22. Dec, 2016


A rousing poke to my left shoulder.
"What happened to you tosh?"
Where was I?
As I focussed on the speaker so did my memory on immediate events. December 1961. Weight training late at night in the college gym. The pain of a slipped disc. Berners Street W1. The Middlesex Hospital. Dressmakers' Ward. Traction. Going from super fit young track athlete aiming for the following year's Commonwealth Games to helpless hospital patient. Self pity by the bucketful.
"I, er, I slipped a disc."
"That'll teach you not to snake your girlfriend on a hill!" came the less than sympathetic reply from the next bed. This was greeted with instant laughter.
The Man  From Hackney then introduced me to the other ten guys in the ward. "Go on Tony," an Irish voice said to him, "Tell der feller what happened ter you!"
"I was cleaning windows in the Giraffe house at the zoo. There I was, twenty foot up on me ladder when this bleedin' giraffe goes and suddenly sticks its head out. I started backwards, forgettin' where I was. Hit the deck an' bust both me bleedin' ankles!
"Oh yes," says I, determined to get my own back, "Sure you weren't up on its haunches doing some snaking of your own?"
The laughing told me I was accepted into the club and so began my most memorable Christmas.
I later took stock of my situation. On the downside the traction pinned me down on my back like a botanical specimen; I had to learn how to eat and drink laying flat with only a mirror to guide me; my running hopes had been dashed and I would have to spend my first ever Christmas away from home…Great!
On the bright side most of the other patients were not much older than me, the student nurses were the same age as me, (hem! hem!); The Middlesex was a leading London hospital with a respected orthopaedic department. Things could have been worse.
Gradually I settled into the routine, learning to appreciate the care, dedication and skill of those young nurses, the expertise of the doctors and the morale raising sub-navel humour of Tony & Co. It was the NHS at its best.
Christmas Eve.
The nurses set to, trimming up the ward and the The Boxes started to arrive! Prior to the NHS, the big stores in Berners Street had actually sponsored Dressmakers' Ward. They kept up the tradition by donating Christmas presents. Among the firms was the HQ of Stowells-wine and spirit dealers and as we were all orthopaedic cases who could eat and drink anything...let the good times roll!
Christmas Day.
We had a far from sober Christmas Eve leading to an even less sober Christmas Day. First up were the famous BBC comedy script writers, Frank Muir and Denis Norton who gave up their time to distribute the rest of the Berners Street shops' presents. I, myself, received a then high tech miniature Japanese tape recorder and transistor radio, two quality sweaters and enough toiletries to last me for months. We duly spent Christmas morning like kids going over our goodies.
Dinner was a sumptuous affair again thanks to the shops and their generosity. The turkey was a cross with an ostrich - although some of the lads turned a shade of green when watching the surgeon who had operated on them, carve up the bird.
It was then family visiting time. Realising I would have no one, Tony, who belonged to a large family, "lent me" two of his female cousins. As the last visitor left, up stepped student doctors and nurses with their pantomime version of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs or as they titled it, "The Virgin who lived with Seven Midgets." 'Nuff said!
Party Time!
Our nurses, off duty and knowing of our projected party all invited themselves along while the Ward Sister made it clear that short of a real emergency, no way would she be visiting Dressmakers Ward that night! The veil of discretion was thus drawn.
By nine o'clock as the party was hotting up, she broke her vow by wheeling in the telephone...I had a call - from two old school friends who had just heard about my misfortune. Their later comments?
"You bastard! We phoned to cheer you up and what did we hear? There was "In Mobile" being chanted in the background, drunken shouts in the foreground, the distinct sound of chinking glasses and who was the girl laying close enough to speak down your ear to ask who we were and could she fetch you another Bushmills? Got it all on the NHS, did you, you jammy sod?"
Boxing Day.
The party rocked on until it was time for the duty team to come on and start removing the decorations. As they dwindled, so did my time in the ward. That Boxing Day I was pronounced well enough to go home, but at least the booze held out
December 28.
It was with real heartache that I packed and prepared to leave. As Tony had the first word, it was appropriate for him to have had the last. "We are all going to miss being in here - the mates we've made and how we have cared about each other; the kindness of the nurses and how they looked after us. Money didn't matter, just people. Why can't it be like that on the outside?
Over half a century later, why not Tony? Why not indeed?