From the back of the fire truck it’s always a different valley. The higher perspective and the wind make me think of my kelpie on the tray of the ute, all legs and jitters. But unlike the dog, my jitters are flat out dread, balled heavy and hard in my gut like a fist.
When the pager went off, I was out in the shed, planing down another window frame that had swollen shut from all this rain. I thought that with the weather it was probably just a fallen tree over the road or something. A chance to pull out the chainsaw and maybe get a bit of extra firewood out of it. Then the captain said it was a smash and I instantly regretted putting down that plane. Like usual we had zero information. A call had come in from a passing driver too scared of coming face to face with some human pulp to stop to see if anyone needed help. Didn’t want to get involved. Didn’t want to have to pay a shrink. So they called 000 and said there’d been an accident, but of course they didn’t know any landmarks or probably even what road they were on. So out we go like bloody Search and Rescue, hoping to come across either the car or, more likely, the skid marks and broken branches where it’d gone over the edge.
When Greenie eventually pulls the truck up it’s a car vs tree. Lucky bugger has been saved from the plunge by a stringybark. The girlfriend seems ok. The driver’s not so good though, slumped over the wheel and not looking compos. Greenie backs the truck so that it protects the scene from any other dickheads hooning around the bend, turning the wreck into more of an accordion than it already is.
The two newbies hop down and from the look on their faces they seem pretty happy with being assigned traffic control. They march the tall STOP/SLOW lollipops along the road in both directions, ready to muster more authority than they actually possess. Getting people to stop when you tell them to and not run anyone over as they crawl rubbernecking past the crash is actually harder than you’d think.
This is when I regret telling Caroline, the brigade captain, over a beer about six months ago, that I’d just upgraded my first aid training. Now she tends to pick me as the one to assess the injuries and I have to do what I can until the ambos get on scene. Sure enough, she catches my eye and gestures me towards the car.
The road is dark with rain. Tempered glass from the smashed windscreen is scattered randomly, catching the light from the truck’s spotlights so that it looks like a clear night sky sparkling up from the bitumen. My boots crunch over it in slow, hesitant steps that I hope I’m disguising as professional caution. I pull off the leather work-gloves and snap on latex ones, using the time to silently run through the procedure in my head. I take one last deep breath and step to the driver’s side window.
“Hey, mate. I’m Pete from the CFS. Looks like you’ve come a bit of a cropper. Don’t worry. The ambos will be here in a sec so I’m just going to give you a bit of a hand until the cavalry arrives. Ok? What’s your name?”
I reach in the window and put my hand on his shoulder. He’s young but the totalled Skyline, P plates and fat Milo tin exhaust had already tipped me off to that. He’s wearing a shiny, red American basketball shirt in a weightlifter size over a computer gamer’s frame and I’d put good money on him wearing boxers with his jeans being a hair’s breadth away from slipping right off his arse. Sweet Jesus. He could be Jason.
“Son, can you hear me?”
I give his shoulder a light shake. His dark hair has flopped forward and with the position of his body I can’t see a damned thing. Cases like this it’s common for the engine to be shoved backwards, which isn’t all that good for keeping legs and ankles in the same number of pieces you started with. Added to this is that now I have to make the call about moving him. If I can’t tell whether or not he’s breathing then I have to lean him back to maintain his airway. Dr ABC and all that. Which means bugger the spinal cord. I guess the theory is it’s better to be alive and paralysed than able to move your limbs but dead. Not sure I agree but I’m more than happy to follow the rules. That’s not the sort of game-changing decision I want to be making on the fly. I draw a deep breath and silently curse that beer again.
“Son? I’m just going to tip you back so I can have a bit of a look at you.”
I reach in and gently grab his right shoulder, putting my other hand under his forehead so I can angle his body and head back against the car seat as one unit. Where the fuck are the bloody ambos?
He gives a soft moan as his head comes clear of the steering wheel. There’s blood all over his face, a lot of blood. It’s bubbling under his nose, so at least he’s breathing.
I turn to the others as I say this and you can hear the relief in my voice. It sounds higher than usual and I clear my throat, not wanting anyone to know the exact levels of fear and relief that are churning in my gut.
Now that the immediate pressure of having to CPR this kid is off, I turn to Caroline, who has wrapped the girlfriend in a space blanket and is talking to her softly, stroking her back like she would one of the injured roos she nurses in her other life.
“Hey Caro, can you ask her what her friend’s name is?”
Now that’s just too weird. Similar car, similar clothes. Obviously not my Jason but hearing the name sends a shot of acid through me.
“Hey Jase, how’re you doing there mate? You’ve dinged your head a bit but not to worry, I reckon you’ve probably smacked your head into the wheel when the tree came at you, that’s all. Head’s bleed like stuck pigs but usually the wound’s not anything to write home about. Just looks impressive. So, you take it easy while I clean you up a bit.”
Serge had put the truck’s first aid kit next to my feet and was now helpfully angling a torch down so I could see what the story was in the foot well.
The pedals weren’t visible but luckily the kid seemed to have pulled his knees up just at the moment of collision so it didn’t look as though his feet were trapped. That’s a weird benefit to being a hoon, I guess. You’re usually not riding the brake on impact so if you live, you get to keep your feet.
Serge relayed the information back to the captain.
“Looks like his legs are clear boss, so the ambos will probably be able to lay the seat back, stick him on the board and pull him out the back windscreen. You’re a lucky bugger, Jase,” Serge added. “The ambos will slide you out the back smoother than a healthy turd out a dog’s arse.”
The girlfriend, still wrapped up like a TV dinner in her alfoil blanket, had her mobile phone in her hand and managed to keep it together long enough to say “Mum?… we’ve had an accident…” before breaking into sobs, each inhalation loud and quaking in her chest. That’s always the way it happens. Shock keeps you numb until the moment you hear a familiar voice and then bam, the floodgates open. Caro moves in and curls her arm around the girl, holding her against her side as the story sobs out into the handset.
Flicking open the kit, I grab fat wads of gauze. Snapping the top off a tube of saline solution, I wash the blood down off his face, trying to see where it was coming from.
Finally, I hear the wail of sirens. About bloody time. Still, nothing makes the clock slow down like being at the pointy end of a rescue.
“Here they come buddy.”
Serge swings around to look up the road, the torch beam skittering off to light up the crumpled bonnet.
“Hey, Serge. Focus.”
Jason’s forehead gleams reddish pink where the blood has rinsed off. His head had hit the steering wheel up near the hairline, probably with quite a bit of momentum seeing how far back the kid had tipped the driver’s seat. The split is about an inch long, a neat parting of ways of skin with a pale crescent moon of skull shining in the torchlight. His eyes are open now, droplets of saline hanging from dark lashes like tears. His pupils are huge despite the beam of light on his face, but both the same size, which is good news on the concussion front.
“Here’s the problem Jase, you’ve come to a stop with your forehead and you’ve got a bit of a spilt up there. A few stitches and you’ll be right. The ambos’ll clean you up and check you out for concussion. I’d say you’re pretty lucky, looking at the shape of your car.”
I shouldn’t have said that last bit. These young blokes generally get more worked up about the damage to their cars than the damage to themselves. Now that the ambos are nearly here I’m just marking time, putting pressure through the gauze to stop the bleeding until I see the strobe of red, white and blue bouncing off the trees at the uphill bend.
The ambos pull up behind the fire truck. They don’t rush but there’s no fluffing around either.
“Hey, I’m Lisa. What’s the story here… Pete?”
Her eyes flick down to my name badge as she offers me her hand. She’s slim and blonde with an efficient manner and her handshake is firm as our hands meet through latex. She bends in next to me to have a look, and behind us I can hear Serge practically start panting. If I didn’t still have one hand engaged in the car I’d have turned to give him the grow-the-hell-up look I usually only have to use on my kids. Instead, I don’t draw attention to him and start the handover.
“Yeah, hi. He was unconscious when we arrived and hasn’t really come to completely. Just a bit of moaning. He’s breathing fine and no shot pupils or anything. But still, you’re the experts. I’m happy to get out of your way and let you do your thing.”
“Thanks Pete. Nice job holding the fort. You’re making life easy. Could you ask your team to get rid of that back windscreen for us?”
She smiles at the request as she takes over the gauze. I straighten up, allowing the relief of relinquishing responsibility to wash through me. She murmurs questions to Jason as I walk over to Caro to tell her about the windshield. I hear Lisa finish her assessment and turn to her partner.
“Nick, grab the board out the back would you? He’s GCS 4 so I reckon let’s just load and go.”
Caro claps her gloved hand on my shoulder.
“Nice work, Pete. Take a breather.”
The other ambo, Nick stands ready with the yellow plastic spinal board, waiting for the rear windshield to be carefully broken and punched out from the inside. He seems completely at ease, despite having to spend his days in that aggressive shade of green, banded with reflective stripes like he’s just stepped out from a rave. They say the ladies like a man in uniform but I can’t see this one working for him, to be honest. But, I guess if sailors still manage to pull wearing those white bell-bottoms, anything’s possible. And who am I to talk, standing here in gear the colour of a giant cheezel? Back when I started with the brigade just the sight of the kids tucking into a bowl of cheezels would make me think of call-outs. It got to the point where even the smell of them on their fingers would give me flashbacks.
The tow-truck arrives with a squeal of axel and brakes, coming to a stop with an overdone sigh. His timing is pretty well spot-on. Nick has just skilfully manoeuvred Jason onto the spinal board and, with some extra hands from Serge and Greenie, the kid is gently pulled headfirst out the back and straight onto the stretcher. He lies there stiffly, neck enveloped in a brace, only his eyes betraying his growing sense of panic with their swift arcing from side to side. His girlfriend is now at his side, gripping his hand. She’s pulled herself together and is talking soothingly to him. It doesn’t look like she’s been told yet that she’ll have to ride up front in the ambulance to let Lisa do her thing in the back. That’s usually a messy conversation.
I grab a broom to keep my hands busy. It’s funny. You don’t realise how worked up and completely in your head you’ve been until the pressure’s off and you can sense your body again. Greenie is taking care of spreading sand over the oil and petrol on the road so I can just sweep, each methodical stroke brushing glass fragments flying off the road verge and down into the darkness like showers of stars.
Once the ambulance is off the scene it all goes pretty fast and I can practically taste that first beer. The tow-truck winches the Skyline off the tree and onto the bed without a hitch. Now that the car has gone you can see the deep wound on the trunk of the stringy. That kid is lucky my Ange wasn’t here or else he’d wake up in the hospital to find that he has a new set of options on the shitter.
That’s it. Done and dusted. The newbies tromp back from their positions, looking pleased with themselves and we load up the gear and hop on, the truck coughing out of its idle. Up on the back I sit to one side looking down into the steep gully. Within metres the hillside has dropped away so abruptly that beyond the branches of roadside gums the world is all thick, creamy darkness. For the first time tonight I notice the sting of cold on my cheeks.
Back on station, my hand is already in my pocket, feeling for number 2 on the speed dial.
“I’ll just be a sec. Save me a cold one.”
I hunch in the shelter of the roller door, stamping from cold, sensing an adrenaline hangover lurking in the near future.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
“What’s up? Not your bloody pants I’m guessing.”
The final residue of dread coating my gut dissolves. I straighten up, letting out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
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