People can’t seem to open the previous word document properly so I am cutting and pasting this below – with a caveat that this is more of a story than a blog and so is quite a bit longer than my usual musings!!
Well, here we go. She turned off the dual carriageway and onto the roundabout. God knows how many times she had done this journey, but she still worried about parking. Bloody parking. It always seemed such a ridiculous thing to worry about but it could be such a nerve shredder. The hospital had a massive area for parking, but still there had been times when driving round for 20 minutes trying to spot someone leaving had been the only way to get parked up. Once she, along with many others, had had to park on the grass verges for fear of missing their appointments. A veteran now, she no longer worried about not putting enough money in the meter to cover the duration of the visit. How are you supposed to know how long you’re going to be? Having over-paid many times just to be on the safe side, she didn’t now. A young houseman examined her once and had decided to send her for an ultra sound scan. This had involved waiting a couple of hours, and had turned what was potentially a 10 minute consultation into the best part of a day. Fretting about getting back out to feed the meter, but not knowing when she would be called for the scan, he confided that as long as she had paid something it was unlikely she would be fined and if she was they would vouch for her and it would be waived. So kind. It is the little things.
Today was going to be a little easier though because at least she knew she was going to be there practically all day. The appointment letter had made that clear. No need for a flask either today because this department had a passable coffee shop close by. There was even a restaurant on the first floor somewhere she seemed to remember. Notebook and appointment letter in her handbag, she swung around the roundabout and sighed deeply. I’ll relax a bit more once I’ve parked up. Despite it being mid-morning, finding a space had been surprisingly easy and she was even able to pick a space quite close to the building. That felt better already. Funny the things that can trouble you and then turn out to be completely untroublesome. Comfortably early too, as planned.
The sub-waiting area for Nuclear Medicine in X-Ray 1 was a small area that reminded her of the waiting area and little cubicles you had to use when waiting for radiotherapy. She wouldn’t need to get undressed for this one though. No dressing gown required. Luckily the radiographer popped her head out from behind the double doors of the machine room and seemed quite pleased she was there early.
‘Juliet? Oh lovely, I’ll be about twenty minutes and then you can come through and we’ll get it all started.’
‘That’s smashing. Thank you!’ aware that the bit she was looking forward to least was about to happen.
This bit was the injection of some radioactive isotope which would then take a few hours to soak into her bones so that the gamma rays of the scanner would be able to pick up any anomalies. Presumably. Needles, in particular cannulas, were a cause of something approaching dread to her now and this was going to be where the deep breathing exercises she had been taught and the ability to keep calm would be needed. Her friend, Alison, had had one of these scans just a few weeks earlier and had put her mind at rest when she told her it was just an injection, rather than an infusion delivered by cannula. It turned out that this hospital do it via what the nurse called a ‘butterfly’ contraption which just held the line in place whilst the phial of radioactive stuff was introduced to her bloodstream. It was the work of a moment though and gently and smoothly administered by the kind and calm radiographer. No digging about to find a vein and all that, thank goodness. After lots of questions about her medical history the radiographer explained that she should return at about 2.30. She should try to have something to eat and take plenty of fluids, as this would help the isotope to absorb and would also help to flush it out afterwards. She was told not to be nervous, this stuff should not make her feel sick or unwell in any way. Right then, that’s phase one complete and she walked away to explore the hospital and find the restaurant, with two and a half hours to wait.
District general hospitals are enormous places and you could ruck up a lot of corridor-miles during a working week in one of them. You certainly see all manner of the human condition in these places. Young, old, those who look really well and those who look really, really sick.
The reason she was here today to undergo this full body bone scan was because she hadn’t been able to answer no to the red-flag question ‘have you had any bone or muscle aches or pains?’ asked during her annual check-up which had only taken place 3 weeks earlier. She had indeed had some aches and pains and, even though this had been treated by her GP, because of her history, she had been offered this scan to ‘rule it out completely’. ‘It’ being the possibility that cancer had developed somewhere else following her run-in with breast cancer a few years earlier.
After what seemed like half a mile, she reached the Restaurant, which judging by the size and scale of the kitchens seemed to be the hospital catering unit too and was a canteen rather than a restaurant. Restaurant sounds better than canteen doesn’t it, it’s all about branding. Even though it did smell quite nice, if greasy, she decided against a hot meal. It did remind her of school/factory canteens and she’d never been in the habit of a big greasy meal in the middle of the day and besides, really wasn’t that hungry. So she bought a prawn sandwich, some fruit and a big bottle of sparkling water and sat down with her newspaper. She was soon joined at the empty table by a chap who looked like he was in an enormous hurry. He was in scrubs. Blimey, that doesn’t seem right, it just doesn’t seem right. Talk about transfer of germs! He had bought himself a massive plate of chips. Just chips. He covered them in salt and vinegar (a man after her own heart!) and ate them so quickly she had to make an effort not to keep stealing a look at the rapidly diminishing pile of carbohydrates on his plate! No sooner had he finished than he was up and off, striding purposely away out of the canteen and into the bowels of the hospital. She couldn’t help but wonder if this very hungry time-constrained surgical medic was about to spend hours in surgery and had chosen this high saturated fat and carb explosion on purpose for the instant energy burst. It didn’t seem right that he was in his scrubs in the canteen though.
With still well over an hour to a kill, she decided to spend some time in the hospital charity shop which just happened to include a rather large collection of second hand books she’d rummaged through on previous visits. All for 50p. The system was very much geared up for patients because once you had finished a book you could bring it back and ‘swap’ it for another. But she managed to pick up a copy of James Joyce’s The Dubliners and this one was a keeper. Even though she remembered she had a copy of this volume at home, it was only 50p and it provided a great opportunity to read it then and there. It was a brilliant find in another way too because The Dubliners is a collection of short stories and she had been mulling over the idea of actually knuckling down and writing a proper short story, not just a blog, for some time now. It seemed that reading a collection of short stories with an eye to the technicality of the genre would be as good a place to start as any. So she paid her 50p and sat down and started to read. Two things struck her. One was that the subject matter was very ordinary. Joyce had chosen to write about ordinary people doing ordinary things. It was not humorous (well, it was James Joyce!) and sometimes the events and the people were quite sinister but it was very well observed. It was more about the people that events were happening to than the events that were happening to the people. The other thing was that these stories were short. Very short. She calculated that there were about 300 words per page. The shortest story was not quite 9 pages. That’s fewer than 3,000 words. Her average blog was about 750 words long and she struggled to keep that down because anything over 1,000 is a bit long for a blog. Apparently. This realization felt like progress and whilst she was in no way intending to compete with James Joyce for goodness sake, it did seem that in her own little way, she was closer to being able to achieve this little, private challenge of hers by the simple act of counting the words. All she needed was an idea, something to happen. She wondered how Joyce got his. Did he just make them all up, or had he in some way witnessed these things and just been able to describe them so well?
Before she knew it, it had gone 2pm so she got up and made her way back through the corridors to the little sub-waiting room in X-Ray 1. Within a minute or two, some double doors opened and a bed was wheeled into the corridor by a porter and a nurse. The occupant of the bed was an old woman. She immediately noticed the so-familiar bed clothes, the hospital shift that ties up at the back, and the thick set of case notes on the bottom of the bed by your feet that travels with you everywhere when you are a patient in transit. The old woman was chatting to a nurse. Or rather, responding to chatty questions from the nurse. In a cut glass British accent (think Celia Johnson), the old woman told the nurse that her husband had been in the Army and they had spent their early married life in India and that her son is an antiques dealer who lives in Paris. With a clear, smooth complexion and skin which, though thin and pale with age, still gave her the look of a handsome woman, her hair was silver grey but thick and shiny and neatly shaped and tucked behind her ears. Her eyes were pale blue and they sparkled (think Anna Neagle). Small and very thin, looking quite engulfed by the size of the hospital bed, she was nevertheless sitting bolt upright and looking bright and alert, despite the surroundings and her ignoble attire. She noticed the old woman’s lovely hands, though aged and wrinkled they were still elegant and she had long fingers with clear, manicured and strong fingernails. This old woman looked at once neat and classy but also kind and wise. When the nurse asked her what her name was she said ‘It’s Ann. Actually my name is Elizabeth Ann, but people usually call me Ann.’
As the old woman said that, she looked up and the two women smiled at each other.
‘Oh that reminds me of the poem about how God began! “Elizabeth Ann said to her Nan, Please will you tell me how God began”?’ she said.
The older woman’s face lit up and she responded by quoting another part of the verse, ‘She ran to London and knocked at the door of the Lord High Doodelum’s coach-and-four! Goodness me, A A Milne. How lovely! I don’t think I can remember anymore!’
‘Oh dear, me neither!’ she said, ‘Although I do remember Jennifer Jane being in the ottoman and that she didn’t much care for speaking, so she replied by squeaking.’
And so the two of them began to reminisce about the delightful collection of verse A A Milne wrote for his son Christopher Robin. Elizabeth Ann’s father had read her these poems when she was a small child and she had indeed been named after the little girl in the poem. And she told Elizabeth Ann that her father too used to read these to her and her sisters when they were small and that his edition of ‘Now We Are Six’ was a first edition. She then remembered that she used to recite ‘King John’s Christmas’ and ‘The Knight Whose Armour Didn’t Squeak’ to her son when he was little to get him off to sleep, and Elizabeth Ann said she did the same with her son, except his favourite had been ‘Alexander Beetle’. Both women laughed at the memory of the little beetle trapped in a matchbox …
‘I found a little beetle,
So that beetle was his name,
I put him in a matchbox,
And he answered just the same!’
And joined in together with the immortal lines,
‘But Nanny let my beetle out,
She went and let my beetle out,
Yes Nanny let my beetle out,
And beetle ran away!’
and agreed that the beautiful and innocent little E H Shepard line drawings were still etched on their memories.
‘Ah but my dear, you are much younger than I am,’ said Elizabeth Ann.
‘Well yes, I guess so! My father would be nearly 80 now, and he loved them as a child. I’ve always been grateful that he passed on his love of these verses to me and my sisters,’ she replied.
‘I was 85 last week. I think the collection was published a few years before I was born, though my father loved them and read them to me and my older brother. It was such a joy!’
‘Oh, yes, it was for me too! When my son was a small child I recited them to him so often – well every night! – that I knew them by heart. I especially liked King John and Sir Thomas Tom of Appledore because they were really long and he’d be sure to be nodding off by the time I had finished. Oh but I wish I could remember the one about Elizabeth Ann properly!’
‘It was called ‘Explained’, I remember that,’ said Elizabeth Ann, ‘All about a little girl who wanted to know how God began, her nurse wouldn’t tell her so she ran round the world,’ at this, Elizabeth Ann leaned over and closer to her with a gleam in her eye, ‘to find an important man who could tell her, but that was no good. So she ran home again and asked Jennifer Jane. It was Jennifer Jane who knew. I always liked that part.’
It occurred to her that she could utilise technology here to provide some genuinely heart felt remembrance, for both of them. ‘Shall I google it so that I can read it out to you?’ she offered hopefully.
‘Oh my dear, that would be marvellous! You can do that from your phone can’t you?’ said Elizabeth Ann, with glee, leaning closer to her again, ‘I’ve had to get one of those phones with oversized digits on them, they’re made specially for old people like me you know, for when I’m out and about because it’s so much easier. I’m afraid and I haven’t worked out how to go on line with it yet! I don’t even know if you can on one of those things, people still seem to think anyone over about 60 can’t use the internet don’t they? I use my lap top when I’m at home.’
So she googled ‘Explained’ by A A Milne and began to read it out.
Elizabeth Ann said to her Nan
“Please will you tell me how God began?
Somebody must have made Him. So
Who could it be, because I want to know?”
And Nurse said “Well!”
And Ann said “Well?
I know you know, and I wish you’d tell.”
And Nurse took pins from her mouth, and said,
“Now then, darling, it’s time for bed.”
Had a wonderful plan:
She would run round the world til she found a man
Who knew exactly how God began.
She got up early, she dressed, and ran
Trying to find an Important Man.
She ran to London and knocked at the door
Of the Lord High Doodelum’s coach-and-four.
“Please, sir (if there’s anyone in)
However-and-ever did God begin?”
But out of the window, large and red,
Came the Lord High Coachman’s face instead.
And the Lord High Coachman laughed and said:
“What put that in your quaint little head?”
Elizabeth Ann went home again
And took from the ottoman Jennifer Jane.
“Jenniferjane,” said Elizabeth Ann,
“Tell me at once how God began.”
And Jane, who didn’t much care for speaking,
Replied in her usual way by squeaking.
When she got to the last verse, the real Elizabeth Ann remembered it almost word for word and so they recited it together.
What did it mean? Well, to be quite candid,
I don’t know, but Elizabeth Ann did.
Elizabeth Ann said softly, “Oh!
Thank you Jennifer. Now I know.”
Of course, time was short and she was invited into the scanning room just as they had finished the last line together. As she took her leave, the two women wished each other well, and laughed over the last line about Jennifer Jane knowing all along. 10 minutes later she was lying still with her eyes shut and her arms bound to her sides as the machine started its journey down her body by looming down at her from above and very close to her face, and she thought that maybe, just maybe, James Joyce’s brilliance had been his ability to recognize the simple things in life. Thanks not just to James Joyce, but also to Alan Alexander Milne, another wordsmith, who wrote in such a kindly, innocent way for children, that simple act of recognition just now, a memory from childhood rarely shared yet shared that day with a stranger would provide that simple thing. Joyce’s ability seemed to be to recount something that might be quite ordinary but that had struck him as extra-ordinary and that might just be the hook that would help her with her first proper short story. Because despite all her private dreaming about writing a short story and her little challenge with a past-master of the genre, even prosaically counting how many words he used, what had made it happen hadn’t been another appointment with the medical world, or a busy hospital canteen, or a medic eating his chips too quickly. It had been meeting Elizabeth Ann herself.
Elizabeth Ann was no longer waiting in the corridor when she emerged half an hour later. Their conversation during their brief meeting had not been about their health, which in her experience was what two strangers usually end up talking about, waiting alone in a hospital corridor. It had been about so much more. It had offered them both the opportunity to remember their childhood and also that of their own children. A collection of verse written for children, for a child, almost 100 years ago that had brought them together today. She wondered if Elizabeth Ann’s son still remembered Alexander Beetle, or any of the other delightful verses. Whether he’d ever recited them to his children, if he had any.
‘King John was not a good man,
He had his little ways,
And sometimes no-one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air,
And Bad King John stood, dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.’
she mused to herself as she walked the corridors to the main exit. All her life she’d loved the word supercilious. She wondered if she could still recite it all off-by-heart, like she used to, so that Charlie would drift off to sleep. It had never failed to send a tired little boy off to the land of nod, she remembered with a smile.
Nevertheless, the serendipity of the moment ebbed away and by the time she drove out of the hospital grounds back onto the dual carriageway, although she was pleased this scan had been done there was still the little nag about what the result would be. Whatever happened, she reasoned, that feeling of uncertainty would soon be removed. For good or bad. One way or another. Things would be explained. She hoped the same for Elizabeth Ann.
And so it was. A few weeks later, the breast cancer consultant had breezed into the room and with his first words put her completely out of her misery, ‘Hello, how are you? Well, I’m pleased to say that your bone scan was completely normal. A touch of arthritis developing in your wrists and toes, but apart from that, completely normal.’ She couldn’t help but wonder how Elizabeth Ann was today.