My first full-time job was in an insurance office in Birmingham. Prior to this, aged about fifteen, I had been employed on a Saturday and during the school holidays at C&A Modes in the centre of Birmingham, where, along with my friend Chris, I worked backstage, as it were, unpacking the crates and parcels of blouses, dresses and skirts and other assorted items of clothing, then counting each one, after mentally tearing holes in its sartorial tattiness, logging it and hanging it up.
We then found much more interesting employment at a sweet shop in Smethwick. It offered two advantages: there was no boss present, and every Wednesday night and all day Sunday we were left to our own devices. The shop sold every kind of sweet and, owing to the fact that there was no till roll and no real record of what was delivered and subsequently sold, we gorged ourselves freely on crisps, ice lollies, raspberry ripples, Bassett’s sherbet fountain (a personal favourite), fruit gums and Caramac chocolate ad nauseam, literally. We gave away packets of cigarettes to boys we fancied and spent hours on the telephone, playing daft tricks on members of the public, claiming that we were from a market research company and asking them lewd questions about their sex lives and body parts, or telling them we were from the telephone exchange and then asking them to make a high-pitched squeal down the phone, as a means of ‘testing the line, madam’. Needless to say, it was not a job that lasted long, once the rather absentee proprietor cottoned on to what was happening.
The insurance office, on the other hand, was a proper job. The office was divided into sections, each one consisting of a couple of rows of desks, with four desks to each row. Being the most junior, I was on the end of the second row and was in charge of finding the files that corresponded to the post that came in each morning. I soon tired of the tedious nature of the work and would spend as much time as possible staring wistfully out of the window at the traffic on its way in and out of town, longing to be in one of the cars speeding along and, more importantly, away from what I began to see as a kind of prison. Post began to pile up when I couldn’t find particular files and eventually I resorted to putting it down the toilets. This practice was brought to a close when I came in one morning to find that the Ladies’ toilets were closed due to some sort of flooding; there was water coming out from under the door and a plumber was going in and out with pliers and buckets. Luckily the blockage was cleared, the offending substance being too wet and mushy to be identified, but I wasn’t the only junior with a red face that morning.
I sat next to a girl, a slightly more senior junior, called Linda and immediately created the same role that I played in school. We were always gossiping and I would spend most of the day trying to make her laugh. The names of various clients, as we went through the files, sent us both into purple-faced, hissing hysteria, often causing Linda to get under her desk so as not to be seen by Miss Kelly, our spinsterly section leader, whose head was continually whipping round in our direction to shush us. Sometimes I would scour the filing cabinets, not for files in connection with the morning post, but purely for names to make my new friend laugh. Cornelius Clark was an explosive favourite; John Smellie and Katarina Balls were others that can still get me going today. Every so often this behaviour would be punctuated by a serious bollocking from Miss Kelly after which we would knuckle down to work for a couple of days, only to slowly but surely return to our old ways. Linda was fifteen and had already been at the place for about six months.
‘How old am ya?’ she asked on my first day there.
‘Seventeen,’ I replied.
‘Am yer engaged?’
‘Jesus! Yer ent engaged?’ Her voice rose into a falsetto.
‘No, I haven’t got a boyfriend.’
‘Blimey! If I ent engaged by the time I’m seventeen, I’ll kill me bloomin’ self.’
About ten years later, on a visit home, I saw a woman I’m pretty sure was her, pushing a baby in a stroller along Smethwick High Street with two other children in tow. She had a badly bruised eye and a swollen and cut lip.
At the age of eighteen, in May 1968, I enrolled in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital School of Nursing in Edgbaston, Birmingham. My mother was never prouder, before or since. It is what she would have wanted for herself, had she had the opportunity. Frustratingly for her, her parents sent her younger sister, Agnes, to England to train as a nurse, but she never took it up, becoming a secretary instead.
My first ward, after six weeks in the preliminary nursing school, was an ophthalmic ward in the bowels of the hospital, dealing mainly with cataract operations. The ward Sister, a Sister Hartwell, was a relatively elderly and rather eccentric Irishwoman, who had lived in the nursing home across the road from the hospital since she was seventeen. This was a detail that I found both depressing and claustrophobic as at this point she was apparently sixty-seven. She never called me by my name; it was always ‘Come here, Little Nurse’ or ‘Where’s the little nurse?’ booming embarrassingly from one end of the corridor to the other. Her huge blue eyes peered piercingly at you through thick dark lashes, over half-moon glasses perched midway down a largish, Roman nose. It was a slightly alarming stare for she could do it at any moment, and often for no fathomable reason. You might be engaged in some nursing activity or other and suddenly she would be at your side, a little closer than was comfortable, staring directly at the side of your face. She was equally eccentric when dealing with the patients; in fact the drug round, which occurred four times a day, was something to be endured by nurse and patient alike.
In order to administer drugs, in the form of drops, to the eye, it was first of all necessary to dilate the tear duct, which was done with a fairly small, pointed, sharp-looking implement. For the purposes of carrying this out, Sister whose eyesight wasn’t all that it should be, would get up on to the bed, shouting down at the patient to relax and keep still. Then on her knees, wobbling about on the mattress and hovering over the victim, millimetres from their face with the said implement, she would, whilst peering myopically through her half-glasses, attempt to dilate the tear duct. If she didn’t succeed the first time, she would loudly berate the terrified patient, blaming their inability to keep still for her inaccuracy, at which point they usually didn’t have a chance in hell of keeping their eyes open out of sheer terror.
When I was on duty I generally accompanied her on the drug rounds and dreaded this procedure, because it often resulted in her shouting in exasperation, ‘Little Nurse! Get up here now, you, and finish this off! You should be doing this, not me! You have the eyes for it. Come on!’ On one occasion, red-faced with embarrassment, I started to move towards the patient with this dilating tool and just as I was about to pull the patient’s lower lid down to insert it, she slapped me on the arse with such force I nearly blinded the poor woman I was trying to treat and I even let out a little screech of fright, for which I had to apologise to the patient.
‘What are you playing at? Get up there on the bed. Let the dog see the rabbit. You can’t do this standing by the bed, you’re too small, Little Nurse.’
When I lost my fear of her, I became very fond of this Sister. Apart from being scarily hilarious on a day-to-day basis, she was immensely kind to the staff and I know she was fond of me. Although I worked on several different wards during my nursing life, my experience on this one was unlike any other.
I never really settled into nursing, feeling that I couldn’t possibly be up to the task as well as ultimately knowing that I was there to please my mother and to fulfil her ambition rather than my own. I was terrified of being given any responsibility, constantly doubting my own judgement and ability. Mind you, this wasn’t without cause. Within the first few weeks on the wards, I whipped out what I thought were my Spencer Wells forceps, which were kept in my top pocket and were used to clamp off tubing. In this instance the tubing concerned linked a bag of blood that was being used in a blood transfusion to the patient. Snapping them on to the tube, I found that it was not the forceps at all but my surgical scissors. I was sent back to the nurses’ home to change, looking as if I had just performed major abdominal surgery with a blunt kitchen knife and no skill whatsoever.
Another unfortunate incident occurred, involving a faulty bedpan washer. Bedpans were placed in these contraptions, the heavy, round, nautical-looking door would be closed and then for several minutes the thing would spray the pans with hot water with the force of a fire hose. However, on this occasion, no sooner had I placed the bedpan inside and closed the door than it somehow fell open again almost immediately, but sadly not before the water had started to spray. Luckily, because the machine was faulty, the water was breathtakingly cold and it hit me full in the face and chest, sending me reeling backwards against the sluice room wall, where I remained in shock until the cycle had finished, my beautiful, pristine nurse’s cap, which was made of paper, wilted and flattened into a sodden mush. Whilst I stood there, rigid and winded, being battered by the spray, the staff nurse, having seen the incident through the porthole window in the door, came in and stood looking at me with an amused smirk on her face. When the water finally stopped, she said hand on hip, ‘What is this? Carry on Nursing?’ And then wearily, ‘Go and get changed.’ And so ensued another embarrassing walk back to the nurses’ home in disarray, having to endure titters and ‘witty’ comments. Halfway back I suddenly remembered my cap and tried to take it off, only to find it ripping away in soggy handfuls.
I never got into any serious trouble, but came close to it once when I was working on a men’s surgical ward. I was on the night shift and on this particular ward the consultant in charge insisted on every patient giving a mid-stream specimen of urine. This process involved first cleaning the area with cotton-wool balls dipped into a mild disinfectant, which was poured into a small foil galley pot. Then the patient would begin to urinate, catching some pee mid-stream in another little pot.
One night after most of the men had gone to sleep an old man appeared like an apparition at the end of the ward. It seemed that he should have been admitted earlier on in the day and, for some reason that neither I nor the senior nurse could glean, he had turned up at eleven o’clock. I showed him to his bed and, drawing the curtains around it, went to make a cup of tea for him, leaving him to get into his pyjamas. When I returned he was in bed and it was only then that I remembered the required specimen, the requisites for which were on his bedside locker.
‘Oh, Mr Jackson, I’m going to need a specimen of urine from you before you go to sleep,’ I whispered.
He smiled at me benignly and nodded, ‘Yes.’
I waited, he smiled.
‘Yes, I need you to do a specimen,’ I said a little louder.
‘WHAT?’ This was extremely loud and rasping, and several people near by started to stir. I tried to keep my own voice down.
‘Yes, now we are going to have to be very quiet, Mr Jackson, because everyone is asleep.’
‘Fat bloody chance!’ came a weary voice from the next bed.
‘WHAT? YES ... GOODNIGHT.’ And with that he slid down under the covers and turned on his side, pulling them up over his head.
‘No, no, no, Mr Jackson.’ Now my own voice was rising in volume. ‘You can’t go to sleep yet.’
‘No, neither can we!’ came a voice from the bed opposite.
I pulled the covers back, at which Mr Jackson shot up and looked at me as if I was an intruder in his own bedroom.
‘WHAT’S GOIN’ ON? WHAT ARE YOU DOIN’?’
By now everyone was awake, and requests for cups of tea or exasperated moans of ‘Oh Jesus!’ and ‘For Christ’s sake!’ were coming from all directions. After much negotiation and by this time virtually shouting at the top of my voice, I managed to get him out of bed, although he looked totally confused as to the reason why. I showed him the little pack on his bedside locker and told him that we needed to go down to the ward toilets. He seemed to pick up the word ‘toilet’ and spun around.
‘THERE’S NO NEED TO SHOUT! PEOPLE MIGHT HEAR!’
‘Shame you can’t,’ came the weary voice from next door again.
Eventually I part coaxed and part manhandled him down the ward and into the toilets. Once inside I showed him again the pack containing the little foil container of disinfectant and explained. ‘Mr Jackson, I want you to clean yourself with this.’ I handed him the cotton-wool balls. He stared down at them and then up at me. I dipped them into the disinfectant and pointed at his flies. At this he sprang back, cowering, his mouth agape with horror, protecting his nethers like a footballer defending himself from a free kick.
‘WHAT’SYOUR GAME? I’M OLD ENOUGH TO BE YOUR GRANDFATHER!’
‘No, no, Mr Jackson, I just want a specimen.’
And I showed him the little specimen jar. He then seemed to understand and I went through the instructions, with him nodding and loudly affirming his understanding at every stage. Then with fingers crossed I left him to it. Half an hour or so later I went to check in the toilets, to find that the pot containing the disinfectant was empty but so was the specimen jar, and the old man had gone. When I went back to his bed to discover what had happened, he was again snuggled down under the covers and this time clearly asleep, so I waited until morning.
‘Good morning, Mr Jackson, what did you do with your specimen?’
‘YES, YES, YES ...’ he said dismissively. ‘I DRANK THE MEDICINE.’
I stood there for several seconds, unable to take in what he had said. ‘Oh my God,’ I murmured ever so quietly when I realised that he had in fact drunk the disinfectant and simply had a pee straight into the toilet.
‘AND WHAT’S MORE IT GAVE ME A BELLYACHE!’
‘Oh my God!’ I said again and went to make my confession to the senior nurse. I was hauled up in front of the assistant matron, who explained how irresponsible it was to leave an old deaf man etc., etc., etc.
I suppose I messed up quite a bit during my eighteen months of training, but none of my cock-ups came anywhere near that of a poor girl in my set. She was on a ward mainly filled with elderly women and one evening after bed-baths she got the brilliant idea that, instead of going round each old dear and cleaning her false teeth, she would collect all the dentures in a big bowl and wash them all together. She only realised her gaffe when it was too late and just had to guess whose belonged to whom. Patients were complaining of sore gums for weeks after, and night after night she apparently went round when they were all asleep, whipping dentures off the beside lockers and swapping them around with other people’s, still trying to match the right teeth to the right mouth.
One of the most exciting places to work, I found, was the Casualty department of the General Hospital, which was situated in the centre of Birmingham and, along with the Children’s, was the other major hospital that we trained at, all three being part of the United Birmingham Hospitals group. On a busy Saturday night on two or three occasions, I was sent down from my quiet men’s medical ward to swell the numbers of this overstretched department. On one such occasion a very odd-looking man came in, in the small hours of the morning, walking with a strange, swinging scuttle. The conversation went like this.
‘Can I help you?’
‘No, dear, I wish to see a doctor.’ His face was pale and sweating.
‘I’m afraid the doctor’s busy at the moment. Can I help?’
‘No, no, I need to see the doctor. I don’t want to see you, dear. It’s got to be the doctor.’
Having showed him to a cubicle, I went to find the nurse in charge. Finally the doctor went in to see him, taking me with him. When we got behind the curtains, the man was standing in the corner.
‘No, no, dear, I want to see the doctor, I don’t want you present.’ So the doctor signalled for me to leave.
Some time later, I saw the man being wheeled on a trolley, presumably to a ward, lying on his stomach with what looked like some sort of cage over the top of him covered in a blanket. It turned out that he had the handle of a wire-mesh, deep-fat fryer stuck up his bottom. When asked by the doctor how it happened to be there, the man replied, ‘I ’ad an itch.’ It was inserted so far up and with such force that it had pierced his colon and he had to go to theatre to have it removed.
I encountered death many times whilst nursing, but never got used to the shock of finding a bed empty when arriving on duty and discovering that someone you had got to know, whose face you’d washed, whose bed you’d made, whose bottom and feet you’d rubbed to prevent bedsores and whose family you had met and chatted with, was now dead. The first time this happened, I had come on duty for the afternoon shift, which was from two till ten, and the ward was frantically busy. Usually at the beginning of a shift the senior nurse going off duty would give notes on all the patients, so that those coming on duty would be up to speed. But on this particular day they were still carrying out their various duties; nurses were rushing up and down, curtains were pulled round beds; patients were still having their pressure areas tended to, and it was clear that help was needed. At the top of the ward, next to Sister’s office, was Mr Claydon’s bed. He was a long-stay patient and had been unconscious for at least a couple of weeks. Seeing that the curtains were closed around his bed, I decided that this was where I would start. I went in and immediately began chatting. We were told that unconscious patients could more than likely hear what you said, as hearing was the last sense to go in a coma. In fact, hospital gossip had it that a nurse who had talked about how fat a female patient was whilst the patient was unconscious was slapped across the face by the woman when she came round, the woman having heard everything that was said, even though she had been unconscious at the time.
Mr Claydon was lying in a normal position on his back and next to him on the table was a bowl of tepid water. Someone was obviously intending giving him a bed-bath. Thinking the water a little too cool, I set off with the bowl to the sluice room to get some more hot. On the way, the ward Sister asked what I was doing. When I said I was getting some nice hot water for Mr Claydon, she said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t need to be hot, he’s not exactly going to complain, is he?’ I was speechless: to treat an unconscious and therefore vulnerable patient like this, even when run off your feet, was unconscionable.
I ignored her cruel assessment and carried on into the sluice room. When I returned to Mr Claydon’s bed, he was in much the same position and I began the preparations for his bath, getting his toilet bag and towel from his beside locker, whilst plucking at a large bunch of black grapes in his fruit bowl and talking away as I did so.
‘I expect your wife will be in soon, so we’ll get you nice and fresh for her.’ And so forth.
Then I pulled the sheet down and proceeded to wash him, whilst telling him what the weather was like and how busy the ward was. At one point the staff nurse popped her head through the curtains and said, ‘Oh! Are you doing this? Good . . . good . . .’ Then shortly afterwards she popped her head through again and said, ‘You do know he’s dead, don’t you?’
I felt sick and immediately, almost as a reflex action, spat out the grape I had been eating, which landed splat in the middle of her apron bib. It stayed there, all chewed and purple, for a second or two and then dropped to the floor, leaving a magenta smear in its wake. We both stared at it.
‘Oh no! I’ve been eating his grapes!’ And again I felt nauseous.
‘Well, they’re no different now to what they were half an hour ago when he was still alive. You’ve been stuffing them down you all week. His wife must be wondering how come he gets through so many, considering he’s been in a coma for two weeks. Now, do you know how to lay him out?’
‘Erm . . . No.’
‘Well, just carry on and wash him and then I’ll be back to show you what to do.’
No sooner had she left than I began to turn him on to his side, so that I could wash his back and as I did so he let out a long, low, sinister moan, rather bovine in tone. I was so shocked that I jumped back away from him and, in doing so, banged into his locker, sending his false teeth, which were in a jar on top of it, flying to the floor and skidding out under the curtain into the ward beyond.
‘He’s not dead!’ I shouted to no one in particular. ‘There’s been a mistake!’
With that the same staff nurse came back through the curtains, brandishing the teeth in one hand and, putting the top set together with the bottom ones to make them work like a mouth, said in a ventriloquist’s voice, ‘Oh, yes I am! I was just having a moan about you eating all my bloody grapes!’
She then went on to explain that the moan that I had heard was simply air passing through his vocal cords as he was being moved.
Death on a ward was a potentially disturbing and lowering experience for the other patients, and some ward Sisters were more sensitive in this regard than others. Later in my training I worked on a women’s medical ward, which was mainly populated by the elderly, so that death on this ward, while not an everyday occurrence, was nevertheless more frequent than on other wards, and so they had the unobtrusive, laying-out procedure down to a pretty fine art. When, for instance, a corpse was being taken from its bed down to the mortuary, it was transported on a special trolley. This looked for all the world like a normal gurney, but the thin mattress on the top could be lifted up and underneath was a secret compartment, into which the body would be put, so that when being wheeled along it just looked like an empty trolley. We were instructed from the start that if anyone were to die on our watch, we were not to make a ‘song and dance about it’; in fact we were to play it down, so that the other patients were unaware of what was going on. And so it was that one lunchtime when the lunches or, as we called them, the dinners were being prepared for serving, I was sent on ahead of the main course, with the soup trolley. The first patient I came to was an ancient woman by the name of Mrs Kent. I drew the trolley up to the end of her bed and dragged her bedtable to a comfortable position. She was sitting up in bed, her head resting on the pillows, staring down at her hands.
‘Mrs Kent? Mrs Kent, your dinner’s here. Are you going to eat some soup for me?’
I touched her arm and instantly knew from the bluish discolouration around her lips, and the inordinate stillness surrounding her, that there was a good chance she might have popped her clogs. I immediately set into motion my instructions for ‘finding a patient to be deceased’, and after surreptitiously feeling for her pulse and finding that there wasn’t one, I decided that the best course of action was to pretend that everything was normal and to carry on with the soups. I then ladled her soup into a bowl and put it in front of her.
‘Mrs Kent, here’s your soup; eat it up now, while it’s hot.’
I took her hand, wrapped her already icy fingers around the soupspoon and placed it in the soup. I then hoicked her up the bed - she weighed very little - into a more normal eating-in-bed position. Now she looked as though she was poised on the brink of sampling her soup and was merely examining it first, which was fair enough as only the week before someone had found a cotton-wool ball in theirs. I then continued on up the ward, handing out soup to the other patients. When I reached the far end and was just beginning to come down the other side with my trolley, a couple of the old ladies called out to draw my attention to the fact that Mrs Kent had bent over and toppled face first into her soup.
‘That soup’s hot, nurse! She must have fallen asleep!’
I rushed back to her, leaving my trolley to clang into someone’s bed and soup to slop out of the tureen in all directions. Then remembering my instructions to keep the whole thing low-key, I instantly slowed down and, smiling at all and sundry, spoke calmly to the corpse that was Mrs Kent.
‘Now what’s going on here, Florrie? You really must use your spoon, it’s very bad manners to suck your soup up like that. You’re going to get it everywhere.’
With a little laugh I lifted her face out of the bowl. Her nose and mouth were covered in a thick coating of pea soup. This I quickly remedied with a paper napkin, while the hand into which I had forced the soupspoon was now raised up, still holding the spoon but as if she were going to attack someone with it. I tried to make the hand, which was now level with her ear, come back down again, but it seemed to be somehow locked and I couldn’t budge it. By this time other patients were beginning to take notice.
‘What’s up with Florrie? Is she playing up?’
‘Yes, I think she needs the bedpan.’
And with that I drew the curtain around the bed and went and told Sister, who instructed me to lay Mrs Kent out with as little fuss as possible. When I returned to the bed Mrs Kent was still in the same position, arm raised, brandishing the soupspoon, with somewhat horrifically a tiny dollop of the thick pea soup hanging from one of her nostrils. After cleaning this away I proceeded to remove the spoon from her hand, but the fingers were clasped around the handle, claw-like, rigid and tight. However, with monumental effort and a lot of cracking of finger joints, I managed to free the spoon. I could then begin to carry out the procedure of laying out, which involved the washing as before, labelling the body and tying the two big toes together, then placing the corpse in a shroud, which I couldn’t quite close owing to the fact that her arm was still in the attacking position and refused to lie down. Eventually Mrs Kent was wheeled off in the secret gurney and no one said a word.
Sister suddenly collared me and said, ‘Did you get her teeth?’
‘. . . Her teeth?’
‘Yes, you’ll need to take her teeth out and put them with her belongings. Go on and catch the porter, he won’t have got far.’
I chased after him, catching him just as he was in the lift and about to press the button, to take himself and Mrs Kent down to the basement. I jumped in and the lift doors closed.
The porter, as was true of a small section of the ancillary staff, was somewhat strange looking, like something out of Central Casting: Herman Munster’s better-looking cousin or a member of the Addams family on work experience. He had a rather large head and a livid-looking scar across the side of his forehead. Presumably something that most of us need in order to function as normal, sociable human beings had quite recently been removed, for he never spoke as far as I knew, never made eye contact and moved with a creepy, gliding slowness. I didn’t relish being alone in the lift with him, never mind alone in the lift with him alongside a corpse going down to the mortuary, in the bowels of the hospital.
‘I’ve been sent to get her teeth.’
He opened the top of the gurney and pulled back the shroud without saying a word. Mrs Kent greeted me with her raised arm but when I tried to open her mouth in order to retrieve the teeth, it proved impossible; it simply would not open. It was set solid in a kind of snarl and the teeth, which were tantalisingly visible, were a lurid green colour, owing to a coating of pea soup. Not particularly wanting to be in the mortuary any longer than was necessary, I was determined to get the teeth out before we got there, so I hopped up on to the gurney. Just as I was wrestling with Mrs Kent’s jaw, the lift clanked and juddered to a halt at the second floor, the door opened and a cocky medical student, whom I recognised from the wards, stood there, staring.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ he said with a snigger.
‘I’m just having a last snog before they put her in the fridge.’
‘God, if anyone sees you . . .’
‘I’m trying to take her teeth out, for Christ’s sake!’
‘Why? Does she owe you money?’
And with a click of the jaw, out they came.
Later that day, I returned to the mortuary and, carrying a small polythene bag containing all Mrs Kent’s belongings, I entered the visitors’ room. There are few things more poignant than the little bag of belongings that are handed over to relatives when a patient dies. In this case, a wedding ring, a pair of glasses, a little bottle of 4711 eau de cologne, a hairbrush, a toilet bag and those teeth. Her daughter, a woman of about fifty, was standing there in a shabby coat, looking lost and red-eyed. When I handed her the bag she looked inside.
‘Oh, her teeth,’ she said, sounding as if she was about to cry. ‘She never let anyone see her without those.’
Not long before I made my decision to leave nursing, I worked on the Coronary Care Unit at the Queen Elizabeth, which for me was an entirely stressful and enervating experience. Virtually every patient was wired up to a machine that measured his or her heart rate. These things were attached to the patient by means of a set of electrodes that were stuck to their chest. When I was left alone on night duty, the senior nurse having gone for her dinner, I would pace about, constantly checking the patients and their machines for any sign of potential heart failure.
I knew exactly what to do should someone’s heart stop for some reason as I had played a significant part in saving a patient’s life, when on another ward a man had keeled over. I gave him mouth-to-mouth and cardiac massage, together with another nurse, until the crash team arrived and his heart did, in fact, start again as a direct result of our efforts. It was a tremendous feeling, giving me huge confidence and an illusion of omnipotence for at least a couple of days, but I still found the responsibility of this unit, alone at night, albeit only for an hour, overwhelming. My nerves and anxiety weren’t helped by the fact that the electrodes were constantly coming unstuck from the patients’ chests and each time it happened it would set off the same alarm that would be activated should their heart have stopped. It was a constant, high-pitched beep and the electronic graph, which normally blipped up and down with the heart’s activity, would flatline.
Whilst waiting for the senior nurse to return from dinner, I realised that I had to be careful about what I might have in my hand at the time of one of these things going off, as I had already bent a small plastic ruler, snapped a pencil and, on another occasion, an old-fashioned, glass thermometer, cutting my hand in the process. During my first week on this ward, one of the alarms, attached to a huge Irish labourer, was activated. Quick as a flash, a diminutive medical student, who had been going round practising taking blood from the patients, vaulted the cot-side and, landing on top of the man, proceeded to carry out cardiac massage by bashing his breastbone with some force; I was once told that if you broke the sternum you had done a good job. Within seconds the Irishman rose up in the bed and, thinking he was the victim of an assault, punched the student in the face, knocking him clean out.
I wasn’t much enamoured with the operating theatre either. I was too short to watch my first operation, the repair of a hernia, and was given a stool to stand on. I was dreading the scalpel making the first cut into the unmarked, pristine and healthy flesh of the patient, but once this was over I was fine and found it fascinating, not least the conversations between the surgeon and the anaesthetist, chatting away about where they had been at the weekend, gossiping and telling jokes. On one occasion the theatre Sister was hit in the centre of her forehead by a splash of blood and the surgeon said, ‘Oh, changed your religion?’ And all this whilst sorting through the bleeding innards of an unconscious human being.
The most interesting operation I saw was on the brain of an Iranian woman with Parkinson’s disease, which involved drilling holes in her skull. The drill, of the hand variety, bore a close resemblance to one my dad had in the shed and made a similar and unforgettable sound as it cracked slowly through the bone, just as my dad’s did when it went through plywood. Once the brain had been reached, it was the surgeon’s task to locate the overactive cell that was causing the patient’s tremor, then try to zap its nucleus, which he did by watching the brain on a monitor in another room entirely. It was like The Golden Shot quiz programme: ‘Up a bit . . . Now left and down a wee bit.’
I was shocked to find on surgical wards that a neat scar depended entirely on how well the surgeon could sew and there was a huge difference in their sewing capabilities. For a time I worked on a ward that did a lot of colostomies, carried out by two different surgeons; one was extremely tidy and the other one, nicknamed by some ‘The Butcher’, made what can only be called a pig’s ear of the job, with a great piece of colon lolling lumpily about on the abdomen, where the other one’s efforts were neatly finished off. The same was true of appendectomies: the neat one’s scars were small and straight while ‘The Butcher’s’ efforts were wonky and sometimes a bit gathered in places. And for the poor patients, it was just a case of who got the luck of the draw.
Surgeons, generally speaking, tended to be more of an extrovert nature than physicians, flirting more with the nurses. Their dress erred on the side of flamboyance, with brightly coloured bow ties and waistcoats, in contrast with the more conservative suits of the physicians. Surgeons were the show men, the stars of the hospital, and one or two were known for their short fuses, screaming and shouting during operations, throwing scalpels, kidney dishes and worse when things weren’t going exactly to plan.
Once I was summoned to a theatre that was short staffed and asked to help clean up after a major operation. I was just wondering what that operation might have been when I plunged my hand into a sink filled with bloody water, in order to pull out the plug, and found something soft and cold lying on the bottom. On taking it out, I found it to be a man’s severed leg, from a below-the-knee amputation. I yelped and flung it away from me across the room, at which the nurse helping me said, ‘Oh, not you as well! That thing has been tossed about like a bloody caber all afternoon.’
My experience on the Coronary Care Unit and in the theatres, I believe, went a long way to convincing me that perhaps I wasn’t in the right profession and it was probably not going to get a lot better. There was a side of nursing, however, that I loved. It was the basic nurturing: the feeding and the washing of patients, making their beds, eating their grapes, chatting and making friends. I ended up writing to several ex-patients for some time after I had given up the profession altogether. I fell in love with them frequently; other people fell in love with doctors, but not me: I fell in love with the patients. There was something about having a man captive in a bed and seeing to his every need.
Well, nearly his every need. We were told in no uncertain terms in preliminary nursing school that we should whip out our biro, which was to be kept in the top pocket at all times, and give the offending member a short, sharp rap with it, but knowing my propensity for unknowingly pulling out the wrong thing, this was a little worrying, as whacking an erect penis with my Spencer Wells forceps, which were kept in the same pocket, could be very nasty. I never had cause to take this drastic action; only once or twice did my hand hover over my biro and both times when I looked at my pocket, it was in fact hovering over my torch.
My favourite ward was a men’s medical. Thirty men, all on bed-rest! Unlike the Coronary Care Unit, I used to long for the odd shift, usually evening, when I would be left in charge. As soon as the staff nurse had gone, I would stand at the end of the ward, hands on hips, and shout, ‘OK, you horrible lot, get your goodies out! Who’s got chocolates and who’s got a nice grape? Come on, the wife must have brought you in something nice.’ I would then do my version of tap-dancing around the ward, picking up the odd chocolate here and grape there, whilst cracking a few jokes and telling one or two stories. On this particular ward at the end of the shift, I would go round and kiss them all goodnight. On the cheek, of course.
Another ward I had adored at the Queen Elizabeth was a men’s surgical, dealing mainly with peripheral vascular disease, which seemed to be caused almost entirely by smoking. The men on the ward were all of a particular type, almost without exception: small, thin, wiry and funny. It took a few days for me to realise that the reason I was so at home on this ward, and got on so well with the men, is that they reminded me of my own father: the physique, the humour and, of course, the heavy smoking. One man, whose veins had been destroyed by smoking, had had an arm amputated some years earlier and was back in to have the other one removed. Just before he went down to theatre, he asked the staff nurse to light him a last cigarette, such was his addiction.
One of the symptoms of this condition was called intermittent claudication, which meant that after walking a certain distance the patient would experience pain in the calf muscle, presumably because enough blood couldn’t get through to it via the ravaged veins. One weekend whilst I was working on this ward, I went home and heard my parents talking in the scullery.
‘Well, you’ve probably pulled a muscle, that’s all.’ The clinking of plates and cups and the smell of soapsuds indicated that my mother was washing up.
‘No, I don’t get it straight off. If it was a pulled muscle, it’d hurt all the time I was walking, but, like, I was walking down to the post office and after about thirty yards I suddenly got the pain and I had to stop, and I, like, rubbed my leg and it went off and just as I got to the post office it was coming on again.’
‘Well, that’s strange, I don’t know what that would be.’
But I did, I knew exactly what it was.
‘Dad, get it checked out.’
‘No, it’s all right, it’s just old age.’
‘No, Dad, you’re sixty not eighty. Go and see the doctor.’
‘Nah, don’t you worry about me.’
But as ever I did.
However, ultimately, nothing was going to keep me in nursing. When Sister Ignatius had said to me, all those years ago, ‘You should go on the stage,’ she wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. I had always known, from as far back as I can remember, that what I really wanted to do was act. I stared at my name indelibly printed on my laundry bag and I thought of Sister Hartwell, still living in the nurses’ home after fifty years, and knew I had to do something. But what?
I looked up drama in the telephone directory and found something called the British Drama League. I rang them and told a very posh-sounding woman that I wanted to become an actress. What should I do?
She said, ‘Well, really you should go to university.’
‘But I’ve only got four O levels.’
‘Oh, then you can’t.’
And that was the end of that.
It was during my last few months of nursing that I had met and fallen in love with my first proper boyfriend, whom I shall call DT, on midsummer’s eve 1969. It was a sublime period in which I staggered about the wards, this time of the Children’s hospital, completely knackered after nights of unbridled shagging, even falling asleep during the morning note session on one occasion, after which I was taken aside by a concerned ward Sister and given a lecture on the restorative power of sleep. I had discovered sex, in a big way, but it hadn’t all been smooth going; it took me at least several days to lose my virginity because I was so tense: clamped shut, I suppose. At one point I seriously questioned whether I had a vagina at all and began to reason that perhaps this was how the vagina actually took shape: from the continual hammering at the door by the penis. However, after those three days, there was no stopping me.
Meeting DT was a revelation on every level. He came from a wealthy middle-class family, living in a big detached house in a well-to-do part of Birmingham. Entering his house for the first time was like entering an unknown foreign country. There was a big, spacious sitting room with a grand piano in one corner and french windows that opened out on to a large and, to my eyes, rather wild-looking garden, which was a far cry from the little rectangles of earth planted with a military parade of bedding plants, all standing to attention in pristine, weedless rows, that seemed to be the fashion round our way. No, this garden had a liberated, unselfconscious feel to it, more akin to parkland than any garden I’d ever known. It had a pond and a willow tree, and from the branch of a large oak hung a tyre suspended on a length of rope for people to swing on: for fun! It was a garden built for the pleasure of being outside, for people to truly use, rather than some kind of badge of neatness and respectability.
The kitchen had the wonderful, hitherto alien aroma of freshly ground coffee and garlic. It boasted a dishwasher, which in those days was referred to as a washing-up machine. I don’t think I came across another until they were actually called dishwashers, about ten years later. Next to the kitchen was the breakfast room: a room whose sole purpose was to sit and eat breakfast in! The dining room being another room entirely!
Upstairs, Mr and Mrs T had an en-suite bathroom, another luxury I didn’t come across for another ten or twelve years, and then only in a hotel. They read the Daily Telegraph, cooked and ate spaghetti bolognese and macaroni cheese, and spoke without a trace of a Birmingham accent. At dinner there was more than one knife to the right and more than one fork to the left, and they drank wine. The only wine I had come across at this point in my life was port, drunk out of tiny glasses decorated with a scratched ring of little gold and black roses. There always seemed to be half a bottle of it on the sideboard, along with a bottle of Advocaat, a bottle of Martini Bianco and some Johnny Walker Red Label, all of which were only ever opened at Christmas. They called dinner, lunch; tea, supper; while dinner itself was a more formal meal that you ate at eight o’clock in the evening.
The September of the year that we met, DT went up to Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Metropolitan University, to study Sociology. I was heartsore and any will I had left to continue nursing completely disappeared almost immediately. Every day that I had off was spent getting to Manchester at the earliest opportunity, staying until the last possible moment and coming home miserable. On one such visit I confided to DT that I wanted to become an actress, whereupon he told me that there was a Drama course right there at the poly and why didn’t I apply? I duly did and an audition was set up for the following January. Now all that there was left to do, was give in my notice to the school of nursing and tell my mother of my plans.
Before I did anything I went home to talk to my brother Tommy, because, apart from Sister Ignatius, he was the only person who had ever said that I should become an actress. He was always full of praise, laughing at my impersonations of various relatives and the day-today characters that peopled our lives, and he crowed about my little acting debut at the church hall, claiming that I was the best, a moment in my life that I had held close to my heart. Once again, he was encouraging and said that I should go for it, especially while I had DT’s emotional support. I went to see my other brother, Kevin, and his wife Jill, both of whom reiterated Tommy’s sentiments, Kevin offering to come over and be there when I told my mother, a task I dreaded.
On the appointed evening, I took my father aside to brief him of my impending change of career and, as I thought he would, he said if that’s what I wanted, I must do it. Then he added shockingly that the principal of the school of nursing had rung only the day before to tell my parents that I had given in my notice and to find out whether they knew. My dad, God love him, told her that yes, of course they knew and that he was all for it. He added ominously, ‘Thank God it was me and not your mother that answered the phone.’ He had kept it to himself.
Finally with my brothers and my dad standing in between my mother and me, I broke the news.
‘Mum? I’m going to leave nursing.’
‘What? What are you talking about?’
‘I’m giving up nursing. I want to be an actress.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous! Has she gone mad?’
‘Well, if it’s what she wants . . .’ My dad as ever was trying to mediate, while drips from my mother’s underslip, drying on the pulley above, dropped down on to his head.
‘What are you talking about, Tom? Don’t talk so bloody daft! She’ll ruin her life.’
‘She doesn’t have to stay in nursing if it’s not what she wants. There’s no point.’
This was from Kevin, slightly aggressive and with a touch of the old teenage insolence. He and Mum had rarely seen eye to eye, especially through his adolescence. I can picture them on one occasion, chasing one another back and forth through the house, kicking each other up the bottom.
‘Oh, Gad, what have we reared? You’ll be in the gutter before you’re twenty!’
I thought she might lunge at me and then Dad said, ‘Well, the more you are against it the more she’s going to want to do it.’
And Tommy joined the fray: ‘Dad’s right, and there’s no point in her staying in a job that makes her miserable. She should go for it now, while she’s young.’
‘Oh Gad, I might have expected that from you!’
Tommy had had a couple of stabs career-wise before embarking on his degree in Theology at Birmingham University, one at teacher training college and the other when he entered the Jesuits, staying only a matter of weeks. My mother had wept bitterly on the day that he left home to join, thinking that she would never see him again, and then she had gone totally mad, calling him every name under the sun, when she’d heard that he’d packed it all in and was coming home.
‘Acting!’ This was said with the downturned mouth that she used to convey utter contempt. ‘You’ve been watching too much television! May the great God look to me! Acting!’
And that was it, it was all over bar the shouting. I then announced that as soon as I had worked my notice at the hospital I would be moving up to Manchester, where I would get a job for a year before hopefully getting into college to study acting. The course I had applied for was also a teaching course, which went a long way to assuaging my mother’s anxiety, but it also left her disappointed, in that she could no longer live out her own ambition to be a nurse through me.