Thursday, December 30, 2010

the baby or the girl

Street names, synonyms for illness, difficulty, death. Shorthand scrawls for a pratfall in a swimming pool, an entrapment, a G5 in the lobby. Have I been here before? I’m sure I’ve been here before. If not here, then somewhere.

Tour guides on the Big Black Seaside Tour of Misfortune.

‘People don’t like to see us, Frank.’
‘Maybe we should change our uniform.’
‘Did you ever see pictures of the stuff they wore during the Black Death? A big black cape and a leather beak stuffed with herbs.’
‘I’d wear it.’
It’s late afternoon, my birthday, and I think the fog in the streets has invaded my heart.
‘If I don’t get a coffee in the next ten minutes I’m a dead man.’

I have been here before. Except the geometrically dour council block is surrounded by scaffolding. It coalesces out of the mist like a grotesque puzzle toy, a musical box. I imagine giant hands ripping it from its foundations, turning it over and over, eventually finding the pressure points and the whole thing springing apart to reveal – what? A dancing angel? Or a woman spinning round and round with a bottle of vodka?

There are tyres tracks on the triangular grass verge out front; probably from the last ambulance that parked here, probably yesterday. Getting out in slow motion. One small step for man, one giant waste of time. Reaching for the bell. And the long pause. I’ve definitely been here before.

Sandra is waiting for us on the sofa. She is a stop-motion, grey clay animation of a lonely drunk. Her cigarette burns in a different time zone. The flat is cold and poorly lit, a scattering of ripped bills, energy drinks, a plasma TV with teeth marks, the wretched galley kitchen a stub corridor to hell.

We spend time.

A pain in her side she’s had for a week. Hasn’t called the doctor because he’s shut, hasn’t any credit on her phone, can’t get there, doesn’t have the number, other reasons. She just wants reassurance she’s all right. She doesn’t want to come to hospital.

Ticks in boxes. Scrawled assessments.

‘We’ll log this call with your doctor so he knows what’s happened. What’s your number?’
She hands me the phone. After a while going through various menus I hand it back.
‘I can’t find it, Sandra.’
She shrugs.

The walls of the flat are darkening damp and bare, except for a small cluster of family photos, framed. The oldest one, a baby in a frilly white jump suit lying happily in front of a two year old who has one hand on the baby’s head, as if she’s taking its temperature, or like a stall holder proudly describing her most valuable offering.
‘Which one’s you, Sandra? The baby or the girl?
She shrugs.


Outside the fog is thickening. It runs noiselessly around us, shifting and cooling and flowing through, magically on and down to the barest atomic matrix of existence, where everything is everything, and anything is possible, where a man can stand still and be a lamppost, and a lamppost can go into a petrol station for a coffee.


Anonymous said...

"One small step for man, one giant waste of time"

Terrific writing. Poor Sandra, and poor you to have to deal with her. You make it all sound very desolate - I hope the rest of your birthday was better.


lulu's missives said...

It's all about the mind again....not knowing what is what. That poor woman.

Hope you had a lovely Christmas and wishing you a happy & healthy new year.
Be safe. xx

jacksofbuxton said...

Beautifully written as ever Spence.Hopefully you've reassured Sandra.

Spence Kennedy said...

Rob - I think I always get a bit gloomy on my birthday! But I had a good shift overall, and when I got home I had a lovely dinner and present opening frenzy with my family.

It is frustrating and depressing pitching up to some of the regulars - people with sad and seemingly intractable situations. Maybe I need a sabbatical!

Jo - She certainly is confused, and the long term alcohol prob isn't helping. Everyone in the health community gets a piece of the misery - talking to the GP on the phone was interesting! I think there's lots that can be done - and prob is being done - but you don't see much of that in the ambulance, I suppose.

Christmas was lovely, thanks. Some time off. Hope yours was good, too.

JoB - Thanks! I'm not sure we did reassure Sandra all that much. But then I'm not sure she knew quite why she'd phoned or what was going on. The abdo pain was a spurious reason.

I think sometimes there's a risk working in the ambulance that you get emotionally bludgeoned by the number of social deprivation/alcohol/MH cases you go to. I need a shot of something (in the arm, prob not Tequila).


Thanks v much for the comments. Have a brilliant New Year!

Karla said...

"Her cigarette burns in a different time zone." Wow! How fantastic is that? It transports the reading right along with.

Baglady said...

As ever love your descriptions Spence. You have a wonderful turn of phrase - so evocative.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much Karla & Baglady.

Sorry it wasn't more of a sparkling end of year tale, but I'm working NYE, so maybe there'll be something with a little more fizz to write about then (*wish*)

Hope you both have a fantastic New Year - and thanks again for reading the blog. x

Mariodacat said...

you are a very interesting, creative writer. Are all your calls weird? Or, because you are a creative writer, you are still able to keep us spell bound. Guess we'll never know for sure.

Bouncin' Barb said...

Happy Birthday Spence. Thank goodness you have a loving homelife to return to after dealing with all this negative energy everyday. It is sad to have lived life only to end up like this!

Wren said...

Spence, your ability to evoke atmosphere and images with just a few, well-chosen words brings to mind the author Michael Ondaatje, who wrote "The English Patient."

There were moments as I read that book that the beauty of his words stopped me dead, breath caught with the clarity of the images he conjured. You often do the same for me with your writing. It makes me shake my head and smile.

Happy belated birthday! And here's wishing you and your family a wonderful New Year.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks MdC! I think it's prob a bit of both. We get a lot of weird calls (and I'm a bit weird).

Thanks, BB! I was so glad and thankful to be able to come back to such a warm and loving home after the shift - as ever. I wish I had a magic wand in my kit bag to make everything better (but I think I'd wear it out pretty quickly).

Happy New Year! I hope 2011's a great one for you both. :)

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Wren! Your comment snuck through just as I'd published BB & MdC's!

Thanks very much for the flattering comparison and the birthday wish. I've not read any MO, but I've seen the film (excellent). I'll download a copy on my new Xmas Kindle (*smug smile*).

Have a great New Year - I'll raise a can of coke to you at midnight (I'm working, of course...) :) x

Jane said...

What a pit of despair - poor woman.
It must feel sometimes that there is no end to the misery out there.The weirdest part for me was the 'plasma TV with teeth marks' ?
Glad your birthday improved and you have great support at home.
Here's to health & happiness in 2011.

Nari said...

Happy Birthday and Happy New Year.

I love to read your posts. The way you string words together not only paints a picture but evokes a mood for the scene and that mood carries a personality of its own, seperate yet intregally connected to its human counterparts.

Note: Sandra may have responded more positively to the cape and beak look

Alanna said...

You know the kind of thing you read and think, "Gee, I wish I wrote that"? That's what you're writing does for me. You have a wonderful way with words - even through the darkest moments of human existence. Thanks for sharing your stories and being an inspiration.

saffy said...

:) happy belated birthday wishes....Maybe next year you should have a giant badge on with "its my birthday " or something. i am glad you got to have a good time with your family at the end of your shift.
Dont know what to say about Sandra apart from she could be anyone of us if we full from our luck.... i just hope she gets the help one day she deserves.
hugs and light

Karen Martin Sampson said...

You are a brilliant writer; your phrasing is so evocative of the mood you speak of. I can picture all of it and my emotions go with the images; sadness and frustration. I hope Sandra will be all right. Glad you had a good birthday in spite of everything. You seem to be a very special and talented person.

Crimson Ebolg said...

I'm a long time reader, first time comment-writer. Just wanted to say, your prose is exquisite, and I genuinely look forward to a new blog entry from you. I hope that one day my stuff will be as good as yours.
Best wishes and a Happy New Year.
Crimson Ebolg

Spence Kennedy said...

Jane - There's certainly plenty more water in the well! Luckily it's offset by plenty of goodness, too - all those patients in loving, supportive families (who I really, really should write more about)!

Nari - :) Maybe if we'd walked in a la plage (or is that french for on the beach??) in capes and beaks, she'd have kicked the vodka for good...

Alanna - Thanks v much. I find writing it out helps me cope with these kind of situations. (A bit mean, really - spread the misery...)

Saffy - :) I should def wear a badge like that. It is chastening to meet people like Sandra. Def a feeling that it could be any one of us if we let things slide out of control.

KMS - Thanks v much. Like I said earlier, I think I must make more of an effort to find the uplifting stories amongst the heartache. (But Capricorns are notoriously moody, esp. in fog).

CE - Hello (and thanks v much!) It's very kind of you to take time out to drop by - thanks for reading.


Thanks to everyone for the lovely comments. I hope you all have a great New Year, and that 2011 is a happy one for you. xx

Salty Letters said...

Beautifully written as ever...
Thanks for sharing.

Best wishes for 2011.

Love, Salty

Spence Kennedy said...

Cheers SL! Happy New Year - hope it's a great one for you & your family. xx