My mysterious malady made its presence felt on the third day of our month- long stay in Weasel Villas North on the Yorkshire coast. After a sudden fever, my left leg swelled grotesquely and turned an impressive range of shades from both the red and the violet ends of the spectrum. It may have been an adverse reaction to an insect bite (not that I felt anything) on our first night here, when I had been press-ganged into attending an evening concert of cliched classics (Pachelbel's Canon, Vivaldi's Four Seasons etc) in a cowpat-studded pasture near a local stately home. An alternative possibility suggested by our GP was a jellyfish sting, rather like the terrible maritime killer that nearly did for Sherlock Holmes in "The Lion's Mane" ("Cyanea capillata is the miscreant's full name and he can be as dangerous and far more painful than the cobra..."). Unfortunately for this hypothesis, I had not dipped so much as a toe in the North Sea.
When penicillin failed to do its stuff, I found myself reclining in the diesel-rich atmosphere of an elderly ambulance en route for the hospital. My first billet was a geriatric ward, due to be closed in a few days. It proved to be an unexpectedly lively environment. One of my neighbours in the four-bed ward was an old chap who, though rather deaf, thought life was no fun without a bit of noise going on. After an evening of the telly going full blast, when I had ample opportunity to discover the puerile gormlessness that passes for peak-time viewing on ITV, he was induced to switch off at 10pm, after which he treated us to an hour of Seventies disco classics on Radio 2. When he finally switched off, I was able to enjoy the mild, unconvincing hallucinations projected on my eyelids. The elaborate carvings of a medieval Bavarian village would suddenly become animated, with gryphons slowly twisting their necks and gargoyles leering. An outcrop of glistening fungi would flourish, mature and deliquesce in a matter of moments. In the morning, I saw an attractive blonde nurse puffing up an inflatable man. However, this turned out to be no hallucination. Discovered in the course of clearing out a cupboard, this startling novelty was installed in the lavatory, where it alarmed a succession of visitors.
Thankfully, my noisy neighbour departed after one night and my evenings were punctuated by nothing more onerous than the decision whether to have Horlicks or Ovaltine. Though the quality of nursing care was excellent, my encounters with doctors were both spasmodic and uninformative.
On my second day, I was aroused from woozy lethargy by a beardy fellow who suddenly popped up at my bedside. Accompanied by a retinue of junior doctors, he machine-gunned me with questions. It took a moment or two to twig that this was a consultant making a rare appearance at my bedside. I felt somewhat akin to being a specimen in a bottle as he muttered technicalities to his note-taking entourage. With a final observation about the blotches on my leg ("interesting distribution"), he disappeared in a swirl of white coats and stethoscopes, leaving his patient none the wiser. The appearance of my afflicted limb was a topic of much interest in the ward, though the staff did not always display the tactfulness you might expect. "Oooh!" exclaimed a cleaner, as she peered in horrified fascination "Don't mind me, I'm always a bit nosy."
Both my visions and my leg steadily deflated under a massive onslaught of intravenous antibiotics. Bed-bound, I found myself subject to the tedious dictatorship of the excretory functions. On the plus side, I regained my appetite. The standard of the hospital food was certainly equal to the better class of pub, though the more exotic dishes caused certain problems in the geriatric ward. Before one meal, I heard the nurses bellowing "DO YOU WANT CHICKEN CHASSEUR OR LAMB HARICOT?" to the utter bewilderment of their elderly patients.
As closure of this section approached, I was removed to an eight-bed recovery ward. This was not without drawbacks, since I became the immobile target of compulsive conversationalists. I learnt, for example, the benefits of car boot sales if you happen to be stocking a garden pond ("I got a forty quid pump for 35p"), how the port of Whitby coped with the bad winter of 1947 ("We made briquettes by mixing cement with coal dust") and the advantages of having a time-share property in Santa Monica. Realising that insanity might be added to my on-going medical problems if this state of affairs continued, I decided to take matters into my own hands. By initiating topics myself, I was able to ensure that gastronomy came to the forefront of ward chat.
The relative merits of kippers au naturel and the boil-in-the-bag variety kept us occupied for the best part of a morning, and a heated exchange about whether potatoes were better peeled or boiled in their skins proved equally stimulating. Much comment ensued when Mrs W augmented my supper with a fresh boiled lobster and mayonnaise . Undoubtedly, however, the most fruitful topic of conversation was not about munching but monarchy. In particular, HM the Queen Mother, pro or con? I'm pleased to report that an on-the-spot poll of everyone who entered the ward that morning (consultants excluded) revealed a distinct republican bias.
As blessed mobility returned, I learnt of picturesque treatments that I did not feel too dismayed to have avoided. "That linen cupboard near the door," a ward sister indicated, "was where we used to keep the leech bin." Apparently, the little suckers are still used following plastic surgery. Another unexpected cure was mentioned by the tissue viability nurse, a willowy blonde whom I rather fell for. Sadly, she only had eyes for my leg. It was doing fine, she said, no need for "larva therapy". A nursing colleague laughed, since this turned out to be a medical euphemism for maggots. They do wonders, I was told, in the antiseptic removal of dead tissue. Best of all, when they've eaten it up, they eat each other. The excellent results in a recent case prompted Ms Tissue Viability to keep a photographic record.
"I never thought a thing about it." she recalled, "but I got some very funny looks in Boots when I went to pick up the prints."
After I'd spent 12 days in chokey, a sparky young female doctor took pity on me (it's possible that she couldn't stand touring a ward that was riven with disputes about kippers, spuds and monarchs) and waylaid the galloping specialist for long enough to secure my release.
The cause of my incarceration remains unexplained, but one thing is for certain. I'm going to avoid Vivaldi like the plague from now on.Reuse content