|from Max Ernst: Une Semaine de Bonté|
I have been out of Papworth for a fortnight now, so am just one-sixth of the way through a twelve-week convalescence process. I am still very limited in scope. The potential problems are increasing the swelling on the leg by sitting too long or standing too long (ie working at my desk), the disposal of a residue of water on the lungs that makes me cough, which in turn can prevent me talking and, more importantly sleeping, for which I take water pills, and managing the the periods of exhaustion after relatively little activity.
I was glad to leave when I did. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Papworth but I was increasingly aware of being enclosed and of becoming a little stir-crazy. The closer to discharge date it got the more I wanted to leave even while knowing that I wasn’t quite ready. In the event I stayed one extra day because of irregular heartbeat (treated and cured with an extra day of drugs).
During my time I found myself admiring almost everything about Papworth: the people, the routine, the efficiency, the fascination of unfamiliar company. I have a paragraph in my notebook about the hospital as a model for the world. In it, everyone is working to the same end, everyone has a mutually supporting role, Everyone is sympathetic. Everything works across normal borders of class, language, culture, and politics. It is, I write, like entering a hive in a dream.
The only problem is that the conditions necessary to bring this about are indivorcible from the prospect of death. We are all there either because we are in danger of death or because we are dealing with the danger of death. The brevity of our stay there is a symbol of the brevity of our lives in general. It is, essentially, a society that only functions in extremis. I never once dwelt on this, and not once did I think I was going to die, but there was no escaping the fact that it was the reason we were all there,
You want out of Europe? I’d say some 70% of the staff were European. One morning my bed was being made up by a Hungarian and a Greek. There were Kosovars, Latvians, Portuguese, Italians, Spaniards, and many others. Like airports, railway systems, and many other public services, the hospital is a microcosm of the reality we actually inhabit. The microcosm is not of the neighbourhood but of everything that sustains the neighbourhood. That does not make it Utopia but it works and it is, in its own way, a vital, exciting place, constantly stimulating. The main language of the hospital is English of course, but there are three varieties of it in use..
The first is that spoken betwen staff. It is the language of precision, the right dose of the right substance at the right time. There are proper names for things and processes without which chaos would ensue.
The second is the language of common conversation, generally between patients, which is, sometimes, hedged in by sensitivities and proprieties, but can at other times be direct in a way that it might not be outside.
The third is the informal language of staff to patient. I was re-watching Dennis Potter’s masterpiece, The Singing Detective, a few weeks ago. Potter’s central character, Philip Marlow, is suffering from acute psoriasis and rails against the patronising baby-language in which the doctors address him feeling that it is a reduction of his humanity.
I now see it a little differently. I have already mentioned the ordinary, indeed regular, terms of endearment addressed (chiefly by the female staff) to us as patients: darling, my lovely, lovely, sweetheart, beautiful...These were everyday tokens of our relationship. I didn’t ever mind it. It seemed to help both parties. These symbols of affection and intimacy braced us against the more brutal aspects of the mechanical process.
There we lie, we patients: slumped, cramped, bent, straightened, prodded, pierced, racked and retching as in a play to which we ourselves are audience. We watch our bodies that are no longer our bodies, not the ones we had got so used to. We are semi-detached creatures.
Dennis and I were talking about the NHS. He is easily wealthy enough to have gone private but opted for the same care we all get. He wants to save the NHS. It is people of our age doing it in, he believes. On the other hand, he continues, it is also a monstrous bureucracy that should be broken up and parts of it privatised for greater competition. That is already happening, isn’t it, I ask. The man continues suffering. We live in the shadow of death, I think, and that keeps us talking.
One snippet of conversation between a new patient, Bill, and a nurse checking his details.
Nurse: You say your height is 5’8”?
Bill: 5’8 and a 1/2”
Bill: Fifty-four. Just.
Clarissa comes daily. One day she brings old friend, Ed, and I am immediately in full loquacious flow, somehow super-articulate. I talk about the books I have been reading, about Demis Johnson. Robert Walser and Evelyn Waugh, about the hospital, about anything at all. I do this for about half an hour then blow up. I start coughing and can no longer speak but have to go back on the nebuliser. So good to get out of the hospital ambit for a while. It is all too exciting. Ed has brought enormous strawberries and custard apples. Later I offer the strawberries round.
The biggest decision I make while there is to shave and to eat a proper breakfast. That done I am back partly in control of my own life. Or at least in so far as one ever is.
I have titled this series Une Semaine de Bonté after Max Ernst’s surreal frottages in which he blends parts of popular engravings to produce narratives that seem oddly familiar in terms of feeling while remaining utterly fantastical in terms of concrete imagery. Une Semaine de Bonté means, literally, ‘a week of kindness’.The week is over. Now the recovery.