Wednesday, 14 March 2012

But death is not yet

Volume 2 –chapter 1 - part 3 –

Most of the silly things we did to pass the time came from the fertile imagination of our young friend the MC of fun and games; I apply this title to him because I shall always remember his as the Mad Chemist, a name he earned when he caused an explosion which was meant to be just a loud pop. I am not sure just how he did it, but I do recall what he did at the time. He got his hands on a small metal bowl, and a filter paper from the dispensary, which he was going to use to filter and dry some iodine. He explained that when this substance dried it would ignite with a loud pop or modest bang. I am not sure if he did anything more with it but then I am not a chemist and cannot say exactly what he was doing. Outside the rear of our block was a large expanse of grass which looked like an ideal place to carry out his little experiment with safety.

There would be no danger he told us because any blast effect would just dissipate into the wide open spaces, and it this respect he was correct. Placing his device in the chosen spot he retired to join us where we sat in a group eagerly anticipating the display he had promised. It would take a few minutes he had predicted but after about half an hour it still had not detonated and we began to worry about just how long we could leave a dangerous device sitting out on the grass. Then it blew, and the results were far more impressive that I had thought they would be, or even our MC had expected. The metal bowl shot into the air for some feet and it was found to be much distorted, but the most impressive effect was the volume of the explosion it created, for the entire world like a large bomb detonating. He did not do anything quite that dramatic again, though there were other less dangerous things he thought up to pass the time.

One of the funniest things he did was to attach a piece of strong but invisible thread to a pound note and place it on the footpath that passed his window. The path was used mostly by staff working at the Peter Edwards block, and the various ways they reacted to the unexpected movement of the money was hilarious.


A picture of three unfortunate inmates in mouse country; not a prison exactly but a grim place during winter, though quite pleasant in summer. (See the snow through the window.)

Then there were the mice that invaded our rooms and the amusement they provided. With the block being open to such an extent it was to be expected that mice should come it looking for food and maybe warmth. Watching them from our beds we soon worked out their pattern of behaviour, which was to follow the hot water pipes which ran around the rooms from radiator to radiator. The pipes passed through the walls and the mice would hide in holes made for the pipes, waiting until they thought it was safe before venturing out in search of food. One mouse we caught in a jar which was placed over the hole on one side of the dividing wall, after which one of us banged very loudly on the other side, making the mouse run out with great speed into the jar. Another mouse was caught by our MC in a way you would never have imagined, he got an empty tin which would have been about 6 x 4 in shape and maybe 2 inches high which had once contained OXO cubes. Removing the lid he carefully cut one of the shorter sides and pressed it down level with the bottom, he then put a thick layer golden syrup inside the tin laying it facing the hole in the wall where we knew a mouse was hiding. I never thought this device would catch a mouse but it did; the next morning we found a dead mouse in the syrup. What a way to go for a hungry mouse.

Gradually as time passed and if your condition was improving a gradual increase in physical activity was introduced. You could have your meals in a day room which you would probably describe as a dining room, and eventually walks through the pine woods became part of your programme.

(Males walked in the woods to the rear of their hospital blocks, away from the females, who in their turn walked to the rear of their accommodation, in the opposite direction to the men.)

A slow 15/20 minute stroll was the first step, followed by an increase to 40 minutes, and finally an hour. You were not supposed to walk alone but in groups, though more often than not we would go in twos and threes. I really enjoyed these walks which gave a sense of freedom, enhanced by the quiet tranquillity of the woods and the smell of the pine trees. It was therapeutic for all of us as much from a mental perspective as a physical one, though there was the odd one who did it differently.

In the other male block there was a country chap who looked and sounded the part of a typical bumpkin. He had red rosy cheeks and the demeanour of a simpleton, though we soon realised that he was anything but a fool. Our walks were a waste of time to this fellow, and he would leave his companions and disappear into the undergrowth. One day he did this returning with a dead adder draped over his walking stick. Waving the dead reptile under the startled noses of us city slickers he said: “Did you know these were out there? And did you know their bite is poisonous?” He continued to disappear on these walks sometimes not returning for two or three hours. Then one day the sanatorium received a phone call from a country pub a short distance outside the boundary of the hospital, to report that the missing patient was at their establishment and very drunk indeed. It transpired that he had been a regular visitor at the pub which was where his walks had been taking him for quite a while.

Our country yokel was an unusual example of the inmates of Loggerheads, I never heard of any other instances of patients running away or breaking the rules in any way. Both the patients and the staff appreciated the prestigious reputation that this establishment had, and most of us felt it was a privilege and an honour to be there Mind you the great Peter Edwards was undoubtedly border line mad, but he had pioneered the new treatments he used, and there were many who owed their lives to him. His word was law which was why we obeyed him one day when setting out on one of our walks. Our route took us down the side of our block in the direction of another block for males; we had just set out when the great PE came out of an exit half way along the building. On seeing us he approached us shouting: “March along, swing your arms, you are supposed to be exercising, you will get no benefit from just strolling along.” So dutifully we picked up the pace and marched vigorously on our way. A few minutes later we rounded the other block and were walking along its length, when out came PE from another exit as he had the first time, and seeing us he came dashing up shouting as he did before. This time he said: “Stop, lie down on the grass, your lungs will be pumping so violently, you could be doing untold damage.” Once he had calmed down he sent us on our way with the warning that we should go slowly and gently. We did what we were told of course, but at the same time we all agreed that PE was clearly insane.

Another benefit our walks had was to allow us to talk with our companions, to share our thoughts and to describe how we had come to be there. Walking one day with a young oriental man I discovered that we were not all enjoying the benefits of the National Health Scheme. He told me that he came from Hong Kong and when it had been discovered that he had the dreaded TB, his family who were wealthy arranged for him to get the best treatment possible. Chest specialists everywhere knew of the great PE so it was decided to put this young man in his care. This account reminded me yet again how fortunate I was to be getting the same treatment, something which would not be happening if our country had not opted for a socialist government after WWII ended. My companion also asked me if I had heard about a new drug which was being trialled at Loggerheads at this very moment. I had not heard of it, so he went on to tell me that it was referred to as RIMIFON or INH and it was said to be capable of eliminating TB almost completely. That would be fantastic if it proved to be true, but it was hard to comprehend when you took into account how tough TB was, and how ineffective other treatments had been against it.

It was an accumulation of little things that slowly brought me to the realisation that I was not going to die in this secret world hidden from the view of ordinary mortals. The end was not nigh as it had appeared to be when I entered this establishment, but life would go on; I began to realise the story was not yet over. When you are just another shadowy figure, unknown to the world around you it is almost like being dead already, who knows better than a man who is invisible? When, for just a few weeks, I became almost as well known as the great PE at Loggerheads, I knew that it was not all over, that I still had some sort of future. This new turn of events began when I discovered an old battered piano in the day room, and being the person I was I had to amuse myself playing it. As always I did it for my own entertainment, but as always it attracted attention and was considered very welcome by the bored patients and staff. Among the staff were two male nurses who were bosom pals, they were also very kind and friendly people, who liked my music so much they became my firm friends from that time onwards. They would come and stand by the piano and make requests listening with rapt attention for long periods; I supposed they were supposed to be working, but that never seemed to bother them.

I can see them now, one was a young Welshman; one of the few I have ever met who had a truly awful voice. He was short and chubby with white skin and black curly hair, he was always good natured and I found that nothing was too much trouble now he had made me his friend. His companion was taller with pale blue eyes and little hair; he wore rimless spectacles and was very thin being a little older and more mature than the Welshman. I got a great deal of pleasure out of these two because they could be so funny, though I am sure it was not always intentional. Another thing that amused me and anyone who was around at the time is that they were both convinced that they could sing and had magnificent voices. In actual fact they were both truly awful vocalists, though they did not seem to be able to hear it themselves. They would sing both solo and as a duet with total confidence, abandoning them-selves to the pleasure of the music, oblivious of the fact that those who were listening were either laughing or sticking their fingers in their ears. They loved the music and knew all the popular ballads, though their favourites were always from the musicals. ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs In the Spring Again’ Or it would be music from ‘The Desert Song’ or maybe ‘The Student Prince’. It gave me pleasure to try and give them pleasure, but what is more there were some small rewards in it for me.

They would fetch and carry for me with nothing too much trouble, would I like some hot buttered toast for supper? How about a nice cup of hot coca? And when they went off duty they would offer to bring me anything I wanted from the shops in the village; I never went short of brown bread and potato crisps again, not to mention a number of other little treats. Sometimes the Welsh boy would sit and talk to me when I had returned to bed, which I thought was very kind of him. He told me how he had gone home on holiday not long before, and while he was sitting in an arm chair on one side of the fireplace, his mother who was sitting opposite him had suddenly pitched forward, on catching her he found she had died. Not a bad way to go I had thought, a sentiment I still hold to this day. On another occasion he had handed something to me and I remarked on the fact that his fingernails were very well manicured and had a coating of clear varnish. He explained that being a nurse his hands were always in water which was why he had to protect and take care of his nails. That seemed a reasonable explanation at the time, but later I came to realise that my two friends were homosexuals. I knew little of such things at the time, and even today can hardly call myself an expert on the subject.

One thing leads to another, which is what happened now that the news was spreading that I was making music for those in my part of this little world we lived in. so it came about that I was playing the old piano one day when someone from the admin office walked in and spoke to me about it. I was asked whether I could play the organ, and I replied to the effect that I had never played one, why were they asking. I was told that there was a great need for church services in the hospital church, but without an organist local clergy were unwilling to attend. I suppose cost came into it with visiting clergymen being unable or unwilling to supply an organist who would expect to be paid for their services. The thought of being allowed to try a church organ really appealed to me, so I said that I would be willing to give it a try, and maybe with a little practice I could oblige them. The suggestion was accepted and I was given access to the church whenever I wanted, so the next day I made my first visit, and spent a very happy time playing the organ for the first time in my life.

The fact that I knew nothing about organs did not matter in the slightest degree; I knew a sweet note when I heard it and this grand little organ had them all. There is much about it that I cannot recall, for example I can’t describe what make it was or how many keyboards it had, but the keys were light to the touch, and I was soon in love with the music it could produce. There was plenty of music available so the next step was to choose two or three hymns that I knew and liked and practice them. The following Sunday a vicar arrived and I played appropriate music while the patients filed in and took their seats, afterwards I repeated the process as they left. Everything had gone well, and the clergyman pronounced himself well satisfied, and ready to repeat the performance the following Sunday. When I got back to the hospital block everyone was delighted with what they had heard; I was quite surprised when I realised that the service had been broadcast over the radio network for the benefit of those who could not leave their beds.

It was not long before the Sunday services became a regular thing with other denominations asking for the same facility; I was becoming quite well known around the place, so I should not have been surprised when it was suggested that I play a couple of afternoons a week for radio requests. I have to confess that I enjoyed these sessions even more than the services because I was allowed to widen my repertoire playing music that was not religious. To begin with I was careful to keep my offerings solemn and appropriate to the church organ that I was playing. ‘Bells across the Meadow’ ‘Green Sleeves’ ‘The Bells of St Mary’s’ that sort of thing. Though I selected some of the music I would play, more often than not I had more than enough requests to keep me busy with lighter and more popular choices taking over. Even the ballads of Nat (King) Cole found their way into the programme, not to mention Johnny (Cry Baby) Ray who was popular at the time with his song ‘The Little White Cloud That Cried.’ Some of the requests were from myself, though I never revealed this to the listeners, which meant that I got to play some of my own favourites such as: ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and ‘Stardust’ and I have got to say that I never received any complaints for playing my sort of music.

For just a few weeks I became well known, even famous within the world of Loggerheads, but quite soon it came to an end when I was given my marching orders. Strange when you think about it that I had grown to almost enjoy being in this enclosed and secretive little world, that was so protected and slowed down almost to a standstill. It was quite frightening to look out at the real world that seemed to be rushing past at a break neck speed; though I did not become really aware of it until I passed through the gates and became part of the real world again. In the meantime I found that though I was living a sheltered life, the gates that protected us had not kept out human nature. An amusing example of that showed itself when some of the young inmates realised that what I was doing had created an opportunity for them to break the rules. It all began when two young ladies who were allowed to visit the church a couple of time a week to clean and lay out fresh flowers realised that if they cleaned when I was practising they could put their feet up and enjoy a free concert. Their presences did not worry me, in fact I quite liked having an audience, showing appreciation and challenging me to play more modern music. I have to confess that there were times when the church echoed and resounded to music most inappropriate to the place and the occasion. Can you imagine the strains of Reginald Dixon and: ‘I do like to be Beside the Seaside.’ Plus the quick stepping signature tune of Victor Sylvester followed by other similar strict tempo dance music made familiar by his dance orchestra.

It was all good clean fun, but where do you draw the line when you have begun breaking the rules? The jungle drums began to beat and before I knew it a couple of the young dare devils on the men’s wards had learned what was taking place, so they sneaked out and joined the party. Even at this point in the proceedings I did not feel worried or responsible, after all what they were doing was their responsibility not mine. All they were doing was sitting and listening to me playing some music, what harm was there in that? Not a very mature attitude you might think, but let me remind the reader that I was still only 19 years old; what do you expect from a teenager. I can put minds at rest however, by relating that this problem was nipped in the bud when the boys were seen sneaking out and a senior nurse followed them. Everyone was ordered back to their beds except me; I was ignored being I suppose too important to the smooth running of the hospital to dismiss, and from that time on I practiced in solitary splendour.

Before I close my chapter on the six months I spent at Loggerheads, I must relate one further example of the eccentric behaviour of the famous PE. A short time after my audience had been banished, a good thing as it turned out, I was practicing one afternoon when I heard someone walking up the aisle. Who should it be but PE himself who had been passing the church and had heard the sounds of music? Standing just behind me he instructed me to continue playing while he listened with rapt attention, so I pulled myself together and tried to do a little better. When I had finished he said to me: “Can you play ‘Abide with me?’ “ There were two versions I told him which would he like to hear, he was not sure so I offered to play both, which I proceeded to do. When I began to play he began to sing, another of his idiosyncrasies, which I remembered from his performance in the operating theatre. His penchant for singing in public might have been accepted by those who heard him if he had displayed a reasonable voice, but what made it seem so crazy was the fact that he had no voice at all. His efforts were completely tuneless, though he knew the words well enough; it was obvious that he was totally unaware that he sounded so bad. At the conclusion of his solo performance he turned on his heel and walked from the church, and I never saw the great PE again.

It would have been in early August 1952 that I was told I could go home, and naturally I was delighted to be escaping from the ministrations of those who had been providing my medical treatment. I gave no thought to the fact that the treatment I was getting would go with me, that for the next 2½ years I would have to endure the torture of air fills, needed to keep my damaged lung inoperative. For everyone who entered Loggerheads being a patient was not a pleasant experience, on the other hand the protective environment was a blessing.

Most of the staff were impersonal but a few showed more sympathy and understanding, in my case I even made friends and was helped by those who had no obligation to do anything more than the job they were being paid to do. The other patients had just as much need for sympathy and understanding as I did, but I am aware that I got more than most. It helped me cope when people on the staff showed some interest and compassion for me. Like the young woman who showed me some special attention when I needed it, who spent time being my friend and reaching out to me. She was a staff nurse who was both beautiful and intelligent, who spent time talking to me and making me feel special. She was in her late twenties, blond haired and blue eyed, and German. She came into my life for a few weeks then disappeared; we only talked to each other but in that short relationship she came close to me, which earns her a place in my memory. Did I earn a place in hers, I wonder.

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