I’m in my shed and saying goodbye to my paintings. Some are unfinished and drying on the shelves. Others have been there for years. Why I haven’t taken them down into the house I don’t know? Perhaps they are there to remind me how I used to paint? Turning to my easel, I quietly stare at the picture held in the clamps. “Goodbye Martin,” I say and then wheel out the door. It’s a sad process and one that I habitually undergo every time I’m admitted to hospital. “Goodbye shed,” are my final words as I make my way down the garden path. I’ve got to be in the Spinal Unit of Stoke Mandeville Hospital by 2 o’clock. Fuck it! I hate being away from my shed and my painting. I hate being in hospital.
I arrive at midday, enter the lift and ascend to the first floor. The doors take ages to open, a heart stopping moment as I wait for them to slide apart. Don’t like these lifts. They never seem to work properly and I know people have been trapped in them. Very irksome if you are a tetraplegic and cannot use your finger to press the alarm button.
Filled with trepidation as I enter St Patrick’s ward. ‘Death-Row ’ I call it. MRSA is endemic. I remember a patient crying after he was told he had contracted the bug. Hadn’t been in hospital more than a week. Next thing he knew he was in isolation.
Staff nurse Wendy behind the desk, her auburn hair a tangle of curls. She can gossip. Ursula sits alongside her. Irish as they come. Friendly. Glad she’s here. The spinal unit could do with more nursing staff like her. She cares. They both smile. I have known them for years.
“You’re in the six bed unit, Michael, by the window and opposite the television.”
We exchanged pleasantries. I then wheel towards my bed.
“Well fuck my boots!” The words slip out of my mouth natural as water running from a tap.
“Oh my fucking God!”
Malcolm Ball is as surprised as I am. So pleased to see him sitting in the middle bed. We met in ward 3X a few years ago.
“Your old friend is still in charge,” he says, laughing.
“Not sister Brennan?” She doesn’t like people with beards. I have a beard. She once blamed me for making the ward look untidy. “Fuck her!”
Malcolm loops his hands through the monkey pole and rests on his elbow. Leans over and faces me. “I’m in for a cystoscopy,” he says. “Think I have stones in my bladder. Nuseibeh’s going to clean it out.”
He broke his back when he was sixteen. Motorcycle accident. Makes his own beer. Has a couple of pints before going to work in the morning. Drives a one seater Noddy car, a little blue government issued three wheeler. It gets him about.
“I am in for a cystoscopy too,” I say. “Keep getting urine infections. Pseudomonas. Dr Vernon in outpatients reckons I’m chronically infected. Nuseibeh’s going to do another transurethral resection.”
“Did you hear about Vernon going missing?”
“Yes, he was missing for around forty-eight hours,” Malcolm says. “They found him wandering about the grounds of the hospital. Apparently he flipped his lid … had some sort of breakdown.”
“Poor old Vernon. He always was a bit strange.” I tell Malcolm that he once gave me a lecture about the Apostle Paul and blasphemy. I was in outpatients. He was inserting a rectal scope up my arse. I felt it slide in and uttered the words: “Gawd Blimey!” He told me, disapprovingly, that the expletive was a bastardised reference to the blinding of Paul. “Is your locker is still full up with beer?” I ask. He leans down and opens the door. There are two tiers of unopened cans. No change there.
I am hoisted onto the bed, then undressed by two male orderlies. It’s a horrible, undignified process. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I am not. They plug my sheath into a night drainage bag, which hangs from a clip attached to the metal frame of the bed. No turning back now. I put mind into hospital mode. No point in making a fuss about anything. Go with the flow. As far as I am concerned the future can only happen when I get out of this place.
Jack the paraplegic comes into the ward. He stops by our bedsides, reaches down and locks the wheels of his chair. He is much older than us. We are in our thirties and he is well into his fiftieth year. His thin hair is combed back and held in place with cream. He has a pale complexion and dark rings around his sunken eyes. His cheeks are hollow. Jack looks unwell. Not surprising. He has bowel cancer. The gastro team are going to operate on him next week. Part of his colon and sigmoid will be removed. He will then shit into a bag.
I developed a temperature in the night. 38.5. Sweaty and shivering. Headache. Another infection by the feel of it.
The next day my cock begins to stiffen. I knew it would. Always happens when I get a bladder infection. Malcolm cannot stop laughing when he sees a bulge forming in the bed covers. I have no control over it. These erections can last for hours. Jack begins to chuckle too. He calls me ‘the Corby Corey’ on account of my stiff cock and the place I come from. “It’s the Corby Corey …” Yes, that’s me, the paralysed guy who gets erections.
Orderly approaches and asks us if we want to go downstairs. There is some sort of entertainment event going on in the archery room. Malcolm and I say yes.
That evening our beds are wheeled into the lift. We descend to the ground floor. The orderlies then push us to the archery room. Why they call it a ‘room’ I don’t know? It is in fact a large hall. We’re parked in a place of our choice. Malcolm is already drunk. He’s been drinking John Smith’s bitter all afternoon. It is a powerful concoction when mixed with his daily dose of Valium.
The disco blare’s out pop songs. Spinal injured patients are dancing in the middle of the hall, spinning their chairs to the rhythm of the music. Partners and carers dance with them. As the tune reaches a crescendo Malcolm whips his bedcovers down, exposes his naked body catheter and all. He laughs. I laugh. Like some sort of demented lunatic, he does it again and again.
People who have organised the event tell him to behave himself. Laughing out loud, he defiantly throws his covers off again. Malcolm has lost it. He’s gone. Tired of his antics, they telephone the ward and demand that he be taken back. Orderlies dressed in white jackets wheel him off. I don’t see the point of staying here by myself and so I follow on. Back on St Patrick’s, he cracks open another can of John Smith bitter. I have one too. We both laugh. Yes you can have a good laugh even with a spinal injury. Life is still funny. It’s what you make it.