I am being treated for cancer (don’t go away). The treatment for my myeloma — bone marrow cancer — has lasted for a year and consisted thus far in oral medication. Because my immunity is sometimes severely lowered, I am under strict instructions, in the event of any high-temperature, to present myself at the Accident and Emergency department of the local hospital.

Recently this actually happened and I was able to present the letter I have been carrying around for ten months. The modern medical world is adept at capturing, spider-like, its victims and, once captured, it is very hard to escape its clutches. I soon found myself an in-patient.

In the curtained cubicle where I was first examined, I could hear the agonising pains and groans of an old lady in the next door cubicle who had been brought in by a patient black carer from an old people’s home. Amidst the rising and falling howls were occasional snatches of intelligible speech. My wife, waiting with me, procured some blankets for her when she complained of feeling cold. The lowering of the high-pitched tones, and the increase in the proportion of human speech, seemed to signal increasing calm. At one point, the patient black lady asked her what she wanted and, unexpectedly, received the reply:

I want to sit up and say my prayers.

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The admitting doctor, from the subcontinent, advised, “Record, record” (times and dates of headaches and temperature levels), because “Memory is bad,” but would probably follow his friends to the better opportunities in Australia.

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I welcome signs of modernity, order and military discipline, forceful management and obedience to training; clarity of purpose at the top — the doctors; but at ward level things get a little ragged, plans don’t work out, the story changes among the brown faces and imperfect English.

Although the system is brilliant the individual’s case has to be lobbied, nailed down, pro-activated. And of course everyone is worse off than me, so no complaints — nothing but admiration for the ardent nurses, the night nurses who suffer in a wholly professional manner strident lunatics, wailing retardates, drug-stirred makers of noise and mischief.

Mostly people do not do the things they say they will do. Why? Are they too swept-up by the rush of the immediate? Overworked? Fickle? As always, it is a question of making things happen, seeing things through, not in fits and starts and in response to nuisance.

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I inhabit a side-room — a luxury allowed not for social but for immunity reasons. As clean and modern as a hotel room, with an ensuite bathroom, it is nevertheless bare except for varieties of technological equipment. These “rooms” are apparently modular — and lowered into place by a crane. Their floors echo. Next door is an old, and probably demented lady, sent to try the patience of the staff, especially the night nurses. Though by the morning her bedding is sopping wet and stiffened with urine, she will not let anybody touch her. Nevertheless this must be done and gives rise to animal howling that rises progressively in tone and harps on a repeated rhythm. Sometimes this rhythm seems to consist in words, which can be made out:

I hate you, you fuckers.

It is explained to me that any skin shade darker than that of Filipina evokes this response. The lady does not object nearly so much to being touched by white nurses.

During the day I hear a most surprising quadrille. She has put on her shoes, at least, and patrols the entire length of our party wall. Once or twice the steps acquire a rhythm, as if she were practising for the Royal Ballet. Long before I learn anything else about her, I determine from the weight of steps that she is female.

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Perhaps it is long service as a psychologist that yields such insights. I very quickly perceive that the nurses are frequently having to deal with mentally retarded adults. Sometimes I think at first but these are children:

“Lorraine — you are in the wrong place!”

“No!” (anguished howls)

All of these snippets arrive at my ears as I lie in bed contemplating the wall or a book. I see nothing.

Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak: O Lord, heal me, for my bones are vexed.

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Psalm 6, v. 2, Book of Common Prayer version.

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