Sunday, 20 December 2009
CHASING THE DEAD by Colin Graham
Chasing the Dead
You’re only of any use to me dead. Okay, maybe decapitation might be a runner too as long as it is suitably severe. But if you find yourself all twisted and turned on the asphalt with a scarlet halo forming around your shattered and bewildered skull at some point, then you have pretty much made my day.
Traffic tragedies are right up my street, you could say. Fires, murders and other calamities too but less so. I get to the scene quickly, interview a few witnesses and police officers, dash back to my desk and knock out the story in under an hour, but for it to run it needs a death. Stack up the corpses and I might even get to make you and the other deceased front page news.
If I sound casual and light-hearted (you might even suggest ‘heart-less) while describing my work, then please forgive me. I haven’t always been like this, it’s just grown on me. I didn’t even want the job in the first place. It all happened, well, by accident.
I was still a trainee at the paper when I was taken on. My predecessor had just retired to go and live in the country and the editor, Clive, came up to me shortly afterwards and asked: “Is that your motorbike out there?” When I nodded he said: “My office in ten minutes, okay?” Twenty minutes later and I was full time on the staff. Yes, I did have my misgivings about the role but I was also delighted. Who wouldn’t be after getting their first real break in their chosen career?
The gloss was removed a bit when a month later my erstwhile fellow trainee, Stan, landed the job of restaurant critic. That irked. Especially when it dawned on me why. The fucker didn’t drive, did he? Commuted into work by bus every day. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be him who was offered the grubby little post I ended up in. On appointment, he got to be driven around from office to eatery and then back home every day by the paper’s very own chauffeur. While he’d be placing forkfuls of haute cuisine onto his tongue, I’d be stifling the urge to belt out my lunch time Cornish pastie all over the lacerated body tangled up down there on the ground. It’s not that I am squeamish, or anything, it’s just that there is always some new, elaborate wound that you have to get used to. Once you’ve learnt to cope with the sight of a severed limb slung round a lamppost, then along comes gut spillage to queasily alter your perceptions.
I could have been a fucking restaurant critic. I know perfectly well how to make cooked flesh sound pithily good in a sentence. I have even got a better name for the job than bloody Stan. Nigel it is. Nigel Mason, which you can even pronounce impressively with a French accent, if you so wish.
The name-game was actually a bit of a headache for Clive when he was filling the position. Couldn’t have ‘Stan Birtles’ printed ahead of a piece on Blanquette de veau, washed down by a crisp Minervois, could you? So, soon he became known to restaurateurs and readers as Stanley Beamish. And beam he did from the page via his by-line pic. He would do, wouldn’t he? He even went and grew himself a moustache, the wanker.
Stan, as I still insist on calling him, got to sit next to Stacey, the writer of the paper’s extravagantly prudish version of the ‘Sex and the City’ column. Her revamped mantle became Stacey Monroe, having been Stacey Manners in a past life. You couldn’t make it up. Still, I always remembered Stacey as a good fuck, something Stan wouldn’t have liked to hear from me. Tough.
Just as Stan was becoming the star of page 10, Clive was beginning to get rattled by what had become a mere trickle of harrowing write-ups making their way from my keyboard to print in recent weeks. I vainly tried to explain that for some reason people were emerging from car wreckages these days very much bloodied and bashed about, but staying one step ahead of the grim reaper, more was the pity. They just weren’t popping their clogs enough anymore, I told him pleadingly in front of the rest of the office, most of whom silently took his side. To the average reader alive car crash victims aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. To be frank, they might as well be dead.
Clive was still suspicious, though, and convinced neither me nor Dave, the photographer, were pulling our weight sufficiently. So, despite the fact that old Stan was allowed to go lounging around in a company Mercedes to this or that restaurant, Clive started banging on about how costly it was for the paper to have to cover two motorcyclists’ petrol bills every month. And then he came right out with it: “Can’t the two of you just ride together on the one bike. You’re both going to the same place anyway. What would be the difference?”
Well, one was that we sped to many a scene from home and we didn’t live that close to one another. Then, there was the fact that I didn’t really like the scabrous git of a snapper that I had to work with. Dave was a typical fucking photographer: monosyllabic, dull and clearly infused with a desperate blood-lust. When we arrived at the aftermath of some catastrophe or other he’d begin by taking the shots he knew would end up in the paper: the buckled crash barrier, the mangled vehicle, maybe even a weeping relative. That would all take a minute or two. But then he’d hover around the ambulance crew as they tended to the injured or declared death on the deceased and his shutter would really start to work: a picture every nano-second it seemed. None of them would make it into print and Dave knew this perfectly well. It was sheer, macabre, psychotic indulgence. Dave loved his job, particularly the parts of it that were completely irrelevant to the task in hand.
Anyway, I said to Clive: “Do you really think that the two of us riding together on the same bike is a good idea? You know how fast we have to go to get to scenes. What if one of us fell off? You know the golden rule of journalism: don’t become the fucking story.”
That made him back off for the time being and even some of the other journos found it amusing; Stacey actually winked at me, which Stan didn’t like at all.
But then a funny thing happened which changed my life. The ambulances started to get slower, which was completely ridiculous when you think of it. It’s supposed to be ambulance chasing not ambulance racing that we’re in the business of. By definition, we weren’t supposed to arrive at scenes before the rescue crew but that seemed to be on the cards on several occasions. And as a result of this sudden lack of urgency on the part of the drivers, low and behold the body count went up and me and Dave found ourselves on the front page more often. Everyone was a winner, apart from the crash victims, naturally. But their fate was sealed before I ever had anything to do with them.
I liked the ambulance crews. We’d often talk back at the hospital after I had tried to get comments from the doctors and share a coffee and a fag or two. They seemed similar to me: jaded, cynical and wanting a way out, however that might be achieved. I was both amused and shocked by their dark humour too: the trashy remarks they made about their patients gave me a rare old jolt, which surprised me.
You’d have thought I’d be the type to be utterly unfazed by gloomy quips aimed at the innocent, but when bantering with the ambulance people I found myself laughing nervously. I began to wonder why. Part of me felt sure that when hacks made unsavoury jokes it was acceptable because we were the observers and recorders of human activity. We were entitled to wax away wittily on the carnage unfolding beyond the office simply because, in essence, it was almost part of our jobs. But ambulance workers were helpers, savers of lives. When they began to disparage the human race at its most vulnerable, it also meant that you, me, personally might one day suffer as a result of their moral indifference. A last vestige of life’s security net was thrust away by their jokes, to leave you with even less hope than before.
And I had become bleak enough as it was. If you have seen a young body making bizarre shapes on terra firma after being brought to a cataclysmic end at such brutal short notice, optimism does not reign in your soul. The next step is to embrace the sheer pessimism of it all: whole heartedly.
Then the ambulance workers began to look healthier, more clean-shaven, less ruffled than I’d seen them before. Dare I say it, more solvent even. They were also bringing in the bodies ten-a-penny, so Dave and me were busy and Clive thought the paper would win an award, or something, at this rate.
They then became more cheerful and their wisecracks greyer, less black - boring you might say. Whilst remaining friendly, I distanced myself from them at the same time and began to study their behavior.
When they got a call they would saunter into their vehicle after nonchalantly stubbing out cigarettes and flinging away polystyrene cups. They’d share a last minute joke before the ambulance left the hospital compound, with Dave and me in not-so-hot pursuit.
There were invariably dead on the road because the ambulance had got there late and the police officers would look perplexed without for one second suspecting the crews, who as usual went about their work with the utmost diligence when on the scene. They were perhaps a bit too meticulous for comfort. I was beginning to have some serious doubts.
I needed to check out the hospital morgue. Using my press pass, I talked my way in and asked the crumpled little orderly to tell me which stiffs had met their maker via an unscheduled liaison with an erstwhile showroom gem. He tiredly pulled them out and showed them to me, tags already on toes.
Timing is everything. Just as I was leaving I saw a van pull up next to the morgue. There was a flurry of activity. I shot back downstairs and peered around a door. The crash victims were being hauled out of their temporary resting places and hoisted upstairs.
Dave and me van-chased, for a change. It made one stop, then another and yet again one more, then several. In total, ten undertakers welcomed deliveries.
The scam had involved ambulance staff, doctors and undertakers. Let the dying die had been their unwritten – yet widely whispered – motto as they laughed their way to the bank. And me and Dave – who eventually proved sterling – broke the story all on our own.
So we wrote the book, we made money and Stacey is expecting our first born. My ambulance crew mates are all locked up, largely thanks to me. Stan was even sacked for taking freebie meals in return for polite reviews, to make life just that little bit better. Apparently, he’s bulimic to boot.
But here’s a thing. I still chase ambulances even though I don’t have to any more. You might put it down to the thrill of it, but I’m not sure about that. I suggest that it is because of the fact that I like to bear witness to failure abruptly achieved largely through no fault of the victim. Then there’s the inverse, success attained through no major effort on the part of the victor, me. Because it didn’t cause me that much trouble, shopping the ambulance workers and the deceased as sources present absolutely no challenge to me whatsoever. Naturally.
It’s the dead, God help me. And God help Stacey and the kid. It’s the dead and their peace that I crave. While Dave was rushing around taking pics it was me probing the eyes of the no-more, at one with them. Which is why I keep coming back for yet another fix and another. I have a second, perhaps a third book in me as a result, I think. I have money, the world is my oyster, but if I am being honest, all of you out there, you’re only of any use to me dead.
Colin Graham is a Birmingham-born freelance journalist currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. Struggling along with hack work (in the main) he invariably finds himself uplifted by an unforeseen boost when all seems lost. He has previously lived in Russia and Poland, meaning he has been in Eastern Europe for over a decade, a fact that always amazes even himself.