‘Let me begin by telling you a little bit about myself.’
The HR manager’s words drift out across the room of paramedics with the enervating creep of carbon monoxide. Everyone sprawls, a green slew of bodies scooped up from the big Trust pond in a bucket marked: Continuous Professional Development and tipped into this conference room. The programme today will cover Equality, Diversity, Coping with Stress and Listening Skills.
She smiles with political levels of resilience, and continues.
‘I’ve been a manager all my working life, after completing a degree course in Business and Economics. I worked five years as a senior HR manager with a large department store, enjoying the challenges of that position enormously. The retail world is fascinating, fast-moving, pretty demanding, and I loved it.’
She scans her audience. She reminds me of the robot Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. She has the same smooth metal styling, the same bulletproof purity of purpose.
‘But when the business was subject to a takeover, I was forced to evaluate my position with the in-coming regime, and actually found I didn’t much want to work for them. So I took voluntary redundancy and started a new business. In fact I ran away to Guernsey and opened a Bed & Breakfast. I enjoyed that challenge enormously, but anyone will tell you that running your own business is probably one of the most stressful things you can do. So after three years I’d decided that I’d explored everything that particular arena had to offer, and was ready to come back into a more formal place of work. So I joined the ambulance service, and have been here now as senior HR manager for about twelve months or so.’
She lifts her visor to gauge the level of interest.
‘But enough about me. Let’s go round the room and learn a little more about each other. I want you to tell us your name, where you’re from – and one thing you did this weekend that you really enjoyed.’
Jeannie is sitting on the bed with both hands resting palm upwards in her lap, the backs of her fingers and her red-painted fingernails lined up and resting against their opposite number, thumbs on top and relaxed, a neat arrangement of studied calm. The soft underside of her arms are turned upwards, and where Jeanie has striped across them with the kitchen knife, the skin stretches apart like a torn stocking.
‘Jeannie – it’s the ambulance. My name’s Spence and this is Rae. I can see you’ve hurt yourself, but what we need to do before we come any closer is to make sure you’re not going to do anything to hurt us.’
She looks across at us with a curiously tender expression.
‘I wouldn’t hurt you,’ she says, and smiles.
‘I just need to get that knife out of the way, though.’
I pick it up by the bloodied black handle and toss it across the room.
‘Any other weapons?’
She gives a shake of the head.
‘Where are the police?’ she says.
‘They couldn’t send anyone at the minute, so we thought we’d come in anyway and see how you were.’
Her bedsit is a compact world of light and dark, order and disorder. The rucked-up bed that Jeannie sits on is an island in a sea of magazines, food cartons and tangled clothes, but above the squalid brown horizon of all this, neatly tacked-up across the institutional magnolia walls, Jeannie has an array of baby photos, laid out in a grid.
‘My brother’s child,’ she says.
On a pile of books in one corner, there is a red plastic hamster cage.
‘And that’s Aiko. It’s a Japanese word. It means Little Love.’
We’ve been put into small groups and asked to think about all the things we do to cope with stress. We are to write them in a list, and then share what we have when we all come back together. The manager drifts between the groups. She comes and sits with us.
‘Show me what’s top of your list,’ she says.
We tell her that meeting back on base, sitting with our colleagues in the mess room, talking about the jobs we’ve done – this is one of the most helpful things. They’ll have come up against the same jobs, we say. They’ll have a view on it.
‘Unfortunately as you know the move is away from ambulance stations as such, so let’s just put that idea to one side and think about what other mechanisms you have to cope with stress. I see here you’ve written sport down. Good. Sport’s a good one. Doesn’t it create endorphins, or something? Is that right? You’re the experts.’
I clean Jeannie’s arms with a gauze pad soaked in sterile water. The new wounds overlay older wounds, where the skin has knitted back together in a tangle of puce coloured scar tissue.
‘I’ve had a few grafts,’ she says.
I bandage her arms up right and left.
‘One or two of these need attention at the hospital, Jeannie. Plus I’m not happy leaving you here alone. Will you come with us to the hospital? You’ll be able to talk to someone there.’
‘I think I’ve done enough talking,’ she says. ‘I’m all talked out.’
‘But you will come with us?’
‘If you want.’
She puts on a heavy brown woollen jacket, and roots about for her keys.
‘I’ll have a tidy up tomorrow,’ she says. ‘See you later, Aiko.’
The HR manager stands alongside a flip chart and explains how stress works.
‘I spent some time with the Samaritans,’ she says. ‘They deal with this stuff all the time, and they have a really interesting way of explaining the equation of stress, if you like – and it’s a diagram that I found really useful. I’ll draw it for you.’
With a fat black marker pen she squeaks out a more than wedge, then two parallel lines cutting down across the middle of it.
‘This end of the wedge you might call extreme happiness, or euphoria. The kind of feeling you have when you first fall in love, or look at a newborn baby. This end – the thin end – you might call despair, depression, suicidal thoughts, when you feel you can’t carry on. Of course, no-one could live either absurdly happy all the time, here at the euphoric end of the spectrum, but by the same token, nor could they live constantly in the pits of despair. So what happens is, people live mostly in the comfort zone, which is here, in the middle. Neither too happy or too sad. And what happens is that their emotional life is a series of little adjustments, sometimes this way, towards happiness, or sometimes this way, towards despair. It’s a constant battle to maintain the status quo here in the middle, the comfort zone.’
She taps the marker pen in her hand and gives us a sly look.
‘Now – here’s a story for you. A man rings up saying he wants to kill himself. Okay. Fine. The Samaritan is trained to deal with this. He says something like: ‘What’s happened?’ And then the man turns round and says he wants to kill himself because his toaster has broken. What do you make of that?’
Frank puts his hand up.
‘Has he got a grill?’
These pavements are the town’s arteries and these people its blood cells, pulsing through town, bustling and jostling beneath the high midday sun.
Jeannie sits with me in the back of the ambulance, staring out through the window as we rattle on towards the hospital.
A woman and her partner cross the street with a buggy.
‘You should see my brother’s baby,’ she says. ‘She’s such a cutie.’
Day Three of the course runs to a close. The HR manager thanks us for our participation and wishes us luck in our careers. She packs away her folder and pens as we make for the door. Outside in the hotel car park the spring air flaps around us, its heady blue flavours cut with pine bark chippings, softening tarmac and chip fat drifting out from the kitchen windows.
I say goodbye to the others and climb into my car.
Never has it felt so safe, so musical, so mine.