting at the table upon which Ted Canvas dismantles and reassembles his clocks in preparation for his retirement next year. The youth was dressed in the regulation uniform of the Clapham Ambulance; that is the black serge tunic with the silver buttons, but with the addition of a black Sam Browne belt and a pair of high leather boots into which, inexplicably, he'd tucked his trousers. With a piece of red cloth he was polishing something shiny and metallic which I assumed at first was a silver-plated Luger, but which turned out to be something he called a laryngoscope.

He turned when he heard me and naturally taking me for his superior, scrambled to his feet, his back ramrod straight, his heels clicking smartly together. I struggled to suppress a grin: he was shorter standing than he'd been sitting.

Instinctively, I checked his uniform for signs of rank and saw only an unfamiliar patch sewn on near the top of his left sleeve: a cartoon representation of what appeared to be a snake or a worm attempting a solo ascent of a chopstick, which, although rather creepy, lacked the authority conferred by the usual stripes or pips. Now that he was standing, as it were, I noticed the vast array of bags and accoutrements dangling from his belt and at once I realized who he was.

We'd been expecting him, or one of his sort, for some time and now he'd finally arrived with his double first in Chair and Blanketry from the Royal Academy of Ambulance Studies, the Clapham Ambulance's first fully-fledged graduate paramedic; the first in what we hoped would be a very short line indeed. He had a cunning, ambitious look about him, resentful and malicious, with vindictive, humourless eyes which oozed a slithery malevolence.

It was plain to anyone that he'd been bullied relentlessly since his very first morning in school and here he was now, poised at last to exact his revenge upon a despised mankind. He shook my hand with a limp, damp grip, reminiscent of something without legs that lives in the earth, and introduced himself as 'paramedic Peter Pouch'. I knew that within a year he would be my boss and with mounting trepidation I looked around the room for the reassurance of the familiar.

Stan Tablets was rocking with silent laughter in the corner, hugging himself as if in considerable pain; Bert Klaxon was puffing contentedly on his pipe, humming a snatch of Schubert, while Albert Harness thoughtfully stroked his beard, examining the intruder in the manner of a shrewd farmer eyeing a plump piglet at a country fair. I'd seen Albert look at patients that way and a sense of calm descended upon me along with the feeling that everything was going to be all right.

In fact that was the last I saw of Peter Pouch and the mystery of his disappearance had been quite forgotten by the end of the week when we gathered for Albert's annual Festival of Ambrosia, which is held on the first Sunday in August in the high-walled garden of his grand Georgian house in the Old Town. We all drank a little too much Gewurtztraminer and sang marching songs around the fire into the early hours, gorging ourselves with abandonded gluttony on our host's delicious and copious fare.

And then, as the flames glowed and the red sparks flew high into the night sky, Albert produced from a clay urn beneath the embers, to hearty applause and appreciative laughter this year's piece de resistance, which consisted of strips of some unnamed exotic meat rolled into cylinders and wound around little bone-like sticks in an arch parody of Aesculapius.

I'd never tasted anything like it; it was exquisite beyond words. Strange, unearthly flavours seemed to rise and swoop upon the palate, weaving into and around one another in a perfect organic synthesis like the notes of a heavenly symphony, building slowly, slowly to a fabulous gustatory crescendo that left one somehow sated and replete yet still yearning for more. It was sinful and degenerate; divine, transcendental; from the kitchen of Satan, food fit for the table of the gods.

"Albert," I gasped, breathless and drained. "This is indescribably delicious What on earth is it?" He looked at me, his eyes shining with sagacious humour, and gave me a sly wink.

"Oh, it's nothing fancy, son. Just a snake on a stick."