“This lady dragged my head above the water, then managed to pull me to the seashore, where my parents hadn’t even realised I’d got out of my depth,” Andy said, leaning forward on the table. “Honestly, that lady risked her life, swam out to sea in a dangerous current to save me, and then she just slipped away into the crowd before we even had chance to thank her.”
“It’s always the way,” Jane agreed. “People do you huge favours, even save your life, but you can never repay them—sometimes you can’t even say thank you!”
A police station canteen at 3am on a freezing winter’s night can take on the role of a confessional box in church. Officers in ones, twos, and threes sitting at tables, gloomily nibbling biscuits and supping tea, most of us putting off the dreadful prospect of going out on our cold beats as long as possible. Sharing anecdotes amongst close colleagues is almost de rigeur.
Jane stirred her coffee, continually, a habit she has, round and round and round, almost hypnotic. Andy is one of those lovable ‘Too young to be bald’ guys, with a friendly face and a warmth in his eyes, while Jane is a short dumpy blonde who can never sit still, is constantly fidgeting, but her heart is so huge no one can resist her charm. The three of us had been good friends ever since our Hendon training days, and were glad that fortune had allowed us to all be working from the same station. I was especially glad, because I’d been able to come back to work in the area where I’d been born and brought up.
“Maybe that’s one of the reasons we chose to be in the force,” I added to the conversation. “A feeling of wanting to help people, so that you can repay the kind of debt that can never be paid.”
“Well, you could be right, Gillian,” agreed Jane, “When I was an idiot sixteen-year-old, I went out with some mates and got bladdered at a nightclub. Honestly, you should have seen me, I was completely legless, and got separated from my mates, and found myself walking along the road, surrounded by a gang of boys, no one else around. I could tell by the things they were saying, the way they were grabbing and groping me they were up to no good. Suddenly this tall, tough looking man appeared, grabbed my arm and whisked me away to his car, before the boys even knew what was happening. Next thing I knew Mum was opening our front door, and I was tumbling into the hall, and I caught sight of him disappearing down the path, back to his car. He must have found my address in my purse. But, just like you Andy, I was never able to thank him, and never told Mum what happened, so that guy will never know how much I appreciate what he saved me from. I would give anything to find that bloke and thank him.”
“My story is even more shocking,” I said to them both. “I was a little girl, just four years old, and I’ve got this vivid memory of being carried downstairs through a fire and out into the street. Got this distinct memory of this man’s hand next to my face—and he had six fingers, little tiny finger attached to his little finger, I found out afterwards they call it polydactyly. Mum and Dad told me later that they were out and the babysitter invited her friends round for a party, and someone set fire to the curtains and everyone ran out, panicking as the fire spread. Neighbours said that this homeless man saw my face at the window and charged into the house straight through the inferno of the stairs before the fire brigade had arrived and rescued me. He was a real hero—apparently afterwards he was in a bad way, and there was no question I’d have been dead if I hadn’t got out when I did. Mum and Dad went to the hospital to try and find him, but by that time he’d been discharged. They asked all around the homeless shelters and rough sleepers, but no one knew who he was, because of course Mum and Dad wanted to thank him properly, give him some help, money, anything they could. But in the end they just had to give up. I’d give anything on earth to see him again.”
“Yeah, life’s a bugger all right,” Andy said stretching. “Good people are brave enough to help you, you can never help them back, all you can do is help out someone else if you can.” He frowned. “Pity the poor homeless beggars tonight, blimey it’s minus four! Just imagine sleeping on the street. You know there’s a poor bloke camps out by McDonalds, I can’t bear to see him, I just have to go in and get him something to eat and a cup of tea and give him a fiver. I’m going to try and find him another blanket from lost property if I can. Bloody breaks my heart that anyone should have to suffer like that.”
A week later I was on late-turn again, patrolling the streets alone, cursing the Met’s ruling that officers had to patrol singly, so as to maximise manpower. Older coppers had told me of the ‘good old days’ when they patrolled in pairs, when at least you had a pal to chat to to pass the time, and someone always had your back if an incident kicked off.
Suddenly this girl ran up to me, looking worried.
“Excuse me, but there’s this poor old bloke, I think he’s dead!” she told me.
I followed her round the corner, to where her boyfriend was kneeling beside what looked like a jumble of old clothes, on top of which was a new looking anorak—clearly the young man had done what he could to help, and was looking chilled to the bone in his shirtsleeves. One glance at the old man’s face, and I immediately called an ambulance, before hastening across.
It was a relief to see clouds of smoke above his face, meaning that at least he was breathing. The girl’s boyfriend had been hesitant to get too close, but I was beyond caring—the cold precluded any smell, and the old man looked in such a bad way I had a horrible feeling that he was beyond help. I managed to get him to sit up a bit, so that his head was propped against the wall. Beneath the ragged beard I could see that his features were careworn and wizened.
“I was f-freezing cold,” he managed to stutter.
“Ambulance won’t be long now, mate,” I reassured him, my arm around his shoulders, trying to rub some warmth into him. “You’ll be nice and warm soon.”
“I know your face,” he said, recognition burning in his bright blue eyes as he looked up at me. “I’m sure I know your face. From a long time ago.”
“Maybe we met,” I agreed, humouring him.
“I was freezing cold, but now I’m getting warm,” he went on. “Lovely warmth coming all over me, just wanna sleep. . .”
“Don’t go to sleep, mate,” I urged him frantically, all too familiar with hypothermia’s grim progression: Bitter cold. Then warmth. Then sleep. Then death. . .
“Stay awake, please, don’t go to sleep,” I begged him, now holding his hands between mine, rubbing hard, trying to push some warmth into him, feeling tears in my eyes. . .
But he wasn’t listening. “Thanks for being with me. I didn’t want to die alone. Thanks for being with me. Thanks for being my angel. . .You’ll never know. . .”
And that was it.
When people die, they don’t do it neatly. They don’t close their eyes, or finish sentences, or even finish a breath. They just spark into something else, they slide away, a click or a shutter comes down and their body is empty. I knew it by the sudden vacant stare in his eyes, that had been on fire just a few seconds ago. I was dimly aware of the girl crying. For a moment I knew I ought to do first aid, that’s the rule—cardiac massage to fight for life, if you’re not a doctor you can’t pronounce death. . .
Luckily the paramedics arrived at that point and solved my dichotomy by taking over. Going through the motions, they hitched him to the defibrillator, charged and stopped, charged and stopped, but, as I knew, and they probably knew too, nothing happened. Nothing was going to happen.
Afterwards, they put him on to a stretcher. We all knew there was no need for hurrying now.
And I suddenly caught sight of his left hand, something I hadn’t seen when I was rubbing it so urgently just now.
And I saw that he had six fingers. . .
(image by bodyworn, by Utility from Pixabay)