I sat on a chair perched beneath the window of the nurse’s station. Opposite me, a woman had parked herself on one of the grey plastic seats and thrown a blanket over her head, which she peeped out of now and again with just her left eye. An old burgundy dressing gown covered her modesty and one shoe hung from her limp foot as she rocked back and forth steadily gaining momentum. At one point, her head and the pale green wall made a sudden impact. She jumped, arms flailing in fright.
A large woman marched up to the door of the nurse’s quarters and banged on it with her clenched fist. No one asked her what she wanted; instead, a healthcare assistant escorted the six-foot woman down the stairs to the smokers hut. The woman appeared again no less than three minutes later. Rather than go to her room or watch television in the communal lounge, which appeared to be the only abysmal ideas on offer in this place, her fist met with the wood of the door once more and her face, went into tantrum mode, as she demanded yet another fix of nicotine.
After what seemed like hours, a nurse escorted me to my room. It was small with the familiar green walls beloved by hospitals and navy blue carpet so worn as to be non-existent under foot. A single bed, an old looking wardrobe with one metal coat hanger, and a sink with a mirror above it filled the tiny room. There was a print of one lonely butterfly on the wall to provide inspiration. It didn’t work. After excusing myself from dinner, I spent the night in my room, watching television, or more watching snow where a programme should have been, on a small 14-inch set a friend had lent me. By eleven, I was cross-eyed and decided to sleep.
How one sleeps becomes a question I ask myself umpteen times during what is a very long night. The bed has one thin scratchy sheet and one lifeless pillow. I’m used to three pillows, a sheet, a duvet and ten blankets on top. I’m cold and have to get up and put my clothes back on including my coat. I’d wear my trainers too but they’re a bit mucky. Outside I can hear the constant hum of traffic on the main road, inside it’s no better. Screams resound through the ward, loud bangs make me jump, and doors open and close. People shout things, cry about things, or talk gibberish about things. A man tries to come into my room in the middle of the night because he has an urgent message from Jesus for me; next door high-pitched squeals accompany a lady who thinks her bed is a trampoline. I don’t sleep.
At just past seven, my pills arrive, I’m told to get up, as it will soon be breakfast. I take the pills, moan, and roll over. When the room fills with light, I notice the room smells weirdly sweet, the sort of overpowering sweetness that makes you gag so I drag myself from bed with my crumpled clothes and go in search of new aromas. Eggs and bacon soon help my nostrils forget the stink and a chat with Robert gives me something to think about while I feed myself grease. Robert is a retired nurse who once his days were now his own, became so bored he returned to the job he loved on a voluntary basis. This involves providing a cooked breakfast three times a week for the patients to cheer them up and clog their arteries in between making every one laugh with his Irish humour. Just having been diagnosed with cancer, he’s decided to spend the time that remains on earth with the patients of ward 26.
‘Are you pregnant?’ a small, chubby girl asks as I sit talking on the payphone.
‘Not that I’m aware of’ I reply, trying to give her the hint that I’m on the phone and she really needs to shut up.
‘It’s mine’ she says and proceeds to rub my stomach in circular motions with the palm of her hand. A large grin spreads across her face.
I wonder what I should say to this but decide nothing will have any effect so I raise my eyebrow and stick my thumb up.
When I am not in my room, I sit in the communal area watching whatever crap someone has chosen to entertain us with today. Soaps or the Antiques Roadshow are great hits right now, especially if you need sleep. People wander into the room and sit down; some too drugged to do much except stare ahead of them with roomy eyes. Others peer at me trying to work out who I am. A few times someone thinks I am a nurse, not helped by Robert telling everyone I am the matron. He bases this on the way I walk, head high, stiff backed and the fact I know who Oscar Wilde is.
Although getting asked routinely to do things I cannot do like prescribing antipsychotic medications three time a day or booking a room for a family meeting in my capacity as a consultant psychiatrist, I decide I can do other things. Well that is a bit of a stretch. I can do just one thing. Listen. I can listen. So I do. Every day. It helps the hours pass quicker.
Jane is feeling better and should be going home soon. The blanket she used to hide herself from the world with is now in a heap on her bed, she showed me the day before and she’s been out shopping to New Look and bought herself a snazzy new outfit which she hopes her husband will like.
Larissa is still convinced I am carrying her child. I discover that her own child died at birth and the trauma sent her mad understandably. She has periods that are more lucid where we talk about her favourite rap music or food as she loves to cook whilst we sitting doing a jigsaw together at the table by the tea making facilities.
The man who thinks he is Jesus still has cryptic messages for me which I listen to with a smirk but when his mind settles every now and again, we have great conversations about Monty Python, his love of photography and his childhood when he lived on a farm in Wales.
The incessant smoking woman still smokes incessantly, but I find out that she is a frog fanatic and due to being stuck here for six long months, her room is now a frog haven. Ornaments of the things displayed on every possible surface, pictures of them adorn every space on the wall, and a million teddies sit on the bed making you wonder how she ever gets in there herself. We all need something to be passionate about I decide in my wisdom.
Robert is still here, he’s still here on the day I grab my own bag and head for that locked door. Still here, when I turn to say goodbye to them all as Nirvana plays on the radio in the background. I will never see him again, just like I will never see them again, the cancer has metastasized, and he has weeks or perhaps days left. He chooses to spend that time here with the mad patients of ward 26, those that remind him of the fragility of the mind, how life messes us all up eventually, how we can recover, how much humour helps and a how a woman who he thought looked like a matron was so happy because she finally found her friends.