Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Traffic Island


I am partial to books and diaries that package up epigrams with various pieces of visual paraphernalia from bygone and often overlooked cultural epochs. In one such tome I recall reading that time was created to stop everything from happening all at once. There are certain stories that were created to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by the prosaic nature of a world where things do not happen all at once. I would list Goldilocks and King Solomon’s Mines amongst these and perhaps also the Crucifixion. These tales are the word-based equivalent of the convex mirror in the Arnolfini Marriage capturing the infinite in a distilled moment. They ought to be published exclusively in the miniature editions viewable only through a magnifying glass such as the copy of the New Testament my Aunt would bring out from time to time, which, if memory serves me well was half the size of a telephone sim card.
It is rare that one’s own life takes on the feeling of happening all at once over a protracted period of consensus time (without of course the intervention of psychotropic substances but this is, I hasten to add, only conjecture on my part). I am wary that by highlighting the resemblance of a dramatic stanza in my life to a scripted event I am in danger of falling into the ranks of conspiracy theorists and paranoid delusionists but I can only report the episode as it revealed itself to me. Here then is Traffic Island as revealed to me in a dream not longer than nine days since.

Before leaving for a rehearsal on Monday night I had felt particularly down in the mouth and seemed to put off my departure till as late as possible. We have all I expect experienced moments when we seem to be repeating ourselves for no discernable reason other than habit and so I packed my leads into my soft guitar case with no great zeal. The journey to the basement studio is one I know well but due perhaps to its simplicity it presents the driver with a series of clear points of divergence and instinctive decisions. At one particular junction rather than drive straight-on down a direct route that would never the less involve doubling back on oneself I chose to drive up towards Stockwell tube station (scene of the Menezes shooting) via a road that was wider but more congested. As I approached the traffic lights I paused to let a bus pull out in front of me but unable to gain enough wheel lock the driver stayed where he was. I passed by to the front of the queue and here I found that the turning to the left had been sealed off by the police who were, it appeared, investigating a road traffic incident. On the car radio the traffic news mentioned at least two other instances of junctions close by being closed off owing to the police investigating road traffic incidents.
Eventually I retraced the route I had come from, intending to take the road to the right, which had previously been the road straight on. Before reaching it I found myself falling in behind other cars that were taking another road to the right. All the time I was aware of the danger that calling my fellow band mates on loudspeaker setting did not amount to being hands free even if I was static half of the time. Eventually with relief I arrived at the rehearsal studio where The Inquisition was waiting to, I hoped, unlock the front gate which is a simple metal cross bar with a supporting diagonal serving to prevent unwanted parkers crowding the forecourt of Vulcaniser tyres. After various attempts it became clear that rather than a poorly cut key it was a non-cut key that was the source of our current predicament. During a phone call to the studios owner the main front door to the building was opened but not until after much consternation and muttered curses at the shoddily crafted chubbs. Once inside a key for the forecourt gate was located on the end of a large wooden key ring that was on the way to resembling a piece of drift wood, such was the effect of months of being handled and posted back through the front door.
And so we were all parked and in installed the building for a rehearsal. This, it turns out was a enjoyable affair and far from routine owing to the presence of Mr Wolf who plays French Horn and the absence of The Tsar who plays the drums and thus serves to make sure we keep time. [This should by no means be seen as evidence for a preferred continued absence of the Tsar who is an ebullient and far from predictable fellow who’s virtuosity and invention make his presence a continued pleasure.] I made a note of the songs for the Duke to take away and practice at his leisure and as I did so The Inquisition made a witty remark which I took to be about said list but as I realised moments later had in actual fact been in observation of the words cat food on the back of my hand. My failure to pick up upon the source of this witticism could be seen as evidence for slowing down of brain function in middle life were it not for the fact that in youth my cast iron ego would have prevented me from bothering to even ponder the origin of the remark. It should also be noted that this attitude was
derived in part from a childhood of not hearing fifty percent of human speech. Leaving the building passed without further incident what so ever and as I sat in my silver saloon car just beyond the resting place of the metal gate I turned on the radio and heard a discussion on the merits of road traffic incident statistics which hinged on the alleged ignorance over the safety or lack there of motor cycle transport.
As I drove the Inquisition to his home in Lambeth North I was aware of not wanting to talk about myself and asked him about his recent song writing activities which had taken flight in the basement we had just come from. He was kind enough to describe a song called, I think, The Garden, which hinged around the allegorical nature of the subject whilst not really being an allegory at all. I felt a pang of jealousy because this variety of metaphor really is an area I find myself drawn to and also I have as yet never written a song so directly about gardens. Window boxes and parks with their various spores yes but gardens no. This way with language produces the effect of a nagging familiarity, which is similar, and simultaneously wholly different to déjà vu and without wanting to shoe horn any analogies in this is exactly how the whole evening now feels. But did it feel like that at the time? The thing is at the time the time began to feel like the page of a mould-mottled page of a fairy tale book if not quite as charming.
As we neared Simon’s flat, aware of the favour I had done him he insisted in jumping out (almost literally) at the junction before his block where it was actually harder to turn round but on the other hand he has often reported various incidents involving non residents parking in the car park for the flats so may very well have been seeking to avoid a confrontation with one of the out-sourced private parking attendants, although their presence at that time of night does not seem very likely to me now. We said our goodbyes and I drove off turning the radio back on which generally produces a mild flourish of endorphins in my brain and yet I remember nothing of what I heard. Perhaps I had turned it off in search of a moment or two of contemplation. The rain had stopped and the night was clear. I approached the junction between Kennington Road and Kennington Park Road which is always a little tricky owing to the bus lane which takes over from the traffic lane but generally I always enjoy my arrival here as it feels like I am in sight of home and can decide whether to take the Brixton Road or head on through Camberwell. I had just started to go through the green light when I saw the cluster of flashing blue lights to my right followed by the now familiar whooping of our Americanised sirens. Or is this in my minds ear? I forget, perhaps it was the claxon of yore. Like, I imagine, many other sensible London drivers I stopped moving and turned the car away from the direction I was moving in and instinctively waited for the police to pass by and for a small surge of pride to blossom in my chest knowing I had in someway helped our valiant emergency services. The police van arrived in front of me much sooner than I had imagine and it is from this point that time seems to concertina in both directions. Here we see the director instructing the editor over his shoulder to apply the use of slow motion and perhaps the odd jump cut with no consideration to how over done this may appear to the jaded eye of the regular docu-drama viewer. I was still thinking at least they will have insurance (the police) when a sturdily built gentleman ran off into the park opposite hotly pursued by a blue peter style Alsatian. Later the police were to ask me if he was wearing a hi-viz jacket, which I took to be so strange that I plainly said I don’t know. In retrospect I assume they were trying to rule one of their own out of the moving picture.
Within as instant or even instantaneously a figure was by my side telling me his name and putting a neck brace on the appropriate part of my body. He held my head straight and introduced me to his friend Bill, whom it so happened was quite old. The man explained they were a private ambulance service and this might explain their enthusiasm for the opportunity to apply a neck brace – either that or they were planted there on the scene by the police should their training exercise not run entirely to plan.
 In an unspecified amount of time the real ambulance service was there having driven all the way from Forest Hill which is beyond my home. I remarked later that they must have gone very quickly and the paramedic said yes he (Nathan) is a very good driver, which I took as no slight on my own driving capabilities. This paramedic is the man who prevented me from developing a total feeling of isolation in the Kafkaesque drama that ensued. But now looking back he could equally have been the affable character at the heart of the conspiracy in much the same way that O’Brien soothes Winston Smith in 1984. It was Sean who told me to look over his shoulder where upon I would see the gold doubloons scattered over Kennington park road – yes the footwell is full of them. Sean in his distinctive green overall who made jokes about my guitar case being stuffed full of heroin in a theatrical whisper when the detective had finished questioning me. Sean - who made jokes about being above the public when I apologised for blathering. Sean - who coached you through witnessing the transit being a 06-plate Ford.
As if it’s the most natural thing in the world you sit inert in a neck brace whilst two separate ambulance crews, one private the other state funded, discuss how best to remove you from the vehicle on a spine board. Which parts of the interior are expendable they ask in so many words in the end electing to  reverse the van and bend your door back on its hinges. You submit to the force of three grown men holding you mainly by the seat of your pants and the next thing you are out in the cold night air rain drops cascading through the darkness onto your face like an arcade game version of hyperspace. You live your life as if you are in control I blurt to Sean – yes but you only think you are in control. You can feel the trolley you are on alighting a platform and realise you are being raised into the waiting ambulance. Here your outer layers are removed and you various vitals are checked. The familiar squeeze of your blood pressure being taken becomes metronomic. A police constable is sitting nearby. This is your moment you think. But almost immediately you lose your composure as he begins to caution you and then to add insult to injury he throws the lines away most  likely embarrassed to be reading them to a man supine in a neck brace who has just been hit by the burglar he was pursuing down the wrong side of the road through a red light. Well atleast you hope that’s why. Was he wearing a high-viz jacket? Confused. Why would he be wearing a high-viz jacket? I don’t know. The constable can’t help showing his disappointment at your reply. Then comes the part where you are asked to give an account in our own words but your eloquence deserts you after all anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. Another odd thing is that your memory of giving this statement is from the end of your stretcher looking at the police constable sitting next to you. This is a memory of how you experienced the event. You think you fluffed your lines but everybody seems happy enough even when you tell them about how excited you were to be breathalysed last summer. You had requested from your car seat that you be taken to King’s Hospital. This is between bouts of worrying about your guitar and ukulele on the backseat do you have any hobbies from which you might earn any money that you use your car for? Your ukulele is close at hand but you feel confident that the joke would wear thin after a few bars – can you all whistle over my hum?
You don’t recall any siren and now you have already arrived at King’s Hospital your coat, jumper and shirt in a carrier bag in the vicinity. My gloves they’re leather did any one get them? Your hat is probably still in the car. The car that you loved due to its ability to be staring at the stars despite its humble origins in the gutter.  You left it prostrate and were unable to move you head to catch a last fleeting look or was it just that you couldn’t bare to see its now crumpled form in the middle of a box junction in Kennington Oval?  The novelty if there ever was one is about to wear off very quickly. At first you had presumed you were in the not altogether unfamiliar surroundings of accident and emergency but it transpires you are in resuss which explains the bleeps that sound like life support machines. The ceiling (for that is all you see) is a hotchpotch of various manmade surfaces with ill-fitting components that no one seemed to bother working out what they were meant to do in the first place. Nothing seems to join up properly. You realise you are bursting for the toilet but being a potential paraplegic you resolve not to leap off the trolley. Instead much much later you are offered an alchemical vessel made of egg box material. "Don’t just don’t," says the nurse attending when your will is beginning to break. By this stage it is hard to remember who is who and Sean has not comeback since he promised to call your wife. A large doctor finally appears. You are  ready for this. Talking to you as if your head was actually a foot behind where it actually is. Forewarned is forearmed and you relax into a non-spiky mode. Does this hurt? I need just yes or no answers. Yes. We are worried about your thoracic spine. The c spine is secure. They walk off. This means you will be x-rayed. You are left alone.
 You haven’t dared to move since you were put in a neck brace. You have been a perfect victim for a training exercise. Several hours have passed. You remind yourself of the dusty perishing rubber doll that was brought out for the cubs to practise life saving on in the sea cadet's hut. You try raising your knees and a small degree of comfort momentarily passes through your back. You glimpse various people hovering but Sean, you sense, is no longer with you. You feel jilted. Just remembering this is making your back hurt. Over the years you have worked out that small talk is of little use in a medical environment and only serves to make you feel more powerless. Still this doesn’t stop you from explaining your knowledge of the two x-ray units due to the various visits with your son when he broke his arm last Summer. The two technicians do their best to demonstrate their desire to be seen to be trying to put you at ease. You don’t feel paralysed then? You are asked after a series of retakes because the spine is very long.
You feel a surge of pride until you realise they mean the spine in general. You are wheeled back and left to marinade further. The doctor who was very angry to be made to look foolish because he asked you about your leg injuries when you have non – cue turning around and muffled questions along the lines of who told me he had leg injuries. You no longer have any sense of what your injuries might be. Having thought you could walk out of your car you now wonder whether you will get up and walk for a very long time. Thank goodness for Sean then who mimed an act of self-onanism when you told him the doctor was worried about your thoracic spine. I think you’re okay. Does your head hurt in a bed sore kind of way?
Now the doctor had become angered by the presence of this foolish man of middle years who lay on his trolley. The very sight of him reminded him of how foolish he had felt in fussing over the non-existent injuries to his legs. Now you would have thought that being so very irritated by his presence that he would want rid of him but when the man asked to be allowed to get up and relieve himself he began to try and scare the man into staying on his back. “No no you will fall over if you get up you have been lying down too long,” he said. He could no longer tell the man his back was broken so he clung to any reason he could think of. But the man whose bladder was fit to bursting insisted saying “oh no sir I won’t fall over I promise”. And yet the man was not stupid and he knew the doctor was a powerful ever so slightly vain man and tried to ask in a way that was not to make the doctor feel in anyway undermined. The man saw softness pass over the doctor’s face as if he could not be expected to maintain his controled appearance all night. He then turned on his heals and set about looking busy until his strength was once more restored. Meanwhile, the middle-aged man had begun to doubt that he could indeed walk. First he lifted his head and then very slowly he slid off the end of the trolley. When he was upright he began to walk towards where the doctor had indicated the toilet was. He felt like the tin man badly in need of some oil or a monstrous creation of the doctor who had got up before it was deemed possible. Infact walking had never felt like such a novelty. He imagined he looked very silly but in such an airless place no one is prone to paying much attention to light-headed victims of police pursuit crashes staggering around. The middle-aged man found himself at the exit without having found a toilet. Were he to go beyond this door would he be able to come back in? He wondered. Perhaps it was a test. Then he noticed a lady lying on a bed waving. Seeing how lost the middle aged man looked she had guessed his plight. Staggering back the way he had come he soon found himself in a staff only cubicle taking the best piss he had taken in a lifetime.

I got back to my trolley and suddenly realised I was free to go. The small blue leaflet on the blanket entitled “managing Back pain” confirmed this. An old man passed my open curtains and said he recognised my face from somewhere. He was without doubt the Ben Gunn figure in this story and elliptically added that it was the T-shirt that gave it away. The t-shirt in question was a copy of Tips for Artists by John Baldessari. Sean the amazing paramedic returned to say goodbye and I asked him how he had learnt to be such a reassuring presence. I felt embarrassed for the two young constables who had also waited for me. Why had I not asked them? "Well you can’t teach it," was his reply. And so the two young police constables drove me home in the early hours of the morning. They were polite but clearly did not want to pick up on me enthusiastically telling them I had a friend in the same traffic unit.
It is now over a week later and the doorbell has just gone. Upon opening it I see the familiar face of the delivery-man. They haven’t packed this very well have they? He passes me a strange pole like mechanism with familiar looking rubber stoppers on the ends. What has my wife ordered from Amazon I ponder before the penny drops and I realise that this is my life returning to me in a grotesquely shaped bin bag from the breaker’s yard. The pole-like mechanism is a microphone stand but I do not have the heart to open the bag just yet. My son’s self-assembly football goal does not appear to have made it home.

1 comment:

  1. Reading this made me feel very funny. Light headed and even a bit nauseous, which seems oddly fitting. Uncomfortable reading but fascinating. It must have been so so scary but sounds like you kept your head on your shoulders, I would have fallen apart. Thank goodness you're ok.

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