I can’t quite remember what prompted this memory (see? It’s started...) but I was talking to my mum the other day about memory loss - probably because this is at the forefront of her mind these days – when she remembers. (Sorry mother!)
Mostly, she is able to laugh about it and this reminded me of a time in my life when I spent eight loooong weeks working on an old people’s ward in a local hospital. In those days it was referred to as a Geriatric Hospital (now it would probably be couched in much less bald terms) and my ward was for “Psycho-Geriatrics” (ow! I flinch at the lack of political correctness – how namby pamby we have become!) What this broadly meant was that all the incumbents were irreparably confused to a lesser or greater degree. For a nineteen-year old (as I was at the time) this was a pretty major shock to the system. I had no idea that old people could be so, well, revolting – in every sense of the word.
The physical side was a particular challenge. Most of them had to be helped with dressing themselves and several would nip around during the day, stealing clothes, stockings, underwear – you name it – and secreting it around the ward. We would ask relatives to name precious items but, all too often, Edna ended up wearing Dora’s blouse because there just wasn’t enough time to sort everything out for everyone.
We grew to dread Wednesdays because Tuesdays were Gooseberry Day. I will leave you to imagine why Gooseberries on a Tuesday might have an effect on Wednesday...but let’s just say it, ahem, involved a great deal of mopping and disinfecting.
Then there was the issue of keeping the ladies entertained all day – not easy and (it was a different world back then) they spent hours staring at the TV or simply babbling to themselves, some of them rarely making it out of bed. Like Irish Mary who could entertain you with totally lucid stories of her life in the Emerald Isle to the point where we wondered what the hell she was doing in a ward like this. Then she would weep and say “and now I’m pregnant, you see.” Mary was 84.
Florrie was another dear old thing who gazed into space while keeping up a monologue, day in, day out. It was a sort of stream of consciousness – a narrative of her life – and it always involved children. “Me and the baby, we’re going down the shops, me dad give me ‘alf a crown fer the shoppin’. Me and the kids all goin’ down the town...”etc etc On the day that a nun arrived with a busload of Primary School kids to sing Christmas Carols to the old folk, we thought Florrie would be the ideal audience. After all, she loves kids, doesn’t she? The children gathered nervously around the end of her bed and sang Silent Night in reedy voices, some of them had recorders – it was adorable. Florrie was unusually sleepy and appeared not to notice their presence. We hauled her up in bed. “Look Florrie!” we cried “The children have come to sing to you!”
Florrie opened one eye and glared around her. “Children? Children? Nasty little bleeders – they take out their wotsits and play wiv themselves y’know.” And with that, she closed the eye and went back to sleep. I will never forget the look on the poor nun’s face (or the colour of it) as they children shrieked with naughty laughter.
Emily was more of a Psychiatric case than some of the others, we were told. She had refused to speak for some years and, consequently, it was very difficult for any of the doctors to assess her mental state. She sat in bed, frowned for England, accepted food and drink but said nothing, nada, nowt. We used to chat to her as we were sorting her out, or feeding her, just because it seemed so unfriendly not to. Anyway, it was supposed to provide them with mental stimulation, right? Then one day, the logjam broke and, presumably tired of my teenage prattle, Emily SPOKE! I was absolutely gobsmacked and ran to tell the Ward Sister - a gargantuan Jamaican woman who referred to all of us as "child".
"What's the matter, child?" she enquired kindly as I hurtled into her office. "It's Emily - she SPOKE!" I burbled in my excitement. "Good Lord above child! What did she say?"
"Er, she said 'You stupid bastard'..." I blushed. Sister's roars of laughter shook the building.
Of the ones who were mobile, Jessie was a real livewire. Foremost amongst the light-fingered, she would go on the hunt for food, raiding the other’s bedside cabinets in search of a biscuit or a piece of chocolate. All accompanied by her ceaseless chant of “buggerbuggerbuggerbugger...” Because she kept herself so well occupied “visiting” the rest of the ward (and munching her way through their treats) she tended to be one of the last to be dressed and often wore her hospital-issue nightie until mid-morning. This was like a hairdresser’s gown and did up behind the neck, leaving a long opening down the back. She wore nothing else underneath, and we grew inured to the sights we saw as the ladies wobbled around the ward, nighties akimbo.
One day, Jessie decided to make a break for freedom and nipped down the stairs and out of the ward block. Our ward was on the first floor of a Victorian building, opposite an identical building which was the nurses’ home – the two being separated by a path and a bit of scrubby grass. We were alerted to Jessie’s absence by the yells of the nurses coming from across the way. Being one of the youngest, I was sent off to capture the escapee and found myself legging it up the path in hot pursuit of Jessie who was moving at a surprising speed. Every nurse in the universe appeared to be hanging out of the windows yelling “Go Jessie!” at the absconder while “buggerbuggerbuggerbugger...” floated back to me on the wind. I almost lost her because my progress was hampered by hysterical laughter, both at the surrealism of the situation and by the sight of the back of Jessie’s nightgown flapping in the breeze and her bare buttocks flapping in time with it. Eventually, I caught up with her and she came with me like a lamb, still muttering under her breath. Once we reached the ward, she took my hand and kissed it. I was touched by this little show of affection. Then she bit it. Hard.
Wasn’t too bad – she had no teeth.