Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Refrigerating Mrs. Fanshaw

I was relaxing at home the other evening engrossed in the Miss Islam contest live from Damascus when I found myself taken by surprise and overpowered by a quite irresistible yearning for a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich and I rose automatically from the comfort of the armchair and made my way to the kitchen by the shortest possible route like a man relinquishing free will unto the authority of primitive forces. In a kind of trance I filled the kettle, lit the grill and opened the door of the refrigerator, whereupon the face of Philomena Fanshaw appeared before me as though her severed head were sitting there on the shelf beside the butter and before I realised fully that it was just an illusion, a fabrication of a tortured imagination, for a few moments I thought I’d been up to my old tricks again. I sighed wistfully for happier times and reached for the streaky rashers, and as I pushed the door to, my thoughts became tormented by visions of her sliding away from me and fading forever into the cold darkness, and I fancied I could hear the sound of furious scratching, as of something trapped and trying desperately to escape.

I was working a day shift with Albert Harness and uncharacteristically we had allowed ourselves to become the witless victims of a cruel prank perpetrated by that mischievous imp Stan Tablets in fiendish collaboration with a pipe-smoking rapscallion by the name of Bert Klaxon, both of whom had taken advantage of a moment’s inattention to stitch Albert and me up like a couple of raw kippers fresh from training school, and we ended up having to convey a suspended patient who by rights should have been theirs. Incredible as it may seem, we fell for the old fetching-the-bed-from-the-ambulance routine whereby one returns to the house with the other crew’s trolley instead of one’s own, thus forcing upon them the reluctant custodianship of a malodorous corpse requiring immediate transportation to the hospital mortuary via the nearest A&E department. It’s a low and very old trick but a mere scintilla of inconvenience in the rich and colourful tapestry of ambulance life and we took it in good part, Albert and I, the rueful smiles upon our lips masking the bestial thoughts of implacable vengeance festering in the darkest recesses of our minds.

Philomena Fanshaw had been discovered by her daughter slumped across the dining table with her face in a shepherd’s pie, and though lukewarm to the touch, to an experienced and disinterested ambulanceman she was quite obviously dead and thus technically beyond the bounds of our jurisdiction, having crossed the line into the auspices of the undertaker. We duly informed the distraught woman that, alas, there was really nothing we could do for her mother, whose number quite simply was up, her contract having expired without option of renewal after a very respectable innings, at which metaphorical melange she became unaccountably rather hysterical and begged us, please, to do something, anything, to try and save her dear, sweet mother. Exercising commendable restraint, we explained in calm and professional tones that any efforts to resuscitate the old girl at this stage in the proceedings would be entirely futile and would also necessitate inflicting a gross physical indignity upon her genteel personage, and you wouldn’t want to remember your mother like that, now would you, madam? But she merely elevated her piteous beseeching into the realms of neurotic frenzy and, oh, for God’s sake, all right then, anything for a quiet life, we’ll give it a go if you really insist.

And so amid much sighing, tutting and theatrical glancing ceilingward, we whipped out the defibrillator, ripped away the blouse to expose Mrs. Fanshaw’s pale and surprisingly firm breasts, and with neither hope nor enthusiasm commenced some gentle cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, knowing with utter certainty from the off that such an undertaking would be, as always, a senseless waste of time, effort and hard-earned taxpayers’ money.

Going through the motions without working up too much of a sweat, we arrived in due course at St. Bernard’s whereupon the back doors of the van were wrenched open dramatically by glamorous staff nurse Condoleezza Goolagong and ruggedly handsome senior house officer Dr. Jed Cabbage, both of whom gave our patient a moment’s professional consideration before simultaneously pursing their lips and slowly shaking their heads in a timeless, universal gesture of sorrow and regret; not for the deceased nor for her bereaved family but for the incompetence of ambulancemen who persist in wasting the valuable time of dedicated and expensively-trained medical staff by depositing on their doorstep carcasses without prospect of resurrection. In mitigation we could only shrug and nod in the direction of the daughter. The nurse raised her eyes wearily to the god of mortification, took the elbow of the guilty party and ushered her briskly into the little darkened room set aside for the sole purpose of snivelling, while Doc Cabbage, having signed our paperwork to confirm her death, told us we should deliver the late Mrs. Fanshaw without further ado straight to the mortuary.

Wheeling our cargo into the windowless brick building at the back of the hospital, we found Bill Bones in his customary high spirits, employing his rich baritone with great gusto to sing something about being the monarch of the sea as he sawed gleefully through the skull of the naked young man reclining on the stainless steel post mortem table in the back room. He executed a few steps of a nifty little dance and gave us a friendly wave without missing a beat or dropping a lyric and we set about the routine task of transferring Philomena Fanshaw’s mortal remains to the refrigerator for cold storage to await collection by Messrs Berry and Burnham.

We opened one of the tall doors of the twelve-corpser and slid a galvanised steel tray out on to the rollers of the hydraulic mortuary trolley, and having positioned it at the same height beside our own, we took the body under the arms and by the ankles and humped it across on to the tray with roughly the same degree of reverence one might accord a large sack of potatoes. And then we paused for a bit of a breather.

Unerringly the gentleman, Albert tactfully left me alone with Philomena and wandered off into the PM room, adopting a curiously high-pitched voice and joining in the choruses with Bill - “and we are his sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts!” – followed by much raucous laughter. I closed the door, smiling at their schoolboy antics and brushed the back of my hand gently against the peachy softness of her face. And then I noticed something very strange indeed.

At first I thought it was a trick of the light, or the delerium of anticipation, but as I looked closer I could see quite clearly a faint, throbbing pulse at the side of her neck, where the whatsname artery is; and then I saw her bare chest rise and fall, slightly but unmistakably, and deduced that she was breathing. But how could this be? I racked my brain for a solution to this perplexing conundrum and could only conclude that it had been the shock of being thrown roughly on to the cold metal tray that had triggered some mechanical or chemical reaction within her and somehow caused her heart and lungs to start working again. I could not otherwise explain the occurrence of this phenomenon which was quite unprecedented in all my long years on the ambulances. I imagine it was akin to witnessing a miracle and I found myself becoming strangely excited and aglow, with a kind of tingling sensation at the extremities, my heart racing and pounding in my chest.

Panting and perspiring, I gazed down at her face and saw a small flickering of the eyelids, and then they peeled slowly apart and the bright blue eyes of the late Mrs. Philomena Fanshaw were staring keenly and invitingly into my own. She smiled with pleasure as if greeting a dear friend or, my untamed imagination beyond control, a favourite lover, and I felt a warm, slender hand grasp my wrist and squeeze tightly and only the adrenalin of desire prevented me from passing out.

Some while later I judged my composure to have returned sufficiently for me to apply some rational thought to this most singular of situations and try to reach a sensible decision as to what course of action would best serve the interests of all concerned. And while I struggled to manufacture a feasible account of events to explain how a patient in my care had come to be fully conscious on a mortuary tray, there came from behind the door to the other room the incongruous sound of two grown men singing something about a little buttercup in a parody of light operatic sopranos.

There were several factors to be considered, not the least of which was my pension. There would be the inevitable investigation to endure and the endless questions, questions, questions, and an intolerable mountain of paperwork to complete, forms to fill, written statements to prepare. And worst of all, of course, would be the constant merciless ribbing in the messroom. A live one on a tray! I imagined what the likes of Stan Tablets and Bob Slogan would have to say on the subject and my teeth began to chatter uncontrollably.

No, it was quite simply unthinkable and I knew that all along there had only ever been one solution.

I gave the tray a gentle shove, sliding it easily on the rollers into the huge refrigerator in a single smooth movement and as she disappeared into the cold and lonely darkness to join for eternity the company of assorted foul-smelling cadavers, Mrs Fanshaw raised a feeble, imploring hand and held my gaze for what seemed an age with a look of stunned surprise and supplication, like a horrified and incredulous mother held back by burly stormtroopers as she watches her beloved only child being put aboard a cattle train bound for the death camps.

With a shudder of terrible regret I closed the door of the refrigerator and sat at Bill’s battered wooden desk, flicking abstractedly through the pages of the guest book as I waited and waited, interminably waited for the noise to stop, my nerves raw and ragged, shredded and tattered, for there are few sounds more distressing to a discerning and sensitive healthcare professional than that peculiar screeching sound made by fingernails frantically clawing at the other side of a steel door.