Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Cold Hearts and Coroners

Few ambulancemen will deny at least a mild aversion to appearing before the coroner. Often under hostile and aggressive questioning from highly paid and pompous public servants, we are required to explain to the world actions we took and admit to mistakes we may have made that contributed to the untimely death of some long-forgotten patient maybe a year or two previously, and many of us, understandably, will take a few glasses of brandy to steady our nerves before taking the stand to face such an ordeal. I well remember Fred Ventricle many years ago overdosing on Dutch courage and having to be carried into the witness box by four large constables, whereupon he passed out and began snoring so loudly that the light fittings rattled and Sir Meredith Devine could not make himself heard above the stertorous din in his own court. The vision of his frantic near-apoplexy remains one of my most treasured memories.

Many ambulance lifers will endure a whole career without a single appearance at the coroner's court, but for the men of Clapham it seems to have been an almost weekly occurrence to be hauled up before Sir Meredith to justify our unconventional practices in the blinding light of modern medical science. It often felt as though he was conducting a personal vendetta against us and indeed he once recommended that our service either modernise and integrate or be disbanded and it was only the intervention of the King himself that prevented the Clapham Ambulance from passing into the annals of ambulance history or being swallowed like a minnow by the characterless grey whale of the Public Health Servive.

Looking like nobody so much as the effeminate love child of Sir Lancelot Spratt and Professor Jimmy Edwards, and sporting the obligatory bow tie and preposterous handlebar moustache of the crassly faux eccentric, Mary Divine, as he's known in the clubs around Vauxhall Cross, would bang his gavel like a fractious infant and in an unconsciously camp and laughable attempt to imitate a public school bully would screech at witnesses until they cringed before him, though more, I suspect, from the force of his breath than that of his personality. What a querulous old queen he was and how glad we were to see the back of him when he retired. Glad, that is, until we met his successor.

Blessed with the high-cheeked bone structure and willowy physique of a classic English aristocratic beauty, Dr. Phyllida Mortice nevertheless possesses features utterly devoid of humour, sympathy or the merest hint of human kindness, though she dotes on her two Bichons Frises to the extent, so we hear, that she allows them to share her bed, though whether this is an act of benevolence or one of barbarism is probably a matter of personal taste, not to mention dubious legality. She carries about her such an air of disparaging snootiness that even when in the best seats at Covent Garden the impression she projects is that of a duchess slumming it down the bingo at Clapham Junction.

When Dr. Mortice speaks her vowels are so distorted by her expensive education and the indomitable nobility of her haughty genes as to be rendered unintelligible to the man in the street, whom she despises with an undisguised vehemence, as is perfectly natural for one of her kind, and which is undoubtedly reciprocated with equal, albeit unspoken, fervour. I made the mistake once of asking her to speak more clearly, which unthinking solecism unleashed a five minute tirade of furious invective, presumably designed to reduce me to a quivering jelly prior to apologizing profusely and begging her forgiveness. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand what she was saying and only compounded the grievousness of my offence by telling her so directly to her rather red and somewhat breathless face.

“Sorry, love, I didn’t catch a word of that." I shrugged theatrically, turning to the gallery for enlightenment, which earned me a big laugh and seven days in the Wandsworth gaol for contempt. I was appearing as a witness at the investigation into the death of a Mr. Cyril Sprocket and I wonder to this day if my lower class impertinence influenced the verdict of the court.

Sixty-two-year-old Mr. Sprocket was cycling to work at six-thirty one dark morning when he was knocked down and killed by a Bentley being driven by a Lady Ophelia Barrington-Barnett who, coincidentally, was not unknown socially to the coroner herself. Several witnesses attested to having seen Lady Ophelia using a mobile telephone, fixing her make-up in the rear-view mirror, trying to read a map, scolding two children behind her and typing on a portable computer all at the same time as she careered out of control into the unfortunate cyclist. It seemed to be a clear enough case of death by dangerous driving but Dr. Mortice surprised us all by returning a verdict of death by natural causes.

Upon my release I obtained a copy of the transcript in order to try and make some sense of the verdict and hopefully gain an insight into the reasoning of the coroner: "In layman's terms, a woman's brain is wired quite differently from that of a man, in such a fashion in fact that she is able to perform many quite separate actions at the same time in a way that a man could neither comprehend nor hope to emulate. I believe the current, rather vulgar American phrase for this is "multi-tasking". It is therefore the opinion of this court that Lady Ophelia was acting in a perfectly natural and acceptable manner in accordance with the physiology of her gender and that her actions of that morning were in no way contributory to the death of this grubby little chimney sweep."