Kiko sits among the crowded nurses all squeezed together, two to a seat and spilling off the ends of padded benches. Nurses being loud in a restrained and socially acceptable but savagely competitive way. Every nurse present is having the same conversation. All of them are the busiest nurse on the busiest ward and struggling, supernurse-style, with gargantuan levels of busyness which would crush lesser people – the ones they’re talking to currently.
Each nurse being informed of this, subtly, loudly or with increasing levels of politely shrill interruption, replies that she is not only busier but has left her helpless patients for a coffee break only because she was forced at gunpoint to do so. ‘Honestly’, they say, ‘we’re short-staffed. I’ve had to admit seventy people, discharged two hundred, do fifty bed baths while performing two simultaneous resuscitations’ and so on. It’s difficult to take this sort of thing seriously as the wards only have beds for forty-two people.
The usual response is, ‘Short-staffed? We’re three down and the rest of us getting shorter. My poor feet are worn down to my pelvis and I can hardly reach the medicine trolley. God only knows how I’ll cope’.
Actually they don’t say these exact words but the morning tea break/lunch/whatever battle is unremittingly tedious. Two nurses meeting at a party a million miles away will engage in this manner. They can’t stop themselves.
Kiko, however, sits hunched and pale. She’s small, legs wound around each other, hands gripped in her lap. Tense, lonely, she never looks happy. Other nurses call her Karen because she’s foreign and Kiko is too difficult for them to pronounce.
I feel for her. Why on earth she came to the UK to study nursing is not only beyond me but I suspect she started wondering too – about three seconds after she met us.
She and I are third year student nurses, which gives us the status of maggots in a five star restaurant. I’m also male which demotes me to about the level of last month’s potato peelings the restaurant rat ate and vomited. Some nurses are surprised I can actually talk and write.
Welcome to King’s College Hospital nurses’ canteen and noise levels that can pop rivets from ships.
The only available space to sit is on the games machine. I’m relieved to see Simon, another male nurse, already there. Simon… I’ll need two cups of tea this morning because talking to him will involve spilling at least one. I also buy a wholemeal roll I can use as a weapon.
Actually his name isn’t Simon. He’s from Africa somewhere and I can’t pronounce his real one. He fails every time with mine too so we merely find new names with which to offend each other.
I weave my way between knobbly lines of black-stockinged knees like an insect in a millipedes’ hosiery outlet and settle myself on the games console. “Good morning, Simian. How’s you?”
He looks up through an eye-stinging cloud of cigarette smoke. “It’s the smelly haggis bloke. Busy?”
That word … that bastard question. I’ve spilt some tea just as a result of being asked it.
“Busy? Me? Nah. Can’t be arsed. Stupid patients, they’re all ‘Oh look at me I’m sick’. I tell them they should have thought about that before they came into the hospital. It’s survival of the fittest here.”
At least three nurses nearby have fallen into horrified silence. I’ve blasphemed. Patients are sacred. Well no – they are the lowest level of life imaginable – but you don’t ever say that.
Patients don’t even have real names. One is the hip in bed four, another the whinger in bed twelve who should be tied to the bed-rails with bandages and beaten silent with a steel bedpan – but never is.
You see, the only reason patients exist is to allow middle-class angels the chance to prove to the world they are the most perfect, caring and exemplary nurses ever born. ‘Look at me being perfect and so very, very busy!’. To suggest you don’t care about the poor leg ulcer in bed nine is like … no, nothing compares.
The nurses sitting near us look in wide-eyed startlement at each other as if they’ve misheard me – not that they were actively listening to someone else’s conversation. Oh no, that was purely accidental. When they’ve finished struggling to breathe they try the tight-lipped moral-high-ground death-stare at me which never works.
“Anyway,” I say to Simon, “You’re normally on second break. What brings you hither so precipitately?”
“Don’t give me all that Scottish shite talk. I’m here because I need to take both breaks so I can work something out.” He frowns, waiting for his own blasphemy ‘take both breaks’ to silence more scandalised nurses. “I was supposed to insert a nasogastric tube in a patient. Not sure if I got the right patient – or the right tube. It went into his nose OK but I think it’s a urinary catheter. I couldn’t work out if it even went into the right place. I inflated it as usual but one of his eyes swelled up and looks like a goldfish bowl now. I’m not sure what to do so I’m thinking it over. Do you know where I can get goldfish round here?” He takes a sip of tea. “Anyway, where’ve you been the last few weeks? I heard you were suspended for switching all the cardiac monitors off.”
“I appealed successfully. I’m allergic to beeps and told the patients to call me if their hearts stopped.” It’s getting quieter in the canteen.
“So where were you?”
“Special clinic.” He looks bemused so I explain. “Sexually transmitted diseases.”
“For so long? What on earth did you catch?”
“Fat chance of catching anything round here,” I say, scanning the room. “Female nurses don’t do sex – too unhygienic or something.”
He nods, his deep voice reverberating in the spreading hush the word sex has caused. “It’s true. See this lot? Most of these women look as if they never even go to the toilet.” We are now the focus of so many death-stares that only the cockroach in my roll may make it out of here alive. He asks, “And what did you learn in the special clinic?”
“I saw a tiny wriggly thing under the microscope.”
“You actually found your penis at last?”
“I tell you, there was one scrawny bloke, short thin and weedy. I told him to get it out and this thing kept unfolding and unfolding … and unfolding. No one needs one that long. I told him he could sell parts of it and still not miss out. I was wondering if he would lend me a bit.”
I scored! Simon actually snorted tea everywhere. He wipes his tunic in order to make it look like blood stains. “Anything else interesting?”
“Yes. I saw a clitoris.”
“A squidgy thing women have. Not sure what they’re for.”
“Where do they keep them?”
“Dunno. Do you think it’s important? I wasn’t really concentrating. The registrar was going on about a test he’d done on the clinic’s toilet seats. He said no one uses them and they’re the only sterile thing in the entire health service.”
But Simon, once on the subject of sex, is not to be deflected. “I take it you didn’t score there.”
“No but we’ve scored this morning, right here on this games console: today!” Absolute silence pervades the canteen as ears strain to listen in a ladylike ‘I’m not listening but concentrating on how to selflessly save more lives. If I hear anything it won’t be my fault’ way.
Simon smirks. “This cannot be related to my usage of the word ‘score’.”
“We’ve scored all right. We’ve silenced nearly a hundred battling tongues and made Kiko laugh. The entire world gasps in awe.”
©Gary Bonn, 2018