THREE – mustard gas
“Dignity is a mask we wear to hide our ignorance” – Elbert Hubbard
The first time I awoke from a cardiac arrest (yes, there are more) I was more confused than surprised. I had arrested without really knowing what was going on so return to consciousness brought no surprise, nor relief, nor joy. Just confusion. There was a sense of whiteness, courtesy of the painted ceiling, so I half-heartedly thought that this might be God’s waiting room but this notion was quickly dispelled when I noticed the stanchion on the edge of my vision. Oh whoopee, I was in a hospital bed. Besides, God’s waiting room would surely have had a telly. And cable, of course.
The confusion abated as I looked around. I seemed to be breathing normally despite the oxygen mask wrapped round my gob and I didn’t feel any different than usual. The bonus was that the rapid heartbeat had gone. I was back with the rest of you, the normal bunch, bananas, hearts beating on all cylinders.
I guess my first legitimate feeling was one of self-pity and the presence of Sandra (my wife) and John (my brother) only intensified this sense of hard-done-by. How was it that I was here and they were there? What the fuck had I done? And why had I come back? No doubt I had presented myself to the Good Lord and he had sent me back to wash behind my ears. Looking back, I can only wonder at how immature a person can be at age thirty-two. Here I was wishing that my nearest and dearest were in my place, or at least in the bed next door. Of course, I never thought of it like that but we never do, do we? We filter our sense of justice just as we filter everything else.
In the end I was in that hospital for about a week. I was expecting some kind of diagnosis and a corresponding recovery plan. Instead a week later I got little more than a group scratching of heads. Nothing wrong with me, it appeared. Still, you never know. Perhaps St George’s (specialist hospital) would find something. By this time it was beginning to dawn on me that my rather naïve view of medicine was just that, naïve. As a child you are led to believe that when you get ill the medicine man will pop round, reach into his bag and produce the very thing. X + Y = Z, as sure as eggs is eggs. Well maths was never my strong point and as it turns out, X, Y and Z are all relative. As for the eggs, a word of advice, don’t eat them when you’re in hospital (see below).
One good thing came out of my confinement (or so I am told) and that is that I gave up smoking. I was surprised how easy it was. I had ‘given up’ many times (many many times) and never made it beyond a week (let’s face it I never made it beyond two days). The only thing I successfully ‘gave up’ was the idea that I had any will-power whatsoever. As soon as I had made the decision to give up, the future suddenly became an interminable stretch of time, cigarette-less. I was wanting another one before I’d finished the last one I would ever have. It is an absolute fact that I left my professional ACCA examinations early because I so needed a fag (not a reference to the school I went to. Ref: Wikipedia). And yet, in this instance I never felt the urge again. Not that I would recommend this sort of strategy to anyone wishing to quit. I would stick to the Nicotin if I were you.
So a week later I was at St George’s. Frightening is not the word. Harris Ward was like a draughty old barn that seemed to extend as far as the eye could see, with a row of beds on each side. Peeling paint, broken ceiling tiles, antiquated pipe work, it had it all. Carry On Doc come to life, with Sid James on the right dipping a thermometer in his tea (reality check here, if you put your thermometer in hospital tea it will deliver a lower not higher temperature) and matron moving one boob across the other as she strode hither and thither, achieving it would appear, absolutely nothing.
Another digression (there’ll be plenty of those) before we move on. I am going to mention the D word. Yes, death. Possibly my memory is playing tricks on me but at this stage the prospect of death never occurred to me. I did not think about it at all. This was to totally change in the years to come but at this stage it never crossed my mind. I think I was consumed by the maudlin thought that my life was getting really fucked up here and that I had no control over it any more. Like being chopped off at the knees, I was powerless. If there was a grim reaper around he was just there to knee-cap me. Probably just something he did on his day off. For fun, I mean.
Want to know the worst thing about being in hospital? It’s not operations or procedures or even the food. It’s being confined to bed and having to crap on a portable toilet. At some stage and despite your best efforts to stuff something up there, you will need to crap. Eventually you will surrender and the curtains will be drawn around you. Reluctantly you will then assume the position. Perched is the only word that does it justice. Like the pigeon on the telephone wire you will take aim. But unlike the pigeon, however, there is no satisfaction. And then you crap, you crap as silently as you can, but silence is, of course, impossible. Your bowels are so fucked up by a couple of days of immobility that the eventual release is like the brass band suddenly starting up in the village square. You imagine all those other poor souls who share your neighbourhood. And just as you think it’s all done and you ring the bell for collectsies, nothing, no-one turns up to remove the offending item. Thirty minutes pass before a nurse pops her head round the curtain, by which time the majority of the ward have passed out, claimed by the mustard gas as it ever so slowly spread across the no man’s land that lies between you and your ward-mates.
Eventually, you twig. There is no dignity in hospital, not of the sort we rather feebly cling to, at any rate. Hospital is designed, in fact, to remind you of what you really are. You can assume the clothes of the magisterial but you shit and piss like everyone else. Hospital strips you down and leaves you little more than the sum of your bodily fluids. Eventually, if you are really lucky you get a glimpse of what constitutes real dignity. I got to see it once or twice in fellow inmates (a well chosen word), and the image of them sitting on the crapper diminishes that tribute not one iota.