LW has had a run of room themes over the past month. Maybe it’s because I tend to live outdoors if at all possible during the summer season, and so ponder more objectively on the rarely used shuttered interiors – and smell them more intensely when I come inside. And then of course each roomy reverie leads into another, in a dream-like enfilade of memory and reflection. Feeling decidedly unwell last week, and running a slight temperature, I Iay down during the morning¤ and my burning head and mild weepiness involuntarily took me back to schooldays in the late 1960’s. Does being ill always fill you with a sort of sick nostalgia? Does this connect, I wonder, with the idea of ultimately “Going Home” at “End of Retirement”?
Fifty years ago, away at boarding school, the business of Being Ill¤¤ was hedged around with a certain ceremony. You felt something “coming on” – hoped, imagined, or feared that it was coming on – and took yourself up the lane, past the staff garages and the Art School to the San. This was a great stark redbrick Victorian building, most of which stood vast and unused except in times of epidemic. Several boys were supposed to have died in there over the years; there was a small mortuary in the yard. (Or did we just say it was a morgue? I cannot remember, but I seem to recall the fatal letters spelled out in decorative brick). Anyway, you pushed open the heavy oaken front door and passed through the veil into Sister’s frostily antiseptic clinic, full of such unlikely accessories as forceps, and kidney bowls awash with witchhazel.
There was a resident doctor and two or three nurses at any one time. Sister – in decent blue & white with starched apron and cuffs – would listen with sceptical briskness to your recital of symptoms, in my case almost invariably headache. Then, with any luck, a glass of water and a pill would be proffered: you were closely observed as you swallowed the drug to make sure you hadn’t pouched or otherwise concealed it. If then Sister’s professional instincts misgave her – for who knew whether she might not have the first case of scarlet fever or influenza on her hands? – she would pronounce dryly:
“You had better lie down in the Day Room – for now…”
Off you shuffled, down the twilit linoleum-lined corridors, through a couple of swing doors and into this room at once so welcome a refuge and so tearfully dreary. They kept it very hot to make it as much like a real hospital as possible, and obviously it would not have done to have had it too welcoming. I don’t think I ever saw the curtains at the long windows open: what I remember best is the feeling – rather like that of the child Jane Eyre – of walking into a chamber filled with a thick prickly vermilion mist. A dozen black iron bedsteads were made up with red blankets. You took off your shoes and lay fully dressed on or under these covers, all itchy-scratchy, in a fever of heat and relief, sometimes even infection. And oh, the smell! A fog of hot wool, bleach, Dettol, warm bodies, embrocation, institutional cleanliness (never a cosy odour), floor polish, distant cooking (for the resident patients lying upstairs) and radiators. Do you remember the redolence of those heavy old radiators? Very singular – especially if coated with gloss paint which used to soften enough to encourage the peeling off of strips by the bed-bound in a stupor of ennui.
I don’t believe meals were laid on – we were after all being observed for germs: we were not yet formally initiated into San life. But, every once in a while, a genial orderly named Carlos would push a soft dry mop over the bottle green lino and under the beds; then he would offer one a cup of tea, served with a Rich Tea or Digestive biscuit in the saucer. Another evocative aroma, for the tea came strong and rich in tannin: it always had (like all school tea) a definite but never identified chemical note to it, smelling of a peculiarly raw sort of disinfectant. People said this was bromide: to keep us calm, d’you see? But we were none of us calm in those years.
By late afternoon, after a couple of naps, one was often feeling much better and even disposed to chat (strictly forbidden – “you are SUPPOSED to be unwell…”) with the shadowy lump writhing or prone on the next bed. The whispery gloom encouraged intimate confidences: you’d remember these revealing conversations for years – “I was in the Day Room with him in 1968 and he confessed that…”. Around 5 pm the doctor was brought round in pomp with the power of life and death in his hands. This meant either admittance to the wards: “Go and fetch your things” – or instant discharge: “Go and have your supper”.
And nine times out of ten, that was that! Off you scurried, headache gone, all ready for a warmish nourishing meal of macaroni cheese with fried bread and cocoa; or meat balls in a strangely coloured sauce served with chips. Plenty of bread and marge to it. School days were absolutely exhausting – mentally, physically and emotionally – and there’s no doubt that eight hours lying down did much good. My parents used to say “You were always SO CROSS when you came home at the end of term….” but none of us at the time, experts in tiredness though we all became, correctly diagnosed this at the time as terminal fatigue.
¤ just like Elsie Carr on Mrs Worrett’s purple ‘lounge’ in ‘Katy’.
¤¤ “Go away! I’m being ill!”