I can guarantee that the above phrase will ring a bell with pretty much every crew from Tolworth to Chase Farm. And probably many crews from Essex Ambulance Service, South East Coast, possibly even Yorkshire and Scottish Highlands. I wouldn’t even be surprised if some crews from Australia and Timbuktu are nodding knowingly. You see, this is the catchphrase of one of our most prolific regulars. Horace Halfpenny is a homeless, alcoholic gentleman with no affiliation to any particular area. He drifts around London, occasionally stopping off at payphones to call 999. Sometimes he asks a member of the public to call for him. But the problem is always the same. Horace’s bowels are hanging out. I’m led to believe that Horace’s bowels are indeed hanging out – but this is an ongoing problem and not an acute emergency. It has never quite been explained to me quite where they are hanging out from, what happened to cause this affliction or why the problem hasn’t been fixed. What I do know is that Horace has a reputation as an exceedingly impolite person, who has a tendency to swear at ambulance crews and fling his colostomy bag at them. He’s been taken to hospital countless times but nothing ever seems to get fixed and the next day he’s calling us again from the other side of London because his bowels are, once again, hanging out. He has no real need for an ambulance, what he really needs to do is stay put in his care home (he had one, but went AWOL from it, and every crew in London was under instruction to bring him back if they found him) and wait for an operation. The despair is tangible in crew’s voices when they get the call down their MDT – “Bowels hanging out? It’s going to be Horace Halfpenny, isn’t it? I’ll let you know now, we’ll be off the road after this call. Dirty vehicle and uniform. Possible stress break too.” Legend has it that one crew got so fed up with going to Horace that they took him to a hospital fifty miles outside London. He was back in our area within the week.
A few weeks ago, we received a call from the Fire Brigade from a blaze in a council tower block. The report came in from the first paramedic on scene: “We need HEMS – we’ve an adult male with 50% burns. He’s close to cardiac arrest.”
The DSO gave Control a call to let us know what had happened. The patient was still alive, but they weren’t optimistic about his chances. He’d been taken straight to hospital by helicopter – meaning that the priority was to save his life, rather than get him to a burns unit to treat the burns. He also let us know the patient’s name. You’ve probably already guessed it – it was Horace Halfpenny. It turned out that he’d just been housed by the council after years of homelessness. And somehow, he’d managed to set fire to that home.
So in the weeks that followed, the phone booths of London were quiet. There were no more calls to people whose bowels were hanging out. Colostomy bags remained unflung. Ambulances crews everywhere breathed a sad sigh of relief. In Control, we asked around to see if anyone had seen a call transferring Horace to a burns unit. But no one had. Horace must have died. Although no one liked Horace and everyone thought he was a thorough pain in the neck, we did feel sad. Like all our regulars, he was an institution. And how tragic it was that he’d died just as he’d finally got somewhere to live.
Then, last week, we had a call from a phone box.
“My bowels are hanging out!” exclaimed Horace. “AND I’ve got fifty percent burns!”