Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Small Misunderstanding

I've gone and put my foot right in it again. Big time, as young Benjamin from across the street would say. First there was Her Majesty, the Queen of England, and now there's Mrs. Mavis Chinstrap of number 17, Cherrytree Avenue, Clapham. Where will it end, I wonder? It simply amazes me how much trouble can be caused by one silly little misunderstanding. If you don't believe me, ask Thomas Becket. Then again, what's done is done, and even he probably would have agreed with my old grandad, who was wont to advise all and sundry that it's no use crying over troubled waters, and sometimes one just has to make the best of a bad penny. Or was it an egg? I'm sure chickens came into it somewhere. Well, I don't suppose it really matters now. If you're wondering what the dickens I'm talking about, please bear with me; I'll get there eventually. In the meantime, let's have some background.

There's an innocent-sounding little question much asked of both policemen and ambulancemen which, although phrased identically and imbued with similar levels of ulterior meaning, is laden in each case with entirely different connotations. The criminal, bang to rights, with commendable optimism and varying degrees of subtlety, will often make the enquiry of the detective sitting across the table from him as to whether a substantial cash donation to Inspector Bent's retirement fund might in any way alleviate the seriousness of the straits in which he now finds himself, and it is customary on such occasions, assuming an understanding to have been reached, for a brown envelope to change hands in the near future at a pre-arranged meeting of said copper and some nefarious emissary of the third party, and charges subsequently to be reduced or dismissed entirely. Such, reassuringly, are the immutable ways of men.

In Ambulanceland, however, where grown men dress in green, the exact same words become a preliminary and tentative enquiry from a concerned relative with regard to the possibility that the Ancient One, not really well enough to endure the arduous journey to the hospital, perhaps could be taken instead directly to the public mortuary, which would save troubling the overworked and under-valued staff in the casualty department, and might be better for all concerned, if you know what I mean. The question in both cases is "Can anything be done?" and it drips with implicit nods, winks, and the imaginary rustle of used notes. And in most cases, yes, something can usually be done.

Ask any ambulanceman in the country, and if he's being truthful he'll tell you, with neither pride nor shame, though strictly off the record, you understand, probably adopting that phlegmatic, seen-it-all manner we tend to acquire after a few years, that he has 'done something' for financial gain, or as a favour to overwrought relatives, or perhaps merely for the pleasure of the act itself. We're all happy to oblige now and then and most of us manage without difficulty to keep the whole business under control and firmly within the bounds of a healthy perspective; but there have been some notable exceptions. One of our erstwhile Directors of Clinical Excellence, the much maligned mass murderer Harold Shipman, was one of those whose baser tendencies eventually got the better of him and he allowed himself to run amok with the morphine syringe among the old ducks of the parish like a country sportsman on amphetamines. Once in General Practice, you see, the temptations were simply too great and he found that his general practice of despatching old ladies on the merest whim became one he just couldn't leave alone. Such a shame he went off the rails; he had all the makings of a truly fine ambulanceman. Oh, well . . . But I'm straying from the subject, no doubt unconsciously trying to delay the inevitable confession of my own stupidity. Dear me, what an unmitigated buffoon I can be!

Anyway, to get to the crux of the biscuit, this is how my terrible blunder came to happen. I was working an overtime shift with Stan Tablets, which is permitted under the terms of my punishment, and we were sent to Cherrytree Avenue for an elderly female, a terminal cancer sufferer, who was unconscious and apparently could be roused by neither crashing cymbals nor repeated acts of physical violence, nor, indeed, by the judicious application of jump leads to the tender terminals east and west of the sternum. Sensing a possible earner, we set off eagerly and arrived at the house to be greeted by a distressed-looking man of early middle age who explained that he just couldn't cope with her any more, it was all too much, she was singularly impossible, doubly incontinent and triply gaga, he was at the end of his tether, and when will euthanasia be legal in England, and really, oh! is there nothing that can be done? With these words, the Mr. Woebegone act stopped rather abruptly and he cast a slyly knowing, we're-all-men-of-the-world look in our direction, and reached into his back pocket. At this, Stan flexed his fingers and cracked his knuckles, and was off up those stairs like a greyhound coming out of trap number four, while I stayed to complete negotiations before following up at a more leisurely pace.

I entered the bedroom expecting to find Mr. Tablets engrossed in the act of wringing the life from a helpless old lady, a sight not exactly unfamiliar to me, so I was somewhat surprised to find said old lady sitting up in bed reading a murder mystery in paperback, very much still breathing and rather taken aback by my unannounced visit, and not a trace of Stan to be seen anywhere. Now, I've often heard it said that assumption is the first recourse of the indolent scholar, or something like that, and that the professional ambulanceman must never assume anything without some form of corroborative evidence. Or is that a policeman? Well, anyway, I just assumed that Stan must suddenly have remembered an urgent appointment with Nature - witness his mad dash up the stairs - and was at that precise moment availing himself of the facilities prior to treating the patient, so I simply carried out the task myself before making my way back down the stairs to see a man about a monkey.

"Oh, there you are," I said, seeing Stan already pocketing the cash. I should have realised at that moment that something was amiss, but it failed to register and we left the house, climbed back into the van and split the money. There was something gnawing away at the back of my mind, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

"Lovely little touch. Can't be bad. So where did you get to then?" I asked, more by way of conversation than any sort of interrogation as I thumbed through the cash.

"Whaddya mean, 'get to'? When?" said Stan, starting the engine.

"Back there, in the house, when you disappeared upstairs." Having counted my share, I stuffed the notes into my breast pocket.

"Talking about? Doing the business, wasn't I? Think I was?" he said, miming a double-hander for the purpose of illustration, complete with sound effects lest there should be any doubt, and then pulled away from the kerb. 'Doing the business' could, I suppose, have several interpretations, depending on the context, but surely Stan had left no room for ambiguity. So if Stan had done the business, then . . . ? A penny was starting to drop and I was starting to sweat.

"But I went upstairs and you weren't there, so I did the business myself. Old girl in the front bedroom. Well, not all that old really, now I think of it. She smiled at me."

"What?" Stan laughed. "She was in the back room, like the geezer said. His old mum." I didn't recall any mention of back rooms or old mums. Oh, dear, I really should pay more attention.

"Was he married, do you suppose?" Our laughter boomed out like thunder across the night sky and probably rattled the windows in drawing rooms over the river. God, what an idiot!