Monday, May 08, 2006

This Sporting Life

Having no association with any of today's more fashionable diseases and because its lack of mood-enhancing characteristics renders it of no interest to the recreational enthusiast, the man in the street will probably be unfamiliar with the name of Co-beneldopa. No, not a former Derby winner, but a drug used exclusively in the management of Parkinsonism. An apparently dull, workaday sort of pill, lacking the cachet of the more glamorous celebrity medications and certainly harbouring no aspirations to rival the mass appeal of the top illegal substances, you would not really expect it to engender much in the way of passion and excitement on a Saturday afternoon in Clapham High Street and yet, as we shall see, in the right circumstances it has the capacity to surprise with an abundance of sporting possibility.

Until recently I was barely aware of its existence, but fortunately Albert Harness has a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of all things pharmaceutical and once again his inestimable intellect was called upon to save the day and once again, well, we’ll come to that.

Parkinson's disease, though usually associated in the collective consciousness only with quivering, malodorous geriatrics, hence its lowly status languishing in the relegation zone of the charity league's second division, can and does afflict those of more tender years and a few weeks ago we encountered one of the unfortunate few as he floundered helplessly on the pavement like a gormless haddock flapping about in the bottom of a boat, poleaxed by the big P on the day of the Grand National.

As a general rule I allow myself to be guided by an instinctive tendency to avoid whenever possible the company of those who habitually spend their time horizontal on a public thoroughfare, and while I appreciate that theoretically there may be a sound and compelling reason for adopting such a posture, beyond the usual alcoholic over-indulgence, this is about as commonplace as a penalty shoot-out at Royal Ascot. However, Senor Pablo de Noce, for such was his name, displayed a cavalier disregard for the ancient customs of Ambulanceland and turned out to be something of a very rare bird indeed, what with his fully paid-up membership of the Young Parkinsonians and his fondness for lying about in the street without the assistance of strong drink. Most notably, though, he was a punter of a most amiable and sporting disposition and, as such, representative of a species teetering precariously on the cusp of extinction.

Shortly after lunch, Albert and I had been prised from our armchairs to respond to a call from a disgruntled female who had complained of having to step over the recumbent form of a drunken Spaniard who was impeding her progress between the post office and the off licence, and as we approached we naturally assumed that Pablo was just another of the innumerable itinerant Iberian inebriates passing through the parish in the ceaseless quest for oblivion and had decided to take forty winks on the pavement before embarking upon the next leg of his interminable odyssey. But on closer examination that familiar sensation of uncertainty began gnawing away at the old innards.

For a start, he looked a little too well dressed, too well laundered, and we could detect about him none of that ripe, tangy aroma of fermenting compost that usually oozes liberally from the pores of the man whose life’s work it is to drink; and although he was obviously incapable of speech, there was a certain spark of intelligence and awareness about the eyes, which shone far brighter than the glazed and vacant bloodshot yellow orbs of the standard Clapham tramp.

As we pondered these baffling discrepancies, we happened to observe through the window of the nearby bookmaker’s several faces taking an unduly keen interest in our professional ministrations and we heard raised voices and witnessed animated gestures reminiscent of a lively mid-week crowd at Kempton Park or Catford Stadium and sensed with the unerring antennae of the seasoned ambulanceman that here, quite literally beneath our noses, was a potential earner, so Albert ambled into the shop to investigate.

Reputed to sport the largest trousers south of the river, Willie Welch, like all successful bookmakers, is nobody’s fool, and there are only two possibilities, both slender, of ever getting the better of him. You can experience a streak of extremely good luck and then make real the impossible dream of the gambler by stopping while you’re ahead, or you can somehow achieve the enviable but unlikely position of possessing greater insight than Willie concerning some event upon which he is prepared to take a bet. He will, though, to his credit, give you a price on almost anything and as long as the favourite hasn’t romped home, you’ll probably never find him more amenable to an unusual wager than on the afternoon of the National.

Albert emerged a couple of minutes later from the emporium of turf accountancy accompanied by the proprietor himself, closely followed by a small crowd of assorted sportsmen eager for some action and bearing the news that he’d placed a pony for each of us at eleven-to-two on our boy getting to a seat in the ambulance within ten minutes under his own steam. If we could persuade Pablo de Noce to get to his feet and walk in the right direction, climb a couple of steps and just sit down, we stood to win two hundred and seventy-five pounds between us.

Although it failed to register at the time, this constituted an unprecedented and historic moment in the annals of the Public Health Service – a performance target actually worth striving to achieve.

The general consensus within the shop, Albert reported, had been that Pablo, who’d staggered in there about ten minutes earlier requesting a glass of water, had little chance of making it to his feet unaided for several hours, never mind walking twenty feet to the ambulance, on account of him being about as sober as a pickled gherkin and drugged to the eyeballs to boot. The assembled punters and the crafty old bookmaker himself had stood and watched as he'd swallowed some pills shortly before collapsing to the ground, hence the generous odds. Frowning with perplexed trepidation at Albert and wondering what had possessed him, in light of this information, to place such a hopeless dead cert loser of a bet, I visualised our hard-earned cash being swallowed into the fathomless darkness of the back pocket of those unconscionably enormous trousers. By way of reassurance, I received one of Albert’s familiar sly winks and he opened his hand to reveal the packet of medication he’d fished from the pocket of Pablo’s jacket before entering the shop: Co-beneldopa, 50 mg.

The stout bookmaker clarified the simple rules of this strictly amateur contest - no physical assistance, no financial incentives - before handing his stopwatch to an impartial bystander who was to act as umpire and official timekeeper; and raising a grubby handkerchief above his head with ironic solemnity, he brought the totally oblivious Pablo de Noce under starter’s orders. A respectful hush fell over the course as we waited for the off. The flag came down, the race was on, and pandemonium duly ensued.

It seemed that the smart money was on Pablo continuing to play the role of an unmoving carcass for at least the next ten minutes, and the vociferous throng exhorted him in no uncertain terms to stay put. The crowd grew quickly, drawn by the irresistible pull of some impromptu sporting action, like a fight in a school playground. Willie moved among them drumming up business, while Albert and I squatted beside our boy and willed him to recover the use of his limbs, which, unknown to the baying multitude, is just the effect Co-beneldopa will have on the person rendered immobile by Parkinson’s. But would its magic work quickly enough? The tension looked set to become unbearable.

After a couple of minutes, much to the consternation of the crowd, Pablo sat up and made a courageous if unintelligible effort to speak and I tried to engage him in conversation to get him focused and determined and instill in him the will to win. To do this, I adopted Healthcare Professional Tone No. 7: Matey Cajolery, urging and wheedling in that well-practised and inappropriately familiar fashion, as if we’d been at school together, and I saw his mouth twitch slightly in response, though whether with the makings of a smile or a grimace of distaste was hard to say, but I was sure the light of understanding shone in his eyes and I convinced myself that he was on our side and we were going to win.

The minutes seemed to fly by and my emotions swung like a pendulum between the jubilation of imminent victory with each of Pablo’s noble attempts to stand and the crushing despair of certain defeat as he crashed painfully back to the floor. “Crawl, Pablo, crawl!” I screamed at him, still unsure of his grasp, if any, of the English language. He favoured me with a broad, imbecilic grin and rose to a kneeling position, swaying like some rare and delicate Japanese grass caressed by a coastal breeze, smiling stupidly with inflated pride at his achievement, before plummeting headlong once more to the pavement to a huge round of applause and joyful whooping and cheering.

His hands were raw by now, the knees of his trousers ragged and bloody, and I suspected his nose had been broken at least once, but still I urged him to greater efforts, any professional concern for his wellbeing having long since been devoured by the desire to win a few quid. “Come on, Pablo!” I screeched. “Get up! Get up!” And then he was on his feet, decidedly unsteady, but nevertheless standing upright.

“Two minutes!” called the timekeeper and the crowd went wild, pressing in on the tottering, disoriented athlete, shouting into his face, commanding him, begging him to fall. He swayed and staggered off course, his arms windmilling to keep himself balanced. The open back doors of the ambulance beckoned, just ten feet away now, only three steps to climb.

Dazed and confused, he plodded forward, dragging his feet with a great effort, so agonisingly slowly I could hardly bear to watch. He reached out for one of the handrails at the back of the van, missed it, and stumbled sideways. A huge cheer rang out and he seemed bewildered, having lost his bearings. I screamed at him to go right, go right! Whether he understood or not, I don’t know, but he lurched to the right anyway and made another grab for the rail. This time he got hold of it and clung on with both hands.

“One minute!” the timekeeper called out and the volume of the crowd reached an extraordinary new level. Pablo, spurred on by the commotion, attempted to lift one foot on to the first step. He got his right foot on it and hauled himself up by the rail. The seconds were ticking away and somehow he got up to the next step, listing from side to side, but still clinging on. As he got a foot on to the top step, he tried to stand upright and turn to acknowledge the crowd, losing his balance as he did so, but still holding on to the rail.

Then he turned and raised both hands above his head in a victory salute, laughing with a childlike joy, weeping with pride, completely overcome with emotion, as if he’d single-handedly won the World Cup for his country; and then he pitched head first on to the road, smashed his skull open and lay still. At this dramatic spectacle, the crowd went into a frenzy of ecstacy, laughing and cheering, applauding and chanting, dancing and hugging each other. And then the timekeeper blew the whistle and it was all over. We’d lost the bet.

Poor Pablo. He’d tried so hard, given everything he had for us, but like all effort, all endeavour, ultimately it was for nothing. We lifted him on to our stretcher and drove him to the discreet brick building at the back of St. Bernard’s, where Bill Bones rolled up his sleeves and attended to the necessary while Albert and I drank tea and played cards; then we put the yellow bags on a barrow and pushed it round to old Sam Furness, who helped us throw them into the roaring flames of the hospital's ancient incinerator.

We stood outside and watched in silence as the smoke rose from the chimney, a fragile grey plume, torn and twisted, its atoms dispersed upon the blustery spring wind; not destroyed, we told each other, but rearranged like the letters of an anagram and, who knows, given the infinity of Time, maybe one day to be realigned.

But I wouldn't put money on it.