from A Squandered Life / Birchfield '69
The Old Nursing Home
I returned from christmas in Lincolnshire to start work at my auntie Martha's nursing and Christian faith healing establishment near Tunbridge Wells. I was issued with some “whites” and set about familiarising myself with the institutional routines.
First I was shown my quarters, a small room with lead pane windows and no heating but for a small Victorian coal fire place set into the wall. It was in one of several small terraces of cottages which housed the servile staff when the estate was a grand private residence for some laird or other. Most of the nursing staff lived in these terraces and had only to walk 50 or 60 yards to get to work.
The main building was a huge rambling pile with a grand main entrance at the end of a long curling paved drive. The drive looped up behind the mansion and swept down to the grand entrance at the back of the building and culminated in a wide turning area and car park. This meant that the whole front of the place had gorgeous unbroken views of the gardens and the green and rolling Kent countryside. The central greeting lobby had high ceilings to the top of the first floor up to which a heavy oaken stairway reached like a sombre prayer. The dark railings continued to form a balcony from which the lobby could be viewed by curious inmates and staff as parties came and went. There were rooms for patients up there and on the floor above again.
Off to the left was a grand staff dining room and a hall leading down to the kitchens and serveries. To the right was another hall leading to patient rooms and the estate's own chapel - almost as big again as the house itself. Directly ahead was the main reception area where the inmates gathered to mingle or entertain visitors or take tea and look out through enormous bay windows on to the beautiful gardens and countryside beyond.
Martha was clearly the Matron and had everybody's respect and deference. At meal times in the staff dining room she sat at the head of the large heavy antique table and led grace. Discussion was lively but slightly constrained by her oversight.
Her equal in command but in a different sphere was Billie, the head chef. Billie was like the Chief in the engine room of the ship of which Martha was the Captain. They were friends from a long way back and had been jointly instrumental in building up the home to its current status. She lived on the estate as well, as did a third friend and partner in this enterprise called Ruth, who seemed to handle the bulk of the administration and the PR. Ruth wasn't a nurse but she often ate with us. She had a deep intellect which always added richness to table discussions. While Martha was a very slight woman with a steely outward certainty about everything she did, both Billie and Ruth were large women with similar certainty but held in a much more relaxed and jovial manner.
Occasionally the resident consultant, “Dr Nicholas” Roberts, who lived opposite my auntie in the grandest brick house on the estate, would appear and all existing hierarchy would be displaced by a rather fawning deference to his upper middle class deportment, private education, medical experience, and, it seemed, superior gender. His “rounds” seemed to be high points of the weekly routines as everybody, staff and patients alike, waited breathlessly for his appearance and pronouncements. Less occasionally the brisk and haughty Mrs Roberts would appear at his side and they would tour like a royal couple.
Among the staff were people from all over the world who'd come on the strength of a combination of religious conviction, Christian urges to “do good”, and the quiet but far-flung reputation of Birchfield itself. As the antithesis of devout in just about every way imaginable, I didn't find it easy to mix with most of them or even join in many of the discussions round the dining table which inevitably centred on tedious questions of theology.
Most of them seemed in their fifties or above, but one of them was a rather heavy set, very softly spoken younger woman called Janet who, it was rumoured by snatches of conversation in her absence, was struggling with depression. On hearing, quite early on, that I couldn't get the damn coal to light in my tiny fireplace, she offered to come up and light it for me. That very evening she knocked at my door, and, true to her word, set about lighting the fire as I stood by embarrassed by my incompetence. I'd never used coal before and had a sort of a mental block about trying to ignite what was effectively a pile of rocks. But, just as with camp fires, the secret, as Janet amply demonstrated, is in the kindling. Use plenty of it. When she'd finished, neither of us could think of anything further to say so, after clumsy thanks and farewells, she left to go to her own room elsewhere in the terrace.
I'd heard there was a charming couple of young nurses from Sweden on the estate. They were away on holiday and it was a few days before I actually met them, but Daniel and Elizabeth were indeed sweet people when I did. They positively glowed with their love for each other and for the work they were doing and for the good christian values they felt they were serving. They were always smiling and had a studied gentleness about them which endeared them to the patients as well as the staff. Although they weren't married they co-habited in one of the larger rooms in the terraces with its own modest kitchen facilities and often had their meals up there in preference to the formalities of the staff dining room.
There was also Margaret, an old girl whose role I couldn't quite fathom at first. She had a room upstairs in the very top of the main building which implied she was a patient, but she also helped the staff and ate with us in the dining room. It transpired that she had come to Birchfield with mental difficulties which had gradually settled down but not enough for her to face the world outside again. Through institutional indecision and then custom and practice, she became a combination of an unpaid member of staff and a non-paying patient. She was usually a smiling and engaging presence in all the activities of the place, but occasionally I would come across her in the blackest of depressions with an expressionless masked face that looked like somebody else altogether.
My routines had to do with feeding, cleaning, and heaving things or people that were too heavy for the female nurses (Daniel and I were the only male staff). Feeding times were timed and administered to perfection by Billie. Patients had their meals in their rooms so, when the meals were ready to go, all the duty staff formed chains up and down the staircases and hallways to pass along heavily laden trays with name tags and room numbers. This was always good-humoured and great for team building. You never knew who you might end up standing beside and chatting to as you waited for the trays to come. It was also efficient. Those meals got to their destinations quickly and piping hot. There was a similar system but with fewer people for the hot water bottle distribution on the evening shift. I was shown how to fill the things such that there was no space for steam to expand and explode under somebody's covers.
The bulk of the inmates were extremely well to do and came from C and D lists of the English ruling class. The theory was that these people paid well over the odds in order occasionally to allow less fortunate people to pass through the grand portals. One of these was a charming old girl called Mrs DeParys who used to invite me into her room for chats. She wasn't just a patient. She was also a primary benefactor so time spent in her presence was informally considered a good use of staff time. If I was late for my duties anywhere else, being with Mrs DeParys was a cast iron excuse.
Another inmate was a beautiful but heavily sedated heiress to a wealthy beer producing family. Her name was Jessica and she used to appear at odd intervals in strange places at all times of the day or night in her flowing night dress. Looking positively beatific herself, she was convinced that Daniel and Elizabeth, in their whites and glowing with love, were angels. You could hear a sharp little intake of her breath whenever they appeared followed by the softest of wondrous words, “Oh, look at the angels.” She would gaze upon them each time as if it were the first time she'd seen them. I didn't think she recognised me at all until, one day, Margaret smilingly told me, “She thinks you're an angel too.” I was hugely flattered the first time I heard Jessica say the same thing herself. She was floating hesitantly down the heavy stairs in the central lobby when she saw me looking up from entranceway below. “Oh,” she said as she wavered, gazing over me with dreamy unfixed eyes, “You're an angel”, and turned and floated softly back up to the balcony and disappeared down a hallway.
There was a boy called Stephen who was a beneficiary of the system which allowed the rich occasionally to accommodate the poor. A lovely working class 14 year old, he was suffering from advanced multiple sclerosis. His whole sad body was slowly shutting down on him. In his room were photographs of him from a year or so before showing him to be a normal fit football-mad boy full of vigour and grins. Now he was wheelchair bound, hugely overweight, and barely able to speak. But he could still smile and his face was rarely without one. He had to force his words out, slowly, one painstakingly after the other, in a slow barely coherent drawl. I used to try to anticipate his phrase and sentences to speed things up. At first this used to piss him off but it became a game as I often completed preposterously. As the joke dawned on him his head would roll back and his mouth open and, as if on a delay timer, a laugh would slowly emerge.
Stephen had an eye for the prettier nurses but he was stuck for the most part, because he was so heavy, with Daniel or me. The indignities that boy had to put up with. Having little control over his bladder, he had to wear a condom from which a tube carried fluid to a bag on his leg. Detaching, emptying, and refitting the bag was a simple enough operation, but the condom itself had to be changed every night and every morning.
For solids, if he wanted go to the loo I had to hoist him into his wheelchair, wheel him into his en suite, park him beside the lavatory, and hoist him over from his chair on to the toilet seat. The first time I did this, I stood back to await completion only to be summoned close again as he slowly forced out a complex explanation to the effect that he couldn't poo because his large cheeks were compressed together by the toilet seat. After a good 5 or 10 minutes of trying to work out what he was saying I understood that I had to lean over him, place his arms around my neck where he could hold them in place by locking his fingers, lift him with my neck whilst concurrently pulling his cheeks apart with my hands, and then lower him again.
I used to take him out around the grounds in his chair to take in some fresh air and the rich wet pungency of the gardens. One time I was mildly reprimanded for my habit of riding down the gentle slope to the main entrance perched on the back of his chair like a musher on a dog sled. He would be screaming in terror and delight as we coasted and was bitterly disappointed when I told him I wasn't allowed to do it any more.
Another of my charges was an ancient multiple stroke victim by the name of Colonel Pugh. A former colonial administrator or military attaché of some kind, he was clearly well connected and one of the top rate payers. He was pretty helpless and had to be shaved and cleaned and sometimes spoon fed but seemed otherwise compus mentus. He spoke beautifully, with BBC elocution such that even the inevitably mundane things he had to say sounded interesting. I came to realise that this was an important element of how the English well heeled held sway. They could talk absolute shite but the language, elocuted beautifully, would often carry the day.
The Colonel was also a wheelchair case but one day he insisted on my holding him as he struggled to walk up and down his room. We struggled together in close embrace for about a half hour before he succumbed again, exhausted, to his bed. Later in the day his ebullient wife, a frequent visitor to Birchfield but less frequently to her husband, approached me in Billie's kitchen saying, “Your ears must be ringing.” I hadn't a clue what she was on about but gathered that she was referring to my manly efforts to help her husband walk again. All the old girls thought I was a veritable saint for my efforts. My co-nurse on the case was Janet who, in her quiet cynicism, seemed less impressed.
The next time I was in his room he lunged for my groin and held my pelvis in a locked embrace. I was trying to extricate myself when Janet walked into the room. With a slight smile on her face she said, “Come along Mr Pugh. Time for your wash.” and leaned over from the other side of the bed to pry him off and pull him back. I was embarrassed but neither she nor the Colonel seemed particularly troubled. His washing routines were undertaken by Janet with me on hand to heave him about. The finale of the procedure was a sprinkling of talcum powder on his sorry wrinkled male appendage. On this occasion Janet, who rarely spoke, quietly said, “Looks a bit like a pastry.” I was immediately convulsed and staggering about the room. As I struggled to regain composure and my place at the side of the bed, the Colonel said, elocuting beautifully, “I fail to see what's so humorous.” and Janet and I both creased up in silent gasping laughter as the poor man lay there with his powdered genitalia exposed to the cosmos.
Needless to say, this part of the story didn't appear to reach the ears of Mrs Pugh and my reputation as a saint remained intact, but the next day Daniel quietly commented on my good deed. “Is it right that you've been trying to help the Colonel to walk?” he asked innocently. I nodded modestly and he added, “Did he then try to grab you around the waist?” I turned acutely to look at him and saw his angelic smile widening.
There was a patient called Andrew at the home who had suffered burns and complete facial paralysis. The poor man was trapped behind his ghastly expressionless visage as he tried to convince people that he did in fact have a sense of humour. I could attest to that because he was actually extremely funny once you adjusted to his deadpan style. He used to roar with laughter as he told me how he would inevitably freak out new postmen or trades people on his route whenever he responded to the knock on the door of his little flat in Brighton with that unflinching face of his.
One Sunday morning I was on “Chapel duty”, delivering some of the wheelchair patients for their Sunday prayers. I was looking down as I negotiated a tricky narrow passageway with the Colonel. At the end I looked up into the wider chapel entry and almost immediately felt impelled to glance to the right. I was struck all but motionless by the full face frontal of the most stunningly beautiful woman ever to grace the halls of Birchfield. Dark black hair framed a pale face and dark eyes of open and direct perfection. She didn't smile and look away as English women seemed trained to do. She looked and smiled and held. I was so transfixed I almost ran the Colonel into the back of a pew full of good Christian ladies. I negotiated his way to his allotted place at the front and left him there to return for another patient. I edged along the chapel wall on the far side looking back to the entry to see the beautiful young woman still observing me and smiling as she made her way to a pew on the opposite side. I felt hung drawn and quartered in her gaze. I drifted out of the chapel and raced to get my next patient, but Daniel had already beaten me to him and I had no further excuse to go back into a chapel which now seemed as heavenly as a chapel could possibly be.
I champed and puffed as I made beds and swept rooms until the chapel bells rang and I had to go back for the Colonel. I stumbled and raced as decorously as I could but people were already filing out when I got there. I saw my dark haired beauty emerging on the arm of Dr Roberts, the legendary consultant in residence. As they drew near, he noticed me and said, diffidently, “Good morning.”
I was already re-transfixed and swimming in her gaze as he paused to a tug on his arm and added, “Oh, have you met my daughter? This is Andrea.” I saw a pale hand reach out at the bottom of my field of vision. I shook it slowly as she held me to her gaze and shone. I couldn't think of anything to say, but that didn't stop her full on beam which was now emanating from over her shoulder as she was drawn away by the current of passing chapel goers. I watched her disappear downstream as the current flowed around me. When I eventually snapped out, the chapel was empty except for the Colonel maintaining a lonely vigil where I'd parked him earlier. As I worked my way back to the Colonel's room I was craning my head around at every possible angle in every possible place along the route, but I didn't see her again.
A day or so later, I was walking along the main drive into the estate with my facially paralysed friend Andrew when Dr Roberts's black limo swept past us and turned in at his brick mansion a few yards further on. In a dream I watched as Mrs Roberts got out and stomped off towards the house. Then, like a being from some place better, Andrea languidly got out just as Andrew and I were reaching the car. “Hello,” she said as her warm smile filled the space in front of us. I stammered and muttered but managed to introduce her to Andrew. His face of course was giving nothing away, but I saw him to do a quick double take on me and then he immediately boomed, “What is an incredibly gorgeous person like you doing in a place like this?” Completely unfazed by his ghastly expressionless face, she released a silvery laugh and began to chat. Andrew was by far the better chatter and engaged with her while I smiled and muttered and nodded. “So you're the Matron's nephew,” she suddenly said, turning to me. “How are you finding it here?” I blurted some nonsense and she said, “We must go for a drink some time. How bout tomorrow night?” I found myself floating gently along the drive as Andrew was saying, “You know old chap, I think she likes you.” and boomed a laugh at me.
Andrea and I went out for drinks a couple of nights in a row, and each time she came back to my little room with the coal fire for a cup of tea. We talked a lot but I couldn't generate the confidence to reach physically across the divide. She told me she was taking leave from her training as a doctor to get some dental work done which would involve getting her jaw wired for a while. She was having a tough time living back at home again but it had to be done.
Suddenly we ran out of things to say. I was sitting on the edge of my bed gazing at the fire. She was on the edge of a chair doing the same. Then she turned to me and looked me straight in the face. I looked back, expecting her to say something more, but she just kept looking at me. Slowly, I got the message, and I leaned awkwardly across the divide and kissed her. In a trice we were getting our clothes off and jumping into the bed. For the next few nights we carried on torridly in that little room, with her sloping off in the early morning before anybody could see her emerging from my room. It wouldn't do to have any gossip spreading about the good Doctor's daughter mixing it too closely with staff.
© 2012 Deacon Martin