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Low life

A night on a hospital ward with Paddy Leigh Fermor

After dark, it's like Romford market on a Saturday morning

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

The catheter stung exquisitely when I lay down. So I stood up. All night I stood by my hospital bed, tethered by my penis to the transparent collection bag hanging off the bed rail, reading Artemis Cooper’s life of Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 1931, not knowing what to do with himself, Paddy walked to Constantinople, as he called it. I rested the paperback on my pillow under the spotlight and walked with him across Europe, much of it still feudal.

Our hero had just emerged from a hayrick after having a spontaneous foursome with his Serbian girlfriend and two Hungarian peasant girls they had met in a field, when I made a startling and revolutionising discovery.

For the past 12 hours I’d been labouring under the false belief that the catheter bag was fixed immovably to the bed rail, and that the two feet of clear tubing from me to it were a kind of punitive leash. But at around three in the morning, irritated enough by the catheter’s painful restrictions to bend down for a closer look, I realised that the blood-filled bag was merely suspended from the rail by a hook, and could be detached by merely lifting it with an outstretched forefinger, and could be walked around with, like an outré handbag, even as far as Constantinople if needs be. (Though it would have been a damned nuisance in hayricks with Hungarian peasant women.)


It was a moment of liberation. I picked up my bag and went for an early morning stroll around the ward. Twenty-eight male patients were asleep in three dormitories. The noise! It was like Romford market on a Saturday morning. There were snorers and grunters, and groaners and babblers, and wailers and moaners, and even a demented shouter. Each bed bay was dimly and eerily lit, so I might have been wandering among the gruesome exhibits of a waxworks museum, with exaggerated sound effects played on a loop.

On the way round I met one of the night nurses, an affable, brisk Chinese woman. ‘Good evening, Mr Clarke!’ she said, delighted to see me up and about, even at that hour. She couldn’t stop. But in passing she briefly narrowed her eyes at the contents of my bag. It was full — about a litre of what looked to me like blood. But where I saw blood, she saw cause for congratulation. ‘Oh, well done!’ she said. And it occurred to me how one is extravagantly praised for excreta both at the beginning of life and towards the end. She urged me to keep up the good work by drinking plenty of water. If I did that, she promised that I would be rewarded at lunchtime with my release papers.

Before she went off duty, she came to my bed, where I was back reading standing up, and she made me sit. Then, in a strangely intimate moment, she slowly but steadily withdrew the catheter from my bladder and finally right out, while my eyeballs started from their sockets. Then I leapt off the bed, bent double with my hands between my thighs, and bowed repeatedly to her, laughing with shock and relief. She laughed. As she exited through my curtain she said brightly, ‘Keep drinking, Mr Clarke.’ Still grimacing, I solemnly assured her that I would do my best.

In the morning, her cheerful republican regime handed over the governance of our ward to an energetic dictatorship. In a whirl of activity, beds were made, pills issued, menu cards filled in, floors mopped and stools voided and sent off by express delivery for detailed analysis by someone who is presumably glad to have a job at all. Breakfast (cereal and something akin to toast) was eaten and cleared. Two brown-coated technicians came and screwed the bracket of my spotlight more securely to the wall. A raven-haired volunteer pensioner in fluorescent orange trainers pushing a trolley offered tea and coffee and double cream in the coffee. A junior doctor appeared at the foot of my bed along with a large retinue of completely unserious medical students who crowded round. She too told me I must keep drinking. I said I liked her shirt. From the bed on the other side of the curtain came a sustained, single-note, methane-driven vibrato, concluding with a flourish on a rising Australian interrogative.

When the dust had finally settled on all of that, I was handed a cardboard receptacle and told that my commission was to fill it three times with urine, after which I would be allowed home. I assured the nurse that it would be a piece of piss. Then I settled down with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s extraordinary progress across Mitteleuropa in one hand, and a plastic hospital tumbler filled with water on the other, and set about its conversion.


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