Sharing a bed with Will Self
I shared a bed with Will Self. Imagine the shock. Describing ‘The place that made me’ for the Guardian Saturday Review, Will chose not the South London he’s famous for inhabiting and decoding but a place few would associate with him. A place of childhood exploration and teenage hanging-out. His special place. My special place.
I was there first: the cottage on the Suffolk coast I stayed in for nearly ten summers from the early fifties. Will Self arrived about 15 years later - to sleep in the beds well-worn by me, my sisters, brothers and parents. Was there a persistant hum, lurking in the bits of broken bike, forgotten wellies and green Penguins curling with damp? Creek Cottage was owned by our London GP’s wife’s aunt. She was a friend of the Selfs.
My decade in the cottage began before the Flood. When I could lie in the back bedroom and look straight out at the sea. After 1953 the sand dunes were built up and planted with marram grass, as was done the length of the East Coast. In Walberswick there was also an inner fortification round the cottages by the harbor and the creeks that ran through marshes spreading westwards inland to Blythbrough and southwards down to Dunwich, each protected by a windmill.
I have been writing about Suffolk, my childhood holidays on the coast and later teenage years a few miles away. The landscape gave me a freedom I never had in London. For my father, too, as he sculled and heaved his way along the lanes in his hand-driven three-wheeler chair, instantly recognisable.
I have my childhood and Will Self has his. We make our own sense of places that resonate. Yet it feels outrageous that one precious place could belong to both of us. What could be worse than this snatching at my childhood, conjuring a weird montage I can’t unknow. At least the fifties remain clear. How the village has been transformed since that post-war lull of my earliest visits.
By the time the Selfs arrived I was up the road in another village, fuming, mystified by my parents’ decision to leave the coast. For the next two summers I and my younger sister cycled back to Walberswick every day, eating my mother’s ‘hard’ boiled eggs at lunchtime on a ministry of defence pill-box above the marshes. It’s not unlikely that as we whizzed round the village, young Will was squishing sand between his toes and smelling the samphor at the edge of the creek.
I was relieved to see that the cottage shown above Will Self’s article was not Creek Cottage. Lazy editing, present owner not giving permission or the author not wanting to give up his secret? Or mine. I know quite well which cottage it is in the photograph and I’m sure Will Self does too. Overlapping time and place is a disorienting challenge to anyone looking back at ‘the place that made me’.
A Patient Adjective
If you have been involved in NHS consultations, tests, treatment and follow-up care, you will know those letters that go between hospital and GP. I don’t usually read mine in detail because the multi-syllable Latin and Greek are beyond me. Lengthy descriptions of a slowly recovering elbow fracture or a slowly reducing tumour can disturb more than they reassure. What I have noticed, though, is the use of a lighter language, referring to me as a person rather than the broken bits. This reminded me of colleagues in a Child Guidance Clinic who, in the late 1970s, tried to move away from pathological vocabulary towards a language that would, for the first time ever, be read by youngsters and their parents. The result was often awkward but much better than the clinical coldness of someone analysing a specimen. In last week’s letter I read that I was a ‘pleasant 71-year-old’.
When I stopped laughing, I felt outrage. Not because of the ‘71-year-old’. No. It was the ‘pleasant’ that lit a fuse. The writer had been careful to insert a friendly adjective to describe me, nothing scary. Would they have said I was ‘unpleasant’, even if that were true? (Sometimes it’s true.) In the bad old days of professional secrecy I’m sure they would. Today’s transparency may therefore require a code: for ‘pleasant’ read ‘won’t give you any trouble’. And what about that obsession with age-accuracy? ’71-year-old’ is more neutral than ‘pensioner’ or ‘grandmother’ or ‘elderly’, yes, but neutral in the sense of having no meaning. It could only be relevant if they’d needed to say something, age-related, for example about my osteoporosis.
Medical communication systems aside, it strikes me that ‘pleasant 71-year-old’ is a phrase with positive potential. For a bulletin-board if I want freelance work. Or for a dating site. If people don’t automatically think of 71-year-old’s as ‘pleasant’, then an adjectival jolt might bring me all kinds of adventures. ‘Pleasant 71-year-old seeks….’
the F word
‘Do you mind if I say you’re deteriorating?’
Alison put her hand over the phone and looked down at me. I saw her upside-down head reflected in the glass canopy. ‘No! Please do’.
I was lying on my back by the tram stop outside East Croydon station, evening commuters flowing in both directions. Imagine the opening scene in a suburban cop show: late January, just getting dark. But without actors. Just a group of strangers improvising.
I tripped on the edge of the pavement outside the station and went down with a smack. So fast I hardly knew what happened. All I did know was that I must not move. A single millimetre. I was not conscious of pain. Nor any embarrassment at lying prone as people swirled round my head. My whole focus was in the moment. Each breath. Keep absolutely still.
Substantial women with fluorescent jerkins and carrying voices, tram inspectors Alison and Debbie, instantly became my guards. They phoned 999. They diverted the trams. They tirelessly shouted instructions to the rush hour crowds. They chatted to keep me awake. They called Joanna and Rachel. They chased away a couple of winos who came to see if I was a mate of theirs. They chased up the ambulance.
There were others, too. As soon as he saw me, young Jeff put his coat under my head. Station staff found one of those silver capes and spread it over my coat. Someone from the charity shop in the forecourt brought me a blanket. Off-duty policeman Jake wanted to know what had happened and tucked a scarf round my neck. Later, Jeff massaged a cramp in my right calf. For ninety minutes he stood there in his shirtsleeves, only going inside for the occasional coffee. Debbie and Alison stayed well beyond the end of their shift. Wonderful real-life from my group of strangers as I began to shiver from shock and cold. My thanks? A piercing scream as I was lifted into the ambulance.
Gulping gas and air I didn’t realise I was hurtling towards a challenge that was as much to do with language as pain relief.
In the melting-pot of Croydon’s A and E department, my jeans were cut off, there were two attempts at a clear X-ray because I couldn’t lower my knees, there were morphine injections and a nerve-blocking local anaesthetic, there were repeated tellings of my accident-story. By then I was light-headed enough to survive the obvious impossibility of being moved from stretcher to bed to trolley to bed to stretcher to trolley to bed. And what psychologists like to call a battery of tests. The repeated questions were a joke, surely? This was me, for goodness sake. But here I was, at risk of being tick-boxed into a cliche of female decline.
Do you live independently? Do you have carers? Do you use a stick every day? How is your balance? Can you count backwards from 20? Can you remember this address: 42, Wood Street? What year is it? Have you had a fall before?
Have you had a fall before? Ah, here’s the F word. Drawing me into a whole new world. My questioners were not at all brusque or patronising in their manner. The sight of an older woman with a fracture set them off on auto-pilot.
The day after my operation (you can google Dynamic Hip Screw), I saw that the sun floats up sideways before clouds thicken and that a pigeon is larger than the plane heading for Gatwick. Outside my window sat the Mayday Road workhouse infirmary, a delicate tower above solid brickwork. The huge new campus has been rebranded as Croydon University Hospital but locals still say ‘she’s been Maydayed’.
At coffee-time packets of biscuits pass up and down the ward till we’ve all got the ones we want. I like custard creams. Judith likes bourbons. Judith is a small woman with short grey hair and hearing aids. She’s diabetic. Her walking isn’t great and she admits her balance isn’t what it was. She’s been living in a care home for the last 6 months. She’s had all the memory tests. Judith has definitely ‘had a fall’.
The senior physiotherapist asked her how it happened but didn’t hear the answer. The physio assumed: loss of control, agitation, weakness, inattention. Later, Judith told me that staff in the care home like to keep her door open. ‘I have no problem with that’, Judith said. ‘What I don’t like is when my door is wide open’. That day the door was wide open again, so Judith got up to push it back a few feet. She twisted and fell. The staff hadn’t really listened. Or didn’t think it mattered. Or didn’t respect an older person’s individual wishes. Judith fell because of the staff’s inattention.
After 8 days they wheeled me round to the hospital staircase, rising up like an indoor Everest. The advice leaflet was formal and euphemistic, speaking of the ‘affected’ leg and the ‘unaffected’ leg. Would you remember which was which half way up the North Face? I wrote the instructions down in plain words and it became clear. Going up: good leg, bad leg, stick. Coming down: stick, bad leg, good leg. Up: good, bad, stick; Down: stick, bad, good. My bad leg always second, protected in front and behind. The mantra made stairs easy. It was time to go home.
Rachel helped me wash and dress: Sainsbury’s slippers, dark green anti-embolism socks, Rachel’s maternity leggings, a white Sainsbury’s T-shirt, black knickers from the 5-pack Joanna bought at the hospital’s M&S, Andrew’s brown jumper, Rachel’s long cardigan and scarf, and my own coat, the only item of clothing I had worn when I came in shivering from the station pavement. I have re-entered my familiar life.
Judith accepts her already changed world. I hope I’ll be as mature when the time comes. I know I can’t stave it off forever. I got away with it, this time.
Health professionals didn’t ask open questions about our daily lives, inviting a response in our own words before going on to their pre-scripted schedules. Not much chance of assessing Judith as herself or me as myself rather than as stereotypical older women who’ve ‘had a fall’. A tick is the same as any other tick. There’s so little time, to let go a bit and learn something unexpected: two lives are never fully comparable.
I tripped and broke my leg. But it wasn’t till I got to hospital some hours later that I found myself immersed in the language of falling. Luckily, my discharge letter agrees with me: I tripped and broke my leg. How long before the letter would have used the F word?