Jozef is sitting hunched over on the side of the bed, his hands either side of him, kneading at the bed clothes as he struggles to breathe.
‘Oh God,’ he says, throwing us a desperate look. ‘This is worse than last time. Worse and worse.’
Jozef took some paracetamol in the early hours but the pain has progressed until now he says it’s like horses trampling across his chest. Rae puts the chair up whilst I fix up some oxygen, trying not to let the urgency of the situation infect the tone of our voices.
‘Poor Jozef,’ says the house manager, handing us his medical summary. ‘He’s not been right since his last heart attack. I’ll bring his stuff out to the ambulance.’
He pulls aside the hissing mask to say: ‘Please. My shaving bag. A change of clothes. My book.’
‘Yes, yes, Jozef, don’t worry about that. You just concentrate on getting better.’ She gives him a reassuring chuck under the chin. ‘He’ll be ninety one soon. You’d never think it, would you?’
We strap him into the chair, and then she leads us out to the lift.
On board the ambulance and the ECG is telling us what is obvious from his ghastly pallor and from the feeling of dread that seems palpably to crawl all over him – Jozef is suffering a heart attack.
‘Help me,’ he says, wrenching the mask aside. I spray him under his tongue with GTN, give him an aspirin to chew. He takes it like communion wafer. ‘My God,’ he moans. ‘This is worse than my wound at Arnhem, even.’
Rae is in the middle of cannulating his arm when he suddenly he seems to relax slightly.
‘I’m afraid this is it for me,’ he says, simply, then crumples in on himself with a gurgling exhalation.
I drop the back of the trolley down, snatch the pillow away. Rae punches him in the chest then begins CPR whilst I put some pads on him.
Over the next hour the early morning commuter traffic rises and flows around the ambulance as inside our grim little protocols are acted out. But the scattering of ripped packets, empty drug phials and upended kit bags, the convulsive voltages and broken ribs, all peter out, seem to fade in conviction along with the readout on the ECG, until, in the telescoping daze of these things, we find ourselves in resus back at the hospital, watching from the outskirts of the crash team as the registrar peels off her gloves and calls out a time.
Back outside, the ambulance cleaned and prepped, a cup of coffee, and the air is crisp and bright. Another ambulance parks alongside to offload.
‘All right, Spence. Rae’ says Frank. I can imagine him getting off a horse in the same trail-beaten way, tipping his hat back with a rangy forefinger. He stretches, there is an almost audible crack, then he makes his way to the back. ‘Working hard? Or hardly working.’
The coffee is strong and wonderful. I look at my watch, but it’s still too early to call home.
Rae asks me what Jozef meant by Arnhem.
‘I think it was something to do with an operation to capture some bridges in Holland toward the end of the war in Europe. It was what the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’ was all about.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘Paratroopers. In by gliders. I think a lot of them were killed or captured.’
We climb back into the ambulance cab and clear up for the next job. Rae offers me a stick of gum. I try to imagine what it would have been like on the glider. I wondered who Jozef sat next to all those years ago as the flimsy aircraft shivered and cracked in the darkness, as they clutched their rifles, approaching the drop zone.