Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Swift One

I don’t know about you but at the end of a gruelling day spent indulging the preposterous whims of some of the smelliest people known to medical science, my policy is to disinfect in its entirety the exterior of my mortal being using an industrial solution of carbolic acid and a good stiff brush before strolling down the road to forget the unfairness of Life’s bitter incongruity over a glass or two of Wandle's Most Peculiar, after which I generally return home in a state of stupefied beatitude ready to enjoy a few hours’ worth of dreamless oblivion before the alarm clock summons me to gird the loins once more prior to re-entering the vile netherworld that is the dominion of the modern healthcare professional.

Like any conscientious ambulanceman burdened by a sensitive disposition, I’m quite certain I would have been rendered hopelessly insane long ago were it not for the blessed sanctuary of the public house and the spiritually curative properties of strong drink taken in the company of an agreeable congregation.

In fact before I was able even to walk I found myself fascinated by the allure of that dimly-lit house on the corner, deliciously redolent of beer and fags, the bewitching clinking of glasses and the hubbub of adult conversation puntuated by coarse, ribald laughter emanating from within. I lay there most evenings in the second-hand perambulator outside the door of the saloon bar listening intently and inhaling deeply as my mind filled to bursting with a host of colourful characters performing in the multitude of dramas unfolding in my imagination, and I ached all the while with a solitary yearning to grow up and become an actor on that mysterious, forbidden stage; and now, even when on duty — especially when on duty — I find it almost impossible to pass those doors without popping in for a swift one.

Which is precisely the task Albert and I were engaged upon recently when we were approached at the bar by a couple of young lads sporting the type of facial hair that denotes strict teetotalism and having about the eyes that singularly fervent and utterly humourless gleam which generally characterises the single-minded religious fanatic for whom martyrdom is but the price of a one-way ticket to a life of eternal shenanigans with six dozen virgins in paradise, and to that admittedly desirable end the vanquishing of his faith’s godless enemies is understandably the only legitimate earthly ambition to pursue.

So, rather hurriedly making our peace with the Big Feller, and having reconciled ourselves to having our throats ritualistically slit where we stood, we were pleasantly surprised when they asked us instead with strangely formal politeness and in all seriousness if we might be interested in selling them our ambulance.

Now I believe it’s fairly common knowledge that over the years a lot of merchandise has changed hands inside the Princess Margaret, but the ambulanceman unfortunately is limited in his role as a purveyor of quality goods by the meagre and virtually unmarketable nature of the products associated with his chosen profession. True, he might sell a few boxes of surgical gloves to a mechanic with an aversion to grease, and large rolls of blue paper towel have always been popular in the homes of the undiscerning; he might even find a good home on occasion for a cylinder or two of laughing gas, but in the current economic climate there really isn’t a great demand among the general public for such commodities as the oropharyngeal airway or the triangular bandage. On a very lucky day indeed one might find a cash buyer for a low-mileage defibrillator or a good-as-new pulse oximeter, and I distinctly remember Bob Slogan some years ago selling half a dozen Rumbold chairs to a sculptor of his acquaintance, but these are very rare occurrences and certainly cannot be relied upon to provide a regular supplement to the ambulanceman’s paltry wage.

Instead one is obliged to look on, suppressing furious envy, as Percy Stamp does a roaring trade in girocheques and pension books and Sid Skinner shifts half a hundredweight of lamb cutlets before lunchtime, while the poor pathetic health service chump hovers on the sidelines hoping to offload a handful of blanket pins and a box of No. 2 dressings for the price of his next pint.

So when an apparently genuine interest was expressed in exchanging some real money there and then for our beloved old truck, well, we rather forgot our dignity and almost snatched their hands off. Before you could say ‘oculocephalygoric reflex’, we’d removed our personal possessions from the cab, handed over the keys, pocketed the cash, bestowed upon them our very best wishes for their new venture, and ordered a celebratory round of drinks.

Then Albert gave me one of his sly winks before wandering off to the call box and telephoning the police to report the theft of an ambulance.

I really can’t even begin to conceive of the cost to the taxpayer of such an operation but according to Inspector Bent, whose penchant for the recreational syringe has kept him a loyal and valued customer for many a long year, our vehicle was tracked to a shed in Hounslow not by coppers with bloodhounds but by a crack team of specialist technicians utilising a satellite orbiting the Earth, and was in the process of being filled with a curious mixture of products from the seemingly disparate worlds of agriculture and hairdressing when several policemen in overalls burst in shouting and, fortunately for Albert and me, shot dead all those present before anyone had a chance to incriminate us.

It seems after all that those two young scallywags had no intention whatsoever of starting up their own private ambulance firm in competition with the Public Health Service. Not a bit of it. No, it was discovered from documents found in their possession that their plan all along had been to drive the van into the basement car park beneath Ambulance Headquarters and blow the whole building to kingdom come.

Albert dismisses it as just another of Nature’s innumerable little ways of maintaining a state of harmonious equilibrium, but I find it rather unsettling that an overwhelming sense of relief so often is quite indistinguishable from one of crushing disappointment.