Quest: how we lived before the safety gates fell across our lives


Time – for someone who has lived by the clock their entire working career and indeed still has nightmares about transgressing the clock (always involving trying to get to a studio by six o’clock but something prevents me no matter how fast I drive, or hitchhike, or run, or get a boat, a ferry, or hire a small plane and have to take over from the ailing pilot, and negotiate with city gangs for safe passage through their territory. I stare at the clock as it approaches six – first, one minute to go; 30 seconds; 15; 10, 9, 8, 7… then, I wake in a cold sweat realising it was a dream but still feeling the full-on frustration of not getting there on time).

Now, for me, mornings-afternoons-evenings are all blended into a seamless tapestry. Awake and asleep, there are no time limits. No hunger which divides days by mealtimes. My brain attack (as some people call strokes) has left it busy imaging sequences of life, busy eavesdropping on fellow patients and how they lived before the safety gates fell across their lives. It is a bucolic time without constraints, without having to interact with people. To look at me people might think I’m dormant, but the subconscious is alive with perception/abstraction/philosophy/sentiments. I am free from the power time hands to the hour and minute hands of the television clock.


On my immediate right is a man who is very tall and thin – a sort of a Rodney Trotter, Del Boys brother – who can’t move himself or speak very well. Nurses come and hold faux conversations with him – “How are we today Barry? Do we feel like a bath today?” – and they imagine the answers are affirmative, that he’s just feeling on top of the world and he’d love a bath especially with lookers like them – so they proceed to lift him up, the draw the curtains and do their duty. Soundproof curtains aren’t available on the NHS so I am still able to hear the faux conversations and so the drama continues.

I’ll cut to the most interesting part where they asked him what he used to do for a living, since he was old and couldn’t possibly be employed now: “(unintelligible) “Oh, you drove a bus, did you. That must have been interesting. The people you must have met—all sorts.”

I tried to imagine Barry behind the wheel of a bus but only as a part of a circus clown with tiny car sketch.

Some people came to visit Barry once. A couple; they were old and brought green grapes and magazines which they proceeded to eat and read. Barry stared at his lap thinking of all the interesting people he met on his bus – all sorts. He always stared at his lap. 

The man directly across the aisle from me couldn’t move at all. He was like Barry, afflicted with the old gene. He stared at some unimaginable horror in the distance and never looked at anyone directly preferring instead to deal with the gnarled twists and turns inside himself which could be seen externally. A lone woman came every day I was in hospital, presumably his wife (although it could be a dedicated lover – I was just assuming) and just as he had a thousand-yard stare, she never spoke to him. She came and settled in a near-by chair and opened a book while he dealt with his demons. No touching. No gestures. No feeding him. No pretending to give him the last rites. She looked like she smelled of ylang ylang and would offer you a cup tea under different circumstances, but in this situation she was in her own world and that’s where she wanted to be. (So much for the dedicated lover) 

The man diagonal to me never moved and never had any visitors. The nurses did not hold faux conversations with him and he must been given food intravenously because I never saw anybody feeding him. Those tubes connected to his body must be more than medicine going in. I saw doctors and apprentices surround him and talk gravely in whispered tones leaving the eavesdropper straining for something to go on. From appearances it was the real world version of the Amish “shunning”, for he was placed on the outside, and given only the basic human need. 

The white shirt brigade (male teacher – female student) descended upon me and asked if I would like a cup of tea – then told me to get it myself. (It really was much nicer than that, because it was another of their tests) They put me on their version of autopilot to get the yaw corrections on my gait and stayed on either side of me in case I went out of control and crashed into the right of the corridor. The destination was a tea room on the same floor, not just a tea room, a “learn while you make tea room”. There were six or seven people enrolled in the course, including, surprisingly, some young people.

My fencing-costumed bodyguards watched as I put the disk of tea in the cup, took hold of the boiling hot kettle (careful now, they seemed to say with their body language), lifted it gently with an uneven motion and gingerly, unevenly poured water into the cup. Then they suggested I put the sugar and milk in and that’s where it all went wrong. I tried to express my preference for black tea, they insisted with sugar and milk trying to get to me to hold the milk carton. I could only speak in gurgles saying “gurgle-umpf, gurgle-umpf” = I don’t want sugar and milk.

They tried again to enforce the edict that says you have to have sugar and milk with tea – like gravity, it’s the law. When I walked away from the table without a tea, they thought I was deranged and I was. Then they tried a biscuit – “gowan, gowan, gowan” they insisted.

Mrs Doyle

For someone who had been fed a diet of a tablespoon of warm whipped dehydrated egg whites three times a day, I couldn’t possibly. Unreasonably, I wasn’t hungry. But I sure would have liked a black tea.   

I got the feeling I didn’t pass the tea room test. It was of several tests that the gym room folks had for me and it was headed for a showdown, Colditz style.


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