You are slow to wake up. Your hands making the same movements every morning, reaching and stretching. Light comes in through the blinds from 5am, giving early morning the feel of noon. We won’t be able to afford to stay here much longer, but that is the peril of living in the city. It can outgrow you in its need. Your hands in the morning stretch like a question; like you are cupping the day’s possibility in the twist of fingers, always making those same soft, hopeful movements. I didn’t know this yet. That even in times of stress, you have the same consistent morning hands. The rotations of awakeness always pre-empting you opening your eyes.
When you got HIV positive blood in your eye, we hadn’t yet shared the same bed. In fact, we’d kissed once on my doorstep in a moment of retro chivalry. We both tell this part of the story differently; you are adamant, that stepping back from the kiss, I had said you weren’t coming in. In my mind, I’d invited you in, only to be gently rebuffed. Two years on, it’s rare that we misunderstand so drastically, but in the first few months, with no real concept of one another, there was plenty we didn’t quite get. Not a monolithic romance narrative, but perspectives, sleights of hand, blundering into love as opposed to chartering our way there.
Only a day after the debated first kiss, commuting to my shitty office job, you texted to say there had been a problem at work. By this point, I’d heard a range of very glossy and deliberately heroic stories. I knew about the mental health patient it had taken four of you to subdue after he’d grabbed a police officer by the neck, threatening her with a brick to the head. The one time you’d cracked on a job, where you and the rest of the crew left a mourning family having seen their five-year old go gentle into the good night. But, still unknowing, your problems at work were a glimmering spectrum for my overactive imagination. On the Overground I texted to ask what had happened. Just before I disappeared into the signal black-out of the Victoria Line, I got your message: “don’t freak out.”
Having spent so long writing articles and essays in an impartial voice, I wonder what it is that has turned me toward memoir. Maybe it’s the only place that I can stage the relationship between subjectivity and memory. Did I turn you away or did I ask you in? What was the gap between what I knew I wanted and what I articulated on that doorstep? I hope that this book will be a kind-of objective truth telling, but then, how could I even begin to tell the single story of a meeting, and now, a life? Even then, my genre anxiety doesn’t begin to cover writing about your jobs; the front line experiences you have had that still sit so far beyond my comprehension. Memoir is the more digressive, uglier, unreliable cousin of autobiography. It’s the person who starts telling one story, then forgets where it was going, betraying the narrative in bursts of distraction. It’s several stories colliding and colluding with the will to tell; not the easy history of how one person moved across clear map points, but that the map has never really existed.
The other problem I have with memoir – and not other people’s, but my own – is that people will assume it’s all about me. I can’t resist that assumption, because it’s partly true, but it’s also true that I am writing this because you exist, which I hope is some form of self-absorbed redemption. I reassure myself that even the most selfless people document their exploits, with Mother Theresa photos all over Facebook, putting themselves at the centre of a selfie with orphans, endangered animals, converted fascists, or underfed donkeys. Perhaps we’re all so obsessed with appearing good, that the different mediums of expression are just alternate ways to level our gaze very steadily at our own navels. Another issue with memoir, is that language still has a will of its own; always insufficient, but persevering anyway. Moments are lost, not captured, the wrong thing is said, or the right thing elusive, and the accuracy of words dissipates. Language, perhaps, is a form of lawlessness, and falling in love with you certainly destroyed any aspirations I might have for perfectly expressed feeling.
Just before the HIV in the eye saga, which I am getting back to, you texted me a joke:
What’s the difference between a paramedic and God?
God doesn’t have a paramedic complex.
It’s funny, and actually, quite true, and at the same time, grossly unfair. If God were a paramedic, he would never settle for the working conditions. I also hope, as an atheist, that God has made his peace with life and death. That the violence of the final breaths of the living don’t haunt him; that a baby choking to death or multiple stabbings don’t keep him up at night the way it does you.
It was just toward the end of a night shift when you got called out to a club. Someone was dying or close to death, and you had to do CPR. Half-way through, with the end of life imminent and no response from the patient, he involuntarily spat a mouthful of blood into the night air. The unique pressure of your hands and maybe the unlucky way that job was unfolding meant the blood went straight into your eye. In spite of your glasses, his last gob was strong and true. Seconds later, still slightly blinded by this parting gift to the world, you saw his housemate emerge from inside the club to casually disclose the now deceased’s HIV positive status. He also mentioned that the patient had had a cold. I only remembered hours after you told me to ask whether the patient had survived. You said he hadn’t.
At the same time this happens, I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a delicately queer book ever-questioning language’s capacity to express true feeling. It opens with an argument between Nelson and her partner, Harry Dodge, about whether experience can ever be articulated truly, or whether language, in its willingness to name, flattens out nuance and difference. Nelson believes, or maybe hopes, that language can describe what we feel. Dodge thinks differently; there are things that elude name, subjects and objects that go without description. Out of this tension of expression emerges Nelson’s beautiful take on Wittgenstein. A finely honed belief that language can inexpressibly, express the inexpressible. Later in the book, when language has failed but love has not, Nelson hands over a version of her memoir-in-progress to Dodge for feedback. She is told that living with her is like ‘an epileptic being in love with a strobe light artist.’ It is no easy feat to be with the person who tells all.
But then, I think back to the first few months of our relationship, in which I was unintentionally inexpressive. In the years since those uncertain moments, I know that I have never spoken so much. I am now a person who cannot shut up. Just after you got HIV in your eye, and I started writing poems about it, I noted down “the poem happens, because I love you, and I can no longer be self-contained.” What, to me, felt like shyness or silence was actually a form of containment. I always left something unsaid, or kept speech to myself.
In the hospital that morning, you were put on a course of antiretroviral drugs for a month. You were told that the side-effects were extreme nausea, a sickness that would take you off the ambulance and throw you onto the sofa. You were also set up with a counsellor and then walked through some basic “need to know”, which included how to have safe sex. By that time, I had come up from the tube, bought a coffee, and sat down in a café not far from my office to find out what had happened. I didn’t realise that your “don’t freak out” was both asking me not to run away, and your approach to disaster. You had understood me well enough in that first kiss to realise I might be someone who is not calm, who in fact, might freak out. But in that moment, trying to impress you and still pretending I was casual about the horrors of your work, I was uncharacteristically chilled. Sitting with a flat white, we texted back and forth, about how this is very common for me in the first stages of dating; in fact, you weren’t the first to text me with an HIV-in-the-eye problem just after a kiss. It happened all the time. When I got to my desk, you drove to your parents’, four hours late off a twelve-hour shift, told them what had happened, and then slept.
The month of antiretroviral treatment could not have come at a worse time for K., who was moving into a new house and also falling in love. That’s how I like to see it, anyway. Amongst all of the blood in her eyes and the rehabilitative nausea, she had decided that in the future, the two of us would get married.
Moving her bed and bookcases ten doors down the road, from her old house to the new, she kept stopping with sickness. Breathing deeply and imbibing ginger, she managed to construct furniture and force books into place. She didn’t know me well enough then to make any kind of demand for help, and given the strength of my arms, I’m not sure she would have done. Sometimes it makes me reflect on the gendered division of our relationship, where she lifts heavy things, and I float around retching at the smell of full bins. But she lifts because she is stronger than I am, and I cook because I find obsessive fine-chopping therapeutic. I have to remind myself sometimes that not everything is a distillation of the social.
It wasn’t until years into the AIDS crisis that antiretroviral therapy was used to treat patients. We’ve reached a point now, with the right continuous treatment, where its almost impossible to transmit HIV to sexual partners. In 2016 there were even claims that a man was on his way to becoming the first person ever fully cured. When infected blood gets in the eye, the possibility of transmission is incredibly low; somewhere under 1%. But given that the 1% have been getting such a good time of it recently, K. and I didn’t want to trust her recovery to luck, and so the treatment began.
I think of you walking through a pulsing club, wearing the starched green uniform of health while others continue with their Thursday 3am shape-throwing. You getting to the bathroom under the light of a strobe, barely catching a look at your reflection in the mirror, before placing one harshly cupped hand under a tap too close to the basin for convenience. Leaning over, I picture you scooping the water to your eye, it mingling with the irritated tears already trying to shake the blood loose. The water runs down your face, as you keep your mouth tightly shut, washing a combination of blood and fluid into the sink and probably around the floor.
You leave, even more blinded by the lights than you had been before. By this time, the patient has been dead for over ten minutes; the party carries on inside. You say that is one of the most miraculous aspects of the job – that life continues. That in the flat next door to a heart attack, the X Factor keeps playing. That when a skull smashes, the dance just skirts around it, physically moving disaster to one side. If I were going to go for a stage metaphor, I don’t know what would be the centre and what the periphery. Perhaps you are always off in the wings, waiting and treating anxiously, so that life can continue on stage. Or perhaps you are actually centre and front, palpating, cannulating, compressing in a performance that stops people in their tracks; that slows time down to something approximating a life unfolding in minutes.
When K. got to the hospital, she saw two different doctors, both of whom explained her treatment and how to have safe sex in the wake of an uncertain status. When it comes to HIV’s history, it’s interesting that the assumption of heterosexuality is still so pervasive. With the legacy of AIDS as a “gay cancer”, facing a lesbian, two doctors explained the best way to have penetrative sex with a male partner. Quietly stunned, K. listened to recommendations of condoms, dissuasions of oral sex without a dental dam in place. Of course, she would still be able to perform oral sex on her male partner because HIV cannot be spread through saliva. It wasn’t until she sat opposite her queer occupational health liaison, that she finally said she needed a contraception talk directed at two women. It all circles back around in that moment: had I asked her in or turned her away? When I had closed my front door, alone, I had imagined her in my bed. And here she was, reeling from blood in the eyeball and the strip lights of a hospital, imagining me in her bed.
It’s underreported that paramedics always do more than their twelve-hour shifts. They are required to be at work half an hour early, unpaid, to make sure that the truck is set up. They tend to work through their lunch breaks, and up to the last half hour of a shift, they can be sent out to an urgent job. Urgency denies time, it denies punctuality; it becomes its own space and movement, one that is not governed so much by the movement of the clock, but the escalation of your panic, it screams for help and holds onto the possibility of life for as long as possible. There is no paramedic who would turn these jobs down, and they’d be fired if they did, but it can often mean in the direst of circumstances you are being treated by someone who has been awake for fifteen hours. Possibly in their third of four shifts, possibly in the disillusioned dizzy twilight of the night becoming day. The sleep patterns, I’m told, work like jet lag. The paramedics all carry a mild nausea, being sleep deprived, and working against the most innate circadian rhythms.
I think of you jet lagged and dizzy, getting home to your parents’ pristine, glass surfaced house to tell them you had ingested HIV positive blood. I imagine you, now, walking up the three sets of stairs to your bedroom there; a double bed just big enough for the two of us to keep three inches between our sleeping bodies. I think of you dog tired in a way that the idiom doesn’t even begin to cover. I remember that day as stretching into your sixteen hours of shift and treatment, and then my eight hours of nine-to-five, wondering what you were dreaming.
“I’ve got a good one,’ he said, putting a knife and fork down.
We all quiet down to listen; me and four paramedics alternately pouring wine and passing dishes down the table.
“Ok, so this guy I know gets called out for a job. It’s like one of his first, so he’s shitting himself. He gets there, goes into the house – but the lights aren’t working. It’s completely black.”
There’s a general appreciative hum. Everyone has been in a dark house where the patient’s whereabouts are uncertain.
“So he’s kind of feeling his way around and as he’s going forward, he bumps into something that feels like a person. He freaks out and pushes it away as hard as he can.”
Every paramedic we know has been subjected to physical or verbal abuse at sometime or another. When K. was held hostage, the patient threatened to cut up her crew mate’s face, before disappearing into his kitchen to rifle through the knife drawer. At a family wedding gone wrong, another paramedic was attempting to treat a grandfather in cardiac arrest as his relatives threw expletives and glasses at her. He died on the grass in front of the venue. Another friend is currently in plaster cast and signed off work because a patient twisted her arm round until it broke. With these stories, in the darkness, any one of them would push an encroaching threat away.
“The thing goes away and he’s like, phew. Ok. Where’s the patient? But then, it swings back and hits him full on in face. It turns out that is the patient, and they’ve hung themselves, so when they got pushed away, they just swung back. He was so scared that he actually shat himself.”
The whole table, except me, explodes with laughter. That evening, I make K. take a psychopath test. At that point, I still don’t understand what survival looks like, but I come to know it much better with time. It doesn’t surprise me that I didn’t laugh; I think I’d still struggle to chuckle now, even though I’ve been slightly desensitized to the day-to-day horror of the work. As I’ve never entered the fray and never had to live with the psychological consequences of harm, I don’t think I’ve earned any right to make light of the tragic. But I can’t judge the laughter that accompanies these stories; the eye-rolling irreverence that goes alongside seeing the unforgettable and living to tell of it.
Part of being with K. is enduring the terrible emergency services programmes on TV. Twenty-four hours in A&E; Four Hours to Save Your Life; Rescue Cats with Firefighters; An Evening-out with Sniffer Dogs, and so on. Just a few days after the psychopath test, we watched something where a German woman living in London had been run over by a bus; camera close up on her destroyed bike, pixelated versions of her revealed internal organs. The BBC showed the paramedics opening up her ribs and hips, with the bright red fluidity of a life disappearing turned into competing blurred blocks of censorship. I didn’t want to see it; I had no desire to watch the woman’s life slip into the nearest Oxford Circus storm drain.
K. took one look at the woman and said “she’s dead.” Matter of fact and, to my mind, totally ruthless. Sure enough, by the end of the episode, she was dead. As a saccharine mournful-but-inspirational music started to play, they interviewed her family, who revealed that she had been young, healthy and excited about her recent move to London. She was, as the idealised female is, the perfect figure for death; wholly tragic in the face of an arbitrary ending.
As she’d been lying on the road, the paramedics had curtained off her prone body. When the helicopter emergency medical service arrived, they’d had to saw open her chest, trying to both stop the bleeding and start the heart up again. Even with the camera outside the curtained area, you could hear the sound of an industrial style round saw making its way through layers of skin, then flesh, and then bone. K. told me that paramedics sometimes have to palpate hearts with their own hands and for a long time, I can’t think of anything else. It is the perfect symbol for falling in love with her, and realising mortality is not something I can escape with metaphysics, in my office, in my department, surrounded by books.
After about three months of us being together, K. had exams to qualify as a paramedic. One of the scenarios the paramedics were being asked to run was “dying child”. In this scenario, the child had fallen off a trampoline, or been found on a trampoline, not breathing and non-responsive. The trick is to be able to cannulate the child, calm the parents, and get them all onto the truck before the grim reaper appears, as if acceleration and blue lights can outrun death.
These scenarios are best practiced with a body. Medical schools are replete with soft-plasticked versions of humans. Non-responsive, open mouthed synthetics of what it means to be caught in that moment of horror before death. When paramedics are revising off campus, however, there is no body and there are often very few people willing to run through a hypothetical “my child is dying” situation. As if by somehow participating, or play acting, we would make ourselves likely candidates for putting in the next 999 call.
By this point, I still hadn’t put on the inevitable weight that comes with happiness. I was a poet and a zero-hours lecturer, and my body size reflected both of these disastrous life choices. I can’t remember who said it first, or whether it was a joke that just escalated, but we had agreed that I would play the role of the dying and or dead child. We were living with another paramedic at the time, who said he might benefit from a dead child incarnate to practice on. Having someone else involved felt better, somehow, open and public.
When people meet paramedics, there’s a knee-weakness associated with someone who can – and has – saved a life. In fact, I know the first murmurings of that weakness. The hard and automatic press of K.’s two fingers when holding my hand as she couldn’t resist feeling for my pulse. It felt like she was learning my body, somewhere between professional knowledge and impulsive tenderness. “You have veins you could drive a truck through,” she used to tell me. And I am susceptible to heat, to wine, to pressure. I expand and engorge, my veins rise up to the point you can see them visibly moving with a thick and fleshy heart beat. K. used to sit with her two fingers together, a delicate certainty, moving them up and down my arm, feeling for appropriate places to inject me. It wasn’t conscious. She would do it all the time; on public transport, at meals with our families, lying in bed. And I never stopped it. It was a form of knowing someone that moved beyond revelation and confession. It was that she could somehow just feel her way.
I had to resist a will to surrender when I met K. My feelings sat outside the expertise of her two fingers on my key veins. It was more vulnerable & exposed than a routine check-up. That in spite of her hands’ knowledge, in what felt to be a fundamental and biological way, the skilled understanding of her work never became something erotic. I did not find it exciting that she had nightmares about the worst jobs. Or that her hands had been used to stem blood; had washed up vomit in the back of trucks; had helped elderly ladies back onto their feet; had palpitated hearts in the hopes they’d come back round to beating. I admired them, as having abilities far beyond me, but it wasn’t that that made capitulation easy.
And that was how I ended up on the floor of the kitchen, on an outdoor sofa cushion, surrounded by six paramedics all looking to practice their dead-child scenarios with me. Once word had got out, other students had said they might benefit from running the scene, and so K. had invited them all round. To pretend her girlfriend was a dying child, and then to have some pizza. I stayed inanimate through four rounds and learnt close to nothing. I know that CPR has to happen to the rhythm of the Bee Gee’s ‘Staying Alive’ and that if you can’t get access to the vein, you can drill a small hole in the front of someone’s leg, about two fingers’ width away from the shin bone. That even if the child is likely to expire, you need to get total consent from distraught parents. In the scenarios, one of the paramedics would play the role of mother, devoid of any nuance or emotion. They’d just wait the requisite amount of time for panicked maternal thought to happen and then say yes or no to the treatment plan being suggested. By this point, all of them had been out on trucks that had gone to parents with dying children. There is no time for melodrama. They have seen what the first murmurings of pre-emptive grief look like. My jokes about being the shape and size of a child quickly fell away as I let them do their work over my b-cup almost pre-pubescent body. I listened, in total stillness, feeling none of the usual surrender or relief that came with medical professionals. Just the burden that comes with realising no amount of practice will ever be enough.
Prudence Bussey-Chamberlain is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. Her poetry works include Retroviral* (Veer, 2018), Coteries (KFS, 2018) and House of Mouse (KFS, 2017), while she has written critically on contemporary feminism and queer poetics.