The low sun should have been waiting to greet me as I emerged from the underground railway on to the Mafeking Road, but instead of stepping into the crisp light of an early spring morning I appeared to have blundered haplessly into the third act of Armageddon in full swing and I became immediately engulfed by a thick cloud which stung my eyes and clogged my airways causing me to splutter and choke and stumble blindly around. Frenzied hordes of commuters stampeded chaotically and everywhere was panic and confusion to a soundtrack of wailing sirens and screams of terror. I paused to rub my eyes and collect my thoughts, trying to make sense of all this unseemly commotion when a gust of wind parted the billowing dust for a few moments allowing me to see in the distance that where the ambulance headquarters building had stood yesterday there was now the tail section of an enormous aeroplane protruding from a huge pile of smoking rubble and it brought to mind the image of the handle of a garden fork sticking from a heap of steaming dung on a suburban allotment. And then a shop alarm began ringing at an unbearable volume.
Ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling . . .
I woke with a smile but the cock was crowing and the clock was clanging as the clarion call of the factory bell plucked me from the warmth of Night’s embrace to endure once more the unspeakable inconvenience of having to work for a living. I walked into the ambulance station on that fateful morning and reported to Station Officer Nobby Harris, unaware that I would soon be experiencing perhaps the most excruciatingly poignant moment of my life.
“It’s flippin’ happened, son. They’re flippin’ here,” grunted a singularly bad tempered and unusually foul mouthed Nobby, sitting at his desk and holding aloft a single sheet of paper as though it were a crucial piece of evidence in the never ending case of Harris versus Life in General and bore sole responsibility for this rare display of deep and genuine disgruntlement.
“One’s reported sick with flippin’ . . .” He paused, leaning forward to squint through his thick lenses at the memorandum from headquarters, as if by quoting the words verbatim he could dissociate himself from them and thus from the whole sordid business. But of course even in the typed words of some faceless bureaucrat poor Nobby couldn’t bring himself to speak of such matters.
“Flippin’ women's problems.” He muttered the euphemism like a guilty blasphemy, avoiding my eye, his face contorted with distaste while I dutifully rearranged my own features into a universal gesture of male solidarity and shrugged in sympathy.
“Another one,” he continued, screwing up his face as though in pain and pursing his lips with repugnance, “has declared herself . . you know . . . in the family way.” He squirmed with discomfiture — “flippin’ light duties with immediate effect” — then tutted with profound exasperation, a man so helplessly at odds with the utter madness all around him.
"The rest of them,” his voice was now cracking and barely audible, his lower lip quivering. “The rest are in the flippin’ mess—” He choked on the word, unable to continue, as though quite incapable of accepting the proposition that not only were there females in the messroom of the Clapham ambulance station but female employees. His watery eyes stared sightlessly into an abyss of bewilderment and injustice. He could more easily have come to terms with a flat Earth or the risible notion that as many as five percent of ambulance journeys are actually necessary. Wailing with wretched despair he turned away from me, flapping a hand in a vague gesture of dismissal before slumping forward and burying his head in his hands, his whole body racked by sobs, his tears falling on to the document before him, smudging and obliterating the text with ominous symbolism.
I simply didn't know where to put myself and stood rooted to the spot for several minutes looking helplessly about, completely paralysed by embarrassment at this pitiful display of emotion.
Poor Nobby. I felt a tremendous affection for him, a man from a long-forgotten epoch trying in vain to make sense of events way beyond his terms of reference, struggling just to keep his head above the surface of life, and before I realised what was happening the dark forces of compassion had gathered in sinister conspiracy within me and I felt myself being overcome by an urge to lay a firm hand upon his shoulder and comfort him with a gentle but not unmanly squeeze of reassurance. Somehow, plumbing fathomless depths and drawing on hitherto unexplored reserves of iron resolve, I managed to fight it off and slipped away quickly before I found myself giving him a bit of a cuddle and made my way along the corridor to the messroom.
It was like escaping from the skewed insanity of a Manuel MacNab painting only to pass through a revolving door to find oneself trapped in another even more disturbing depiction of the depraved excesses of the human subconscious, and like the finest examples of the great man’s work the longer I looked at the scene before me the more impossibly incomprehensible it became, until I began to lose my ability to apply a process of rational analysis to the evidence presented by my own senses and in common with many a victim of MacNab’s art I became aware of a sensation of accelerating rapidly downwards, plummeting like a stone into a bottomless pit of fear and uncertainty.
Sitting around in stupefied fascination were the familiar men of the Clapham Ambulance and kneeling at the table engaged in a bout of arm-wrestling with Stan Tablets was a woman I’d never seen before.
And Stan was sweating. His face was purple and quivered with effort, a massive vein throbbed at his temple, his mouth twisted in grotesque contortions as the terror of imminent humiliation shone from his eyes like a desperate plea for clemency and his whole body strained and shook as though his very life were at stake. Like something not quite human that lives in a cave by the sea, he let out a blood-curdling howl of anguish as his knuckles smashed against the wood and a collective gasp of horrified incredulity from the assembled ambulancemen seemed to suck the very air from the room and suddenly my head was spinning and the light was fading and I found myself struggling for breath and had to grasp the back of a chair to prevent myself from falling. And in my semi-conscious state of hypoxic perplexity I could have sworn I heard a baby crying.
I looked over to see something I could not recall having witnessed before in the messroom of the Clapham ambulance station and that was a young woman unbuttoning her uniform shirt and lifting a squawking infant to her bare breast, the nipple of which, with a look of glazed contentment in its eyes, it proceeded to suck greedily. Beside her a plump, dark-haired woman rocked gently backwards and forwards in an armchair clutching a red hot water bottle to her lower abdomen and emitting a loud whimpering sound.
There was a woman with bleached hair and big gold earrings wearing yellow rubber gloves and an apron over her uniform, furiously polishing the kettle with a cloth and declaring aloud as if to enlist support, “I’m not doing nights. I told ‘em. I got kids. I’m not doing nights. I told ‘em. I got kids." And alone in a corner sat a thin, nervous-looking creature with thick blue veins on the backs of her hands and long, dirty fingernails with which she was tearing great clumps from her unkempt grey hair, weeping uncontrollably and between sobs shrieking the word ‘bastard’ over and over again.
Before anyone noticed my presence, I slipped out of the messroom and made my way back along the corridor to Nobby’s office. I entered quietly without knocking and walked towards him. He heard my approach and turned, his face streaked with tears, his eyes red from weeping. He stood shakily and then collapsed against me and I closed my eyes and inhaled the comforting, familiar aroma of Old Holborn and shoe polish as we clung to each other like a pair of shipwrecked sailors hanging on to a flimsy, disintegrating raft adrift on a boundless and hostile ocean, the storm clouds gathering and night rapidly falling with only an ever-diminishing ration of naїve optimism to sustain us through the long and arduous time of darkness ahead.