Monday, September 26, 2005

Stan's Unspeakable Secret

I was sitting alone in the messroom the other day leafing idly through the world's dullest periodical, namely the annual Clapham Ambulance Review, when I heard approaching footsteps and quickly slipped it beneath a cushion, affecting an air of drowsiness to lend the impression of having just woken up. The door opened and Stan Tablets entered, looking very serious like an old-time gangster, exuding an air of heavy menace and eyeing me suspiciously. I felt a bead of sweat trickling down beneath my shirt and hoped my face didn't betray my terrible shame.

Feigning a yawn and a stretch, praying I hadn't left a corner poking out, I watched Stan as he scoured the room. My imagination began to run away with me; he must have known there was a copy knocking about somewhere because it had been there that morning. Every autumn when the thing is published Ron Stretcher leaves one on the messroom table where it lies unopened, unread and unmentioned for a few days until someone can be bothered to put it in the bin. Stan peered into the empty bin and then stared right through me.

I should point out here that being caught by the chaps reading any ambulance publication will result, quite rightly, in immediate and total ridicule, but to be found with a copy of the Review is really beyond the pale, a form of social suicide leading to many months of scorn, public humiliation or even total ostracism. Considered almost tantamount to blacklegging, it simply isn't done.

"Where's the Review?" asked Stan, a tremor in his voice that sounded like . . . no, it couldn't have been, not Stan.

"Dunno, why, did you want to read about the new trolley beds?" He took a step towards me and for a second I feared for my life; but he stopped and sighed and I saw that the look in his eyes was not one of anger but of pure, unadulterated fear. I was more than a little intrigued.

When he left to continue his search elsewhere I retrieved the magazine from its hiding place and stuffed it beneath my tunic, determined to smuggle it away to a safe place where I could study it at my leisure and hopefully learn just what it was that had the redoubtable Stan Tablets in such a state of desperation.

At home that evening I spread it out on the kitchen table and went through it page by dreary page, line by lifeless line, reading about financial planning and quarterly fiscal initiatives, training budgets and response targets, vehicle allocations and staff welfare schemes, a message from the chairman and a review of the new passenger restraint strap configurations and, of course, the latest advances in trolley bed technology until my eyelids drooped and my forehead hit the table. But on and on I ploughed undaunted, into the early hours, through the dullest, driest prose imaginable, closely spaced and unrelieved by a solitary illustration until I found it near the bottom of page seventy-seven.

I blinked several times and pinched myself. I stood and walked around for a while but when I came back it was still there in black and white. I laughed hysterically until I cried. I didn't know what to do with myself but I knew that I ought to destroy this terrible, terrible thing. I also knew with certainty that I'd keep it somewhere very, very safe until the day I died. Oh, my word.

What had he been thinking? How could this have happened? Was it a moment of madness? Had he sent it to the wrong address? Was it some sort of practical joke? But who? And why? I just could not come up with a feasible explanation for what was screaming out at me from the page before my very eyes. It was so completely and utterly unthinkable; it quite simply could not be.

And yet there it was as plain as day, under the heading "Poetry Competition"; for his sonnet entitled In Bluebell Wood, this year's fourth prize has been awarded to Mr. Stanley Tablets.