[An explanation seems to be needed. I’ve had a few messages asking how I am. I should explain that I’m having routine procedures and hospital visits, as I have for the last eight years. They have only the most tenuous connection to this series of posts that started as an ill-thought-through comment on Facebook. Anyway, thankyou for your concerns…and I love you for them, but rumours of my impending demise are grossly exaggerated]
I’m not ever entirely sure why, but hospitals make me feel simultaneously submissive/subservient and stroppy/transgressive. Nurses make me feel guilty of breaches of etiquette that have never been explained. And then there are other patients: the ones who are lost, like the old man in the bed next to mine some years ago, who was crying because he was having nightmares and he thought he was going mad. No one had told him what big doses of morphine can do for your dreams; and the patients who have no idea of etiquette of any sort or the notion of personal space; and the patients you begin to feel responsible for even though you can take no responsibility for yourself. All of this muddle of confused social and emotional relationship is what I found in today’s poem.
Touching the Edge : Hilary Elfick
There is a clang in the radiator pipe
Running the length of the ward.
Lying here face up
Impossible to tell
Whether the brass end of a curtain pull
Swings swings against it
Or an air bubble, unnoticed by nurses,
Comes round like a regular train.
By that clang clang clang
I can time my pain.
The other end of the ward
Blind Mrs. Popple struggles to the lavatory.
‘Nurse, see to Mrs. Popple.
She is out of bed again.’
Quiet husband talks softly
To his sleeping wife.
She never wakes.
They insist he perseveres.
Pain creeps up the back of my neck
Like a colony of worker ants
Mining their way into poised positions.
First a steady throbbing
Till sight vibrates
Then sudden rise of screaming.
Are the ants screaming?
Is it possible that I can still
Be lying here in silence?
How far can a brain vibrate and live?
Here she comes with the injection
Again into bruised and bloated thigh.
The sharp plunge distracts for an instant
Till rolling back brings the waves
To pound pound pound the sides of my skull.
Wait. Only fifteen minutes. Wait.
Gradually the sounds withdraw
And darkness comes
Bringing misshapen shadows,
Nightmares creeping into
The confused cavity of my skull.
Fear beyond and under all fear
Till deepest bathyscope sleep.
Awareness returns slowly.
The clang is muffled.
Mrs. Popple is being rescued.
Memory steps back hesitantly
And only with permission –
The illusion of control.
Hour later, eyes make decision to open.
Around my bed surprising screens
And a nurse – Chinese, businesslike.
My perceptions range round
The pattern of roses on the cotton screen,
The watch pinned to the white apron,
The colours of her skin
And the dark gloss of her hair
Clipped beneath the absurd cap.
The odd sounds are explained
By her small fingers
Clicking her pen in and out.
Our eyes engage.
‘Ah. You wake.
I am to sit with you all the time.
I have to shine my torch in your eyes
Every two hours
And take your pressure.’
Round my flabby arm she wraps
Firmly the heavy rubber sheath.
‘Oh dear me, I forgot.’
She is gone through the crack in the screen.
The rubber wrap impossibly imprisons.
Exhausting struggle to free it.
She returns. ‘Oh why did you do that?
Naughty girl! Now I must do it again.’
How old is this child?
She pumps. Counts. Writes on her pad.
Shines her torch. Takes my pulse.
Drops my wrist. Places her pad
Firmly on my feet.
Slowly, thickly, ‘What is happening?’
‘You must not ask questions.
You are too ill. That’ (importantly)
‘Is why I am to sit here.
You are not to be alone.’
Silently, why? In case I leave?
Does she think I plan to die,
Discharge myself without formal permission?
Clang goes the water pipe. Clang.
‘How long did I sleep?’
‘You slept two hours. You should not ask.
You will sleep two hours
And wake two hours
And every four hours I shall inject you
Because of your pain.’
And every two hours she will shine her torch
And feel my pulse and take my pressure.
That is what will happen
And now I must be quiet.
And every unknown time
The clang will beat in the radiator pipes
That run the length of the room
And the man will murmur to his wife
And Mrs. Popple, who does not have permission,
Will be out of bed again.
First published in author’s collection ‘The Horse Might Sing’,
Envoi 1990, ISBN 0948478 66 7
Hilary Elfick was a broadcaster: 100 scripts for the BBC; producer, BBC Radio 4; subsequently on radio/television in New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, and featured on BBC Radio 2 and BBC World Service. Her solo performances have been in theatres, cathedrals, libraries, hospices, and bookshops and, recently, in the Poetry Café in Canberra. It would take for longer than we have space for to list all her poetry collections. Just look her up on Google. And because she’s been a cobweb guest before you can follow this link for more poems