I’ve had a medical procedure that is ‘likely’ to leave me impotent. A nurse is coming around dishing out Tramadol, a painkiller of the morphine family. I raise my hand smartly. She steers her drugs trolley towards me and my bed in the corner of the six-bed male ward. ‘Are you in pain, Mr Clarke?’ ‘Absolute agony,’ I say. I’m looking fetching in a pair of white, knee-length tights. I’m hooked up to a drip to put fluids in, and catheterised to take them away. This thickness of the catheter tube and the site of its emergence is hard to credit at first. The fluid in the collection bag looks mostly like blood. I’ve lost all feeling from the waist down. But I’m not in pain. On the contrary I feel quite magnificent. The residue of the Rohypnol I was given this morning to sedate me, plus the continued effects of an epidural, have made pain a distant memory. I’m just being greedy, that’s all.
The nurse glances at my notes and dismisses my application with an irritated wave. The bloke in the bed opposite, on the other hand, is in so much pain he is allowed to decide his own dosage. He thinks two tablets. Men in hospital wards have a uniformly vagrant air, irrespective of their social class. The tousled hair, the five o’clock shadow, the ill-fitting gown, the public sleeping. I suspect this man of being middle class, however. He reads, for one thing, unlike the rest of us, and with great attention, especially to his magazine, which doesn’t have photos in it. I mark him down as the Senior British Officer.
The man in the bed beside his is, I think, working class. It’s something about the unending virtuosity and evangelical fervour of his farting and burping, and the pleasant sociability with which he addresses the nurses, tea ladies, cleaners and other untouchables who like to stop by and pass the time of day with him.
The man occupying the bed beside mine reminds me visually and spiritually of the actor Roy Kinnear. He walks about the ward with his gown untied and open at the back. Walking towards you he looks decently clothed; walking away entirely naked. I heard him tell our wind man that he works for the government, but refused to elaborate when pressed, conceding only that he worked for the ‘nice side’.
The nurse assigned to us is exceedingly kind but almost belligerently gay. Andrew calls me Mr Clarke as he tenderly checks my buttocks for pressure sores. I object. My name’s Jel, I say. Call me Jel. ‘Jel!’ he says, standing and straightening himself the better to absorb this strange news. He carefully enunciates the single syllable. ‘How so? Do tell!’ I tell him how it is common where I come from to take the initial of the Christian name and add ‘-el’ for an easy nickname. Southend is rife with Tels, Dels and Mels, I tell him. ‘My name’s Jeremy — hence, Jel,’ I say, concluding my exposition on a triumphant note. He looks doubtful. He says the rule wouldn’t work in his case because his name begins with a vowel. ‘But you could be Anel!’ I say, thrilled for him. ‘I don’t think we’ll go there — Jel,’ he says archly.
That was the early afternoon. For the rest of the day I lay there while the drugs and the novelty wore off and the feeling gradually returned to my lower half. Sometimes the bed curtain was drawn back and I could sit and observe the excruciating agonies of the Senior British Officer. Even turning a page made him wince. At other times my curtain was drawn, and I sat and studied the washed-out pattern of famous London landmarks. During the afternoon, each of the other three men on the ward was visited by his partner: all of them wives, I think. The Senior British Officer was suddenly amazingly cheerful and wreathed in smiles, his pain forgotten. At his wife’s appearance, Roy Kinnear’s condition deteriorated dramatically (I thought he was going to die), but it revived again the moment she left. While over in the other corner the wind thankfully dropped completely for the duration of visiting hours.
And then tea was dished up and taken away, and the lights were turned out, and we were put to bed like chickens. Roy Kinnear had a terribly disturbed night, making extraordinary noises as nightmare succeeded nightmare. First he was aggressively citing an imaginary bull to charge at him. Then he was teetering dangerously on a high wire. Then he was having a shuddering orgasm. Then he was barking out orders on a parade ground. And then I, too, fell asleep, ending my first day, hoping and praying for a continuance of potency.