By Aryeh Myers
This post originally appeared here.
The first call of the shift was a transfer into town, to one of the big central London hospitals. Working out in the suburbs may not have held the same glamour as working in London’s West End or City district, but it brought its own challenges too. If the truth be told, I preferred it that way. The relatively infrequent jaunts into town, either through transfers such as this one, or just through the luck of the dice and the “You are the nearest” software, meant that I could still be a tourist in my own city. Travelling across Tower Bridge, driving along the Embankment, around Parliament Square and past the Palace of Westminster always held a sense of occasion if you didn’t do it all too often. It was also usually accompanied by a feeling of being a long, long way from home and the realisation that for the next few hours, the names of the streets we would be called to would be totally unfamiliar.
“You ready?” I asked Mike, my partner and chauffeur for the day.
“Ready. Let’s get lost.”
It was early evening in very early spring, when the mornings were frosty and the temperature gauge had a range of about two degrees over an entire twenty-four hour period and always struggled to head into positive figures. The streets were a mass of people, all huddled into their coats, hats and scarves, busily heading home, or to the theatre, or to continue their day-to-day lives. We were both in fleeces and I was wearing the green winter hat that made me look like a cross between a bin man and a garden gnome who had lost his fishing rod.
No more than three seconds passed between me pressing the green button and the next call appearing on the screen.
Exhibition Road, SW7. Main entrance, Science Museum.
I was like a kid in a sweet shop. The Science Museum is without doubt one of my favourite places in all of London. I used to skip school sometimes to visit it, hopping on the Underground and heading across town, only once being challenged at the entrance as to my reasons for being there rather than at my educational establishment.
“I’m doing research for a project,” was my instant answer.
“What project might that be?” asked the security guard, each word dripping with sarcasm and disbelief.
“A science project, obviously!”
With that, he gave up and let me in.
“The Science Museum!” I said to Mike. Brilliant. I hope it’s either a no-show or just another tourist wanting a check up. Then we can have a wander round!”
Mike looked less than impressed.
“I don’t DO museums. Boring places.”
“Boring mind, more like.”
A security guard met us at the entrance. I wanted to believe he was the same one who stopped me all those years ago, but somehow I doubted it and I certainly couldn’t remember for sure.
“How good’s your French?” he asked.
“Worse than my Cantonese. And Mike here can barely do English.”
It earned me a punch on the arm and a filthy look. It was worth it.
“Oh well, you’ll have to get by somehow. She tripped down a couple of steps and can’t move. Think she’s done her ankle.”
The two girls sat together, one of them, Deb, in obvious discomfort. They were heading out of the museum as closing time approached when the accident happened. Both were wrapped up in layers to defeat the English cold. Deb’s English was even worse than my French. I had to drag up memories of an unhappy term in the first year of high school just to remember how to ask for her name and age. When she told me, I still didn’t understand. I could never count past ten. She held both my hands, made me show all ten fingers, then added nine of her own. Her friend, Lara, was a little more communicative, but every English word was followed by a stream of a dozen more in French.
One look at her ankle told us all we needed to know at that point. Mike went back to the ambulance to bring some pain relief and a splint, whilst I continued to play charades in a failed attempt to explain what we needed to do. When the entonox arrived, just my demonstration of how to use it seemed to work better than the pain-killing, giggle-inducing gas itself, making both girls laugh at my acting skills.
Eventually, we removed her shoe, placed the splint and wheeled Deb into the ambulance on the trolley bed that Mike had brought back with him. The one-legged dance we did to get her from the floor to the bed was yet more cause for smiles, Mike humming some tune to help us along and despite the lack of verbal communication.
The heater in the ambulance worked for a change and we convinced Deb that she needed to take her two coats off so that we could get to her arm and check her blood pressure. Each coat was handed to Lara who was constantly talking to Deb at speed that seemed to exceed that of sound itself. Perhaps it was just the fact that I didn’t understand a word of it. Under the second coat was a fleece and as she unzipped it, a necklace appeared. A plain gold necklace with her name on it.
“You speak Hebrew?” I’m not sure who was more surprised. Mike, whose eyes were suddenly wide with a mix of shock and resignation, or Deb at the fact that I could read her necklace.
“Ken,” she replied, yes.
“And all this time I’ve been breaking my teeth trying to remember a single word of French?”
The conversation flowed from that point on. Lara and Deb and me talking about anything and everything, some of it even patient related. Mike was instantly lost, despite my attempts at translating the more relevant bits for him.
“I’ll go and drive, shall I?” his question amused and mocking in equal measure.
“Sounds like a plan. If you can ask Doris to navigate in Hebrew, that would be even better!”
I translated for the benefit of our passengers, who both laughed.
Arriving at the hospital, Deb’s luck was in, as there was a French-speaking nurse on duty. We moved her on to the hospital bed, said our goodbyes and taught Mike to do so in Hebrew.
“L’hitraot,” he said, the word tripping unnaturally off his tongue.
I met him outside after a few minutes of finishing the paperwork and him tidying the ambulance.
“Can’t speak English,” he muttered at me, handing me a steaming mug. “Here, have a cup of English tea.”
Then he said something in French. I think.