Step outside my front door for a moment and the scene that meets the eye resembles a disaster area.
Bodies are strewn everywhere, pitiful relics of humanity with
arms in slings, heads encased in bandages, legs wrapped in grimy, makeshift blankets. Such a sight must surely have greeted Florence Nightingale when she arrived in Scutari, more than a hundred years ago. But this is 1976 - and a new, home-made version of
Emergency Ward 10, General Hospital and Angels all rolled into one.
Asked for my opinion on the whole grisly set-up, I weigh my words with care. "It's very - IMPRESSIVE," I say at last. I cannot
afford to be less than forthcoming - after all this particular game has been occupying my children's attention all day, so I should be grateful.
And, let's be fair, there is a shocking staff shortage
at this hospital. In fact, there is only one nurse - inevitably, because there is only one nurse's uniform. Everyone, including young Steven and his friend Kevin (no sex discrimination in our household) has to take it in turns to play the Angel of Mercy.
The Uniform, complete with a fob watch printed in red with the words Staff Nurse above it, belongs to a small, fair-haired mite named Janine. My partner has been heard to observe, uncharitably, that Janine doesn't
appear to have a home of her own to go to, judging by the amount of time she spends watching our television, playing with our marbles or spinning our records.
I have a certain sympathy with Janine,
recognising in her a kindred spirit. Janine tells what can only be called "whoppers." Not sly, sneaky fibs to wriggle out of trouble, I hasten to say - but beautiful, extravagant, fantastic, wild, ridiculous whoppers.
Did I know, she asked me once, that she was half-Yugoslavian? Her mother was a Yugoslav who had had to run away from home in order to marry the English man she loved. When I finally met Janine's mother, she turned out to be a chirpy Cockney who had
met her mate on the Big Dipper at Southend and had never travelled farther north than Norwich, or farther south than Dover.
I couldn't help remembering that I used to tell all my friends that I was
half French, which was why I had a French name (conveniently forgetting that I was named after my Uncle Jack, who is as English as they come.) For yes, I used to tell whoppers too - and, like Janine, told them so convincingly that I ended up believing them
myself, so that when some cynic turned on me and accused me of lying, I would be hurt, confused and angry - and sure I had been misjudged.
Anyway, Janine is a favoured friend at the moment,
tall stories or no, because she not only owns The Uniform, but also a biscuit tin complete with medicine bottles filled with coloured water, pill boxes filled with dolly mixtures, and a few bits of old crepe bandage.
Now we have a fully operational casualty department in my front garden. There is a line of "beds" along the garden wall, the old push-chair has been pressed into service as a wheel-chair and the garden brooms are crutches. The
back-door step is the X-ray unit - I know this because, on my way out to the compost heap with the potato peelings, I nearly stepped on a recumbent body, stretched out on the step with an upturned seaside bucket on its chest.
Anne's bed is shut away from the rest by the erection of my antiquated clothes horse. Not a private ward for the wealthy, I am told, but screens to shield the most seriously ill patient from the rest. My eldest daughter, it should
be said, effects a miraculous recovery when it is her turn to don The Uniform. Little Nan, giggling, takes her turn at death's door.
I can only assume that they have drawn on TV dramas for their details
- their combined experience of hospitals amounts to a few days Little Nan spent in a children's ward at the age of eight months.
Just how satisfactory one would find the treatment here depends on
which nurse is wearing The Uniform. If it's Little Nan, then you're in luck - she doles out kisses with the dolly mixtures. But if it's Hilary, then watch out. She doesn't believe in any of that nonsense about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine
"Patients," I just overheard her declare, with a steely look at her small, still giggling, sister, "aren't allowed to LAUGH in this hospital."
If you can't be seriously ill, then at least be ill, seriously...
Slough Evening Mail: 1976