Pink for Danger
For those who prefer comprehensible English, I responded to a wireless broadcast from Clapham Ambulance Control by volunteering to attend an emergency call which involved a collision between a railway train and a human being. Train versus pedestrian, as we say in prosaic ambulancespeak. This is a fortunately rare but far from unprecedented occurrence, the result of such an encounter invariably being that the fragile human comes off rather worse than the more robust train, which tends to sustain barely a scratch and requires little attention beyond a bit of a hose-down. The patient, as many ambulancemen refer with unconscious irony to a dismembered corpse, requires no treatment.
If you've never seen someone who's been hit by a through train going at full pelt, you might be tempted to conjure up a vision of an unmoving, somewhat pathetic figure lying forlornly between the rails, or perhaps to one side of them, having been shoved there by two hundred tons of heavy engineering travelling at seventy miles an hour, but it isn't quite like that. A train, when roused, can tear the clothes off you in a moment and its ferocious undercarriage can process you rapidly into many pieces before distributing your remains over several hundred yards of the Permanent Way. You might be unrecognisable even as human, let alone identifiable by gender or distinguishing features. Put crudely, you could well be reduced to meaty chunks. Your head, your face, so familiar to all who know and love you, may never be found and some parts of your body inevitably will be overlooked and left for the nourishment of the local rats.
As a stark reminder of the tenuous grip we exert upon our physical existence, the sight of a human body which has been dragged beneath a train is more effective than any textbook, however well illustrated, and you really do need to be there to appreciate it fully. It's a bloody mess, I can tell you, and not my idea of entertainment at all. So you’re thinking there must have been a jolly compelling motive for my apparent eagerness to attend such a hideous bloodbath, and one surely bound up not in altruism or public spiritedness, for that as a general rule is not the way of the ambulanceman, but rather one steeped in shameless and mercenary self-interest. Indeed, astute reader, there was. In fact, for reasons which will soon become clear, I was interested only in recovering a particular item from the pocket of a certain tweed jacket. It all came about as the result of a very stupid mistake, a moment of unthinking madness, one I shall never repeat and I am able to bear the humiliation of public revelation only in the knowledge that my experience might serve as a warning to others in the business and lead them safely away from the path of hasty imprudence which for the ambulanceman often leads directly to the door of the Coroner's Court.
Like most terrible events it began innocuously enough, in this case during the early evening with a call to the Old Queen Mum, a local public house renowned for its inexpensive beer, poor food and a less than discerning clientele, and in which an elderly gentleman had become inebriated to the point of truculence and had been rather unwisely challenging all-comers to a spot of fisticuffs. Most, of course, though no doubt sorely tempted, had no strong desire to take up his offer and simply navigated a sensible course around him on their way to and from the bar, perhaps with a sad little shaking of the head and an amused grin of patronising incredulity. But there's always one isn't there? And it's well known that that's all it takes. So anyway someone eventually gave the old boy a well-deserved smack and down he went with a bloody nose. As he struggled to his feet to rejoin the fray he stumbled across a table and upset a few drinks over their disgruntled owners and a bit of a brawl duly ensued and the police were called and the police summoned the ambulance and driving that ambulance was Stan Tablets and in the seat beside Stan Tablets was none other than your humble servant.
The aged aggressor turned out to be a man who went by the unlikely name of Archibald McTurnip. He was short and wiry of stature and the proud possessor of those traditional souvenirs of an old-fashioned Glaswegian upbringing — borstal-tattooed knuckles, an obsessive fondness for alcohol, a marked propensity for mindless violence, a long scar down one side of his face and a very well developed hatred of all policemen, particularly those of the English variety. He displayed the inevitable excessive belligerence so beloved of the little ‘un and promised on first sight to be quite a handful. However, Stan has a wonderful way with this type of customer and is often able to calm the most aggressive drunk merely by means of a quiet word and a penetrating stare. I don't make a habit of gazing into the eyes of Mr. Tablets or anything but I know there lurks plainly within them a whole world of terrible hardship just waiting for a suitable tenant and in most cases they are an effective antidote to threatening behaviour.
Under Stan's spell Archie quickly became as tractable as a sedated spaniel and he followed us with some ambulatory deficiency but otherwise quite willingly out to the van where we gave him the standard cursory examination. His wounds were negligible and although he was so drunk he could barely stand or speak, in our considered professional opinion he didn't need hospital treatment. One way or another we wanted shot of him as soon as possible because it was time for dinner and a good ambulanceman will never allow the dubious needs of a patient to stand between himself and the pleasures of the table. In huddled conference we reviewed the options.
We could of course simply have taken him to St. Bernard’s, but we’d eaten there the last three nights and fancied a bit of a change. We could have run him home but he lived too far away, across the river somewhere, way off our patch, totally out of the question. So in the end we decided to drop him at the railway station and then dine at Les Sausages which is nearby and serves a palatable and generous portion which falls squarely within the ambulanceman’s modest budget. I attended to all the necessary paperwork and as per the latest wave of Ambulance Regulations gave Archie his personal copy, the pink one, which he stuffed roughly in the inside pocket of his greasy old tweed jacket before scrawling his signature on my copy and taking his leave of us. The last we saw of him he was engaged upon a foolhardy ascent of the precipitous concrete steps which lead to platforms seven and eight, hanging on for dear life to the handrail. We thought no more about him and were pulling up outside the cafe, our conversation having turned to the important and fascinating subject of pie, when we heard the broadcast — one under at the station, platform eight, assistance appreciated.
Before you could say ‘sphygmomanometer’ I had grabbed the microphone and offered up for the job, having reasoned in an instant that a ten-minutes-old pink copy found in the possession of a fresh corpse would present a very poor impression of the ambulance crew to the coroner and would be tantamount to a written testament of our wilful neglect of our patient, a signed confession of a dereliction of our duty of care and incontrovertible proof of our contribution to his untimely and horrific death. Without that vital piece of incriminating evidence about his person he’d be just another drunken old codger who’d fallen over and just happened to land in the path of the Portsmouth Express. Unfortunate, but there it is.
We had to get there quickly before that pink sheet of doom fell under the meddlesome and inquisitive auspices of officialdom and sealed both our fates good and proper, once and for all. Stan drove like a naughty teenager who's nicked a police car and we hurried up the steps with a box of rubber gloves and a roll of rubbish bags, the only pieces of equipment really required for a genuine ‘one under’.
“D'yiz went som?” a voice greeted us as we reached the platform and I could have danced for joy. I laughed with exquisite happiness and spread my arms to embrace my dear, dear friend Archibald McTurnip who responded to my fond advance by taking a swing at me. It missed by a yard and its momentum spun him right round and as he stumbled about in a giddy state of drunken confusion I reached into his jacket and retrieved my pink copy. Easy. Mission accomplished. Thank God and phew and all that, but we still had a job to do.
It might sound strange but the work of collecting the widely-scattered constituent parts of a fellow human being from a railway track and putting them in plastic bags provides a rare and almost perfect opportunity for quiet contemplation. The surreal carnality of the situation stuns all concerned into silence and precludes the usual sick male banter in which the ambulanceman habitually cloaks his fear of death and one is left mostly undisturbed with one’s private thoughts, one’s companions not wishing to intrude upon another’s inner reflections at such a time.
I couldn’t have spoken anyway and my own thoughts, such as they were, were concerned with neither the fleeting transience nor the terrifying fragility of human existence nor with the root societal causes of the unimaginable despair which drives a healthy young person to jump beneath a train. I was aware of an aching sensation in the pit of my stomach, a kind of yearning, not for the enlightenment of understanding nor for a better world for our children, not even for the more fundamental human requirement of some dinner but for that saddest old impossibility of turning back the clock and I was left with nothing but a terrible sensation of existential emptiness.