The house surgeon was a blonde, tender-skinned young woman, with irises of so pale a blue, set in such wide, weary whites, they looked almost grey. Her hair was drawn back, but wisps of it escaped at her temples and forehead, and formed a kind of soft, irregular frame for her face. It gave a certain pathos to the earnestness of her expression. Fatigue had flattened the skin against her cheekbones and left bruises under her eyes; her voice sounded effortful and distant. She told me she had been up all night. Now, at 7.30 a.m., there I lay, in a cubicle just off the casualty ward, having been turned out of the ambulance onto a high, hard wheeled stretcher. More work.
It was 35 years since I had last been a patient in a hospital. I had been admitted then after a car accident. This admission seemed to me almost as revolutionary or cataclysmic as the last. More than twelve hours before, at a meeting, I had begun to feel pain across my stomach and the lower part of my chest; severe enough pain to make for a bizarre discontinuity between the voices of the committee members, my inner preoccupations, and what I hoped was my wholly unrevealing demeanour. As for what followed, perhaps I can best convey the feeling of it by saying that during the small hours of the morning I became convinced that a cord or organ which should have lain horizontally somewhere in my chest had become twisted into a figure of eight, and that if only I knew how, possibly if I retched violently enough, I would be able to flip it back into position, and make it lie flat again. Then the pain and sickness would stop and I would be able to sleep.
Well, the trick was beyond me. Everything was beyond me: control, escape, comprehension. Nevertheless, when my wife did finally rouse a doctor from his bed to come to mine, towards dawn, I felt a kind of perverse relief at seeing how alarmed he was by my condition. At least I wasn’t making a fuss about nothing! The ambulance he summoned came after a brief delay. Wrapped in the traditional red blanket I was carried downstairs swiftly and with great deftness. It was too early in the morning for any of the neighbours to be looking on, which was something to be grateful for. On the way to the hospital, in the throbbing room-like interior of the vehicle, the man sitting with me asked what I did for a living. I told him I taught English at a college. ‘Oh, then I better speak proper,’ he said, sitting up smartly, with a mock attempt at an upper-class accent.
The next four days and nights passed in disorderly fashion. They left intense but fitful memories. The impossibility (because of a familiar pain) of continuing to lie on my left side; and the impossibility (because of the fear of a new pain) of turning over on my right. Waking at some unknown hour to find a West Indian staff nurse standing at the bedside, gazing down at me, and hearing her whisper: ‘I frightened you.’ My wish to tell her that nothing could have been further from the truth – how could I have been frightened by so intent and concerned a presence as the first thing I was conscious of? – and my utter inability to bring out a single word of this complicated thought. A corner of sullen sky hanging between straining concrete beams. Its sullenness turning to grimness as each day wore on. The intolerable smell of food at meal times in the ward. The smell of rain, brought in on the hair and shoulders of visitors, though not a drop of it could be seen on the windows. Getting to know by sight, by the touch of my free hand, by the touch of my tongue, by the weight and heat of it at all hours, the plastic splint on which my arm with the drip-needle in it was bound. Time passing, at night especially, even more slowly than on a long plane flight (and hardly less noisily, because of the roar of the air-conditioning vents in the ceiling), so that a thirty-minute leap of the hands of the watch was a victory, something achieved against the odds, which brought nearer landfall or daybreak. Spells of sleep induced by yellow, ovoid pills, each spell ending with the convulsive sensation of being flung backwards into waking, as if into a wall. The dehydration of my lips and tongue, and the sense of their growing bigger and bigger with every hour that passed. A day of high fever during which I had no control whatever over the verbose, boring madman in my skull, who endlessly lectured me in pompously editorialising fashion on subjects I know nothing about: Britain’s relations with the Common Market, the industrialisation of Tsarist Russia, the nature of the alphabet.