The Dangerous Edge of Things

I pushed the twenty-three gauge hypodermic needle decisively through the skin and then infiltrated local anaesthetic as gently as I could – it is liable to sting.  I said, “All right?”

“Yes,” said Françoise.  The voice was cautious, exploratory.  She lay prone with her head lying sideways on her forearms.  I raised a bleb of white skin in a margin round the pigmented neavus.  I said, “It looks perfectly benign.  I don’t know why we’re doing this.”


Actually I did know.  She was a Canadian radiology registrar, very Québécois.   I kind of knew her because we both played in the orchestra – St Matthew’s in the City.   She’d come into the department at the end of her shift and said, “Will you lop a mole off my back?”  Sometimes you do a thing simply because you are importuned.

I took a size 11 scalpel blade, on a No. 3 handle, and incised round the mole, with a slim margin of normal skin.  “Okay?”

She said dreamily, “Can’t feel a thing.  Except the touch of your fingers.  Rather soothing.  You should be a masseur.”

Concentrate on the surgery.  Don’t blur the boundaries.  I held the naevus in forceps, on its pedicle of subcutaneous tissue, and gently dissected it away.

“There!”  I dropped it into formalin, ready to send to Pathology.  I opened a packet of 4/0 monofilament nylon, and grasped the atraumatic needle with the needle-holder.

“Closing now.”  Then the lights went out.

I said, “Now there’s a thing!”  There was a screen over the theatre door and it was absolutely pitch dark.  Françoise remarked, rather redundantly, “Must be a power cut.”

“Just as well I can suture with my eyes closed.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“Only kidding.  D’you suppose the nurses will remember we’re in here and come and rescue us?  I could try the buzzer on the wall but I don’t want to lose sterility.”

“No.  It’s never a good idea to lose sterility.”

It wasn’t unpleasant to sit in the darkness.  I could feel the gentle rise and fall of her rib cage under the green drapes.  She said, “Do you know why Jimmy Galway left the Berlin Philharmonic?”

“Did he fall out with Karajan?”

“They were playing Beethoven Five in the Musickwerein in Vienna one night, Karajan conducting.  Suddenly all the lights went out.  Nobody could see a thing.  They couldn’t read the music and they couldn’t see Karajan waving his arms.  But the music never faltered.  They went on to the end, note perfect.”

“So why did he leave?”

“I guess he felt you shouldn’t live life on automatic.”  Françoise was whispering, as if the darkness were sacred.  Then, from directly above us, a shrill and persistent bell started to ring.  Françoise giggled.  “Is that a fire alarm?”  Then the theatre door opened and Karen Jones said, “What are you two up to?”

“What’s happening, Karen?”

“Power cut.  The whole of Otahuhu and Mangere are out, apparently.”

“What about the hospital generator?”

“Hang on.”  She went to the wall and threw a few switches.  An X-ray screen sprang to life.  “How’s that?”

Ghostly fluorescence.  I said, “It’ll have to do.  What about the alarm?  Are we supposed to evacuate?”

Françoise said, “I’m not going out on to the street with a hole in my back!”  We were all raising our voices because of the stridency of the bell.  Karen said, “I’ll check it out,” and disappeared.  Then, beyond the door, I heard the ambulance r/t blasting away. What now?

Three sutures were enough.  I lay some tulle over the wound, and a dressing.  Françoise said, “Stitches out in a week?”

“Longer in the back.  Maybe twelve days or so.”  Then Karen opened the door again.  “You aren’t going to believe this.  There’s a bomb scare.”

“Is that what the alarm’s for?”

“No.  There’s a fire, too.  The bomb’s at the airport.”

The Maori have a saying, that all bad luck comes in threes.  “Are we on standby?”

“It’s a full alert.  They want you.”

“Oh good.  If the hospital’s on fire, I want to go to the airport.”  Françoise had turned on her side and was leaning negligently on an elbow.  I said, “Fancy a trip to the airport?”

“Sure.”  Her voice was full of interest.

“Let’s go.”

The department was buzzing.  All the available X-ray screens had been turned on and there was that same pale phosphorescent eerie half-light drenched over everything, that we had had in theatre.  At the nurses station somebody was lighting candles.  I’m constitutionally addicted to power cuts.  I love the underground, Blitzy atmosphere.  Administrators don’t give you crap during a power cut.

I picked up the ambulance r/t report.  “Where’s the fire?”

“By the lifts.  Cigarette in a trash can.”  The ambulance report read, “AIA full alert.  United Airways 747 Auckland – Honolulu, outgoing.  Bomb scare.  Landing 2310.”  We had twenty five minutes.  At the r/t station I picked up this spiffing new device – a cell phone the size of a car battery.

“We’re off!”

It was very dark outside.  As we stepped out into the ambulance bay a fire truck pulled up and six men, heavily clad in bright yellow overalls started off-loading.  Then more fire engines pulled up at the taxi rank by the hospital front door.  I was parked 100 metres away.  There was no street lighting but the eerie glow from the hospital was enough for us to pick our way.  I started up without preamble and we went like hell down Hospital Approach Road.

There was a policeman at the intersection at the top of the bridge.  I pulled the green light from under the dash with its extensible cord attached to the cigarette lighter, passed it through my window and slapped it on like a limpet to the car roof.

“Kojak!” said Françoise.  She was enjoying herself.  The policeman on points duty waved us left.  We accelerated out along Massey Road.  I said, “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to get out of there!”

“Does this sort of thing happen often?”

“Surprisingly often.  We have a ‘special relationship’ with the airport.  There are three echelons of callout.  Most of the calls are first echelon – ‘Stand By’.  Maybe a 747 with one engine shut down.  That happens quite a lot.  The next echelon is this – ‘Full Alert.’  Full emergency service response.  We expect a problem.  If it’s a false alarm, we’ll be stood down.”

“And the third echelon?”


I had caught up with an LSU, a Life Support Unit.  I snuck into her slipstream.  I was thinking about the one ‘Crash’ call-out I’d had, and the miserable freezing night out on the threshold of Runway 05, waiting for the divers to fish the two pilots of a freight aircraft out of the Manukau Harbour.  I had the melancholy privilege of declaring one of them lifeless.

There was a points man at every intersection, and in ten minutes we had turned left down George Bolt Memorial.  The whole of Mangere was blacked out.  We turned left, then right and, down at the airport perimeter, drew up at our assembly point, a sign that said starkly, “DON’T PARK HERE EVER.”  The LSU pulled up and I drew into the kerbside beside him.  Outside, here on the airport flatlands, there was a chill in the air.  I fetched two sheepskin-lined parkas from the boot, and a couple of fluorescent bibs bearing the legend, ‘Doctor’.  “Here, put this on.  It’s going to get cold.  And this.  There.  Now you can go anywhere, do anything.”  I switched off my green light.  In contrast to the darkness of Mangere, now we found ourselves in a great, phantasmagorical, psychedelic array of multi-coloured rotating lights coming off two dozen emergency vehicles.  From the air it would be dazzling.  I said, “I hope the pilot doesn’t think we’re the runaway.”

My friend Terry Dunstaple was at the wheel of the LSU.  I effected the introductions.  He looked at his watch.  “Landing in five minutes.”  He shivered.  “Let’s hope it’s another hoax.”

“Let’s hope so.”

“Incredible when you think about it.  An aircraft with 350 people on board 100 miles out over the Pacific turns back.  They’ve just dumped 130 tons of fuel.  130 tons!  All because some joker thinks it’s a helluva dag to phone up and say there’s a bomb on board.”

I scanned the horizon.  Where was the wind coming from?  It was a south-westerly, 25, gusting to 35 knots.  They would use Runway 23 and the aircraft would come in over the Whitford Beacon and Manukau Heights, tracking more or less directly down Puhinui Road and screaming over Pukaki Creek at two hundred feet with full flap and undercart down ready to touch with the grace, lightness, and splendour of a pelican.

There she was, bang on schedule, tracking straight down the runway’s extended centre line.  I could see the wink of the wing tip lights and the flick of the undercart strobe, low over Totara heights on final approach.  Françoise gripped my arm.

The 747 flared out over Pukaki, held off, nose up, and, as the engine note died, there was a wisp of tyre smoke off the asphalt.  Down!  The nose wheel sank gently on to the runway.  From nearby came a faint cheer and a smattering of applause.  Terry said, “They’re going to taxi to the apron just off 05 threshold and disembark there.”  I knew the form.  They would get passengers and crew off double quick, secure the area, and the bomb disposal people would move in.  The airport would stay open.  I said to Françoise, “Let’s go and get some coffee.”  Domestic or International?  I chose International.  “Terry – I’ve got the hand-held.”

He nodded and said cheerfully, “You’d hear the explosion anyway.”


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