I was trying to get home. It was gone seven and dark and I was tired and hungry. I was stuck behind a petrol tanker and two cars doing 35 m.p.h. just near Mark Cross. I thought ‘I can go faster than this’ and I could tell there wasn’t anything coming the other way because of there being no lights, so I overtook. I was doing about 55 by the time I was past them, but I had reached a bend with adverse camber, and the road was wet and slippery. I felt the back wheels slide out and steered into the skid, not alarmed, thinking I could deal with it. Suddenly the front wheels gained traction, and I shot off across the road. I found myself doing 55 m.p.h. on the verge, and while 55 m.p.h. might seem safe on the road, on the verge it is a different matter. I couldn’t slow down. I hit a hedge, and lost consciousness.
I woke up, feeling badly injured. I had ¼ of an inch of lung. I wondered what to do. I knew I had some dope in my left-hand trouser pocket, and reached in and dropped it on the car floor. This is true! It makes no sense, the things we think of.
I woke up next when the ambulance men were with me.
“I’ve got a spinal injury.” I croaked.
“A spinal injury.” they laughed.
I think they were private ambulance men who’d just happened to be passing. Then a female Doctor appeared - she was on her way home. I had no lungs, and I was made of pain. I tried to tell them I had been driving for the National Health, but I’m not sure I made any sense, and I passed out again.
took me back to K&S, the hospital for which I had been working, where I
must have stayed for days. I was very cruel, or mad, or just not quite in my
right mind, because I got them to call the Woman, my (ex) Lover, and she had to
come and see me, all dead like that. Emily was there too. They were lovely. I
remember Kirsten of Dallington was working there. I remember nothing of the
rest of my stay. The next thing I recall is being in King’s
This is the world, poised always on the edge of its terrible becoming, livid with shattered and unconditional significance.
(Allow me to ignite my personal Christ.)
1) Foil tube-box, as for toothpaste. Silver.
(On it, the illustration:)
Drawing, 1/3 red, 2/3 blue, ½ clothed female, ¾ length blonde hair, arms up behind head (bare breasted).
huge pigs morphed with military busses drink from a river. (This seems to be
something to do with
Kill your boss for noise.
I remember waking up in theatre after (I hope after and not during) the operation. I seemed to have had three anaesthetists. Two of them were hiding in a wastepaper basket discussing paperclips.
I do not know if I can explain H.D.U. to you.
Firstly, I should say that H.D.U. stands for ‘High Dependency Unit’ and that it’s where I was put after my operation.
The internal explanation is more complex.
There are no windows in H.D.U., but there are a lot of monitors tracing the life-lines of the individual patients and periodically giving out urgent beepings. There are nurses who scurry between beds attending to the bleeps. In the previous ward, where I had been waiting, the nurses had been seemingly all members of some weird African Christian sect, at least during night-shift, which added its own peculiar atmosphere, which became a sort of prayer meeting, run on quite different rules from a hospital. But there are yet further layers of internality as far as I am concerned, (and wouldn’t there be, dear Lord save me, wouldn’t there be.) I have been on my toasting-fork, and they are feeding me on automatic heroin from a tiny, whirring drug pump. I am hallucinating fine gold illustrations of incredible delicacy and total meaninglessness. The atmosphere is imbued with the sensation that the ultimate battle between good and evil is imminent at any moment, and I realise with some shock that I do not care which side I am on.
The cast is as follows; or no, perhaps more important than the cast is the lighting director or cameraman who has supersaturated contrast, colour, brightness - whatever the fuck it is - to a crazed excess of vividity that makes me think of a charged gas, or some form of radioactivity. Light, or the visual impression of objects has its own pressure, squeezing the eyes, threatening to burst the objects it represents, it is a neon agony, a hyperinflation of sight.
Nevertheless, there is a cast, and the cast is as follows: there is an Edinburgh-voiced Scotswoman in the corner who I want to kill. She makes a fuss, and is too precise, or finicky. Opposite me is LeRoi, a black man in early middle-age who I have seen crying.
“It’s hard, man, it’s hard.” I say to him, my whole heart stretching open to encompass his unknown pain.
I think he has had a brain operation.
There are the nurses, a black woman in her fifties called Pat who at one stage breaks my heart, a gregarious white-haired efficiency determinant called Winnie, a trainee called Leda, a young Finnish immigre called Eija, there is the rest of the ward with their insistent bleeps and suckings.
I take LeRoi to be my ally at once. I have no idea why, perhaps it is that I have witnessed his brave, solid, silent surrender to pain, loneliness and misery. I expect at any moment the actualisation of Armageddon in the small open space between us. Perhaps Satan will materialise, or perhaps I am Satan; the form of the Apocalypse is unclear. I have tubes through which the nurses feed me pain. There are two in one arm, one in my penis which drains my bladder, three coming out of my neck, one in the other arm, one thrust through my ribcage into my chest cavity, another into my left lung. At one stage in the ever-about-to-unfold drama I wrench the three straight out of my neck because I have no idea what I am doing. One of the chest drains just falls out later, what with rubbing on the sheets. But always we are returned to point zero, the place before it begins; LeRoi is opposite me, the nurses stand by, time is about to stop, about to begin, about to become manifest, about to cease, to solidify.......
Above my head there is a lattice of white squares each with a thousand tiny holes and a thousand weeny holes. When I look down at my at my feet there is LeRoi holding up the other end of the world. LeRoi is the King, of course. I know that behind each lattice square there is another bed, another me, another participant in the imminent drama, that if one opened the drawer-front that the teeny and the tiny holes actually mark then they would be there in all their pain and terror and glory, a representative either of Hell or of Heaven, and that the game would start again, from here, from point zero, that Pat would strap the agonising mask to my face, the transparent plastic mask that is too tight and that is going to wobble all night, pulling my lips back and forcing air in and out of my lungs in tiny pulses too fast to count, and that we are going to wait there in terrible anticipation for the Devil to arrive, for thin, scheming agony to present itself in a new form, for a livid explosion of blood and pus and vomit, for a scream of dedicated madness.
lying there and Pat has gone away. I am waiting, I am waiting, the waiting is
endless, and I cannot even begin to wait to wait for the beginning without Pat
there. When she comes I ask “Where have you been?” and she is cross. All night
the pain which is not pain but the shadow of agony pursues me through
sleeplessness as the beeps and bleeps and terrible sucking sounds from the
other end of the ward repeat and recur endlessly. LeRoi says nothing, enduring
silently because he is the King. I shout and swear. If the
One morning, Pat comes back to me.
“Don’t be cross with me.” I beg her.
“I shall never be cross with you again.” she says.
The Woman my (ex) Lover came to see me. I wanted so hard to protect her. I had summoned, somehow, a supply of optimism from somewhere, and I wanted to transmit some of it to her, I was afraid of the effect I was having on her.
“I’m lucky, really,” I said, “because I like thinking, and I can still do that.”
I didn’t know how untrue that was, then. I could hardly think at all; I certainly wasn’t thinking clearly. Thinking is a terrible burden, and seems an unavoidable reflex behaviour; I do it without even noticing, until it hurts. I was looking on the bright side, I wanted to protect her from me. How impossible that is:
“This will be the making of me,” I said, “somehow or other.”
It’s obvious, now, that I was mad.
She was typically forthright:
not going to be the making of you if you spend all your time hanging around
We had already split up, of course, we were always splitting up, I was never satisfactory; always too poor, too bohemian, too unrespectable, too opinionated (I might say principled) for her comfort.
She has taught me such a lot, none of which I wanted to know.
She was tired. She talked about work. There was a lot on. I was so sorry for her, I felt so guilty. There was a Nurse doing something to or for me.
“You’ve got lovely eyes.” said the Nurse.
“You surprise me.” I replied, since I don’t think I have lovely eyes. They are different colours, one more blue, one more green.
“The purple eye-shadow helps.” said the Woman, my (ex) Lover.
She told me that her boss had said she could bring a laptop up and work in the hospital while I had my operation. I tried to laugh. I didn’t want her to do that, it was ridiculous, she didn’t want to sit around in hospital. Perhaps he could have worked outside the operating theatre in which his wife was being carved open.
“Do you know where this is?” she asked, looking tired, cross, tearful.
“It’s miles.” she said.
Yet I remember trying to write her a letter, painstakingly marking it out in wobbly capitals on lined paper in a child’s notebook, because at that point I could hardly write, unable to finish it, saying ‘we are not bad people....’ [But perhaps we are, perhaps we are bad people, I am bad because I have been punished, she is bad because she has deserted me.] and trying to suggest that we might still have a future together. She read it without comment. She did not even want to take it with her. I reached out to touch her face, almost poking her in the eye with my thumb.
“I know what you’re like” I said “and I care about you.”
Now this is much later and I am trying to remember, some of this is description contemporary with the events and some is added later, I suppose I should distinguish between the two but even that is difficult. I seem to remember saying to her something like
“You know that what has happened to me renders the emotional aspects trivial?”
“Really?” she said.
I’m ready to believe that I meant that it would be all right that she was going to leave me, that we couldn’t carry on beyond this point, this full stop.
My love for her was at this point complete and so perfect that I entirely believed this dementedly selfless piece of nonsense. I’m ready to believe that she understood me to mean this and yet disbelieved me, even though I’m sure that this was what she would have wanted. Perhaps I was only saying what I thought it was she needed to hear. I was so pure, as thin as a ray, I had no view of my own, no selfish position screwed into the earth of being, I was cut loose and drifting, I saw only what was proper and eternal, not understanding that I might later become a person again and have to deal with feelings. Perhaps I was trying to accept the inevitable, publicly at least. I knew I had no way of holding her any more, and that anyway we were killing each other.
I remember individual acts of kindness. Shuma let me use her mobile since I could not reach a phone. I called my daughter. When she was not in I called the Woman, my (ex) Lover, or that could have been the other way round. Shuma was cross about it, perhaps she thought I’d spoken to two people when I’d only asked to make one call. In a way this was true, and in a way it wasn’t.
“That Peter is full of tricks.” she said to someone in my hearing.
“It wasn’t meant to be a trick.” I said.
I felt terrible. I liked Shuma. I would have given her money, or anything. The last thing I wanted was to betray her trust. I was too weak and immobile to explain, and she avoided me.
Liz came to see me in H.D.U. (I think) and also on the ward. She is Emily’s mother’s sister, one of my ‘outlaws’ (as opposed to in-laws). I could hardly speak or see, and had been given an enema which took sudden effect part way through her visit. I told her that I didn’t deserve her concern, and she agreed. She visited me more than once. I needed that so much. People much closer to me visited much less.
Father came, all the way from
“It’s not fair.” I said. “I feel like I’ve let everyone down. My Father came. He’s old. I should be visiting him in hospital.”
“You’re not on your deathbed.” responded the Doctor.
“No, but you know what I mean. It’s the wrong way round.”
performed a delicate piece of jewellery inside my back. They had to do it in
Everyone admires the photos.
After this I was placed on a bed in the High Dependency Unit with a bewildering array of tubes coming out of me. This bed was the latest in high-technology superior expensive first-rate electronic beds, which could move you (its incumbent, or recumbent) into sitting positions of infinite subtlety at the touch of a button. However, from the first moment I was placed on this bed it was not flat, in that the head end was lower than the foot end.
I soon began to feel that I was sleeping uphill, on a banana, a sensation sharpened both by my excessive intake of heroin and by the fact that the only possible way to sleep was on my back. It became increasingly irksome and uncomfortable, and I asked every day if something could be done about it, and every day I was lying in it, so that nothing could.
After eight days matters (mattress?) came to a head (or possibly foot). I had been taken to the gym for the very first time by physiotherapists and my ward had been changed in my absence, moving me upstairs. The physio’s took me to my new ward, but there was no bed. LeRoi was there, which was strangely comforting. I was sat in a chair (the same chair which later contained the telephone) and I gradually collapsed to the point where I was slumped forward over the table in front of me croaking “Bed, bed, bed.”
When a bed came, it was the same bed. Nevertheless, I was glad to see it, and even more glad when they found a hoist and transferred me into it.
I soon found that this was not a good thing. I had the sensation again that my legs were above my head, and that my back was being bent against nature as a result. This is a dispiriting feeling for someone recuperating from a spinal injury.
After a couple of hours I transferred myself illegally and without sufficient training to my chair and pulled the pillows, blanket, sheets and mattress off my bed. Various nurses ignored me, probably considering this an example of patient misbehaviour, which it certainly was. In due course I resorted to raising my arm and shouting “I am going to sue this hospital, I am starting to sue this hospital from now, I am suing this hospital.” as loudly as I could with a limited number of ribs. The first nurse I got to take any notice was, ironically enough, Winnie.
“I remember you.” I said, cautiously, “I don’t think we get along.”
Winnie told me, in a tone which indicated that I was behaving like a fool, that
“This is the same bed that you’ve been in ever since your operation.”
“Yes.” I replied, “Which means that I have been in a maladjusted, uncomfortable and probably damaging bed ever since my operation.”
Undeterred, Winnie adjusted a plate at the base of the bed.
“It’s only because it’s been adjusted for someone with low blood-pressure.” she told me, all the time maintaining the attitude of one explaining something obvious and reasonable to a recalcitrant child.
“I do not have low blood pressure.”
Winnie left, but a group of other nurses flipped the mattress, changed the bedclothes and persuaded me back in.
For the first time in ten days or more I could see out of a window, and when morning came I could see a tall, aluminium chimney tipped with spirals of dark metal and a big red crane backed by some Lombardy Poplars and other trees. It was a steely grey morning. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
During the course of the day the big red crane piled up a number of Portakabins in front of the trees.
The most important thing about God is not whether ‘he’ exists or not.
There are those who go out and steal in order to obtain heroin. I would steal in order not to have to take it. Heroin simplifies things for its devotees: suddenly everything is clear, you know what you want, and can do whatever is necessary to obtain it. It renders one superbly selfish, gives one complete clarity of decision and purpose, it is like a faith.
Of course, its social effects are disastrous. I have seen the brilliant, wild youth of whole towns wiped out by it; bodies washed up on the beach, social circles devote themselves to stealing each other’s video recorders; humour, vitality, excitement and goodwill swallowed up and vanished within six months.
Of course, many people find it quite manageable. William Burroughs lived forever. Heroin itself will not kill you, unless you overdose. It is the conditions of the market which kill you: impurities, dirty needles, infections, failing to look after yourself, getting into debt with criminals.
heroin is no fun. It may be an aid to concentration, an analgesic, even for a
short while an inspiration, but it is too deeply controlling, too powerful and
too demanding to be anybody’s friend. So I resented being fed automatic heroin
Not long after the operation I had a dream in which I was running after my car. Bouncing beside me was a bird-like being, or a furry asterisk, which seemed to represent my heart. It kept up with me but I was breathless and I did not seem to be going fast enough, even though I was going as fast as the traffic.
Bush declares ‘War on Television’, on the grounds that it is a ‘weapon of mass distraction’.
There is more misery in the world than can be swept into a dustpan in the course of one day.
Now with added insult.
100 die in Miss World contest. Contestant’s claims to wish to travel and promote world peace are called into question.
‘Dark Energy’, ‘Dark Matter’: the majority of the Universe is made up of something we know nothing about.
In order to move the telephone, I had to reconstruct the Chinese Empire from year one........
It would seem a fairly undaunting sort of a task, not beyond the means of an intelligent dog, let alone a being imbued with semi-divine qualities such as reason, foresight and imagination.
I wanted to move the perfectly ordinary telephone from one side of my bed, where it was on the seat of the chair, to the other, where it could perch happily and within reach on the top of my locker. British hospital furniture for the patient consists of these objects: a bed with a mattress so uncomfortable it must have been designed with therapeutic intent; a table which raises and lowers and is so shaped that it will straddle the bed: a very useful thing, except that the castors are inevitably reluctant to allow its movement along the path of desire; a locker with various doors and apertures, usually concealing a copy of the New Testament and Psalms; and a chair with a high back into which patients are displaced or decanted for meals, or even all day, so as not to allow them the impression of rest. Anyway, in the fond hope that I might get visitors, or desire to sit, or exercise some control over my environment, I decided to transfer the telephone from the seat of the chair on the right of the bed to the top of my locker on the left.
The first stage seemed to me to be to adjust my position suitably in order to grasp, hold, or grip the telephone. This would require inverting myself on the bed, that is, changing from face up to face down, a thoroughly revolutionary proposal.
After a vast struggle and a convulsive effort I found myself balanced precariously on all fours, my knees acting as a single point of balance and my fore-arms stretched out, spreading the weight beside and in front of me. Although from here I could see the telephone, I was unable to move either elbow from the bed without the certainty of collapsing onto my side with who-knows-what repercussions.
It was as I contemplated this dilemma that the telephone began to ring. I somehow pivoted my arm in order to reach out and answer it, all the while keeping my elbow on the bed. It was my father. He told me that he imagined me accomplishing acts of enormous heroism, to which I was able to reply that I was indeed currently doing so, but that it was difficult to talk at the moment, as I was on the moon, both of which at least seemed to be true. Replacing the receiver, I returned to clinging to the surface of the bed, unable to make any further motion and yet unwilling to relinquish my new and extraordinary position. Moving the whole telephone from place to place was entirely out of the question.
A Nurse called Becca pulled back the curtains and laughed.
“I’m on the moon.” I said, “Don’t tell anyone.”
“O.k.,” she responded cheerfully, “just don’t fall off.”
After some interminable period I returned to Earth, adopting the back-on-bed position, the telephone remaining determinedly where it was. I got Becca to move it. She said I’d given her the best laugh she’d had all day.
It was the next day after my bed protest that they told me I was going back to K&S. Coincidence?
Rachel and Jo and Dunc visited me, and LeRoi told them I was the worst, which, of course, I am. He was getting dizzy spells. I told him he had just had a brain operation and he wasn’t used to taking that much heroin all at once.
His consultant came to visit him. He looked like a vampire. He had the dressing removed and it wasn’t replaced for three hours.
In the evening, LeRoi was visited by his family. He had one blonde wife and a huge brown extended family inclusive of at least three generations, all or some of whom might appear and fill the ward at any time. These two families never arrived together, they never met, they belonged, it is clear, to different universes or continua. Perhaps this is what had exploded LeRoi’s head.
A tall thin French African male nurse walked into our grey pre-breakfast dawn.
“Good Morning Vietnam!” he shouted.
“Oh man, you are the King.” I laughed, and then recovered myself, “No, LeRoi is the King. You must be the Prince.”
The Prince told me he had 7 children that he had to cook for when he got home. I told him that he had been busy. He said some of them were his brother’s.
“I look after them. They are my brother’s.”
“Where is he?”
“He is dead.”
“Oh. Most of us are, I suppose. I’m sorry. Where is their Mother? Is she dead too?”
She lives. She is in
“You were a cook? You like to cook?”
“I was cook, in Restaurant.”
“Good job too.”
“I prefer Nurse.”
“No, I mean, it’s good that you can cook, with all those children. It’s......idiomatique.”
We look at each other across the gulf of our incomprehension. He seems very young and vital, far too young to have 7 children, he is tired but still sparking out excess energy. He is like a dancer, slim, graceful and lithe. He is like Patrick Viera, the Arsenal midfield player.
“It’s a good thing you like to cook.” she says, with what I take to be a startling lack of originality.
goes off to do something but
“Patrice likes to cook. What do you like to do when you go home?”
“I don’t know. Have a cup of tea. Smoke. Listen to the radio. I haven’t done it in so long I really don’t think I know....”
“I like to sit. Patrice likes to cook, some people like to do the housework, you like to talk. I like to sit. I can sit all night and only get up twice.”
Despite the cheap shot, I maintained a respectful silence.
“7 children is too many.” she said, “but one is not enough. If you only have one chile you put all your weight, all your hopes and dreams on that child and then you are always going to be let down. Because there’s nobody, nobody in this world can carry all of someone else’s hopes and dreams and expectations as well as their own. 2 is better, it is insurance. But 7 is too many. Too many shoes, too many prams, too many meals.”
“I’ve got one child.” I said, “I try not to do that.”
I remember her giving me the tights. They give you tights if you’re not ‘mobilising’ so you don’t get thrombosis, like on an aeroplane. The tights are white and have a little round hole edged in yellow at the toe end of each foot through which (it is intended) you can project your foot by means of pulling and stretching and poking and twisting, as may seem appropriate. (If you want a definite schedule, ask Physiotherapy.) This hole is so placed that if you are not careful stray toes can sometimes protrude from it, resulting in pathetic deformations and some quite serious friction burns.
to see a man in stockings,” says
I smiled at her, puzzled, and tried to imagine a context for her experiences with men in stockings.
“You like Shakespeare.” I said, “It’s like Walter Raleigh, what do they call it? Doublet and hose.”
“That’s right.” she says, pleased.
“Well, I wondered why they made us wear these things, but now I know it’s for you, I won’t mind.”
“There’s a good boy.” she said.
not worry me that I am nearly as old as her, I did not find it condescending, I
was glad to be good for a change. You could certainly see that
LeRoi was worried. He too had been told he was moving to another hospital, and he thought this was bad news. I explained the situation as I understood it: If they had been worried about him, or wished to revisit the inside of his skull, they would have kept him where he was, in the specialist neurological centre. The fact that he was due for removal was a good sign - there was every likelihood that he was recovering normally, and was being sent to a less high-pressure hospital to recuperate.
“They’re sending you nearer home so this lot can pester you half to death with curried goat burgers and ginger soup.”
I lay on
my bent bed surrounded by plastic bags containing my belongings and waited for
the ambulance for about four hours. Eventually they came to collect me. I said
goodbye to LeRoi and his relatives, who included two small, plump, terrified
boys who had been forbidden to go to the toilet by their
I lay on
the narrow trolley in the back of the ambulance and watched the grimy traffic
The ambulance man who wasn’t driving and I talked a little, deciding we could sell my urine on the street (so full of heroin was it) and that the firemen had a good press officer, but mostly I left him alone and absorbed the unusual sensation of movement, and he revised for his next exam. In about two hours I was entering K&S once again through the automatic doors of accident and emergency.