Mixed Sex Wards

(Since I wrote this hospital (the Kent and Sussex in Tunbridge Wells) has been closed down. However I keep it in tribute to the many nationalities, who before Brexit, kept the NHS afloat)

During the week that the media deplored the continued existence of mixed sex wards I was recovering from an operation in one of them. Fellow women and men in the thirty bed surgical dormitory included victims of assault, accident and disease. Most of us were in too much discomfort or pain to consider whether we were also humiliated by the proximity of the opposite sex. Personally I found the proximity of their all too healthy and voyeuristic visitors the most trying part of the ordeal.
Much that has been written about mixed sex wards is however true. There is no privacy. Even when the nurses draw the curtains to change a catheter, dress a wound or to help an old lady on to the commode, every fart and gurgle and cry of pain is audible. Those patients that are mobile stroll by attached to their bags of bloody urine, or wheel drip sacks like booty from the battle they have just won. The toilets on my ward were also unisex with only a couple of adjacent cubicles, a washbasin and a shower
It is true, too, that all the staff from the nurses to the cleaners and the caterers work under extreme pressure. The only people who have time to chat are the purveyors of sweets and junk food. Why they are tolerated is a mystery. Perhaps their very presence is considered therapeutic, but the sale of confectionery would seem about as healthy as sending each patient a get well card sprinkled with anthrax.
The medical staff hardly have time between the constant and unpredictable demands of patients in distress to carry out the routine chores of monitoring, replenishing drips and saline washes, or seeing to the personal hygiene of their charges. In the mornings when the consultants rush round like princelings each with their coterie of sycophants the ward resembles Piccadilly Circus. Why is it that these doctors alone address the patient in the third person? It is as though they cannot see that just beyond the bed end notes an anxious human being lies craving reassurance.
All this, I suppose, is to be expected in a busy NHS hospital. Revealed for me, however, behind the screen of pain, discomfort and recovery was a richer cultural experience. That first, confused night, I imagined I was in a tropical jungle. All the electronic bleeping and winking I took to be the courtship of nocturnal insects, the red lights the eyes of predators. An irritable old man down the end of the ward kept up an interminable call of “Come on. Come On.” I pictured him as an ugly frog squatting on a rotten log, croaking his refrain. The wool-gathering crone in the bed opposite burbled away to herself all night like the waters of a forest brook. Phones stabbed the night like hunters spears and at one point a radio call was transmitted through the foliage of my conscious, “Trauma. Ten minutes.” This precipitated a stampede in the ward.
Impressions of the exotic were reinforced when I saw that the nurses did indeed come from all corners of the world, but this being Tunbridge Wells, most of the patients were white. It was the reverse of a zoo. We, the common species, were caged while the exotic species much greater in variety came round and looked at us.
Nurses from different cultures interacted in their own ways with the Southern English public. The manner of the warm, no-nonsense British West Indian nurse contrasted with the two young black girls from South African who shuffled up to the patients with foot-dragging shyness, never making eye contact, reluctant to trample on their personal space. They were kind, gentle and quiet but still learning. The almost transparently fair Finn was calm, efficient and reserved, a tiny Japanese who controlled the medicine trolley was meticulous, patient but difficult to understand. When she was trying to say on the telephone, “Hang on a second,” it sounded as though she had gulped something from her own trolley. The unhurried Ghanaian student nurse always had time for a chat, but far and away the most gentle, the most firm and the most confident were nurses from the Far East. I did not identify their countries of origin but their self assurance was contagious.
The only carping I encountered came from a local nurse, but then complaining is in our culture, isn’t it? One particularly loud-mouthed slattern commented that like the foreign nurses, she should have time off to attend English language classes. She had a point. She needed it more than many of them.
Despite all these recruits and agency nurses the hospital was still short staffed and poorly equipped. The one oxygen cylinder for two wards was raced around like a horse drawn pump at the Fire of London. Batteries were always failing in the few machines that did work. The shared commode never cooled off. Urine bottles ran short. “Oh, just use your water jug,” called one exasperated nurse.
But what struck me most as I surfaced to all this chaos was the overriding harmony. All these women, mainly women, from different ethnic and national backgrounds and working together in quite arbitrary teams, co-operated extraordinarily well. They even managed to remain in good humour throughout their shifts. I was there for four days. God knows how they can stick it day after day. Florence Nightingale might well be appalled at the conditions of this 21 century mixed ward, but she would applaud the dedication of the staff.

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KUYPERS RETIRES

Today the UK government commits suicide and sets Europe on the road to disintegration. Here is a memory of some of my European colleagues:

We never really knew what Kuypers did. We all agreed it was not much, but he was a familiar presence. When the ding of the lift announced the rattle of the coffee trolley emerging on to our floor, Kuypers was always at the front of the queue, chatting courteously to anyone who would listen. He was a very nice, elderly Belgian, harmless and perhaps because of that likeable. In our multinational hothouse of intrigue and ambition Kuypers posed no threat.
He received a long service medal on his retirement and gave a farewell lunch in a restaurant to which he invited all of us in the Development Division of the European Commission. It was a pleasant occasion but since we all lunched out so often to fill the void between mid day lunch and the three o’clock reappearance of the coffee trolley, it was not particularly memorable. It was all quite low key and relaxed. There were no speeches.
The Christmas holiday break came soon afterwards and we did not expect to see our colleague again. We probably would not have missed him or thought about him at all. Then to our surprise we found him back in the office in the New Year. He had taken a special contract to work on some unspecified project. Although it was emphasized that this was temporary and short term, he turned up more often and stayed later than in his full time days when he was either on a cure, a mission, leave or had gone to Switzerland to have his pacemaker checked.
On the day his special contract ran out he asked us all home for a meal in his modest third floor apartment off the Avenue Louise. It was done in great style. Those who arrived first drank a sparkling rosé while they waited for everyone else to come up. The shaky old cage lift was capable of hoisting only three people at a time and it occurred to no one to use the stairs. When plump and flighty Nicole stepped in to make up her trio the lift refused to respond. She got upset when Gerhardt joked, if indeed the serious German had meant it as a joke, that Nicole must weigh enough for two. However he immediately made amends by stepping gallantly outside and clicking the folding grill shut behind him. The rackety lift shook and struggled up with Nicole and the petite Madame Malaise who, rummaging in her bag for her homeopathic pills had not even noticed the contretemps.
Nicole had no time to sulk. She had to prepare her face and hair for her entrance to the salon, where upon arrival each guest was invited to draw a ticket from a top hat and keep it safe. The little flat was crammed full of a variety of small tables at which we were urged to take our places. We were waited upon by a butler and a maid in uniform and served with a choice of rich paté with cocktail onions and gherkins. The main dish was cassoulet, this too almost entirely meat and very rich. To refresh our palates a salad followed and we finished with ice cream and champagne. Before the dessert, however, we were given a break to open the parcels which were distributed according to the number on those tickets we had drawn on arrival.
The “presents” were false noses, comic hats, costume jewellery, self adhesive moustaches and beards. A young French colleague nick-named Le Faux-Marginal who had an unkempt beard in keeping with his professed revolutionary tendencies got a little moustache which he stuck to his forehead. Some of our more serious colleagues were very embarrassed, but most embarrassed surprisingly were the office jokers. Suave Lothario refused to wear his beard and moustache, two others could not put on their false noses because the own noses were bigger, Nicole would not try on her pretty paper crown because it might have spoiled her coiffure, but Le Chameau, who always appeared miserable, fixed on his pirate earrings without a second thought and continued to look morose. He needed only a parrot on his shoulder.
I wondered whether Kuypers was laughing at us all but I do not see how he could have manipulated the lottery to this extent. Any embarrassment was soon dissipated by the champagne and we sobered up with strong espresso before making our farewells.
We returned severally and very late to the office having, as I thought, said goodbye to Kuypers and his wife for the last time. But adieu it was not. Back in the gloomy building I bumped into the old man again still stalking the corridor. We were both a little embarrassed. I thanked him again for the lunch. He thanked me for having come. I could think of nothing more to say. Kuypers looked at his watch and by way of apology remarked that his contract still had one hour to run.

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HEADS

I saw my first head in Yei, a small town in rural Southern Sudan. Leaving a friend’s house I caught a glimpse of the head of an old man. At first I took it to be real though in the shadow I could not make out where his body was. With a second shock of realisation I saw it was a carving or a sculpture. The uncanny liveliness of its expression, the twinkling mocking eyes drew a gasp of astonishment. I took a closer look. The bust was made of terra cotta. I picked up this fragile, heavy masterpiece and felt my eyes prick, my spine tingle with the pleasure of discovery and appreciation.
"Good, isn’t it?" said my friend. "The artist lives in a village near here. He turns out dozens of heads. Studies of different tribes. Sells them for next to nothing. I paid £5 for that."
Clearly few other people in Yei could afford to buy works of art, however cheap. But in Juba, where I was working alongside about sixty other aid workers there must be a market. The idea of setting up an exhibition was forming in my head.
"If ever this fellow comes to Juba," I said," ask him to look me up."
I did not forget the head. I wondered how I could find time to return to Yei and get out to the village. I would buy some heads for myself. There were no shops in the Western sense in Southern Sudan. Even in the markets there were not, as in neighbouring Kenya, stalls selling craft work. Sudan was not a place tourists visited. The Civil War had been smouldering for decades. Shelter and one meal a day were what most people aspired to. Any ornament in their huts beyond a decorated clay water jar and a cooking pot was beyond their dreams. However I did feel I could help the sculptor if I could bring him to the attention of the small expatriate community most of whom could pay ten times the asking price without noticing it and have a worthwhile memento of their stay. But I also felt that these heads should be exhibited for their own sake. They should be seen and admired.
A month later I looked through my kitchen window and saw a thin, shabbily dressed man lingering in the compound. I pretended not to notice, hoping he would go away. I was frequently troubled by people seeking jobs or money. Finally the man came to my door and asked for me by name. Seeing he had something wrapped in a dirty cloth I took him to be a vendor and told him dismissively,
"I don’t want anything today, thank you."
"Wait," he said quietly and undid his bundle out there on the step. I relented, something in his manner and my own natural curiosity getting the better of me. The cloth concealed another head.
You’re the sculptor from Yei," I said. "Why didn’t you say so?"
"I did not know if you would remember."
The head, only the second piece of his work I had seen, was of a Dinka. The circumstances were extremely contrasting- the old Lugbara man I had examined only by lamplight late in the evening. This Dinka head stood among the folds of the soiled cloth in the merciless light of the late morning sun. And yet it was more than a good likeness of a head. It had humour, it had character, it conveyed the confidence of a proud tribe with the gentleness of this particular subject.
"It’s for you," he said.
"Thank you. But I’m not giving you £5 for it. I’m giving you £50"
"It’s a gift."
I could not offend him by refusing such a welcome offering, but I wanted to give him something in return. At that moment what he most wanted was a glass of cold water. We sat on my verandah and discussed his work. His ambition was to study at art school in England. I suggested he was already sufficiently equipped to make a living by selling his work. He maintained the only place he could sell was abroad. I told him about my idea of an exhibition in Juba. It might be a first step to an exhibition elsewhere. It might get him noticed. At the time I did not think he needed to go to art school. Subsequently I discovered that he did have a lot to learn about the technical side of his craft. Being self-taught he fired his heads in the same way the women made their pots. He simply lit a fire round them. This led to uneven coloration which he corrected by blacking the faces or staining the clay with the juice of a sprouting teak leaf. He would have benefitted from contact with other artists, if not from a formal course.
John returned to his village to work on his exhibits and I began making arrangements in Juba. The Regional Ministry of Culture whose policy was to encourage indigenous arts and crafts and to record the cultural heritage, but which had no money to do so, was helpful. They knew of John, liked his work and were prepared to overlook his refugee status. For he was not officially Sudanese. He was a refugee from the war on the other side of the border. In that part of the world the tribes spill across the artificial national frontiers anyway. I was happy with the moral support of the Ministry. Until then I had acted on my own intuition. Later many people who saw the heads for the first time thrilled to them in the same way as I had that night in Yei.
Months passed, the rains came and contact with John was difficult. Eventually the roads became passable again and we got a Landrover through, loaded with heads packed in grass and cotton waste for protection against the jolts; we negotiated all the police checks and unloaded our precious cargo in Juba. None were broken but several were slightly damaged. In Europe, I thought, they could have been cast in bronze. Or at least they could have been fired in a hot kiln. This clay remained so brittle.
John himself was unable to accompany me, but I went ahead with arrangements, hiring and whitewashing the interior of a tukul or straw hut. I had asked John to prepare a CV so that I could produce a catalogue. What he sent me was half way between a letter, a short story and an autobiography.
He told of his childhood in a poor family and of his struggles for an education. When he first got to school he was bullied and left; he tried again but this time his uncle dragged him out to tend the goats forty miles away. After three years of intermittent schooling he became cook for the Verona Fathers and worked as houseboy and cobbler. In the Italianate churches he saw statues or Jesus, Mary and the Saints and was inspired not so much by their religion as by the art form. But he believed then that only white men were capable of such work.
So poorly paid was he by the missionaries that he could not afford secondary school. He moved to the employ of another slightly more generous sect, got to school and made friends with some boys who played the guitar. He obtained a guitar of his own and set his sights on music school in Nairobi. Then his guitar was mysteriously burnt while he was out of the house. His role seemed to be that of the victim- the instinctive bullying by the primary kids, the guitar burning, and later the intimidation by the villagers as he gained success with his modelling. They resented the fact that he was selling "their" clay. But I am jumping ahead.
At the age of 23 he was still trying to get into Junior Secondary School.The priests said he was too old. He was accepted on the plea of his own parish priest. He did well, got to teacher training college and by working in the college garage and as caretaker managed to pay his way to becoming a qualified teacher. During this period, too, he was modelling in clay, perfecting his art. Perhaps it was this spirit of determination and of self reliance which both attracted and set people against him. He struck me as a man who knew his own mind.
His hard won independence in Uganda coincided with the downfall of the brutal Idi Amin and civil war. Along with his fellow tribesmen, wife and six children he fled to the bush and crossed into Sudan in 1979. He worked as a primary teacher and lived at subsistence level, all the time modelling his clay heads. He was accepted by the local community as a teacher, something they understood, but when white men from the nearby development project began visiting him to buy his heads resentment set in and the Sudanese villagers tried to prevent his access to their clay. At the same time he was realising that he must get out into the world if he were to try and make a living from his art. And that is when he got my message.
This I condensed into a CV for the catalogue. We improvised stands from upturned boxes covered with material from the market. When the heads were set upon them we were delighted with the effect in our makeshift gallery.
On the morning of the opening we swept the floor, arranged flowers and pinned a strand of wool across the doorway for the Director-General of the Ministry of Culture to cut. He was due at nine. At 8.55 there were no guests and no officials. At nine some guests arrived but the place seemed unusually quiet. At 9.15 it was uncomfortably hot. I tried to telephone the Ministry as usual without success. Vashti, my colleague and helper was unperturbed. "Our people never come on time," she observed.
We gave the guests cool drinks and sure enough at 9.40 a Toyota pick-up arrived carrying a contingent of ministry officials, photographers and reporters. They joined us for a drink and we trooped into the sun where the DG read a brief, prepared speech and cut the wool. A minor event, but thanks to which there was a full report on radio Juba in English and Arabic. I hope John had heard it. None of my letters had reached him, or if they had, he had failed to reach Juba for the opening.
A few months after the exhibition there was one bizarre event. I was visited by an official from the British Embassy in Khartoum. In itself this was a rare event, but the purpose of the poor fellow’s journey was hard to credit. He had been dispatched to ascertain the truth about rumours circulating in Khartoum concerning a certain Englishman who, it was reported, had been was making a collection of shrunken heads. That Englishman was able to scotch the rumour with a copy of the exhibition catalogue
This beautiful and potentially rich and fertile part of black Africa has now gained its independence but tragically the new leaders have led the country in famine and ruin, genocide and despair.

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A SPORT AND A PASTIME by JAMES SALTER

This is the most honest, most economically written and the most evocative account of a love affair that I have read. It captures the addictive power of mutual sexual passion as well as the unspoken dread in the knowledge that it must all come to an end.
The story is told, perhaps largely imagined, by a friend of the protagonist. The latter is a rich, Yale dropout touring France for the summer. He falls in with a young French shop girl and the couple drives around provincial France in his borrowed Delage car. Salter’s sparse purity of style is luminescent.
The description of 1960s France is as vivid as and a part of their passion. Erotic but in no way pornographic, loving but in no way romantic or sentimental, it makes for a mesmerising read. Underlying the whole is a pervading sadness that this idyll will not last. The tension is relentless.
The mood reminds me of Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. I hold no brief for rich Americans, but we can all empathise with the strong emotions and actions exhibited in this masterpiece.

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The Play I Never Wrote

THE PLAY I NEVER WROTE

In the 1980s I was one of the 6000 “fonctionnaires” who daily went to work in the Berlaymont building, seat of the European Commission in Brussels. In those days the lingua franca was French but in each of the offices that lined the long corridors we shared with one another, sometimes two people of our own nationality. We used our own language to one another but spoke whatever language was appropriate or most comfortable when visiting German, Italian, French or English colleagues in their rooms.
This gave me the idea for a play. It was to be a comedy or a farce, the action of which took place in three adjacent offices, one German, one French and one English.
The audience was, so to speak, outside the windows in space, looking in through the large windows. The offices, side by side, occupied the stage. The corridor from which the characters entered the rooms ran along behind.
My idea was to have the dialogue and action in each room in the language of that room. When someone else entered it would change, bringing with it all the misunderstanding and incomprehension that often would arise between us.
There were only two problems: I was not sure I was capable of writing plausible dialogue in all the languages required. Even if I did, much of it would be lost, even on the multilingual European audience. I certainly did not want to write it all in English, giving the French and Germans funny accents.
So I dropped the idea and produced a novel instead in English. It is still available as an e-book on Amazon entitled Some Of Them Were Human.

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WHERE MY HEART USED TO BEAT

Sebastian Faulks

This book could only have been written by Faulks. It bears his hallmarks of well researched and vivid descriptions of actions in World Wars I and II. There is also his usual implausible female behaviour. Or perhaps in Faulk’s own experience every woman he meets cannot wait to get into bed with him, and not merely the mad ones!
The story is unusual, even unique and the ideas behind it compelling. It is a very sad book, the story of an unfulfilled man who feels his life, albeit an eventful and by some measures successful, was wasted. His one great chance of love was thrown away. He also discovers the truth about his father who died in the First World War, a father he never knew.
The protagonist is honest, withdrawn and not particularly attractive to the reader. He is however, a good man and there is no trace of self pity in his account. Rather, there is something more forensic in his search, not only of his own fate but of the futility and waste of war. Nevertheless the whole books bleeds sorrow. As the critics have said it is a haunting story that lingers in the mind. Even though he achieves some kind of catharsis in the end, the overriding feeling is of loss and wasted opportunity.

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FAIL OR SELL OUT: GEORGE GISSING’S MESSAGE

New Grub Street, the novel by the late Victorian writer George Gissing, published in 1891 makes for striking reading even today. It has particular interest to those of us who try to write today.
“The first duty of a novelist,” says one of the characters, “is to tell a good story.” Gissing certainly does this. New Grub Street is a gripping tale with passages of dialogue that today could transfer straight to the screen.
The novel is peopled with a host of complex characters that the reader really gets to know. The female characters are surprisingly modern, independent minded and strong given the conditions at the time. The men fall into two broad camps: the talented but weak and unambitious; the more commercially minded and ruthless go-getters.
All the characters are writers of one sort or another or are involved in the literary scene. All of them are classically educated and have a love of literature. It would have been taken for granted that their readership to a large extent shared the same literary tastes and background. Although impoverished they are writing for a similarly educated public. But attitudes were changing and it is this aspect that of the novel and the predicament of the writer in society that runs such an astonishing parallel with our present day situation.
There is Alfred Yule, a scholarly writer of the old school who aided by his put –upon daughter contributes articles to learned journals but who has failed as a writer of fiction and never gains an editorship. There is Edward Reardon, a talented writer of literary fiction who has a success with his first novel that he is unable to repeat. When he tries to write a popular novel to lift himself out of poverty he is filled with shame and self-loathing and the book flops anyway. The other serious writer totally committed to his art and who also lives in abject poverty is Harold Biffen. He toils away through exhaustion and illness at his “realistic” novel. On its publication against the odds it is derided by hostile critics and fails to sell, driving the author to suicide.
All these people, though commercially unsuccessful, hold themselves and one another in high esteem. Writing is an honourable profession for which they all suffer. Few can contemplate taking a salaried job, though several would pen pieces for one or more of the many reviews and journals to feed themselves.
In contrast to these traditionalists there is Jasper Milvain, the ambitious “modern” writer. He is clever and energetic but writes only to gain money and position. He is as poor as the others at first but to use a contemporary concept, he “networks” assiduously, “brown-noses” critics and editors and all the time is on the look-out for a wealthy wife who will raise him in society and back his literary endeavours. He tries to convince his high-minded friends that “literature is a trade.” He urges them to take a more commercial approach, much as our publishers do today. Jasper writes brilliant journalism and criticism but nothing of literary merit. While still struggling he does help his sisters, who dread the idea of being forced into teaching or becoming governesses, to support themselves by the pen. One of them succeeds with her short stories for girls and young women in a new journal dedicated to that readership: the earliest example perhaps of chick lit. Survival and success is prized more highly than literary merit.
A final figure on the commercial front takes this one stage further. Whelpdale, an unsuccessful writer himself, sets up an agency to help other would-be writers get a foothold. This calls to mind the squadrons of struggling writers today who offer “how-to” advice in the small journals bought only by other aspiring writers. If you can’t teach, it is said, teach teachers. If you can’t write, teach writers. Whelpdale is a clever entrepreneur and his agency succeeds. Nowadays no doubt he would be running courses in creative writing. He also founds a journal, Chit Chat, comprising sound bites, limited paragraphs and short sentences. The subject matter is a pot pourri of general knowledge. To the horror of some of his friends he is aiming at the low brow market, at the barely literate, and he succeeds. Again this is a precursor of publications for a mass readership such as Reader’s Digest.
Throughout New Grub Street there is intense debate about the role of the writer and the extent to which he or she should adopt a more hands-on, commercial attitude. Today Jasper would be tweeting and blogging and attending book events quite forgetting, perhaps even disagreeing, that his primary purpose is to write something worthwhile, just as any writer reading this piece is most probably enjoined to do. Just as in fact this writer is doing instead of getting on with his own novel at his own pace!
If you do not do this you will fail. For many of the better writers of his era, to embrace this modus operandi was to sell out. But there were notable exceptions, too. Charles Dickens, whom Gissing idolised, was a great self-publicist and performer.
In New Grub Street, however, none of the literary writers survive but apart from their journalism, none of the commercially successful writers produce anything of merit.
This dichotomy is not as strong today. There is a bigger and wider market. More people can read and there is a broader spectrum of literary tastes. There is also a generous offering of second rate stuff read uncritically and enjoyed by second rate minds (as Gissing might see it), not to mention the dross that is self-published or displayed on-line. This is a whole market that did not exist in Gissing’s time. But the dilemma for a serious writer of fiction remains similar to that faced by the characters in his novel. There is still no guarantee that a good book by a diffident writer will succeed. It has to be pushed and marketed if it is to sell and increasingly this has become the task of the author himself. Even successful authors must market their wares, attend signings and festivals and appear on chat shows.. The two worlds in New Grub Street have come together. It is perhaps not so much sell-out as simply sell. And the market for the literary novel? As limited as ever, perhaps!

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ON TAKING A BATH

Some activities that were common when I was young have now become unusual. For example writing letters, writing anything by hand; reading books; polishing shoes; indeed wearing shoes; tying a tie; never allowing a hot-blooded boy’s hand to stray above his girl’s stocking tops; wearing stockings and suspenders. Chief among these in my experience is taking a bath. I could not remember when I had last indulged and so last night I decided to revive the memory.
Growing up we had bath night once a week. We wore shorts during the day (jeans came in only when I was a teenager, along with the word teenager and the drug that is Coca Cola) and our knees were usually caked in mud. Washing the sore flesh in the bath was painful. I also associate mud with baths after games of school rugby. Half a dozen of us would plunge into the warm brown soup of the communal bath together. If you came late you would be sitting on a cooling sludge that was rough on the buttocks.
When after graduating from university in England I arrived in Australia on a plane chartered for us“Ten Pound Poms” as we immigrants were called, a man came on board, sprayed us all with aerosol disinfectant and sneered, “Another load of the great unwashed.” Australians really did believe that the English kept coal in their baths and, of course, the shower hardly existed in English homes in the sixties. During my first week at work an Aussie colleague asked me without a trace of irony how often I washed. “Well,” I said, “I have a shower every morning. How about you?” He was astonished how quickly I was integrating.
I do not remember whether they even had baths in Australia. For much of my working life in India and in Africa,too, we only ever showered. In Madras, as Chenai was then called, there was no hot water at all and we did not need it. In Southern Sudan our water came direct and untreated from the Nile. We never needed hot baths. A cool swimming pool would have been nice, though, and it was a luxury we enjoyed in West Africa. In Scandinavia I experienced saunas, quite a different kettle of cod.
On returning to England I found that bathrooms were still called bathrooms and they did, indeed, still have a bath in them. We used to bathe our children in them before bed. They liked to play in the warm water and this immersion calmed them down. We still use a bath for visiting grandchildren, but rarely use it ourselves, not even for storage of coal. Anyway, what was coal? A more painful recent bathtime memory is caring for ageing parents and hoisting them on an electrical device and lowering them into the water. An awkward procedure for all parties.
Even at swimming pools, squash courts and other public places, one finished the exercise with a shower. I do remember one Paris hotel with a bath so small it was not even possible to squat in it, and I am not referring to the bidet. Being tall I have rarely found a bath long enough to stretch out in.
Let’s get to the point, then. Our present house boasts a bath in the bathroom. Last night I decided to try it. I thought it might be a relaxing experience; I had not expected it to evoke the memories described above. I went over in my mind how to set about taking a bath, gathered the necessary towels, flannels, brushes and soaps (no bubble bath or candles, though), and turned on the taps. With regular use I would have known how much hot and how much cold I needed. But this was a first. I knew that if the water was too scalding it would be difficult to put a foot in, let alone to lower my more sensitive parts below the water line. I feared, on the other hand, that if I allowed only a lukewarm mix there would not be enough hot water left in the tank to raise the temperature to a comfortable level once I got in.
As I stood there naked in the steam I was struck by how much water a bath uses. I remembered my mother-in-law saying that during the war they were allowed only six inches and I understood why. I had both taps running faster and fuller and for a longer time than I would normally spend under the shower. A bath, I thought, must equal ten or twenty showers.
With that thought I lowered myself gingerly into the very hot water. The tap contained a lot more hot so I allowed myself a further splash of cold before adjusting it back up. I was, I suddenly realised, having a bath.
What to do next? In bed, if I want to relax, I lie on my side or my front. In a bath on your own the only option is to lie on your back. It is impossible to straighten out. There are three possible positions.
1. Feet under the taps, legs straight but the chest, arms and neck are well above water.
2. Feet raised on the wall above the taps. This allows you to sink your torso down into the warm water but leaves your thighs, legs and feet out of the water.
3. The hammock position where you lie on your back with your middle submerged but both ends of you high and dry. Think banana.
While the most comfortable and relaxing position is to have water around your upper body, you have to shift occasionally to dunk and warm your exposed limbs.
The most unexpected thing about this whole experiment was to be confronted at close quarters with my own body. In the shower you do not look at yourself. In a bath you cannot avoid it. I was shocked not to see the lean, taut body I remembered from my last bath probably twenty years ago. It had aged, wrinkled and plumped up considerably since then.
I duly soaped myself, rinsed the suds off and lay back. Now what, I asked myself. A bath is not relaxing at all. How much longer should I tolerate this semi immersion in expensively heated water? At least I was wallowing only in my own dirt. But my thoughts raced and I could not write them down in the bath. I had expected this piece to be another of my “little pleasures”. My wife, however, had opined that taking a bath was boring and she was, I now thought, quite right. Since there was hardly room or opportunity for the two of us to make it less boring, I decided it was time to pull the plug.

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ON DOING NOTHING

 

By William Wood

There are different ways of doing nothing and different circumstances. For some people doing nothing means no working, for others it might mean lack of entertainment.

To do nothing you must make an effort. Because of course you cannot really do nothing. Even if you are asleep your brain and body are working hard to replenish themselves. If you are in a prison cell the lack of space and activity is possibly as close as you might get to doing nothing. In a monastic cell on the other hand you might be meditating or praying.

There are less extreme cases of forced inactivity. Many people find it hard to cope with routine travel. A few decades ago commuters would happily read a newspaper or a book or listen to music on their Walkman. Nowadays a smart phone enables passengers to kill time. Others, usually the plumpest, kill time and themselves by eating. But why kill time? Why not enjoy it and do nothing?

You, too, were guilty as a commuter of thinking of the journey as a waste of time if you were not doing something. Over five years you read the whole of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. You did not realize that it was and it still is equally rewarding to do nothing. Here is how it is done.

Go back to that journey. Yes, you have done it many times before. You have an hour to fill and kill. Now put down that book or Kindle or cell phone, sit back and look around. The seasons change, the landscape changes and even the other passengers sometimes change.

You can eavesdrop or simply observe. As a writer you still find it hard to do absolutely nothing. You feel like recording a pithy remark, a colourful turn of phrase, to record an incident or share a story that you hear or witness on the train. Regrettably you have observed and forgotten many more moving, tragic, heroic, amusing or frightening events than you have written down. Why? Because you did nothing about them. You listened and time slipped by unharmed. You learned simply to enjoy what was going on around you.

You may also take pleasure in people- watching from a park bench or in a packed art gallery. In the former you might be eating a sandwich, in the latter taking a rest, so strictly speaking you are hardly doing nothing. Similarly strolling about the city, perhaps sightseeing, you are occupied. Doing nothing is not easy.

The worst scenario is an airport lounge when your plane is cancelled or delayed. You are too busy having to queue for information, watching the monitor boards or waiting for an announcement that you are neither doing nothing nor doing something. You are in the limbo of uncertainty and anxiety and the problem is that you do not know how long it will last. It is stressful. Some resort to drink and will become objectionable passengers.

The best place to attempt to do nothing is at home. There are always jobs to do. Drop them. Turn off music, TV, radio and telephone. Close that book. Sit in silence. Silence is important. You may daydream, let your thoughts roam. Have communion with yourself.

If you live in the country, leave the housework and the gardening and all the other chores. Just go and sit. By all means look around, enjoy the birdsong, the buzzing of bees and other insects, the scent. Feel the sun or the breeze on your skin. Let your thoughts run free. This is the closest you can get to doing nothing while conscious even though all your senses are registering the activity.

There have always been such fads and fashions as yoga, meditation, mindfulness. All require an element of concentration. Doing nothing is a step beyond. Release your thoughts. Sit, or lie and do…nothing. It is no contradiction to say that this will recharge your batteries, allow your energy to surge back and cope with all the busy-ness of the rest of your life.

For if you literally did nothing you would be dead. And even then you are decomposing.


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A SHORT STORY FOR CHRISTMAS

PRESENCE
As soon as he stepped inside from the storm, Edward noticed the cottage was warm. This was not what he had expected. He was braced to riddle out the cold ash and clinker from the kitchen range, light a new fire and wait until its warmth heated the water and radiated through the house.
From the car to the front porch was only a matter of yards but in taking his bags from the boot then searching in his deep pockets for the house keys he had become soaked by the sluicing rain. He now stood dripping on to the wooden floor and puzzling why it was warm inside. He switched on the light and looked around. Yes, the house had stood empty for over six months but it definitely felt warm. He breathed slowly in. The air was not even damp or clammy with cold and mildew as he had dreaded. It was scented with the faint trace of coal smoke.
He should have been pleased and in a way, after the long and difficult drive, he was pleased to feel comfortable, at home even. But not relaxed. Not only did the house feel warm, it smelled and felt lived in and this alarmed him.
He dropped his bags on the porch mat and opened the door into the kitchen. He went straight over to the range but he had no need to touch it to find out if it was burning. On top the big, smoke blackened kettle, in his mind and memory very much part of the range itself, was quietly singing. A tea pot and one cup and saucer had been set on the bare, wooden table with a tea caddy, a spoon and the little brown jug filled with milk beside it.
Edward looked round the rest of the small room; cast his eye over the dresser and the open cupboards. All the other cups and plates were undisturbed; a bird book lay where he remembered leaving it on the window sill. There was no sign of occupation. He dismissed the idea of squatters moving in.
He also remembered filling the coal scuttle before he left at what now seemed half a life time ago, but he knew he had not laid the fire. He could not have done for it had still been burning when he left.
The scuttle, curiously, was still full or it had been refilled. For someone had lit the fire. He opened the cast iron door using the oven glove that always hung on the hand rail. The coal, mixed ovoids he recalled, glowed slowly and steadily. Clearly it had been alight some time. He turned the tap on over the big, stone sink. After a while the water ran hot.
If not a squatter, then who? It did not for a moment occur to him that the house had been heated, the tea things set out for him. Besides, no one knew he was coming. None of his friends had asked to borrow the house; few of them knew about it anyway, and he would certainly not have let it to strangers. He went back to the porch and peeked into the sitting room on the other side of the cottage. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed, nothing removed, nothing added. Except, he realized, for a small pile of mail that had been stacked neatly on the coffee table. Someone had gathered them up; otherwise he would have trodden on them when he came in the front door. He shuffled through them. There were one of two personal letters and cards that were several months old. All these were from people who by now knew what had happened or at least knew that he was no longer there, some of them he had even seen since. There was the usual junk mail, one official letter about electoral registration and a mail order catalogue from a firm from whom he had once or twice bought shirts. But one letter, an invitation, to a fund-raising event in a nearby village, was dated only yesterday. Some one had been here since.
For a moment he thought he was in one of those horrid situations like a surprise birthday party. He would open a door and everyone he knew would break out into “happy birthday to you.” Only it wasn’t his birthday and he was convinced he had not let slip his plans about coming down here in the first place. Even if he had, no one else owned a key. Not any more.
Outside the storm raged on. He had brought provisions with him but since the kettle was hot and the tea at hand, he would make do with a cuppa before unloading the car. First, though, seeing the house was warm, he would take the bed clothes out of the trunk upstairs and give them an airing before making the bed. He had actually brought a sleeping bag for the first night, thinking he would have to wait at least one night for the damp chill to leave the mattress and the sheets.
He removed his coat, still dripping, hung it on the peg inside the porch, and climbed the stairs. He was still suspicious. Whoever had lit the fire and set out the tea things might be hiding, waiting upstairs. He thought for some reason of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Though he was unsure which character he would be in the fairy story.
His bedroom door was ajar. There was no Goldilocks, no Sleeping Beauty in his bed, but what he encountered surprised him almost as much. The bed had been freshly made up, an edge of the duvet turned back and a bowl of late flowering roses arranged in a vase on the bedside table.
When he left so suddenly all that time ago he may not have made the bed, but those sheets would not have been so crisp and sweet. That is why he had intended to take clean ones from the trunk. But it was not necessary. He took the pillow up from the bed and buried his face in it. The pillow was freshly laundered. He pulled back the duvet and sniffed the sheets. As far as he could tell, no one had slept in them. And yet, and yet, what was this? Carefully pulling the duvet right back, there was the impression of a body, as though someone had at least been resting there. He flung the duvet back over, thinking what nonsense! He was just tired; and it was an old mattress full of bumps and lumps and depressions.
The only other oddity upstairs was that a clean towel had been hung on the towel rail. Everything was in order. Much less dust than he had expected, but otherwise the cottage had stood up remarkably well to his absence.
He made a thorough search of the house just to ascertain no one was hiding away and that no cameras had been installed for some reality TV show or other. He found nothing else.
He did not feel watched; he no longer felt threatened. His mind was numbed by the long journey during which he had had to will himself to return to the cottage, to the place if not the scene of the tragedy. It was time to clear everything out, to find an estate agent and to put the cottage on the market. No point in leaving the building and its few contents to moulder slowly and to fall into disrepair. He was ready to draw a line. It was for the best.
He could not explain the excellent state of the cottage, its warmth, the tea and the made-up bed but it was nothing to be afraid of. It was a benign influence. So much so that he went downstairs, brewed tea and dozed in the warmth of the kitchen range. It was like old times. It was as if nothing had happened. Except that now he was on his own. At least, he supposed he was.
He was so weary that he did not bother to fetch his provisions from the car. He was not hungry. He was so very tired that he automatically stoked up the range, drew the curtains and went up to bed. The only precaution he took was to bolt the door on the inside. It would all make sense in the morning.
Before he had run through in his mind the various tasks he intended to do for the rest of the week, or indeed, as long as it would take to rid himself of this cottage where he had, until last year, been so happy, he fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep.
It was already light when Edward woke up. The storm had abated though water still ran in the gutters. For a moment he wondered where on earth he was. He became aware of a pleasant, burning smell. Suddenly realizing what it was he stumbled out of bed and hurried downstairs in his pyjamas. This time he would catch the intruder. The door, he noticed, was still bolted shut. The kitchen was empty, though the curtains had been drawn to let the sunlight in and there on the table lay a plate of bacon, eggs and fried bread with tomatoes and mushrooms on the side.
Hungry though he was, he was too alarmed to touch this ready breakfast.
“No, no,” he cried and ran back upstairs, hurried to the bathroom though he did not pause to shave or shower. He dressed and repacked his bags. This took only minutes but he fumbled and stumbled, his eyes blinded by grief. “No, no, my darling,” he cried. “You can’t do this. There is no way back now.”
At the foot of the stairs he struggled with the front door bolt and opened the door. Light and fresh air burst in. He turned round and called back into the house,
“Don’t you see, my love, we shall not ever be together again. Not properly. I am going now for good.”
He shut the door firmly and got into his car. Tears were streaming down his face. But he had made his decision. He would not change his mind now. The past was the past. He would leave the cottage for her to haunt if that was what she was doing, but he would no longer be part of it. He would never return.

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