Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Threatening to Jump

We were lounging around in the messroom the other day engaged in typically earnest debate, the motion before the house being concerned with the relative merits of the fried and the grilled tomato, when Bert Klaxon, by means of a subtle adjustment of the eyebrows and the merest inclination of the surgical instrument he uses to scrape out his pipe, drew to our attention a man on the television who was bemoaning a national shortage of properly qualified ambulance staff and holding responsible this shameful deficiency for countless recent deaths across the country, and I don’t think we’ve laughed so much since the day Stan Tablets rode into work wearing a cycling helmet.

“They want more paramedics!” we spluttered in outraged disbelief, speculating as to the reaction of our august Chief Officer when he opened his Daily Telegraph to discover that that respected and authoritative organ had chosen to publish leaked details of his latest cost-cutting proposal to employ minimum-wage van drivers in place of seasoned ambulance professionals; and then Stan, a gentleman resolutely of the opinion that actions speak louder than words and surrendering to a primeval urge to express a firmly held view through the medium of mindless violence, strode forward and put a steel-toed size ten through the screen.

And then the phone rang and the voice of Clapham Ambulance Control informed me that someone was threatening to jump from the roof of a tall building.

Threatening to jump. It’s odd, isn’t it, how a simple phrase can take one back in an instant across the barren wasteland of one’s career and bring vividly to mind every minute detail of an experience from the innocent days of one’s youth. All it takes is those few familiar words and one finds oneself suddenly recalling with an almost painful sense of nostalgia hurrying with the quaint eagerness of the ingenue to the scene of some classic medical emergency such as ‘stung by a nettle’, ‘painful left elbow’, ‘stubbed his toe’, ‘woke from a nightmare’, ‘needs to talk to someone’, ‘back pain for seven years’, and so on; and however long one is employed as a lowly pawn in the ambulance game it seems that one is somehow never able entirely to conquer one’s incredulity at the genetic incompetence of the general public nor rid oneself of the insidious feeling that almost every turn of the ambulance wheel is just a senseless waste of time, effort and hard-earned taxpayers’ money.

I sighed and closed my eyes, remembering another age and my very first case of someone who was gripped by the urge to plummet from a great height on to a hard surface. To the best of my knowledge this curious affliction was not covered during the soporific tedium of the two-week training course and to date I have yet to find reference to it, despite countless hours of diligent research, in any of the definitive medical textbooks. Fortunately the seasoned ambulanceman, like the gifted musician, is renowned for nothing so much as his ability to improvise around a given theme, and thankfully back then I was still under the tutelage of the most seasoned of them all, a man widely regarded in his time as the Charlie Parker of the chair and the blanket.

Fred ‘Yardbird’ Ventricle looked casually at his wristwatch, then looked quickly at it again as the horror of a very realistic possibility of being late off duty struck him like a slap in the face. Galvanized from his habitual state of torpor, he bellowed a catalogue of profanity that would have put to shame an inebriated company sergeant major who has barked his shin in the dark against an anvil. He hurled his barely-lit roll-up to the ground and stamped on it with such pathological vehemence that I thought my legs would buckle beneath me.

In the warmth of the spring sunshine a large crowd of afternoon idlers had gathered to watch the show and even the boistrous chanting of the hooligan contingent was silenced for several seconds by this unprecedentedly violent display of furious exasperation by a uniformed public servant. The feckless wastrels cheered with hearty appreciation, then tilted back their heads, jabbed their fingers skywards, and voicing the fervent if unspoken desire of all those assembled, resumed their spirited exhortation.

“Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”

“Come on, son,” commanded Fred, marching off. “I’ll talk the cunt down.”

Like a pup at the heel of its master I trotted after him through the entrance to Sandringham House and we took the lift to the seventeenth floor where we found officers Harding and Hobbs of the local constabulary loitering in the filthy vestibule discussing the finer points of Clapham Rovers’ defensive strategy for the forthcoming cup tie against Vauxhall Athletic.

“What they wanna fuckin’ do,” opined a youthful and rosy-cheeked PC Hobbs in a rare moment of animation, “is push fuckin’ Biggsy out wide on the fuckin’ left to sort that fuckin’ cunt Richardson, leave fuckin’ Wilson on the fuckin’ right and pull fuckin’ Goody and fuckin’ Reynolds into the fuckin’ middle to take out that fuckin’ lanky — hello, lads. All right, Fred? Son.”

Slouching against the wall and taking neither his hands from his pockets nor the cigarette from between his lips, Constable Harding nodded without interest at the door to the balcony. Resisiting the urge to question the wisdom of playing a back four against a rather lacklustre two-man forward line in such a crucial fixture, we opened the door and saw a fat, greasy-haired teenager in jeans and an army surplus jacket sitting astride the concrete wall about twenty feet away and looking down with an air of agonized indecision at the baying, bloodthirsty multitude in the car park far below.

Fred instructed me to stay back, to look, listen and learn, then strode forward while I stood impotently clutching the first-aid bag, gazing with the wide eyes of the acolyte upon the wise and ancient high priest as he proceeded to address the boy teetering precariously between a life of scorned obesity and the beckoning release of a quick death.

He always had an admirably economical way with words, did Fred Ventricle, and on this occasion he uttered just three: an intransitive verb and a pejorative noun of Anglo-Saxon vulgarity, separated by the pronoun of the second person, which terse combination had the miraculous effect of bringing the tortured youth down to street level without pausing for further procrastination and in about four and a half seconds flat all the hormone-fuelled tribulations of a difficult adolescence were resolved once and for all by the decisive finality of eternal anaesthesia.

I heard a collective gasp, a brief hiatus, then a sort of muffled crunch, followed by loud cheering and tumultuous applause as Fred leaned over and raised both hands to acknowledge the acclamation of the crowd, and it brought to mind an image of the Pope saluting the faithful from the balcony of St. Peter’s, and as tears of awe welled in my eyes I found myself caught suddenly in one of those pivotal moments of self examination that often beset the humble apprentice, torn between a career of plodding mediocrity in the footsteps of greatness and the prospect of a fortnightly trip to the Labour Exchange.

Many years later, having long since abandoned any aspirations to excellence, I was sitting beside Albert Harness as we made our way unhurriedly along the Mafeking Road towards the headquarters of the Clapham Ambulance, not to face the apoplectic wrath of His Eminence concerning some petty transgression of ambulance regulations, but in response to an emergency call from a passing pedestrian who had reported seeing an adult male in ambulance uniform apparently threatening to jump from the roof of that historic building.

It’s well known that in the course of his work the ambulanceman encounters a great many people suffering from a wide and ever-expanding variety of psychological ailments. To name but a few, we deal on a daily basis with such conditions as anxiety, depression, phobias, schizophrenia, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, personality disorder, dissociative disorder, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, senile dementia, pre-senile dementia, juvenile dementia, gender dysphoria, hypomania, hypermania, nymphomania, pyromania, religious belief and, of course, the psychiatrists' current favourite, paranoid psychosis.

Unable and unwilling to remember such a bewildering array of mental afflictions, or distinguish in any useful way one from another, all ambulancemen simply lump the victims of them neatly together under the collective heading of ‘nutters’, and while the employment of this less than flattering colloquialism might engender a universal perception that your average ambulanceman is lacking in sympathy for loonies, this is not actually the case. Indeed, to the mentalist who has justifiable cause and displays a considered and genuine commitment to take that decisive step into oblivion, we are more than willing to extend the firm hand of advice and encouragement, and when his nerve threatens to fail him at the crucial moment, as in my experience it so often does, to paraphrase the Deputy Commander of Blankets, we will not be found wanting.

Shielding my eyes against the bright afternoon sky, I looked up and saw none other than the Exalted One, the most esteemed and illustrious Chief Officer of the Clapham Ambulance, clutching what looked like a copy of that morning's Telegraph, standing right at the edge of the roof with his toes overhanging in the manner of a high diver and gazing down with an air of agonized indecision at the baying, bloodthirsty multitude in the street far below as that timeless refrain rang out its rapturous entreaty.

“Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”

I pulled on the handbrake and leapt from the cab with the agility of an adolescent antelope, gripped by a sudden and most uncharacteristic enthusiasm for ambulance work, the accumulated cynicism of two decades seeming to fall away in an instant as those three little words of the venerable Ventricle resonated in my mind like a hallowed invocation.

“Come on, Albert,” I urged my astonished crewmate. “I'll talk the cunt down.”