”They had to take him down to the accident hospital” was a phrase often overheard when the ladies of the village stood in twos and threes, discussing the latest misadventure to have befallen one of the neighbours. They loved to wrap their tongues around the word “ACCIDENT”, repeated often and with a feigned look of concern. For a young boy with waggling ears this was exciting, combined with a fear of the unknown. Something serious had happened, an accident, and off to the hospital with them. To ask what had happened invited the usual put-down for nosy kids; “curiosity killed the cat”, meaning “it’s none of your own business”. So I knew it was no use asking. I didn’t ask about the cat either.
One gloomy afternoon in November, with a curt “No school this afternoon”, Mum took a tight grip on my arm and marched me to the bus stop outside the greengrocers. I was about seven or eight years old. The old red double-decker ground to a halt in a cloud of black smoke, diesel engine grumbling. “Can we sit upstairs?” “No, in with you now”. It was dark on the lower deck, with it’s low ceiling, but I got to sit by the window.
“Any more fares please” sang the conductor as he tapped on his ticket machine. “Transporter Bridge” said Mum. “Oh, across the river then?” “No, Accident Hospital”. “My my, been in the wars has he, had a little accident? Or is he your little accident! Ha Ha”. Mum gave him the evil eye, together with her pennies for the fare. He punched the fare on the machine and quickly turned the handle. The printed ticket emerged like a long rolled-up white tongue.
I tried not to think of the word “accident” but saw nothing, said nothing, heard nothing until “All change”. The bus shuddered to a halt and Mum pushed me in front of her along the gangway, and then off the high step onto the pavement. The broad black expanse of the River Mersey stretched out before us, slowly winding its way to Liverpool and into the Irish Sea. The grey sky was so low that the towers holding up the bridge across the river disappeared into the dark clouds.
“Where are we going Mum?”
“To get you some sunshine!”
I was confused. Sunshine?
“Come along now, we haven’t got all day.”
She took a firm grip on my wrist and hurried towards a large brick building overlooking the river. I tried to keep up and look at the building at the same time, but only managed to stumble.
“Pick your feet up now!”
The building was made of smooth red brick and roof tiles, high narrow windows and dark brown varnished double doors with worn brass handles. Over the door the large letters confirmed my worst fears: Widnes Accident Hospital. Shivers spread down my back.
There was no turning back as Mum put her weight behind the brass door handle and pushed me inside, the heavy door slamming behind us. It was cool and empty inside, with a sharp smell of cleaning fluid. The same stuff was used in our school. Footsteps echoed along the corridors and muted voices could be heard behind more dark brown doors. Mum felt at home, after working as a nurse during the war. She purposefully chose one of the doors and in we went, to be confronted by a large woman in a white uniform and funny hat standing behind a wooden counter. “In there and get ready”, she said pointing to another door. Ready for what, I thought, looking round for an escape route. Mum was having none of it. She shepherded me firmly through the next door. Now I would never find my way out again .
This door led us into a square, pale green, room with upright chairs arranged along the walls. Most were occupied by mothers, helping their children to get undressed. They were about my age, both boys and girls, standing in their underpants, naked bodies strikingly pale, with thin arms and legs. Many staring eyes followed us as we entered the room, the only sound being that of the door closing. Occasionally I heard a whispered “Schh” or “It’s not dangerous”. Mum found us an empty chair, sat down and started to help me off with my clothes. It was cold and I started to shiver again.
“Come along now boys and girls!” Everybody jumped, eyes widening. “Now now, we don’t have all day!” The mothers shooed their offspring in the direction of the nurse with the booming voice. Mum said “Off you go now, I´ll be waiting for you here.” The long line of pale bodies slowly followed the nurse, like an albino snake.
We were taken into a large room with dark blinds covering the high windows, like in the blackout. Two rows of oblong golden metal cages filled the room, fitted with shiny green mattresses. A giant square lamp dangled from the roof of each cage. Two nurses helped us into the cages and then, putting on green glass goggles, we were told to lie face down and keep still. “No talking, don’t move until we say so and keep your goggles on all the time!” The nurses went out, the ceiling lights were switched off and we lay there in the dark. I felt a thumping sound in my chest. Suddenly the room was flooded with strong light from the lamps hanging in the cages. The light reflected the yellow metal of the cages, like sunshine. After a few minutes the air was filled with a sharp smell, which made me feel sick.
Soon I could hear the other children getting restless as they squirmed about on their sticky mattresses. Gradually I heard whispers from the braver ones. This stopped at once when the door suddenly opened and we were ordered to turn over. As I rolled over I tried to peep out of the corner of my eye to see who was in the nearest cages. On one side there was a girl about my age; I had never seen a girl undressed before. She had black hair and a freckled nose. She didn’t go to my school.
Then it was suddenly all over. The lamps were extinguished, goggles handed over and children returned unharmed to their mothers. The formerly silent room was now full of excited chatter as we got dressed, pretending not to look around. We had survived and I ran quickly for the bus home, looking forward to next week’s sunshine.