Alone at night in a remote ambulance station, some miles from the city where my son and I sleep, my partner gets his drawing book from his kitbag. He waits for control to contact him, but the only sound is the station shutters banging in the wind. Any minute now his radio will go off, he’ll hop in the car, switch on sirens and lights and drive adrenalised through valleys and ravines. But for now, for a few moments at least, he gets some time to sketch.
“What do you draw?” I ask him, though I already know the answer is forests and castles and dragons and knights. His rural surroundings are a dream for fantasy artists. (He’s a PC-gamer, and a Dungeons and Dragons player.)
“Drawing soothes me,” he says. “It helps me empty my head.”
In our London days, on lucky shifts he’d get a few minutes between emergencies to park his ambulance by the zoo and share a tea break with the giraffes – their heads bobbing over the fence at Regent’s Park. He’d often work his twelve hours and more without the half-hour break.
(My quick watercolour sketch of my partner heading to an ambulance night shift, optimistically taking his drawing pad.)
NHS emergencies still come thick and fast in his new countryside patch – downtime is rare – but every now and then there is a lull. And if it’s a quiet night, and no crew mates are on shift, it’s the drawing that keeps him company.
He loves his work, more than anyone I know. And, like any wise emergency worker (any worker, for that matter), he knows to chill out when there’s downtime: “Don’t be a hero,” he always says of ambulance work. That is, know when to have some you time, know when to request time out from the job, or when to stop the job altogether.
When I met him he hadn’t sketched since childhood – he said he couldn’t draw. But one day I encouraged him to put pen to paper and he proudly sketched a castle. A brilliant castle! Soon he started asking if I had spare sketchpads, then started raiding my stash of art materials.
If he’s lucky, he’ll get those few drawing minutes on a night shift. Then when the sun peeps up he heads back home to our city, leaving behind twelve hours of dramas and driving. Exhausted, he hauls his bag through our front door as our son dashes downstairs ramped up to the eyeballs with energy : “MORNING DAD!!”
Then they breakfast together and talk about – what else? – forests and castles and dragons and knights, before it’s time for school. After a sleep my partner will have some lunch, then perhaps do some drawing. Then he packs his kitbag for the next night shift – stethoscope, blood-pressure cuff… sketchpad. Quiet shifts are rare, but the pen and paper are always packed in case.
When no crew mates are there and his radio is hush, it’s the sketchbook that might be his back-up.
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