“WELL, it’s just that once you get to your age, Mr Abercrombie, things just start to wear out.”
The surgeon shrugged, and smiled. He was talking about the bilateral hernia operation that he’d just outlined. And he had made it sound so simple, too, thought Konrad; but it was like someone showing a child how to tie shoelaces for the first time – that’s easy enough for you, sunshine.
The doctor was looking in his appointment book, throwing the A4-sized pages back and forth. He stopped and with a large, clean forefinger pointed at a date less than a week away.
“How does next Monday sound?”
Konrad found himself taken aback. The man used an appointment book, rather than a computer program. He wanted to operate in six days, just before Christmas. And he had big, pink, pudgy fingers.
“Too soon? We can do it in the New Year if you like.”
“No, the sooner the better. Will I be up and about before Christmas?”
Konrad didn’t listen to the answer; couldn’t listen to the answer. He kept looking at those hands – not at all what you would have expected in a surgeon – and wincing at the thought of them rummaging around in his groin. Groins.
“… and there’ll be a bit of swelling but if you keep taking the painkillers you should be OK. Of course, it takes different people in different ways and …”
SIX days later; 5.30am and the urge to urinate became too much. He’d put it off as long as he could. Konrad reached for the remote-control device that brought the back of the bed up to a sitting position and then lowered the whole thing so that he could more easily step out of bed.
Slowly, centimetre by centimetre, he pushed and pulled himself to the edge of the bed and stopped for a rest. He’d had his last painkillers at 4am, when a young nurse had woken him and whisperingly taken his blood pressure, pulse and temperature, but any sudden move still sent shockwaves of pain through his lower regions.
Never again, he told himself, would he take for granted the simple pleasures of getting out of bed for a pee. Bent double like an old man – an older man – he made his way, bow-legged, to the large bathroom he shared with the other occupant of the room, a grey-haired chap who’d had something done to his arm, the lucky bastard.
Inside, after the agony of lowering himself to the toilet seat he washed his hands and gingerly pulled the hospital gown up to survey the damage. The wounds themselves, low down in his groin, were covered in white bandages and gauze but the collateral damage was shocking.
There were a few colourful bruises around the upper groin but between his legs, in an area looking very vulnerable without its protective pelt of pubic hair, was what looked like a couple of blackened mangoes hanging on a low-lying branch.
Dear god in heaven; had the doctor warned him of this when he wasn’t listening?
There came a knock on the door.
“Are you alright, Mr Abercrombie?”
He hobbled over, opened the door. Outside was a nurse in a blue uniform. Behind her in the early morning penumbra stood a young trainee with a strained smile on her face and a stainless steel cart by her side.
“We need to change your dressings,” said the older of the two. “And I’ve got a patient who needs a drain taken out.”
Konrad grimaced weakly and began shuffling back towards the bed, mangoes bumping softly against tops of his legs as he went. The tension vibrating off the lead nurse reminded of his mother, a Londoner born and bred who had at her disposal a lifetime’s worth of colourful phrases. These included ‘It shouldn’t matter whether he’s sky-blue pink shot with shit’ (her response to any hint of racism) and ‘Her arse was making buttons to get away’.
The etymology of the last one always escaped him but it described perfectly the feeling he was getting from the nurse, who obviously would rather have been removing drains than supervising a trainee in the replacement of wound dressings.
Konrad sat slowly, gingerly, on the edge of the bed. Less than 24 hours ago a surgeon with bunches of bananas for hands had been rummaging through his nether regions and he’d been stitched up with what felt like razor wire; the ‘drainee’ could wait.
Well, not for Nurse Ratched (for it was she, he suspected), who seemed to take it as a personal affront that he was trying to slide back into bed a millimetre at a time. To expedite matters, she grabbed his ankles and swung them skywards. “One! Two! THREE!”
Scalpel pains shot through Konrad’s body. He screamed.
“Fuck! Oh, fuck, that hurts! Stop! Stop!”
Only one leg had made it into the bed; the other was being held by the trainee, who had jumped in to help. Konrad felt faint; wondered how a cold sweat could break out over a whole body so quickly. He opened his watering eyes to find the nurse looking daggers at him – possibly the same daggers she’d used to disembowel him.
“I’m not going to carry on if you use language like that,” she hissed.
“What?” Had the surgeon fixed his groin but buggered up his ears?
“If you’re going to swear I’m not going on with this.”
She was saying this from a position between his legs, which were now pointing east. And west. This, he thought, must be what a wishbone feels like. Konrad felt a little delirious; the pain was lessening but disbelief was taking its place.
He wanted to say ‘so the use of a fairly innocuous Anglo-Saxon profanity is, in this private hospital, enough to get treatment withdrawn?’
What he said instead was: “I’m not swearing at you, I’m swearing because that hurt, a lot, but I’m really sorry I’m getting in your way this morning.”
“You’re not in my way,” she said with what seemed like the first signs of a waver in her voice. The trainee kept quiet and Konrad hoped that she didn’t think this was the usual way you changed dressings after a hernia op or God help everyone who came in after him.
“Well, it doesn’t seem like it,” growled Konrad. He felt a pang of pity for the poor patient with the drain that needed taking out. He imagined Nurse Carol (she was sporting a name badge) marching in to the room with a plunger and a bottle of Drano.
Afterwards, old dressings removed, wound cleaned, new dressings applied, Konrad settled back down and wondered; had he crossed a line by swearing? When it feels like someone’s pulling your bowels out with a crochet hook and your swollen sweetmeats are banging around like Christmas tree baubles in a tornado what do you say?
Is it, he wondered, a private hospital thing? Do the public wards echo to bollocks, bastards, shit and fuckety-fuck-fuck while private patients make do with ‘Oh gosh’ or ‘jeepers’ or that perennial classic ‘ouch’?
THREE days later, back at home, and Konrad is sitting on the loo contemplating his two-night hospital stay. He had minded his Ps and Qs after the incident with Nurse Carol and was politeness itself, even when the trainee nurse on the final morning had looked at his chart at least 10 times without doing anything – and had then asked him four times if he had moved his bowels. Trying to be charitable he had decided it was because she was practicing her English.
He hadn’t moved his bowels that morning. Nor any morning since; he was packed tighter than a One Direction concert thanks to the constipatory effect of the super-strength painkillers he was taking.
Just that morning his wife had suggested a mild laxative rather than end up back in hospital. “They’ll have some sort of device, you know … to get it all out.”
A poo spoon, he thought. They’ll call it something else but that’s essentially what it will be. They’ll turn me over and Nurse Carol will go at me like someone unpacking stuffing from a turkey.
And for some reason, that image – so alarmingly festive in its way – made Konrad laugh. And it hurt when he laughed. Which made him laugh even more.
Ho! Ho! Ho! he thought. And a merry fucking Christmas to one and all.