The atmosphere of the unit always seemed pregnant with something other than air, almost as though we were breathing in the atmosphere of an alien world; something similar to Earth, but not the same. The combination of cigarette smoke, residual urine and faeces, sweat and yeasty chronic infections hung around the unit like a London smog, eating into the carpets and wallpaper, settling into filing cabinets as a fine dust, and bonding with the fibres of your clothes with the tenacity of a biological washing powder. Even our new wall-mounted, electronically operated deodorant sprays were beginning to give up the ghost, and at the end of the day my lungs felt like two bags of sand. Still, at least an extractor fan had been fitted in the smokers’ room, which was an improvement over the previous ‘policy’ of opening the windows and fire doors for ventilation. It was quipped at the time that the only way the fire doors would ever be closed, would be when we ran out of spoons to chock them open. But it was less of a joke, perhaps, that we went home at the end of each shift having smoked ten to twelve involuntary cigarettes.
I was once more knocked off my feet by the appalling reek of laxative-induced faeces, rolling down the corridor like mustard gas, searching out every corner of the longsuffering unit. A rotund little man came into sight and announced with a chuckle:
“He! He! I’ve had a good clear out. See you later.”
I viewed his retreating form, and noticed some brown liquid trickling down the back of his long socks. My worst fears were confirmed when I had a quick look in the nearby toilet and discovered that his explosive diarrhoea had left the place looking like a slaughterhouse. Luckily it was a ‘male problem’, because if the patient had been female and they had requested female attention, a short-term exchange of staff would have been necessary before the clear up operation could begin, with a reluctant female staff member being dragged in chains from another unit. We were okay this time however (sic), and soon employing our full contingent of specialist wet suction cleaners, red mops, rubber gloves, aprons, specimen containers, and yellow plastic bags to neutralise the damage.
Our manager applauded from the wings, and after a while we settled down to a rewarding cup of coffee, with the residual odours of latex and crap drifting up from our scrubbed hands and stinking clothes. Of course, most nurses knew that the smell of the unit could never really be removed, so they kept two entirely separate sets of clothing at home, like mechanics routinely isolating their oily overalls from other items. In our case, we weren’t allowed to wear uniforms, because we had a ‘rehabilitation’ philosophy of care and had to pretend that everything was normal.
What a joke.
“Well done everybody” said Richard.
“Thanks for all your support” we chorused.
Oh…mm….mm….yes…..don’t ever underestimate the role of top class leadership.”
“No of course not” I agreed. “In fact, on behalf of the staff I’d like to thank you from the heart of our bottoms.
My next-door neighbour was a very interesting man, and also a member of a dying breed. He had a domed head which towered above a horseshoe of wispy white hair, a time-worn wrinkled face, ill-fitting clothes and big army boots. Handicapped by a hideous curvature of the spine and a pronounced limp, he had a grotesque appearance, yet he was a kindly, tolerant man who would help anybody out, and he always wore a smile. He was nearing retirement age, but still worked at the university, 50 miles away, where even his colleagues knew him as ‘the mad professor’.
The professor had a keen sense of duty, and never missed a day at college, always climbing the hill to the railway station at 6.30 a.m., in good time for his train which departed twenty minutes later. His limp was the product of an old war wound coupled with latter day arthritis, and as the pain gradually worsened, his daily climb became a grim struggle.
One winter morning he found the hill covered in snow and ice. He was weak and very unsteady on his feet, so he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled to the top of the hill, where an astonished stranger showed pity and helped him to the station. The professor was lathered in sweat, and deeply distressed. For the first time in thirty years, he was going to be late.
It was 6.55a.m. when he finally limped onto platform 3.
Yet, the train was still there.
The guards had delayed its departure, for the man who was more reliable than a clock. The man who was a proper standard.
He’s dead now, of course.
“And by the way Steve.”
“Have you any ideas for spicing up my love life? I’m afraid my wife and I seem to have forgotten we live at the same address.”
“Er……well I’m not really an expert Sid, but you could try scented candles and a pink light bulb.”
“Oh. That’s worth a go I suppose, but I don’t think virility and girth are really the key problems. Still, thanks for the suggestion, anyway.”
“And another thing, Steve.”
God help me.
“Well….you’re the only person I dare ask….Do you….do you think arseholes deserve rights? Be honest.”
“Oh….you mean conmen, cheats and vagabonds?”
“No. No. Real arseholes.”
“Oh…..perverts, rapists and granny bashers….”
“No. Actual physical arseholes. Anuses.”
“You see Steve, I find it terribly upsetting that oral and vaginal orifices always get such a good press, while the poor lowly rectum is forever mercilessly vilified and pilloried. I feel as though I have a calling in life – a sort of holy quest, to defend the rights of all downtrodden and belaboured back passages.”
“Oh….yes…..absolutely….I couldn’t agree more.”
“I knew I could count on you, Steve” he said, a single tear trickling down his old craggy cheek.
That’s just the way I felt. Angry, defiant, and just a little mad.
But tomorrow was the day of the big inspectors’ meeting, when we would all learn our fates.
“Sooty and Sweep are just capitalist puppets, claims Marxist” said the radio.
“It’s time for me to discharge myself” said Sidney.
He was gazing at a dog-eared photograph of a blond, bare breasted lady in stockings and suspenders, who was draped over a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, drinking frothy lager from a bulbous bottle. In the background was a long-haired biker in studded leather jacket, unflattering thong and jackboots, with a three inch spike through his nose. A waterfall of artificial sweat ran freely over the lady’s tanned shoulders, down her back, and through the culvert of her perfectly formed derriere. Nudity, as always, left plenty to the imagination.
“I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing” I said.
“Oh, I’m not Steven” he said quietly. “She’s my muse.”
The clock was always ticking on a psychiatric nurse, as you wished your life away in the tick tock world of stress and release. Anticipating the end of a shift, craving days off, booking holidays with the drooling relish of a mad dog waiting for the final kick, and absolutely dreaming of retirement. Cottages in Wales, cruises in the Caribbean, fawn jackets and bowling woods, illness and death. A lager at the end of the desert crawl.
“We’re back” said my colleague from the afternoon shift.
“How did it go?” I enquired.
“Oh, I’ve hired a Michelin Man costume for the next charity walk and made an appointment for my hair to be tinted. I’m a really mad sort of person you know.”
“I was referring to the walk with Stuart.”
“Oh…right…. no problems. He was absolutely superb in town.”
I glanced at Stuart who was stood behind, and noticed that a large wet patch had formed around his crutch area, that his hands were shaking uncontrollably, and that saliva was dripping constantly from his mouth. Everything was relative in psychiatry, and I knew that my colleague was pleased because Stuart hadn’t attempted to run off, hadn’t become angry or agitated, hadn’t stolen anything, and hadn’t been incontinent of faeces in the shops. His term ‘brilliant’ still seemed a little extravagant, though, and it occurred to me how often we compared patients’ behaviour with other abnormal behaviours on the unit, rather than with standards in the outside world. This was not perhaps a great sign of community care success, where ‘integration’ with the outside world was the main guiding principle.