"medical notes" by The Doktor
my life as a ray
In late October 2002 I was in a stormy, difficult relationship with a woman I loved very much. I had a job I really enjoyed, teaching at University on a temporary, part-time basis, and another job working for an agency doing whatever they wanted, which included driving vans and working in hospitals. I enjoyed the challenge; its nice to have a change, although of course some of the jobs were bad, and the rest were generally worse. My daughter Emily and her boyfriend were living with me in a flat with a share of a huge garden.
I lost all this in a moment, and I also lost mobility, confidence, optimism, health, my tenuous grip on a place in the world. If I sound sorry for myself, then that would be because I deserve my sympathy. It is like the result of a terrible curse.
I was trying to get home. It was gone seven and dark and I was tired and hungry. I was stuck behind a petrol tanker and two cars doing 35 m.p.h. just past Mark Cross. I thought I can go faster than this and I could tell there wasnt anything coming the other way because of there being no lights, so I overtook. I was doing about 55 by the time I was past them, but I had reached a bend with adverse camber, and the road was wet and slippery. I felt the back wheels slide out and steered into the skid, not alarmed, thinking I could deal with it. Suddenly the front wheels gained traction, and I shot off across the road. I found myself doing 55 m.p.h. on the verge, and while 55 m.p.h. might seem safe on the road, on the verge it is a different matter. I couldnt slow down. I hit a hedge, and lost consciousness.
I woke up, feeling badly injured. I had ¼ of an inch of lung. I wondered what to do. I knew I had some dope in my left-hand trouser pocket, and reached in and dropped it on the car floor.
I woke up next when the ambulance men were with me.
Ive got a spinal injury. I croaked.
A spinal injury. they laughed.
I think they were private ambulance men whod just happened to be passing. Then a female Doctor appeared - she was on her way home. I had no lungs, and I was made of pain. I tried to tell them I had been driving for the National Health, but Im not sure I made any sense, and I passed out again.
They took me back to K&S, the hospital for which I had been working where I must have stayed for days. I was very cruel, or mad, or just not quite in my right mind, because I got them to call the Woman, my (ex) Lover, and she had to come and see me, all dead like that. Emily was there too. They were lovely. I remember Kirsten of Dallington was working there. I remember nothing of the rest of my stay. The next thing I recall is being in Kings College Hospital. It was a week later.
This is the world, poised always on the edge of its terrible becoming, livid with shattered and unconditional significance.
(Allow me to ignite my personal Christ.)
Foil tube-box, as for toothpaste. Silver. Drawing, 1/3 red, 2/3 blue, ½ clothed female, ¾ length blonde hair, arms up behind head (bare breasted). Lettering: DESIRE.
Two huge pigs morphed with military busses drink from a river.
Kill your boss for noise.
I remember waking up in theatre after (I hope) the operation. I seemed to have had three anaesthetists. Two of them were hiding in a wastepaper basket discussing paperclips.
I do not know if I can explain H.D.U. to you.
Firstly, I should say that H.D.U. stands for High Dependency Unit and that its where I was put after my operation.
The internal explanation is more complex. There are no windows in H.D.U., but there are a lot of monitors tracing the life-lines of the individual patients and periodically giving out urgent beepings. There are nurses who scurry between beds attending to the bleeps. In the previous ward, where I had been waiting, the nurses had been seemingly all members of some weird African Christian sect, at least during night-shift, which added its own peculiar atmosphere, which became a sort of prayer meeting, run on quite different rules from a hospital. But there are yet further layers of internality as far as I am concerned, (and wouldnt there be, dear Lord save me, wouldnt there be.) I have been on my toasting-fork, and they are feeding me on automatic heroin from a tiny, whirring drug pump. I am hallucinating fine gold illustrations of incredible delicacy and total meaninglessness. The atmosphere is imbued with the sensation that the ultimate battle between good and evil is imminent at any moment, and I realise with some shock that I do not care which side I am on.
The cast is as follows; or no, perhaps more important than the cast is the lighting director or cameraman who has supersaturated contrast, colour, brightness - whatever the fuck it is - to a crazed excess of vividity that makes me think of a charged gas, or some form of radioactivity. Light, or the visual impression of objects has its own pressure, squeezing the eyes, threatening to burst the objects it represents, it is a neon agony, a hyperinflation of sight.
Nevertheless, there is a cast, and the cast is as follows: there is an Edinburgh-voiced Scotswoman in the corner who I want to kill. She makes a fuss, and is too precise, or finicky. Opposite me is LeRoi, a black man in early middle-age who I have seen crying.
Its hard, man, its hard. I say to him, my whole heart stretching open to encompass his unknown pain. I think he has had a brain operation. There are the nurses, a black woman in her fifties called Pat who at one stage breaks my heart, a gregarious white-haired efficiency determinant called Winnie, a young Finnish immigre called Eija, there is the rest of the ward with their insistent bleeps and suckings.
I take LeRoi to be my ally at once. I have no idea why, perhaps it is that I have witnessed his brave, solid, silent surrender to pain, loneliness and misery. I expect at any moment the actualisation of Armageddon in the small open space between us. Perhaps Satan will materialise, or perhaps I am Satan; the form of the Apocalypse is unclear. I have tubes through which the nurses feed me pain. There are two in one arm, one in my penis which drains my bladder, three coming out of my neck, one in the other arm, one thrust through my ribcage into my chest cavity, another into my left lung. At one stage in the ever-about-to-unfold drama I wrench the three straight out of my neck because I have no idea what I am doing. One of the chest drains just falls out later, what with rubbing on the sheets. But always we are returned to point zero, the place before it begins; LeRoi is opposite me, the nurses stand by, time is about to stop, about to begin, about to become manifest, about to cease, to.......
Above my head there is a lattice of white squares each with a thousand tiny holes and a thousand weeny holes. When I look down at my at my feet there is LeRoi holding up the other end of the world. LeRoi is the King, of course. I know that behind each lattice square there is another bed, another me, another participant in the imminent drama, that if one opened the drawer-front that the teeny and the tiny holes actually mark then they would be there in all their pain and terror and glory, a representative either of Hell or of Heaven, and that the game would start again, from here, from point zero, that Pat would strap the agonising mask to my face, the transparent plastic mask that is too tight and that is going to wobble all night, pulling my lips back and forcing air in and out of my lungs in tiny pulses too fast to count, and that we are going to wait there in terrible anticipation for the Devil to arrive, for thin, scheming agony to present itself in a new form, for a livid explosion of blood and pus and vomit, for a scream of dedicated madness.
I am lying there and Pat has gone away. I am waiting, I am waiting, the waiting is endless, and I cannot even begin to wait to wait for the beginning without Pat there. When she comes I ask Where have you been? and she is cross. All night the pain which is not pain but the shadow of agony pursues me through sleeplessness as the beeps and bleeps and terrible sucking sounds from the other end of the ward repeat and recur endlessly. LeRoi says nothing, enduring silently because he is the King. I shout and swear. If the Edinburgh woman speaks I want to kill her. When I shout and swear, Winnie tells me off. At one point I have to shit, even though it is impossible; I am too blocked, fed only on automatic heroin. I lie on my side and pick tiny, grapey shits out of my anus with toilet roll. How did this happen? asks Eija, looking at one in horror and amazement. They come pre-wrapped. I reply. Portion control.
One morning, Pat comes back to me.
Dont be cross with me. I beg her.
I shall never be cross with you again. she says.
The Woman my (ex) Lover came to see me. I wanted so hard to protect her. I had summoned, somehow, a supply of optimism from somewhere, and I wanted to transmit some of it to her, I was afraid of the effect I was having on her.
Im lucky, really, I said, because I like thinking, and I can still do that.
I didnt know how untrue that was, then. I could hardly think at all; I certainly wasnt thinking clearly. Thinking is a terrible burden, and seems an unavoidable reflex behaviour; I do it without even noticing, until it hurts. I was looking on the bright side, I wanted to protect her from me. How impossible that is:
This will be the making of me, I said, somehow or other.
Its obvious, now, that I was mad.
She was typically forthright:
Its not going to be the making of you if you spend all your time hanging around with me. she said.
We had already split up, of course, we were always splitting up, I was never satisfactory; always too poor, too bohemian, too unrespectable, too opinionated (I might say principled) for her comfort. She has taught me such a lot, none of which I wanted to know.
She was tired. She talked about work. There was a lot on. I was so sorry for her, I felt so guilty. There was a Nurse doing something to or for me.
Youve got lovely eyes. said the Nurse.
You surprise me. I replied, since I dont think I have lovely eyes. They are different colours, one more blue, one more green.
The purple eye-shadow helps. said the Woman, my (ex) Lover.
She told me that her boss had said she could bring a laptop up and work in the hospital while I had my operation. I tried to laugh. I didnt want her to do that, it was ridiculous, she didnt want to sit around in a hospital. Perhaps he could have worked outside the operating theatre in which his wife was being carved open.
Do you know where this is? she asked, looking tired, cross, tearful.
South London. I said.
You mustnt come up here, you need to have your own life.
Yet I remember trying to write her a letter, painstakingly marking it out in wobbly capitals on lined paper in a childs notebook, because at that point I could hardly write, unable to finish it, saying we are not bad people.... [But perhaps we are, perhaps we are bad people, I am bad because I have been punished, she is bad because she has deserted me.] and trying to suggest that we might still have a future together. She read it without comment. She did not even want to take it with her. I reached out to touch her face.
I know what youre like I said and I care about you.
Now this is much later and I am trying to remember, some of this is description contemporary with the events and some is added later, I suppose I should distinguish between the two but even that is difficult. I seem to remember saying to her something like
You know that what has happened to me renders the emotional aspects trivial?
Really? she said.
Im ready to believe that I meant that it would be all right that she was going to leave me, that we couldnt carry on beyond this point, this full stop.
My love for her was at this point complete and so perfect that I entirely believed this dementedly selfless piece of nonsense. Im ready to believe that she understood me to mean this and yet disbelieved me, even though Im sure that this was what she would have wanted. Perhaps I was only saying what I thought it was she needed to hear. I was so pure, as thin as a ray, I had no view of my own, no selfish position screwed into the earth of being, I was cut loose and drifting, I saw only what was proper and eternal, not understanding that I might later become a person again and have to deal with feelings. Perhaps I was trying to accept the inevitable, publicly at least. I knew I had no way of holding her any more, and that anyway we were killing each other.
I remember individual acts of kindness. Shuma let me use her mobile when I could not reach a phone. I called my daughter. When she was not in I called the Woman, my (ex) Lover, or that could have been the other way round. Shuma was cross about it, perhaps she thought Id spoken to two people when Id only asked to make one call. In a way this was true, and in a way it wasnt.
That Peter is full of tricks. she said to someone in my hearing.
It wasnt meant to be a trick. I said.
I felt terrible. I liked Shuma. I would have given her money, or anything. The last thing I wanted was to betray her trust. I was too weak and immobile to explain, and she avoided me.
Liz came to see me in H.D.U. (I think) and also on the ward. She is Emilys mothers sister, one of my outlaws (as opposed to inlaws). I could hardly speak or see, and had been given an enema which took sudden effect part way through her visit. I told her that I didnt deserve her concern, and she agreed.
My Father came, all the way from Scotland. My Brother, who lives in Birmingham, accompanied him. They had an awful journey. I wept. I felt guilty that I should have caused these people such worry. Some time later I saw a Doctor watching me from the bottom of the bed.
Its not fair. I said. I feel like Ive let everyone down. My Father came. Hes old. I should be visiting him in hospital.
Youre not on your deathbed. responded the Doctor.
No, but you know what I mean. Its the wrong way round.
In London, they performed a delicate piece of jewellery inside my back. They had to do it in London since they could not find a big enough toasting-fork in the whole of Kent. The operation involved slicing a long hole in my back and putting a plate in against my spine and flipping me over and constructing a titanium cylinder around three of my vertebrae and removing one of them and flipping me over again and screwing the two of them together with huge screws. In order to wrap my spine they had to enter through the side of my chest, cutting more ribs than I can count and temporarily removing one of my lungs. Everyone admires the photos. After this I was placed on a bed in the High Dependency Unit with a bewildering array of tubes coming out of me. This bed was the latest in high-technology superior expensive first-rate electronic beds, which could move you (its incumbent, or recumbent) into sitting positions of infinite subtlety at the touch of a button. However, from the first moment I was placed on this bed it was not flat, in that the head end was lower than the foot end.
I soon began to feel that I was sleeping uphill, on a banana, a sensation sharpened both by my excessive intake of heroin and by the fact that the only possible way to sleep was on my back. It became increasingly irksome and uncomfortable, and I asked every day if something could be done about it, and every day I was lying in it, so that nothing could.
After eight days matters (mattress?) came to a head (or possibly foot). I had been taken to the gym for the very first time by physiotherapists and my ward had been changed in my absence, moving me upstairs. The physios took me to my new ward, but there was no bed. LeRoi was there, which was strangely comforting. I was sat in a chair (the same chair which later contained the telephone) and I gradually collapsed to the point where I was slumped forward over the table in front of me croaking Bed, bed, bed.
When a bed came, it was the same bed. Nevertheless, I was glad to see it, and even more glad when they found a hoist and transferred me into it.
I soon found that this was not a good thing. I had the sensation again that my legs were above my head, and that my back was being bent against nature as a result. This is a dispiriting feeling for someone recuperating from a spinal injury.
After a couple of hours I transferred myself illegally and without sufficient training to my chair and pulled the pillows, blanket, sheets and mattress off my bed. Various nurses ignored me, probably considering this an example of patient misbehaviour, which it certainly was. In due course I resorted to raising my arm and shouting I am going to sue this hospital, I am starting to sue this hospital from now, I am suing this hospital. as loudly as I could with a limited number of ribs. The first nurse I got to take any notice was, ironically enough, Winnie.
I remember you. I said, cautiously, I dont think we get along.
Winnie told me, in a tone which indicated that I was behaving like a fool, that
This is the same bed that youve been in ever since your operation.
Yes. I replied, Which means that I have been in a maladjusted, uncomfortable and probably damaging bed ever since my operation.
Undeterred, Winnie adjusted a plate at the base of the bed.
Its only because its been adjusted for someone with low blood-pressure. she told me, all the time maintaining the attitude of one explaining something obvious and reasonable to a recalcitrant child.
I do not have low blood pressure.
Winnie left, but a group of other nurses flipped the mattress, changed the bedclothes and persuaded me back in.
For the first time in ten days or more I could see out of a window, and when morning came I could see a tall, aluminium chimney tipped with spirals of dark metal and a big red crane backed by some Lombardy Poplars and other trees. It was a steely grey morning. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
During the course of the day the big red crane piled up a number of Portakabins in front of the trees.
The most important thing about God is not whether he exists or not.
There are those who go out and steal in order to obtain heroin. I would steal in order not to have to take it. Heroin simplifies things for its devotees: suddenly everything is clear, you know what you want, and can do whatever is necessary to obtain it. It renders one superbly selfish, gives one complete clarity of decision and purpose, it is like a faith.
Of course, its social effects are disastrous. I have seen the brilliant, wild youth of whole towns wiped out by it; bodies washed up on the beach, social circles devote themselves to stealing each others video recorders; humour, vitality, excitement and goodwill swallowed up and vanished within six months.
Of course, many people find it quite manageable. William Burroughs lived forever. Heroin itself will not kill you, unless you overdose. It is the conditions of the market which kill you: impurities, dirty needles, infections, failing to look after yourself, getting into debt with criminals.
And heroin is no fun. It may be an aid to concentration, an analgesic, even for a short while an inspiration, but it is too deeply controlling, too powerful and too demanding to be anybodys friend. So I resented being fed automatic heroin in London. It sent me more than a little mad.
Not long after the operation I had a dream in which I was running after my car. Bouncing beside me was a bird-like being, or a furry asterisk, which seemed to represent my heart. It kept up with me but I was breathless and I did not seem to be going fast enough, even though I was going as fast as the traffic.
Bush declares War on Television, on the grounds that it is a weapon of mass distraction.
There is more misery in the world than can be swept into a dustpan in the course of one day.
Now with added insult.
100 die in Miss World contest. Contestants claims to wish to travel and promote world peace are called into question.
Dark Energy, Dark Matter: the majority of the Universe is made up of something we know nothing about.
Myra Hindley, who having for so long been deprived of all rights, now has only the last administered.
In order to move the telephone, I had to reconstruct the Chinese Empire from year one........
It would seem a fairly undaunting sort of a task, not beyond the means of an intelligent dog, let alone a being imbued with semi-divine qualities such as reason, foresight and imagination.
I wanted to move the perfectly ordinary telephone from one side of my bed, where it was on the seat of the chair, to the other, where it could perch happily and within reach on the top of my locker. British hospital furniture for the patient consists of these objects: a bed with a mattress so uncomfortable it must have been designed with therapeutic intent; a table which raises and lowers and is so shaped that it will straddle the bed. a very useful thing, except that the castors are inevitably reluctant to allow its movement along the path of desire; a locker with various doors and apertures, usually concealing a copy of the New Testament and Psalms; and a chair with a high back into which patients are displaced or decanted for meals, or even all day, so as not to allow them the impression of rest. Anyway, in the fond hope that I might get visitors, or desire to sit, or exercise some control over my environment, I decided to transfer the telephone from the seat of the chair on the right of the bed to the top of my locker on the left.
The first stage seemed to me to be to adjust my position suitably in order to grasp, hold, or grip the telephone. This would require inverting myself on the bed, that is, changing from face up to face down, a thoroughly revolutionary proposal.
After a vast struggle and a convulsive effort I found myself balanced precariously on all fours, my knees acting as a single point of balance and my fore-arms stretched out, spreading the weight beside and in front of me. Although from here I could see the telephone I was unable to move either elbow from the bed without the certainty of collapsing onto my side with who-knows-what repercussions.
It was as I contemplated this dilemma that the telephone began to ring. I somehow pivoted my arm in order to reach out and answer it, all the while keeping my elbow on the bed. It was my father. He told me that he imagined me accomplishing acts of enormous heroism, to which I was able to reply that I was indeed currently doing so, but that it was difficult to talk at the moment, as I was on the moon, both of which at least seemed to be true. Replacing the receiver, I returned to clinging to the surface of the bed, unable to make any further motion and yet unwilling to relinquish my new and extraordinary position. Moving the whole telephone from place to place was entirely out of the question.
A Nurse called Becca pulled back the curtains and laughed.
Im on the moon. I said, Dont tell anyone.
O.k., she responded cheerfully, just dont fall off.
After some interminable period I returned to Earth, adopting the back-on-bed position, the telephone remaining determinedly where it was. I got Becca to move it. She said Id given her the best laugh shed had all day.
In London they fed me solely on heroin and steroids. They gave me automatic heroin through a rotary pump plugged into the wall.
It was the next day after my bed protest that they told me I was going back to K&S. Coincidence? Rachel and Jo and Dunc visited me, and LeRoi told them I was the worst, which, of course, I am. He was getting dizzy spells. I told him he had just had a brain operation and he wasnt used to taking that much heroin all at once.
His consultant came to visit him. He looked like a vampire. He removed the dressing and it wasnt replaced for three hours.
In the evening, LeRoi was visited by his family. He had one blonde wife and a huge brown extended family inclusive of at least three generations, all or some of whom might appear and fill the ward at any time. These two families never arrived together, they never met, they belonged, it is clear, to different universes or continua. Perhaps this is what had exploded LeRois head.
A tall thin French African male nurse walked into our grey pre-breakfast dawn.
Good Morning Vietnam! he shouted.
Oh man, you are the King. I laughed, and then recovered myself, Oh no, LeRoi is the King. You must be the Prince.
The Prince told me he had 7 children that he had to cook for when he got home. I told him that he had been busy. He said some of them were his brothers.
I look after them. They are my brothers.
Where is he?
He is dead.
Oh. Most of us are, I suppose. Im sorry. Where is their Mother? Is she dead too?
She is in Nottingham.
Why is she in Nottingham if her children are in Streatham?
She works. She lives. She is in Nottingham. Before I was Nurse, I was Cook.
You were a cook? You like to cook?
I was cook, in Restaurant.
Good job too.
I prefer Nurse.
No, I mean, its good that you can cook, with all those children. Its......idiomatique.
We look at each other across the gulf of our incomprehension. He seems very young and vital, far too young to have 7 children, he is tired but still sparking out excess energy. He is like a dancer, slim, graceful and lithe. He is like Patrick Viera, the Arsenal midfield player.
Victoria, by contrast, is heavy, and in her fifties, an Agency nurse from Jamaica. She sits in the chair at the foot of my bed, talking about cooking with Patrice.
Its a good thing you like to cook. she says, with what I take to be a startling lack of originality.
Patrice goes off to do something but Victoria continues to sit.
Patrice likes to cook. What do you like to do when you go home?
I dont know. Have a cup of tea. Smoke. Listen to the radio. I havent done it in so long I really dont think I know....
I like to sit. Patrice likes to cook, some people like to do the housework, you like to talk. I like to sit. I can sit all night and only get up twice.
Despite the cheap shot, I maintained a respectful silence.
7 children is too many. she said, but one is not enough. If you only have one chile you put all your weight, all your hopes and dreams on that child and then you are always going to be let down. Because theres nobody, nobody in this world can carry all of someone elses hopes and dreams and expectations as well as their own. 2 is better, it is insurance. But 7 is too many. Too many shoes, too many prams, too many meals.
Ive got one child. I said, I try not to do that.
So have I. she said.
I remember her giving me the tights. They give you tights if youre not mobilising so you dont get thrombosis, like on an aeroplane. The tights are white and have a little round hole edged in yellow at the toe end of each foot through which (it is intended) you can project your foot by means of pulling and stretching and poking and twisting, as may seem appropriate. (If you want a definite schedule, ask Physiotherapy.) This hole is so placed that if you are not careful stray toes can sometimes protrude from it, resulting in pathetic deformations and some quite serious friction burns.
I like to see a man in stockings, says Victoria, as long as he has a good leg. Some people talk about fashion and other things, but I like to see a man in a stocking.
I smiled at her, puzzled, and tried to imagine a context for her experiences with men in stockings.
You like Shakespeare. I said, Its like Walter Raleigh, what do they call it? Doublet and hose.
Thats right. she says, pleased.
Well, I wondered why they made us wear these things, but now I know its for you, I wont mind.
Theres a good boy. she said.
It did not worry me that I am nearly as old as her, I did not find it condescending, I was glad to be good for a change. You could certainly see that Victoria liked to sit, she was solid in the chair, her weight pushing down through the legs to the dully gleaming hard floor, holding that wing of the Hospital firmly to the ground. Perhaps without her the Hospital would have used its enormous number and area of wings to fly away, except that that would be no good since (like us patients) it held its misery within itself, and could not escape it by mere flight.
LeRoi was worried. He too had been told he was moving to another hospital, and he thought this was bad news. I explained the situation as I understood it: If they had been worried about him, or had to revisit the inside of his skull, they would have kept him where he was, in the specialist neurological centre. The fact that he was due for removal was a good sign - there was every likelihood that he was recovering normally, and was being sent to a less high-pressure hospital to recuperate.
Theyre sending you nearer home so this lot can pester you half to death with curried goat burgers and ginger soup.
I lay on my bent bed surrounded by plastic bags containing my belongings and waited for the ambulance for about four hours. Eventually they came to collect me. I said goodbye to LeRoi and his relatives, who included two small, plump, terrified boys who had been forbidden to go to the toilet by their Carribean grandmother. I told one of them he was lucky to have feet, let alone trainers. I was back off to Tunbridge Wells. Never can such an idea have been so welcome.
I lay on the narrow trolley in the back of the ambulance and watched the grimy traffic of London grind past.
The ambulance man who wasnt driving and I talked a little, deciding we could sell my urine on the street (so full of heroin was it) and that the firemen had a good press officer, but mostly I left him alone and absorbed the unusual sensation of movement, and he revised for his next exam. In about two hours I was entering K&S once again through the automatic doors of accident and emergency.
I arrived back at K&S from London at about 11 oclock at night, and was parked in the womens bay on a bed made of cotton wool.
I was disgusting: Disgusting of Tunbridge Wells. Utterly constipated and dying for a shit, out of my head on heroin and misery. I shouted and swore and raved. One of the nurses tried to prevent me touching my own anus, something I considered a medical necessity. I called out to the ward, trying to apologise.
Im sorry ladies. I should not be here.
And we are ladies.
Of course you are; this is Tunbridge Wells.
Not only this (a ward full of distressed ladies), but the ambulance men had failed to pass over what very limited paperwork had come with me, and had then knocked off and gone home. There were only two envelopes, but the general impression was that I, as a person (of sorts) was more or less insignificant, the truly important thing being the notes intended to describe me. I was demoted below the status of an envelope.
When I was moved back to the Kent and Sussex I was in a bed opposite Harold Atcott, a sweet-natured, white-haired man of eighty or so, who told me something of his life growing up in Kent, working, and being in the Army. He had been in the 2nd World War, run an Officers Mess, and in Service, working in big houses, for the Queens milliner, among others. He was a very equable man, not only a philatelist but a numismatist and a collector of badges. I could not have imagined the two of us seeing each other and not taking an instant dislike, me with my long hair and wild mood swings, he with his army neatness and his stick covered in badges, yet we spent four or five days in intense conversation, and I think really liked each other. Certainly I liked him, and he professed that I was a lovely man to talk to.
Aldon snores for England, snores like Moses, snores like the Everglades.
Two nurses try to change a soiled old woman in the corner. She is demented. She has a broken hip.
Dont do that, Stop it, say the nurses.
Mum, Mum, Dad, Police, Charles. she calls, slapping them and pulling their clothes.
He was a bit of a showman, perhaps. He would enter the ward bays announcing himself and his wares. Sometimes he would tell a joke. I could tell Harold didnt like him. He didnt like electric razors either. Anyway, for some reason that morning, perhaps my third or fourth back at K&S I took him on, deciding perhaps that I had lost so much already that I had nothing left to lose.
How are we this morning? he asked in his showmans voice. Of course he didnt want to know, he wanted to sell us Newspapers, entering the ward bay with his trolley.
We are marvellous! I replied loudly from the bed where I lay in my lascivious agony.
He double-took in my vileness as I reclined there. He turned in astonishment for support to his presumed allies in the ward.
Wheres he come from? he asked.
I am from Venus. I said. We are all marvellous on Venus.
I thought they were women on Venus.
I am women. I said.
The Newspaperman retreated in some confusion.
Oscar works as a ward domestic after college. He is a handsome young Spaniard. His girlfriend, also Spanish, also works as a domestic. Lord preserve the International Health Service. He is surprised to see me lying in a bed instead of sweeping floors or driving a van or something.
Hola. I say.
What happen you?
I drive my car through a hedge. You do not do this. I wag my finger like a windscreen wiper.
He tells me another Spanish domestic is dead, making a sign for vomiting and pointing at his back.
Kidneys? I guess.
Kidneys. Oscar concurs. Tears are in his eyes. It has been sudden, although Pedro always looked pale, even sullen. Unwell, I suppose. They had been partners, working together doing the ward polishing. It is not safe to work in Hospitals. Lets gather all the sick people together into one place and let them infect one another. Perhaps some of them will die. That might save us money.
Misery Warehouses or Death Factories, the difference depends on the work of the ward domestic, a post of unremitting drudgery paid at or about the minimum wage. Victor is ill. Gloria has never looked well. Victor is a good man, a Portuguese with kindly brown eyes. His wife is ill too, he tells me.
Later in the week, Oscar sits in the chair beside my bed. I rest five minutes.
Yes, good, please do, si, si, acqui, muy bien.
He leans forward, to confide in me.
I have problem: I like to smoke chocolate.
My mind whirs for a few moments before I realise he means hashish. He looks so tired, he is in a foreign country; worse, he is in Tunbridge Wells. I feel sorry for him. He wants me to get him some. Of course, he can tell just by looking at me.
I will try, I say, I dont know
Dont forget he says.
I will not forget.
I do try, ringing my friends, and it seems just possible, even at this distance, but in fact I am transferred before it can take place.
I remember sitting in my first wheelchair on ward 6 of the K&S with pale sunlight coming in through the french windows. I had a cheese roll in one hand and another cheese roll on the trolley in front of me. I am in Paradise. I thought. This seems to me to demonstrate a certain paucity of ambition.
In order to be accepted onto the Neurological Rehabilitation Unit, the registrar at K&S put me through an exam. Most of it was straightforward: Who is the Prime Minister? What is the date? Who is the Queen? Count backwards from 100, and so-on. Of course I didnt know the date and I cant count backwards from 100 with any ease, but one was really difficult: say as many words as you can beginning with p in one minute. Now, at this moment, I could almost certainly reel off a huge list of monosyllabic p words; pig, peg, pan, pen, pun, pin, pick, pack, pox, puck, peck, pal, pull, pall, peel, pale, pole, and soforth. At the time, conscious that it might matter if I succeeded to a certain level or not, I struggled with every one, my brain whirring and threshing. Among the feeble crop, with increasing desperation came pangolin, parity, penis, prostitute, penetration.
I could not sleep. I did not sleep for two consecutive hours for weeks. I would prowl and rotate on the kingdom of my bed, usually reaching the morning with my head at the foot end. It was the heroin, I think, which hadnt worn off yet, although I hadnt had any since before leaving London. I had heard through my headphones that the meteorites were supposed to be coming that night, thick and fast and for the last time in the year, possibly longer, due to the Earths position vis-a-vis some asteroid belt or suchlike, and I decided to see whether I could see any that night.
Conditions were not favourable. I was in Tunbridge Wells, which is a long way from heaven, and as powerfully illuminated as any built-up area. Not only that, but the hospital building had lights on outside all night, either to deter thieves, or to aid in the detection and apprehension of such errant patients as might attempt to flee. I was fortunate to have a french window beside my bed which allowed me a view of a steep slope covered in grass and containing some small bushes and trees leading up to the main body of the hospital building, itself permanently illuminated from within at its stairwells and certain other windows. This building was at the crest of the hill, blotting out nearly all access to the sky, but there was a certain amount visible nevertheless, a portion which I realised could increase if I lowered myself in relation to the top of the window.
At about two in the morning, Aldon, the one-legged all weather British snoring champion sleeping in the bed beside mine, I pulled some blankets onto the floor and lowered myself, useless legs first, out of bed and on top of them. With enormous effort and concentration I reached up and pulled back the bolt which held the french windows shut, and allowed the door to swing open. The sky visible above the hospital was mostly cloudy, but the occasional star was visible. It was freezing with the door open, and I was very uncomfortable on the hard floor. I could not see any meteorites. The cold was damp and the floor was hard. I had to call a nurse and get her to help me back into bed.
Ian came in, thin as streak of piss. He took over Harolds bed. He was cheerful, but in pain from his arm. He said he had been sleeping upright in an armchair for several nights, since otherwise he was keeping his wife awake. He announced himself as Mr. Scum, and it was clear that he was a drunk.
He had a number of unlikely stories he seemed determined to tell: he had been among the members of Special Services who got lost in Papua New Guinea and had to walk out of the uncharted jungle. When the helicopters were looking for them in the valleys they were in the mountains. By the time they reached the valleys, the helicopters were looking for them in the mountains. They trekked for weeks, with only bananas to eat. A diet of only bananas gave him duodenal cancer, and the Army gave him an operation and a medical discharge.
He told bad jokes too. Hed been a train driver, and had killed two people, one of whom he never even saw, as he was going backwards, the other being a suicide. It is not easy to stop a train, even when someone stands in front of it. He nearly got fired once, for placing his Uncles artificial limb with red paint smeared on it on the front of his engine and crashing the buffers at Kings Cross.
In his role as Mr. Scum, if offered a chair, Take a chair, he would pick it up and carry it from the room. I told him he should develop a new career as an arty shit. He could get £10,000 for spraying the I.C.A. with blood, I said, dressed like that. While it was hard to see him in the S.A.S. or something, he certainly had a way of dressing, like an off-duty prison officer might, in a blue shirt and crease-perfect slacks and hideous zip-through knitwear which I was convinced would strike terror into the hearts of the frothy avant-garde. In truth, the daring art ploy in our times would be to set out to shock the avant-garde and conceptualist raffis. He didnt know what I was talking about. His D.T.s got so bad I had to roll his cigarettes for him, and he could not feed himself. He had been born just north of Glasgow, a naval port, he told me. When he was at school, his friend had drowned wearing the new boots of which he had been so proud. Drowned on a fishing trip with his father and his uncle.
Ian had had an operation to set a broken arm, but this had never healed. The bone had never grown across the little gap. They did a blood test and found he was low on platelets, and they wanted to take a bone-marrow sample, but when they eventually came to do it Ian was shaking so badly with D.T.s, and so vague and confused that he was not capable of giving informed consent.
He was getting worse. He would wake up, thinking he was at home, and we would have to tell him where he was. The doctors said they couldnt operate on him while his blood was like that, and they sent him home. How they expected him to improve at home shaking like that and with cider available to him I have no idea. It seemed a dereliction of duty to me. The man had come in, got worse, and been discharged with no treatment whatsoever.
The Woman, my (ex) Lover rang, and told me she was coming to see me in Lewes. It was clear she had something to say. I talked to the Ward Sister about whether we could be alone.
I dont mind, I said but shes a very private woman. This is just a room full of ears to her. Its a bit of a delicate negotiation.
She came on Sunday, and we went out to Minor Injuries Reception by the main entrance, me in my wheelchair. I had tried already to make it clear that by moving from Tunbridge Wells to Lewes I had ceased to expect her to look after me, that Emily was now my main conduit. Id wanted for a long time to be able to give her her own life back, since I was no use any more. I could see how visiting me made her suffer, and I care so much for her.
Theres nothing I said, emphasising the word that I used to do for you that I can do anymore.
There was a rocking-horse in Minor Injuries Reception, its tail held in place with a screw.
She told me that we were no longer together, that she was not my girlfriend any more, that she needed her space. I dont know what she told me. She was very determined, very closed.
I know, I know. I said. Snot came out of my nose. I was trying not to cry.
Sniff. she said.
I cant sniff. Get me a tissue.
A rugby player came in with a cut above his eye. He was still wearing his boots, which clacked on the floor.
Wheres Mum? (Ron, 83)
Whose Mum? (bewildered overweight grandson with greasy, tousled hair) My Mum?
No! MY Mum. I mean, my Wife.
Misery Warehouse or Death Factory?
Richard visits me, looking solemn as a heron, folding up into my wheelchair and radiating a gentle humour. It is only now, after two months, that I can see people without weeping and feeling unworthy of their concern.
Had I had the choice I would have switched myself off on several occasions, but no switch was made available.
Rachel visited. She looked beautiful again; it was good to see her. She told me she has Hepatitis C this is a liver disease, probably contracted through the use of dirty needles, I dont know much about it, but its fairly serious. Rachel is training to be a midwife, she is in her third year of training, making what seems a step forward from years of stasis. The diagnosis is not yet certain, but she has antibodies, her liver function is impaired.
I looked at her and wept. I loved her all over again.
Now well have to do something for you I said, Well all have to follow each other round in a circle with swabs.
These are the drug-wars, my darlings, the wars we wage upon ourselves, the wars we always lose.
When I was transferred to the Neurological Rehabilitation Unit at Southlands I was taken upright in an ambulance, rather than lying on a trolley. This later caused me severe pain in reaction, as my back was so weak. I saw a number of magpies en route, and tried to interpret them in my usual desperate, superstitious way. On arrival, I was placed in a bed in a bay which was occupied by several men in the last throes of a television addiction. In my first few hours I was subjected to Pet Rescue, !5 to !, Countdown and The Weakest Link. In my normal life outside hospital I would have killed, left home, broken a marriage, or committed suicide in order to avoid any and certainly all of these. I do not even own a television, although there are some shows I actively enjoy. I had to call a nurse and make a fuss. I could not read poetry. Some people will have the television on as though it were a window, but it is not a window, it whispers insidious madness, it poisons the mind with insistent assumptions.
I was lucky. A certain amount of bed-juggling took place and I was moved near the nurses desk on the main ward. I was then left for the weekend in my new bed with no therapy of any sort, of course. I gradually adapted to my new surroundings and the culture of the new hospital, even each ward, having its own way of working, its own culture, customs and schedules.
Due to the fantastic success of my ill-health diet plan, I have lost two stone in a month. I now weigh approximately the same as an eleven-year-old rat. Combine this with the attention-span of a sardine, and you have an assessment of my general condition, which is fairly impressive, I hope you will agree.
I need weeping each day, just as a cow needs milking.
I have back and shoulder pain because during my operation it was considered necessary to amputate one of my wings.
Doing some dying.
The three witches show Eric a photograph of a pig, and tell him it is of him when he was a child. No, No Eric shouts, clearly distressed. Its about all he can manage to say.
Earlier, they had refused me a sick bowl because the drug trolley wasnt locked. I was sick on the floor.
Ask not for whom the phone rings, it rings for thee.
Under my new care regime, nurses wake me up every four hours to check if I am asleep. This morning I woke up in order to tell them when they arrived.
A nurse comes to give me my four-hourly shot of antibiotics. These are fed to me through a waspy tube (canula) inserted into my vein in my arm. The antibiotics sting and make the vein swell, and the tube, which is inserted on a long needle, has to be moved every so often, sometimes once a day, sometimes less often. This has left me with a number of small wounds like bee-stings over my arms. I shall soon run out of vein.
The nurse distracts me efficiently with a number of stories: the Police helicopter was out last night looking at a man on the roof of a nearby block of flats; the hospital is funded and staffed by four different trusts, each of which has different priorities, protocols and procedures. Her husband had intravenous antibiotics when he had the snip. He was in hospital for a week. When he came home, she bought him a card and some sweets, and perhaps thinking this was romance enough, threw them onto the bed, where they landed between his legs. He contracted internal bleeding and was taken back to hospital. He got so swollen he could not move, and on his next discharge was issued with a truss. One morning the dog ate it. Nurse became overcome by the humour of the situation, her husband more and more cross. Tragedy and comedy are different sides of the same coin.
The Woman, my (ex) Lover came to see me (not for the first time, poor darling). The erotic charge she carries is incredible. It was just over a week ago that I saw the consultant, who asked me whether, when I needed a wee, I woke with an erection. I had said no, but that I knew where he was heading with this line of questioning, and that I thought things would be all right. Ever since then Ive been getting worried. I hadnt thought much about sex, but impotence, or sexual dysfunction, is another matter, calling into question my sense of being. I started wondering about Viagra, and feeling foolish and miserable, since no-one would want to go to bed with me anyway now that I am an old cripple. I wonder what sort of a relationship I could have without the prospect of sex. What are relationships about, anyway?
We looked at each other and kissed. She brought me a lamp and some books, which was great, but it was her that I wanted. I was so pleased to see her that I lit up.
She sat on the bed and I rubbed available bits of her. After a while Nurse Philip came and said I had a phone-call, but that hed told them I was busy. Which I was.
Would you like some privacy? he asked, and drew the curtain across the bed. He then went out to the car-park and got run over by an invalid carriage.
You ought to watch where youre going, young man. said the occupant. Im sure it was our fault, we had distracted him. Phil had to go to A&E in Brighton, and went home with severe bruising.
The Woman, my (ex) Lover lay beside me on the bed and we cuddled and snogged. I got an erection for the first time in two months and more. She felt me up, rubbing my cock through my trousers. I undid her trousers and put my hand inside. When she was about to go she had to rearrange herself. She pulled up her top and I intervened, kissing her breasts and sucking her nipples. I kept thinking of the lubricant I had stolen earlier and hidden in my washbag. I wanted to fuck, or at least to try, or at least to rub lubricant over her until she had an orgasm, or at least became insanely aroused. I think I could have had sex. This is not bad for a man with a broken back. She is an erotic miracle: I have always known that.
However, we resisted, telling each other we were naughty adolescents.
Spank me. she said.
I gave her a gentle, symbolic slap on her blue-jeaned bottom.
She pulled her top straight, her breasts pushing against her tight, thin, rust-coloured knitted top.
Youve made me all wet. she said, pulling a face.
When Wendy came the next day, or the day after, I wept, and told her we never know the harm we do until afterwards. I meant me, of course, in regard to her, and Sarah, and Emily, my daughter. She had said she was terrified of me at Ems birthday, when we were playing wink-murder, and this had stuck in my mind. She brought me a card and a hyacinth and my washing which Em had taken away and dried improperly. She was lovely, of course. I told her about the Woman, my (ex) Lover coming to Lewes to tell me we were over. I said she must have done it to cause me extra pain. I wept and wept, saying that I hoped it was over now, that I couldnt stand it any more, it was too much. I do believe it, it is true, but it seems we cannot choose who we love, or how and when we love them.
I heard a friend of mine on Radio 3 last night. This seemed utterly bizarre, and gave me a shock. Why not me? I wonder.
The world could not decide what to put on today, and has stayed in bed.
In any case, Christmas is the pressure-cooker of the emotions. Family steam builds up, fuelled by alcohol, greed, inactivity, boredom. Tension mounts, the expectation of festive goodwill and the general perfection of happiness contrasts so acutely with reality that an unbridgeable gap opens between life as advertised and life as it is experienced. Not only that, but the solitary, the lonely, the disconnected are made to feel the full measure of their exclusion from family life, so determinedly glorified in the media at this time. The whole tradition and the entire force of the media are devoted to the glorification of the family through consumerist excess.
So it might be quite a relief to be excused Christmas, but being excused Christmas on account of being in hospital does not sound promising. Hospital food does not seem adequate to expectations of the occasion. Ill people do not suggest themselves as ideally cheerful companions. Besides which, Christmas in Hospital entails a lot of enforced jollity. Entertainments. Cards. Ghastly, cliche-ridden seasonal music. Miserably inadequate baubles and tinsel lost on institutional corridors. Grimly determined nursing assistants long past middle-age wearing glittering novelty headgear, or flashing electric reindeer antlers whilst carrying bedpans and mopping up sick.
There was an adequate lunch, involving something like Christmas pudding. A few days before, Phil had put on a concert, playing the keyboard and singing. He did Tom Lehrers Poisoning pigeons in the park, which made me laugh. Sarah, the Mother of my daughter came to visit me, borrowing her Mothers car, which meant she had to go to Christmas dinner with her. This was intensely brave, indeed, quite heroic. It was really good of her to visit me. She brought me some underwear and a bag of things from her Mother including the autobiography of Malcolm Muggeridge, which I refused. The Woman, my (ex) Lover rang me up. She was happy and fine; it was lovely to hear her.
The caterers knocked off at lunchtime. All that was provided for the evening meal were sandwiches. The nurses Peter (an Aberdonian mod who owned a fishtail parka with bullet holes in it and a red Lambretta) and Sarah provided some food, Peter home-made sausage rolls, and Sarah a quiche. Between us, Val and I (mostly Val) provided assorted cheeses, salad, olives, bread, nuts and yoghurt. Other patients must have produced something from inside their false limbs and dressing-gowns because the two tables on Bluebell ward (to which Val had invited James) were covered with food, and the assembled patients participated in a scattered but considerable feast. Val looked askance at uninvited guests, strangers to us, on the other table, people who had come in for Christmas, I think, having nowhere else to go. I hate gatecrashers. she said.
Joy, a tiny wizened lady with a whispery voice who had lost one leg to an operation sat with us. We pulled crackers and I read out the awful jokes, courting universal unpopularity. I put on my paper hat. We were all surprisingly jolly: having expected so little it seemed as though we had achieved something. Expecting little is a good start, if it can be arranged.
My mother keeps sending me yoghurt through the post. I darent eat it, and have to throw it away.
Its 2003. Thank Christ for that. It cant be worse, can it? I wouldnt have thought so. Lots of fireworks went off at midnight, and I hobbled to the window to watch them. Radio 4 lost the chimes from Westminster, so there was no Big Ben. The sky was clear at midnight, but by morning it was pouring with rain again.
Eric is imitating a colony of parrots again in protest against being washed. Sometimes he makes enraged donkey noises. He is much better though, he used only to make these noises and recite a litany of his family members My Mum is Jacky, my Dad is Robin, my Brother is..... because this was all he knew or could remember. Then he would ask where he was, and when he was going home.
This annoyed the piss out of me, frankly, I being at that time in the bed next to him. I tried to answer his questions, but information clearly had no portal through which to enter his spotty brain.
This is not meant to be a series of writings about love, but about illness (and, I hope, recovery), but of course everything is about love if it is about anything at all.
My ribs, which are stoved in like those of a sparrow thats been kicked into the kerb, stick out at crazed angles with little nubs and daft weldings. Its damp today: there are 130 flood warnings, and my ribs ache. Phil is coming soon to pump antibiotics down my I/V tube, which will sting like ant venom. The muscles down the right-hand side of my back are agony when I try to get upright and straighten my spine. I have been woken every four hours now for a fortnight.
Im really quite happy.
Im beginning to even out a bit, I think, neither quite so up or so down, although last night I was whimpering and biting the sheets whenever they gave me the antibiotics, and today I had a go at the physiotherapist for saying Nothings impossible and generally treating me like a child. I told her to cycle up Everest for me tomorrow. There was a huge glossy magpie sunning itself in the garden outside the gym window as my knees buckled and I collapsed onto the bed.
Im knackered now, and my legs are wobbly. I think the antibiotics are nearly over. I hope so. Then they can grow another blood culture and find out if Im still infected. I got diahorrea and vomiting in Victoria Hospital, and when I came here I got blood and urine infections. Misery warehouse or death factory? If Im not better theyll have to do something even more extreme than a fortnights course of four-hourly intravenous antibiotics. Cut my head off, I should think.
I would like a short holiday from my body, even though I know there is no me independent of this physicality. To be imprisoned (or less pejoratively) contained within or transferred to a jar, vat, computer or other container would probably be even worse.
I have always assumed, even declared, that I am my body, and that there is no possibility of my existence without it, but in view of my recent physical and mental experiences I think I should modify my position at least to this extent: I believe now that there is a certain distinction between the physical and the mental which, in the case of the most highly developed saints might mean a delay of about three days between physical and mental disintegration.
This, (as my wise, mad friends have suggested to me) might explain why Christ rose after three days, and the traditions around the departure of the soul from the corpse.
This morning it was snowy with snow. It was white on the roofs of the huddled houses. Then the sun came out and melted them red again.
They sit now in a golden sun, reflecting orange brilliancies from their windows.
Its a bright, frosty morning. A lovely day for a walk. Ironic, how we want what we cannot achieve. Flocks of pointillist gulls flicker off and on. Clouds sit on the downs, fat and mulberry coloured.
The fog has remained on the tip of the downs beyond the houses and the various roads, beyond the line of trees, the fence. It has held itself at the entrance to the tunnel, where the red lights disappear after going up the hill, and the white lights emerge from the other side before descending.
Its getting dark now, the streetlights are winking on, orange.
No-ones come to see me for three days at least. All weekend Ive been stewing in hospital juice. Val and I ordered a pizza yesterday, which was some sort of fun, but I feel musty and divorced from the current of my own life. If it even has a current any more. Perhaps the batteries have gone flat.
Ive even lost more weight, a feat seemingly impossible for a stick. I need people to come and see me, people I know, who have something I understand to talk about. I am running out of self.
They took Suzy away to Brighton this morning. She wasnt well yesterday: she had a red eye, a rash, and was itchy. Suzy has rheumatoid arthritis and aphasia, which is a difficulty or blockage in communication. She says yes when she means no, and she says Jenny or juny when she means anything at all. Or nothing, one can only presume. This morning she was immobilised with pain, and an ambulance crew came for her with a trolley, which, incidentally slammed into my back as I was having breakfast.
Kinnell I shouted, not having been warned beforehand.
They tried to get hold of Terry, her boyfriend, but had to make do with her niece in the end, which will not go down well, I fear. Terry, a shambling, florid pink torpedo with sparse, ill-fitting teeth and thin blond hair is the son of a gangster, a London-next-the-Sea wide boy in the antiques trade, with a knitted gold ring and a supply of submerged violence.
Terry told me about the death of his father, who shrank from 15 to 5 stone, refusing medication.
He was a tough man. he said.
His brother wanted only the money, the house. Terry inherited only a watch. He is filled with anger towards his brother who, he said stole from his father and did not recognise his illness. Now his brother is in hospital he will not visit him. Now hes fallen out with Suzys mother, whos accused him of something, and he seems by his own account an unforgiving man.
No sooner had they taken Suzy off to Brighton, the breakfasts gradually being served, than the use of the toaster set the fire alarms off and we were all evacuated, some of us in our beds, others in our pyjamas and wheelchairs, and parked in the corridor like unwanted furniture. The nursing assistant who had been making the toast twittered and fluttered in a semi-mock panic. Some of the older female patients comforted her with cuddles.
The Firemen knew what it was at once.
Toast smells good. they said, Who did this?
Ere Dave, Ive found a red one. a fireman called out as we castored back in, having located the guilty toaster by her blush. As soon as they left the alarm promptly went off on the ground floor. I expect toast to be banned, like mobile phones.
It was after my mother visited me for the first time that I succumbed to the new infection that every hospital also seems to have (and to give to me). It was nothing to do with her. I tried to stand after physiotherapy, lost my balance and hit the bed. I was trying to attract the attention of the ward Doctor in order to get something the Department of Social Security required of me. The Nurses were cross with me, assuming that it was my fault, but shortly after that I started sweating so much that I soaked my bed twice a night. I then had a violent peak of high temperature. I was ill.
It turned out that I had two separate infections, one urinary and the other in my blood. Thus being woken every four hours to be given new pain.
They decided, in something of a panic, I thought, to send me back to Kings. I did not want to go. I wept, and was incapable of packing my own bags. I had so many things with me by now. Val kissed me bye-bye, and Phil accompanied me to the car, wishing me luck, Sue held my hand. It was a long journey. I looked out for magpies.
When I arrived, I had to walk from the car, holding onto railings into the building and the driver had to carry my bags and boxes, since the porters would not leave the building with a wheelchair. They think I may have an infection in my spine. That would mean another operation. I got inside and slumped in a chair, the accumulated rubbish of weeks piling up around me. I waited for what seemed an hour for a porter to arrive. When he did, he was reluctant to carry my bags with me, but he did, and we were assisted by a woman from the reception desk.
I was brought back to the ward where H.D.U. was, returned, as it were, to point zero. I looked at the bed I was offered in a side-room. The foot, dear God, was higher than the head. I asked if anything could be done about it.
Theres something they do to these beds. said the Nurse What is it? They press something down here.
She pressed something down there, and the bed went flat. I got on to it, exhausted, relieved.
A doctor came and pushed another needle into my arm, spilling blood onto the top sheet and blanket, which Marlene therefore had to change. Later the surgeon/jeweller came to see me, expressing great surprise that anyone should think I had a bone infection, saying I looked too well, but telling me that he was going to Germany for four days tomorrow, so I have to be here over the weekend whatever: another week in London. Can I stand that? Maybe, if they dont give me any more heroin.
They have declared me nil by mouth from midnight, even though they could not be operating tomorrow. I am to have new images taken to see if they can see anything wrong. I dont know if I feel ill or not. I feel weak. I feel upset that Im back in London. When I talk on the phone to my parents, my daughter, my friends, tears come into my eyes and my throat goes funny and my nose runs. I feel ill when they tell me Im ill. I feel ill when I get tired, and I tire quickly, and become faint.
I have argued myself off being nil by mouth, and been relieved of the saline I/V drip which I cannot possibly have needed. Im tired and weak but I feel quite well. I rang everyone up last night, or rather I didnt, I rang my Parents twice, Emily, and the Woman, my (ex) Lover. Even though I waited longest to ring her, she had only just got back from work. She was tired, clearly, and not pleased with my news, but cross rather then sympathetic. I wish I could give up on her, or at least direct my attention somewhere else, but my heart is not free, and my mind seems set on her, she is my direction.
I will get no visitors while I am here, except by a miracle. What will I do with myself? Ill go mouldy. My mind will drop off.
Two separate magpies, or one magpie twice. Sorrow and sorrow. Is there any likelihood of me ever gaining a proper relationship, either with her or with someone else? Val fell nearly in love with me, I think, in Shoreham, but I could not possibly enter into a relationship with her. I have very high visual standards, and no emotional judgement at all. Im every sort of fool.
Ive had all my hair cut off, and this must have been so that the Woman, my (ex) Lover wouldnt fancy me, since she likes my hair. Besides which, Im a cripple, Im impotent, unemployed, unhappy..... No wonder, then, that the Woman has made herself too busy to visit me. Anyway, Im miles away, in Denmark Hill, in London. She hasnt time to visit me.
They have not given me an x-ray today, but I did get two wooden sticks cut to the right length for me, whereupon (which upon) I went for a walk down the corridor. My right leg is almost useless, though probably no worse than usual. It skims across the floor, I cannot lift the foot from the ground. I passed H.D.U., which brought a shiver to my heart. I left the ward and went down in a lift to the ground floor, where I hoped to reach a cafe. I was exhausted before I got half-way there, and had to turn back. Although I was clearly in distress no-one offered to help me, either downstairs or when I struggled back onto the ward. Im glad to have the sticks, though. Later on, I pulled out the tube that the doctor had inserted for the saline drip I didnt need. So far, the only useful thing theyve done for me here is to give me two sticks and six pain killers. I have been here for 28 hours.
A ghostly black woman, with a faint whispery voice, a bandage bandana, sheepskin slippers and a deep depression in the left-hand side of her skull wandered into my room and asked an incomprehensible question about a woman who was, of course, not here, and a complete stranger to me. I have seen her several times since, drifting about in the corridor, like an unquiet spirit.
A clot of doctors gathers at my door, as if reluctant to enter. They suggest that today I will get a C.T. scan and a chest x-ray. I asked whether this would happen today. The registrar says that he had hoped it would happen yesterday. So did I, I agree. He says theres no reason he can think of why they should not do them today. So, well see.
I made it to the cafe today. Its sunny, and perhaps people are more cheerful as a result. UI got past the vending machines this time, and out of the Ruskin Wing altogether, past the back entrance to the Millennium wing (a vast marble atrium with consulting rooms above and no sound proofing), and I found a set of chairs under some murals of uninterpretable symbolic significance, so I sat down. I waited and breathed deeply. People flowed past in both directions. I decided I would set off again when the lady in the white coat had gone past. However, when she drew level with me, she asked if I would like any assistance. I couldnt believe it. She said she was a phlebotomist called Caroline, and that shed only been working at Kings for a week, which perhaps explained her helpful attitude. She asked me what I wanted from her, and we agreed that she should just accompany me. It didnt seem that far with Caroline beside me, and she sat me at a table while I caught my breath again. She asked if I would be o.k., and I assured her that I would, and I thanked her and she left. After a while I joined the queue. Someone let me in ahead of them. I bought a coffee, a brie and tomato baguette and a Mars bar, all of which amounted to nearly a fiver. I then realised I couldnt carry them to a table with a stick in each hand, and the girl at the checkout had to take them for me. I slowly ate my baguette and drank the coffee. It wasnt good, but it was good. I managed to walk back, trying hard to raise my right foot. Getting there and back seemed a triumph. A little kindness goes a long way.
The Doctors are surprised that Ive still had no x-ray or scan. They seem to have no power over those who control imaging. The blood culture they took from me should have developed by now, but they have no knowledge of it.
The Woman, my (ex) Lover rang me up last night. She was doing about 150 miles an hour, energised by the complications and struggles of her work. It was good to hear her cheerful, not to talk about my condition, and concentrate on something else. Shes working with a new bloke she describes as lecherous. I usually disdain to engage in competition for a womans affection: if she prefers someone else then its up to her. This can be painful, of course, but is more definite, perhaps understandable, than outright rejection. How arrogant I am! But what if this high powered lecherous bloke made a play for her, perhaps when she was drunk? She owes no loyalty to me (or does she?) after whats gone on. Im frightened of losing her to someone else. Someone stronger and more capable. I should welcome the prospect, but it is hard to be good. Someone more capable would by definition be good for her.
Well of course its up to her, at every moment, up to her.
The next day I got to the cafe again, but the murals were gone, except for little bits they couldnt reach high up on the walls just near the ceiling: some roundels painted like trees, some rooftops and barrage balloons and clouds in the form of warriors faces.
The ghost came in twice today, which is not unusual. She usually asks about a woman I suspect of being herself. This first time, however, she was pretending to do the drinks round.
What do you want? she asked.
Hot chocolate I said. Id already told the caterer.
Are you awake?
No, just hot chocolate.
You think about it. Ill come back, and maybe youll have thought of something.
She goes out and talks to the caterer.
Chocolate. she says.
Are you doing my job? asks the caterer. She comes in with my drink, raising her eyes and smiling.
Ive met her before. She often visits me. I say.
Its a beautiful evening now, the skys clear, and the sun is setting. I feel very happy, though the drugs are wearing off. I walked back to the cafe again, and it was open, though only just. As soon as I got in there they started mopping the floor and cashing up the tills. I wanted a coffee, but couldnt understand the machine. A kindly black woman explained it to me it uses little sachets and asked me if I could manage. I said I could if I had a lid, which she went and got me along with 3 milks and 3 sugars. I carried the lidded mug in one hand and two sticks in the other all the way to the closing till and a nearby table. When I came to leave, I was directed to the back door, but when they saw how wobbly I was they told me I could go out the front, now sealed by a sort of portcullis. After a lot of scuffling about they found a key and raised the barrier to let me through. It was still a long way back, but I made it, past the obliterated murals, the back entrance to the Millennium Wing, onto Ruskin Wing, past the telephone boxes and the cold drinks machines and the abandoned reception desk, into the lifts, back on the ward, all the way to the far end to side room one, my right foot dragging on the hospital floor.
There is a warning on my bag of salted nuts which reads contains nuts. This is reassuring, to an extent.
Opposite my widow across the narrow roadway is a sort of storage area guarded by alsatians. Among the objects I can see are the back of a lorry on top of which are two flat barrows with red wooden wheels; an empty planter shaped like a carved stone bird-bath, and four fibreglass snowmen with painted buttons, blue top-hats, brooms, and red and yellow scarves.
Richard visited me in London. (A miracle!) He rang up on his mobile to ask me what ward I was on, pretending he was in Brighton, but I could hear from the background noise that he was in London, so I was expecting him when he arrived. He has been good to me. We talked about the fibre-glass snowmen, and the squirrels which were hopping along the wall opposite in and out of the park with the Lombardy Poplars.
Why do they always carry that flexible bottle brush everywhere? I asked.
Its P.R., Richard replied, no-ones going to say thats a rat if they wave one of those about.
My ribs Chicken in a dustbin style.
The greyest morning. The surgeon should be back from Germany today. Ironically I dont feel very well. I was sick last night, and still feel a bit unsettled.
The Doctors came. They said I dont seem ill. I begged to be discharged. Theyre going to look carefully at my scan to see if I have an infection in my metalwork. Of course. Im nervous.
Then the consultant came. He doesnt think I have an infection, which would, after all, reflect badly on his professional practice. Hes gone to look at the scan. If he sees sign of infection he will discharge me. I want to go home. Im nervous.
Of course, he has not returned to tell me anything. I shall have to wait all night on tenterhooks (Im sure I knew what tenterhooks were once, they might be something to do with stretching canvas). I need to tell people if Im going home on Wednesday, there are things that need doing. Now I do feel like an old crippled person.
Ive been miserable today. I feel unloved and broken and useless. Perhaps Im frightened of going home, really. I had dreams last night that I remember faintly: anxiety dreams. In one I cleaned the toilet floor. I was infected and needed an operation. I suppose that could still happen, but I dont believe it. I think Im going home to my rented flat with boxes all over the floor and I think Im frightened.
Ive written nine poems while in hospital. Some of them might be good. Five of them are about hospital and four are about the Woman, my (ex) Lover. She is what I have lost, perhaps, and hospital what I have gained. The hospital poems try to state my position, the others to explain my desire, to narrate my fixation, to justify my obsession.
I was woken at half-past six, when a black male nurse took my temperature and blood pressure.
You can go to sleep again now.
At eight, it was breakfast. A nurse came in and asked me
When are you going home, and who is collecting you?
Thats fascinating. I said I dont know any of that.
The nurse returned a little later.
You are going tomorrow. she said.
I hope shes right.
The angle-grinder spits a plume of sparks.
Am I going home tomorrow? I can scarcely believe it. I have been in hospital for nearly three months, and only left the building to be transferred or sit in a car-park. The physios came and made me walk up and down stairs, performing ballet postures in front of me as I descended, an interesting form of dance, I thought. Orpheus descending, perhaps, with the physiotherapists performing the part of spirits trying to warn me away from Hades. My stamina is improved, but my balance is poor, and I still have no right buttock.
This book is nearly full. its a black Woolworths notebook that the Woman, my (ex) Lover gave me. Everyones been so great, everything has gone so well, Im quite depressed, its been agony and I have ages of agony to look forward to. But I do look forward, god help me. May some good come of it. I remember when the Woman, my (ex) lover first came to visit me in this terrible ward in London. I knew it must be so hard for her, like visiting her dying husband years ago, and I told her I am not dying, I am getting better, and this will be the making of me, somehow or other. I was insanely optimistic, summoning all my strength and courage for myself because I needed it, and trying to use it to protect her, but I was right about some of that. I have got better, though I got iller and iller too. In fact Im remarkably better. I only wish I was better enough to satisfy her, in any of the ways I might. But then, in all truth, I never did, perhaps I never could have done.
I remember seeing a bullfinch out of the french windows at K&S. How beautiful it was. It glowed like a magical fruit. I think I can be happy, once in a while.
When I came out of hospital I went home without any programme of care. After about three weeks the Woman, my (ex) lover told me that she had a new man, that she had been with him for a fortnight or so before I was discharged. She hadnt told me before because it was difficult.
It was difficult for me.
It still is.
How many times can one heart be broken? And in the same place? I knew all this already, I knew it was inevitable, but I still couldnt believe or accept it. I dont pretend we could have carried on; she could never have looked after me; I am too useless, disgusting and broken, though god knows I would have looked after her had the situation been reversed. At least, I believe I would. But perhaps I would only have come to resent her.
The flat was in a state, the Landlords Mother had evicted Emily and her boyfriend who were engaged in a twenty-four hour round of fucking and shouting. They had no right to be there, they had moved in with me when they had exhausted her Mothers patience. There was stuff all over the place and I had to sleep on a bed with a bad mattress. When I ordered a new bed the Landlords Mother tried to make me cancel it, even going so far as to ring up the shop. I felt so weak I could hardly argue, but I did get the bed in the end, and although it didnt help with my backache it was a big improvement. Richard came and put bricks under it. He was funny:
I dont know what it is under here, but its got a lot of legs. he said.
Ah. That would be the octopus.
After six weeks or so Social Services started to do some housework and shopping for me, which my daughter Emily had been helping with. This was due to the intervention of two friends who seemed to know how to intervene. I was already receiving weekly visits from a physiotherapist who persisted in making me do exercises which hurt. She described herself as a physio-terrorist, which she no doubt thought amusing. To give her her due, however, she did once make me some toast, and although we had a row during which I told her that if she didnt like me she should stay away, she did try. Its just that I didnt need physiotherapy, I needed mending.
My Doctor was very nice, and even came to visit me, but whenever I complained of the pain all he did was be reassuring and change my painkillers. He tried for weeks to get me to take anti-depressants, which I resisted, protesting that I had good reasons to be depressed.
I was in pain all the time. Getting off the bed was always painful. It was hard to get to the door. People used to ring the doorbell and then ring it again as I was inching my way towards them, hanging onto the walls. I shouted at the man who brought me meals on wheels, who got uppity and told his supervisor. I dont know what sort of training they give these people, if any. I sent him away. The food was nasty anyway, and I had no appetite. His supervisor rang me up to complain, and I had to go through it all again.
I didnt get better. I had got visited more often in hospital. I was no longer interesting, although at least I saw my daughter, and the Woman, my (ex) Lover came to see me nearly once a week.
I didnt get better, I got worse. Whenever I asked a health-care professional what was happening, or what was going to happen to me, they would ask me in turn what my goals were. I took to saying that I wanted to fly.
But I couldnt fly. I could scarcely walk. I had outpatients appointments in London and in Brighton. In Brighton I had two on consecutive days. Although I had made a real effort to get taken in an ambulance in which I could lie down, telling everyone that that was essential, they sent a sort of minibus in which I had to sit whilst it tottered around the streets on grossly incompetent suspension, over speed bumps and through housing estates. When I arrived, in crippled agony, there was nowhere to lie down. After that I was unable to get out of bed for three days. Nobody told me what, if anything, was wrong, so I assumed that I was meant to be like this, or that this was how I was meant to be, that I would eventually get better, that everything was going as it should.
Little did I know.
But then, little was I told. Indeed, little did anyone else know either, it would seem.
So, I was out of hospital for about six weeks before Social Services found out or decided that I needed help. I could not sit or stand. I could not prepare food and didnt want to eat it. My painkillers made me vomit. When I rang up the Surgery to say I was being sick a female Doctor told me to drink water with salt and sugar in it. She took no notice of my query about the medication. The metalwork in my back was moving. I seem to have had an infection based around it.
(One Sunday, because I am mad, I tried to change the bedclothes which had been on for three weeks and were filthy and bloodstained. The mattress is new and needs (or wants) turning every week. I stripped the bed and got out the clean bedclothes. I tried to lift the mattress. A man with a broken back. I got the mattress to stand upright on one edge, but could not turn it. I realised that I had already gone too far, but a mattress balanced on one edge is not a useful sleeping aid. The mattress is very heavy and quite large, being a double mattress. I lowered it back flat, flattening my lower back. I had to ring up Richard to rescue me. The next day I hurt in a sinister way that denoted the likelihood of damage.)
I had been discharged on the 22nd of January and got gradually worse until I attended a further outpatients appointment on 17th May. This appointment had already been cancelled twice, once by me because they sent another minibus to collect me, and once by them for no clear reason. On the first occasion I sat in the minibus for a minute while the ambulance man talked on his mobile phone and then I got up and hobbled back into the flat. On the third try I waited on my bed until the exact time of the appointment and then rang the fracture clinic to say I wasnt there. The person at the other end of the line transferred my call to Transport just as I saw the ambulance go past my window. I got my jacket on and got off the bed and staggered out of the house with my sticks as the ambulance reversed back down the road towards me. I lay down in the ambulance, which was good, arriving nearly an hour late. I walked in with the ambulance man and told the receptionist I had arrived. She told me to go for an x-ray. I said that I had had an x-ray last week and told them to send it to this department. She said they wanted another. She slapped a big buff folder on the counter.
How am I supposed to carry that? I asked.
I was going to offer to take it for you, but now I wont.
She was in a worse mood than me.
Thank-you for all your help. I said.
I then stood around waiting to be x-rayed, feeling as though I was going to faint, unable to sit, exhausted by standing.
Having been x-rayed, changing into a ridiculous hospital gown in a sort of cupboard, I was next forced to wait for hours in a corridor. I let myself into a side room and lay on a bench. When the consultant came I was refused permission to go home arrested in effect and sent back to Kings College Hospital. I was in tears. Duncan was there, Rachel had suborned him. He turned up hours late, hed been up all night and was drunk and useless. I wept and told everyone I wished Id killed myself the day before when Id had the chance.
The Consultant sent a Senior House Officer to register me. She took some blood and smeared a thin streak of it on her white top under the curve of her right breast. She seemed no more than a schoolgirl. Her hands were sore from repeated washing and disinfecting with alcohol hand rub.
Throughout my period out of hospital I had felt lonely, in pain, unhappy. I gradually lost all the equanimity and confidence I had acquired during three months of hospitalisation. I saw myself again as crippled, useless, unloved and unworthy of love. I realise now that I was ill. Why did no-one else realise that?
In the end I succumbed to taking anti-depressants because otherwise I thought I would have to kill myself. I was depressed. Every so often every day something would hit me. I would suddenly realise, understand, witness that I couldnt walk, bend down, move freely. I would suddenly realise that I will never again share that contented sensation of having sexually satisfied someone I love and admire and find attractive. I am forced to acknowledge the agonising truth of my altered condition: I am worse than before, I am less than before, I am broken and crippled and helpless and useless, even if not (perhaps) in the absolute, then absolutely in the relative sense, compared to my previous self: footballer, dancer, saxophonist, anti-social beauty, lover, egotist, arrogant tosspot. A man who moved quickly - even suddenly - after a period of passive contemplation, who could transport a small shed, dig a garden, uproot a hedge, put up shelves, make macaroni cheese, stand on one leg, run, jump, hop. I used to be perfect. Now I am not only broken, I am bitter.
Later, back in hospital in London, I started getting violent mood swings, and stopped taking the antidepressants. One moment I would be lying there thinking This is all right, I can cope with this and the next I would find myself in tears, or an inch from screaming. I was not responsible for my own feelings, not that I ever had been, but this was different and worse. Not taking the pills helped. It didnt make me feel any better, but it made the changes of perspective less sudden and more explicable.
The ambulance men asked me what was wrong. I said Id only come in for an outpatients appointment. I broke my back and now the metalworks failed. They took an x-ray and arrested me. Ive got a screw loose.
I was returned to H.D.U. for a night after my second new turn on the toasting-fork. I was wrong about the ceiling-tiles, in fact they are almost smooth. From a man with my opportunities for the study of hospital ceiling tiles the mistake is almost unpardonable. Not only that, but they had installed windows. I must have been facing away from the windows last time I had been in there, and I was so entirely incapable of movement that what was behind me simply did not exist. H.D.U. in general was not as strange as it was before, but then I was not as nearly dead. I was looked after by a black Carribean woman called Edna, with whom I had a number of disagreements. She insisted on telling me how to wash, whereupon I had to tell her I was 45 years old, and had had occasion to wash myself before. She was fine, though, if a bit fussy; it was me: I was unhappy.
I have been in love with the Woman, my (ex) lover for so long (more than five years, anyway) that it is difficult to think of anyone or anything else. (Even now I wake up every morning thinking about her, which probably means I was dreaming of her. I often wake up crying.) If I avoid thinking about her (which means not thinking about anything at all) then I can be quite happy, even innocent. I am so used to being involved with her emotional demands or requirements that I am empty without her, even though the relationship has often seemed a sort of tyranny. It might all have been my fault, I suppose, the arguments and put-downs and rejections and breakings-off. I am half insane with sexual and emotional jealousy. I would quite like to kill her new lover. Not that I really want her back; even when I was whole she did me too much damage, I could not control her or my reaction to her, I loved her too much, I could acquire no distance.
Unless she was to change, to love me wholeheartedly. But it could not happen.
There is no reliable quantitative assessment, no measurable unit of love, or I would record my megawattage (or megawhateverage) and send her a readout, not that it would do any good. I cannot write out my misery, my loss, my sense of betrayal, I need some sense of progress (or at least escape). It is insane I know, but if she were to want me back (an absurd proposal), I would take her at once.
I awoke at about half-past five. I dont know why. I wanted to turn, but the pain was too much. I felt my back, and it was as if on a hinge. I pressed the nurse button and waited. Fairly soon, the nurse came, and I told her I was worried, and asked her to call a doctor. She called and returned with painkillers. I refused them. I said it wasnt a matter of pain, and I asked her to call the doctor again and say it was an emergency. I was terrified. I thought I was snapping in half. I asked her to feel my back, and showed her where the strangeness was. I waited for the doctor, not daring to move. In the three and a half days I had been in London no-one had yet so much as looked at my back. I rang up the Woman at about eight, before she went to work. She sounded serious and concerned. She didnt tell me to go away. She was good, and she rang up Emily and left a message, and it helped a lot. So I end up depending on her after all.
At half-past four some other morning a gangling figure in a white coat entered the bay. Tony awoke to find a tall white thing talking to him.
Mr...... Mr...... No-one can manage Tonys name, although its not that strange, only Irish. They call him Mr. Uruguay and other strange things.
Who are you?
Im a brain surgeon.
A huge Chinese schoolboy pulls the curtains round Tonys bed. Tonys light doesnt work. Failing to switch it on, the Chinese schoolboy resorts to using Jacks, in the next bed. Jack wakes up. The brain-surgeon starts to ask Tony questions and attack him with mallets. Jack begins to mutter and thrash around.
Theres a cat. he says. Theres a cat in the room. This obviously causes him a good deal of concern; he must have some phobia or allergy connected with cats. He spends a lot of time thinking he is in his daughters hotel during some unspecified conflict, and calling out for people who are not here.
The doctor continues to talk to Tony about headaches in a cheerful, breezy sort of way. Tony asks the Chinese schoolboy brain surgeon doctor whether he shouldnt be attending to Jack, who is by now thrashing around and shouting inside his caged, illuminated bed.
No, Ill leave that to the Nurses. the Doctor replies.
Eventually the Doctor leaves. Everyone in the bay is now wide awake, if indeed Jacks state can be described as wakefulness. He is trying to climb out of bed past the raised cot sides, throwing one leg over the edge and struggling to raise the rest of his body after it. I shout at him.
Lie down Jack! I shout, and call for a nurse with the nurse button. Jack is eventually soothed back into semi-consciousness. He can be quite lucid when engaged in conversation, but seems to lose track of his surroundings and drift in an imaginary world when not. Lucky him, I tend to think, except that perhaps the world of his imaginings is even stranger and more frightening than the hospital.
The bloke in the bed next to me was speaking very tersely on his bedside phone, an absolute minimum of communicative expression. I thought he was being dumped, because Im sensitised to that sort of agony, so I asked him if he was alright. He said yes.
A little later he told me that a girl had said he had got her pregnant. And the thing is, I really hate this woman. I didnt ask why hed gone to bed with her in that case, but I did wonder. Its not as certain as all that. I said.
They moved me into a side room. Four hours later they moved me back again. I ended up being diagonally opposite myself. The number of this new bed, in which I had been before at some point, was B4. I tried to make a joke.
I was in B4 before. I said, but no-one took any notice.
In the meantime I had rung everyone up and given them my new bedside phone number. I had to ring them all up again at 10p a minute. Rose was apologetic. Monique was apoplectic. None of it made me feel any better.
I had two operations this second time. In each case I was horribly sick when I woke up. They were a week apart, and the second lasted at least eight hours. They had been going to do the first one on Friday 13th, but thought better of it: my surgeon admitted to a slight degree of superstition. I did not argue, I could do without any further ill fortune, but I was very disappointed because I had been waiting for a fortnight for him to get back from holiday already.
In the first operation, they removed the metalwork from the rear of my spine. They found a small residue of infection, but never managed to grow anything from it or diagnose what it had been. In the second they put in two huge rods fixed with three screws top and bottom and removed the cage around my spine inside my ribcage. This meant breaking all my ribs again. The delicate jewellery has been replaced by the Forth rail bridge.
At one point there was a fat little ugly bloke in the bed next to me. They let him out at weekends, and he wore his own clothes horrible clothes including shorts which were too long or not long enough, and he walked around with no shirt on, showing his firm fat belly. He strutted about folding up his clothes and putting things in neat piles. He read fat paperback books with the authors name embossed on the covers and highlighted in metallic ink. He had a neat wallet of c.d.s which I imagined to be of military band music. He kept these things neatly piled up and segregated in his bedside cabinet. I suppose it was the fact that he could walk about and come and go as he pleased that got to me. He had a slight speech impediment, as though his tongue was too fat for the purpose.
They were doing tests on him, or saying they were going to do tests on him only they never seemed to happen. Once, when the porters came for him to take him for some sort of scan, pushing a chair which he patently did not need he was out having lunch with his wife. I hated him, of course.
I woke up one morning at half-past four and I was sick. I called a nurse and asked to see a doctor. Of course, no doctor came. I was worried, this had happened to me before, more than once, and it generally boded no good. The nurse wanted to give me an anti-emetic, but these have never worked for me, swallowing a pill to stop me being sick just makes me throw up. The next time I saw a nurse she said the Doctors would be doing their rounds soon. I was not satisfied by that: they would be hours yet, and when they were on their rounds it was hard to get them to deal with you, they were in a hurry all the time, and talking to the other Doctors. (Id already been waiting hours and I was frightened that I was going to be ill again.)
This is shit! I called out, my patience suddenly evaporating.
The fat bloke looked at me with disapproval over his steel-rimmed spectacles.
There are other people here as well, you know. he said, with startling irrelevance. I had noticed.
I thought this pretty rich. I had been in hospital for about four months by now, and I was not allowed out of bed, let alone home at weekends. I felt that I knew about hospitals and that there were other people in them. There were also, presumably, Doctors among these people, one of whom might be persuaded to talk to a patient occasionally. I did not reply, but thereafter I refused to acknowledge him, even when he tried to be friendly. He himself lost his temper about a week later. We all have our breaking points. A Doctor explained to him with a great display of patience that he might have a serious condition, and that it was important that he should have the tests. However, they werent giving him any tests, or were only arranging to do so when he was out with his wife. I said nothing.
When (or if) people ask me if I know anyone in London (which they do because I am simultaneously both in London and in hospital (or I suppose we might also add in trouble and in poor health)) I often reply Yes, I know the Hoares, which sounds worse than it is. Lindsey married Nick Hoare earlier this year after Nick got cancer. Their teenage daughters came to the wedding and really enjoyed it. So I dont know all the whores, but I know Nick, who came to see me in the afternoon, for which I offer my thanks. I needed to see someone, I was reading some smug buddhist and actually weeping with rage and despair and misery and frustration so far was my state of mind - or any state of mind accessible to me - from the bland acceptance she proposed, so even he was a help.
A wonderful piece of environmental music erupted in the ward. Two car horns and the train hooter (sounding the first two notes of Colonel Bogey, Hitler from the famous W.W.II song) which comprise 4-3-2-1 on a major scale, an emergency call and a nurse call. Later, a telephone joins in. There is some other unidentified electronic bleeping. The emergency call runs at about 120 b.p.m.. The total effect is of a highly rhythmic piece of electro without a drum machine.
I discover that there is such an organisation as the U.K. Water Vole Steering Committee. How do they do it? What do they use? Remote control? Bridles? Semaphore? Persuasion?
The Physiotherapists made me not one but two jackets out of a sort of plaster of paris. They were made on me, my body protected by a big tubigrip. The plaster got hot. When it set it was not the right shape because Im not the same shape as myself any more. I couldnt sit up, so I propped myself up on a set of parallel bars using my arms while they made the first one. The second was made after my new operations and while I was standing. I couldnt get either on by myself. If I was sitting or standing it took three of us to do it up, and if I lay down it only took two of us, myself and someone who could reach under my armpit and do the zip connector up. When they were on they made me uncomfortable and hot and short of breath and they poked my back and rubbed against it. I refused to wear them, of course, and they eventually equipped me with a corset/waistcoat which itself looked like an extra from Alien, and when worn makes me resemble either an extra from Gladioli (perhaps a failed featherweight net and spear championship contender), or possibly a minor character in an episode of Star Trek.
I get some odd looks wearing this device, but I dont care so much about that, it seems to hold me together and it enables me to sit down and drink coffee, both of which are valuable. Later, at the Royal Shakespeare Company Hospital, coffee is available to those who walk past the multi-storey car-park and in through the back entrance of the food hall, all of which is accomplished outdoors. Even the drinking of coffee can be done outdoors on a patio of such stupendous ugliness that it can only be redeemed by the addition of sunshine. In London they have transformed the majority of the world into corridors down which people have to walk endlessly in pursuit of coffee or other pleasures.
One example of this unnecessary enclosure of space is the new atrium at Kings College Hospital, a vast emptiness which might be designed to double as a disco. It has peculiar architectural features such as a Rothko-like maroon panel, and three large flat wooden structures about twenty feet tall which slightly resemble pyramids, the dignity of which is undermined by having wall sockets at their bases. There are offices and consulting-room windows which peer into this empty space from the towering walls. The corridor which was undergoing a transformation during my last visits was now complete with a new low false ceiling and huge photographs (specially commissioned from an artist) of various members of staff in head-and-shoulders view against backdrops of pure institutional colour, portraits of such stark ugliness and huge size that they amount to character assassination.
There are other renovations going on too. The pile of Portakabins which was raised between me and the view were now occupied by gangs of builders who arrived at six in the morning and immediately commenced crushing the wood and glass they had removed from the storeys above my ward the previous day in a large dustbin lorry with a hydraulic press. The noise was incredible. They had notices up telling them not to raise their voices, as they were working in a live Hospital. It was not restful, therefore, in the side rooms, outside which they performed this operation. The side rooms, where I had been before I was previously discharged, reminded me of my concerns over the Woman, my (ex) Lover. The ward I was on, a Neurological ward, was full of people with savage headaches, headaches serious enough to bring their possessors into Hospital on the assumption that they might result from cerebral aneurisms.
Apart from the noise the building works resulted in there being no hot water on the ward, unless it was obtained from the boiler in the kitchen. This seems a bit of an inconvenience in a hospital, where one might assume that hygiene would be a priority. Still, assumptions are dangerous. I used to assume that my car would stay on the road, that I could walk, that things would be all right in the end.
Two black, carribean nurses discuss international politics as they change my bed and give me a suppository.
Bush is a madman. says one, America is in trouble. They are laying off people.
The other says that Blair and Bush had different aims in the war in Iraq. Both agree that they liked Clinton better,
Even if he liked his girls.
He liked other peoples girls as well. I say.
If a girl offer, a man will go with her. I used to be so jealous. I talk to a girl in America and she say If a man does not run around he is sick, because they all do. Im not leaving my husband over that. Some girl come and disturb my peace, Im not leaving him for you. Im here permanent.
They took some more blood from me. Im surprised Ive got any left. They sent it to Middlesex where they extracted the white cells, marked them with a radioactive felt-tip pen and sent them back. They brought it onto the ward in a special box which was quite small but rather heavy. When the box was opened there was a syringe in it which was shielded by a metal sleeve. This, they injected into my arm. The syringe was shielded to protect them from radiation, but me they inject it straight in to.
I glowed all night. The nurses came and made toast on me, it was embarrassing. Next day they took photos of me in the Department of Nuclear Medicine to see where the white cells went. They didnt go anywhere in particular.
Im on strict bed-rest. When I have to go somewhere (such as the Department of Nuclear Medicine) I am wheeled there in my bed. I have been wheeled past the seated policemen who have had to get to their feet to let me pass. I have been wheeled into the smoked-glass-mirror-lift that speaks in the voice of Eastern Europe. I feel a little like the Queen Mother, except that the Queen Mother is dead, and I am not quite dead yet.
Of all the typical things we might extract as an exemplar, perhaps this: I was on intravenous antibiotics for a further two months during my second hospitalisation. When my arms turned into bananas and bruises spread all over them and my veins collapsed the doctors decided to install a Hickman line in my neck in order to deliver them more effectively. The line is a plastic tube with a number of pod-like swellings, a bit like sterile white bladderwrack. This line was fitted (that was the verb they used) by tunnelling it under local anaesthetic in through my chest, up under my collar-bone, and into my neck, where it joined my jugular vein, which leads directly to the heart. So the Hickman line is the mainline. They wheeled me into a small operating room where there was an ultrasound imager, and covered me in a big blue sheet which they taped to my hair.
I like your pyjamas. said a Nurse.
(They were standard hospital-issue peach polyester pyjamas.)
I didnt think they were my colour. I said.
Oh but they are! They go with your eyes.
I didnt think youd have noticed. I said.
At every step of the operation the Doctor asked another unidentified figure what she should do. He seemed not to care a great deal what she did. I assumed it was going well, since I could see nothing. There was a lot of pushing and squeaking and grinding centred around my chest, although I couldnt feel anything very definite. When she had finished fitting the tube she asked
Should I suture the end here? I remember when I did these before they used to suture them, but now I notice they dont bother.
Suture self. I said from under my blue sheet.
Anyway, the irony of all this is that about six weeks later the Hickman line, although it was consistently awash with antibiotics, succeeded in infecting me with a bug that rendered me virtually unconscious and provoked prolonged and painful vomiting coupled with diahorrea. I thought history was repeating itself. Perhaps, god help me, it is.
Just-not-having-pain is a very good thing, certainly, but is it in fact a sufficient ambition to make a human being? (As it were.) I suppose that assumes or entails all sorts of cultural attitudes of which I could be haughtily ashamed when I was not-in-pain. Sometimes now I am not-having-pain but I am still in-pain.
It assumes, just for one, that humans have to have ambitions, that ambition is constitutive of humanity. This might be true, people are full of evils.
Ive been out of hospital now for about a month. I feel a lot better: I am still broken, but I am not ill anymore. I am not so depressed. I dont know what I can do now, I have no job, nothing to say, nothing to write, nothing to sing. Im sick of writing about hospitals, I dont want ever to think about or see a hospital again.
I had a tea-party for my birthday the other day. You could have come if youd wanted. It was quite civilised. Emily made me a lovely cake with cream and strawberries. Apart from tea we drank wine and sat in the garden. Derek played the piano. The Woman, my (ex) lover came, as did all sorts of my former lovers, and none of them had a fight. It was almost like being alive. The Woman is still the person I want to tell everything to, its just that she has no need to even pretend to be interested any more. So I have nowhere to aim.
I dont know what will happen to me now. The Landlords Mother has decided that this flat is not suitable (she is so concerned for my welfare that she has persuaded her son to evict me).
More tales from Winamop
This article © of the author 2003. Please do not reproduce it without consent.