On the inclement late winter day when Superintendent Cummings called him into his office and first informed him that he was going to be the short-term trainer for a bloke from the Gippsland area, Alex could not help but chuckle at the irony of this rapid escalation in his fortunes.
He had only been a driver-bearer in the Geelong Ambulance Service some eight months and now he had been allotted the task of showing the ropes to a novice, with the evident aim of cluing him into the finer points of both driving an ambulance and attending patients – whatever patients came their way over the course of the designated training period.
‘Bugger me dead,’ Alex said to himself, not without a guffaw, as he strolled away from the superintendent’s office.
He had said not a word while Mr Cummings issued the unexpected directive, in part because he remained in awe of his superior, a man approximately twenty years older than him. That regard intermingled with fear had arisen quite by itself on the day, ten months previously, the then twenty-six-year-old dock labourer appeared at the ambulance station for his interview.
The dark-haired superintendent went to the trouble of reading Alex’s application letter back to him. It was a painful revisiting for the young man, an early school leaver well-acquainted with the shortcomings of his grammar and spelling and leery of every sentence he wrote.
‘“Dear Mr Superintendent Cummings, I am writing about the position for which you have advertised in the Advertiser newspaper of October 14.”’
The Superintendent paused and furrowed his brow, as if at a loss also on account of Alex’s less than pristine handwriting.
‘“In the present course of time,”’ he continued, ‘“I am a wharf labourer at Corio Port. I have done many other jobs in my life. This includes newsagency, labouring, postie, rouseabout and pastry cook.”’
Deciding he had read more than enough, Superintendent Cummings put down the letter.
‘Quite a work history for a young bloke.’ Unsure whether to take this as a compliment or not, Alex was silent. ‘Whoever taught you English ought to be horsewhipped.’
‘I left school at the age of thirteen,’ Alex said, defensive but unable to refrain from smiling at the same time.
The Superintendent appraised him, content to keep the would-be employee in suspense.
‘Are you married or single?’
‘No. She’s… it’s over.’
Alex watched the man, in whose hands rested his immediate future, study his error riddled application once more.
‘The job’s yours. But you’ll need to smarten up your English. Will you?’
‘I will, Mr Cummings. Thanks. I’m grateful to you for giving me this chance.’
So began his career in the ambulance service.
Alex’s protege, Bill, arrived before the end of the week. A scrawny man in his thirties, he caught a local bus that dropped him directly out front of his destination. He had no more luggage to show than a kit that bore a resemblance to an itinerant shearer’s swag.
Smoking a cigarette and gazing all around, he approached the ambulance station’s open sheltered area. The service’s one and only vehicle was parked on the right.
‘You the bloke from Wonthaggi?’ Alex asked, approaching.
‘That’s right, mate. Bill. Wonthaggi Bill. Ground maintenance man by trade.’
‘Not for much longer.’
‘That’ll depend on you.’
They shook hands.
‘I haven’t been in the job long myself.’
‘No?’ Exuding confidence in the younger man’s ability or perhaps believing Alex was downplaying his proficiency, Bill gave him a playful pat on the shoulder. ‘I bet you know everything there is to know! Once we get that second-hand ambulance in Gippsland, I’ll be raring to go.’
Alex looked him straight in the eye but otherwise preferred to mask his scepticism in silence.
Somewhat distrustful by nature, his doubt increased early the next morning, when he observed Bill’s waking ritual on his first official day of training. The newcomer was more awake than asleep in the station mess area when the alarm clock on the night table between his bed and Alex’s announced its noisy call to arms.
Silencing it with the palm of his large right hand, Bill noticed that Alex’s bed was sprucely made up. He sat up, reached into his kit and withdrew an ample supply of tobacco and roll-your-owns. His touch was practised, that of the lifelong adherent to the D.I.Y cause. The first rollie was completed to his satisfaction in thirty seconds. He set it down on the table in the exact same moment that Alex, a quizzical expression on his face, intervened.
‘What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?’
‘Preparing the day’s supply, mate,’ Bill responded, not batting an eyelid.
‘How long’s that gonna take?’
‘In fifteen minutes I can do up around, uh, thirty,’ he said, smiling. He held up specimen number two for Alex’s benefit. ‘Can’t go without the cigs.’
‘You might have to learn if you expect to become a driver-bearer.’
Bill interrupted what he was doing momentarily to take this in, the same easy-going smile on his boyishly handsome face.
‘Shift your backside then. You’re not over here for a Bellarine Peninsula holiday. We’ll start by getting you familiar with the vehicle.’
The rebuke uttered, Alex turned and left the mess.
‘Sure, boss. Anything you say.’
Listening to Alex’s retreating footfall, Bill deftly completed fag number three of his day’s quota, placing it with the others.
The clock’s iridescent hands indicated two o’clock. Heavy rain squalls and gusty wind blowing through and around the building were audible. If ever there were nights when Alex would have preferred not to have to go out on a call it was nights like this. He occasionally did a night shift when he was undisturbed and slept through the hours, both when on duty alone or working alongside another driver-bearer. Such had been the case the night before, Alex and Bill’s first as trainer / trainee duo.
In the mess at 2 am the up-tempo beat of the wind and the rain almost drowned out the sound of the men’s contrapuntal light snoring, a contented ebb and flow that implied a confidence or hope on the part of both that they would not be roused into action on this night either.
But if such was their belief the ring of the telephone shattered the illusion just past the hour. Alex, primed for the eventuality even in the sleep state, leapt out of his bed with great agility, crossed to the counter next to the mess refrigerator and picked up.
‘Geelong Ambulance Service.’
While Alex reached for a pen and notebook and listened intently to what the caller had to say, Bill went on lying in bed. Alex scribbled away on the notebook as he recited back to the caller the directions he was given.
‘Great Ocean Road. Left at mile marker seven. About three hundred yards down track. Got that.’
Having overheard Alex, Bill stirred.
‘We’re on our way,’ Alex assured the caller. With the phone back in its cradle, he fixed Bill with a ‘what are you waiting for’ look. ‘Don’t go on lying there like a stunned mullet, move your arse.’
Bill sat up and lent an ear to the howling gaze outside. ‘We have to go out in this?’
‘My oath we do. We’ve got one off the Great Ocean Road. A sheila’s broken water.’
‘She told you that, did she?’
‘No,’ Alex said, half out the door. ‘That was her daughter.’
Hurrying on boots and rain protection, Bill followed his trainer.
‘You might have to deliver the kid.’
The notion appealed to the innocent in Bill. But no response was forthcoming from Alex, who had activated the vehicle’s flashing lights and was concentrating hard on maintaining a straight course in the greasy conditions.
‘Done that before?’
‘Done what before?’
‘Delivered a kid?’
‘I’ve cut an umbilical cord,’ Alex answered, grinning.
The astonished admiration of Bill, who did not care to place significant emphasis on the difference between severing an umbilical cord and actually delivering a child, was immense. ‘You’re a marvel, old son.’
He lit up, a cigarette left over from his batch of the day before. The onrush of smoke tickled Alex’s throat and brought on a cough. Too absorbed in driving to take Bill to task, he proceeded cautiously along the winding Great Ocean Road. Its continual twists warranted respect in the heavy downpours and buffeting wind.
Bill switched on the overhead light in order to try and read the directions Alex had jotted down in the mess. But the bulb behind the cloudy panel of glass offered a paucity of light of no help to his deciphering efforts. It was an annoyance to the driver, too.
‘Bugger that for a joke,’ Alex said, extinguishing the light. ‘I can’t see the friggin’ road.’ He pointed at the glove box. ‘Grab the torch out of there.’
Bill did as instructed and shone the thin beam on the note paper. ‘It says here … struth, your handwriting’s hard to make out … left at mile marker seven.’ He looked around. ‘Have we gone past mile marker seven yet?’
Alex turned the headlights on full beam and accelerated. Moments later he and Bill picked out mile marker six through the wind and rain.
‘One to go,’ Bill said, butting out his cigarette in a small retractable ashtray built into the dash.
Mile marker seven appeared in the tentacle of high beam. Alex brought the ambulance to a complete stop and remembering the daughter’s instructions strained for a sight of the track she had said to look out for. There were two near the marker, one leading off to the left, the other to the right. Another heavy shower began falling.
‘About three hundred yards down there,’ Bill said, referring again to Alex’s note and nodding toward the track on the left-hand side.
With the rain thumping hard on the ambulance roof, Alex took the track.
The way was narrow, lined with gaping pot holes that played havoc with the vehicle’s suspension and thick with gluey mud owing to the rain. Alex and Bill were on tenterhooks. Where were the lights of the residence? There were none out here.
‘Shit Mother ‘arper, this can’t be the right bloody way,’ Alex said, braking to a stop.
Bill wound down his window. ‘Hang on. Do you hear that?’ He and Alex listened with amazement. Even through the competing wind and rain they were able to discern the roar of the ocean.
You’re on to something. We go much further and we’ll slide over those cliffs.’
‘Why did the kid tell me left? She must’ve been thinking left coming from Apollo Bay. But it’s not a left for us, it’s a right.’
‘You’ll have to get out and guide me, Wonthaggi. No way can I turn around on this track.’
It was not a prospect to relish but Bill maintained his cheery outlook, threw the hood of his raincoat over his head and stepped into the elements. Alex began slowly backing the ambulance toward the Great Ocean Road as Bill played the beam of the torch on the rear wheels and called out instructions.
‘Steady. Steady. Right. Another bump. Good. Go on.’
Alex discontinued reversing and put his head out his window. ‘How much further?’
Bill scanned the middle distance. ‘Couple more minutes and we’ll be there.’
Alex finally reached the tarmac they had pulled off nigh on half an hour before. Bill regained his seat and off they drove down the track they ought to have taken. The gravel driveway of a brick house loomed up roughly where they expected it to. The exterior light above the front door was on and illuminated five-year-old Penny, standing waiting in anticipation. Bill walked over to her.
‘Hello, darling. Where’s Mum?’
‘In a spot of bother, is she? Don’t you worry. Alex and I’ll put that right. Where’s Daddy?’
‘He’s gone for the night.’
‘Is he? Couldn’t stand the heat? What a time to desert his missus, eh?’
Having gathered the required equipment from the rear of the ambulance, Alex went indoors with Bill and Penny. He completed the job without a hitch. His mesmerised colleague looked on the whole while, cigarette in one hand and holding Penny’s hand with his other hand.
Alex passed the infant to Bill and brought forth the correct instrument to cut the umbilical cord. The task done, he turned back to his partner, whose rollie was now between his lips, a centimetre or so of ash dangling precipitously from the tip. Ogling the baby boy in his arms, Bill was blissfully unaware of the danger.
‘Wonthaggi!’ Bill came back to himself with a start. ‘Put out the fuckin’ fag.’
Not releasing the newborn, Bill removed the cigarette with his free hand. Penny thoughtfully gathered an ashtray from a small table in one of the corners of the bedroom and held it out for him.
‘That’s my girl,’ Bill said, flicking the ash on to it. ‘Cute baby brother you have.’
With Marje and her second child both well, there was no need for Alex to drive back to Geelong at the frenetic speed maintained on the outbound journey. He sat relaxed behind the wheel, mindful as earlier of the wet and windy conditions. In a retractable seat a little further back on the side sat Penny, tending her sleeping brother. Bill, meanwhile, kept Marje company. She lay supine on a stretcher, pale and exhausted after her ordeal but in high spirits. Bill began rolling another cigarette.
‘Care for a smoke?’ he asked Marje.
‘I’d love one, thanks. I had to give them up while I was pregnant.’
‘You take this then.’ He handed the grateful patient the completed article and commenced rolling one for himself. His artistry was challenged in the moving ambulance but not a shred of tobacco went to waste.
‘Marje, I won’t forget tonight. Long as I stay in the ambulance service I’ll remember coming out on this shocker of a night and being privileged to watch a…’
He pointed at Alex. ‘… master deliver your baby as smoothly as if he’s been delivering babies blindfolded since he was knee-high to a grasshopper!’
He laughed. Seeing the humour, Marje joined in.
‘Sorry it took us so long to show up. Bit of confusion about which turnoff was the right one.’
‘Not your fault.’
‘What’s your name? Wonthaggi… ?’
‘Bill, at your service. Wonthaggi Bill.’ He mused again on the skill of his trainer. ‘A master!’
Marje giggled, tired but elated.
‘Level with us now, mate,’ Bill said to Alex. ‘How many nippers have you delivered in your time?’
Alex grinned wryly into his rearview mirror. ‘Not that many.’
‘Makes you wonder what extracurricular stuff they teach you blokes on the waterfront.’ He glanced at Marje. ‘He was a wharfie for five years.’
Following a brief silence, Bill called out to Penny. ‘How’s he getting on, darling? Sleeping soundly?’
Lights of the city outskirts appeared.
‘Not too far to go now, Marje.’ The ambulance cruised to a halt at a red light. ‘What are you thinking of naming the little fella?’
Two days later, Alex was walking from one part of the station to another when Bill, withdrawing a rollie from his day’s allotment, hailed him.
‘Super wants a word, old son.’
Alex changed direction and stopped outside Superintendent Cummings’ office. He nodded at his superior through the upper part of the glass door and waited until given the signal to enter.
‘You wanted to see me, Mr Cummings?’
‘Yes. Take a seat.’
On the Superintendent’s desk was the day’s Advertiser newspaper. Alex settled but not before catching on to the fact that the paper was open at the guide for that day’s country race meeting.
‘I hear you’re quite the midwife.’
‘All in the line of duty, sir.’
‘Our trainee from Wonthaggi hasn’t stopped singing your praises.’
Alex hesitated before responding. ‘Well… Wonthaggi’s a bit starry-eyed. A decent bloke though.’
The Superintendent smiled a little smile at this. ‘I also hear you’ve a penchant for cussing.’
‘A pen – ?’ Alex understood, directly. ‘Well, Mr Cummings, I was on the wharf a good while.’
‘Tone it down in front of the patients, if you’d be so good.’
Alex assured him with a movement of the head that he would take the cautionary advice to heart.
‘At any rate the child’s father was delighted with the service rendered. He sent that…’ He motioned over his shoulder at a bottle of whiskey and a carton of cigarettes. ‘… as a gratuity.’
‘That’s big of him.’
‘The mother was particularly impressed with Wonthaggi. She and her husband have christened their boy William in his honour.’
Alex curbed his impulse to burst out laughing. ‘I’m sure he’ll be delighted to hear that.’
‘He was.’ He went on with the sliver of a smile. ‘It made his morning.’
The barest flicker of Alex’s eyes toward the gifts was a clear pointer to what he was thinking. Surely – fittingly – the gratuity would be shared among the three of them? Superintendent Cummings relished the moment.
‘Back to work then.’
‘Right, Mr Cummings.’ He started for the door.
‘And remember what I said about that wharfie tongue of yours.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Back in the open area, Alex stopped to ponder the upshot of all this. He could hear Bill whistling away to himself, apparently without a care in the world. He envied that blithe simplicity and wondered if life and the world would ever take on a similar aspect for him.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.