Volume 2 – chapter 2 – part 3 - post 45
The City General Hospital Chest Unit was a separate wing of the hospital and this was where I found myself. The first few days after my arrival I have very little recollection of events, my chest cavity was full of blood which was being aspirated at regular intervals. The loss of blood was excessive which apart from the physical effect caused a mental condition which manifested itself as a total lack of interest in what was happening. It appeared to be a natural protection against the fear of approaching death, by instilling a state of indifference; in other words I was at peace with not a worry in the world. One unpleasant symptom of the blood loss was the reaction from my lungs which were distressed by the lack of blood supply this manifested itself as a continuous coughing which racked me. I was soon exhausted by the physical effort of coughing and needed help to survive, which the staff provided by administering a strong syrup of codeine called ‘Gee’s Linctus’ which deadened the natural reaction from my body. The relief of this medicine lasted only for a short time, so that I needed it to be administered continuously to keep me at rest, which brings to mind the image of a young woman that cared for me all that first night
When I think of this Florence Nightingale I still feel the gratitude I felt at the time, it could be said that my response bordered on love, which I could never have expressed of course even if I had been provided with the opportunity to do so. In actual fact I was never able to tell this young woman how much she had done for me because the next day she had gone never to return. Her name was Nurse Kelly and she was the night nurse on duty that night, I can see her now a plump blond girl with rosy cheeks and the patience of a saint. She seemed to be at my side every minute of those long dark hours spooning the syrup into my mouth the moment the coughing returned, thanks to her I was able to rest and relax and survive until the next morning.
There were a number of times I had reason to be grateful for the dedication of nurses though like people in general they had every kind of characteristic possible. Shall I ever forget one nurse during this latest sojourn a very old lady who gave injections to me? I don’t think that she was deliberately cruel or unkind but her technique was the most painful you could imagine. She would take a large pinch of your flesh then slowly work the needle into it with a relentless wiggle causing much pain that went on for what felt like an age. The best by far in the art of giving injections was a young Irish man who had the needle in and out again in a flash, it would be all over before you knew it. I also have another memory of this tall slim young man, his light footed ability to move like Fred Astaire when he was delivering meals during the day. Being something of an emergency I had been given a single room and I can still remember the young male nurse coming into the room one day with my dinner. Upon hearing an Irish jig on the radio he began to dance over to my bed with the dinner held high above his head, while he tapped and whirled with such a delicate balance that the plate of food arrived completely unscathed.
I have reason to like the Irish, but there was one of them who displayed less than friendly characteristics. She was Sister Rice who ruled with a rod of iron, she was not kind or friendly, she had not the slightest signs of sympathy or understanding, and you could almost see the rule book sticking out of her pocket. She would give her orders to both staff and patients in the most dictatorial manner and any variation from what she wanted brought about a swift punishment or threat of punishment. This was not a good approach when dealing with a young man who imagined that he had nothing to lose, what threats could you use against someone who was at deaths door, what more could you do to such a person? Naturally events had wrought great changes in my life which had in turn changed me, one of those changes was a realisation that I did not have to obey other people unless I decided that I approved of their instructions, be they orders or requests. It was inevitable that this new found attitude resulted in my coming into conflict with Sister Rice.
For the first few days my condition was considered serious with blood being removed from my chest at regular intervals. The quantity I was losing became life threatening and a transfusion was carried out which gave me an experience still vivid in my mind. I lay in my bed watching the procedure being carried out with complete indifference, It never occurred to me to consider my state of mind at the time. The new blood that began to enter my right arm was still chilled from storage which made it feel like an icicle sliding slowly up my arm, a sensation that continued until it reached the shoulder where it had warmed enough to become unnoticeable. This was an interesting experience but was as nothing when compared with what followed; I now began to feel a further sensation which completely amazed me. I literarily came back to life feeling the return of my faculties in every possible way, it was a fantastic episode one that I have never had again since. From this time onwards I have always argued in support of blood transfusions; which are wonderful things that save lives and on this occasion saved mine.
For several weeks I remained bed bound with the nursing staff fighting to save my treatment which was essential for at least another 12 to 18 months if the tuberculosis was to be eliminated from my system, or maybe prevented from returning. Finally the good news was given to me that my AP would continue though I had to stay for another couple of weeks of recovery, during which time they would give me a course of drug treatment. This was to ensure that the dreaded bacteria did not appear again to invade my chest cavity which was in a delicate condition to say the least. My recollection of this medicine that I now received is one of those that make the brain spin and the mind reel; it was totally and utterly horrible. The drug I was injected with, was it once a day or twice? My memory insists it was every five minutes but that is just the result of the lingering distaste I have for the memory I have of its unpleasantness. The drug was called streptomycin which was effective against the tubercular bacilli providing it was stripped of its waxy protective coating; this part of the treatment was provided by a further medication called Para-amino- salicylic acid, or PAS for short. Can you visualise drinking a large dose of acid? It was the worst experience you could possibly imagine, it came in a liquid form to begin with, but later changed to a large sachet of rice paper that contained the acid in crystalline form. I tried to take this medicine in every way you can imagine, but it was impossible to swallow it without the taste invading the taste buds no matter what you did. After some experimentation I eventually found the best way was to swallow it was with the strongest sweetest drink I could find, followed by the largest cream filled chocolate to be found, even then it was still very hard to take. I have described this treatment when I first heard about it in Loggerheads but now it was in regular use.
Once my condition was under control I was soon back on my feet and feeling like a condemned man who had been reprieved; the desire to escape back to the real world was overpowering. Every chance I got I wanted to be up and dressed and on the move, and with the impetuosity of youth I pushed the boundaries of safety as far and as fast as I could. My attitude and behaviour brought me into conflict with the strict discipline of Sister Rice, who attempted to control me with orders and threats, the last thing in the world that was going to work with me in my present frame of mind. She instructed me that I was not to leave the chest unit but with itchy feet I did for a short time, walking out to the road past the hospital and back again. Having discovered my absence the intimidating and assertive sister was awaiting me on my return, but instead of explaining why I should not be too active she threatened me, telling me that if I did this again she would return me permanently to bed. The moment she left the room I was off out again, walking all the way into the Newcastle shops and not returning until tea time. Needless to say it was only a few days after this incident that I was told that I could return home.
No one ever told me that I was a nuisance or a problem but looking back I now realise that I must have been, in particular I must have caused difficulties for my parents. With two younger children my needs must have been an added burden during the periods I was at home, especially under the circumstances, being an invalid with time on my hands. It seems clear to me now that they must have asked my Aunt Nin and Uncle Bill to help out, though to me their kind offers of having me to stay with them at the seaside were the result of their affection for me. Now, all these years later, I wonder about these things, but will never know the truth of the matter, but the fact is that I spent almost as much time with them as I did living at home over the next year or two. Eventually due to the turn of events I left home and went to live with them though it was not long after that I moved on and made a home of my own. Although I am trying to write a factual account of my life some conjecture and speculation is called for at this juncture because I never knew why things happened. The older generation conducted their affairs without seeing the need to consult me, even when their decisions involved me and were going to have a bearing on how my life would unfold.
It must be obvious to anyone reading this account that the traumatic events that ended my limited prospects brought a cessation of my interest in daily affairs. For example the whole of the country was preoccupied with the death of King George VI but for me in my distracted state of mind it was a non-event. The rapid development of television was taking place about this time, but it only came to my notice when my Aunt and Uncle purchased a set so that we could watch the Coronation of Elizabeth II which went on all day long. I can still hear the voice of the well known commentator Richard Dimbleby as he droned on trying to add a little colour to the black and white pictures we were watching. At least we had the action and movement provided by this new medium which was in itself a novelty that encouraged us to sit and watch for hours on end. We were able to witness an event that we would have only heard about days later or on the radio until now. Without television the world would not have seen and taken to their hearts Queen Salote of the Friendly Isles who insisted on riding the streets in inclement weather in an open carriage so that the crowds could see her and so she could wave in a friendly fashion to all the people.
Great events were taking place during this period when I was trying to pull together the shattered pieces of my life. Was it any wonder that I paid little interest when Edmund Hillary reached the top of Mount Everest, or in the excitement generated when our new queen spent some weeks touring the entire country in a special train so that she could appear in person before all the people of her realm? There was hardly a corner of the country that she did not visit, including the seaside town where I was struggling to keep body and soul together. I shall never forget the moment she drove up the Rhyl High Street, because at that very moment I was just a short distance away at rooms in a private house that had been converted into a chest treatment centre. I was lying on a treatment table to receive the hated air fill to my chest, and as the doctor drove the steel tube into my body a cheer arose from the waiting crowd as the queen drove into view. At that moment I had no love or liking for the queen, the royal family, or the army of my country that appeared to have dropped me like a hot brick when I was of no further use to them.
I went on to make some sort of future for myself in spite of the efforts that society made to stop me, or so it seemed to me, but is it any wonder that my love and loyalty to my country changed to a love/hate relationship from this time onwards. My country may have appeared to have deserted me or shown little support for me in my hour of need, but I have to be objective and impartial about it by recording that I was not the only one to experience these sorts of feelings, nor was England the only country that showed little sympathy for someone who had been a loyal servant. On one of my visits for treatment while I was living at Rhyl I met a young man who was attending the clinic for the same purpose as me. He was a small fellow with black hair who told me that he was a New Zealander who could not return home. He had been a merchant seaman who had contracted TB on one of his voyages; on arriving at Liverpool his condition had been discovered and he had been left by his employers to fend for himself. With the help of lady luck and the English health system he had survived his dangerous condition only to be told that his country refused him permission to return home. If this was true it was hard to credit that a man’s country would abandon him because he had fallen ill while working on their behalf. There is a saying that: ‘The Devil Takes the Hindmost’ and this certainly appeared to be true as far as most of the society in which I lived was concerned. If you wanted to survive you simply had to avoid being at the back of the rushing throng, or the devil would get you and no one was going to turn back to come to your assistance.
At times the lack of sympathy and understanding appeared almost unbelievable, and no matter how I tried to understand people’s negative responses it was hard to accept that they did not care, or were at the very least indifferent. I now believe that much of the reaction was the result of fear and ignorance; I would be the first to admit that until I learned better my reactions would have been much the same. One example of the way others saw me was demonstrated to me one day when I had been staying at Plas-Collen for a few weeks. Uncle Bill had his elderly parents living with them; they had a self contained flat on the first floor and rarely appeared outside it. Mr and Mrs Slater had adopted my Uncle quite late in life and were now quite elderly, which might have been some sort of excuse for the way Mrs Slater behaved when she suddenly appeared in the kitchen where I was sitting doing nothing as usual. She stood in front of me and waxed hot with moral indignation regarding my laziness and lack of morals; she made it very clear that I should have been out working. She expressed her disgust that I could sit around every day in apparent idleness, and though I felt hurt and offended I said not a word in reply, realising that she quite clearly had no idea of my real situation or circumstances. Maybe she would have reacted even more extremely had she known the truth, so it is possible that is why she had been kept in ignorance.
Knowing little and being told even less it took me some time to realise that my Aunt and Uncle’s affairs were in a parlous state. Uncle Bill had finally sunk beneath a mountain of debts and had lost his engineering business, Aunt Nin continued to run the guest house but after something like 12 to14 years of hard work she announced that she had had enough. Although my Uncle had no trouble getting a good job being a first class engineer, their money must have been running out faster than it was coming in; which is possibly why they had the Slater’s living with them. Mr Slater senior had been retired for some years after a lifetime as the manager of one of the largest pottery manufacturers in Stoke-on-Trent he would not have been short of money. He was a stern and intimidating sort of man, but I witnessed that he met his match on more than a few occasions when he locked horns with my Aunt. If her father in law had thought that he had bought the control of his son’s affairs, he was sadly mistaken, my Aunt was a true daughter of my maternal grandfather Tom Jones, she was strong willed and domineering. She very firmly wore the trousers in their house, and poor old Uncle Bill had a life of misery at times; his mistakes and the loss of any money they had possessed were laid well and truly at his door. There was hardly a day went by that Aunt did not remind him what a mess he had made of their affairs and how she had earned their money and he had lost it.
Uncle Bill was the antithesis of his wife, he was easy going and not a strong character, what you might describe as soft centred. He was intelligent and very good at his work, but he was not a practical man, especially in regard to financial matters or business practice. Being now forced to take on regular employment he found himself having to accept unpleasant conditions such as shift work and heavy industrial factory work. This was in stark contrast to the salubrious way of life he had enjoyed as a self employed man of means, who could choose his own way of working and create his own conditions. Hating his present circumstances he never stopped looking for a way out and over the next few years tried all sorts of schemes. The people he met could all see that potentially his ideas were good, but when they jumped on his band wagon it invariably crashed through lack of business acumen. Sadly for my Uncle when he ran into difficulties his so called good friends proved to be bad friends and deserted him, leaving him to face the music alone.
It was about this time in my story that I was a spectator to one of Uncle Bill’s brilliant ideas that went wrong, it was so poignant to see what happened when even to me it was obvious that his scheme had all the hall marks of an excellent money making venture. If he had been fortunate enough to find trustworthy partners with some business sense his clever and original ideas would have borne fruit, but my Uncle lacked the ability to recognise good qualities in others and this failing led to his downfall. I am not sure where these dubious friends came from but I would guess that they were people he worked with who he trusted in his usual naive fashion. He put to them his idea which convinced them it could be a money maker, so they agreed to join him, providing labour and a small investment of around £100 each, including my Uncle there were three of them in this partnership. His idea formed when he had made some growing beds in the cellar of the boarding house they ran and grown mushrooms to enhance the meals they provided for their guests. They were very popular indeed and so easy to produce that he had a surplus which he sold to other hotels and restaurants around town. The demand grew and he realised that if he could produce more he would make good money and so his idea was born. Next he found a brick works on the edge of town which was no longer in use, and realising that the huge circular kiln would provide an enormous area for growing beds he approached his colleagues. A few days work saw the beds installed all neat clean and tidy, they whitewashed the walls, and put in florescent tube lights, and by planting the mushroom spawn at intervals one bed at a time they ensured a constant and steady supply of the product. The conditions proved ideal with complete darkness and a consistent temperature, the fungi grew like mad.
Picking and packing every spare hour they had the supply was enormous and the demand equal to the quantity they could produce. What’s more they now found that there was a marketing board who would take all that they could produce at a guaranteed price; there could be no doubt they were on a winner. For a few short weeks all went well, the sales grew and the profits mounted, then disaster struck and the bubble burst. Uncle Bill had not arranged things in a business like fashion and his partners had left everything to him, being interested only in the profit they were making. He had rented the brick works from a caretaker who had obtained permission from the owners who were located at Chester. The caretaker kept a close eye on this new venture and when it’s potential became apparent he reported to his employers who promptly ordered the budding entrepreneurs off the premises. What happened at the brick works after that I never discovered, but I think it would be safe to say that the owners would have picked up where my Uncle left off, making a very successful venture from what he had started.
It must have been a bitter blow which would have been hard to take, but there was more to come, thanks to my Uncles inept skills as a man of business. Some months later he received a bill for rent on the brick works which he had been ordered to vacate, it was quite a large sum which it appeared he was legally obliged to pay. Turning to his partners for help they refused saying that it was not their problem; of course they should have done the decent thing recognising that if they had taken their equal share of the profits, they were morally obliged to accept their share of the debt incurred. No, they were in the life boat and if Uncle had been stupid enough to get himself into this predicament he would have to carry the can. I have often wondered how this whole mess came about; was it possible that the caretaker took over the mushroom growing business and not the owners of the brick works? We shall never know the answer to this conundrum, but one thing did become clear to me, it was the fact that Uncle slowly became embittered as a result of being swindled by all and sundry. This was not the only time he was deceived and let down, the outcome being that he in his turn became devious and dishonest, which was a great pity because he was basically a gentle and kind man who gave offence to no one.