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WARNING: Contains explicit language and deals with adult themes
I opened the crew-room door with the usual amount of enthusiasm I reserved for a weekend night shift: none. After about ten years of working as an ambo, there were still many aspects of the job I enjoyed, but a night shift was not one of them. In fact, night shifts had never been one of them and the older I got, the harder they became. Back when I started there was always a faint hope you could catch some shut-eye once the two-to-three witching hour had passed. But not anymore, abolishing the call-out fee put paid to that.
With a deep sigh, I stepped inside the ambulance station and was greeted by the sight of Jan Reid, sitting in front of one of the computers. She pushed herself away from the desk and let her wheelie chair spin round to face me. “Shit Jono, you look like an extra from ‘The Walking Dead’. Are you sure you’re just starting?”
I dumped my bag on the workbench and slouched against the edge. “C’mon Jan, you know I hate nights. This is me before any life-support infusion of coffee and chocolate.”
“Jesus.” She turned towards the corridor that led to the crew room and yelled. “Someone get Jono a Snickers bar, stat! He looks worse than most of our patients.”
“I’m glad I can always rely on your kind words of encouragement to keep me going. So, am I with you tonight?”
She grabbed the desk and pulled herself back to the computer. “Not unless we’re working three up and you’re an hour late. I logged on with Dave at six.”
“Any idea who’s drawn the short straw then?”
She shrugged. “Dunno. Haven’t seen any lost souls wandering around. Guess you’ll have to ring the MAC.”
“Don’t supposed you could, seeing as you’re right next to the phone.”
She gave me one of her unimpressed stares. “Certainly, sir. D’you want me to dial with this finger?” She raised her middle finger to the ceiling.
I grinned. “That’s no way to treat your superiors.”
“Ha, now that’s ironic coming from you. Where d’you think I picked up this attitude? And anyway, as an Intensive Care Paramedic you’re only my superior on clinical grounds, so make your own damn phone call, you lazy bastard.”
I sighed and strolled over to the phone, “Just can’t get the staff these days.” I leant past her and grabbed the receiver causing the cord to twang against her neck. “Oh, sorry Jan. Didn’t see you there.”
“Do that again and I’ll be the last thing you do see.”
I hit the button for the Metropolitan Ambulance Coordinator. “Ooh, them’s fighting words, Jan. You better back down, I wouldn’t want you arrested for assaulting a paramedic.”
“I think all concerned would make an exception for you.”
I grinned again. It was always hard work jousting with Jan. “Shh, I got through first go!”
A bored-sounding voice came on the line. “MAC, Pete.”
“G’day, Pete. Jono here, d’you know who I’m working with tonight?”
“Far as I’m aware, you never do any work, Jono. Hold on.” There was a rustling of paper and typing of keys. I turned to Jan. “Would you believe I’m getting more disrespect and I haven’t even logged on yet?”
She tilted her head towards me. “You really want me to answer that?”
Pete came back on the line. “Ah, don’t get too upset, Jono. You know we all love you. Gerry Seabrook’s coming over from The Valley to pick you up. Looks like you’re working the city tonight.”
A little part of me died inside. As if a weekend night shift wasn’t bad enough, I’d now been assigned to twelve hours of drunks and psych cases. The only redeeming factor was that I’d be on with Gerry. He was good value. “Thanks Pete. Don’t suppose your love would extend to sending us out Woop Woop for cover?”
He laughed. “I don’t love anyone that much.” And the phone went dead.
I sighed. “It was worth a try.”
Jan was now checking her emails and spoke while staring at the screen, “What you got, the city?”
“How did you guess?”
“Woman’s intuition. Plus there was an overtime text earlier, they’re down about five crews. Rather you than me.”
“Thanks, you’re all heart.”
I retreated to the drug room and signed out my kit then piled up the bags in readiness for Gerry’s arrival. But he wouldn’t be in a rush. As a single officer he was less likely to get a job and there was no point in hastening the inevitable onslaught.
I wandered back into the crew room just as Jan stood up to read the screen of her beeping pager. “Now that’s more like it, Jan. But, y’know, there’s no need to stand to attention every time I come in.”
“In your dreams.”
“What you got, anything interesting?”
“A 42-year-old man with vomiting and diarrhoea. Sounds like I’ll be needing ICP backup, I hope you’re logged on.”
“I’m sure that job’s well within your scope of practice. It’s just a BB with TLC.”
She looked wary. “Go on, what’s the BB stand for?”
I grinned. “Bag and Bung.”
She shook her head as she walked to the door. “Oh a bung is definitely an ICP intervention. I ain’t going anywhere near that end.”
“Enjoy the drunks.”
As she left, Dave West appeared from one of the bedrooms, his mop of straggly blonde hair already tousled by some opportunistic pillow time. “Oh, hi, Jono. Gotta dash, some fucker’s got the shits.”
“I’m sure he’s a very deserving individual.”
“Maybe, but I’m sure he don’t deserve a fuckin’ ambulance. Later, mate.”
“See you at the big one.”
I wandered into the main area of the crew room and was disappointed to discover there were no donated goodies on the table. So I threw some cash in the tin and grabbed a bar of chocolate from the fridge to bolster my caffeine reserves.
Half an hour later I was checking my emails when a thud almost rattled the crew-room door off its hinges. “Strewth!” I stood to peer through the small security window only to find Gerry’s face pressed against the glass. It was a close run thing as to which was more shocking, the thud on the door or the sight of his crushed features. Shaking my head, I waved him away. “Sorry, not today thanks.”
He moved back and replaced his face with a large waggling takeaway cup of coffee.
I flung the door open. “Why didn’t you say you’d come bearing gifts!”
Gerry stepped inside, his arms held wide with a cup in each hand. “Jono! C’mere, you know the rules, hug first.”
I had a moment’s hesitation as his huge form stood before me. Balding and built like a run-down brick shithouse, Gerry was someone who could sweat in a blizzard. But coffee was coffee. I reached over and gave him a hug, getting a face-full of moist chest hair and a faint whiff of body odour for my troubles.
The embrace was thankfully brief and he dropped me back to the ground before handing over a cup. “Here you go, mate. Tall long black, as you like it. I tried to drag the vehicle check out for as long as possible, but they’ve been giving me the bum’s rush. They’ve already dumped a job on us. Christ, are all those your bags?”
“Yep. And thanks for the coffee, I reckon I’ll need it.”
“Don’t be so negative. You’ll have all my positive energy to keep you going.”
“So what’ve we got then?”
“Some tosser threatening suicide in Bowen Hills.”
I nodded as I threw my response bag on my back. “Glad I’ve got your positivity to get me through the shift.”
“No worries, mate. I’m positive we’ll get flogged.”
We soon pulled out of the station and entered the flow of traffic heading south along Gympie Road towards the city. Not for the first time, I was struck by the irony of an ambulance following the herds of revellers like moths to the bright lights. Were we just a mobile safety net for those intent on over-indulging?
I looked at the details of the job. “Have you seen where this is?”
“Yep. It’s less than one K from the Royal.”
“Surely another crew must have cleared from the hospital in the time we’ve been on this job?”
“C’mon, Jono. They’re just using it to draw us back into the city. You should know better than to question Comm’s logic. After all, they do have that infamous ‘Big Picture’ of theirs.”
“Y’mean the one coloured in with crayon and glitter?”
He laughed. “I’m just getting this image of them all sitting round one of their huge desks scribbling on paper and then one shouting out, I’ve drawn a pony!”
I chuckled as I checked the rest of the information. “Looks like the call came from a third party to the police, but they’ve passed it on to us as the guy’s apparently not violent.”
“Great. So he’s not violent, but has no idea we’re coming. Let’s hope we can’t get in and have to call the firies.”
We continued along the main drag, ducking into the open maw of the new Airport Link Tunnel where the traffic dwindled to a trickle. Brisbanites were still getting used to the concept of paying tolls to avoid the city’s snarled-up roads, so the tunnels were an ambulance freeway. The overhead fluorescent lights pulsed off Gerry’s bald head as I took another gulp from my coffee. “So what d’you think’s drove this latest poor bastard to contemplate suicide?”
Gerry looked pensive. “How old?”
“Gotta be woman trouble.”
“Could be man trouble.”
“True. My money’s on a woman though. From my experience they’re more likely to drive you mad.”
“You a bit of a switch-hitter then, Gerry?”
He turned to me and winked. “Give me a kiss and I’ll tell you.”
“Sorry, mate. You do nothing for me in that department. Too tall for my liking.”
“That’s right, you’re going out with that dark-haired babe from the Royal. What’s her name?”
“Amber? How did you find out?”
He grinned. “I am, my friend, the wind that powers the sails of the rumour mill. I sift the wheat from the chaff, select the best grains of truth, grind the dirt and trade in the finest bags of gossip.”
“You’re also full of shit.”
“True. Becks told me.”
“That makes sense. I guess we knew keeping it a secret would be short lived.”
Gerry shook his head and tutted. “Dating a nurse, eh? You know it’ll end in tears.”
“Better than dating a paramedic.”
“Now ain’t that the truth. We all whinge too much. So, what was the address again?”
We had taken the Fortitude Valley exit and were stopped at the traffic lights below two high rises. I pointed to the one on the left. “That’s it there.”
Gerry bumped the ambulance up the kerb onto the wide concrete pavement in front of the building and I hit the ‘On Scene’ button. Sliding from the cab, I slipped a pair of vinyl gloves on and opened the side door as Gerry walked round to join me. “Do we need to take anything? He’s only threatening suicide.”
I gave a shrug. “It’s a long way to come back if he’s actually done something.”
“Good point. D’you want it all piled on the stretcher?”
“Nah. Just the bag and monitor. If we need the stretcher I’ll send you back. You need the exercise.”
“Hey, I’ll have you know what you may think is flab is just relaxed muscle.”
“Yer. Very relaxed.”
After locking up, we wandered over to the foyer and approached the panel of buttons on the wall, checking the pager for the apartment number. But before I could work out how to use the intercom, the double glass doors opened to allow a blonde woman in her forties to exit the building. She smiled and waved us in. “Come on through. I think we can trust you guys. What number do you need? I’ll swipe the lift for you.”
“Err, thanks. Fourteen-oh-two.”
“Oh, one of the penthouse suites. I hope everything’s OK.”
I shrugged and smiled. “We don’t know yet.”
She looked disappointed I hadn’t been forthcoming with some juicy info and reluctantly pressed the glowing up arrow. The doors opened with a ‘bing’ and she leant in, pressing the relevant button and swiping her access card. “There you go. You won’t need it to get down. Hope all’s well.”
I smiled again. “So do we, thanks.”
The doors closed on us as she walked away and Gerry turned to me. “So. Would you?”
“Hey, as you’re the power behind the rumour mill, you’re already aware I’m dating my nurse.”
“C’mon, it’s hypothetical. Marks out of two?”
He grinned. “Well, I’d give her one.”
I smiled back. “I don’t doubt it. Anything with a pulse is fair game for you.”
“Hey, c’mon, that’s not true. I consider a pulse optional.”
We both laughed and watched the illuminated floor indicator as it ticked upwards. “Don’t know about you, Jono, but I reckon there should be some law regarding the speed of lifts. This one’s slower than a wet fart.”
“A wet f…?” Gerry let rip. “Oh Christ, that’s disgusting.”
“See, that’s my point. Imagine if I’d done that on the ground floor. Lifts should have a minimum speed.”
“Your arse should have a health warning. C’mon, game faces on now. We’re here.”
We stepped out of the lift into a small functional landing with two doors. I walked over to 1402 and gave a loud knock. “Ambulance.”
There was a muffled sound from inside, so I knocked again.
I looked back at Gerry who shrugged and so I pushed open the door. “Hello?”
We entered a modern sparsely decorated apartment, all white walls and small post-impressionist replicas. The initial corridor opened out to a large kitchen-come-living room that culminated in a breathtaking view of the city. The spectacle was made all the more impressive by the dim lighting of the interior, but the view wasn’t what took my breath away.
A thin man with close-cropped hair was sitting on the edge of the glass balustrade, his back resting against the concrete side wall while his legs dangled over the precipice.
Both Gerry and I froze in our tracks. The man turned towards us and used one hand to push his heavy-framed glasses up his nose. “Don’t suppose either of you have got a light?”
I somehow found my voice. “Err… come on back inside and we’ll sort that out for you.”
“That ain’t going to happen. Now find me a light or I’ll fucking jump. And don’t think of pressing any alarm buttons. If the cops show up, I’ll see and I’ll take the quick way down to meet them.”
I slid the response bag to the floor and held up my hands to placate him. “OK, OK, no need to do anything rash. I’m Jono and this is Gerry. What can we call you?”
“You can call me ‘Get me a fucking light’!”
“OK, sorry. Gerry, do you have a lighter?”
“Err…” He fumbled around in his pockets before handing me a small pink object in the shape of a female torso. I gave him a wide-eyed stare and mouthed “Seriously?”
He shrugged and whispered, “You have to press the titties…”
I turned back to our patient and approached him, holding out the lighter. “Here… here you go.”
“Thanks. Now move back. Hey, cool lighter. Do you press the tits?”
He lit his cigarette and drew a deep breath. Eyes closed, he leant his head back, smoke flowing from both nostrils. “Fuck, that’s better.”
Gerry and I stood in the semi-darkness of the room, lost for words and not sure what to do next. I’d been to countless suicidal patients, the majority were just concerned about their own thoughts, some had acted on them, most were wanting someone to dissuade them. A cry for help. But none I’d seen had been so calm while their fate balanced on a knife-edge. Literally.
The man took another long drag then opened his eyes. “Sorry, where are my manners. Please, take a seat. My name’s Tony. Now, how can I help?”
I pulled out a seat from under a glass table and sat on it back to front, resting my folded arms on the backrest. Even if I wasn’t feeling calm, I’d better appear so. “Well, Tony, I thought we were here to help you. Someone called us because they were worried you were suicidal.”
“Well…”, he craned his neck and looked over the side of the building, down fourteen dizzying storeys to the street below. Then raised his head to look at me. “I guess they were right. But what are you two dicks supposed to do about it?”
Despite all my training and years of experience, he had a point. What could I do? If I approached him, he’d jump. If I called for backup, he’d jump. If I said the wrong thing, he’d jump. If I did nothing, he’d jump. And in that precarious position, one slip and he’d fall. He had means, method and intent. All I could do was talk.
I gave a slight shrug and a smile. “I guess I’m here to talk you out of it. Do you really want to kill yourself, Tony?”
He took another drag on his cigarette and mirrored my shrug. “What d’you think, y’dick?”
“It’s got nothing to do with me, what do you think?”
Another drag and a sigh. “Well… if you’re at all interested in my life story, a few months ago I went to the doctor with back pain. Just wanted some time off work, y’know. A week or so later I’m diagnosed with incurable bone cancer.” He used both hands to signify inverted commas, his cigarette waggling in the air. “Stage four myeloma with cerebral mets.”
There was a flash of anger in his eyes. “Yeah, well what the fuck would you know?”
In an instance my mind leapt back to the same conversation I’d had with my brother. I knew all about it from the perspective of a helpless observer. It was a terrible way to go, but this man was right in a way. What the fuck do any of us know about the personal heartache of others?
He continued, “Anyway, I had no life insurance and didn’t know how to tell the wife, so just drank more. A few weeks went by, the arguing got worse until last night she kicked me out. Said she’d had enough of being with a loser.”
“But she was unaware of the real reason.”
Another flash of anger, but this time it wasn’t directed at me. “Ha, if only it was that simple. Our love had turned to hate years ago.”
He reached in his shirt pocket and tapped out another cigarette, once again using Gerry’s titty lighter. I took the opportunity to buy some good will, deflect him from his diatribe. “Can we get you anything else?”
He smirked and gave a shrug, putting on a British accent. “How’s about a cup of tea, govna. Isn’t that supposed to solve everything for those pommie bastards?”
I had to tread a fine line. I knew he was being ironic, but getting him to have a drink could mean we’d have more time to talk. Time to dissuade him. Time to save him from himself. Until the cancer did its job. “Would you like a cup?”
“Why not? I think there’s some teabags in the cupboard on the left.”
I turned to Gerry, who appeared not to have moved after handing over his lighter. He was rooted to the spot, still holding the monitor in his hand with his mouth slightly open. “Gerry. Can you do the honours and put the kettle on?”
“Wha…? Oh, sure, yes.” He turned and walked over to the kitchen, the monitor still in his grip.
I returned my focus to Tony and he continued after another lungful of smoke. “So, anyway, there I was not knowing where I could drive to when I get pulled over by the fucking cops and busted for drink driving. In a matter of an hour I’d lost my wife, my kids, my home and my job.”
“I’m a courier. This is the boss’ city pad. I guess he took pity on me. Said I could stay the weekend, but I’d have to be gone by Sunday. Don’t think he thought I’d be so literal. Not much to show for ten years service.”
The sound of the rumbling kettle built in the background. “But what about your kids?”
“What, those two selfish little shits? If it doesn’t happen on Xbox, they’re not interested. No, all I have to look forward to is about six months of absolute agony with no one to hold my hand. So, Mr paramedic man, any words of wisdom?”
I was completely stumped. I would have understood if my brother had done the same thing and he had all the care and support in the world. What could I offer this complete stranger?
He took my moment’s silence as an answer. “I thought not.” He flicked the butt of his cigarette into the wide light-encrusted cityscape, the glow of the tip flaring then dimming as it arced out of sight. “Well, thanks for the chat. Oh, and just for the record, there was nothing you could do. I really don’t like pain.”
And with that, he was gone.
I sat there, staring beyond the glass balcony at the awe inspiring panorama. It was certainly a beautiful place to die. Just then, Gerry walked over carrying a mug of tea, trying not to spill the hot liquid. As he approached he looked up. “Where the fuck’s he gone?”
In answer to his question we heard a distant crump.
Gerry dropped the mug and rushed to the balcony. “Fuck! What happened? Did he slip?”
“No, he jumped. It was what he wanted. He didn’t even scream.”
“Oh fuck, you’re not going to believe this. Look!”
I walked to the balcony and peered down. “Oh shit!”
“Guess we’d better get down there.”
We grabbed our gear and left the apartment, waiting for the lift in silence. We were both deep in our own thoughts. Both internalising what we’d just witnessed. Both too reluctant to speak, perhaps pausing until we’d rebuilt the bravado and mental detachment us ambos use to protect our emotions.
After stepping inside Gerry spoke first. “Could we have done anything different?”
I shrugged. “You could have parked the ambulance further away.”
Eventually we walked outside to survey what was left of Tony and how much damage he’d inflicted on our vehicle. His body had landed in the middle of the roof and the light bar had almost decapitated him. There was certainly no need to check for a pulse.
We both stood there and stared for a while before Gerry broke the silence. “Shit!”
“He’s got my lighter.” I stared at him and he grimaced back. “That a bit too inappropriate?”
“Gerry, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more inappropriate lighter.”
“Ah, c’mon. That was my ‘naked flame’.”
I shook my head in despair. “Of course. What else.” I sighed, thinking of the shit-storm tonight was going to turn into. “Right, I’d better inform Comms. Have you got a radio?”
He shook his head and pointed to the ambulance. “It’s in there with yours.”
I walked over and had to yank open the cab door, reaching in and pulling out the radio mic. “Err, Comms, this is 908.”
“Go ahead 908.”
“Erm… unfortunately our patient has tried to get on our stretcher through the roof of our ambulance. He took the quick way down from his apartment on the fourteen floor. Can you please send the police.”
“Is the patient violent?”
“Err… no. Not anymore.”
“Do you need the police lights and sirens?”
I looked up at the growing number of faces peering down from the balconies above us. “Probably best. And we could do with another ambulance as our patient’s embedded in the roof of ours.”
“Err… I’m sorry… were you asking for a backup crew?”
“Negative Comms, but we could do with some brass here as our ambulance is now a crime scene. We’ll also need a lift back to station.”
“Err… Roger that. I’ll send you the Senior Operations Manager.”
“If you must.”
I threw the mic on the seat and walked around to Gerry who was transferring his enormous lunch bag over to a pile of our personal gear. “Better look sharp, Gerry, they’re sending the SOM, no less. D’you think he’ll be able to put Humpty back together?”
“Doubt it. But if he does, I’m sure Humpty would make a good Comms operator.” He put down the bag and turned towards the ambulance. One arm hung over the edge of the crushed roof and a stream of congealing blood had painted a dull red stripe down the vehicle’s side, partially obscuring the EMERGENCY PARAMEDICS sign. Gerry grinned. “Hey, look at that, Jono. He left us a message.”
I looked at the ambulance and despite all the carnage, gratuitous loss of life and long-subdued emotions regarding my brother’s death, a wry smile crept across my face. Given what had just happened, I was sure both of us could only maintain a thin veneer of humour, but what else were we supposed to do? Break down and cry?
I joined my crewmate and nodded to him before turning to view the ambulance. “Guess you’re right. Don’t think he could have left a clearer vote of no confidence.”
The sign now read ‘EMERGENCY ______DICS’.
July 28, 2019
These stories stayed in my thoughts long after I read them. Humor, empathy, the human condition, its all in there. Beautifully written.
July 28, 2019
Many thanks for your kind comments. Much appreciated!