Thursday, 22 September 2011

The possibility of a quiet death on the Northern Line

Like any of us I sometimes find the Tube an endurance, and yet other times I can feel something reassuring about the normalness of the Tube, unless it's steaming hot and the rush hour. It was neither, though it was warm ten days ago as I was wandering up the platform in the usual mindless daze.

I came up to one of those bench seats with spaces for four people, divided by arm-rests; there was an elderly woman bending over an equally elderly chap. He had his head right back and his eyes closed. She was talking to him quietly, calling him "Bill." He was not answering. At all.

I sat down just along from them and decided to watch closely and wait to see if anything needed to be done to help. I thought he didn't look too good. A little clammy and grey around the mouth. Just as I said "Is he alright?" or something equally inane, a man came up in the uniform of one of the mainline train companies, rather more noisily efficient than me. He asked "does he need an ambulance?" "No, no, he's just feeling a little faint," she said. H'm, I was thinking, he looks more than a bit faint to me, so...

Then up came a young woman, introduced herself as someone who'd done some first-aid, and joined in the enquiries, by which time Railman had called up a Tube employee. Whilst this was going on, the elderly woman had given Bill a couple of squirts of some medicine under his tongue. No immediate effect, and she carried on trying to talk to him, telling him he'd be OK if they could get him up into some fresh air. Still no response.

Railman and Ms FirstAid agreed that they should help him get on his feet and up to the great outdoors. But Mrs Bill had already told us that he had a heart condition and a stent....

Somewhere in the morass of unconnected stuff I refer to as a memory, something went ting-a-ling. I told them I knew almost nothing about first aid, but that I didn't think they should get him on his feet, if he was having heart trouble. They conceded. Just as well, because at that point Bill began to slip gently sideways ....

We helped him down so he could lie on the platform. I was holding his head - frizzy old grey hair under my hands, an unfamiliar head, a strange and delicate little burden - and I slid my rolled-up cagoule underneath it and settled him back.

He looked marginally less ill. Railman asked Tubeman if he'd actually phoned for an ambulance - I've noticed once or twice before how people sometimes dither about that - and Tubeman double-checked that one was on its way.

Next on the scene was an off-duty policewoman, properly-trained in first aid, so we made him a little more comfortable and she took over the lead role in this little drama. He was beginning to talk a little, very quietly. When the officer asked him what his name was, he answered "William." I liked that. "Bill" was reserved for friends and wives, not strangers bending over him on the Northern Line. The old chap was still with us.

The paramedic, when he came, was excellent - huge bloke, calm, confident, all you'd hope. He checked pulse and blood pressure, asked about the medication she'd squirted under his tongue. Poor old thing, she'd given him too much of it, and it had lowered his blood pressure too quickly, hence the sideways topple. So she fretted about that. But, said the paramedic, he'd be OK, he just needed to lie where he was till his BP rose. They'd take him in just to check him over, but his heart was OK.

Our little group began to drift off. I waited until the paramedic had put a better cushion under the gentleman's head so I could retrieve my cagoule, said cheerio to the excessively grateful lady and hopped on the the next Tube. (My aim in such situations is to do what one can, and then clear off quietly rather than add to the general fuss; but I must admit to a little private vanity over having got it right about not trying to get him to his feet.)

When I squatted by William, holding his head, I was wondering why I wasn't alarmed - it was potentially a scary situation, and I'm not generally Ms Coolcumber. He might have been dying, for all any of us knew. What actually came over me was a huge sense of calm and order. I'd heard the lady tell us that he was 83, so part of the feeling was about an elderly gentleman who'd lived a good long life already. I suppose I'd have felt differently were I holding a child's head. But part of it was acceptance. Either William will come through, or he will die here on the Northern Line platform. Not your first choice of a death-bed, perhaps, but - can't explain this - it seemed OK. We were all trying to care for him. The closest person to him in his life was with him. It was OK. Life or death, A or B. Can't do more, come what may.

Of course, it wasn't me or mine who were in danger of departing this life on a Tube platform, and there was no blood, drama or big trauma to challenge us, but it was unexpected for me to feel somehow calmed by this close proximity to at least the possibility of death.

I hope and asume William shook off his fainting fit and is perhaps sitting in his armchair reading a good book, with a little glass of malt by his elbow. He hadn't, I think, actually been close to death, he had just looked as though he was. If I could, I'd thank him for the privilege of being with him and learning some more things about mortality, the fragility of life, acceptance, my own characteristic responses - and what to do if someone keels over on the Northern Line.
Provided you have that most uncool and unLondon of garments with you - a cagoul.

It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians
are flattened by safes falling from
rooftops mostly within the panels of
the comics, but still, we know it is
possible, as well as the flash of
summer lightning, the thermos toppling
over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be
delivered from within. The heart, no
valentine, decides to quit after
lunch, the power shut off like a
switch, or a tiny dark ship is
unmoored into the flow of the body's
rivers, the brain a monastery,
defenceless on the shore. This is
what I think about when I shovel
compost into a wheelbarrow, and when
I fill the long flower-boxes then
press into rows the limp roots of red
impatiens -- the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth from the
sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then
the soil is full of marvels, bits of
leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam. Then
the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the
clouds a brighter white, and all I
hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone, the small
plants singing with lifted faces, and
the click of the sundial as one hour
sweeps into the next.

Billy Collins

Maybe that was it. Maybe Euston looked a little more marvel-filled, post-William....


  1. Beautiful GM,
    Funny, I was just thinking last night about a similar experience I had on a train. I was standing in between carriages as the train was so crowded and I locked eyes with an old lady sitting in the seat facing the door. She smiled, then clearly died. Someone opposite leaned forward, touched her, fetched the guard, who radioed ahead. When the train reached Reading, an ambulance crew were waiting by where the door stopped. She was taken off in moments, the train not even delayed for more than one minute. Then we were off again, less one.
    Thanks for the poem.

  2. Less one - just like that. Death is everywhere, yet "where I am, death is not, and where death is, there I am not."

    A brush with the absolute certainly can tone one up....

    No doubt you were unshaken - my guess is those around her were all v restrained and sensible?

    Thanks Ru.

  3. Really like that poem, I empathise with it.I know someone whose partner died on the loo in a train and went up and down Britain for a day or more I think.

  4. Oh, poor, poor person and partner.
    Pleased you like the poem, Arkers, he's snapped out a few that sharpen one's focus nicely.

  5. That was indeed a beautiful tale GM - the poem the icing on this most hear-warming of morsels. I especially loved your words 'strange and delicate little cargo'. A wonderful description of a short moment of closeness. Thank you! x

  6. Pleased it worked for you CB, thanks. I doubt William would have regarded it as the purpose of his Tube journey that morning, but looking back on it again, I more and more feel that he brought to me a very valuable experience. I was fortunate to be there. And I've just rememberd that when Railman went to leave, and Mrs Bill thanked him, he said that it was a privilege.A true and graceful thing to say.