When I got back from Pamplona I hadn’t slept in a bed or washed my hair for a week. There was a red stain around my neck where my sweat had mixed with the dye in my St Fermin neckerchief. I was badly sunburned. There was a suppurating graze on my shoulder and a cold sore on my lip. Also, near the end of the feria I’d been robbed of all my money and credit cards by two, or it might have been one, very small women and I was destitute as well as dirty. Imagine how my heart leapt, then, when I walked in the door and was told that while I was away Uncle Jack had been complaining loudly about pains in his chest and was in hospital for ‘tests’.
I’ve not inherited a thing from anybody so far. Not a sausage. But Uncle Jack is 93 and worth, we reckon, about a mil and a half before inheritance tax. And I know for a solid fact that I’m down in his will for £10,000 of it. Of course I realise that to many of you ABs this isn’t much. But I am a petit bourgeois. I come from a long line of bank clerks. And, as the late Joseph Brodsky pointed out in this incredibly authoritative essay of his I happened to pick up the other day, my social class is distinguishable from the rest in that it is the only class that thinks ten grand is a lot of money. I had a quick wash then went to visit Uncle Jack to assess how long he had left.
Even before I reached the ward I could hear him shouting. He was sitting up in bed in stripy pyjamas, incandescent with rage, yelling at a nursing assistant. When he saw me coming he forgot his anger immediately. ‘Thank God! Oh, thank God!’ he shouted with apparent joy. Then he buried his face in his hands and wept like a child. I pulled up a chair, glancing apologetically right and left at Uncle Jack’s nearest neighbours.
The old chap in the next bed tried to look reproachful, but was so defeated by ill health it was beyond his powers of expression. On the other side, two youngish women were gossiping across a comatose man, whose face, the colour of fresh putty, was partially obscured by an oxygen mask.
Uncle Jack’s main trouble is that he can’t remember. This makes him confused, suspicious, hostile and occasionally violent. Recently, a community psychiatric nurse came to assess the state of his mind. The assessment consisted of 20 set questions, of which he answered three correctly. He knew his own name, his mother’s name, and the name of his sovereign. And that was it. He didn’t know the name of the current Prime Minister, for example. Neither did he have the faintest idea where he was in time or space. Terrifying, really, when you come to think of it.
‘Where the hell am I?’ sobbed Uncle Jack as I sat down beside his bed. ‘Torquay, Uncle,’ I said. He stopped crying and lifted his head. ‘Torquay!’ he said, horrified. ‘In the west of England?’ ‘Afraid so, Uncle,’ I said, genuinely sorry about it. ‘What am I doing in bloody Torquay?’ ‘You're in hospital.’ ‘I can see I’m in a bloody hospital. But why?’ ‘For tests.’ ‘Tests?’ ‘Tests.’ ‘But where the hell am I?’ ‘You're in Torquay, Uncle.’ ‘Torquay!’
My patience for the kind of circular, repetitive kind of conversations one has with Uncle Jack dwindled to almost nil a long time ago. My attention was therefore easily drawn to a succession of muffled groans coming from the putty-faced man in the next bed. His two visitors were head to head in vigorous moral debate and didn’t notice his discomfort. Somebody known to them had behaved atrociously it seems. They were arguing about which sanctions to apply. One said she was never going to speak to that person again. The other strongly believed that such behaviour warranted a ‘good battering’, and that she was willing to set everything aside and administer one that very afternoon.
Meanwhile, Uncle Jack was trying to draw me back into our own conversation. ‘Torquay!’ he whined. ‘What the hell am I doing in Torquay? Oh God! Why can’t anyone tell me what I’m doing here?’ I ignored it. Beneath the oxygen mask, the man with the putty-coloured face seemed to be involved in a discrete but titanic struggle to stay alive. As I watched, his body went rigid under the bedclothes. Then he died. He was dead with his visitors still chattering indignantly over him.
I got up and went over to the nurses’ station and passed on my suspicions about the health of the man in the bed next to my uncle’s. And first the nurses, then a team of doctors, did all they could to revive him behind closed curtains. ‘Oh God!’ wailed Uncle Jack. ‘Can’t anyone tell me why I’m here!’ The dead man’s visitors stood at the foot of the bed, dumbly, like cows.