Wednesday, July 04, 2007

on time

At six in the morning the alerter wakes us. Daylight has slid across the world again, low and grey as an aluminium lid, and found us simmering by the TV.
We finish at seven, so we offer to take the job in place of the six thirty crew. They wave us off.
N. smacks his palms, says: 'This should sort us out nicely.'
I climb into the driver's seat and read out the details of the job: Seven Acres Taxi cabs. Woman fallen. Greater than sixteen feet. Status unknown. I wonder whether she's fallen off a ladder or something, and then I wonder what she may have been doing up a ladder at this time of the morning. But you never know till you know, and anyway I am so tired it makes no real difference to me.
As we turn out of the station and head up the road, another message comes through: Patient fallen from cliffs. Lying on walkway beneath. Police on scene.

This is a suicide.

I know the cliffs here very well. Before we moved it used to be one of my favourite fossil hunting places. I would spend hours with the dog stalking and chipping out sea urchins, bivalves and brachiopods amongst the chalk falls and pools. Eighty five million years ago these cliffs were the chalky ooze at the bottom of the sea, lain down at a knuckle's depth every thousand years or so, a slow calcareous rain of microscopic planktonic shells. And then the waters receded, the land rose, was carved by glaciers, picked at by tides and frosts. About sixty feet at this point.

It's still early in the morning, and the scramble to get to work has only just begun, so in no time at all we've passed the taxi offices and are heading up to the car park at the cliff edge. We can see a police car there. The officer there tells us that a man walking his dog found the woman this morning and made the call from the taxi office. The policeman thinks she may still be alive. There is vehicle access to the undercliff walkway, but there's a barrier across the driveway at the moment and a council official coming with a key.
We debate whether to walk down with our gear but the policeman tells us that the woman is about half a mile along from this spot, so it will take us a while. I go back to the ambulance to fetch out a pair of bolt croppers, but just as I'm figuring out how to cut through the padlock the man arrives with a key. We drive down the steep path to the walkway, and then along to where we can see two figures leaning over something on the floor.

The woman is lying on her left side, one leg and one arm drawn up underneath her, as if she were slowly trying to get up. Her tangled hair obscures her face. One shoe has come off and is lying off to the right. There is a discrete halo of blood beneath her head. I kneel beside her, give her a gentle shake, but I quickly see that she is not breathing.
We need to roll her over. N. supports her head whilst the rest of us take a section of arm, leg, hip. We turn her. Immediately it's apparent that the woman's head is lopsided and wrong, pressed in along a line from the crown to the ear. There is little blood; what there was seems to have been caused by the pieces of gravel that have been pushed into her skin. Her eyes are half open, the pupils wide and fixed. Her nose is squashed and her mouth puckered up into a grotesque expression of disdain. I feel for a pulse at her neck but I know she will not have one. She is vaguely warm, though. As N. pulls the defibrillator from the bag I reach for my scissors to cut away her clothes. The first layer is a heavy coat with easy buttons, so I decide to undo those first. Beneath this coat, pinned to her cardigan, is a note: Please do not try to revive me. Sorry. I cut around the note and we attach the pads. But we do not really need the machine to confirm what we can readily see for ourselves here on this concrete walkway with the sea shouldering in on another high tide and the seagulls scrawling through the morning air.
We turn the defibrillator off. I fetch a blanket from the vehicle to cover her. She stares up and beyond us all to the top of the cliffs, as if she's seeing where she came from for the first time.

N. completes the paperwork.

The policewoman tells us about a car she went to that had driven at the cliff edge so fast it ended up on its roof in the sea.

The coroner's van arrives.

We finish on time.

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