Like most children my experience of hospitals was limited to being born in one and the little I had seen on television and that was based on two films: Carry On Nurse (1959) with Kenneth Connor, Leslie Phillips, June Whitfield and Carry On Doctor (1967) with Frankie Howerd, Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Barbara Windsor, Anita Harris and Kenneth Williams. Hattie Jacques optimised what I thought nurses and matrons were like: formidable, fierce and the bane of young doctors’ lives. I loved these films.
The only other experience was watching visits to hospital wards on Christmas Day on television to cheer up the patients. I think Leslie Crowther was the host, later followed by Rolf Harris and I was stunned and frightened by seeing people in iron lungs. They were unable to move and had a mirror to see into the ward like a periscope. Many of the types of diseases people had then such as Polio, Tuberculosis, Measles etc. have largely disappeared due to vaccinations.
I remember fantasizing about being in hospital and how jolly it would be, as long as you weren’t seriously ill. However my first real introduction was far from pleasant. I remember waking up in the night with a certain amount of commotion and it was only the next day that I was told that my dad had been taken to hospital with a heart attack. I think my grandma had come to look after us and working back I think it would have been 1960. My father was just thirty-seven but, like most men at this time, he was a heavy smoker. Twenty a day at this time was a light smoker and he smoked Players Navy Cut cigarettes. These were untipped and filled the room with thick smoke that made your eyes water.
We went to visit him in Leeds Infirmary and I was overawed by the building. It seemed vast to a five year old and strange and not the jolly place I had seen on the Carry On Films. It had a strange disinfected smell and I seem to remember that the walls were painted green. I think there were two shades, light and dark. There were long corridors and when we entered the ward there were rows of beds on either side and I clearly remember walking between beds with, what seemed to me, to be very old patients who looked decidedly unwell. I can recall one man who had an oxygen mask on, removing it to smoke a cigarette. Yes, I know it seems impossible, but he was smoking in the ward, as well as at risk of setting himself on fire. He would take a puff, cough and then put the mask back on. I was horrified!
We got to my dad’s bed and he was lying there, looking grey and not the immortal father I had always known. We handed over the grapes and other fruit and were allowed to sit with him, whilst mum looked worried and talked with him. After a little while and a kiss, my brother and I were sent to wait outside whilst they had some time together. The nurses were dressed in very clean, starched uniforms and wore strange hats, but they seemed kindly to us. Visiting times were very limited in those days and in a short while all the visitors piled out and mum took us home. I remember signs outside the Infirmary telling motorists that it was forbidden to sound the horn.
We visited a few more times, but soon dad returned home and as far as my older brother and I were concerned everything was getting back to normal. I had the naive belief that you went to hospital and they fixed you up. Unfortunately that wasn’t quite true and thirteen years later my dad was back again after his second heart attack. At this time smoking was outlawed and you saw, as is the case nowadays, patients standing outside the hospital puffing away, sometimes joined by nurses.
My own personal experience was due to my own stupidity. As I have mentioned before, I had started drinking alcohol from the age of about fourteen. It wasn’t unusual and underage drinking was common as you were rarely asked your age in a pub in the sixties. I got away without any difficulties until twenty four days after my eighteenth birthday. It was New Year’s Eve and a group of us were going to a party. It was near Headingly, down from Shaw Lane. I believe Pete knew whose party it was, but I certainly didn’t. I think it was in a student house as I remember the rooms being fairly bare of furniture and furnishings. There were quite a few of us: Peter, Dave G and, I think, Dave B were there to name a few. Dave G and I had bought half a bottle of whisky for the party and I remember quickly drinking the spirit from out of a plastic cup. I can’t say I remember much about the party after that, but I know that a few of us decided to walk back up the road to buy some more drink. Now I was fairly tipsy at this point as we had drunk the whisky in quick fashion. My memory of what happened next stops suddenly here. The road was narrow and there was a slim pavement, big old houses at the side and stone walls separating them from the pavement. I remember Peter telling me to get away from the kerb as I swayed and staggered and then everything went blank. I thought amnesia was not a real thing until I experienced it myself. What I am sure about is that I have nothing else to blame but my own stupidity. I sometimes surprise myself that I have survived to this day. I have come so close to killing myself on a number of occasions, usually due to my own foolishness, but I have ridden my luck and I am still here to tell the tale.
What happened is reliant on the account of those who were with me as I have never recovered my memory of the time from stepping off the kerb to waking up in hospital. That is not quite true, as the only memory that returned, and I am embarrassed by it, was an ambulance driver leaning over me to ask if I was alright and my being sick. I think it would have been 1972, so if he is reading this, I truly apologise. Apparently I had fallen off the kerb in front of an MG Midget. Now fate was on my side as it was such a small, low car that, rather than running me over, it threw me into the air and I skidded on the rough road and pavement surface. Apparently the poor driver was mortified and again, if he reads this, I do apologise.
I woke up in hospital and I am not sure if it was the Infirmary or St James’s, whichever it was I was in a bed, with the most horrible headache, that was not helped by having a pillow that was harder than a concrete slab. A nurse was there and so was my mother. The nurse told my mother that I had been drinking, to which she stated, and I remember it clearly, “But he doesn’t drink!” The nurse leant down and said, “Have you had a drink?” I replied, “A little”, with a sheepish voice. There was confusion at this point as to what had happened. The nurses believed that I had been fighting as my face was badly scraped and so were the knuckles and top of my hands and, as a result, they treated me with not a lot of compassion or care. My wounds were not properly cleaned and I still have a scar below my bottom lip that is grey/blue from the dirt and gravel off the road. When I started teaching children used to tell me that I had ink on my lip. I think the nurses had specially selected the pillow for me to teach me a lesson. I believe I was in one or possibly two nights and when I was leaving the nurses semi-apologised saying that they had heard from the police that I had been hit by a car and that I hadn’t been fighting. I simply had no idea as the whole incident is a blank.
It is strange to say, and wouldn’t be the case nowadays, but I never heard anything from the police about the accident, nor the man who drove the car. I guess that once they knew I was okay they didn’t take it any further. I did learn one lesson that night and that was linked to whisky. Since that night I have an absolute aversion to whisky and brandy. The smell makes me want to be ill and now I can’t understand how anyone can drink it. I have never missed it and in many ways I am glad, as spirits are potentially so dangerous.
I guess I deserved the treatment from the nurses and I know they have such a difficult job. I have had a number of dealings with them over the years and they have always been wonderful to me and my family. During these challenging times they are on the front line and they deserve our support and consideration. Britain is very fortunate to have the National Health Service and I hope that if any good can come from the Covid 19 outbreak it will be that the service becomes properly funded and respected. It is a fantastic institution that most other countries are envious of.
The complete audiobook version of The Moonchild can be listened to on the Soundcloud player below. This is a fantasy novel for adults and it is free to enjoy.