With his vast belly, exuberant white beard and rumbling laugh, this could be Father Christmas relaxing on the sleigh after a tough night – except his chest is stuck with ECG dots, his arm in a blood pressure cuff, his finger in a SATS probe.
‘Do you drive the ambulance?’ he says, squinting at me from beneath a tangle of eyebrows like a frosted hedgerow. ‘Or do you always get to sit in the back with old farts like me?’
‘We change round at the hospital.’
‘Do you? Ah. Well that makes for a more interesting day, then.’
‘It breaks it up.’
Outside the road hisses wetly.
‘I should think it’ll take us half an hour to get there.’
‘More like an hour, this time of night.’
‘You could be right.’
‘I know I could be right. I could be wrong, n’all.’
I finish writing up the notes, unwind the cuff from his arm, take the probe off his finger and settle back into the seat. We are taking Mr Carrington back to his original hospital, post op. He seems well enough, comfortable, chatty. He smiles at me.
‘Like what you do, do you?’
‘Yeah, often. It’s like any job. It has its ups and downs. Mostly ups.’
‘What about you? I suppose you’re retired now?’
‘Had to, ‘cause of me health. I’d have carried on if I could, but events, you know. They overtake.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it, n’all.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘I did my National Service, discharged, called up again for Suez. Got made a sergeant, five pound a week, good money in them days. Should’ve stayed on after that, but my wife wanted me home, so I got a job as an auxiliary nurse and did that on and off forty years until my heart attack.’
‘That’s pretty good going.’
‘Not bad. I should’ve been a nurse, but I never had the writing.’
‘There’s a lot of that.’
‘I can see. I don’t envy you.’
He folds his fleshy hands over his belly and closes his eyes. After a while I think he must have fallen asleep, but then he opens his eyes again and stares up at the ceiling. The ambulance sways and rattles.
‘My first wife died after ten years,’ he says eventually. ‘Never did know why.’
‘Lived on my own for a bit, married again.’
‘She died after eight years.’
‘It was hard. I’ve lived on my own ever since. Not that I mind it, really. I get to do what I want, when I want. Which isn’t much. Fishing’s my thing. I like to get out. But these legs, you see. They’re not what they were. I used to be able to skip over a fence and not break wind, but now, getting into bed’s like climbing the bleedin’ Matterhorn.’
‘They do look swollen.’
‘Still get out down the Quay, though. I ride my scooter out with all my rods, set up there, lovely. Mackerel and what not. An easy fish to gut, mackerel. Hungry man like you, two of them would be a meal. All beautiful and crisp from the fire.’
‘I used to go fishing with my Dad. Down by the river, opposite the brewery. We’d watch the swallows swooping over the water. It was beautiful. We didn’t catch all that much. Dab, roach. Mostly eels.’
‘Eels is good eating. Fried up in a pan with a little oil and garlic. Lovely.’
‘We never ate them. Seemed a shame. ‘
‘Fishing’s good for wildlife. I had a kingfisher perch on the end of my pole once. What an animal. I do not have the words to describe the colours of that bird. Wouldn’t know where to start. Sparkling blues. Orange. Incredible.’
We both fall silent, and the sounds of the ambulance’s progress along the road dominates the space again. After a while he turns his massive head and looks at me.
‘Where was that? Where you fished?’
‘Cambridgeshire Norfolk border.’
‘Oh. Lovely. Lots of wildlife there. The salt marshes and dykes. Bitterns out on the Fen. You’d see it all there. Me, I’m from Essex.’
‘I don’t know Essex, but I went to Sutton Hoo once. That was great.’
‘East Anglia. Essex, it’s all the same. They’re the places. Land of the Great Anglo Saxon kings.’
And he folds his hands across his belly again, and closes his eyes, as the ambulance slows and turns into the hospital, and comes to a halt by the main entrance, ready to unload.