Slippers, new nightdress from M&S, rehydrating water spray found at the back of a drawer along with an old eye mask, souvenirs from the days when we not only got meals on airlines but real leather wallets, stuffed with socks, au de cologne, ear plugs and stickers saying, “Wake me for meals.”
I decided to think of my stay in hospital as a long haul flight, this one lasting one hundred and twenty hours, or five days.
As the doctors needed to explore, they were going to open me up and gut me like a fish, everything had to go, including tumour on the ovary size 3.8 cm and an enlarged lymph gland. They might even take my appendix. Apparently even that useless little thing can pick up ovarian cancer cells.
I arrived with overnight bag at the Victor Bonney Ward, Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, at 11am on May 4th, 2010, as instructed.
Terry decided to take time a few hours off work to give me a lift. He arrived in a new white Saab. We felt comfortable together, almost as if we were going to an airport, setting out on a longed for holiday. We spent two short holidays together not long after we first met, last year. At that time I still believed he was single. When we met at a Speed Dating event in a bar in the West End, he’d told me that he’d been separated from his wife Gretta for five years. In fact he’d become furiously angry five years previously, when she had found herself a younger boyfriend, but he had never left the family home. Taking up with other women was his manly revenge.
On this morning I was glad he was with me. He was ebullient and I was happy to hold his large, square hand as we entered the hospital and took the lift.
In Victor Bonney, they are not expecting me – in fact they have never heard of me. The Caribbean nurse in charge looks annoyed, as if I am was of those people who go around deliberately trying to get a bed for a night or two by pretending to be in need of radical surgery.
Making a noise through her front teeth she skimmed some papers.
“Your operation is tomorrow,” she says. “You shouldn’t be here today. There is no bed for you.”
She sounded as if I had deliberately spoiled her day. But I was not going home, I was geared tight for this and going nowhere. We sat dejectedly in an alcove, by a low coffee table, piled with old copies of celebrity magazines, still holding hands. Terry was as timid as a tortoise, I’d never seen him so subdued.
I had been through this before with Victor Bonney. A week before I’d been sent there for a blood test which I had to have before a scan at the nearby Hammersmith Hospital, due at 7pm. When I turned up none of the nurses knew anything about it, in fact they didn’t seem to believe it. Again I was in the role of impostor.
An odd place the Victor Bonney Ward. Its staff remind me those bus drivers who accelerate when they see passengers, with a pathological hatred of stopping to pick them up.
I sat with the clock ticking towards the time of the scan. Eventually a young doctor appeared, looked on the desk at the nurses’ station – and there was the paper relating to my blood test. He held it up for them, laughed, and they said nothing. It is not politically correct for doctors to trump nurses.
I needed him again now.
After twenty long minutes of this, my heart pounding, I went to find the nurse who had told me there was no bed. Terry was keeping his head tucked in.
“We are making a bed up now,” she said, without looking up at me.
Why didn’t she come and tell me? Not her job to stop my worrying. This was my first in-house taste of today’s NHS nurse.
Terry had to go as his car park ticket was about to run out. We kissed just like a cliché couple, the couple we tried to be on our two short holidays, and at 12 noon a nurse, calling me, “Mrs Kelly,” led me to my bed.
Although it was termed a “ward,” the place looked like an adjunct of an operating theatre, or an airport in the middle of the night, functional, not at all cosy. I got a bed by the window, which seemed lucky.
There was no one in there but a very old, toothless lady who seemed almost dead. She told me in a whisper that she’d been waiting to be taken to the theatre since the early morning, but no one had come for her.
As I sat on my bed, lunch arrived; boil in the bag white fish and white sauce, served with not so much mashed as liquidised white potato. Oh well, at least it was a good portion size. It was followed by a choice of all kinds of English puds and custard, quite a treat really.
At 2pm a young black woman surgeon arrived. She looked tres chic in a tight dress and she seemed optimistic about my chances.
“It could all be local,” she said. “We don’t know yet, so don’t worry.”
I felt transformed and fell back into the kind of soft goo of hope which is always waiting to suck one in. I mentioned to her about the old lady still waiting for her op. Wouldn’t her pre-med have worn off by now? She hurried away and I wondered if she was going to do something about it.
The old lady was not collected until 4pm, when I also got a visit from a Welsh woman who looked very like Glenys Kinnock. She told me she’d once been a surgeon, but her “fingers had gone.” She waggled them at me ruefully. She now does some busy-bodying around with gynaecological cancer patients.
“You are a puzzle,” she said, “very odd. We know it has moved to the lymph glands already.” She began to speak about, “chronic disease,” comparing my possible future condition to someone living with rheumatoid arthritis. I imagined those huge armchairs with moving parts, and stair-lifts. That was not what I wanted to hear at all. My notebook fell under my bed and it was a joy to see her get down and grope for it, her expansive backside raised in the air.
A Lebanese woman was put into the bed right next to me, although the rest of the ward was empty. She sniffled with misery. Her young husband spoke English and apparently she was having an ectopic pregnancy. She was thirty one, with two other children at home. Being so close I had to hear all the details. There was no radio to plug into to avoid it.
Watery macaroni cheese and treacle sponge arrived. I am a lover of traditional canteen food, but I felt tired of the menu already. I would have liked at least a slight savour of cheese, and a sauce made with milk not water, even a bit of greenery on the plate. All the food looked pale as death, if not ectoplasmic, which is not encouraging.
I visited the TV room to see how the election was hotting up. News of fraud in Tower Hamlets before the votes had even been cast. Night came but you hardly knew it in the grey gleaming interior of the ward, where the main lights were kept on till almost midnight. It was quiet where I was, apart from the woman in the next bed sniffing. A nurse switched on a large angle-poise lamp right next to her bed, so they could check her in blinding light all night. It seemed there were no small night lights. Too late I realised that I had forgotten my flight mask.
At 1am I got up, crept into the woman’s tent, and deftly pushed the lamp away in the other direction. The woman was full of anaesthetic and didn’t notice me but a nurse appeared looking furious. I suggested that it was too light to sleep, but she didn’t have enough English to understand what I was saying, however she didn’t move the lamp back.
In the morning the woman awoke and started crying again. Big, round and soft, I could see that she was probably a good mother, all mother, nothing else, the sort that men want for their children. I never felt that men saw me as a potential mother because I had too many ideas in my head, and I seemed too independent. Wonder if those bitter thoughts, which went on in my head for years, had had anything to do with the lesions in me now?
By the day of my op I felt tired out. The ectopic lady went home and two new women arrived. Rebecca, aged sixty three, well spoken, but husky voiced like a smoker. She had a very elegant Kath Kidson nightdress, gown and headband. I could see her on a terrace somewhere sipping Tanqueray gin.
“I’m Jewish,” she told me apros pos of nothing. “I married a millionaire. I had a good life for years but then he took to drink in a big way. I divorced him when I was forty. Not long after that I met my current partner at the golf club. It was just love at first sight. I’m not worried at all about this operation, I’ve had a very good life and I just accept whatever.”
Gail, aged forty five, had a Cockney accent and a rather screwed up little face.
“Your mobile is “well annoyin’,” she said to me. I desperately fiddled with the settings menu to silence it. She was the kind of girl I’d always avoided in school,I felt embarrassed that I didnt like her, and didn’t want to annoy her.
In the TV room I meet a woman lawyer called Jan. She’d had her op, a hysterectomy by key-whole surgery, the day before, and was standing there in a Japanese kimono, looking well but feeling indignant.
“To get to the operating theatre they forced me to walk all the way,” she said, “it was quite a long distance, down several corridors and up to another floor, even though I was sobbing hard all the way. People kept looking at me and turning away. It was like going to the guillotine.”
She was married to a man who works for Tate Britain. They’d been together since they were students.
“We really wanted children so much,” she said. “We were desperate for years. When I got this, possible endometrial cancer, my husband said, “Haven’t we already suffered enough?”
This was overheard by a gently spoken German girl who was in for a fertility problem. She said her husband had very little sperm. I informed her that my father had no sperm at all, which always sounds rather funny, and my brother and I were adopted. She looks quite encouraged by this, and said she wouldn’t mind adopting. Jan said it was something she never wanted to do. She only wanted her husband’s child.
I felt my partner-less state. Never had a nice man to share fertility issues with, the possibility of a baby never came up for me because I was always waiting to find the right man first. Little bat-faced Gail was the only other single woman around.
I asked her to join us in the TV room, instead of lying alone on her bed. She refused. Later, to no one in particular she said, “I’m forty five and I’ve got no man, no children and no job.”
We had things in common but nothing to say to each other.
In the afternoon I must have made the walk to the guillotine, but I don’t remember a thing about it.