|"A Study of Anna Kuerner" Andrew Wyeth|
There was another ward before this one. It was an acute care ward where many of the women were quite ill and their minds had parted company with reality, either permanently or because they were pumped full of drugs. It was like being in a hedge full of twittering birds punctuated by sudden silences and equally sudden outbursts of shouting.
Little Olive, 93, had skin the color of her name and a shock of white hair, and could leap out of bed and scoot along so fast on her walker that the nurses had to put an alarm on her bed. She’d call out to whoever was passing, “Can I have a glass of plonk? This isn’t much of a party. No wonder the men didn’t come. I expect they’ll be along later.” Once, she suddenly started calling out names as if on a roll call – “Daphne! Margaret! Marigold! Sally!” Later my mother told me she'd overheard that Olive had been a land girl during the war.
Noreen turned 88 during her stay on the ward and sat grumbling in her childlike voice amid the balloons and cards, talking to a person invisible to the rest of us: “Could you get me my bag? I need to know where my things are. I can’t get it now. I want to walk on these feet. I haven’t walked on them for ages. I’m deaf and dumb – I need a bit of help.” Her daughter told me that, in her delirium, Noreen had been harking back to her days in the ATS in World War II. “She had a wild old time of it in those days. She had what they call a Good War.”
Then there was the posh lady whom I called the Mad Hatter and my mother dubbed the
Hedgehog Lady. She combed her hair the wrong way incessantly, sitting on the side of her bed and murmuring pleasantries to herself in an upper crust voice, pausing now and then to spit up into a dish. She seemed to be obsessed by her apple which she never ate. Like Olive she seemed to think the hospital was a hotel. When she was admitted to the ward late one night, she asked the porter, “Is it too late to get a drink? A little Scotch maybe?”
Some of the women talked and talked every minute they were awake. It was like hearing one side of a very personal phone conversation, though, like good Brits, we all politely pretended not to listen.
Joan, a dignified lady with a deep voice and a proud beak of a nose, talked a lot about religious services, sometimes weddings but mostly funerals. “You know the undertaker? Well, I stayed there overnight and I don’t recommend them.” There were also long colloquies on private family business – whether real or imagined. “You want too many things in life. You’ve got a good income and Laura’s working as well. She’s equally to blame. She comes home and has bought this and that. Well, we’ve done what we can to help you in life. I’ve worked hard this last week so you’d have extra money for your wedding.”
And throughout the course of one long morning, Leonora, a large feisty woman, who had to have been a home economics teacher in her former life, took us through a baking lesson. “Are you watching them apples? You don’t need no water for a crumble. Come on, girls. I dread to think what that apple crumble will be like.” And then unexpectedly, a burst of invective, as if her phone lines had crossed, “You’re a right bloody head case. She ain’t taking you back. I hope she jolly well dishes you.”
Above all, the ladies would call out for people who weren’t there. Kathleen, a snaggle-toothed old lady in the bed opposite my mother’s, called out, “Mike! Mike! Brenda! Brenda!” all day long – to the nurses, to the visitors, but mostly to me whenever I passed her bed or caught her eye. Were these her children? Her siblings? Or people of her imagination, the people she hoped would come and rescue her from that hospital bed and from the disturbing kaleidoscope of images in her unmoored brain.