December 14th, 2010
|08:02 am - Christmas in Oxford|
I went Christmas shopping in London on Saturday. The pavements of Oxford Street were so crowded that the only way to advance was by aggression, mutual consent, or withdrawal to one of the quieter roads, one block removed, on either side.
On the train up from Southend I remembered the previous year, or perhaps it was the year before, when my temper frayed and irritation gave way to stroppy lunges past slower moving pedestrians and a ratty sense of ill-feeling towards my fellow man that gnawed away at my joy.
This year as I joined the tide of shoppers and took shuffling pigeon steps towards my various destinations, I took the time to look at the people around me. I picked-out the faces of individuals who I have never knowingly met and never will meet again. I took note of what they were wearing, listened to snippets of their conversation and observed their behaviour:
I saw a little girl sitting in the wide open door of a black cab and watched as a small teddy bear fell from her hand in a manner that suggested she had forgotten she was holding it. It hit the protruding flat step of the vehicle and then bounced quite a way underneath. I saw her peer down in disbelief as if she hadn’t fully processed the significance of what had just happened. I had moved on before I could see the end of it, but I thought about all the important things in my life that I have lost down the years; how many times it was just as sudden and how I could never quite believe that it had happened either.
In one of the big department stores an elderly woman walking ahead of me reached out to a silk scarf that was hanging down from the last rack before the exit, allowing the crushed purple material to flow through her fingers.
On the down escalator to the ground floor of the Marks & Spencer near Marble Arch, a couple bickered about a fruitless visit to the store’s lost property department.
“I’m about ready to slap someone...” said the woman. "...The next person who gets in my way."
Her partner agreed with her.
I glanced around as I stepped off at the bottom and saw a sour-faced girl aged anywhere between 20 and 50. Her hair was cut into an unflattering crop which she had dyed an unpleasant shade of orange. Her boyfriend was wearing a camouflage jacket: A pair of grinches casting a jaded eye over the Christmas season.
In the jostling, slow-moving of mass of humanity I felt a sense of peace. I made eye-contact with one the Hare Krishna that prowl around outside HMV, wished him a Merry Krishnamas and was gone before he could begin his spiel.
On the underground train from the Embankment to Tower Hill, I listened to a group of Americans talk about their lives in and around New York and wished that I could go there. I’ve never been to the States. It’s a lot of money, so I don’t imagine that I ever will. I’m lucky to have London on my doorstep and a couple more opportunities to visit and wander around before Christmas is over.
November 8th, 2010
|10:57 pm - The allure of pens|
It’s Pathology Week, not only at Southend Hospital, but all across the UK and possibly even its remaining colonies. This year’s celebrations have neatly coincided with the monthly cycle that is Renal Week: On the first Wednesday and Thursday of every month all the renal patients have a blood test. This adds another 200 pieces of work to the 2200 blood samples that we process on average daily.
In celebration of National Pathology Week (nobody celebrates Renal Week) we received deliveries of specially branded pens and bugs (pictured above), as well as some rather flimsy bags and postcards. Initially we left the pens out on the counter of the reception for visiting members of the public to take. When it became apparent that staff from other parts of the hospital were dropping by in ever increasing numbers to help themselves, we were forced to relocate the pens to a drawer.
Since the department was going to be under public scrutiny I decided to write us some authentic dialogue that we could act out when the tour parties came around:
PATHOLOGIST ONE: “Trop Ts are clearly the best blood tests!”
PATHOLOGIST TWO: “I disagree. An Amylase test is far superior to a Trop T.”
PATHOLOGIST THREE: “Hey guys, cool your jets! Let’s resolve this argument like scientists:- By submitting peer reviewed articles to reputable medical journals.”
PATHOLOGIST ONE: “That’s a great idea. I’ll get the coloured pencils!”
PATHOLOGIST TWO: “My picture of an Amylase test is going to rule!”
I rehearsed it while on reception with Angie. The part of Pathologist Two was played by Barbara, who had come down from the Microbiology lab to gather the post-noon influx of urine samples and MRSA swabs. Later I rehearsed it again with Steve and Pauline. It might have been this flippant attitude that saw me banished downstairs for an hour of paper-shredding during the first public tour. I was on my lunch hour during the second one.
* * * * *
Today a woman turned up at the counter asking whether this was the right place for her to obtain a Death Certificate. Since the Ear, Nose & Throat Clinic is one floor down from us, and people searching for that department occasionally wander up to the Pathology Lab by mistake, I assumed that she was after a Deaf Certificate.
“No, a Death Certificate,” said the woman patiently.
I apologised profusely and had just about smoothed things over when Sarah, who had caught the middle part of the conversation, returned to Reception.
“Did you say that you wanted a Deaf Certificate? You need The Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic.”
Current Music: Giant Sand - Bigger Than That
November 2nd, 2010
|07:15 am - Ask me about semen analysis|
It’s open week in Pathology. Coloured balloons have been attached to the walls of the lobby to greet the crowds of visitors who will descend on the department later in the week. Opposite the reception, directly in our eyeline, there is a giant poster telling you everything that you could possibly want to know about semen analysis, although from where we stand all that can be made out are the words “Semen Analysis.”
Sarah returned from two weeks holiday. Within minutes of her arrival she had reduced the new printer/photocopier/fax to a gibbering state of does not compute. I was secretly delighted by this outcome and hope that it’s a prelude to the wretched thing frying its circuits and catching fire. I also think that man’s best hope in a terminator-style war with artificially intelligent machines lies not with John Conner but with Sarah’s ability to operate on a different logic frequency from the current Hewlett Packard range.
One of the lab techs gave me a potted history of the now defunct hospital social club. Sadly I can’t repeat the story here as it’s probably libellous. It confirms my opinion of the strange dichotomy that exists within the trust, whereby staff are continually told to focus on quality of care and go above and beyond what is asked of them, while the hospital itself is one of the most ruthlessly run, cut-throat businesses I have ever come across. If you (inadvertently or otherwise) get in the way of their plans they will go through you.
Current Music: the magic theatre - steamroller
October 24th, 2010
|04:36 pm - Rise of the machine|
Walking along the seafront early one morning, I was confronted by an airborne bread roll travelling at head height on an undulating kamikaze flight path. I let out a feeble squawk of fear and confusion. This seemed to startle the roll as it veered off course, revealing the source of its supernaturally-gifted powers of flight - a remarkably strong Starling that had managed to pick it up in its beak and was now flying blind.
I am working in Pathology until the end of November. My health is not good and I am in more pain than I have been for a while. I get tired very quickly. It’s become hard for me to have any kind of life outside of the hospital. At least when I am there I work alongside people who I get on with. When things get hard – when the problems stack up, or our numbers are low, we all rally round and make each other laugh.
A team of efficiency experts put us under the magnifying glass for two days. I wasn’t there the second day and so missed them counting the number of footsteps that we take between the reception and the office. It’s probably for the best; I couldn’t let something so absurd pass without making a flippant comment that would have probably landed me in trouble.
It wasn’t until a week later that it occurred to me how inefficient it was to send such a large party of people to assess our working practices. I think basing future hospital policy on the footnotes of two days of observation, with no direct experience, or true understanding of how a department functions is a flawed methodology. I don’t think these people really appreciated the chaos they caused. They seemed to be constantly underfoot.
It didn’t take long for the first austerity measures to fall into place. A few days later every grimy photocopier, fax machine and printer in the department was unplugged and unceremoniously piled-up in the office. They were replaced by a brand new three-in-one device that is now located in one of the most inaccessible recesses of the room.
The migratory footstep-counters may be interested to learn that, since this upheaval, everyone has to walk much further to fax, photocopy or retrieve printed documents. People who would have previously used separate machines, depending on their wants and needs must now queue-up to use the all-in-one device, which is far more advanced than we need it to be; it does too much. A baffling array of sub-menus undermines its user-friendliness. We need equipment that is robust, easy to use and easy to repair. A case in point: On Friday evening the printer jammed, effectively taking the photocopier out of commission, as it dispenses paper from the same tray. After I had failed to clear the blockage to the satisfaction of the software, I had to call a clinic who had requested faxed blood results and read the report out down the phone.
On Monday I went up to the restaurant and had lunch with Lorraine – one of my former colleagues in Radiotherapy. We’re both terrible gossips; it was good to catch up with all that’s been going on. The woman who beat me to the permanent version of my old job - the candidate that looked so good on paper - lasted 10 weeks and was not well liked. One of the volunteers has applied to replace her. If Vicky and Nicolai have any sense, this time around they’ll put less emphasis on checking boxes and go with the person that knows the job.
It’s more or less dark when I leave work. At the moment I enjoy the novelty of it – the romance of passing faces, framed in the fogged windows of brightly illuminated buses. I will probably like it less when it gets colder and I have to walk to the hospital in the dark.
A couple of Fridays ago, on Southend High Street, the red white and blue bunting, that zigzags back and forth between the rows of lampposts, cast monstrous triangular shadows down onto the flat cobbles.
Current Music: Coldplay - Glass Of Water
October 12th, 2010
|07:44 pm - Don't look back in anger|
Because the internet is a strange and surreal place, here is poem that I wrote about Britpop narrated by the legendary DJ Steve Lamacq.
Thanks to David Hepworth, Steve and anyone else who had a hand in setting this up.
October 4th, 2010
|08:13 pm - I saw the turning of the season|
When I walked home from the hospital this evening, the grassy central reservation along Prittlewell Chase had broken out in a rash of tiny spear-headed mushrooms. A peculiar yellow/green fungus resembling branch coral hung between the blades of grass like pieces of a strange skeletal jigsaw.
On the approach to Fairfax Drive I saw the turning of the season in the leaves of the Chestnut Trees – a crisp brown and yellow border eating its way into the heart of the green.
I was walking along by the sea wall when the pale, silvery grey sky matched the colour of the tidal water in the estuary. For a few minutes there was no horizon. Southend Pier stretched away from the shoreline into an unfathomable void.
By the time I arrived home it was dark. The light was on in the porch. I could hear voices coming from inside the house as I sat down on the bench and unlaced my boots. On the red tiles the tangled corpses of Daddy Long Legs lay like broken flying machine among a galaxy of dried bird droppings.
Current Music: Sufjan Stevens - Year of the Dragon
October 2nd, 2010
|09:28 pm - The sky falling on our heads|
I was walking across the pathology department reception with a blood sample for immunology, when a watery blob of pale green slime fell from the ceiling, splattering onto the darker green leatherette of the revolving highchair at the counter in front of me.
“Sandra ...” I said, glancing in the direction of my supervisor who was hunched over a rack of test tubes.
“...I think the roof is leaking.”
As I said this I looked up and saw an iridescent grey feathered body shuffling around in the cramped space behind one of the vents.
“Actually the roof’s not leaking. There’s a pigeon in the ceiling.”
Everybody got up to look at pigeon which in the tradition of pantomime monsters had vanished. We wiped the chair clean and put a yellow “cleaning in progress” sign on the floor roughly underneath the vent.
I phoned facilities and was put through to a secretary who took down the details of the problem but wouldn’t tell me when someone would be along to sort to out. I lost faith in this department’s ability to deal with anything promptly, having watched a tap leak a steady stream of water for two months before a pair of electricians arrived to fix it.
At 3 o’clock I went into the office to type and answer the phone. In my absence a wing was briefly extended through the grill causing decades of dislodged dust to rain down.
“Nothing works in this place,” I remarked when I returned to the reception an hour later.
“Well the carbon paper in the visitors signing-in book certainly isn’t working.” said Sarah.
“Maybe they’ve replaced it with carbon free, carbon paper as a cost-saving measure.”
Apparently after we had all left that evening, Facilities did send someone to capture the bird, however by this time it had long since gone.
The following day the pigeon reappeared in the ceiling space above Leslie’s office. No one saw it but you could hear it moving about up there. By the afternoon it was back in the air ducts over our heads. Sarah removed one of the panels in the hope that the light would draw it out. At the end of the day we taped one of the large plastic sacks that the couriers use to bring in samples around the entrance to the duct. As an afterthought we added air holes so that the bird wouldn’t shrink-wrap itself and suffocate if it came down during the night.
I wasn’t at work the following day. I would have been striding along Southend Pier at around the same time that the new girl – Bernice - coaxed the pigeon out of the ceiling by making reassuring bird sounds. The moment it was in the bag, Sarah grabbed it and whisked it away to the staff room where she filled a plastic cup with water, before relocating to the post room with a box of birdseed she had brought with her from home. Having fed and watered the pigeon she took it outside and released it.
Current Music: Meat Puppets - Attacked By Monsters
September 12th, 2010
|10:52 pm - Writer's Block: Something to cry about|
How do you feel about corporeal punishment?
I will never forget the day that Sister Mary, of The Merciful Union of Catholic Martyrs, wrenched me out of my body by the ear, and dragged me kicking and screaming into astral space, where she caned my soul with a spiritual manifestation of the knee-bone of Saint Cuthbert.
This was the standard punishment at my school for anyone caught reading passages from the Bible into a tape machine, and then playing the recordings backwards in the hope of finding hidden Satanic messages.
I’m no fan of corporeal punishment, but the incorporeal kind is definitely worse.
August 31st, 2010
|09:11 pm - “Another hellish day of fucking shit...”|
...That was what one of the hospital phlebotomists said to Wendy when she asked her whether she had been busy.
I had a good day. It was brisk and there were things about it that made the work harder than it should have been, but I’m home now and I don’t feel tired.
“I hear you’re leaving us,” said Jill during a rare excursion away from the desk where, through some incredible feat of endurance, she single-handedly runs the domiciliary phlebotomy service for housebound patients.
It’s true. My last day in the Pathology Department is September 30th. I will be sorry to leave. There are people here who I am going to miss.
This morning was the first day of Autumn. I poked my head out of my bedroom window and sensed a change that will only be reversed by the slow turn of the earth and the passing of time. These were patches of condensation beading on the glass. Although the sun was warm the light had an aged golden quality about it. Walking along the seafront I felt a stiff breeze that was neither chill nor crisp, but was certainly of the season. In the overgrown grass verges I caught sight of pieces of wild mushroom strewn about like broken crockery. Further along my road, opposite the church, a spongy yellow plate fungus has taken root halfway up a tree, extending out from the trunk like a balcony.
There’s a garden spider living among the aerial origami in my bedroom, its abdomen a mottled brown and white mosaic of extraordinary detail and beauty. Every couple of days it packs-up its web and relocates to a different part of the ceiling.
This evening I walked home from the hospital in the warm sunshine, weaving in and out of the trees along the broad grassy central reservation that divides both carriageways of Prittlewell Chase, my new boots kicking the heads off every dandelion clock that came within striking distance.
Current Music: Chris Robinson - Fables
August 29th, 2010
|10:47 am - Ruins within ruins|
In amongst a big pile of paper that lives under my desk, I found some notes that I made during a visit to the Eritrean town of Senafe in 2001. I’ve dug out some photographs as well.
These boots have been gnawing at my ankles ever since I arrived here. The leather along the back has split, curled over at the edges and then hardened into jagged points. I’ve lost most of the skin on the ridge of my right ankle where it keeps rubbing. I bought a bandage and some medical tape in Asmara but I can’t get it to stay in place.
This morning I caught the minibus to Senafe. It took ¾ of an hour to get there. On the way we passed through three checkpoints. The first two were the usual Eritrean army roadblocks that you find all over the country: A rope stretched across the road in between a pair of oil drums. The soldiers on guard duty shelter from the sun inside tumbledown stone huts with a blue tarpaulins stretched over the top.
The Sinhgarh checkpoint marks the Eritrean side of the UN buffer zone with Ethiopia. Here there were rolls of razor wire, a pair of enormous generators and a white Armoured Personnel Carrier with a machinegun mounted on the roof next to a small round hatch. A UN soldier in a light blue helmet made a cursory inspection of the bus but didn’t interfere with any of the passengers. In the rocky hills beyond the checkpoint, three figures wearing plastic visors and the Red Cross emblem were working their way across a fenced-off area, clearing mines.
I came to Senafe to see what remains of the Aksumite ruins at Metera, which predate the Christian era. I did not expect to find the entire town in ruins. The Ethiopian army really did a number on this place when they rolled through in 2000. Before coming here I had heard a few stories of looting and mass rape but no-one really talks about it in any detail.
On the outskirts there was a large, well organised refugee camp. The building opposite the bus station was a pile of rubble surrounded by broken walls. Further along the road the telecommunications building and what might have once been the police station were in a state of partial collapse. The roof sagged, the concrete pillars had buckled and were only standing thanks to the rusted metal cables that run through their middle. At the front, propped up by a line of small rocks, there was a battered metal sign bearing a painting of a building against a backdrop of blue sky. It was difficult to tell whether it was the old building in better times or an image of its replacement.
As I was surveying the wreckage, a local doctor called Abraham introduced himself to me. He pointed out his home and invited me to have tea with him if I had the time.
I followed the road towards Metera, passing the temporary Médecins Sans Frontières encampment, occasionally asking for directions. Pretty soon I realised that I was being pointed towards the mountain Amba Metera, rather than the ancient settlement. At the checkpoint at the far end of the town I asked a pair of soldiers for directions. They called over another man who spoke a little English. I showed him my archaeology permit and tried, with little success, to explain where I wanted to go. Eventually a woman in a nearby kiosk recognised the word “Aksum”. She pointed along a dirt track winding towards a small conical hill in the distance.
“You go there to that hill,” said the man. “There is a police station.”
On the way to Metera, a young girl – probably 8 or 9 - driving a cow and a calf ahead of her, fell in step alongside me. We talked to each other in our respective languages. A convoy of UN trucks came crawling along the track towards us, scattering herds of goats. The startled cows ran back and forth across the road in front of the vehicles while the girl shouted and threw rocks at them.
On the way back to the bus station a group of children tagged along behind me. I felt like the pied piper until their leader - an older boy dressed in a Nike Jacket said:
“You, give me money!”
Then I felt like the golden goose.
“Give me plastic,” demanded one of the other children.
I looked for Abraham’s house but I could remember which one it was. The bus back to Adi Keyh cost 25c more than the journey to Senafe. I suppose people are more desperate to leave.
* * * * *
This afternoon I am sitting in the courtyard outside the Adi Keih hotel, spreading the contents of my precious jar of marmalade onto the bread rolls that I managed to buy in town, despite there not really being any shops. The children outside keep climbing onto the walls and shouting at me in Triginya, with the occasional word of English thrown in. It wears thin after a while. One of the bar staff has just thrown a rock at them.
* * * * *
I am back in the capital (Asmara) with very sore and blistered feet. Yesterday I went to Senafe, near the Ethiopian border. It’s in the U.N. buffer zone. The Red Cross were clearing mines in the hills. Most of the town is in ruins. People are living in tents on the outskirts, but it seems quite organised.
I saw some older ruins at Metera, one mile outside the town – a temple and the beginnings of a shaft blocked with rubble (possibly the entrance to a tomb). Also a Stelae (a tablet-shaped obelisk) broken in two and lying on it’s back. The locals only showed me the carving on the very top – a circle over a crescent moon – but didn’t reveal the rest of the inscription which was covered over with dead thistles and sackcloth.
I am thinking of you.
P.S. The morning the buckle on my belt snapped. I am keeping up my trousers with string!