The Weasel: Visual and culinary treats in my local hospital

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The Independent Culture
Many apologies for my unannounced disappearance over the previous two Saturdays. Let me explain. The last time I occupied this bit of The Indy, I ended by griping about a ghastly bug which I'd caught off Mrs W. No sooner had I e-mailed off these cheery tidings than I limped round to my GP. He took one look at me - in particular, my suddenly swelling leg - and whizzed me off to the local Accident & Emergency Unit My malady turned out not to be a second-hand virus from my dear spouse but a recurrence of the infection which cost me a fortnight in hospital last summer. After giving me the once-over, an A&E houseman pronounced the medical equivalent of: "You're nicked, my son."

For my first week, I was in a windowless five-bed mini-ward. The lack of a view did not bother me at first since I was entertained by a selection of visions when I closed my eyes. I was particularly impressed by a creature from the ocean depths whose extremities were marked by points of brightly coloured phosphorescence. This visual treat was accompanied by a soundtrack so faint that I couldn't quite make it out. Of course, I might have been overhearing the hospital radio from some hidden source. If so, the station has an eclectic musical policy ranging from the Rolling Stones to Gilbert and Sullivan, from bagpipe music to Gregorian chants. Occasionally, I would hear my name mentioned. Happily, this was no Gilbert Pinfold-style aural hallucination but the hand-over report made by the ward nurses at the end of their 12-hour shifts.

Assaulted by massive quantities of anti-biotics, both leg and fever receded, but this did not diminish the surreal quality of hospital life. My neighbour in the right-hand bed was an amateur soccer player who had broken his tibia. A charismatic fellow, he received a steady stream of perhaps two dozen visitors on his first night. The final one arrived at five to midnight. When a nurse remonstrated that this was a bit on the late side, the new patient was unabashed. "Wos your problem?" he blared.

Since he had spent so much of the night groaning in pain, I expected him to be somewhat subdued the following morning. Not a bit of it. I came out of the ward lavatory at 10am to see a slender blonde stretched on top of the supine footballer, who was loudly voicing his affection while encircling her taut rump with his good leg. On my left was a retired Guards officer with a suspected thrombosis. An amiable soul, he treated me to extensive reminiscences of his time commanding an Indian regiment during the war. Somewhat in the manner of a Robert Altman film soundtrack, his monologue was overlapped by noisy eruptions from the footer ace.

"One elephant was a very nasty chap. Killed a couple of my fellows..."

"Come 'ere. Let me get a feel of yer..."

"...The Japs were firing the point-75 `pop-bang'. If you didn't dive at the pop, you got the bang..."

"...She 'ad 'er arse right 'ere. I can't wait to get at 'er."

"...We were on the banks of the Irrawaddy when the Japs sent a shell right under my batman's bed, but Ali came up smiling like a good 'un."

By frantically attracting the attention of the ward staff one lunchtime, I managed to avert the titanic explosion which would certainly have occurred if they'd informed the footballer that the pudding was to be spotted dick.

My two companions departed - the average hospital stay is only two or three nights - and I was joined by a chirpy former jockey who was in for the removal of a surgical pin in his finger which had become displaced since an earlier operation. He had been booked into an operating theatre, but a surgeon turned up at lunchtime and decided to do the job on the spot. After a couple of minutes, it was all over. My neighbour poked his head through the curtains around his bed and cackled: "He did it over me sponge and custard!"

It was also during lunch that I experienced an Ortonesque moment as my ageing, decrepit bed-top table suddenly disintegrated. A drawer swung down and the dentures of a previous tenant chattered towards me. "Why on earth should anyone leave their false teeth behind?" mused the Ward Manager (as the one-time Sister is now termed). I bit back the obvious, morbid answer.

Thankfully, my second week was spent in a four-bed ward with a view of trees on three sides. Autumn took place before my eyes, like a speeded- up film projected through the Cinemascope expanse of glass. A further bonus resulting from my move was a much improved breakfast - excellent porridge accompanied by buttered toast and marmalade. Ten minutes of bliss. On the minus side, the policy of my new ward was to administer my antibiotics via intravenous drip rather than the far less time-consuming method of direct injection into a temporary valve in my arm. Four times a day, I found myself attached to two plastic bags of penicillin soup (the technical term is "infusion") suspended from a rusty wheeled structure which might have seen service in the Napoleonic wars.

"It's not all that old," a bed neighbour corrected me. "Those joints are electric welded." During my previous hospital stay, I was amazed at the bits and bobs of random knowledge imparted by fellow patients. This time, my trove of insights included a detailed guide to navigating the Goodwin Sands, a heart-warming tale of office romance in MI6, the placing and sequence of explosive charges required to demolish a large block of flats, the piscine bargains available from Billingsgate at 5am and memoirs of the telegraph service in particular, the propensity of Russ Conway for sending long, rambling telegrams late at night. Though down to earth in their exchanges with patients ("Is your tail-end OK?"), the medical staff displayed an inexplicable fondness for jargon when talking among themselves. "He's apyretic," is a bit alarming, until you work out that it means you don't have a temperature. I quite liked the expression "he has no problem mobilising" since it sounds like a Seventies soul song ("C'mon, baby, git mobilising!").

However, the medics don't seem to realise that some of their closely guarded lingo, such as the alarming term "necrotic", has escaped into the wider world. Fortunately, the first consultant who squinted at my balloon-like leg announced to his entourage: "It's not necrotic, otherwise it would be surgical rather than medical." Since I happened to be attached to the item then under discussion, I couldn't help overhearing.

Much to the irritation of the "nil by mouth" case to my left, the hospital grub dominated conversation in our enclave. "I don't think anyone could complain about the food in here," remarked one inmate of the glasshouse. "Not that I can taste anything - but it looks really nice." He was, however, misled by the packet soups, which all tasted exactly the same (far too salty), whatever their colour or constituency. Awash in an ocean of custard, the puddings were variable. The rhubarb was so acidic that it might have been a by-product from Exide. On the other hand, my plaudits for the rice pud were so ecstatic that Mrs W became alarmed that my fever had returned.

The main courses were pretty good, if ferociously calorific. One day, I had roast beef and Yorkshire pud for lunch (I've had far worse in pubs - though the accompanying sprouts were just about the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth) and beef stew for dinner. Mrs W provided some welcome dietary variety by bringing in boxes of sushi, much to the bemusement of my fellow patients. By and large, my companions were a very likeable lot, companionable without being intrusive, kind and caring, though many had undergone major surgery. But I was pleased not to be in the long, adjoining ward. "It's a war zone in there," someone said after a particularly noisy night. I was delighted beyond all words that there was no television.

After 17 nights, my consultant finally agreed to my departure. The yobbish mini-cab driver who whisked me home was astonished at the length of my stay. "You should 'ave discharged yourself. You could 'ave bin at home watching telly." Despite the great assurance with which this opinion was delivered, I think I'll go back to the hospital next time my problem flares up, rather than ring the local mini-cab office for a diagnosis. Not that I'm planning on a repeat performance.

From now on, my leg is going to be ceaselessly pampered, guarded and exercised. My other extremities can fend for themselves, but this limb will have more security than Madonna.

If you look closely at the image of Mr Weasel at the top of this page, you'll see that he is drinking from an "I love New York" mug. I do indeed adore the joint - but the real reason for the inclusion of this souvenir is that Luci Rogers, my excellent illustrator, is enthralled, inspired and obsessed by Manhattan. The fruits of her love affair, which recently appeared in The Independent Magazine, have been on show at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, 1-5 Flitcroft Street, London WC2, for the past week. She tells me that her on-the-spot drawings have been selling like hot cakes, but a few are still available. Not to be missed, the exhibition is open today and tomorrow from 10am-6pm.

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