The lift being out of service, Albert and I returned the heavy bags of equipment to the ambulance and cursing softly trudged up to the eighth floor of Buprenorphine House where we knocked on a door glazed not in the traditional manner but with a combination of rough, unpainted plywood and flimsy hardboard held in place with gaffer tape. After a minute or two it was opened by an emaciated old man with vacant yellow eyes and the complexion of a corpse who gasped desperately for breath with every movement and ushered us inside by means of a silent and economical facial gesture. We followed his frail, limping form slowly along a narrow passageway to a small sitting room where he collapsed into a greasy armchair, took a swig of beer from a can and proceeded to roll a cigarette with trembling fingers stained the colour of autumn leaves.
His face, which looked like nothing so much as yellow parchment stretched over a skull, was curiously familiar and as we waited for him to draw sufficient oxygen from the ambient fug to enable him to speak, I began to search my memory for clues to his identity and I found my thoughts wandering pleasantly along a cool, leafy lane to the gates of my old school and it occurred to me that perhaps he was one of my former teachers now become quite unrecognisable through a long and dedicated regime of substance abuse and physical neglect and the variety of chronic illnesses accompanying such an otherwise enviable lifestyle.
In an ideal world, allowing such a place contained people at all, I imagine individual human lives might follow a process of continuous physical, mental and emotional progression culminating in an absolute zenith of fulfillment a moment or two before death, whereas in reality our personal development treads a rather more haphazard path and thus are we often condemned to spend the greater part of our existence experiencing not the joys of steady improvement but an increasingly miserable state of terminal decline, comforted only by the knowledge that nothing, however disagreeable, can last forever.
I would estimate that I attained the optimum level of my own capabilities and found greatest spiritual satisfaction at around the age of ten, shortly before I was wrenched from the womb-like sanctuary of St. Alan’s primary school, where I had long enjoyed a position of status and respect as both a senior lunch monitor and the undisputed fifty yards hurdles champion, and thrust without the right of appeal into the hostile world of secondary education, since when my achievements have been exclusively of the negative variety, my prospects plummeting with the passing of time and the acceleration of gravity until finally hitting bedrock the day I joined the ambulance service.
During my time in the barbarous jungle that was the Clapham Grammar School I remember there was one boy who stood apart from the others like a thoroughbred hunter in a field of donkeys and I’ve often wondered what became of him. To the universal chagrin of his peers he was blessed with a classically athletic physique and the kind of dark, menacing good looks that will never go out of style, and he carried about him a natural air of swaggering arrogance combined with a romantic penchant for self-destruction that led astray many a respectable daughter of the parish and famously inspired the head girl of St. Margaret’s to develop a taste for Smirnoff and Marlboro and adopt a policy of swearing prodigiously without provocation at the pale and bemused Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
How we loved and hated him!
His very name — Rod Woodcock — was imbued in our young minds with the sniggering promise of insatiable virility and the most fanciful rumours concerning his all-conquering exploits abounded and spread swiftly throughout the school like a kind of pandemic disease fuelled by the staunch reverence and unfettered imagination of adolescence.
In those far off days of blissful ingenuousness it was held as an article of our unwavering faith in all things Woodcock that he had sired at least a couple of heirs to his impressive genetic legacy and had not only been with Miss Fisher, the impossibly attractive and hopelessly unattainable English teacher, but also had put the redoubtable Colonel Cathcart in hospital following an altercation in the car park of the Royal Barnacle regarding the proprietary rights to the favours of the deputy headmaster’s wife. And then, according to local legend, as the result of his cruelly brusque termination of their brief liaison, poor Mrs. Cathcart had suffered some sort of nervous collapse and in a maelstrom of menopausal madness and despair had abandoned her husband of twenty-odd years and their four children and left Clapham to work in an orphanage somewhere north of the river, never to be seen or heard from again.
Probably very little of it was true, of course, but the fact that these tales were accorded undisputed credence at the time is an authentic testament to the esteem in which Woodcock was held and certainly the speechless awe with which he was regarded in the changing rooms after sports practice could not have been feigned. Even Jock McGruff, the abrasive former special forces PT instructor whose misfortune it was to be saddled with the task of instructing us in the finer points of rugby union, seemed strangely subdued in Woodcock’s presence and was reported by several boys actually to have given voice to an involuntary whimper upon being confronted unexpectedly by our hero emerging stark naked from a shower stall in a state of bestial tumescence.
At fifteen he had it all, and then one day the police turned up at the school and took him away in handcuffs, thus enshrining his notoriety once and for all, and his name and his legend passed into the annals of Clapham folklore to undergo the due process of being gradually forgotten over the years, as all of us are destined to be notwithstanding the extent of our celebrity nor the magnificence of our earthly achievements.
I was distracted from this nostalgic reverie by a cheerfully tuneful humming sound emanating from the direction of Albert Harness who drew my attention with a nod to the wizened old codger sitting in the chair before us. He had slumped backwards and was no longer breathing, his face pointing towards the ceiling, his mouth hanging stupidly agape. I looked at Albert and we shrugged simultaneously, sharing one of those guilty moments well known to all ambulancemen.
By rights, of course, we should have commenced CPR immediately but all our life-saving equipment was far, far away eight floors below in the car park and between us we had not so much as a pair of scissors or a pen torch; and anyway what would have been the point? He had been barely alive when he let us in and no amount of medical intervention was going to bring him back to life now. He was dead and that was that.
Our first priority now was to decide how best to approach the all-important subject of the paperwork. Fortunately, being blessed with a modicum of foresight, I had about my person a blank patient report form which saved me from having to endure the unthinkable inconvenience of fetching one from the truck. But what to write on it, that was the thing.
In a moment of unthinking foolishness we considered trying to pass it off as a collapse behind locked doors, before realising that that would have necessitated walking down to the vehicle to contact CAC, then humping all our gear up sixteen flights of stairs to await the arrival of the police. A daft notion unworthy of men of our calibre.
No doubt if Stan Tablets had been present he simply would have picked up the corpse, carried it out the front door and thrown it off the balcony, but we were by nature disposed towards adopting a more subtle approach to the problem and inclined to seeking a resolution of the situation offering fewer prospects of a stern interview with the divisional superintendent and a possible written warning.
And then Albert, always the deepest of thinkers, came up with the idea of getting the patient to sign the declaration on the form declining aid and refusing to be taken to hospital. Brilliant. All we needed was a signature to copy and we could be on our way to get some dinner. We began the search for a suitable sample and that nagging feeling returned.
“I’m sure I know him from somewhere,” I said to Albert who was leafing through some documents he’d taken from a drawer. “I think he might have been one of my teachers.” I stared at the stick-thin yellow corpse in the armchair, thoughtfully stroking my chin, my brow furrowed with the effort of frustrated recollection.
“I rather doubt it, old son,” replied Albert, examining what looked like a birth certificate. “According to this he's the same age as you.” I was incredulous. He looked at least twenty-five years my senior.
“His name was Roderick David Woodcock. Ring any bells?”