Until recently, I’ve always imagined that Bad, by sinister pop star Michael Jackson, is what’s playing in my dog’s mind when he puts his head out of the car window on a sunny day. While I still believe this, I also now also associate it with vital surgery conducted under local anaesthetic as, at the request of the patient, it was playing in an operating theatre I found myself in last week. The atmosphere was surprisingly informal and, while I didn’t fiddle with anything or start dancing, and was only there to mop up afterwards, it was an enthralling experience, and an unexpected light moment in what has been a grueling introduction to hospital life.
My main medical speciality thus far is getting things from cupboards and putting them in other, smaller cupboards. I explained this to a nurse during my first shift on an actual ward. She seemed pleased.
‘So – do you want anything from a cupboard at all?’, I asked after a short pause.
‘Um, no’, she replied, and our conversation ended there.
I didn’t see her again, because hospitals are run by Health Care Assistants, who are the people in shiny grey nylon uniforms you see scurrying about the place. HCA training is part of the complex and arduous NHS boot camp to which I am to be subjected over the foreseeable future. Nurses are often seen as somewhat lazy by HCA’s, although every nurse I have spoken to has been friendly and helpful – largely, I suspect, because I look like everyone’s dad, and am usually the only male staff member they have ever seen. If I didn’t wear a uniform and keep getting things out of cupboards they would think I was a patient, even though, in this intensely female environment, 80% of those are female, too. ‘Why are women are so fucking ill?’, as I remarked during my first tea break, seven hours after I started work.
I quickly realised that, here, order and chaos are the same thing. Every minute of every hour of every day, the jigsaw is disassembled, thrown into the air, and somehow comes down again with all the bits in the right place. It’s a thing to behold. Everyone is hurrying somewhere, but also hurrying nowhere, as indecent haste would be bad form. Indeed, the first trick you learn is how to walk fast-slow, which makes your shins hurt. Actually, that is the second trick you learn. The first is the pragmatic bonhomie that is the only sustainable response to the tsunami of human inconvenience hurtling towards you on all sides. Perhaps the most surprising thing, given my aversion to the infirm and gag reflex that triggers whenever I smell hospital food, is that my fledgling medical career seems to be off to a satisfactory start, despite the initial bout of training being so intense that I would silently weep on the train home. At the end of the first week I announced I was getting ‘Nothing Is Real’ tattooed on my arm, as whispering this to myself behind my COVID mask was the only way I had coped with large parts of the previous five days. I consider myself to be a physically and mentally strong person, too – God knows what the affect would be on someone who was a bit of a bender.
With regards to the tea break I mentioned earlier: these are not paid. Neither are roughly half my fifteen training room classmates, all of whom are female, twelve of whom are under 24, and all of whom are solidly working class. Young working class females are an unstoppable force of nature rarely acknowledged in contemporary society. They aren’t even Millennials, because Millennials are a middle class invention, pertaining to middle class youth. My classmates are the chavs at the bus stop. They are also, as far as I am concerned, collectively the girl in the wartime We Can Do It poster, which white middle class women unsurprisingly think is somehow about them. Many of my classmates are engaged to soldiers and, come to think of it, the armed forces must be pretty working class too, or else we’d have aircraft carriers called HMS Fri-yay or HMS Yoga. It’s probably worth remembering at this point that neither the working class nor middle class, nor any gender whatsoever, is looking to me to sort it out. Still, in response to their astonished enquiries, I explained that I am here because, as an almost entirely female entity, the NHS needs someone who can open jars and help with parallel parking, as the car park is so messy it’s visible from space. We are training vocationally, as no one can afford to go to university and are, essentially, trainee trainee nurses, occupying a rung on the health care ladder so low that most people would never know it existed. At least we are not contributing to the parking problem, because there is a six year waiting list for a permit. Parking with the patients costs sixteen pounds a day, so no one drives to work. I commute by a variety of methods including, if all else fails, a fifty mile round trip by bike which, rather touchingly, my fellow trainee trainee nurses think is impossible. This is high praise indeed, because I consider them capable of literally anything. In two years’ time we could be proper state registered nurses, with the opportunity to earn roughly as much as a full time Uber driver, so there’s a lot to play for.
I found myself reflecting, as I performed routine observations on a fading woman in a side room who would die before my shift finished, that this is how it ends for all those Beatle fans I’ve been watching in old footage all this time. It ends here, gurgling to nothingness in a provincial hospital with a trainee trainee nurse saying ‘I’m just going to do your blood pressure, Janet’ and asking family members, gathered around the bed, if they want any biscuits or anything. There is, as ever, mercy: their loved ones won’t remember them like this, and the wider world will forever remember them in brilliant dresses, screaming at the Beatles. I have never subscribed to the mawkish deification of NHS workers as heroes and, once I explained to my classmates what ‘mawkish deification’ means, neither have they. That said, it is, from the outset, a demanding, responsible and sometimes lonely way to earn a living. I find it easy to compartmentalise, because when I get home I often can’t believe any of it actually happened. There is no doubt, as I explained to my current girlfriend, that the Paul of six weeks ago is no longer with us. Part of my inner being is being scoured away, to be replaced by something, well, more. ‘Are you sure this is a hospital?’, she said, ‘You haven’t accidentally joined a fucking cult, have you?’
Main: I once had a long and successful career as a market trader and general quick thinking hustle merchant. Seems a long time ago now. This is my old pitch in the East Yard, Camden Lock which I shared with Northern C3PO, aka Martin the Jewellery Vendor, for five years. By the look of things, this is summer 2009. Shortly after this, I moved the main operation to Greenwich.
Inset top: After witnessing surgery for the first time.
Inset middle: We Can Do It, assuming there are vegan menu options and no gluten within a fifteen mile radius.
Inset lower: They shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old.