I was sitting at the traffic lights the other day, watching without interest as the world went about its business, my mind wandering idly hither and thither in its customary purposeless fashion, wondering vaguely how it had come to this, when I noticed an elegant woman of a certain age who stood out from the swirling bustle of the multicultural herd like a sunflower in a field of cabbages, and whose attention appeared to be focused exclusively in my direction. Our eyes met and she held my gaze, frowning inquisitively for a second or two before favouring me with the sort of frank, dissolute smile that can leave a man for days afterwards nursing an aching void of hopeless yearning somewhere in the darkest depths of his trousers.
The lights changed, I pulled away, and she was gone; yet there was something hauntingly familiar about her and I was left with a nagging feeling that our paths had crossed before and my brow furrowed deeply with the unaccustomed effort of thought as I struggled to recall the circumstances of our previous acquaintance.
And then, after several minutes engaged upon the more or less unproductive exercise of scratching my head, I turned into Damascus Road and the whole thing came to me in a single moment and I settled comfortably behind a quiet, complacent smile to bask in the warm, roseate glow of fond remembrance and savour with calm, unhurried appreciation every detail of that long-ago brief encounter; but with dispiriting predictability my private happiness proved to be short-lived and it was but a matter of seconds before I was roused rudely from my reverie and dragged back into the harsh glare of workaday reality.
“Driver!” barked Albert Harness, a curious tremor of preoccupation in his voice. “Pull over please. This patient needs some urgent attention.”
With a sigh of profound exasperation and cursing without restraint, I abandoned the agreeable pastime of sweet reminiscence and with seamless professionalism resumed my lowly station as an ambulance driver, whereupon I found myself considering the possibility that the condition of the woman under Albert’s care had taken a dramatic turn for the worse and that there existed a real and present danger of an imminent call to action stations, and it occurred to me that it might be prudent to turn my attention to planning the shortest possible route to the nearest A&E department.
But I liked to think I knew Albert better than that.
“On second thoughts, old son, there’s no need to stop, but would you be so kind as to take the scenic route?”
Leaning across and cocking a curious ear, I heard a series of sounds emanating in a sickening progression from the back of the van like a cross between some tuneless abstract collage of the avant-garde and the third movement of Beelzebub’s Fifth Symphony. There came a brief overture of rustling and whispering and some indeterminate fumbling; a low, muttered suggestion; a sly cackle; a discordant duet of salacious laughter; the sound of dentures landing in a sick-bag; a sigh; a gasp; the name of the Lord invoked repeatedly to the accompaniment of a most peculiar noise which I could not positively identify but which sounded not unlike an asthmatic carthorse slurping treacle through a hosepipe; and then a brief hiatus, followed by a soft adagio, ascending slowly at first before mutating by stages into a grotesque scherzo which combined furious exhortation with a keening, wailing plea for mercy as it grew inexorably in tempo and volume, a wild crescendo galloping out of control towards an explosive climax.
With a shudder of repugnance I slid the door shut, trying to banish a tableau of ghastly images from my mind, to replace them with something fine and gentle and wholesome, to amble calmly and alone once more along the sun-dappled paths of a better, happier world. But it was hopeless. My hands trembled on the wheel and my mind was beset by the torment of furious envy and a crushing feeling of terrible regret that today, but for the whim of cruel Providence, Albert would have been driving and I would have been in the back attending to the clinical governance of Gladys Gummer.
Life, I reflected bitterly, can be so monstrously unjust and there are times when the attrition of constant misfortune leads even the hardiest soul to the brink of despair. I slumped disconsolately in my seat, my head pounding with the physical pain of raging resentment, my imagination tortured almost beyond endurance by an unremitting thumping sound, as of a distant drum, and the familiar rhythmical squeaking of a Falcon Mk III trolley bed.
It’s not the easiest of tasks to steer an ambulance through heavy traffic with one’s hands clamped tightly over one’s ears, but with a strong incentive and a little practice, believe me, it can be mastered. One finds that if one can successfully bring a sense of harmonious coordination to the knees and the elbows, one can in a remarkably short space of time develop a technique of sorts and before one knows it one finds that one can forget entirely the mechanics of forward progress and the humdrum considerations of road safety, allowing one to direct one’s full attention to the contemplation of matters of an altogether more agreeable nature.
In the interests of patient confidentiality and a spirit of quaint, old-fashioned gallantry, we'll call her Mrs X, and though our relationship was of the fleeting, ephemeral variety, it was not without significance in the overall history of my professional development, serving as it did at an early stage in my career as a gentle introduction to the pleasures of partaking of that most strictly forbidden fruit which, as every ambulanceman knows, hangs in tantalizing abundance from the emergency healthcare tree.
It was during the course of an unseasonably warm evening in the springtime of another age that Fred and I were despatched to an address in that quarter of the parish renowned for its broad leafy thoroughfares, its sturdy wrought iron gates and its sweeping gravel drives; a world far removed from the high towers and low hovels of our usual experience and, indeed, a destination so rare for an ambulance crew that even Mr V, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the back streets and alleyways, had to swallow his pride and consult his dog-eared, yellowing copy of Bartholemew’s Pocket Gazetteer to confirm its precise location.
On arrival, as we say in the ambulance game, the front door was opened by a tall, immaculately groomed manservant who studied us with the sort of haughty disdain usually reserved for a caterpillar caught trespassing in a salad, and I was left with a very strong impression that we would have received a less frosty reception had we displayed a greater understanding of accepted protocol and presented ourselves with due propriety at the tradesmen’s entrance.
In the kind of condescending, suspicious tone he might have employed to address a couple of gypsies come to clear out the gutters, he explained that we were to attend the lady of the house, who had been discovered an hour or so previously in a disordered state of mumbling incoherence, a condition possibly related, he ventured to suggest, to the presence of two empty vessels at her bedside; namely a litre-sized green gin bottle and a small brown pot of pharmaceutical provenance that until very recently had been home to a couple of dozen members of the benzodiazepine family.
He had, naturally, made strenuous but, alas, unsuccessful efforts to contact Dr Wilby, the family physician, and thus defeated had found himself faced with little alternative but to resort to calling for the assistance of 'the public service'. His nostrils flared slightly at the phrase and his lower lip curled almost imperceptibly in the manner of one who bears with unflinching stoicism a painful twinge of dyspepsia; and casting a long, lingering look of withering disapproval over the inferior cloth of our uniforms, he sighed with resignation and ushered us inside.
Like a nomadic hunter-gatherer who finds himself unexpectedly in the palace of an emperor, I gazed about in wonder at the unfamiliar splendour of my surroundings, while Fred, apparently having been rendered lame by a sudden bout of sciatica, loitered near a collection of expensive looking porcelain figurines which stood upon a table in the hall. The butler, faced with this rather awkward dilemma, narrowed his eyes and undertook a swift appraisal of the situation, and it took but a glance at Fred’s furtive demeanour for his custodian’s instincts to prevail and he took up a strategic position between his employer’s treasured possessions and the front door, directing me with military precision to a room on the top floor at the back of the house.
And so it was that alone and unsupervised for the very first time in my new career, with the first-aid bag clutched nervously in hand, I found myself climbing a wide staircase into the unknown world of the solo responder. I made my way along a gallery, turned a corner, then another, and walked down a narrow passageway until I came at last to a door marked with the symbol ‘φ’, which, for the benefit of those cruelly deprived of a classical education, is Phi, the twenty-first letter of the Greek alphabet. Intrigued and excited by the implications of this curious hieroglyph, I confess to my shame that I overlooked the most rudimentary considerations of etiquette and opened the door without knocking. I stepped across the threshold and was overcome immediately by a quite extraordinary feeling of inner calm and spiritual contentment, the like of which I had never before experienced.
By the standards of the high-rise slums of the Balmoral Estate the room was undeniably large and yet it seemed much larger still, an illusion created somehow by the exquisite balance and proportions of its dimensions and I felt that, having entered, I wanted never to leave, such was the sense of peace and wellbeing it engendered within me, and as I stood there captivated by the spell of its mathematical perfection and entranced by what lay before me, I became aware of a strange sensation that I can only describe as a rapid surging of some warm inner essence towards the distal regions of the personal extremities which, as any forensic biologist worth his salt will testify, is liable to have a most unpredictable and mitigating effect upon a young man’s subsequent behaviour.
She lay upon a bed as though deceased, quite still, enchantingly serene, her flesh as pale as weathered bone against a gown of blood-red silk, enveloped in a haze of Gordon’s and Chanel that invested my every cell with a hungry, primitive longing as I knelt beside her to conduct what’s known in the ambulance game as a primary survey.
Her eyelids fluttered open and her pupils, like tiny beads of obsidian set upon beds of lapis lazuli, dilated as she met my gaze with the startled recognition of mutual discovery and a smile of invitation played with untamed wickedness about her wanton, bloodless lips. She raised an unsteady hand to my face and drew me closer, her musky fragrance coursing through my blood like wine, her lips brushing my ear as she whispered, slurred but unequivocal, that crudest of womanly exhortations, at which the mask of dispassionate austerity finally cracked and fell from my face and I surrendered gladly to the will of an authority more ancient and compelling even than the Ambulanceman's Code of Professional Conduct.
Then a door opened behind me and my heart skipped a beat.
Albert Harness clambered through from the back of the van and picked up the paperwork in a brisk, businesslike fashion, studiously avoiding my eye.
“Right then, son,” he said, his face a diplomatic compromise between vaunting triumphalism and sheepish embarrassment. “Next stop the King Charles Infirmary, psycho-gerry day centre. We’ve got to drop this one off then pick up a Mr Norbert Nutshagger from the Bowes-Lyon Unit and take him down to the Backwoods County Asylum. Bit of a run, should see us off nicely." He paused then and exhaled a conciliatory sigh.
"Tell you what, son," he said, turning to me suddenly and beaming with his characteristic charm. "I’ll drive if you like.”