Friday, December 03, 2010


The storm began lightly enough, but its flakes soon fattened as the night came down, falling thicker and faster, until the air was an endlessly shifting fabric of black and white, and every edge and surface rounded with snow. It was a soundless coup. Within the hour, cars were struggling to find traction on the town’s steep roads; within two, buses were abandoned by the side of the road, and lines of traffic fumed in spinning, herring-bone jams through the city centre, drivers out and arguing the angle, as animated by the storm as the ragged bands of pedestrians shrieking and picking their way home.
As the night went on the storm increased its grip. The cars at the side of the road were gradually subsumed, every motionless object merging with its neighbour beneath the steady white mantle. The smallest detail was transformed – the spokes of a bicycle wheel, railing points, a spider’s web, the upper edge of a handle – the leading edge of every line delicately picked out in white; whilst above us, reaching up like monstrous filter feeders, the branches of the trees, heavy and ragged with snow.

An exhausting night. Even the simplest job almost impossible. At one point the ambulance slid to a halt on a road with a difficult camber; it took half an hour to get moving again, and that was only because the people from the houses either side came out with brooms and shovels to help.
‘I got these clip-on spikes for my boots,’ said one of the men, snugly wrapped in a quilted jacket and bearskin hat. The ambulance spun forward and I fell over. He helped me up. ‘I expect they’ve sold out now, though,’ he added as I brushed the snow off my trousers.
Seven jobs in twelve hours – falls in the street, falls at home, a user smacked out on heroin collapsed at a bus stop, a man hit by a sliding car – each one perilously close to our last. We approached the end of the shift cold and wet and dispirited.
We were both wondering how we would make it home.

‘Good luck, Spence,’ said Frank as he threw his bags into his car. I was still pushing the snow off the roof of my battered old Peugeot 205. His house was just the other side of town; mine was fifteen miles away, up country.
‘Thanks mate. I’m going to need it.’
But earlier in the year I’d made it through. I was confident I’d be okay.

Just a mile from the station, the temperature warning and stop light came on.

I pushed my hat further up on my head and glared at the dashboard. No, come on, not now. I decided to drive on and see if the lights would go out. They stayed on. I drove further. I could pull over at this service station and let it cool down. But then it might not start again. I passed the station. This was a clear stretch of road; the further I went, the further I had to walk back to any of my friends who lived in town, and the nearer I got to the next service station along the route. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and peered through the windscreen. I tried to fool the dashboard into thinking I wasn’t bothered. I glanced down without moving my head. The lights were still on. Stop. But I had to get home. I had to sleep. I decided to press on as far as I could. There was a truck in front and behind; I was in a slow moving convoy of vehicles struggling north along the main route; if I stopped now it would be a long, cold wait in the drifts at the side of the road, or a dangerous walk back to safety. I drove on, shouting encouragement at the car. The lights stayed on. Stop. I was almost at the next service station now. But I was so desperate with lack of sleep, as whacked out as the man we’d dragged out of the snow at the bus stop earlier. Something like madness came over me. I didn’t care if the car exploded. I didn’t care if the whole thing went up in flames. I pictured myself, lit up like a sparkler, spitting and hissing through the snow storm. I drove on. The lights stayed on. Stop. But I was in open country. If I pulled over now I really would be in danger. I gripped the wheel and drove on, sliding from side to side through the rutted ice pathways of the road. I needed to make up some time. I needed to take a shortcut. I came to a lane that I knew would be difficult but insanity had dropped before my eyes like the blades of a plough; by force of will I would make it up this lane, make it home. I turned left into an ice tunnel, the ceiling a frozen wave, surfing through the tube, swearing and slapping the wheel, skipping across the runnels of ice and skittering through the lying snow like a rapid fox in the wilderness. I made it to the end of the lane. The car was filling with smoke, a smell of burning rubber and oil; it was probably coming from me, the vapours of my madness. I didn’t care if the car exploded around me, so long as it left me with four wheels and something to steer them by - I had to get home. I skidded out onto a clearer road and carried on. There were no other cars. No one was that crazy. If I piled into the side or swerved into a ditch that would be it for me. But I had to get home and I had to sleep. I had to. This shift had to end in whatever way was left to me. A mile to go. The car was poisonous and I opened a window. I tore off my hat and threw it behind me. Half a mile. The engine was stalling. I skipped down the high street like a meteor coming to earth. Five hundred yards. A hundred. The house. The house. The engine burbled like a neglected kettle and suddenly cut out; I had just enough momentum to coast the last fifty yards and stuff the smoking bonnet into a heap of snow. I grabbed my bags and rolled out in a cloud of blue grey smoke, taking down great lungfuls of the beautiful, beautiful, crystalline air.
A Viking burial for the poor little pug.
And me?
I was home.


Helen said...

Hmmm - and what did your nearest and dearest make of your epic and incredible journey...Glad you made it intact!

Wordfiend said...

Your writing is a rare gift in the blogosphere: eloquent, graceful. You paint such beautiful pictures. And you tell a very good story. Thank you.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Helen

I know, I know - it was a stupid thing to do. I should've stayed on at the ambulance station, or walked round to a friend's house to sleep. But I've always been a bit reckless, worse when I'm sleep deprived. The poor car - it's been so brilliant over this last year. The garage thinks it might just be a blown head gasket - £500, but worth it (it's a lucky car). Anyway, £500 - I'd have given that, two pints of blood and an infernal promise just for the feel of my own bed that morning :/ x


Thanks v much. That whole ride home story was a bit breathless, but honestly - I've never had such a desperate journey! I feel bad about pushing the car to such extremes, but then that's one of the benefits of owning such a beat-up old charabanc! I hope I can get it back on its feet, though. I owe it. It made such a courageous effort to get me home!

Eileen said...

Once upon a time a blown head gasket was the death nell - you don't know what other damage has been done to the engine. Hope your's is OK.

BTW - YAS, it seems, has bought snowsocks for at least some of their ambos. They are as good as snow tyres for getting you going an emergency. And I quote my daughter on FB this afternoon having been to fetch her snow tyres: "Snow tyres are awesome!" I wouldn't be without mine from October to Easter. And the chains are in the boot - I've not needed them yet in 20 years or so of driving all over Europe in the winter. At present I am in northern Italy and we've had over half a metre of snow in the last 2 days, temperature never above freezing for about 10 days. Everything running - buses, trains and traffic. All due to snow tyres. They give you awesome grip at any temperature below about +7C that you won't get with your ordinary ones.

saffy said...

:) glad you made it home ok. We have an ambulance station near where we live and i notice how many more seem to have been called out in the ice and snow. Thankyou to you and all people like you who put the hours in to keep us safe and deal with our emergancies

tpals said...

Courageous? I think it was afraid of you!

Spence Kennedy said...

Eileen - Head gasket is the worst case scenario. It could be that the radiator failed and things got a bit heated. I hope it's okay. Will have to wait for the snow to melt before we can get it taken to the garage.

I've really no idea why the amb service doesn't stock snow tyres as standard. Did we learn nothing from the heavy falls early in the year? Apparently not! They'd make such a difference (so why don't I get some for my car? - Note to self: get some). BTW - not heard of snow socks before. I think I need them as well. Plus, I really, really should put anti-freeze in the radiator.

Saffy - Thanks for that. It's frustrating when the weather's bad and it takes us ages to get to a job, but we do our best.

Tpals - Possibly. I think my eyes had gone a bit twirly and I was grimacing a lot. Urgh. I'm surprised it didn't drive off when I was scraping the windscreen... :/

Thanks for all your comments!

Older School said...

Wordfiend is spot on!
I know that it takes a certain kind of person to work in any emergency services field -- and I know all too well that the salaries are pathetic. But you do it because it is something you want to do and need to do.
You have an unbelievable writing talent. Nurture it.

I recently found your blog and have been mesmerized by your story telling. It is more than poetic.
Continue on and stay safe out there!

Unknown said...

What a great story...beautifully descriptive. I found myself leaning froward in my seat, reading faster and faster in hopes that it would get you home sooner!

Becky said...

I'm glad that you made it home okay. It's amazing how we can will a piece of machinery to make it just a little bit farther until we get where we need to be. I'm looking forward to your next post. I hope you will visit my blog sometime.

Gentrie said...

I have recently found your site and come back regularly for my fix. You write beautifully! I love reading all your new posts. I'm glad you made it home. Started snowing here at about 11:ooam and have about 3" now, still snowing. I also made it 12 miles home in 4 wheel drive! ;)

BB said...

I had a car just like this once. I skated home on fumes a few times so really appreciated this story. Thanks and glad you made it home safe!!

Liz said...

Spence, as a mother i was cursing you all the way home....don't you know how dangerous that weather can here in Canada we are used to it and even I wouldn't have driven in that with snow tires, an emergency kit and a fully charged cell phone. Take care with this weather it can be little rant from the Great White glad that you survived to write about it though.

Spence Kennedy said...

Older School - Yeah, the salaries are pretty poor. If it wasn't for the bump-up from working nights, it'd be embarrassing. Still, you do get a lot of satisfaction from it. I've done jobs before where you wonder what difference you're making; at least with the ambulance it's pretty clear.

Nari - I was def leaning forwards - anything to get the thing home. I hope it is salvageable. I think I owe it big time!

Becky - Getting by on a wing and a prayer! Not sure how much I can continue relying on that, though...

Gentrie - 4x4, hey? That's cheating. The first time I did a shift at work on a landrover in the snow I loved it. You can go anywhere! (I think I went a little mad with the off-road thing). I think I should get myself an old Toyota Hilux. They seem pretty indestructible.

Bouncin Barb - I think that one car journey must have seriously reduced my lung capacity. But at least I made it back :)

Liz - I know it was a stupid thing to do, and could've ended badly. I have resolved to take more care of the car - and myself! I think we're all allowed a few chances - best not push it too far, though!


Thanks v much for all your comments. Hope the weather's okay where you are... :) x

jacksofbuxton said...

It's amazing the thought process that goes through your mind when you're in the car.My journey to work takes me over the highest A road in England,through the Staffordshire Moorlands to Buxton.This winter has been fine,so far,but looking back on some of the journeys I made last year were just so stupid.Had your colleagues in Staffs/Derbyshire had to come out to me they would have been quite right to read the riot act to me.

Glad you made it home though.I do hope you have very little to do every work shift you start.(I know that sounds odd,but you know what I mean).

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey JoB - Well that sounds a whole lot more treacherous. I hope you've got snow chains / spare wheel, pump & jack / shovel / blanket / mobile phone / biscuits / thermos of coffee and ... er ... a maroon. Sounds beautiful, though.

Can't tell you how relieved I was to make it home :/

Thanks for the comment, JoB. Hope the thaw is happening apace where you are.

jacksofbuxton said...

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks for the comment, JoB. Hope the thaw is happening apace where you are.

Here's how it looks at the moment in Flash,highest village in England.

Anonymous said...

Phew, I was pushing that car for you.
I'm told there are no snow tyres left in the UK, till next March. We ordered ours November 09 and took delivery March 2010!! But we are smug now. I saw an ambulance with snow socks on this very day; they must be pleasanter to deal with than chains.

Eileen said...

Spence - "the thaw"?????? What thaw? Please remember you are in a very special part of the UK! Where my older daughter lives is still having a deep-freeze day!

Have you googled snow socks? Easy to use chains - don't have to be given first aid after use!

Kim said...

WOW! What a night!! I've been lurking about your blog for a time and I must say that your writing is wonderful!! I am a midwife in the U.S. and I cannot tell you how perfect this post is in describing that incredible, craziness that comes over me when I'm driving home in the wee morning hours after a long and exhausting birth. You hit it dead on!!

Spence Kennedy said...

JoB - well that doesn't look too much like a thaw, I have to admit. A murky webcam though. Wouldn't like to get stuck there...

UHDD - I'm embarrassed, because after the last snowfall in January I was resolved to get chains, a snow shovel and a toboggan. Needless to say I didn't get any of them. But - I will now!

Eileen - Sorry to use the T word. The snow is melting here, but it's going to freeze over tonight, I think. I did just Google snow socks - they look fantastic. Prob the way to go - just a couple on the drive wheels, maybe. At least you could set out confident you're not so likely to get stuck.

Kim - Midwife, hey? Enormous respect due to you. Whenever we're on scene with an imminent birth, I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that you're en route (even happier when I hear you halloing in at the door). Great job!

I certainly think that working nights does something unspeakable to you. It's like Dr Jekyll taking a swig from the foaming beaker - you grow hairy knuckles and stop blinking...


Thanks for all your lovely comments! Stay warm & safe! x

chaz said...

Wow, beautifully written, as gripping as anything I've read of yours, and that's saying a lot.

Jumped ship from the UK 10 years ago - spent this weekend in blazing sunshine on a Waiheke beach. We're set for another blazing hot summer here in NZ apparently. Come and join us, you won't be sorry.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Chaz

Thanks a lot.

I just Googled Waiheke beach. Wow! Stunning! Maybe you're right. Maybe we should up sticks and move to NZ. V tempting.... :)