There’s always a stir when the ward has a new arrival. Disparate individuals thrown together forge temporary bonds in adversity as a lifetime of carefully tended privacy is at a stroke upended by the indignity of pain and bed-pans, honed by a nurse’s scolding when powers fail.
A fragile culture is shaken whenever a newcomer appears, the tension is palpable if it’s a man. The last man was oblivious to his surroundings, baring the West Ham tattoos on both thighs and when he wasn’t snoring bellowed his suffering down his phone louder than a Tunbridge Wells stockbroker on his mobile in a rush hour train.
We, the regulars, practised in the fine art of hospital visiting, we who long ago said everything that there is to say but still talk, feign indifference but are alert to the swish of the plastic curtains being pulled back.
‘Leave me alone, woman. Leave me alone.’ He’s a shouter.
She sits, she stands, she sits again. ‘Have a wine gum, go on, they’re nice’
‘I’ve told you, I don’t want a wine gum.’
‘Go on, have one. They’re nice’
‘I don’t want a wine gum!’ The whole ward knows he doesn’t want a wine gum.
‘Go on, do you good, you need the energy. How are your pillows? You’re not comfy.’ She’s up again. ‘Let me do them for you.’ She glances around without making eye contact with anyone.
‘Leave me alone woman!’
In hospital nothing happens. The slightest provocation is acted upon, if not created, in minute detail, then discussed with a similar nuanced attention. All undertaken in the name of the patient but in reality it fills the time and provides the visitor with a reason for being there.
She looks around again with a nervous grin. ‘All right if I have one?’
The young man, quiet until now, has had enough. ‘Spurs are playing tonight, granddad. Go and get a coffee, mum. Cup game!’
‘Up the Spurs!’ Animated now, alert and bright. ‘They’re doing all right this year, eh? Told you Harry would sort them out. Told you.’
‘Win this one and they’re at Wembley, granddad.’
‘Ahh, Wembley. Did I ever tell you about when I was there in ’61?’ The boy settles back with the air of someone who has heard this one before, several times, but he’s happy to listen once more. ‘Never be bettered, son, not the same these days.’
‘I couldn’t get coffee. Bloody cafeteria’s closed. Coke from the machine all right? He’s not going on about bloody Spurs again, is he, the old sod?’
‘Mum,’ says the boy, ‘Just shut up.’ He settles down again for the rest of the well-worn saga. His mother stands. Moves the pillows a fraction. Smith scores. Sits. Tucks in the blankets. Blanchflower lifts the cup and he’s lost his hat, tossed high in the air. Stands. Sits.
A few days later, when we are all familiar with tales of Tottenham heroes, of Smith, Greaves, Blanchflower and especially White, glorious, silky, best ever White, I pass the bed on my way out. ‘Good to meet another Spurs fan.’
He stirs and sits bolt upright. ‘Two sugars please!’
He dozes again, as suddenly as he woke. I walk on, past the laminated pledge on the wall that guarantees same sex wards from 2007.
Next day I stop again. ‘Bought you a programme’. I’m not a good visitor, despite the practice over the last two years. I’ve deserted my duties. Even now, under these circumstances, the game and being there is on my mind.
The boy thanks me, ‘Look granddad, a programme. 3-1 today’. The woman, more agitated than normal, thanks me repeatedly, and no, for the tenth time, I really don’t want the money. The boy shows him the pictures, as you would a toddler.
He barely stirs, a flicker maybe of an eyelid buried deep now in hollow sockets surrounded by grey drawn skin. His lips move, ‘What’s that granddad?’, says the boy, ‘3-1 today, Defoe again!’ Faint and barely audible, he summons the strength from somewhere to respond. I swear I heard, ‘Up the Spurs’ but I couldn’t be sure.
Sunday afternoon and I pass the woman in the corridor, on the phone telling someone that she has the money but will be late because she’s at the hospital. The boy brushes past, carrying a small bag with the programme in his hand. ‘Thanks for this,’ he looks at his shoes and doesn’t stop. Turn the corner and the curtains are pulled, the bed empty. It will be occupied by the evening.