Sunny Days at the Accident Hospital

”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.

 

 

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“Strangers in the House”

Between nine and eleven o’clock the local gym is a peaceful, almost meditative place, a retreat from the real world. The early birds have rushed off to work in their shirts and ties, after a short, sharp session. The lunch spinners have not arrived yet, still staring at their computer screens. A few seniors, mostly male, are scattered around the place, gently pulling levers and lifting modest weights. Mostly they rest against the brutal-looking machines, or chat softly with other morning regulars. The piped music is slow and low. Day after day they are there. Robot-like pale bodies programmed to unpack their bag, open a locker, change clothes, follow exercise routine, undress, shower, get dressed again, pack bag, close the locker and leave. Most days nothing notable happens to disturb this idyll.

One day a stranger appeared. A rather portly man in stocking feet, grey woollen trousers and a glaring emerald-green hoodie came striding along the narrow corridor between the rows of black and red machines. In one hand a clipboard, in the other a large cellphone with white plugs, round his neck a stop-watch dangling on a black ribbon. He made a beeline for a comfortable seat on one of the machines and flopped down, crossing his legs with difficulty and staring intensely at the phone.

A gradual slowing down of the seniors and their machines could be discerned, as focus turned from training programmes and repetitions to the newcomer.

Warm muscles started to stiffen up when it became clear that the intruder was not alone. First one, then another youth self-consciously followed, dragging their feet and looking around suspiciously. Mid-teens, one slim and sulky, the other seriously overweight. Hardly dressed for training, more like “come-as-you-are”. They dumped jackets and bags in a corner and nonchalantly kicked off their shoes. Gradually they made their way around the gym in slow motion, unwittingly imitating the seniors. Eyes downcast, avoiding contact, they tried a few machines, preferring those out of sight of their leader. He didn’t acknowledge their arrival, engrossed as he was in an animated and loud conversation in a foreign tongue to a person apparently far away.

Two late-comers shuffled along, clones of their comrades in appearance and behaviour. Once installed, they made half-hearted attempts at understanding how the machines worked. Occasionally they lifted a weight or two, between intense staring at the screens of their outsize phones.

The seniors were not too happy about the intrusion, muttering and exchanging disapproving looks as they resumed their training schedules. Order was restored, at least temporarily, until the green-hooded man got up from his machine, announced by a loud clang as the counterweights fell back into place. Greying eyebrows were raised and heads turned as the portly man marched off to find his reluctant charges, stop-watch swinging and clipboard held high. He started to chant instructions and encouragement to the drowsy youths in a bored voice. The only concrete result was the growing irritation of the seniors, defensive of their grandfathers’ rights.

Giving up, the leader retreated with his pupils to a small room fitted out with blue exercise mattresses, designated for stretching rituals. A bad move! The lads collapsed onto the nearest mattress like exhausted dogs, more from lack of sleep than exertion. They lay there groaning, clutching phones like cuddly toys. Stop-watch at the ready, the hooded man ordered the youths to perform a series of sit-ups, one after the other. Enthusiasm for the competition against his clock was definitely low; it was more fun bouncing giant beach balls around the room. Undermined by their lethargy and the increasing hostility of the seniors waiting for their stretching sessions, the leader made a hasty retreat. Gradually the youths summoned up enough energy to grab their stuff and slouch off after him, like sleepwalkers, keeping a safe distance.

The seniors seemed relieved, nodding approvingly, as they recaptured their territory and could return to their daily exercise regime.

“Strangers in the House” is the traditional cry when intruders are found in the British Houses of Parliament.

Everything has a Cost

Opening the virgin pages of a new book is a special feeling, like an explorer stepping onto a foreign shore for the first time. But the characteristic new-book smell escapes as you open the covers and turn over the first pages; a mixture of size, printer’s ink and freshly dried glue.

I prefer to read library books with their worn covers and dog-eared pages, after being handled many times over. American photographer Edward Weston described a photograph as a message you send into the future. It is the same with used books, which often contain messages for future readers, “reading lines”.

Reading lines in old books are reminiscent of the sacred “dreamlines” or “songlines”* of aboriginees. Their sacred creation myths tell of the legendary beings who wandered over the Australian continent, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – plants, trees, rocks, waterholes, bushes, animals – and so singing the world into existence. Songlines form a labyrinth of invisible pathways, knowledge handed down by their ancestors, to help the aboriginees find their way across the outback.

Reading lines are the signs and pathways left behind in books by previous readers. They will guide you through the book, if you know how to follow the lines and decipher the messages left by earlier generations. Some signs also give clues about their reading habits. Cocoa stains and biscuit crumbs, often Digestive, point to the surreptitious bedtime reader who is not too fussy with borrowed books – or sleeping on gritty sheets. For some, the lingering fragrance of tobacco may enhance the experience of reading a novel about post-war life. For others it may be a total turn off; so much so that they close the book for good and possibly miss out on a good read.

Other readers leave more visible and deliberate traces on their journey through the book, signs which can be followed in much the same way as the aboriginees’ songlines. In well-read library books, notes, comments, scribbles, brackets, underlinings and exclamations often accompany you on your journey between the covers, your guide.

Recently I had the company of a wealth of reading lines left by an anonymous annotater throughout Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”. She, I am sure it was a woman, had used a mixture of marginal comments, underlining, brackets, exclamations and other scribbles in bold black, as she followed the fates of Maurice, Sarah and Henry in Greene’s book about relationsships in post-war London.

A key message is the passage – and her comment – found at the bottom of page 47:

“Just as I went home that first evening with no exhilaration but only a sense of sadness and resignation, so again and again I returned home on other days with the certainty that I was only one of many men – the favourite lover for the moment. This woman, whom I loved so obsessively that if I woke in the night I immediately found the thought of her in my brain and abandoned sleep, seemed to give up all her time to me. And yet I could feel no trust: in the act of love I could be arrogant, but alone I had only to look in the mirror to see doubt, in the shape of a lined face and a lame leg – why me?”

This is Maurice, doubting Sarah’s love for him despite her contriving a couple of pages further on to make noisy love to him on the living-room floor, while her husband Henry is upstairs in bed with a cold, a lunch tray and a hot water-bottle for company. She spontaneously declares her love for Maurice on page 50: ”I’ve never loved anybody or anything as I do you”. Despite this, Maurice still doubts in her love for him. This is one of Greene’s central themes in the book.

By adding the comment: “how I felt with Stefan” our anonymous annotator draws a parallel to her own feelings – and her relationship with Stefan, doubting his undivided love for her. But who has added this comment, who is she? And who is Stefan?

Several clues to her identity can be found by studying the many reading lines scattered throughout the book. Her comments are brief, apparently spontaneous, to the point and written with miniscule but bold hand. Her handwriting imitates printing, letters not joined up but rounded in the prescribed school style of the last ten or twenty years. The writer is young – under thirty, probably early twenties.

For the next 150 pages I did not feel alone as I followed the complicated relation between Sarah and Maurice, and indeed also with her husband Henry. Following the reading lines left by the annotator convinced me that my companion was using the book as therapy to understand her own feelings for her lover Stefan – and in particular his lack of feelings for her. At times the parallel story took over. My reading focused more and more on those parts of Greene’s story which she marked with thick brackets. These passages were not about Maurice and Sarah, rather events and feelings she recognised from her relationship with Stefan. As she made her way through the book, she marked more and more dismal passages. From periods of calm, to tenderness, to hate and jealousy, and finally death.

“Hatred is very like physical love; it has its crises and then its periods of calm.”

“After possession comes the tenderness of responsibility when one forgets one is only a lover, responsible for nothing.”

She highlighted several other passages where Maurice discusses hatred and jealousy. She hated two-timing Stefan and was at the same time jealous of his other “lovers of the moment”.

“If I hate her so much as I sometimes do, how can I love her? Can one really hate and love? Or is it only myself that I really hate?

“the nightmare’s nearly over”

“She had been as dead then as she was dead now. As long as one suffers one lives.”

The book has a tragic ending, a real end to the affair. Both stories were quite depressing. I am convinced our annotator lost Stefan, just as Maurice and Henry lost Sarah. Her final message in the margin was: “Everything has a cost.”

* Read more in “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

Dinnertime

The narrow brook slowly meanders and wanders, emptying smallish lakes way upstream and draining broad, low-lying fields on its way to the sea. For most of its length it is enclosed by steep banks which the streaming water has gradually sculpted over the centuries. In some places the brook is wider, and the water seems completely still. Sometimes it overflows the low banks, turning nearby pathways and fields into small ponds.

The course of the brook is marked by a thick line of bushes which stretch their thirsty roots down through the rich soil to reach the water. These thickets provide shade and food for flocks of small birds, but also conceal a well-camouflaged, high fence. A wide footbridge, situated where the brook is broader and slow-moving, attracts a large flock of mallards. Little children and pensioners lean over the side of the bridge, bags of old bread at the ready. Themallards seek refuge under the bridge when the hawks circle above, biding their time to launch an aerial attack. This autumn the abundant rain has made life difficult for the mallards; the brook has swelled so much that the brook reaches up to the floor of the bridge, blocking off their escape route.

A loud squawking and flapping of wings broke the silence of the autumn twilight, as a mallard desperately tried to lift from the still water. The heavy bird came crashing through the bushes, flying low into the sunset, trying to gain height. A drone-like hawk struck from above, homing in on its target. A dull thud could be heard as the hawk sank its hooked beak and talons into the neck of the heavy mallard, slicing through its feathers. Linked together they sailed through the air for another twenty yards, hawk hunched like a jockey on the back of the mallard. They hit the ground together with a loud bang; two final choking squawks and then, silence. The hawk wasted no time plucking the feathers off its victim, still warm, just right for dinner.

Train Connection

The fat bulldog showed little interest in following its owner onto the underground train. “All aboard. Mind the doors” commanded the loudspeaker, but the dog still didn’t budge. The owner half dragged and half lifted the heavy beast into the train just before the doors slammed shut. Breathing heavily from the effort, the dog  flopped down on the floor, legs splayed like a cartoon dog dropped from on high. His owner leaned nonchalantly against the carriage wall, pulling out his phone.

Two stops later the owner made for the door, dog slowly waddling after, leaving behind an atmosphere of lethargy in the carriage. Passengers on their way home from work seemed to share the feelings of the bulldog.

Nobody reacted to the woman who moved swiftly down the aisle of the carriage, seemingly in a hurry to get off before the doors closed. She wore a black hijab, floor-length wide grey skirt and a long dark purple tunic. She was not strikingly pretty but quite attractive, in her late 30’s or early 40’s. Almost at the exit, she turned and banged her fist down on the shoulder of a man sitting next to the window, with his back to her. He jumped up, startled. The closest passengers looked up from their smart phones at this disturbance. The man was African, tall and slim, in his mid-20’s, wearing a blue quilted winter jacket and smart jeans. He instinctively turned towards his assailant, holding out his hand to keep his balance. The woman quickly pushed a screwed up paper into his hand, turned and almost running disappeared into the rush-hour crowd on the platform. Nothing was said. The man remained standing, as in a state of shock, and slowly opened his hand. He held it out at arm’s length for all to see. In his palm lay a few screwed-up banknotes. Incredulous, he stared at the crumpled notes for what seemed an eternity. Then he deliberately turned his hand upside down so that the notes sailed down onto the carriage floor. As if to say, this has nothing to do with me. He sat down again. A sympathetic smile from the young woman opposite made him feel a little more at ease. Together they peered down at the notes lying on the dusty floor. After exchanging an embarrassed glance, he decided the best thing was to pick up the notes and stuff them into his jacket pocket.

This is a true story. The woman was taking a big risk. If the doors had closed before she had time to escape from the train, or if the man had chased and caught up with her on the platform, what would have happened? A real life “Sliding Doors”.

Guttural

The deep, slowing throb of a Harley Davidson* attracted my attention, as the biker slipped it into neutral. It was a late-summer afternoon on a busy city street. The queue waiting for the green relaxed. They were in no special hurry.

The biker hunched low in the saddle, brown pointed thin-soled leather shoes resting confidently on the asphalt. Grey nylon socks and brown-patterned suit brought to mind a pen pusher, not a cruiser. He was too skinny to fill out the khaki wind-jammer. It demanded a more muscular frame.

A greying pony tail hung down below his cream-coloured helmet, which was worn, but still feigned to provide some protection. Gold-rimmed glasses and mottled grey moustache with yellowish-brown stains completed the picture.

A rattling, guttural sound broke the silence, growing louder and more persistent. The biker was clearing his lungs from the effects of the cigar which was perched nonchalantly between the fingers of his left hand.

The lights switched to green but the Harley didn’t move, just turning over. The biker slowly flicked the ash off his cigar, stuck it firmly in the corner of his mouth and then deliberately slid in the clutch. The machine responded with its own guttural sound and slowly they cruised down the middle of the street, leaving behind two thin trails of blue smoke.

* Harley Davidson: The most effective way to turn gasoline into noise without producing any horsepower, according to the Urban Dictionary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

WHAM!

The silence of the sleeping houses was broken by a dull sound, muffled by the piles of snow which still covered the ground. The snow had a greyish hue in the weak rays of the winter sun.

They had come a few days ago, appearing suddenly from nowhere. About ten of them, a family group; small ones, medium sized, adults and a vicious-looking extra large one with only half a tail. What attracted them was the brown patch of nuts and seeds on the snow below the hawthorn tree, spilled by the greedy birds. ­­

As newcomers they were on their guard. At the first sound of the door lock being turned they split in all directions, as though a grenade had landed in their midst. Some disappeared under the fence into the next-door neighbours. I rang on their doorbell but only the dog was awake. A few minutes later the door was opened by the woman, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Oh yes, we’ve seen them too. Aren’t they horrible!“ she exclaimed drowsily. Her husband coming along behind almost fell out of the door trying to control the snarling terrier in his arms. “You know”, he added, “these dogs can kill three hundred in an hour if they get up the scent!” Yeah right, I thought, having often seen them dragging the lethargic animal up into the woods to do its business.

After a couple of days we adapted our lives to the intruders, making extra noise opening the door and not leaving any doors open as we fetched the newspapers from the mailbox. We almost missed them when they weren’t around. From reports received we understood they visited other nearby gardens.

The general concensus was that we should get rid of them. So I planned the deed, waiting for the right moment. It came early on Saturday morning. A lone medium-sized animal was preoccupied with digging through the snow to find some breakfast. I slowly slid back the door lock and slipped silently outside. Grasping the blue snow shovel with both hands I lifted it high above my head, held my breath and “WHAM!” There it lay on the crust of the snow, flattened and presumed dead. But wait, its tail was still quivering. Maybe I had just stunned it. Instinctively I raised the shovel once more, “WHAM”, and then again for good measure, “WHAM”. The snow gradually turned dark red around the edges of the flattened corpse. I knew the job was done and left it there to stiffen in the freezing air.

Blue Shovel
The Blue Snow Shovel

Replacing the shovel in the corner behind the door, I returned triumphantly to my breakfast and newspaper. “All in a day’s work for a man”, I told myself.

An hour or so later I knew it was time to get rid of the stiff. So with plastic bag and gloves at the ready, I returned to the scene. But what now! Somebody has stolen my corpse! The only evidence was a pale pink stain on the shrinking snow.

The next day a neighbouring cat-owner proudly described how his cat had come home with one of the intruders dangling from its jaws. “Strange though”, he said, “it was all flattened. I don’t want to know how the cat managed that.” The cat was rewarded with some fresh herring for its bravery.