Reportage / 13 June 2016

A Stranger in a Familiar Place

In the Hospital on Grey’s Inn Road

Eight narrow NHS beds, the footprint of each traced by a ceiling-suspended railing from which hangs a pleated curtain, offering what privacy there is. Six women in various states of undress, ignoring each other as studiously as if we are all in a London tube carriage, rather than commuting to surgery. A sign on the wall opposite exhorts visitors to keep the windows closed, in order to prevent the ingress of squirrels. The ward is hushed – a chittering squirrel or two would add some welcome texture to the linoleum floor and plastic chairs.

I have never before been a patient in a hospital, but I’ve become familiar with the sets and costumes over the last year. I’ve been part of the audience, the play an American one. The stage is different here in England – no modern private rooms with sofa and wide-screen TV, no airy, resort-like corridors with paintings behind glass – but the actors look the same: the caring minority. There, African-American, here Jamaican and Indian, minding their white patients with serenity and skill. The surgeon with his Arabic name, reassuring, marking with indelible ink where he will cut.

I am terrified.

The anesthetist and his assistant joke, as they check that I match the person described on the forms I hold. We’ve all lived in West Hampstead at some point, and the anesthetist used to bartend at the Black Lion pub, just up from the station. Learned his trade there, he laughs. The surgeon arrives, no longer be-suited but in dark green scrubs, a cap over his bald, smiling head. The cannula goes into my hand, and four hours of my life are lost.

Poet of the Week

Valentina Neri


Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

My mother saw her doctor on New Year’s Eve a year ago, a quick appointment to analyze her pain and get a prescription to ease it. She didn’t come home again. Ten weeks, two hospitals, a nursing home and a hospice later, she died in Mississippi, in a bed like the one I’m lying on now. I’m not in pain, and no longer frightened, but I weep with sadness that she spent her last weeks on a bed like this, in a room with cinderblock walls, fed by strangers. Insured Americans die alone, their premiums a guarantee that the only fellow beings with whom they need connect are the family and friends they choose, and the hospital staff they don’t. Here, I share the night ward with two Turkish women, one a middle-aged mother whose children must translate the nurses’ questions for her, the other a young woman who does the job out of kindness after the children leave. She is kind to me as well, urging me to remove the hot leggings that prevent thrombosis while anaesthetized, offering a shoulder so that I may circle the room with wobbly steps. She has had mended the damage caused by an accident in Izmir at the age of two, while I have had repaired the harm done by childhood infections in Mississippi. We are all foreigners here.

I cannot sleep. The bandage wrapped tightly round my head presses into the wound like a wooden mallet, and the long period of abstinence from food or drink has created a throbbing headache that echoes in my skull. I cannot sleep, but the darkness makes it easy to travel. In Kalamata, two decades ago, I take the role of stagehand, pushing a wounded friend through the chaos of a grimy Greek emergency room, his blood is already dry on the half-ton marble block that has crushed one hand. He knows his lines: his screams compel silent attention. Here in this quiet room, the Turkish mother presses a bell to call for water.

I have always felt most comfortable as a stranger in a familiar place. I've grown used to the sense of belonging, but not of inescapable detachment woven into a deep familiarity. I spent more time in Mississippi last year than I have since I left at twenty-one. Is it familiarity that made me feel as if the place was sucking me in, like a boot in oozing mud, or would it happen to anyone?

Mississippi is a difficult place to return to, and an easy place not to leave. For the stranger, it is exotic as any South Asian culture or East African village. For the prodigal child, it's the schoolroom you longed to escape, the scrappy pine hills you watched recede in the rearview mirror, the attitudes you knew too well to be able to debate, the family you looked on condescendingly from the heights of well-travelled adulthood, the place you couldn’t admit you loved. And hated. It's all the things you’ve grown out of and learned better than, and all the things you miss with an ache so intense it threatens to drive you back.

In London, people wear black. In Jackson, Mississippi, women wear pink and yellow, and men wear long shorts and t-shirts that advertise Bubba Gump's Famous Shrimp. In London, people drive Mercedes and Fiats and Smart cars. In Jackson, they drive SUVs and pick-ups and Fords. In London, you learn urban sight: the art of registering the presence of others, in order to avoid collisions, while seldom noticing individual faces. In Mississippi, courtesy demands that you meet the eyes of the stranger on the street, share a few words with the person next in line. In London, the police are unarmed, mostly. In Mississippi, null signs stenciled on the doors of office buildings, libraries and hospitals indicate those atypical places where weapons, along with smoking, are not permitted.

It’s 5am in the hospital on Grey’s Inn Road, and a nurse has brought coffee; the caffeine relieves my headache. I note that, in British hospitals as in American ones, night staff are noticeably more brusque than daytime nurses; the three of us apologize for putting her to the trouble. With the light, the Turkish mother’s children return, and the fourth bed is occupied by a new arrival who’ll be on today’s roster of surgery. As the morning’s medical staff and visitors come and go, the shadowy night ward in which we three shared our histories and whispered our fears morphs into a bustling transit lounge, with belongings packed, second checks that nothing is forgotten, email addresses scribbled and hugs bestowed.

Performance over, we leave the stage.