According to the private publishers and poet Philip Ward life should be full of books. For those who don’t know where to start Ward has compiled a list. His A Lifetime’s Reading lists 500 titles that everyone should be encouraged to get through. At the rate of ten a year the quantity is not onerous. Quite manageable, Ward thinks. He does, however, allow his suggested texts to increase in complexity as the years roll by. At my age I should now be consuming Ludwig Wittgenstein, Giovanni Boccaccio, Nur Ad-Din ‘Abd Ar-Rahman Jami and Abu Bakr Muhamma Bin ‘Abdulmalik Ibn Tufail. Just a few established mind stretchers that a person of my maturity should be able to manage with ease.
Instead I spend my waking hours navigating the health system. Dealing with doctors, worrying about what they’ll fine, coping with the NHS. Ibn Tufail practised medicine, it seems, but back in fifteenth century Cadiz, which is where he came from, they still used leaches and rather than check you by X-Ray they’d pour a mixture of tincture of serma, mercury and wheat germ down your throat and hope for the best. Prednisolone was unknown. Their cure for PMR pain was to cut into the muscle and let air into your legs.
I’m heading for X-Ray. There are muscle pains in my limbs which are at variance with the kind that PMR delivers. Mine don’t go away when you walk. Prednisolone won’t touch them. Instead they hover and pulse.
The treatment is to be a couple of facet joint injections and a lumbar nerve root block. The advance information UHW have sent me warns against having this done if I’m taking blood thinning agents (I’m not), tells me that I should avoid driving immediately afterwards and then sternly admonishes me in advance in case I fail to turn up.
I’ve spent the morning at the gym trying to make myself younger and as it wasn’t raining I’ve also walked to the hospital rather than booked a cab. I feel fit and awake. But this isn’t going to last.
I present myself at X-Ray reception and am told by a man who looks a little like David Walliams that today my procedure is being carried out in the children’s department. Down the corridor, follow the purple octopus. I do. And there it is over the door, pointing its tentacles. You’ll be fine, says the Children’s receptionist. Must be an NHS word that, fine. Drummed in at induction. Everyone uses it. All the time.
I’m the only patient. The otherwise abandoned waiting room, stuffed with a disarray of toys, colourful posters and child-friendly furniture feels like something out of JG Ballard novel. There’s a dark otherness seeping in. I’m beginning to recognise the signs.
The procedure itself takes around twenty minutes. Local anaesthetic. Needles into the lower back. A sensation of ice crawling down my leg. Lots of encouraging words from the clinician. The whole deal is monitored on a sort of video x-ray machine although I don’t see this, lying as I am on my front.
Good, done. You’ll be fine now. We’ll just wheel you into the recovery room and let you rest for fifteen minutes. Back soon. That’s the radiographer. She is wearing a set of tartan-covered lead panels, a bit like the sort of things newsreaders wear when reporting from Afghanistan. They are extremely fetching. I’ll be fine soon. I try to move my right leg. Can’t.
And after fifteen minutes I still can’t. I attempt to point my foot at my shoe and the limb sways and waves. Misses. Misses again. It’s like trying to spear fish underwater. The tartan clad radiographer is back and with an assistant this time. Together they try to get me on my feet. Legless I sway and they have to stop me from falling. You have another fifteen, there’s a love, nothing to worry about. You’ll be fine.
Fine, fine. But I’m not.
I fish out my phone and decide to ring for assistance. It’s obvious that I’m not going to get out of here unaided. But naturally there’s no signal. I stop a passing nursing assistant and ask if she can make a call for me. Can’t. No outside line here. You hang on, the radiographers will soon be back.
Time passes. The recovery room fills and empties. Patients are brought in and wheeled out again. Opposite a man who once might have been a miner or a steel worker, ancient tattoos on his arms, rheumy eyes, sits in a wheelchair. He is having his procedure explained to him by a doctor wearing full operating theatre kit. Scrubs, head bandana, hairy arms. Anything else you want to know, Mr Jones? Mr Jones shakes his head. It’s all above me, this, he says. You just carry on. Right, says the doctor, we’ll be back.
I try to climb down off the recovery trolley, touch ground, and sway precipitously. Mr Jones opposite looks alarmed. I grab for the wall. You stay where you are butt, Mr Jones says. If you fall I won’t be able to help you. He waves an arm which is attached to a drip. His legs are covered with a blanket.
I do another 30 mins on the trolley waiting for the leg I no longer have to make a miraculous reappearance but it doesn’t. I decide, then, to make a break for it. I’ve been here three and a half hours now. Enough. I get myself off and balanced against a wall. Jacket half on half off. Phone in my trousers. Tentatively I try walking. So long as I keep one hand on the wall I can just about manage it. The missing leg is like a piece of rope trailing. I haul away and get out into the main corridor. It’s like joining the M4. Floods of human traffic rolling in both directions.
You okay, asks a passing nurse. I look pained but nod. Good. You’ll be fine. Where’s the Concourse? I ask. She points up a corridor that seems to run on for several miles. I set off.
Progress is about as slow as it can be. I cling to the wall, stumble and half crawl. I’m among the hospital’s surging hordes now. Uniformed practitioners, suit wearing surgeons, patients on sticks, bandaged, wearing dressing downs, in wheelchairs, on trolleys. Some stop to help. Most look in pain or concerned or both.
A fat woman in a motorised wheelchair slows. Can I do anything? she asks. She does look concerned. Doesn’t matter, I say, I’ll be fine. Hell, even I’m catching it now.
Eventually after two face down falls and one episode of being helped into the lift by a dressing-gowned man on a stick I reach the concourse. Gratefully fall into a seat and check the phone. Signal at last. I ring the love of my life for help. Get me out of here, I say. I’m overcome with a desire to get seriously down to reading and have done with all this NHS stuff.
It takes a good 24 hours for my leg to come back. Two worried phone calls to the Out of Hours service and one to NHS Direct to check if I’m not going to be like this forever - Wait until tomorrow, they all say. You’ll be fine - and then there it is. A leg that works. It’s pain free and it holds you up. Praise be Bin ‘Abdulmalik Ibn Tufail. I get straight onto Amazon and trying ordering his books. Any Tuhfat al-Ahrar or Fusus al-Hikam or even the hard to find Haft Awrang, once essential reading everywhere from here to Persia. Nothing.
They were right, of course. I am fine. Bookless I go to the pub instead.