My Uncle in the Ospital. New Fiction from Rosemary McLeish

7

I phoned my uncle a week or so after he came home from hospital.

“So how are you doing?” I said.

“No bad, no bad,” he said.  “I’ve two new contraptions Frances bought me, one’s a, how shall we say, a CD player and a tape player, and the other one, that’s a wee clever thing, a radio, and it’s got a switch so ye can record whatever ye want.  I’m listening to all sorts, music, poetry, stories.”

“Yes, but how’s the kidney thing?  Did they sort it out?”  It was a few digressions later before I discovered that he still had a catheter.

“That’ll be me now,” he said.  I felt very sad.  I’d understood that they were waiting to discharge him until he could manage without a catheter.  Even though he was going to be eighty in a couple of weeks, and his cancer was of long standing, it seemed something of a defeat.

“Well, at least you’re home now.” 

“Oh, aye, that was a terrible time.  Did you know, I was in the ospital for a month and a day!  And most of it was spent waiting, waiting for the radiologist, I don’t know what.  First they’d say two days, then it would be next week.”

“Some of it was till your blood got sorted.”

“Aye, well, howsomever, it was like being in prison.”

He’d been in a bed in an old-fashioned men’s ward where the only privacy was when the curtains were pulled.  There were several bays down the ward with two beds in each, but the rest of the ward was visible from all of them.  My uncle’s bed was quite near the nurses’ station, the noisiest and most bustling part of the ward.  He’d had glaucoma for many years and now cataracts made him nearly blind, so maybe they kept him there because of that, so they could keep an eye on him.

“‘Member the word?” he asked.

“Conspiracy?”

“Aye, that’s the very one.  That’s how I was thinking at first.  ‘Member?  It was so much like a prison, and the time passed so slowly, and other people came and went so quickly, in one day, out the next … but I never got out.  And it was such a long time between visiting hours.  And one day, the visitors werenae let in for half an hour after their time.  That was jist the madness talking, though.”

He’d been in a terrible state when I first went to see him.  He had the look of death on him.  He’d lost a lot of weight in the months since I’d last seen him and his voice was very weak.  The sight of him reminded me of the time, years ago now, when I’d gone to meet my father at Heathrow, and found him in a wheelchair, on his last knockings, so it seemed.  We’d been on our way to Russia, he from Canada, I from Scotland, shortly after he’d had a severe illness.   I stopped thinking my mother was being melodramatic, telling me to be prepared for him to die while we were over there.  However, far from finishing him off, the visit rejuvenated him and he lived another eleven years, so that gave me some hope for Frank. 

“Of course, ye’ve been through aw this yerself,” he said.

“Well, some of it … but look at me now!  I’m fine, I only get the occasional twinge, the stents did the trick, so I hope they’ll sort you out too.  And you are feeling better now, aren’t you?”

“It did one thing for me,” he said.  “I found my voice.”

I thought he was going to tell me he’d eventually said something about his treatment, or rather neglect, since he’d been complaining of pain for months before he had to be admitted to the emergency department.

“They took me to have a shower,” he was telling me.  “The state of the bathrooms, it was shocking.  Well, the whole ospital, they’re talking of tearing it down.  It’s so old and out-dated.  See for instance they bathrooms, they havnae been updated since the 1920s.  Y’ know, it was a … what’s the word? … a disgrace, that’s what it was.  Ye sat on the toilet, ye had to swivel yourself around, no easy thing for me, to get at the toilet paper.  It was in this big drum, and ye couldnae get hold of the paper and when eventually ye did ye could only get one tiny wee square, however hard ye pulled.  Still, ye don’t want to hear about aw this.”

“Yes I do .. you were saying about the shower?”

“Yes, the shower.  They just shoved me in the shower.”

“With all your drips?”

“Naw, naw, I hadnae the drips by then … they just pulled the curtains and left me to it.  And it was a miserable shower, hardly any force behind it.”

I tutted sympathetically.

“I was so fed up, for once, I just let rip.”

“What do you mean?  Were you shouting?”

“I started singing, y’ know, as ye do, I sang this song that ma mother used tae sing. She was the one for singing.”

I never met my grandmother but I wish I had.  My father told me she had a song for every occasion.  She knew all the music hall songs and the popular songs of her time.  And in the hospital, Frank talked to me about her singing, and about her long red hair, right down her back, past her bottom, he indicated, which she used to sit and brush out every night.  It’s hard to imagine her, there is such a magical, larger-than-life quality to their memories, and yet she was a woman with eight children and a husband out of work in the Gorbals in the twenties and thirties, doing anything she could to make ends meet, not seemingly a dreamer but a practical, managing sort of person. She took the younger children fruit-picking in the summers so they could get a holiday, and had great ambitions for them all, especially my father, the inheritor (so she promised him) of the family jewels. She wanted them all to get an education and get out of the Gorbals.  She died of heart trouble at the age of fifty-three or so, just before I was born.

“My Dad was always singing too, or whistling through his teeth, or tapping on the walls, or the chair, or the table.  It’s what we missed most when he died.”

“Aye, that’d be the piano, the tapping … I sing all the time too, just not usually so loud.”

I’d always thought of it as Frank’s warbling.

“So what did you sing?”

“It was that one … wait a minute … “Love Me and the World is Mine”, yes, that was always one of her favourites.  Anyway,  I had no idea that anyone could hear me.  I gave it full throttle.  So when I got out of the shower, they all said ‘that was a lovely tune, gie us another’ and that was the start of it.”

“So it wasn’t such a bad time in the hospital after all?”

“Naw, naw, ye couldnae say that.  It was like a prison.  A prison!  And all the inmates changing.  They all used to say as you passed their bed: ‘I’m Jimmie’, or ‘I’m Alec’, or ‘I’m Tam’ and then they’d ask ye your name, and what ye did.  Ye know me, I never say I was a teacher.  What’s it to anyone?  They just pigeonhole ye anyway.  But there was one time, my daughter was there, and she says quick as a flash, before I could get a word in, ‘oh, he was a Maths teacher’ …”

Knowing of old that Frank’s views on the teaching profession and his time in it only upset and depress him, I cut him off at the pass. 

“So about finding your voice?”

“Oh, aye, well, so they say their name and you say your name and all they ever want tae talk about is the fitba.  As you know, I’m no a one for the fitba.  Och, ye couldnae get away fra them.  Anyway, ‘member last time I was in the ospital, I met Shuie?  The poet?  That was because I was passing this bed where a man called Tam was, and I sez oh hullo Tam, as ye do, only they all get out so quickly, so this voice sez, ‘I’m no Tam’, so I sez ‘Tam O Shanter, I presume?’  ‘Ah,’ sez he, pouncing, ‘someone who knows his Burns.’  ‘Ah, naw, naw,’ sez I, ‘no really to speak of, not so’s you’d notice.’  ‘Ah, but’ sez he, ‘ye heard o’ Ode tae a Haggis, and Holy Wully’s Prayer?’  ‘Oh, aye,’ sez I.  ‘I write poetry,’ sez he, ‘Ode tae a Fish Supper’, ‘The Ned’s Prayer’, stuff like that.’  ‘Could I be getting a look at it?’ sez I.  So we had these wee chats, back and forth, about poetry and such, and he gave me a copy of his book.  Inscribed it an aw.  I’ll let you get a shot at it when you come over.  But mostly it was the fitba.”

Poor Frank, a happy man when obliged with a philosophical discussion; not much chance of that on a men’s urology ward.

“What about the singing though?”

“Ah, yes, yes, the singing.  The man in the bed next tae me, he was like Harry Lauder, a wee struttin’ sort of a man.  He could sing an aw, so he’d sing a song, and I’d sing a song.  It helped to pass the time.  And they aw liked it.  It was terrible in there.  They had such terrible stories.  One man, he said to me, ‘once they put you on the morphine, you know, that’s it’.”

“And was he on morphine?”

“Oh aye; and another one said he’d been constipated for a month.  For a month!  Imagine that … and another … och, but ye don’t want to be hearing about they tales.  It was … how shall we say? … it was a prison, that’s what it was.  And the needles!  They were aye taking blood – every day, and sometimes three in the one day, they never finished with the needles.”

“Yes, I remember you had the drip and all sorts when I first saw you.”

“It’s a shocking state, the NHS.  Ye wouldnae believe the nonsense.  Well, you would, ye’ve been through enough yerself.  So anyway, one day Harry Lauder was gone, and the guy in the next bed was Edward.  Not Eddie, you understand, didn’t like anyone calling him Eddie.  And I was singing this song one day, it was ‘You Belong to Me’, and Edward said, ‘do ye know whose song that was?’  And I said ‘yes, that was Kay Starr’.  No, it wasnae, he said, it was Rosemary Clooney.  No, sez I, Kay Starr.  Naw, Rosemary Clooney.  And so it went on.  Now you know me, I don’t care for an argument, but eventually the whole ward got involved, the nurses and everybody, some saying one, some the other.  I just gave in, what does it matter, Kay Starr or Rosemary Clooney?  It was somebody’s song, eh?  And he left as well, in a day or two.”

My uncle has a beautiful speaking voice, so it didn’t surprise me that he could sing.  He used to play the piano a lot, anything and everything, just as the fancy took him.  I haven’t heard him play in a long time.  One of my earliest memories of him is of the time he and his pal Alec came to stay with us when we lived in Bradford, riding up our drive on their motorcycles, on which they later took us, turn and turn about, rides down to Chellow Dene and back.  He came into the living room, taking off his helmet and gloves, made a beeline for the piano and played, with his cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, WITHOUT ANY MUSIC.  The sort of uncle every child should have.

” So, might ye come over and see me some time soon?  Sorry to be a nuisance, but with this catheter thing I cannae get about much.”

“Yes, of course,” I said.  “I was thinking about coming over next week.”  I was wondering whether to take him daffodils.  Frank has a bit of an obsession with daffodils.  In fact, we have a history with daffodils.  Frank finds them very difficult to paint, so every spring he tries again, but he’s never satisfied with the result.  I can’t understand this: to me, a daffodil is as easy or difficult as any other flower to paint.  We’d had a daffodil conversation in the hospital.  Frank has got more interested in poetry lately, and reminded me of that old warthog, Wordworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, whence we drifted into a side ally about whether and if so how clouds could be lonely, and I’d reminded him of an early painting of mine entitled ‘No Wordsworth’, of a vase of forced showy daffodils in front of a bookcase full of books.  One of my nastiest memories of childhood is having been made to memorise this poem and recite it at a Sunday School concert.  Chellow Dene, now I think of it, was the place for wild daffodils; I often did wander lonely as a cloud picking them there.  Frank’s the one for Wordsworth, he even likes the daffodil poem, and makes me think of going back and re-reading him.  Perhaps, though, it would be unkind to bring Frank daffodils this year, with his cataracts.  He told me he was feeling sad about his paintings, he’d always tried to make the colours bright and he never seemed to manage it.  

“I don’t understand,” I said, “what do you mean?”

“They’re all so dark”.

“No, they’re not.  Your pictures are full of bright colour and sunlight.  You do put the colours in.  They always remind me of your descriptions of your delight with the fields and flowers in Perth when you went raspberry picking as a boy.”

“They look dark to me.”

The penny dropped.  “I know what that is!” I said.  “That’s your cataracts.  You wait till you get them done, I’ve heard people say before, the colours are amazing.  You’ll see!  You’ll see your pictures aren’t dark.”

I hadn’t seen Frank in the hospital after that conversation.  I’d been away down to London for a week and in the meantime he’d been discharged.  I was still wondering how he’d got out in the end, why did they discharge him with a catheter in?

“What happened in the end?  Why did they let you out ?”

“Frances came and got me,” he said, ” and we got home and my elbow was hurting.  Well, it often did, both of them did, because of all the needles.  So she said ‘roll up your sleeve and I’ll take a look’ so I did, and they’d left one of the needles in my arm.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“Yes, they did.  So she wanted to take it out but I thought she should phone the ward so that’s what we did and they said to come back and they would take it out for me.  So we got in the car and drove back to the ospital and they took it out, and we were dithering by the lift, Frances has a phobia about lifts and I cannae see to go down the stairs, so she was waiting with me by the lift and then she was going to go down the stairs and meet me at the bottom, and I said, on ye go, I’ll be fine, so she went off down the stairs and I was just standing there, waiting on the lift, and this fella come up to me, I’d never seen him before, and he sez to me:  “It was Rosemary Clooney by the way”.”

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