The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

Clotted history

Some of you will know that back in October I was taken ill with pulmonary emboli. At the time I wrote an account of the first few hours in hospital.

The man with the thick Indian accent returns to my bedside.
‘There is no chickin alfurno,’ he says. ‘You want vegetarian sausage?’
‘What else is there?’
He checks his sheet and says something. I feel terrible asking him to repeat it but I really can’t unpick what he said.
‘Collillower pasda,’ he says.
‘No meat on the menu?’
‘No meat.’
We smile at each other. My smile has an edge that says ‘I need meat’. He says something about the other menu, something inscrutable that ends roastchickin-stuffing.
‘Yes, that,’ I say, as firmly as I can.
Since coming onto the ward no one has told me anything apart from what is on the menu. The porter dropped me off by the bed and since then I have sat on it. I don’t know where the toilets are, if I’m allowed to unplug the oxygen should I want to visit them, where the water is if I’m thirsty, what is going to happen next. There is a thermometer cap in one of my shoes.
Eventually a nurse, also with an Indian accent, sits by the bed.
‘Do you live in house, flat?’
This question has been posed all around the ward. Every other patient has been asked it; some several times.
‘A house,’ I say.
This proves to be the easiest answer to an otherwise bizarre questionnaire. How much do I drink? My standard answer is in average units a week. But that confuses the nurse. I look at the questionnaire. She has misunderstood it. ‘The question is “how often does the patient drink more than eight drinks in one session?”’ I say. ‘And the answer is: not very often.’
My wife points out, ‘It says half a pint is one drink.’
Not where I come from.
‘Are other people worried about you?’ asks the nurse.
‘They would be if I drank half pints.’
In the neighbouring bed an old man with horribly bruised shins is being shouted at in an Indian accent by a doctor.
‘How do you like to call you?’
‘Well, my name is Joseph’, he says.
Around the corner, out of sight, another old man called Wallis Williams is also being shouted at. I have been asked twice if I am Wallis Williams. If anyone asks me a third time I will say that I am just to see what happens.
Jacob, Wallis and I are the only inhabitants of the ward. There is one empty bed and a toilet with a large female sign. After a while a young gangly nurse sits in a chair in the middle of the ward, angled away from Williams, but sneakily watching him.
‘I didn’t think you looked like a Wallis,’ she whispers to me.

I have told my story eight times. First to the GP, who thought it was probably asthma, despite my peak flow monitor performance. ‘You’ve got to kill the tiger,’ he says, pointing at the wall. ‘Imagine this tube fires poisonous darts and you’re about to be attacked. Now kill the tiger!’
I kill the tiger. The arrow shoots to the very end of the tube. I feel like I have won at the fairground, even without the ding of a bell.
‘Oh,’ says the GP, blowing down the tube himself to see if it is broken.
The next time I tell the story it is on the phone to the emergency doctor’s receptionist, then to the emergency doctor’s nurse and then to the ambulance crew that she sends around.
‘We might have to shave off your chest hair,’ says Greg the paramedic. ‘In squares.’
In the ambulance Greg’s female colleague tells me that she hates doing maternity calls because it’s not really an illness. And she hates traffic accidents because they are usually chaotic and if you don’t get there first you have no chance of imposing any order. Most of their calls come from the blind drunk.
‘Who calls it in?’ I ask.
‘Their blind drunk friends.’
Greg, while we wait in the unloading bay at the hospital, says that sometimes patients have to wait for three hours in the back of a cold ambulance before going in. As soon as they set foot through the hospital doors, the clock starts ticking, and the hospital trust gets fined if they are not seen within fifteen minutes. So during busy times, they are simply left outside. That ties up the local ambulances, meaning that emergencies have to be dealt with by vehicles coming in from other areas.
‘When I finally get free,’ he says, ‘I’ll have to go to Bedford ‘cause all their units are over here.’
My wait is thankfully short, and I tell my story for the fifth time on a bed in the corridor. The nurse says that I am ischaemic. I ask her how you spell ischaemic. I like to know what words are, especially when they refer to my heart. She does not know, and apologises. ‘It’s easier when you write it down,' she says.
I tell my story for the sixth time to an assessing consultant. He says the blood from my veins is acidotic.
‘How do you spell that?’
He takes a second sample from an artery, digging round for twenty minutes in my wrist before tapping the spring.
‘Is the book good?’ he asks, glancing at The Blue Flower on my lap while he digs.
‘A bit flitty. I can’t get into it.’
‘I’m more of a movie man myself,’ he says. The consultant likes action and comedy. Taken was good, but Taken II was rubbish. I ask him to spell it. I cannot understand his accent. My blood is not acidotic after all.
I have not eaten or drunk anything since breakfast and it is two o’clock in the afternoon. I ask the movie doctor for a drink; he goes away and does not come back. I ask a Filipino nurse for a drink and he comes back, not with a drink but a form to sign. I ask what it is and he mutters something indistinct. I sign it. As it disappears from view, my wife arrives.
‘I think I just said the hospital can steal my stuff,’ I say. She gets me a four cups of water. ‘And where’s my laptop?’
The seventh retelling is to the senior consultant who thinks that it is probably a blood clot in the lungs. He sends me up for a CT scan. The radiologist looks like Liam Neeson in Taken.
‘Any problems with allergies?’ he says.
‘Not unless you’ve got any rabbits in here.’ He looks sinister. Don’t shoot me, I think, as I glide backwards, arms in hallelujah pose over my head.
The machine comes to life, hurling its band around my chest. I hold my breath when they tell me to, and could have held longer. I killed the tiger. I won at the fair. Dye shoots through a cannula into my blood stream. It feels like a warm hug on the inside, a hug that licks my balls. I can taste metal in the back of my mouth. It’s the closest I have come to sex for three weeks. Liam Neeson helps me up, still glaring. I haven’t got your daughter.
Finally, I speak to a chest specialist.
‘Tell me everything,’ she says.

My corner of the ward makes Harry Potter’s cupboard look inviting. A bed-sized alcove, yellow paint and a window looking out to a brick wall four feet away. The young nurse is still monitoring Wallis Williams out of the corner of her eye. Roastchickinstuffing arrives, seasoned by appetite. It is better than airline food, better than collillower pasda would have been. I imagine Gordon Ramsey, in the bowels of the hospital kitchens, yelling at the staff. ‘Don’t make dishes the porters can’t pronounce! You fricking wazzocks.’
The chest specialist speaks unambiguously. ‘You have multiple blood clots in both lungs. Now we just need to find out why.’
I am wheeled feet first to another ward, rushed up bright corridors from The Shining. The porter behind drives into the porter in front, as well as scraping the walls and crashing into doors. My feet get in the way. The Coronary Care Unit is lighter and more spacious. Wallis Williams would like it up here. How do you spell that? I ask the nurse, whose name is Ambuja. I am hooked up to thirteen wires and an oxygen tube and have seventeen syringes of my blood taken away. When I move, the monitor above my head alarms. The television cranes down to advertise at the side of my face. A few loose burps fly around the ward from behind the blue curtains. What do I do now?
At least no one has stolen my laptop. I open it, and start to write.


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