the thirty-niners

There’s an ambulance parked outside Mr Fenway’s house and I can’t help thinking it’s for him. I’m just taking my stuff out of the car when one of the paramedics comes out to put the ramp down and fetch a carry chair. It’s Stan, an old colleague of mine I haven’t seen in a while.
‘I thought you might’ve been called to Mr Fenway,’ I tell him, pumping his hand and slapping his shoulder. ‘It’s really nice to see you!’
‘Nah. You’re all right there, Jim,’ he says. ‘How’re you keeping, mate?’
It’s great to catch up, swapping gossip in that intense way you do when you see someone after a long gap and immediately want to know everything.
‘’Course, I’m retiring at the end of the month,’ he says, folding his arms and rocking back on his heels.
‘No!’
‘Waaalll – the job’s changed, Jim,’ he says, sliding into that doom-laden, front-line voice I know so well. It’s surprising what you miss.
‘It’s not what it was. You see – the problem is – what happens is – you get a management team come in with a certain point of view, and of course, it stands to reason! It’s only human nature! They’re only going to hire people who support that point of view. So nothing gets challenged, mistakes get made, and everything tips along very nicely thank you, until something happens and they all get cleared out. And then the next lot comes in – slightly different point of view, slightly different set of slides on the old laptop – and the whole thing starts again.’ He shakes his head at the madness of it all. ‘The only reason I stuck it as long as I did was the patients, Jim. You know where you are with the patients. They make the job. You just have to keep your head down the rest of the time and not draw attention to yourself.’
‘How long have you been in the ambulance, Stan?’
‘Thirty-nine years,’ he says. ‘I would’ve seen forty, but another year would’ve killed me.’
‘It’s great to see you again. And if I don’t see you before – happy retirement!’
I shake his hand and ask him to send my love to Jane, the paramedic he’s working with today.
‘See you around,’ I say, as he heads back into the house with a carry chair and a rolled blanket.
‘Righto!’ he says, raising his free hand and bowing his head, like he’s making a pledge.
I go next door to see to my patient.

Mr Fenway is sitting in an armchair by the front window, his long, thin legs stretched out in front of him, his arms on the arm rests, his pale skin almost translucent in the warm afternoon sunshine. Mrs Fenway watches him from the opposite chair, as rapt as a disciple witnessing The Transfiguration.
Mr Fenway finished his treatment for cancer some months ago, but he suffered a bad fall recently, and the trauma of it all has set him back. We chat about different things as I tap around for a serviceable vein – how they met, where they lived, what they did.
‘This is a lovely spot,’ I tell them.
‘What – the vein?’
‘No – although this’ll do fine, I think. No – I mean the house. How long have you lived here?’
‘How long is it, June?’ he says, turning his head slowly to the side.
‘Ooh – I should think about thirty-nine years,’ she says.
‘Thirty-nine? That’s funny! I just met an old ambulance colleague of mine outside. He says he’s retiring after thirty-nine years!’
‘Can’t he see forty?’
‘He says that last year would finish him off.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ says Mr Fenway, slowly bringing across a finger to press on the square of gauze I’ve put in the crook of his arm. ‘I don’t doubt it for a minute.’

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