Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Clapham Jack

It’s unclear precisely what we were expected to do when we got there, but Albert and I were sent recently to the rear of Solomon’s where we were introduced by two uniformed officers of the Clapham constabulary to one Colleen Shenanigan, an emergency nurse practitioner from the A&E department of St. Bernard’s hospital, and upon seeing her familiar face in this unfamiliar context, we were struck immediately by one or two glaring discrepancies and began to see her in a whole new light. For a start she was stark naked and her usually keen and vivacious blue eyes bespoke a distinctly uncharacteristic lack of cognitive awareness. Also, and perhaps even more remarkable, her vital organs no longer resided as is customary in the snug cavities of thorax and abdomen, but lay strewn about her on the ground like waste thrown carelessly from a bucket by a butcher’s apprentice.

It was a cold and murky night and a sinister vapour rose from the scattered entrails and hovered eerily upon the still air, and for one ghastly moment I thought I saw a section of large intestine pulsating with life, but as I stared transfixed at the slithery warm offal I realised with an almighty shudder of relief that it was merely a trick of the light, the shadows lending an impression of movement, and that an ambulance journey to A&E would not be the appropriate care pathway for the patient on this occasion.

It has become over the years a generally accepted tenet of modern lore, for she is seldom reluctant to remind us, that the average nurse’s take-home pay is barely sufficient to keep herself clothed and fed, and that items of wanton frivolity such as soap and shoes can be bought and paid for only by the undertaking of some form of additional labour in her spare time, and nowadays there is available to a young woman of sound mind and healthy body a fairly broad spectrum of auxillary occupations from which to choose, depending upon the quality and quantity of certain factors such as personal preference, moral character, general demeanour, vital statistics and so on.

The homely and unimaginative variety of the breed typically will content herself with working additional shifts in the safe familiarity of the hospital ward, from where she may look on with helpless resignation as the years slip rapidly by towards the menopausal bitterness of childless spinsterhood, whereas that rare specimen of adventurous disposition and athletic construction will invariably be found earning her little bit of extra cash sliding up and down a shiny pole and gyrating in a lively and rhythmic fashion upon a table in a gentlemen’s club, clad in nothing but a couple of pieces of string knotted artfully in the general vicinity of the hips.

Your average St. Bernard’s nurse, however, is subject to neither the ebb nor flow of the tide of popular opinion and traditionally has always made ends meet either by stealing prescription medications from the drugs cabinet and selling them on the streets or, more usually, through the simple and timeless expedient of prostitution.

In favour of the original public service one can argue that the hours are flexible, the wages negotiable and mercifully exempt from the onerous deductions of income tax and national insurance contributions, and as a general rule of thumb the lifestyle offers sociability and variety while providing ample opportunity for fresh air and exercise, and for a woman with a natural aptitude for the work it can be a most rewarding and enjoyable occupation.

Unfortunately few things in this life are perfect and set against these undoubtedly convincing recommendations one must of course take into account certain unavoidable occupational hazards. As well as the obvious risks of venereal disease, drug addiction and robbery with violence, and without wishing to deter any enterprising young lady from supplementing her income in such a worthy and necessary field of endeavour, it must never be entirely forgotten that the possibility exists of that chance encounter with one of those peculiar gentlemen who are privy to a special relationship with the creator of the universe, and who are commanded by Him in no uncertain terms by means of a private voice within the cranium to go out on to the streets without delay and cleanse them of the godless whores of Babylon.

Presented with the sight of a close colleague who has encountered the recent misfortune of being strangled then disembowelled — or worse, vice versa — and dumped like an old refrigerator on a piece of waste ground behind a candle factory, the thoughts of any sensitive healthcare professional will be for the wretched victim’s family and her regular customers, whose grief and disappointment respectively will no doubt be considerable, but of course the seasoned ambulanceman prefers to disregard such mawkish sentimentality in favour of indulging in a bit of banter with the boys in blue, exchanging humorous remarks on the topics of strangulation, evisceration and the pitfalls of prostitution in order to establish his credentials as a hardened man of the world, his resilience to horror having been tempered in the white heat of grisly experience, and who will be found neither vomiting behind a bush nor teetering on the brink of hysteria when faced with the freshly gutted corpse of someone he likes and respects and has known on several occasions.

After half an hour or so, having exhausted our extensive repertoire of hilarious anecdotes on the subject of misogynistic mutilation, and with little to offer by way of medical assistance, we took our leave of Clapham’s finest and set off cheerfully into the night because life, as has been well documented elsewhere, goes on, and as we drove away from that scene of uncommon carnage we found ourselves becoming suffused gradually with a rare and tremendous excitement which flowed warmly through artery and vein, invigorating and replenishing each and every grateful cell, then outwards and beyond like a rampant contagion it spread when we arrived at the ambulance station and broke the news that Clapham Jack apparently had come out of retirement and was once again up to his old tricks on our patch, and it was exactly the sort of thing to engender some interest, stir us from lethargy and raise our flagging spirits from the seasonal despondency afflicting each and every one of us.

Students of local history and aficionados of the genre will recall that ‘Clapham Jack’ was the rather predictable soubriquet bestowed by the lower echelons of the printed media upon the anonymous rascal who perpetrated his particular brand of mischief a few years back, and whose exploits were followed with particular interest by the men of the Clapham Ambulance on account of all his victims having been nurses from St. Bernard’s hospital who also pursued part-time careers in the world’s oldest profession, and all of whom were consequently very well acquainted with most of the local ambulancemen in one capacity or another.

At the end of the shift, beset by an almost unbearable tension which threatened to rend his mind asunder, he buttoned his overcoat against the cold and struck out on foot across the common through an ever thickening mist towards the red-light district in the Old Town. Softly, and perhaps unconsciously, he hummed a snatch of Schubert as he walked quickly and confidently along the familiar path, looking neither right nor left, his Old Testament features ploughing a relentless furrow through the fog, his eyes bright and purposeful, moving onward with a determined and single-minded haste, for the hour was getting late and there was much work yet to be done.

He reached the corner of Eddowes Lane and turned smartly into the cobbled alleyway which runs between the high brick wall of Hegel’s handbag factory and the railings of Wandle's brewery, and through the mist he discerned the form of a bare-legged young jezebel in a tiny skirt standing provocatively in the yellow haze of a street light, her hands on her hips, her smooth belly immodestly exposed, her ample chest thrust sinfully forward, and as he approached he recognised her as Molly McMannequin, a staff nurse from Whippet Ward, and his throat became dry and he felt his mouth tighten involuntarily, his fists clenching and unclenching in his pockets as he strode towards her.

She heard his footsteps and turned, inhaling the familiar and distinctive aroma of his tobacco as their eyes met across the misty silence; but there was something different about him today. Something she — it was as though he looked at her with someone else's eyes, the eyes of a stranger, burning and biblical, the eyes of fanaticism, of madness. She tried to force her lips into a smile of appeasement but she knew it was twisted and false. Something was terribly, terribly wrong here and she had a premonition of startling clarity that something very, very bad was about to happen.

She looked down at his hands and tried to run but her legs refused to move. She opened her mouth to scream too late as she felt something go around her neck, tightening, tightening, so tight she felt her eyes would burst, and as the world faded to darkness her last thought was that it was the same necktie he had proudly shown her on the ward only last week when it had been awarded to him by a grateful employer for thirty years' loyal service, and which bore embroidered upon it the royal crest of the Clapham Ambulance.