Alice is a very dear friend of ours who sails her clogs too & from from Britain & Holand with the unsheduled intermission of a folly in France!
I do hope you enjoy her essays on 'Life as an alien'!
dependance of St. Thomasʼ Hospital, a wartime leftover near Godalming. I ʻd not been
able to get an office job in London and had gone for the second choice of hospital work.
Two tours of duty as au pair had made me wary of being a low paid maid. At least now I
would have a higher wage, set working hours and meanwhile Iʼd work out how to get a job
The wards were in glorified Nissen huts connected by concrete walkways. The staff
was quartered in two long wooden bungalows which were divided into small rooms with
communal kitchens and bathrooms. Amongst the mainly English domestic staff were two
girls from the north of the Netherlands. We all had green uniforms and origami-like white
paper caps and were required to pin our hair up. Once promoted to auxiliary nurse, I had
a white apron with pesky slot-in buttons to contend with as well. We also had large brown
capes, lined in red, which I thought looked wonderfully romantic. Real nurses had black
I was fascinated by the domestics who had lived and worked in the hospital nearly
all their adult lives. There was a trio of Yugoslav women with shiny gold teeth, a
Norwegian and a Russian who played endless chess together and a sprinkling of Italians
and Spanish. From their point of view it must have been ideal: food and shelter provided
security and working hours were regular. The common room in each bungalow had a
television set and an ancient radio. medical help was on the premises and two days off a
week was adequate for entertainment purposes. Even I began to feel tempted to live like
this forever. Not having to think for myself but read Womanʼs Own, watch TV and go on
little expeditions to Godalming and Guildford on my days off. A wonderful existence
without having to take any major decisions. But one can only read so many womenʼs
magazines until they blur into one and television has never been a favourite of mine.
When I fell off a horse, breaking a finger rather than my neck I found that medical
care in the land of the free wasnʼt what Iʼd expected either. I had never been in hospital as
a patient and was convinced Iʼd never need medical care at all.
It was the horseʼs fault of course. Iʼd had about 10 lessons at a very good riding
school in The Hague, but had not yet been allowed to use a saddle. Froukje, one of the
Dutch domestics, wanted to learn to ride and we found a woman nearby whoʼd been
teaching all the local children to ride.
When we got to the paddock for the first lesson, she handed me the reins of a
whopping big horse, saddled and all, although I ʻd explained I was a far from experienced
rider. After lending my precious riding hat to Froukje, I mounted and found my ski pants
made me slide hopelessly in the saddle. Back home Iʼd been sitting on a blanket which
gave me a good grip and there was always the strap to hang onto. I wasnʼt happy. Jason
wasnʼt happy. He felt jittery as if he already knew we were never going to be a team and
he for one wasnʼt going to help. There was a stiff breeze and the womanʼs German
Shepherd was running round the field in high spirits, as dogs often do. Froukje was
mounted on a little pony at the far end of the field, being led round and round on a longue.
The woman took barely any notice of me. Apparently, even in my ski pants and without a
hat, I looked capable of staying on a horse.
ʻJasonʼs a bit friskyʼ, she called out, ʻkeep him on a short reinʼ.
Frisky was right, the beast was cantering round the field like a maniac on speed,
the dog following close on his heels. All at once Jason pretended to be spooked and took
off towards the fence at a killing pace. Iʼd never even been in a gallop and I had no grip on
his wide back, all I could do was to pull on the reins as hard as possible. It made little
difference, Jason stopped briefly but then took off again at far greater speed towards the
fence. This time I lost the reins completely and hung on to his neck screaming in Dutch for
him to stop. Just short of the fence the diabolical beast braked with all four legs and I flew
over his head in an elegant salto mortale, landing on my back with my left arm twisted
under me and my head inches away from the trunk of a large oak.
Deeply embarrassed, stunned and in considerable pain, I got up and climbed
straight back in the saddle as Iʼd been taught. My trousers had split down the side and my
left arm was hurting like hell. Most other bits of my anatomy were not too happy either.
Jason was now standing perfectly still, looking relaxed after his little run. I swear he was
The woman walked over to me. ʻAll right are you?ʼ she said, patting Jason on the
I thought that was a bit rich. My left hand was bright red and my middle finger
pointed at an impossible angle over my ring finger. ʻLooks fine, you havenʼt broken
anything.ʼ the woman said, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. Blue and purple
bruises were blossoming on my rapidly swelling forearm which looked like it no longer
belonged to me. I slid off Jason and started limping towards the gate.
ʻYou looked marvellousʼ Froukje said admiringly as I walked past her,ʼ what were
ʻHelpʼ, I said, annoyed at both for their inability to recognise an emergency when
they saw one. But at least help was close. After all, I worked at hospital, getting first aid
would be a cinch.
ʻYou sink you vill get chelp in de chospitalʼ said the Spanish handyman Jesus
bitterly after he had been called in to help splint my finger. It was hours after Iʼd fallen off
Jason and these had been mostly spent waiting for one of the posh nurses (we had a
theory that you couldnʼt get to work at St. Tʼs unless your father was a cabinet minister)
and a doctor who were prepared to forego tea in the ʻRitzʼ -their common room - to
administer first aid to a mere domestic.
By that time I was in considerable pain, a nurse had taken me to X-ray my hand and
after another hour or so they confirmed that my finger was broken. It wasnʼt exactly rocket
science, the tip rested on my little finger. Finally a smart young doctor came over, jiggled
my finger and said it needed splinting but there was nothing to splint it with. Exit doctor.
Enter Jesus. He was instructed to make a splint which he did by cutting off the ends
of a metal window fastener. No-one thought to tell him to bevel the edges which dug into
my flesh for the following six weeks. My hand was bandaged and plastered, I was given a
sling and that was the sum total of the treatment. My finger had not been properly
straightened before this procedure and never recovered entirely.
In the Netherlands, broken bones are always set and aligned by an specialist, it is
never left to GPʼs or nurses. Over the years I have come across other people who had
broken bones set by first aid in Britain. Theyʼre easy to pick out.
My duties were at the hospital were light. I had the task of waking up Matron in the
morning, open the curtains, comment on the weather and give her a cup of tea.
She was a strange specimen. ʻGood moawningʼ, sheʼd say after Iʼd wished her the
same in my own accent. A few seconds would pass and then she would hitch a smile on
her face showing all of her her horsey teeth. Her smiles were always an afterthought,
often sheʼd reprimand me about something or other and after a short pause the Cheshire
cat smile would slide into place, fading slowly.
She inspected the wards at irregular times accompanied by a bevy of nurses and
sisters. Capes swirling, aprons starched to perfection, they would march down the
corridors like a military unit. Whenever Matron found some imperfection in the ward, she
would start with her standard greeting and then activate the smile. This alone unnerved the
younger nurses terribly. A surprise inspection by Matron was like a visit from the Stazi, she
was going to find something wrong, publicly humiliate you and then and smile. Punishment
enough in itself.
Patients hated her visits. She could never remember whether sheʼd seen someone
earlier and gave them cheerful news on illnesses they didnʼt have. One man, laid up after
a back operation lost his temper after she asked for the third time how his leg was. ʻYou
stupid bitchʼ he said. A short silence ensued and then she said: ʻWell, youʼll be better
soonʼ. Lethal seconds full of teeth whilst the sisters and nurses grouped themselves
round her, as if to insulate her from this malignant influence. After she left, the whole ward
After my accident, she called me to her flat and told me I had to carry on working
normally after all as Iʼd only been at the hospital for two months. Apparently, you could only
get sick leave after three monthsʼ work. I was set to work cleaning the sisterʼs flats onehanded.
On occasion I had to help cleaning the linenry - a word I could never pronounce
without adding syllables. All the sheets and towels were ironed and stored in there. The
place had to be cleaned in the early evening and we had heavy metal floor polishers to do
the job. It was lousy with cockroaches, Iʼd never seen such disgusting insects and we
used to take refuge on the solid folding tables, using the polishers to crush them.
I complained to the staff sister. ʻAnimalsʼ, I told her, ʻthe linininery is full of terrible
animals!ʼ She took no action other than posting me back to the wards. It might have been
a good idea to feed the cockroaches what they gave the older patients, who were dying at
an alarming rate.
Hospital food was dreadful. Breakfast was corn flakes, milk, sugar, one egg, half a
tomato and one starchy sausage. Bread was always tasteless and damp, sometimes fried
as a special treat. Night duty nurses got two eggs. Thin soup, overcooked vegetables and
yet more starchy sausages followed by an unidentifiable substance covered in custard.
Custard seemed to be the main ingredient of lunch and dinner. It invariably had a skin on
it. Sometimes the dreaded custard appeared even at breakfast, alongside the treat of
watery porridge. We foreigners had a theory that the sole use of custard was to hide the
nature of the food underneath. It might have been cardboard for all we could tell.
Patients were fed with whatever was put in the hot locks. These were large trolleys
with electric leads so they could be plugged into the wall in the ward kitchens. The general
cook had to work with what she got and on occasion an entire ward might have to make do
with three oranges for pudding. Probably to decorate the custard. Male patients often got
Guinness, a very strange medication we thought. But most patients didnʼt complain about
the food, they probably had the same at home, as I found out later.
In theory St.Thomasʼ was a place for convalescents although some of them died
from time to time. One of the domestics had been engaged to at least three different
patients who had all died within weeks of them slipping a ring on her finger. She was
getting quite a collection and also very distressed. However, most of her fiancees were
over 80 years old, which could account for the high death rate.
Nothing in the hospital seemed to be run efficiently, neither the nursing nor
the cleaning. Two or three of us were assigned a ward and had to wet clean the floor in the
morning before breakfast. After the patients had had breakfast, been washed and the beds
were done, we had to clean the floor again, this time dry mopping it. After lunch we
hoovered the floor. This annoyed the patients a good deal as they were trying to get to
sleep by then. There were also simply too many cleaners to keep them busy all the time.
So the deputy head of the domestic staff (nearly all duties fell to her as the actual head
was drunk by lunchtime) had to find jobs for us. I would offer to clean the silver and she
would go for the brass. It was quite easy to get the jobs you wanted as long as you
suggested something else. Froukje, who offered to clean the windows was given the task
of cleaning a chair one afternoon. She dusted the thing, took out a book and read until her
working day was over. Easy money.
A few years later I experienced hospitals from the other side - as a patient. When I
was 22 I needed an operation on a canine tooth which had grown inwards. It was
proposed by a leading dental surgeon that they would transplant the tooth, although this
had never been done on one so old.
In Kingston Hospital I was slotted into a large, gloomy ward. I think there were at
least thirty beds. On the day of the operation I was given a dark green gown which didnʼt
do up at the back, a small elasticated cap to hide my hair and two fleecy tubes which
turned out to be long socks. By the time I had to get myself ready Iʼd already had the premed,
another first, and was as high as a kite, insisting that I could walk to the operating
room, if not dance. ʻBloody foreignerʼ someone muttered as they pushed me back on the
The following day, after the operation, I had nothing to do but watch the cleaning
staff with a practiced eye. This was a large ward and two small Spanish men wandered
from bed to bed with an ever dirtier bucket of water and a mop. One would move the chair
from the head of the bed to the end and then sat down on it. The other cleaner dipped the
mop into the muddy water and watched by his listless mate, moved it slowly from side to
side, missing all the corners and places where dust collects. Then his mate would put the
chair back and they would then change places and start on the next bed. It was cleaning,
Jim, but not as I knew it.
A week after the operation I had to come back to have the stitches taken removed
in the out patients part of the hospital. A row of chairs in the long corridor was filled with
patients waiting to be called to one of the consulting rooms. A teenage boy was called in
and within minutes piercing screams echoed round the dingy walls. The waiting patients
turned a shade of green, some stumbling off to the loos, knowing their turn with the head
torturer was imminent.
I was all right. My consultant reminded me of the Carry On Doctor film, his role
being played by Kenneth Williams. He was immaculately groomed and dressed and never
had his white coat buttoned up so as to show his three-piece Saville Row suit. The
general impression was that he had just dropped in to humour the students who always
After he removed the stitches, he enthusiastically showed his students what he had
done. ʻCut here, you see, lifted the flap - incision ..ʻ . Suddenly he produced professional
looking camera, surely he didnʼt want a signed photograph? One of the students moved
behind me and neatly slid two steel hooks in the corners of my mouth. He pulled, none too
gently. Flash, went the camera. My teeth would appear in the lancet, alongside the article
written about the operation. Fame at last. It would have been nice to be informed, and
besides, what about copyright?
For a long time I mnaged to have little to do with doctors, but two other episodes
One was a dental surgeon again, who had to remove a cyst from under a bridge in
my mouth. This was many years later. He informed me joyfully that heʼd only done this
once before and wasnʼt that lucky for him, as he was retiring next week. Thereʼs simply no
answer to that, especially when your mouth has just been immobilised.
The other incident was a GP who prescribed a different colour cough mixture three
times running when I had a severe bronchial infection. I finally paid privately for a doctor
who took a blood sample and gave me antibiotics. National Health is hit and miss, but in
fairness I had little experience of doctors in the Netherlands and my most recent
experiences there were little better than those in the UK.
I didnʼt see the inside of a hospital again until London UCH got my custom for a
simple varicose vein operation. It was a very hot summer in the ʼ80ʼs and I had to keep
phoning the hospital as they might have a water shortage. This seemed ridiculous, surely
the infrastructure wasnʼt affected to such an extend that surgeons were unable to scrub
Eventually I was admitted as planned and got into a large ward which had a long
table in the middle. It served principally for patients to have their meals, but for the rest of
the time there was always a large group of nurses in animated conversation round the
table. With their backs to most of the patients it was difficult to keep an eye on them. An
old lady next to me fell out of bed and the nurses didnʼt hear our cries for help. Another
old lady opposite clambered out and hoisted her back in. The nurses never noticed.
I was told after the operation I had to start walking as soon as possible. Still groggy
from the anaeasthetic I was more or less draped around the neck of a nurse, to stumble
up and down the ward. ʻI hadnʼt had anything to drink for ages and the heat wave wasnʼt
helping so I asked for water.
ʻMilkʼ, she said briskly, giving me a large glass of the stuff. It always makes me
nauseous and as soon as I drank it I was as sick as a dog. I found out it is pretty well the
last thing you should give someone whoʼs just come to.
I left as soon as I could walk unaided. It was the safest option. I wasnʼt allowed to
sit at the long table for lunch because I had to keep my leg stretched out, and so theyʼd
forgotten to feed me the whole time I was there. Luckily, the water shortage never
The Royal Gwent in Newport got my custom when I collapsed in the street near my
chapel. Iʼd already had one major back operation and was doing pretty well. One morning
I was barely able to get out of bed but I thought a walk up the High Street might help.
Itʼs a horrible feeling when your legs suddenly go on strike. Jolly painful too. A
couple of labourers picked me up and carried me home, sat me at the kitchen table next to
the telephone and left. I phoned a friend, not a altogether reliable one, because I hadnʼt
come across one yet. She lived around the corner and ran one of the many B&Bʼs in the
village. Morny had a key to my house so she came and got me into bed. My bed was
nothing more than a couple of pallets with a mattress on top. Not a good idea, after all,
less pain but now I was really helpless. I phoned my therapist in Cardiff, who was brilliant
at putting my back in place. She came over, massaged me and said that I needed to call
the doctor. It didnʼt look as if this was going to be over quickly. She also told me to refuse
traction, because that would only make the problem worse.
My own GP was out and a very reluctant locum said he would come. I phoned
Morny again to come and open the door. She didnʼt arrive and when the locum rang the
bell, I rolled out of bed and hauled myself along the corridor by grabbing hold of the
doorposts. Iʼd just managed to reach the lock to open the door when the doctor was
about to leave. He looked down on me - nightie covered in dust and dirt, hanging on to the
doorknob - and said ʻCanʼt you stand up?ʼ In a tone of voice which indicated I had an
After a brief examination and eliciting the fact that I lived alone, he called an
ambulance. All I managed to take with me were a book and my tapestry kit. I was only too
relieved that something was being done and that everything was going to be all right. Iʼd
be in a really big hospital.
Fate disagreed: an entirely new and horrible experience awaited me. The A & E.
The A & E at the Royal Gwent has no doubt improved since those days, but it has
stayed in my mind as one of the more surreal experiences of my life.
I was left on a stretcher to await examination. It was a Saturday and quite a lot of
Newportʼs walking wounded were cluttering up the waiting rooms and corridors. Suddenly
a bunch of smartly dressed people, men with button holes and women in jolly hats
trooped in. Some had nosebleeds, others spectacular bruises and cuts. I thought it was
hilarious. ʻWhat happened?ʼ I asked a nurse. ʻ Itʼs a wedding.ʼ she said briskly, turning
her back on me. Wedding Newport style, must have been quite a do.
By 5.00 p.m. Iʼd been in A & E for nearly three hours and no-one had even looked
at me. I couldnʼt move my legs, however hard I tried. Finally I was sent off for an X ray.
Then another wait of about an hour before a doctor came over to me. Peering
disapprovingly over his glasses he told me I had sciatica. Now sciatica is a symptom and
not a disease and it cannot possibly be diagnosed by X ray. I knew that my unstable
lumbar spine had shifted and that all the major muscles groups had gone into a solid
spasm. Iʼd had rampant sciatica the previous year and this wasʼt it. So I denied the
diagnosis which made extremely unpopular with this doctor.
I will never forget him; Herr Doctor Flocker, a German with more than a passing
resemblance to Herr Flick from the Gestapo. Neat, organised and not having any rubbish
from mere civilians.
ʻIt iz ziaticaʼ, he said, ʻI vont to ask you zom questions. - How did diz happen?ʼI told
him briefly, then his next question really threw me: ʻ Zo you vere valking en den you
collapsed - vere you vearing a corset?ʼ
Now - nobody has ever asked me that before or since. I struggled to keep my face
straight and was desperately tempted to say; ʻWonʼt you believe it, just the one day I didnʼt
wear my red and black lace number and I fall flat on my face...ʼ. I bit my lip rather than
Herr Flick was impervious to human emotion. Short of forcing me to walk at
gunpoint, there was nothing he could do but admit me to the orthopedic ward and I was
sent off with instructions to put me in traction. Which, as Margaret had pointed out, would
tear the muscle fibres in the condition they were at the moment. It would then take months
to heal. But luck smiled on me, the nurse who put me in traction had no idea of the
procedure and arranged the weights so badly that there was no traction on my spine at
all. I was grateful for small mercies although my trials were not at an end. By now it was
late evening and I hadnʼt had a thing to eat or drink since early morning. It was also a very
hot August. When I asked the night nurse for a snack and drink she said Iʼd have to wait
till breakfast. Then she relented and brought me water and a ham sandwich. I wolfed it
down and on reading the label, discovered it was three days out of date, adding food
poisoning to the dangers of medical care in the twentieth century.
My only entertainment was watching the cleaners. After all, it was one of the many
jobs Iʼd done. Cleaning was divided here into beds, floors and windows. The first cleaner
who came into my room gave the bed a cursory inspection - not dirty enough - and left, to
be followed by the window cleaner, who looked out of them for a long time. From this
vantage point she could keep an eye on her fellow at home whom she suspected of
having an affair. She became my most frequent visitor, I hardly saw a nurse more than
twice a day. The floor was given a quick dry wipe by a large black man who looked as if he
was let out of prison for the day and forbidden to speak. No change then, except for more
staff and less work done.
I needed the diversion, Iʼd finished the book and although I was lucky to be in a
separate room, I had no television or radio. They must have thought me unsuitable for the
ward as I didnʼt have a single tattoo. All the other patients in the orthopedic ward looked
like bouncers down on their luck. Quite likely, since Newport had some notorious
The system for cleaning the actual patients was equally inefficient. In the morning a
nurse would plonk a plastic basin with tepid water on the table in front of me and tell me to
get on with it. From the waist down I could barely move, so I washed as far as I could
reach, which wasnʼt far as my back was basically a block of cement. Once the nurse
accidentally tipped half the contents of the basin on my bed. ʻItʼll dryʼ she said, walking
away, having dismissed my request for clean bedding. I was sweaty, dirty and getting
weaker by the day. I began to realise that collateral damage from national health treatment
can be fatal, if the disease doesnʼt kill you, the treatment may well succeed.
Dr. Flocker appeared only once more, to peer at me over his spectacles. ʻCan you
zdill not valk?ʼ he said, adding ominously:ʻ Ve vill seeʼ. Possibly he had a vay to make me
valk. I still couldnʼt and he must have thought I was lying, he didnʼt even do a reflex test.
Fortunately he missed the botched traction ties so I was in no danger of further treatment
The same consultant who had operated on me the previous year was due to visit on
the Wednesday following my admittance. Early in the morning I heard the basso profundo
tones of the surgeon. At last I would be saved, walk again, he had already done miracles
with the first operation. Hours passed and nobody came, finally I rang for a nurse.
Sister Mary Elisabeth greeted me like an old friend, stripped off my clothes and
washed me from top to toe. Being clean and safe at last was undiluted bliss. If theyʼd
played their cards right Iʼd have converted on the spot.
After a yet another operation, it was ten days before I could shuffle unaided and go
home again. Having been delivered to the door of my little ruin, I though I should try and
do some shopping. The five minute walk to the Spar took about half an hour and when I
got there I realised I couldnʼt actually carry anything. I bought an orange.
A little later, my sainted neighbour Mrs. Newman, a seven stone octagenarian,
offered to do my shopping for me and ʻAnything heavy you want carryingʼ. At a foot taller
and less than half her age, I counted it as winning to stand up without hanging on to a
I did recover eventually, mainly by evading any treatment recommended by my GP
and associated physiotherapists, it would never do to forget that theyʼd misdiagnosed me
so consistently the previous year that only sheer luck had saved me from spending the
rest of my life in a wheelchair.