The last time that I saw my father he was wrapped in one of the foil blankets that are favoured by exhausted runners, though this was some time before the explosion in marathon running turned finish lines into parades of self-basting human ready meals. He was sitting up in bed and quite, quite dead. It was some bright spark of a junior doctor’s idea that I should have a sense of closure by seeing him like that. He certainly achieved his goal.
I’m not sure that witnessing my father’s pallid mortal remains did much positive to my adolsecent pysche. It certainly stopped my nascent medical career in its tracks. So, perhaps that was a good thing. I went to see my A level tutors and, with a bit of tweaking, found myself applying to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics instead of the science of sentient meat and how to keep it that way. It being a provincial school in the late 80s, no one was particulary sure how to deal with a bereaved lower sixth former so by and large the standard English response of not talking about it prevailed – apart from the French teacher who, spotting my funereal tie and assuming it was some proto-Goth statement, said, “Come on, boy, hurry up, it’s not like anyone’s died.” That was an awkward silence.
My ambivalence towards the medical profression burgeoned over the years at college. Seeing the future gods of life and death lying face down with cones on their heads and sick in their hair did little to persuade me of their omnipotence, or indeed their benevolence. My mother’s long tussle with death, sanity and sobreity tipped my view of hospitals over the edge. The awful familiarity with visiting hours, the terrible brave conversations about flowers, or the price of oranges, or the choice in the vending machines. She would charge repeatedly at the ramparts of non-existence and return rebuffed until one day, almost unnoticed, she slipped through.
Overly-warm sorting offices for mortality, a bit like the air-stewardess’s view of first class passengers, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve gone private, when push comes to shove, you end up in the same place. Accident and Emergency is the great leveller. The only way to get ahead is to be closer to death and I’m not sure that’s a queue I’m really happy finding myself at the head of. Unless, of course, you have a child. Then you do get faster treatment without being nearer to expiry but as you are so stressed out it doesn’t seem like a bonus worth having, a bit like nectar points on the shopping for a wake.
So it was with some despondency that I found myself with Lisa in A&E in the small hours of the night. What is staggering is the number of people who really have nothing better to do than pitch up at a hospital with absolutely no signs of anything pressing wrong with them. The police officers and the homeless alike sheltering from life on the streets. The near naked and the insane. All of life’s poor choices collecting here, like the eddy before the waterfall.
There was a pair of particularly chipper young surgeons, with all the swagger of spitfire pilots though it was not they who were buying one way tickets. They approached diagnosis with the air of seasoned bagatelle players – a series of questioned designed to nudge the ball into the right conclusion but all the while crossing their fingers. There was the requisite truculent Liverpudlian, weighing people up from behind sunglasses, and a garrulous Glaswegian, desperate to catch eyes and drag the unwary into a discussion of ulceration. There was an obviously wealthy family who were clearly cross with their sick nanny (“Will this take much longer?”) and a woman who was having a 3-way conversation with the receptionist and a friend on the phone. She relayed everything the receptionist said as if it were hilarious(“Yeah, he wants to know his name”). She explained her son is unwell. His symptoms are that, “He’s unwell”. I resisted the urge to push her head in the clinical waste. Then, the receptionist agreed that she can leave her phone with him to charge – maybe if she didn’t live stream her life her battery would last longer? I cogitate darkly on scarce NHS resources.
The first time a doctor asks if it’s ok, “to pop this in your ear” I resist any gags. The second time, not so much, “I bet you say that to all the girls” falls on stony ground. He says to Lisa that he’s going to draw blood, I sally, “That’s funny, that’s usually her field.” Nothing. He frowns at me while explaining that he’s going to admit her.
I get home at 3 in the morning. The silence reminds me of the silence in the hall at home that night I saw my father.