Monday, July 03, 2006

Vein's First Principle

It will undoubtedly stretch the credulity of the man in the street beyond the normal bounds of its integrity and raise in his mind quite serious and legitimate concerns for the welfare of his family and his neighbours when I reveal that I’ve been acting as a Training Supervisor for the past couple of weeks, teaching a pair of eager young lads fresh from the Academy of Ambulance Studies the finer points of life on the Clapham Ambulance, and it’s proving to be quite an emotional journey of reminiscence for me because it takes me back to my own early days spent under the tutelage of Fred Ventricle and I find myself on a daily basis yearning for the halcyon days of my recklessly squandered youth.

Oh, but how cruelly and inexorably Time rolls on, the cold hand of Death drawing ever closer, and now while I have the opportunity the task befalls me of passing on the acquired knowledge of many years to my own fresh-faced students as they step like a couple of nervous adolescents into the grown up world of the black serge and the silver buttons with their careers stretching out before them to the far distant horizon like a life sentence without hope of parole.

Naturally, I regard it as my foremost duty to spend the greater part of each day trying to persuade them to turn around and go back before it’s too late, before they are irrevocably sucked in and under, but these boys display a stubborn reluctance to listen to the voice of wisdom and seem determined to throw away their young lives senselessly in menial servitude attending to the whims of the drunk, the mad, the smelly and the stupid, and if the thick skulls of youth are really impervious to good sense and reason and they absolutely cannot be deterred from this madness, then I must take them back to basics and start their education from the very beginning to ensure that their voyage through Ambulanceland is as smooth as possible, because I have developed an avuncular fondness for them over the past fortnight and I feel that I owe them at least that small chance of survival.

We in the teaching profession find the days pass more enjoyably if we experiment with a variety of methods for instilling knowledge into the minds of our pupils and I have found that a strong anecdote is often a sound aid to memory and serves well to reinforce an important lesson, and for this particular one, possibly the most important of all, I will employ the tale of the unknown woman who claimed to be Dolly Pickles.

The very first thing you need to learn and must strive never to forget as you take those fledgling steps into the curious world of ambulances, is that you must never believe anything a patient tells you without some form of compelling corroborative evidence from an independent and provenly reliable source. You’ll discover soon enough through bitter experience that failure to heed this simple rule, which is as fundamental a part of ambulance work as the red blanket itself, is to court the most terrible embarrassment and inconvenience and has been known to cause the ambulanceman immeasurable suffering, up to and including the unthinkable hardship of actually missing his dinner.

It would be unfair to give the impression that all patients without exception are either inherently incapable of telling the truth or are setting out at all times deliberately to mislead you, but until you know with absolute certainty that this is not the case, you must assume that it is. This is known as Vein’s First Principle and is as firmly entrenched in the psyche of the seasoned ambulanceman and about as likely to be overlooked by him as putting on his trousers before setting off for work in the morning.

Even the greatest thinkers, it has been said, are entitled to an occasional lapse into absentmindedness, and I recall with red faced shame a day recently when, metaphorically, I reported for duty in my underpants.

It was a grey and overcast Tuesday and it so happened that there had been a bit of a mix-up with the allocation of staff to vehicles, what with sickness and holidays and the usual plethora of unauthorised summertime absences and so forth, and I found myself quite unexpectedly in that rare and enviable position of having no one to work with for the entire shift.

So, with the wary zeal of the erroneously pardoned prisoner, I duly set about the necessary task of plumping the cushions to my own very high standard of conformity and was in the process of psychologically preparing myself for the prospect of eight arduous hours on the messroom sofa when the telephone rang and I was stunned into a state of speechlessness by Clapham Ambulance Control instructing me to take a coach and collect individually a job lot of crazy old women for delivery to the psychiatric day centre in the Bowes-Lyon Unit at St. Bernard’s.

Numb and unable to think, with trembling hand I scrawled the dictated list of names and addresses on a scrap of paper and before lunchtime had somehow managed successfully to round up, transport, unload and herd the cargo into the spartan day room, so I settled down gratefully in the back of the van for a well earned and much needed snooze – out of the strain of the doing, into the peace of the done – and for a while life once again seemed almost tolerable.

But - oh! - how fleeting is that stolen moment of tranquillity; and when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger: stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood; because taking the mad old ducks to the hospital is only half the job, of course, and it seems that no sooner has one closed one's weary eyes to claim the prize of sleep than it’s time to take them all home again. One stands there in the doorway clutching one's dog-eared list and shouts their names in alphabetical order like a headmaster calling the morning register in a school for the senile.

“Mavis Antelope! Minnie Antidote! Doris Artichoke! Nellie Edgerton! Maud Endecott! Myrtle MacNally! Sally O’Mally! Dolly Pickles! Beryl Potts!”

And each in turn will raise an uncertain hand, then stand slowly in frail bewilderment, until eventually you cajole them into trooping out to the ambulance in a ragged line, able to resist the powerful urge to prod their buttocks in a spirit of encouragement with a bayonet only by virtue of not having such an implement to hand, and one by one you return them safely to the welcoming bosoms of their families or the loving warmth of the care homes whence they came, and when this toil is done then you are free to trundle back to the ambulance station at your leisure and enjoy a refreshing cup of tea before quietly slipping off home while Nobby Harris sleeps.

But on that fateful day that simple plan went horribly awry because like an ingenuous ass I ignored Vein’s First Principle of ambulance work.

Our first port of call was Mulberry House, one of the parish's snootier homes, and taking her firmly by one ear, the lobe pinched between thumb and forefinger in the prescribed fashion, I marched Dolly Pickles smartly up the driveway to the front door whereupon I was informed by the staff that Mrs. Pickles had returned already from the day centre by taxi cab, having felt unwell and her request to be taken home early having been granted, and this woman, whoever she may be, is certainly not our Dolly. Mildly perplexed but at this stage not overly concerned, I put her back on the ambulance and continued the process of delivering the others, hoping that the problem would somehow resolve itself along the way and her true identity would present itself to me, though how this might be effected was not a subject to which I had devoted much attention at that stage.

When all the others had been returned to their natural habitats, I found myself in profit to the tune of one deranged crone whose name and address were as yet a mystery to me. It was time to stroke the chin and devise a plan of action. Firstly, I demanded repeatedly to see her papers, only to be met with insane laughter and a liberal spraying of saliva. Secondly, while she wept and tried to stem the flow of blood from her nose, I searched her handbag and pockets for clues and was rewarded with half a dozen damp tissues, several loose Fisherman’s Friends, and the lower half of a set of dentures wrapped in a handkerchief. No prescription, no bus pass, no pension book. Finally, I found a telephone box and called the day centre. Marcia the receptionist displayed her usual eagerness to please and checked thoroughly through her records, but could find no discrepancy, all the attenders having been accounted for, but if I would wait, she would get back to me.

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang and Marcia informed me that she had called the home of every patient on her list and all were safe and well, and the only explanation she could offer was that my leftover lunatic had simply wandered in off the street and mingled unnoticed with the crowd before passing herself off as Dolly Pickles and hitching a free ride around the parish.

I considered my options, which were reassuringly few. I could drive the four miles through heavy traffic back to St. Bernard’s and hand her over to the staff in A & E, whose gratitude and opinion of my professional abilities would doubtless be inestimable, or I could simply leave her in the street right here and now and drive around the corner to the ambulance station. I looked at my watch to assist the decision-making process and perceived to my horror a very real and present danger of missing my afternoon tea.

To thwart the slip 'twixt cup and lip, I dunked the chocolate biscuit with great care and precision, then closed my eyes and savoured the exquisite pleasure of the separate flavours as it dissolved upon my tongue, and I reflected with awe upon the life and work of the legendary Ebenezer Vein and how even today, if we heed his immortal words and live our lives by his flawless and infallible Truth, we can be guided safely through the darkness by the unfathomable wisdom of probably the greatest ambulanceman who ever lived.