Below is a piece of writing I submitted in the second year of my BA at the University of East Anglia.
For a few years around that time I worked at a hospital during the holidays, serving tea and coffee to patients and plating up their dinners. I wrote the following based on my experiences with the patients on those wards. At the time, I was fascinated by the realisation that at the end of life, we all start looking and acting the same. We come in to the world as identikit yowling babies and we go out of it as identikit OAPs in hospital gowns. More or less. It was a pretty tragic realisation.
Even worse: I realised that as identity appears to fade with age, so does everybody else’s memory that we were ever anything other than grey, wrinkled and probably a little confused. When my granddad developed Alzheimer’s and his personality changed quite drastically, we all found it hard to remember what a hero he had been to the whole family for all those years previous. When he died, all of those memories came back. But imagine how much harder that must be for a nurse working 12 hour shifts, never having known the younger versions of their patients. But life must go on.
I haven’t edited the story at all after re-reading it just now, so although the recollections still seem interesting to me I think the construction of it is a bit lacking. I’d like to clarify that I’ve since learned to use a semi-colon and start less of my sentences with pronouns. Thanks, 90’s Labour government for your grammar-sparse curriculum which resulted in me learning these things as a teacher in my twenties.
P.S. I got a first for this. Bitches.
It was a Monday evening in August that I first met Sarah. The sticky warmth of the day lingered in the cramped hospital air so that my pinstripe bib and waist high work trousers clung uncomfortably. It was a race as usual to find my clock-in card as the little dial flickered from 16:59 to 17:00, but I stamped it in time, absentmindedly pulling a green mop head from the bucket marked ‘clean’ in the corner of the office. “Ward Nine, ‘Elderly Medicine’!” My supervisor barked at me, ticking my name off on her clipboard.
Six shifts this week. I emptied sachets of custard powder, gravy powder and soup mix into plastic jugs. I’d perfected the technique a long time ago; an inch or so of cold water, whisk out the lumps, top it up with boiling water, whisk until it’s a little too thin. The custard especially seems to thicken and clog in the serving jug as it sits on the cold trolley, being poured in school dinner lumps over strawberry whips and slabs of jelly. Six shifts. One hundred and eighty patients. One hundred and eighty dinners and puddings. One hundred and eighty lots of “would you like a cup of tea Basil/Ivy/Edna/Joseph?” That’s one funny thing about the hospital; it’s populated by a different generation, a testament to a pocket of fashion that’s long expired, when Jeans and Marys were the height of vogue. Another thing is the food. ‘Liver and onions’ is probably the most popular meal on the menu but ‘lamb balti’ always goes untouched, left to be furtively prodded at by hungry nurses as they complain about it threatening their bikini diets.
I wheeled my cold trolley into the corridor and an auxiliary nurse came to help, belting on a plastic green apron. “What’s the first pudding then love? I’ll plate it up for you.” I read the name on the menu, ‘Jean Patterson’, neatly printed in block capitals. I asked the nurse for a yoghurt as I ladled soggy cauliflower cheese onto a heated plate, a spoonful of greying peas, a scoop of mashed potato. I piled it onto a plastic tray with a menu and a cutlery set.
“Mrs Patterson?” I called, and stepped into the bay. Four women were lying in portable beds, all wearing the same thin white nightdress, ‘PROPERTY OF GOOD HOPE HOSPITAL’ printed at the neckline. They all lay tucked to their necks under matching blue blankets, silent and milky eyed. They stared into space, out of the window, at their blankets. I looked at the white boards strapped to the foot of each bed. Sylvia, Bertha, Hilda, Joan. “Hi Joan I’ve got your dinner for you here!” I chimed brightly. The visitor at her side looked up and reached for the tray with a conservative smile. “Thank you nurse.” She had the prim tone of a private school headmistress. I might have corrected her on my job title but she carried on. “Nurse, do you think that you could get us an extra side plate please? We’ll have a go with this hot meal but she is ever so stubborn with her eating and I’m hoping to try her on some tomato sandwiches, we seem to have more luck with those.” I didn’t think people like Sarah existed, I’d always presumed that they were a fictional construct reserved for 1950’s piano teachers and horse breeders. It made me wonder what Joan had been like as a mother, if she’d been as stern and proper as Sarah before she’d become the meekly mute, confused little woman that lay in bed four, bay twelve.
Sarah’s olive skirt was heavy tweed that reached her ankles when she stood to take the plate that I’d fetched. She was as grey as her mother, assuming Joan was her mother. But while Sarah’s hair was coarse and neatly trimmed into a bob, Joan’s formed sparse cotton wool like tufts that seemed to cushion her fragile head on the stiff hospital pillow. Sarah never actually told me her name. I only know now because I saw a note on Joan’s bedside table one day, a brief line on crisp letter writing paper in the same tidy print as on Joan’s menus. ‘I’ve a dentist’s appointment this evening so I shan’t be in until around seven. See you then, Sarah.’ I listened to her as I plated up meals for the other three women in the bay, stiffly recounting everything she’d done that day while unwrapping the cling film bound sandwiches, cutting them diagonally into quarters. “Come on now” I heard her say as I pushed my trolley back down the corridor, “let’s see if we can have some tomato sandwiches. It’s the bread you used to use so you should like them. Come on then, hey?”
Tuesday, and I was on ward nine again. In the kitchen I listened to music through headphones to drown out the erratic bleeping of machinery, trundling through the same routine. Apron, hair net, custard, gravy, soup. Set up the cold trolley, set up the hot trolley, check temperatures, check menus. I started on wing one and took Peter a beef and horseradish sandwich on white bread with a bowl of strawberry jelly and blancmange. He’d been sheepish the day before following a bed wetting incident but that day he winked at me and grinned as I set down his tray. “If you were my girl, I’d tell the whole world I had the prettiest doll in town!” He announced, smoothing down the starchy sleeves of his cyan hospital pyjamas. I grinned back and called him a charmer.
On the other end of the ward I heard Sarah before I saw her, that same firm tone spilling out into the corridor, forming a familiarly one sided conversation with Joan. “I got up this morning and did a little gardening to sort out those marigolds that the slugs had been at and then I had to pop down to the Co-op to fetch some flour so I could make a crumble with those blackberries Alice gave me from her garden. I cleaned the upstairs bathroom and put a wash on and then Susan called me – she’s going to Cornwall next week so I’m going to pop over and see her tomorrow afternoon on the way here and lend her a couple of Eric’s walking guides. So then I made you some tomato sandwiches and drove over here. You can have them in a minute when the lady makes you your tea, now let’s see if we can get some of this cooked dinner down you. Shepherd’s pie today, now let’s have a few mouthfuls, hey? Come on now don’t be silly, you’ll have one more mouthful. Here we go then let’s try you on a tomato sandwich. It’s your favourite isn’t it? Come on then, good girl, well done.” For some reason I wanted to impress Sarah, with her smart blazer and bossy tone, so I made Joan a milky tea in a lidless beaker and without sugar, hoping that Sarah would appreciate my remembering. “Thank you nurse.” She said, with a measured tone. I didn’t like to correct her by then.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Ward Nine had become my regular ward. I started to look forward to hearing Irene talk about something she’d seen on the news, and to seeing Walter in bay three. He’d struggled to pronounce words since his second stroke, but always clapped me, wild eyed and wide grinned, when I brought him his sugary black coffee in a beaker. In bay one the stench of urine flamed in my nostrils, and I tried to breathe through my mouth as I stood by Roy’s bed. One spoonful of thickener Roy?” I asked him brightly as I stirred his tea to the consistency of custard. He didn’t answer, but I hadn’t expected him to. I’d never heard Roy speak. He stared at me, expressionless, hand outstretched. On his arm I saw a tapestry of tattoo’s, indecipherable beneath his wrinkled flesh. I tried to imagine Roy as a young man, having tattoos inked across taut young arms, having passion enough to want something indelibly marked on his person. I wished Roy could remember it, as he mechanically sucked the thickened tea through a straw.
I signed myself up for seven shifts the next week. A few patients had gone home. Hilda in bay twelve with the permanently wan smile and a German lilt to her accent that reminded me of a grandmother from a Roald Dahl story. Jasper in bay three, who couldn’t bear to be clothed. He’d moved to another ward. Joan was still there though, still quiet and confused, murmuring shy questions about where she was and what she’d done wrong. When she asked me and the nurses we awkwardly pretended not to hear, but Sarah would answer her like a primary school teacher, patronising but patient. “Now you know that, you’re here to get better. None of this silliness about doing something wrong, it’s just the way, hey?”
I went and spoke to Matilda in bay five, who was excited about some teabags her husband had left her. She read out the labels, seemingly amused by the exotic flavours. “Look at this then, lemon and ginger! Can I try that?” I dispensed hot water into a cup while she giggled, lifting each box in turn. “Peppermint! Well that’s not so bad. Would you look at this nurse? Blackcurrant Zinger! Well now I’ve heard it all.” I’d got on well with Matilda at first. Her extensive vocabulary and newsreader diction had reminded me of my favourite teacher at school. It had also led me to assume that Matilda’s ailment was physical, but the week before she’d surprised me. As I took her her tea she’d beckoned me down and muttered, “nurse, are you aware of this conspiracy?” I’d laughed at first but she stared at me stonily, waiting for my response. “I know most of the nurses are in on it but I’m not sure about you, what do you make of it?” I laughed again nervously, and told her I was sure she’d got it wrong. As I pushed the trolley out, she called to me “just give it some thought, nurse!” One of the auxiliaries pulled me aside later and told me that Matilda had dementia, and was deteriorating rapidly. “She’s a little upset today chick, best to just humour her”. She’d been her normal self ever since, perfectly lucid. But I could never bring myself to talk to her properly again.
That Thursday I brushed past Sarah as I walked onto the ward. She gave me a flustered nod as we passed, stuffing cling filmed tomato sandwiches into a heavy looking linen bag on her shoulder. It was maybe half an hour later that I reached Joan’s menu, but before I could check it the auxiliary took it from my hands. “She’s gone love.” She said, stuffing it into the bin. My mind went blank for a moment. “Gone?” “Yeah sorry love I should have gone through and checked. Oh and Elsie’s nil-by-mouth now so chuck hers while I’m thinking about it.” I peered into the bay and there it was. Joan’s bed, empty and remade. Her name board had been wiped clean and the usual pile of empty tablet cups and unused swabs had been tidied from her bedside table. “Oh.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask what ‘gone’ meant, and I couldn’t detect anything in the nurse’s voice. I heard myself making an excuse about having forgotten Bertha’s soup beaker – she wouldn’t eat it out of a bowl – and ran to the kitchen.
As I pushed through the heavy double doors a dry sob escaped from my throat and my face started to burn. Gone. Had Sarah looked sad? She’d been flustered but maybe she was just hurrying to another ward, or helping Joan to get her things home. But Joan wasn’t ready to go home. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to recall the image of Sarah walking past me. Was there a tear in her eye? Had they been glistening a little more than usual? I was sure her cheeks had been a little redder but perhaps not. What about the tomato sandwiches? Why was she holding them? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. After a minute or so I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. I picked up a beaker from the tea trolley and walked back into the corridor. With my most cheerful sing-song voice and my hospital smile, I said “right then! Here’s Bertha’s soup, shall we see if she’ll have a bit of jelly too?” And we carried on.