‘Do you ever get to drive?’
‘We swap over at the hospital. It’s pretty much fifty fifty.’
‘On blue lights?’
‘Sometimes. It breaks the day up.’
‘All the knowledge you people have. You’re like doctors nowadays.’
‘Well – not really. Doctors have to study a lot longer. They’ve got five years of medical school, then two more working in different areas before they’re qualified to practise. So that’s seven. A paramedic degree takes three. My technician course was ten weeks.’
‘There’s nothing you can’t do.’
Mr Halliburton is sitting on the ambulance chair, his corduroy trousers riding up, exposing his sock garters, his aged mother nervously turning a paper tissue over and over in her hands.
‘All right?’ he says, leaning over and tapping her on her papery arm.
She smiles sadly, then moves her arm from under his hand to dab ineffectually at her nose. Mr Halliburton sighs, adjusts his position, then peers restlessly out through the slats of the window.
I’ve often thought there must be a Handbook of Ambulance Misconceptions somewhere. Part of a secret, international series – one for every job in the world, with a preface roughing out the basic howlers, a stock of questions indexed at the back. I’d bet if I was a trapeze artist, Mr Halliburton would be waiting for me backstage, nodding and winking and drawing himself up to say: ‘I couldn’t do your job, mate. All that swinging about.’
We go over a bump and it seems to shake him from the window into conversation again.
‘I couldn’t do your job, mate’ he says. ‘All that blood and guts.’
‘There isn’t that much trauma.’
‘All that piss and vomit. I couldn’t do it.’
‘We get our fair share of drunks.’
He looks at me, and his eyebrows start to creep up ominously, like a release valve finally giving way to the pressure of the ultimate question.
‘I bet you’ve seen some things,’ he says. ‘ I bet you’ve got some stories to tell.’ He licks his lips, folds his arms and waits.
It makes me cringe, but I can’t say I blame him. I know that the reason I feel uneasy is because I recognise the same curiosity to hear this stuff myself. On the face of it – the cool, rational face - I joined the ambulance service for the hours, the wage, the driving, the out-and-about spirit, the patent usefulness of the job. And all those things stand, of course. But I know too that beneath this safe, CV language move darker, less admissible currents – the urge to satisfy my curiosity, to see what death looked like, how it moved, what it meant. Essentially I wanted to know what the traumatic and bloody events I read about in the papers and soak up endlessly on TV and in films – I wanted to know how those things behaved in real life, and what they might mean to me. I wanted to know if I could cope.
So now – if I was honest, if I tried my best to think about all the jobs I’d done, to tell him what I’d seen and felt and heard over the last four years, what really could I say? What did it come down to? A story about a dead man and his dog? A railway line? An overflowing bath?
‘Well?’ says Mr Halliburton.