More years ago than now seem possible, my mother was in hospital. She was in and out of there like a Cher on a farewell tour. Whether patient or nurse, she always acted as doctor.
Growing up with regular visits to the hospital, I have never had an issue with the hospital smell. I think we all know the scent to which I refer: a kind of industrial bleach mixed with good intention-smell, and the endlessly musical squeak of plimsolls. It’s a very specific smell, and only exists within these institutions.
Personally, I find that smell comforting.
I know I’m in the minority here.
After we came to Devon, she had a few stints in the main hospital in Exeter. Rather more regularly, she stayed in the cottage hospital in the nearest town.
The cottage hospital was like a sprawling bungalow, heating cranked up too high, with locks on the windows which meant they could only be opened six inches.
“Can’t you open the window a little more?” my mother asked one particularly hot afternoon.
“It won’t go,” I replied, pushing and growling at the lock.
“Well, that’s just silly. Why would they stop the windows from opening any wider?” she asked.
“In case you’re a jumper.”
It was all on one level, and she couldn’t get out of the bed.
She had been diagnosed with osteoporosis, and been placed in hospital because she would need to keep the full-leg cast on for the entire six week recuperation. Her carers, though quite wonderful at the time, would not have been able to manage her care and physio with the extra weight of plaster.
Due to multiple conditions, the discovery of her broken leg came as something of a shock. The district nurse (not the rosy-cheeked, bicycle-riding one we all imagine, rather the face of thunder, bad dye-job who arrived, often clenched, with disturbing regularity) had noted a large yellow bruise above her knee, and called for the doctor. A yellow bruise is, by and large, an old bruise. With my mother’s general numbness below the waist, she had no pain and we had no idea.
Quite quickly, the doctor arrived, called me into my mother’s room and showed me that my mother’s leg was, in fact, broken. There was no protruding bone. He simply held my mother’s knee in one hand, clasped her mid-thigh in the other, and moved them back and forth, separately.
He’d been to all the classes, we could tell.
After I’d asked him to stop sawing my mother’s leg with her own femur, she went to hospital. She was soon diagnosing the other patients and advising dosage changes to the other staff. You never stop being a nurse, I’m told.
Once a week, the vicar visited the hospital and chattered his way around the wards. My mother had faith, it mattered a great deal to her, but she never sought the vicar’s counsel or company for prayers. Mostly, she liked teasing him. His facial hair was unseemly for a man of the cloth, she’d tell him. I don’t suppose he was used to being spoken to that way. They became firm friends.
One Thursday, a few weeks into her sojourn in brushed nylon and weak tea, she realised the vicar had been staring at her, a look of quizzical confusion enveloping his chubby features. She had been talking, uninterrupted, which was the usual way, for some time and she faltered.
“What are you looking at?” she probed.
“You,” he answered. “You remind me of someone. I’m just trying to think who it might be.”
Now, my mother was like me.
Immediately, she started through a roll-call of starlets. Perhaps Garbo? Marlene Dietrich? Someone glamorous and shot through gauze, no doubt.
Suddenly, he had it. “Anne Robinson!” he cried.
My mother steadied her breath. “Well, you’re a busy man, I’m sure you have somewhere else to be. Now.”
He scurried from the room, a little leap of victory in his steps.
I had taken my driving test a few times. Not so many as to prevent any further attempt, but enough to make it a little less funny with every try. When my name was called out in the waiting room, I went from being the plaintive “Miss Binney” to “Ah, Petrina, how’s your mother?” by my fourth time around.
It was the day of Tar Barrels, when I completed my fifth attempt. I had had the same examiner three times in a row, and thankfully, the third time was the charm. I took the bus back to town, and sauntered into my mother’s hospital room, certain of a Caesar-style triumph and an OBE in the post.
There was a charity worker, standing beside my mother’s bed, talking to her about their many and varied works in the town, about their cat, about every sort of distraction, and then I walked in.
Not knowing the charity worker, and without any intention of making my victory her story, I kept quiet.
My mother interpreted my steady silence as failure – obviously – and explained to the worker how I had clearly been taken around Countess Weir roundabout again. Incidentally, I still won’t drive on Countess Weir.
With offspring-based failure wafting through the air, anybody else might have left the room, slightly embarrassed, for my mother if not me. Not this one. She stayed for a good half-hour. I was nearly bursting.
Finally, having told my mother the story of her life at least twice, the woman left and I was free to brag about my success.
“You’ll try again,” my mother told me.
“No, you don’t understand!” I floundered. “I-I passed.”
“You don’t have to lie to me,” my mother uttered, flatly.
I began to question my sanity rather faster than I care to admit to. “No, I did, I passed.”
“And that’s wonderful. When you get home, book the next one. It’s important to get back on the horse.”