Saturday, February 25, 2006

Crime and Punishment

"Have you tried bleach, madam? Really? Well, what have you tried? Ventolin? Dear me, no, that's no good. If anything it'll exacerbate his condition. He'll probab . . . make it worse, madam. No, no, bleach is the stuff you want. Kills all known germs, you know. Asthma germs, absolutely. Yes, Domestos, Parozone, any brand, but the thicker the better. No, no, don't dilute it. Have you a nebulizer? Well, get him to gargle it. About half a pint should do the trick No, no, he mustn't spit it out. Gargle and swallow, gargle and swallow. That's right. Yes, of course. Okay then? You're welcome. Not at all. Happy to be of service. Good day, madam."

Rolling my eyes heavenward I hung up the phone, shaking my head in utter disbelief that anyone would think I might be stupid enough to be taken in by such a transparently bogus load of old baloney. I glanced across the room and saw Lily Bonemarrow the call-taker watching me over the top of her spectacles, her hand shielding her mouth. I knew the score all right. Getting her pals to phone in pretending to be patients, indeed! A distraught mother whose child was in the throes of an asthma attack? Pull the other one.

"Did you want me to pop out at lunchtime for some sky hooks?" I called across to her. "Or perhaps a tub of elbow grease?" Her only response was to feign puzzlement — rather convincingly actually, to be fair. H'm. Well anyway the thing is I may have been on the Clapham Ambulance since 1987 but up here in Clapham Ambulance Control I was the new boy and as such obviously considered fair game for the old sweats if they wanted to indulge in the harmless whimsy of a bit of leg-pulling. I didn't mind. As long as they didn't seriously expect a man of my experience to fall for their nonsense. To tell the truth I was thoroughly enjoying the refreshing change of being up at CAC. Perhaps I should explain how I came to be here. What happened, you see, was that Ron Stretcher caught me with his . . . would you excuse me for a moment?

"Medical advice. How may I . . . " A high-pitched voice of indeterminate gender spewed forth an incessant stream of gobbledegook, reminding me of nothing so much as the sound of the two-stroke engine on our old East German lawn mower — a kind of ring-a-ding-ding sing-song sort of a racket. I gave Laugh-a-Minute-Lil one of my most withering sardonic smiles as I struggled to catch just one word that I recognised, hoping to identify the language I was listening to, or rather expose it for the hoax it undoubtedly was but it was so well done that my efforts proved futile. I flicked a couple of switches, tapped out some numbers and waited. After a short while I heard the familiar voice of Stan Tablets, roused from the fragile slumber of the shift worker, come on the line with a curt "what?" and without a second's hesitation bellow that concise and timeless oath designed to wound not only every non-English person in the world but also the entire constituency of womanhood before disconnecting the call.

As I was saying, following what I can only describe as a little bit of a misunderstanding involving Ron Stretcher, the Divisional Superintendent, and Shirley, his notoriously coquettish wife, and me, it was decided by no less an authority than the acting chairman himself, Lord Hardwood, that I be moved from emergency ambulance duties for a time "to let things cool down a bit, clear the air and so forth, what?" Consequently I have been sent on what constitutes a three-month punishment posting to the Control Room where I have been assigned to the telephone advice desk which was introduced recently to divert ambulances away from the lowest of the low-born time-wasting lunatics of the borough by bamboozling them with medical jargon and technical terms beyond the limits of their meagre vocabulary and intellectual endurance in the frankly forlorn hope that they'll eventually grow weary of calling us and find some other means of passing their illimitable hours of leisure without spending any money. And this being my first day it appears I'm obliged to undergo the traditional initiation of having my chain yanked for the entire shift. Well I can take it and I must say that it certainly beats a spell on the boat by several furlongs, especially at this time of year. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if this is a punishment then it's . . . look out, here we go again.

"Medical advice line. Good morning. Oh, yes. You caught him doing what? With your sister? And your mother? Together? The beast! Oh, his own mother. Good heavens, madam. No, you're right, he needs to be taught a very sharp lesson indeed and swiftly. Might I suggest a dramatic attention-seeking gesture of the self-harming variety? Something quite theatrical, blood and hysteria is usually best. Yes, I agree, a really convincing suicide attempt would be just the thing in this situation. Preferably a successful one, of course. Where are you? I know it, right by the tube station. That's the spirit. That'll really show the swine. You're welcome. Good luck, madam. Cheerio now."

Sorry about that, they must think I was born yesterday. Yes, it's one of those curiously topsy-turvy twists of the ambulance game that bad behaviour — not that I'm pleading guilty, you understand — rather than being punished is often, in effect, rewarded. In fact, there's a rather cute little aphorism sometimes heard upon the lips of the more cynical inhabitants of Ambulanceland and indeed one shared with the disciples of Herr von Sacher-Masoch which states that punishment is its own reward. Hence the man who accumulates the all-time record number of complaints against him from members of the public could easily find himself removed from all contact with the hoi-polloi by being promoted until his shoulders can barely sustain the weight of all the paraphernalia attached to the epaulettes that come with his new title of, you beat me to it, Head of Complaints. Similarly, the man who . . . sorry, hold on.

"Hello. Yes, that's right, you're through to the Clapham Ambulance telephonic medical advisory service. How may I help? Certainly, sir, that's what we're here for. It's quite all right. Eighty-nine, is she? How splendid. Incontinent? Doubly so? Well, sir, that's a woman's prerogative, of course. Demented? Naturally, you wouldn't want her any other way, now would you, sir? Yes, yes, I quite understand. No, it's no trouble at all I assure you. All you'll really need is a carrier bag and a shoelace or a length of household string. Yes certainly, a belt should suffice admirably. Not on the Service yourself by any chance are you, sir? No, sir, of course you're not." Not many.

Where was I? Oh yes, I was about to relate the tale of the ambulanceman who found himself dismissed a week prematurely from jury service and chose not to report back for work and serve his community with a sense of duty and honour but opted instead to sneak off for a foreign holiday on full pay and who, when this shameful act of despicable malfeasance was discovered, was not sacked in disgrace as you, a taxpayer, might reasonably expect but in fact was spared, soon scaling the ladder of corruption until he reached the dizzy heights of Deputy Commander of Blankets and to this day occasionally graces our television screens as a spokesman for the Brigade on that very subject. Such are the mysterious Masonic ways of the Clapham Ambulance and the road to understanding them is littered with the corpses of bitter madmen. Perhaps some matters, I would venture to suggest, really are best left in the hands of those who aren't fettered by conscience or any sense of — hang on a minute.

"Medical advice. Good morning, how— Oh, hello, you. Fine, yes. You? Good. Has he? The Harrogate Ambulance Mop Fair? Three days! Wonderful. Try and stop me. About six. I shall think about it all afternoon. See you then, then. Bye, Shirley."

No, you'll not hear me complain about working up here at all. The people are absolutely first rate and the air seems almost totally free from the stench of human waste products. If anything it rather reminds me of the operations room in Churchill's secret wartime headquarters or something. There's a huge map table in the middle of the room with little models of ambulances that get shoved around by keen young ladies in starched white blouses who say things like "Charlie One Seven, red at St. Bernard's" and "Charlie One Niner, green orn station" in frightfully plummy tones reminiscent of Joyce Grenfell or Celia Johnson. Actually, there's one in particular who's been— ho-hum, excuse me again.

"Medical advice desk. How may— Please, madam, try to remain calm. Speak slowly. Yes. We spoke earlier, didn't we? Asthma, wasn't it? Sorry? Dead? What! Bleach? But—"