On Friday, May 7th I awoke to see a line of doctors standing at the foot of my bed, in the middle of them a nurse in a rather traditional Royal Blue uniform, glaring at me as if had just committed some heinous crime. She looked furious. I only ever saw her like that, in the early morning, standing at the end of my bed, enraged with me.
I could have imagined her of course, perhaps the Carry On Films are so deeply embedded in my sub-conscious that I had hallucinated a demonic version of Hattie Jacques. But Rebecca saw her too.
“Perhaps she is tired of glaring at the nurses so she has started on us?” she suggested, sitting up reading The Telegraph.
The general election results were trickling in; I asked the stern strangers at the foot of the bed for some news. I thought they might be tickled to be asked for some political rather than medical results for a change, but they looked unhappy and one said briefly that there was a hung parliament.
This was a birthday to remember, or perhaps bury as fast as possible. It seemed unbelievable to me, but it was Cons 291, Labour 247, 51 Lib Dems, so far. One of them tore off my pressure bandage, taking quite a lot of skin with it. He said that I would get my other results on the 17th, ten days away.
Then I remembered why I was there – cancer. What a downer, I had almost forgotten. Like the imposter that I was, I had started to think I was in hospital for the laugh. Would the cancer be at stage one, two, or already stage three? I felt a creeping dread, flavoured now with the smell of anaesthetic gases.
Without the bandage I looked at myself for the first time. Below my navel where I was once smooth and flat, my abdomin now looked soft and yellow, stubbly, spattered with blood, like the chin of a bald old man. I felt revolted at myself.
None of the other women near me had been filleted, they didn’t have morphine bags, but I was attached to several tubes with those colourful little buttons in the back of my hand that look like candle holders on a birthday cake.
One line was attached to a morphine pump which came with a black bag, a bit like a small Fendi handbag in tooled leather, I’d once bought on Sloane Street for hundreds of pounds, in the days when I did things like that.
We were all encouraged to get up and walk about, as apparently this was particularly good for post-op “wind,” which can cause severe pain. I could only walk very slowly, leaning forwards, as if I was clutching a smashed water-melon in front of me.
When I tried to brush my teeth I realised that there was no cold water on the ward. Our communal sink only gave warm to hot. I also wanted to wash some blood out of the new M & S nightdress, but this was impossible without cold water. Gail seemed to think I was making a fuss about nothing, she didn’t want me to make any complaints and I felt undermined by her, as if we were about to quarrel.
Nurses appeared occasionally, to give out pills, laxatives and injections to thin the blood. Mostly we were left by ourselves.
I trundled into the shower, but I couldn’t get my nightdress off as the morphine bag wouldn’t go down my sleeve. I felt tearful, struggling like a toddler to undress. I pulled the orange cord to summon a nurse. No one came. I peeped round the door to ask Rebecca if she could find one for me. A young girl from the Philippines appeared and began to untwist me, struggling with the sleeve. I was still in tears and she stared at me, looking really scared, as if she’d never seen anyone even mildly distressed before. I wondered how old she was, twelve, perhaps?
Untwisted and naked at last, she left and I put on the shower. The water was scalding hot. Despite another struggle, I could not get it any colder. I asked Rebecca to help me again and another nurse appeared and said that if we wanted to wash we would have to go to another part of Victor Bonney, some distance away.
She led Rebecca and me up the corridor, past the desk where I’d come in. The nurse vanished. Balancing my black bag as best I could I sat in the bath and put on the hot water. It came gushing out, but unfortunately I could not turn on the cold tap at all.
“I just can’t do it,” I wept.
Outside the door I could hear laughter from the desk. They were obviously having a good time on the nursing station, but no one was interested in patients in the bathrooms wrestling with hot water. I gave up made my way back as best I could, wandering about up empty corridors, redirected until I found my way back to my bed.
How times have changed. I remember going to hospital when I was eleven and getting a bed bath when I woke up from the operation. I was very shy, but it was done so efficiently and with such kindness to me that I didn’t mind. In 1981 I had a cyst removed from an ovary and when I awoke again there was the wash, carried out by two nurses, who I remember carefully removed blood from my navel.
Five years ago, when I was working at the Daily Mail, I had a bunion removed at the private Princess Grace hospital. The next day, two sprightly nurses appeared offering to help me to a bath. I told them politely to buzz off as I was quite capable of looking after myself, with only one foot was in plaster. Now I was drenched in sweat, desperate for some help and there was none on offer.
Florence Nightingale once wrote that before her time nurses were there just to dish out medicine. If she came back now she'd think that nothing much had changed. NHS Nurses these days are like automatic dolls, wound up at the start of a shift to perform single tasks, any kind of multi-tasking is beyond them, even if that is only to have a chat, or give a drink of water. I once asked a nurse for some water but she said she didn’t have time to get it, even though she was standing by the sink.
You didn’t get anything without pursuing it. Most requests were met with a dull, dead eyed stare, or even fear as when I’d been upset in the shower room.
Ignoring the nurse's look of pain, I demanded some mesh knickers to hold the sanitary towel that we had to wear. The other two women didn’t get these so they bled into their beds. The beds weren’t changed if you didn’t ask.
The nurses always had something to do, somewhere, that wasn’t concerned with us. During the day no one got much attention. Where did the nurses go for most of the time? No one knew. One thing was certain, you would never ask one of them to make you a cup of tea, any more than you would ask your consultant to do it. Florence would certainly notice a big change there - no one can be offended by the imposition of any hierarchy, so no one gets any tea.
The night staff nurses were more obvious, and they tried to make us all sleep sitting up, pumping up our automatic beds to sitting position. According to Health & Safety sleeping flat puts too much of a strain on the lungs. On top of that there were all the other nocturnal discomforts; I was next to the radiator which was full on, while Rebecca and Gail were nearer the corridor, which was blazing with light and noise. Our pillows were plastic, covered in cotton cases with no turning to keep the pillow in, so you constantly got a face full of plastic.
I found the experience of being in a public ward fascinating but difficult. I was inhibited having to sleep so close to someone I didn’t know. I was full of wind and worried about snoring. I had ear-plugs but the others didn’t.
“Did I make any sounds in the night?” I asked Rebecca.
“No, she said, “only one small grunt.”
She could have been lying to save my feelings. People of my generation, who haven't caught up with the new scatology, worry about things like that. I gave out ear-plugs and they all seemed grateful.
In the morning my mobile started beeping again. After being switched off the settings had gone back to their bad old ways, and now full of morphine I couldn’t think how to change it. I could feel Gail bridling from the other side of the ward.
I sloped off to the TV ward, dragging my morphine, and it seems that almost everyone I have known in the last twenty years had decided to text me. They also all wanted to come and visit but I felt exhausted, woozy, in pain and worse, full of wind.
What if the vicar arrived while I was in that state?
In fact I got a visit from two of them, a young priest from St Michael's in Bedford Park, who looks like an El Greco, who sat quietly by my bed,a perfect hospital visitor, and the hospital chaplain, a hearty middle aged man who was asked to contact me by the vicar in Ealing. They both arrived within ten minutes of each other, making me look like a religious fanatic.
I also received several dramatic text messages from Terry: “My place is at your side. I realise that now. I have spoken to Greta and the children and they all agree. I know you feel the same way. At last we can be together.” Oh Lord.
I began to enjoy the fine art of dozing, helped by morphine of course. I used to doze as a child and a teenager, but lost the art of it somewhere 1980s when I moved to London, joined the Groucho Club and started trying to “be someone,” to “make it." Never a day, or a night went by for years when I didnt think about my career and plan my future.
My little corner of the ward became crammed with cards, ovary shaped tulips on drooping tubes, and clusters of grapes. I read somewhere that grapes are not just a boring hospital cliché, they are an anti-cancer, immune boosting fruit - so I made big inroads into them.
Friends started to appear, some I hadn't seen for years, so I stuck a bright smile on my face. They brought me books, an eye-mask, papers, toiletries. Whole semi-circles of people appeared around the bed and I wanted to please them all, make they realise how much I liked seeing them, I was grateful that they'd come, but at the same time I so wished they would just go away.
Terry appeared unexpectedly, sitting just outside the circle, smiling uneasily. He never did like my friends. One of my girlfriends glared at him hard and eventually dashed off, apparently in a rage as she hates him so much on my behalf.
Later I was received more of his texts, all with his usual elaborate punctuation: “I will arrange time to take you to your results on the 17th, - but, sadly, that may be the last time we ever meet."
"Unfortunate – upon a hundred levels, but Greta says that I, “cannot show concern for another woman:” my heart breaks to tell you such news.”
It reminded me of that old musical song with the line, "Can't get away to marry you today, my wife won't let me."
“Suffice to say," he went on, "she has been an absolute holy cow – oh, really bad. My commitment to you remains undiminished but my patience here has been taxed to the limit. Sorry to mention this at this current time; and so it must be farewell for now, at least.”
I only asked him to give me one lift to the hospital, nothing else but out of that had concocted some major soap opera in which he used me to beat his wife, but luckily I don’t have to watch any of it.
As Goethe said, “all men’s sins I can forgive in an actor, but no actor’s sins can I forgive in men."
Terry has to be forgiven, or at least understood because he was once an actor with the RSC, until he gave it up to become a manager in a bus company, working seven days a week scoring up lethal hours of overtime to support a grabby wife and children he says have drug habits, and hardly notice him.