Carpets and Bushy Tails

23Aug08

I had already cycled the 5 miles into Clerkenwell and I can’t say why, but I had the unsettling feeling in my stomach that I was to encounter an ambulance.

Cycle journeys in London have rocketed 91% in just eight years and our skin-suited Beijing Trojans have peddled and medalled this week more than we could have dreamed. But any bike journey undertaken on the capital’s roads may one day introduce one’s cheek to the texture of tarmac.

A man was wobbling in the bus lane ahead and I could see the extra-strength lager can in his fist which he waved in the air. At his feet was what appeared to be a rolled-up carpet. Witnesses do say that when they discover a body, they think it’s a pile of clothes but in this case – it was a Concerto Tapestry Red Axminster.

I read recently that film director Mike Leigh once used his actors to improvise violent scenes in the street. So convincing were they that bystanders thought a murder was imminent. They called the police who were told a film was being made ‘so don’t worry, officer’! The arm of the law remained confused. Where was the camera and crew? It felt as if a street performance (once called ‘a happening’) was playing here on the pavement too; its freelance hand-picked cast an amalgam of south of the river misfits: Our drunk of course; the Axminster (a body indeed, a lady of perhaps 55 lying face up in the road, straight legs and feet neatly raised onto the kerb stone); a posh lady yelling into her mobile phone and various non-speaking extras at the bus stop. If this was the Edinburgh Fringe touring Kennington Cross, I was the incidental audience. Everything’s bloody interactive these days.

I parked my bike to join in this roadside ad lib. The lady in the road was conscious but clearly bewildered. From where she lay on the floor, the dazed world had clearly gone insane. Amidst the kerfuffle, pairs of legs stood above her and strangers’ faces gawked down at her ashen face. Her mouth was dry and foamy and when I crouched down and held her hand, she looked into my face with neither comfort nor understanding. Around us, arms were waving and the cursing was in full-flow .. the posh lady on the phone yelled “they’re saying not to move her, she may have spinal injuries!  .. a cushion appeared from nowhere and was shoved under her neck .. a police car sped by without stopping .. the drunk became more abusive .. the victim was struggling to get up .. another ambulance stopped en-route with someone else strapped in the back .. and more theatre, a scene played out by the inmates of Bedlam.

I wondered afterwards why the photographer in me hadn’t recorded the puzzling insanity in a way I might have elsewhere. The briefest of moments in daily life need recording for the sake of posterity: the very act of raising a camera sometimes seems aggressive and insensitive but 50 years on, our understanding of the way things were draws heavily on documentary.

This morning, one of our local fox cubs has been found spread across the paving stones, having apparently collided with metal to then drag himself a few feet and dying as if snoozing on the mat. 100,000 foxes die under the wheels of cars and trucks in the UK each year and a cub is thought lucky to make it’s second birthday whereas captives live to 16. There was no sign of mange and a full bushy tail meant our young lad had enjoyed a healthy, if brief life snorting through summer refuse, only to be snuffed out by a badly-planned expedition away from home.

Any venture outside has its perils.

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