I hadn't fully recovered from the shock of being asked to park the ambulance, so I was quite unprepared for another bolt from the blue just ten minutes later, and I’ll admit I was taken aback.
“Would you mind taking the top of the chair?”
It was a question I’d not heard before in all my years on the ambulances and for several moments I was uncertain who had asked it, to what it referred and to whom it was addressed; but the lashes were fluttering, the doe-eyed head was tilted imploringly to one side, and the voice was a passable imitation of a toddler’s, so I reasoned that it could only have been Felicity Philpot enquiring if she could be spared the terrible hardship of carrying the heavy end of the chair and if instead I might shoulder the burden on her behalf. Instinctively the gentleman, I naturally assented with neither question nor hesitation, but in that dark place behind the facade of impeccable politeness a seed of vengeance had been sown and began to germinate silently and unnoticed in the hydroponic incubator of my subconscious.
The way it’s always worked, you see, since before little Ebenezer was even a twinkle in the eye of Jeremiah Vein, is that the driver fetches the chair and the blankets from the van and arranges them in the prescribed fashion, standing behind the patient at the back of the chair, which, when carrying a cumbersome cartload of quivering corpulence down a steep flight of stairs, is without question the more onerous position of the two, the bottom being much lighter and easier to manage and necessitating none of that awkward backbreaking bending and stooping which afflict the man at the top.
Unfortunately the division of labour in this situation is unavoidably inequitable, and if taking the top end of the chair can be likened to shovelling coal relentlessly into a furnace in the unendurable heat of a ship’s engine room, then by comparison manhandling the bottom end is rather like lounging in the shade on the promenade deck sipping iced cocktails while fawning stewards attend to one's every whim. No, it’s not fair, but these things tend to even themselves out over time and there’s nothing to be done about it, and in any case the seasoned ambulanceman will always insist upon the patient walking down the stairs unless there are exceptional circumstances of mitigation such as a verifiably genuine absence of consciousness or a total deficiency in the leg department.
But to be asked to swap ends, well, I’d never heard anything like it.
I know exactly what Stan Tablets would do if you asked him to take the top of the chair. He’d punch you in the face; and rightly so. The trouble is, you can’t do that to girls and they know it.
I blame the training department. When I was schooled in the science of humping Two-Ton Tessie down a few flights, we practised with a real person on a proper staircase. The instructor volunteered the services of the fattest chump in the class — two hundredweight of gormless lard called Alan Bigpants — and then we wedged his hips between the bars of a Rumbold and took turns carrying him up and down the fire escape until we dropped him, which was the signal to break for lunch. Nowadays, of course, the health and safety killjoys insist that only a dummy weighing the same as a bag of groceries may be carried by trainees and only then down two or three wide and shallow carpeted steps, with the inevitable result that many of those graduating from the Ambulance Academy are simply incapable of managing the top end of a carrying chair containing anyone heavier than a bag of spuds and a few tins of beans.
I wrapped the blanket snugly around Mrs. Placenta’s gargantuan carcass and pulled the belt tightly enough to discourage gratuitous respiration as any movement can adversely affect the balance, while Felicity knelt and fiddled with the foot strap in an effort to minimize the risk of getting an unpalatable mouthful of weeping leg ulcers in mid-flight. Satisfied that we were prepared for lift-off, I tilted the chair back and began the short but arduous journey from the back bedroom to the top of the stairs.
It would have been a great deal easier were it not for the several mirrors positioned along the route, which had the curious effect of preventing my crewmate from offering the slightest assistance. Pausing interminably before each one to study her reflection and strike pouting poses prior to making imperceptible adjustments to her hair, Felicity appeared to be quite oblivious to the reason we were there in the first place and had apparently completely forgotten the tricky descent that lay ahead and which I was anticipating with the sort of bowel-loosening dread usually reserved for tackling a desperate solo retreat at night in a blizzard from the north face of the Eiger with a broken arm.
Eventually the top of that perilous slope hove into view and from the summit it looked like an awfully long sheer drop to the ground, and as I gazed over the precipice I became mesmerised and overcome by the dizziness and nausea of pathological trepidation. I employed some emergency relaxation techniques as I waited for Felicity to arrange her hair just so, put on her black leather gloves and execute a curious little dance which involved much gyrating of the hips, a bit of pouting and some vigorous pumping of the the air with both fists while she sang a snatch of some popular melody of the day. I took a deep breath, made a sign of the cross and then we were both more or less ready. Taking care not to smudge her make-up against the patient's knees, Felicity grasped the handles and began to count.
“One . . .”
And as she did so, as if by miraculous providence an idea suddenly popped fully formed into my mind and I couldn’t stop myself laughing aloud with the unrestrained joy of divine revelation.
“ . . . two . . .”
It was so glaringly obvious. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
“ . . . three.”
People pulling those tartan shopping trolleys often stop me in the street and say, “I bet you’ve seen some sights in your time,” and I have to admit that the ambulance game does on occasion provide one with some rather unusual visual stimulation. There is, of course, the occasional corpse of a young child who has been dismembered and set on fire for esoteric theological purposes, and no shortage of old people with no clothes on wallowing in the contents of an overturned commode, and I recall once being granted the dubious privilege of witnessing a certain prominent member of the royal family crawling about blind drunk and stark naked on all fours, demanding to be serviced before vomiting prodigiously over the pristine brogues of a handsome young captain of the Clapham Cavalry, and though the rules of patient confidentiality sadly do not permit me to disclose the identity of this noble aristocrat, I believe I can reveal without giving too much away that she has an older sister who is considered something of a big cheese in the hierarchies of both Church and State.
So, yes, I suppose I’ve seen some sights in my time but right now none is quite so fresh in my mind nor so satisfying to contemplate as that of the expression of self-obsessed indifference on Felicity Philpot’s face turning in a second to one of terrified disbelief as she watched the top of that chair tilt slowly forwards above her, holding a precarious balance at the point of the perpendicular for several nail-biting seconds as her eyes widened and her mouth opened as though to scream.
And then she was gone, swept away by an avalanche of filthy red blankets and finally coming to rest buried beneath a quarter of a ton of pulsating blubber beside the grandfather clock in the hall.
I sat on the top stair waiting for the dust to settle and that irritating moaning sound to stop, surveying the wreckage below with the dispassionate eye of the dedicated healthcare professional, reflecting upon the frail fragility of human anatomy and pondering the seemingly random nature of tradegy until all was still and silent save for the slow and hypnotic tock . . . tock . . . tock of the pendulum marking time as the daylight gradually faded and the darkness settled around me like a shroud.