Monday, March 28, 2011

a painted wall

The moment Frank puts his hand on the latch of the gate, a monstrous dog rears up behind it, slamming into the wooden slats, barking viciously.
‘Jesus Christ!’ says Frank, jumping back. ‘The size of it!’
The dog stops barking just as suddenly, and presses its piano-sized head up against the top, breathing hard and looking at us with a cold, shark-black eye.
There is a brief stand-off as the dog – surely the bastard offspring of a Shetland pony and a wolf – stares at us, gauging distances, thicknesses. Then it starts again, coming at the fence with every ounce of hatred in its body. The pine slats shudder.
‘Fuck me.’
Just then, a woman appears in the yard. She strides up to the beast, slaps it on the nose and takes its place at the fence, peering at us over the top with much the same expression.
‘It’s only Jessie,’ she says. ‘But come round the front if you don’t like dogs.’
‘Right.’
We pick our way along the alleyway, past car parts and carrier bags, and meet her at the front door.
‘Julie’s upstairs.’
The house would feel crowded if you wore a jacket; as it is, every surface and corner, shelf and recess, is comprehensively junked-up, an accumulation of stuff in settled, dateable layers. We pass a sitting room given over to a wall-sized TV screen and a white leather sofa whose three occupants seem to have absorbed the hue and form of the cushions they lie amongst. They barely look up as we pass.
From the top of the stairs we can hear the anguished groans of a young girl.
‘Baby’s coming,’ says the woman, following behind us.
‘Can I ask what relation you are?’ I say to her. If she had said Great Grandmother I’d have believed it; she has a coarse, desiccated look, a pulling in around the mouth and eyes, and a hint of ash when she shakes her pony tail out.
‘Her mum,’ she says. ‘Jake’s the father. He’s up there.’
We go on into the room of a young teenage girl, fluffy, white, heart-shaped photo frames on the wall, My Little Pony figures on the window-ledge, and a crowd of Care Bears and cuddly Disney characters set four deep along the top of the chest of drawers, jostling for position like some nightmarish audience ready for the show. A small girl is lying on her left side on the bed, her legs drawn up to her swollen belly, her arms clutching her knees. Her eyes are closed, and her damp yellow hair has fallen across her face. Jake, her partner, is sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand draped on her leg, a mobile phone open in the other. He looks up as we come in, and springs away to the side as if we’d caught him cheating.
‘How often are your contractions, Julie?’ asks Frank.
‘I don’t know. It just hurts. Mum!’
‘It’s okay Julie. Listen to the man.’
‘Has everything been normal up till now?’
She groans.
‘Yes?’
She still has on her tracksuit bottoms. They look dry.
‘How long has she been like this?’
‘I don’t know. Since about six?’
I know Frank is thinking the same as me. Delivering a baby in this cramped little room would be less than ideal. And taking into account all the variables - the partner, the dog, the people in the room downstairs - the chances of an uncomplicated delivery seem remote.
‘Let’s ride this one out and then we’ll get you down to the ambulance,’ he says. ‘The hospital’s only round the corner.’

***

‘I’m glad we didn’t have to deliver that one,’ I say to Frank in the cab, clearing the job off the screen.
‘It would’ve been all right,’ he says. ‘We could’ve used one of those Care Bears as a pad.’
Another job comes up immediately.
‘You have got to be kidding.’
Birth imminent, the other side of town.

***

The other side of town, and even though it’s only five minutes away, for all the differences there are between the two places it may as well be the other side of the world. Whilst the streets of the first estate were set close like the high-sided runs of some penal colony; the feel here is of light and air and space, the sun smiling in an arc across the neat grass verges and gardens of Spring blossom.
Mrs Jessop is on all fours in the bedroom, naked from the waist down and panting to avoid pushing and delivering too fast. Mr Jessop is by her side, rubbing her back and whispering encouragement. We break open the maternity pack. She declines Entonox. The baby’s head bulges out slowly, then after a moment or two the rest of the body follows. She turns and takes the bloody infant on her breast, sobbing and laughing; we help her clear the baby girl’s face; she swaddles her, and lays her on to suckle.

Half an hour later, the midwives arrived and in charge, we’re sitting in the kitchen as a family friend makes us tea. The Jessops have only just moved here. The place is stripped out, back to bare board and plaster. The basics of the kitchen units are in, but everywhere else there is a sense of a bright new home being worked up from a sound base. The main wall of the kitchen is covered in writing – a happy graffiti to be painted over soon and worked into the fabric of the house like domestic white magic – all by the friends and relatives who’ve stopped by to help over the last few weeks, making everything ready for the baby.
‘It’s going to be a lovely place,’ says Frank, looking out into the sweet little garden and sipping his tea. ‘Good choice.’
I look over the graffiti wall again, the signatures and messages, the cartoon flowers and smiling faces. I wonder how many babies will be born today, across the world. And I wonder what’s been written for each of them, and what’s been done, in the days and weeks and months before they came.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

convoy

Mrs Eldridge is sitting in her wheelchair ready to go, an imitation snow fox blanket over her lap and a furry, zebra print poncho over her shoulders. Her hair is gathered up and gelled into an extraordinary beehive, a silvery sculpture so perfect it could be a comedy wig, with a sheen like the gloss on a giant sugared almond. Her expression is as sweet as the hair – a contented, confectionary glaze to her face, as if some current of sweetness was rising up through her, up from the luxurious pillows of the chair, focused by the cone of the poncho, lifting the corners of her mouth, pushing up her eyebrows and gathering in the beehive.

‘She’s been off her legs these past four years,’ says Mr Eldridge, bringing the last of the bags through. ‘But this last week she just hasn’t been able to do a thing.’
‘Has the doctor been out, then?’
‘Oh yes. He said for her to go in.’
‘Did he leave a letter?’
‘A letter? No.’

Mr and Mrs Eldridge are both ninety three, married at twenty one, the world gone to hell, but the two of them making a stand together outside the church, laughing happily into the camera, the bride leaning forwards as she struggled to hold down great layers of white lace and crinoline with one arm whilst keeping the other firmly threaded through the arm of the sailor groom by her side.
‘I see you were in the navy then?’
Mr Eldridge puts a bag down by the wheelchair and straightens up.
‘Escorted the Russian convoys through the war,’ he says, then adjusts the blanket across his wife’s lap.
‘Blimey,’ says Frank. ‘That must have been a tough time.’
‘Well it was fucking cold, I remember that much. But we made it through. Didn’t we Grace? We made it through.’
He lightly fetches on his jacket, and it seems to hang directly down from his shoulders without touching any other part of his body. I pick up all the bags and Frank takes up his position at the back of the chair. As he makes to go I ask Mrs Eldridge if she’s comfortable enough, but she says nothing, smiling exactly as she did before, without the least change of expression.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

ambulance noir

This job is so far off patch we may as well be setting sail for Marrakesh. A low priority call, we figure a local crew will come up long before we get there. But the minutes roll on as smoothly as the road, and the country changes and becomes unfamiliar. It’s warm enough to open the window, the radio plays a stack of good songs, but it’s still tedious that we’re expected to run on this one, and I can’t help prodding Control for updates every few minutes. The dispatcher gets annoyed.

‘Give me your mobile number. Talk to the PSIAM desk yourself,’ he says.

I’ve always pictured the PSIAM desk as a dimly lit backroom in Control, richly furnished with rugs, palms, overhead fans, a mahogany desk and a hookah, a Bakelite phone and a bronze eagle, Sydney Greenstreet sipping sweet, cardamom-flavoured coffee, sweating in an off-white suit, something heavy in his pocket.
‘Sidney here,’ he wheezes. ‘Good morning, Spence.’
‘What’s the story, Sidney?’ cringing like Peter Lorre. ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like it, I tell you.’
‘I hate to send you boys out there,’ he sighs. I hear a noise, like the slapping of a fly-swatter and the scattering of papers. ‘A dreadful waste of everyone’s time, I’m sorry.’
‘So tell me again what it’s about?’
‘An eighteen year old chap suffers low potassium. Ongoing thing, hereditary. Starts feeling low a week ago, usual symptoms of tingling in the arms and legs, but doesn’t have his usual medication to correct it. He says he’s moved house and hasn’t registered with a GP in the new area yet. He does have a repeat scrip but says he wasn’t sure if the pharmacy would accept it. He’s living with three other people. None of them seem interested or able to take the scrip to the pharmacy. They say they have no car and no money.’
‘Did you Google the nearest pharmacy, Sidney? Did you find out if they could walk?’
‘I did, Spence. I did. Nought point five miles, Spence. A light afternoon stroll. Even I could manage it.’
‘And what did they say?’
‘Not a thing. The phone went quiet.’

As it does now.

‘I told them that this was not what the ambulance service is for,’ he carries on - the sound of a pistol barrel being broken open and spun? - ‘but they still demanded an attendance. So there you are. All our other vehicles are on other jobs, or getting diverted. I’m afraid it looks like you’ll be stuck with this one, Spence. I’m sorry. I’ve done my best.’
‘It’s not your fault, Sidney.’
‘It’s this damned system. Let me know how you get on.’
I hang up.
‘They want us to attend.’
‘Shit,’ says Frank.

***

There’s a middle aged woman and a younger girl smoking and chatting outside the house. They wait until we’ve parked, then turn and lead us up to the patient. Rich, the eighteen year old, is lying on his back under a stained and uncovered duvet. A pleasant faced kid, he nods as we walk into the room and introduce ourselves. His girlfriend, her mother and a family friend, file in after us. The family friend perches on the edge of the other bed in the room and continues to play a game on his phone, held up close to his face, using both thumbs and maybe the tip of his nose.
‘My arms and legs are pretty much completely numb now,’ Rich says. ‘Sorry.’
‘I understand you ran out of your meds. Why was that?’
He makes a face.
‘But you do have a scrip?’
‘Yep. I didn’t know if it would work, though.’
‘But you didn’t try?’
‘No one would go and get it for me.’
I turn to the mother, a pale faced forty year old, weighed down by years of mascara and a leopard print dressing gown.
‘Could you really not have taken his scrip down to the pharmacy? This has been a few days coming.’
‘I don’t have the money.’
Usually about this time I let things go and retreat into a more resilient kind of politeness. But there’s something about all this – the distance we’ve travelled, the terrible waste of resources, the shocking passivity in the room – that makes me want to ride it out for longer.
‘What about you?’ I say, turning to the girlfriend. ‘Couldn’t you have helped out?’
‘I haven’t got a car.’
‘You could’ve walked.’
She shrugs.
‘And you?’ to the boy on the phone. ‘What do you think?’
He frowns and leans harder into the phone.
Frank shifts in the doorway.
‘A few bananas and an energy drink usually puts things right,’ says Rich, helpfully. ‘But there weren’t any.’
‘Bananas,’ I say to the mum.
She shakes her head as if I’ve offered her one.
‘There’s a supermarket at the end of the road,’ I say. ‘I’ve never seen such a big one. Have you Frank?’
He smiles.
‘It’s the size of a small town. They’ll have bananas. Couldn’t you have got him a bunch?’
‘Like I say. I don’t have the money.’
‘For a couple of bananas?’
She shrugs.
‘Have you any idea how much it’s cost to run an ambulance out here?’
I look back at Rich. He’s lying with the same expression on his face, waiting for something to happen. ‘You’ll be hours up the hospital.’
‘I know.’
There’s a silence in the room. Everyone’s waiting for me to say something. I think of Sydney, standing by the phone, dabbing his forehead dry with a handkerchief.

‘I suppose we’d better go to the hospital, then. Who’s coming with him?’
The two women stare at the boy with the mobile phone. After a while he looks up and says: ‘What?’

Monday, March 14, 2011

well?

‘Do you ever get to drive?’
‘We swap over at the hospital. It’s pretty much fifty fifty.’
‘Oh yes?’
‘Yeah.’
‘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.’
‘Well...’
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.

Friday, March 11, 2011

bogof

Ralph normally works up country, but an overtime shift has landed his response car rudely and squarely in the centre of town. A paramedic for thirty years, Ralph carries his experience as lightly as his epaulettes. If it wasn’t for the uniform he could be a retired headmaster, his benign smile only slightly undermined by the ascetic pinch to his face, as if things just kept turning out the same despite all hopes to the contrary.

The first time we back him up he’s on a job at a solicitor’s office. We are shown in by a Kevlar stockinged secretary past a rack of leaflets and brochures on personal injury claims, through to a consulting room out back. The table and chairs have been pulled to one side, and lying stretched across the carpet tiles, crying and slapping at her forehead is a large woman in a white brocade dress. Ralph is kneeling next to her, trying to persuade the woman to open her eyes so he can shine a light in them. He smiles pleasantly as we come into the room.
‘Hello chaps,’ he says, standing up. ‘Well. I haven’t long been here myself, but what we seem to have is a woman in her thirties – Jamila - who complained of a sudden pain in her head and neck, looked as if she was going to faint, and was helped to the floor by this kind gentleman.’
‘She didn’t fall or hurt herself in any way,’ the man says in a clear voice. ‘I made sure she was still breathing, then I phoned for help.’
Ralph pauses for that to sink in, then continues.
‘And that’s as far as I’ve got really. Her pulse and SATS are fine. She’s shaking as you can see but it’s not any kind of seizure. I haven’t been able to get an awful lot more out of Jamila than her name, though.
I lean in past his shoulder to get a better look at her face.
‘I know Jamila. I went to her a few weeks ago.’
I straighten up and nod back towards the door, then step away from the patient. Ralph distributes his smile evenly around the room once more for good measure, retreats, then moves in close to me like a priest about to hear confession:
‘Frequent flyer. Always the same presentation – finds a floor to lie on, pains in head and neck, big shakes, big drama, they’ve never found anything at the hospital. Exactly the same as last time.’
‘I see.’

We both turn back into the room.
‘Well,’ says Ralph, clapping his hands. ‘Shall we help you to your feet, Jamila?’ She stops crying and runs me through with a look. ‘Let’s get you out to the ambulance where it’s a bit more private.’
‘Is she going to be all right?’ asks the man in the corner, hastily putting aside a folder and adjusting his tie. ‘I thought it looked pretty bad.’
‘She’ll be fine,’ says Ralph. ‘Don’t worry.’
We help her up, and lead her back through the office. The receptionist scrutinises us from behind the desk.
‘I have a list of contacts,’ she says.
Ralph takes the printout and thanks her warmly.
Out on the ambulance, Jamila makes herself comfortable on the trolley, then resumes her attitude of distress, her long white dress flowing over the sides of the trolley like she’s the corpse of a Victorian tragedienne lying in state. She begins slapping at the side of her head.
‘I just want to press this vein, here. Could you press it for me? Everything went black, then dancing light, bright light, then flash! Then out of focus. You, for instance – when I look at you – to begin with it’s like oh my god what is this creature with two faces and many eye and then now it’s like oh, okay, almost normal. I just wish you would reach in and press my head here.’
‘I see,’ says Ralph. ‘So, chaps? You don’t want me for anything do you, guys? It seems as if you can cope. All right if I shove off?’
‘No problem, Ralph. See you later.’

But it’s sooner than we think.

Barely two hours later, we are heading back to base for lunch when we’re diverted to back up a car on scene at a collapse in a restaurant. Frank drives with the murderous precision of a hungry man, and within five minutes we’re turning into the road. Ralph’s four by four is parked up outside the pizza place, with a bored waiter standing guard, a cigarette discretely cupped in his hand. When he catches our attention he nods for us to follow him inside, then turns and flicks the cigarette away.

Despite or maybe because of the dazzling afternoon sun, the interior of the restaurant is muted and dark. Ralph is standing in the centre of a small group of people; sitting in the centre of the group, a young man in a pin stripe suit, an ornate black walking stick in one hand, a bag of medication in the other.
‘Well, well,’ says Ralph as we walk over to them. ‘Nice to see you again.’
The group parts to let us in.
‘This is Jasper. Jasper is twenty two. He appears to have had some kind of seizure. He suffers from a whole raft of illnesses, don’t you? ...’
I catch Ralph’s eye and as discretely as I can mouth the word: Munchausens.
Ralph’s expression barely registers the exchange, but I can see he has understood. He continues his train of thought for a second longer: ‘... Parkinsons, Diabetes, Epilepsy, heart problems – you name it, Jasper’s probably – erm – just excuse us for a second, would you?’
We both step over to the restaurant lobby.
‘I don’t want you thinking that every patient we go to today is a phoney,’ I whisper.
‘But?’
‘But Jasper is very well known up at the hospital. The diabetes is real, but everything else is strictly Hans Christian Andersen. Even if we took him up there they wouldn’t see him. Last time I saw him at A and E he had a security guard sitting on him in the car park, waiting for the police.’
‘What for?’
‘Hitting a nurse with his stick.’
‘I see.’
We turn back to the group. Jasper has struggled to his feet and is making a fuss about what bags he should or shouldn’t have.
‘Look here,’ he says, straightening his arms to adjust his starched cuffs and almost falling backwards into a floral display. ‘I don’t want to cause a fuss. I’m sure there are people much more deserving of your attention at the moment than I am. I simply want to go home and carry on with some extremely important, extremely high value business transactions.’
‘Why don’t we have a chat on the ambulance, Jasper? It won’t take long. Just to make sure everything’s in order.’
He sighs. ‘I honestly don’t – oh - I suppose if you think that’s what’s medically required. But this is highly embarrassing for me. It’s just Parkinson’s you know. And there’s not an awful lot one can do about that, is there?’
‘Come on, Jasper.’

Outside on the ambulance Jasper employs all his usual methods of delay, his campaign of passive resistance taken to the maddening, improvisational levels of a clown. At one point, an alarm starts to sound. He hunts through the pockets of his jacket, and the bag of medication, scattering packets of pills across the trolley, chasing the bleep into a document folder of phoney contracts and pseudo-business correspondence. Eventually he retrieves the electronic device and switches it off.
‘To remind me to take my medication,’ he says. ‘Now – what have you done with my stick?’
Ralph smiles and goes to leave the vehicle. ‘Goodbye Jasper.’
By the back door I say to him: ‘That’s weird. Two patients – two frequent flyers. But I don’t want you to think every patient we go to is a psyche, Ralph.’
He rests a comforting hand on my shoulder.
‘Don’t worry, Spence. But have you ever thought – and it’s just a thought - maybe you attract them?’
He laughs, shakes his head, and saunters off to his car. I climb back into the truck.
‘Ah. Good. There you are,’ says Jasper. ‘I was just telling your colleague. Chest pain.’

Saturday, March 05, 2011

a pattern of circles

‘Have you come for me now?’

Geoffrey levers himself up in his chair to look at us as Maggie shows us into the room. It is icily cold outside, but the sun is sharp and bright. It splashes in through the windows and casts every item of furniture, every picture, photograph and domestic item into brilliant relief.
‘Hello Geoffrey. I understand we’re taking you to the hospice.’
‘Yes. I’m all done now and I’m going there to die.’
‘Right.’
He settles back into his chair.
‘Do you suppose I might have time to finish my tea?’
‘Of course.’
Maggie shows us to the sofa next to Geoffrey’s chair.
‘Can I get you boys a cup?’ she says.
‘Why not? Always time for a cup of tea.’
‘How do you take it?’
She stands in front of us, hand in hand, a small, neat woman with a generous smile, her hair as perfectly ordered as the heavy tartan skirt pinned around her waist. ‘Milk and sugar?’
Geoffrey shifts in the chair again and almost spills his cup across his middle.
‘Oops!’
Frank helps him re-balance, then finds a cloth to dab his jersey dry.
‘Thank you so much,’ he says. ‘How clumsy and stupid I’ve become.’
‘It’s your illness darling,’ says Maggie, superintending the clean up. ‘All right? Okay? Shall I get you another?’
‘No, darling. This is absolutely lovely.’
She hobbles off to the kitchen.
‘I’ll give Tony a ring in a minute,’ she says over her shoulder.
Frank carefully hands Geoffrey his cup back, then sits down.

Geoffrey is ninety three. Age and illness have robbed him of substance; he sits in his chair like a meticulously realised soft toy of the man that was, the strands of hair across his head and the lines of his pencil moustache picked out in silver thread. The most vital thing about Geoffrey are his eyes – two dabs of aquamarine beneath the liver spots and the spilling, waxy flesh of his face.
‘I flew with Bomber Command,’ he says, turning just sufficiently to look at us, almost dropping his tea again in the process. It’s an odd feeling, as if he were scanning us for traces of the people we might have been. ‘Stirlings, Lancasters, Wellingtons. I’ve had my adventures. But now I’m just so damned tired. I’m no good for anything anymore and I just want to sleep
‘Most of my lot were in the army,’ I say. ‘But my Mum had a cousin, Arthur, who was a tail gunner in a Lancaster. She used to say she remembered standing on his shoes and dancing with him once when he came over on a visit.’
Geoffrey smiles gently.
‘Did he live?’
‘No. I’m afraid not. He was shot down somewhere over the North Atlantic.’
‘So many of us were.’
Maggie has come back in and settled herself in the opposite armchair.
‘Poor fellow,’ she says. ‘Such a waste. Do you know how many we lost? Fifty six thousand. Fifty six thousand! And it’s still going on today. All those boys in Afghanistan. There just never seems to be an end to it.’
Geoffrey takes another trembling sip of his tea.
‘Almost there,’ he says.

‘The hospice is lovely,’ says Frank. ‘Out in the country. Beautiful view of the hills.’
‘Yes.’
‘And the staff there are always so friendly.’
‘Splendid.’
Geoffrey regards his wife.
‘Sixty five years we’ve been married. Just when it all finished. After a long and difficult courtship.’
Maggie laughs and dips her head; for a moment she could be twenty years old, swinging her legs on a chair at the side of a dance hall, waiting to be asked.
‘Long and difficult, my eye,’ she says. ‘It took five minutes and you know it. But things were different then. You didn’t have the luxury of time.’
‘No. No, that’s true. I know it.’ After a pause he says: ‘Sixty five years. I think we’ve come to – an understanding.’
‘Yes. I think we have.’

I put my empty cup down on the coffee table. I notice the scene beneath the glass: an ancient alabaster carving, medieval knights clashing swords on a battlefield. The sunlight lowers as the afternoon moves on. It intensifies through the windows, falling across us all and everything around us, the black and white photographs, the tea cups, our carry chair waiting in the corner, and framed in dark wood on the opposite wall, an embroidered piece, a simple pattern of three circles, blue, white and red.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

the god of the smoking mirror

I’m on the bathroom floor, my hands clasped around the toilet bowl, my eyes reflected back at me from its waters. I’m trying to rise above it all, these relentless bouts of nausea and vomiting, to find peace beyond the sickness; the white ceramic is a welcome chill against my cheek.

It started so well. I wasn’t working, the girls were off school, and my wife had a meeting up in town. So I took the girls to the British Museum and we all planned to meet up at the end of the day in a pizza place off the Strand.

We spent the morning gently grazing with the rest of the tourists, room through room with a copy of the museum map in one hand and a camera in the other. But the longest time we spent by any cabinet, longer than the mummified cats, the golden galleon table ornament, the Saxon helmet and the Iron Age burial, was in the Americas room, in front of the carefully lit display of Aztec ceremonial pieces. One in particular: a skull representing Tezcatlipoca, God of the Smoking Mirror. It was decorated with bands of blue turquoise and black lignite, the eyes polished spheres of iron pyrites on discs of white shell. From either side of the mask, two neatly coiled straps of deerskin, which the priest used to tie on the mask for the ceremony.
‘Imagine what that must have looked like grinning over you on the table.’
‘With that knife,’ pointing to the blade with the crouching warrior handle.
‘Urgh.’
The girls moved on, but I stayed a little longer, staring at the skull, until a sudden flash from a camera bounced off the glass and dazzled me back.

Outside the museum the clouds had lowered and a fine rain was dragging across the city. We hurried on, down Museum Street and on into Covent Garden. But in the plaza the traders were packing up already; there was a wintery chill to the place, and only the hardiest tourists were still sitting outside on the iron seats, hunched like survivalists over plastic trays of noodles.

The offices where my wife, Hannah, was having her meeting were as closed up as the market. The CEO was in town, and a man in a fluorescent jacket wanted to know exactly what our intentions were, intercepting us as we hurried across the forecourt towards the lobby. In our bedraggled state we managed to persuade him that we meant the CEO no harm; he waved us on, we pushed through the revolving doors and found sanctuary on some over-stuffed leather chairs beneath a potted palm. Chloe picked up the Financial Times and pretended to check her shares. After ten minutes or so of trying to pass ourselves off as a raggedly eccentric billionaire family, we were rescued by Hannah and we all left for the pizza restaurant. I tried to catch the receptionist’s eye to say thanks for letting us have a seat, but she remained professionally welded to the screen.

We’d been to this restaurant before, a backstreet Italian-Schmitalian place where the pizza just about makes up for the d├ęcor and music. It was lovely to be warm and out together though, and I settled in. But half an hour into the meal I began to feel an ominous churning in my stomach; an hour or so later out in the street as we made our way back to the train station, I was rinsing as white and green as the advertising for the soya dessert they were promoting on the station forecourt. A salesman put an open tub under my nose and asked me what I thought; it was all I could do not to vomit into it. I shook my head in horror and hurried on.

The train ride took a hundred years. Rush hour, and every station stop it seemed they were actually herding cattle onto the train. My skin prickled; the windows ran with my sweat. I tried positive visualisation, that every clatter of the rails was bringing me quickly over ground to home, but then I’d look at my watch and see barely a minute had passed and we had half an hour to go. I groaned and yawned again, struggling to hold back a tsunami of vomit that would surely sweep everything ahead of me down the track to the next stop, bobbing with screaming passengers, laptops, rucksacks, hats, magazines, book club specials. I buried my fingers into my face in an effort not to embarrass myself any more than I already had. When I looked up again I imagined I saw the Aztec priest, holding onto the straps with the others, innocently reading the paper over his neighbour’s shoulder, with the skull of the God of the Smoking Mirror gawping at me from around his neck.

It would be impossible for me to overstate the bliss I felt on making it home. The comfort, the peace, the warmth. It is a treat lovingly made in heaven to be up here now on the bathroom floor, throwing up into this deliciously cool and clean toilet. Despite the hideous mechanical emptying, the Alien-like slavering extensions of the jaw, the washing-machine noises – my body seems to know what to do - I am profoundly happy to be here. An atheist, I thank God with every fibre of my being that I am home, miraculously brought back here, away from the train of despair, to this blessed place where I can be myself and do whatever I need to recover. And as the dreadful mechanics of the sickness subside, I prop myself up against the bath, and think – not for the first time – how enormously comforting it is in times of extremity to appeal to some bigger, all-powerful spirit. I picture those Aztec craftsmen, decorating the skull with their fine mosaic pieces, carefully setting the eyes, attaching the straps. I think about the priest, tying it on for the ceremony.

Anything to appease the spirit of the time, to find favour, to make it home.