To conceal the true depth of our bitter disgruntlement at being roused from serene slumber and turned out into the midst of our grim surroundings at such an ungodly hour of the day, we adopted the sort of hard-boiled, inscrutable, no-nonsense expressions traditionally favoured by stormtroopers engaged upon the task of ghetto clearance. We hurried dramatically into the supermarket with our trolleybed impressively laden with several bags of life-saving equipment and a selection of machines that go beep, and five minutes later, pumping the patient’s blood through his arteries with our bare hands, and oxygenating every cell in the very marrow of his fibre with no thought for our own personal safety, we marched briskly out again. We lifted the trolley bed with apparent ease, slid it smoothly into the back of the ambulance without dropping it, and shut the back doors smartly to protect the dignity of our patient from the attentions of the inevitable host of gawping onlookers.
I’m prepared to concede that it could have been a trick of my imagination, an aural hallucination, if you like, engendered by conceit, but I fancied I heard from without a muffled round of applause.
In the privacy of the van, far from the madding crowd, our demeanour changed entirely, and all trace of the alert and austere professionalism presented to the public vanished in an instant, as though at the flick of a switch.
Albert glanced up furtively then brought to an immediate conclusion his earnest endeavours in the field of chest compressions. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief, sat down heavily with a weary sigh, as if really this was simply too much for a man of his refined sensibilities, and closed his eyes. At the same time, I released the ventilator bag from my aching fingers and let it fall to the floor with that familiar soft, rubbery thud before staggering to the seat at the back, collapsing gratefully onto it and closing my own eyes in the contented manner of an angler settling down for a long afternoon in the shade.
It was very hot and the last thing any ambulanceman wants to do straight after lunch on a sweltering summer’s day is indulge in the utterly pointless exercise of trying to bring back to life in a crowded public place someone who is very obviously and quite irrevocably dead. If it’s a miracle they want, say the men of the Clapham Ambulance, give the job to Jesus and his crewmate.
What the replete ambulanceman wants to do post-prandially, as everyone knows, is settle in his favourite armchair accompanied by a refreshing cup of strong tea with the agreeable prospect of a couple of hours’ peace and quiet in which to reflect calmly upon the pleasures of his recent repast and wallow in joyful anticipation of his next, before drifting into a lengthy and recuperative state of dreamless unconsciousness.
Sadly, however, due to the insanely impossible demands of a certifiably deluded Minister of Public Health, coupled with the laughably optimistic expectations of a woefully ill-educated populace, the concomitance of what he wants and what he gets now occurs with ever-diminishing frequency, and these days it’s a very resourceful ambulanceman indeed who is able to enjoy with any degree of regularity that once sacrosanct perquisite of his profession, namely the undisturbed afternoon nap, and when a perfect opportunity to grab those coveted forty winks unexpectedly presents itself, well, to pass it up would seem not merely churlish, but would require a far more generous reserve of moral fortitude than that bestowed upon the overwhelming majority of the world’s ambulancemen.
I must say, with the doors closed it was a rare oasis of tranquillity in the back of that ambulance, and the drowsy hum of the passing traffic soothed our sleepy souls like a soft lullaby, or perhaps it was the lazy, soporific buzzing of the flies, but it was so quiet, so peaceful, so warm . . .
I have a vague recollection of hearing a strange, metallic sort of voice talking about analyzing heart rhythms or something, but it drifted through to my consciousness only in a disjointed, meaningless sort of way, as though from far, far away, and then Mother was there on her red bicycle at a church ceremony involving swords and fire and snakes and goats, and Fr. Tab O’Knackle was rapping a candelestick against the wooden rail of the pulpit, calling the congregation to order and pointing an accusing finger directly at me, as Pope Marshmallow XIV danced around the altar, naked but for his pointy pontifical mitre, singing “stand clear, press to shock”, and I became groggily aware that someone was knocking with a kind of diffident determination upon the back doors of the ambulance and that the defibrillator was squawking its usual tiresome exhortations.
“Will 'e be all right?” said a frail voice behind me, blending apology and concern in more or less equal measure. “Only I got 'im a nice bit of 'addock for 'is tea, like.”
I looked around, yawning profoundly, unsure for a moment of who I was, where I was, and why I was there, a condition not uncommon in one of my general disposition, to see a toothless old woman standing at the open back doors, and I looked across with a detached sort of curiosity, following her line of sight, at the gaunt white corpse reclining stiffly on the trolleybed, the pads still attached to its chest, a plastic tube half in and half out of its gaping mouth, a trail of dried, bloody vomit congealed down the side of its face, its vacant eyes staring sightlessly up through a squadron of corpulent bluebottles at something beyond the ceiling, and I assured her that she was not to worry, her husband was in good hands, we were doing everything we possibly could and would be taking him to the hospital very soon and maybe she should phone St. Bernard’s in an hour or two.
And then I looked up at the clock to discover that almost three hours had passed in the blink of an eye. Where does the time go?
With some difficulty I roused a very grumpy Albert who eventually climbed sleepily through to the cab and started the engine. Fighting the almost overwhelming urge simply to lie on the floor, I followed him through and slumped in the seat beside him and then, with both of us yawning and barely able to keep our eyes open, too tired even to speak, in essence virtually comatose, we drove away.
At ten o’clock the next morning, my rest day I might add, I was rudely woken by a slightly bewildered though greatly amused Stan Tablets and Bert Klaxon who had started a day shift some three hours previously and having only just noticed something a little out of the ordinary had decided to call round, most eager to hear the story of how a corpse had come to be left overnight in the back of their ambulance. Oops.
Well, I suppose we’ve all done it at one time or another, haven't we?