I remember Nora.
Early summer, a high blue day in May, bright and full of hope.
Which made me feel worse, of course.
I’d been in the ambulance service a year, working the non-emergency side of things, ferrying elderly patients to and from day centres, outpatient appointments. I liked the work. It was therapy after training to be an English teacher in a secondary school and crashing out in my second year. I was a failure, on the run from myself, from the Smoking Ruins of my One Last Chance at a Career.
I’d taken the whole teaching disaster particularly badly because I’d always thought of it as my Ace, the one, sure-fire card I could play if things got tough. When it turned out to be the Joker, I panicked.
To begin with, the regularity of patient transport helped me feel less anxious about things. It was simple, practical, obviously useful. I was in amongst an entertaining bunch of patients who eased my bruised sense of connection with the world. If I was hopeless at everything else, at least I could drive a bus, chat to people, wheel them about. I had plenty of time to read. I stared out of the window as the world flew by: pylons, houses, trees.
After a while I started to feel restless. I wondered what it would be like to work on a frontline ambulance. Maybe I could turn myself into the kind of person you got when you dialled 999, the kind of person who’d Be Cool and Sort Things Out.
I applied for the EMT course but there were delays. It was a frustrating process. Administrative snarl-ups, rules that changed overnight, interviews that went well but led nowhere – bureaucracy rising up like thorns round an enchanted castle.
In the meantime I started this blog. I’d always loved reading, and for many years I’d fancied I could write something. Every time I’d tried in the past, though, the project had fallen apart. I didn’t seem to have the tenacity to see it through.
A lack of sticking power. Someone said that about me once. Were they right? Was that the common denominator in my ho-hum working life so far?
Maybe writing a blog would help. A useful distraction at least, a way of cultivating a more objective view of the world. Focusing on other people was patently a good thing. I was too self-obsessed. I was like that guy in An American Werewolf in London, except when I fell screaming to the floor I wasn’t turning into a monster but a moany old git.
The other thing was that blogging felt like a useful way of sneaking up on writing, doing it without it being a thing. Blogging was endless. It was practical. It was audience-less, too, for a while, but at least it was ‘out there’. People could take it or leave it – comment, in time, if they wanted. I could desensitise myself to criticism. And I’d be spared the terror of the finish line, the crashing moment when something would be done, judged, found wanting.
I decided to blog about ambulance work. And as it turned out, Nora was my first subject.
I remember walking alongside her as she shuffled with sticks from the day centre to the ambulance. I was intrigued by her accent, by the aura of contrariness that bound her as tightly as her scarf. The nurses were scared of her. They smiled when I said goodbye, but I half-expected to see them cross themselves as they turned away.
An interesting case, I thought. I bet she’s got some stories.
I was attending, so I had plenty of time to grill her in the back. I’d get to hear all about it, the country she came from, the love affairs and hazardous escapes, the heartbreaking family break-ups, the inspirational recoveries. It was a long way back to her house. I’d get a comprehensive life history.
I made myself comfortable.
I made sure she was.
I was ready to be the chatty ambulance man, innocent, open, inquisitive. Ready to memorise the good stuff.
Nora was as brutal as a hip replacement.
‘Why do you want to know these things about me?’ she said.
'I'm just curious.'
'Well maybe I won't satisfy your curiosity.'
And that was that.
The rest of the journey I was back to staring out of the window.
Pylons, houses, trees.
When I got home that evening and sat down to write my first blog entry, I stared at the blank screen and rubbed my face. I reviewed the day, moment through moment, trying to visualise each patient, what they looked and sounded like, where we picked them up from – any angle I could think of. But the one who really stood out was Nora. For want of anything else to write about I gave in and wrote a short paragraph about what had happened.
Later, when I read it back, I saw that the reason she’d made such an impact was because she’d subverted my expectations. She hadn’t behaved like I wanted her to behave. Despite my best efforts she was simply Nora. Crotchety, complaining, cussed old Nora: headscarf, two-sticks, murderous demeanour.
I carried on and wrote a few more, one a day. And when I felt brave enough, I posted them.
There were no comments, of course, but I didn’t mind. I’d made a start. I was getting myself into a habit of writing, a habit of thinking about writing, and it felt good.
Nine years on, I can still feel Nora’s eyes on me in the back of that ambulance, the icy pause before she said:
‘Well maybe I won’t satisfy your curiosity.’
I suppose as a first subject, it’s ironic that Nora was so flatly uncooperative. But like it or not she’s there at the beginning, a quirky kind of guardian, perhaps. Cerberus in a Headscarf, focusing her fury, challenging me to get past with what little I had, to struggle on regardless and get something written.