Upon awaking, the dinosaur was still there. ‘Ooh-puff, ooh-puff, ooh-puff’ it goes, and then a pained ‘ooohhha’ every three breaths. Still woozy, the pilot blinks at it and says nothing. The dinosaur is an old man with leathery olive skin, dyed black hair and a broken hip. He is very polite, and has the well-mannered voice of Alec Guinness. He is wearing a hospital gown and is lying in his bed as if submerged in it.
In this bay of the ward there are six patients. The pilot is at the end of his first week and in his third ward in the hospital Martin Wohnen. On Monday he was in Accident and Emergency, on Tuesday he was in a surgery ward, and by Friday he is in a general medicine ward. He’s in with a broken ankle and something called chronic super-structural delamination. A fracture spiraled up around his fibula when he fell over.
‘How much have you had to drink today?’ the nurse asks the dinosaur, who has a tissue pressed to his nose.
‘I beg your pardon?’ bellows Peter Cook from across the bay, and then ‘Oh… sorry’ as he realises the nurse isn’t talking to him. He puts his head back down, and looks at his watch. Peter Cook is a fat man with wild hair and the eyes and voice of the comedian. He’s lying on his bed in a pyjama top and cardigan, and on his lower half he wears a pair of incontinence pants. Like the dinosaur, he’s in for an operation on a broken hip.
‘Snore’ goes the pilot.
‘Coff’ goes the old guy in between the pilot and the dinosaur. He rarely says anything, watches TV all the time, and makes little simian coughs like Cornelius in Planet of the Apes. He has fallen arches and weakened columns and trusses on a neo-classical shopping centre emerging from his left side.
The pilot is off his head on the drugs. When he wakes up he blinks at us blankly, then scowls for a moment until recognition swims back to him. He has a ship growing high on his back between the shoulder-blades, which forces him to lie on his side, its bow on the pillow, or to lean back at an angle against the radio masts of its bridge, which the doctors and engineers don’t like because the vessel’s decking and super-structure are separating from the hull. He’s the only one from our village making a ship, which is why we call him the pilot.
‘That wasn’t my brother was it?’ says Peter Cook hopefully.
‘No’ says the nurse.
‘Hack’ goes Cornelius. Down the hall comes some demented wailing, and we all pretend not to hear it because we know that hospital draws your private pain out into public, and any of us might be next to suffer it. The wailing pauses, and then cycles round again. I wonder what permanent damage the constant vibration is doing to her voice box.
‘You would have thought he’d call by now’ says Cook with more resignation than indignation.
‘Hmm?’ says the pilot quietly. I smile at him.
The pilot’s neighbour opposite is a tiny, white-haired man with huge glasses that make his head look like an ant’s. He always sits very neatly and quietly, and never offers a word. I don’t know what he’s making. Maybe it has been removed—not an embarrassment at his age, and perhaps it can be saved. It’s better if a building has a chance to complete, but sometimes it’s not possible. Mine isn’t showing yet, but I can feel something starting. In our village people are making many apartment blocks, low-rise bungalows, commercial buildings, factories, retail shops, petrol stations, a couple of chapels, and there are a twins making a pair of bridges, one steel cable-stay construction, the other with concrete piers. Our many schools are well known. We have no airports being made which is a concern for the future, but three years ago someone made a beautiful railway station that was founded on the edge of the settlement and serves us well.
‘Kkah’ goes Cornelius.
‘Is that my brother?’ Cook says. But his brother never arrives or calls: it appears, tragically, that he’s an only twin.
‘Snore’ goes the pilot.
The dinosaur is on the phone: ‘I can’t really move at all… I wanted to carry on driving… Can’t see that happening… no… no…’
The pilot is climbing back up the evolutionary ladder. He’s moved beyond blinking to muttering. The doctor explains that the pilot’s ankle is brittle but will recover if it and the cast encasing it are looked after for a couple of months. The engineer next to her adds that they’re not yet sure about the ship. It’s possible that damage has been cumulative, that it will not recover even when rested. This hospital has no dry-dock facilities, unlike the ones in Portsmouth and Plymouth.
Hospital is all about dwelling, staying in a place, enduring, the pilot explains. Waiting for time to pass, for the doctors to do their rounds, for tests to come back, for the surgery ad engineering to happen, to heal and be discharged, or to die and be founded. Being a patient mostly means being patient.
A nurse has just fed the pilot, but he hasn’t eaten much. He is becoming more lucid, and apologises in advance in the unlikely event that he falls asleep whilst I’m there visiting him. He immediately falls asleep.
‘No-one’s got a spare cigarette have they?’ Peter Cook asks conspiratorially.
Unfortunately he’s asking the nurse, who frowns at him and kindly says ‘I don’t smoke’.
The dinosaur goes ‘ooh-puff, ooh-puff’.
Cornelius farts loudly, then makes a quiet simian cough as if to check he can still do it.
Peter Cook is wearing a sweatshirt that says Authentic. He gets up from the chair next to his bed and walks over to the nurse station on his walking frame.
‘You need to be in your bed. You. Have. A. Broken. Hip.’ explains the nurse, eyebrows raised for emphasis. It must be painful but he doesn’t seem to notice.
The pilot is now much stronger physically, and more awake. But he’s more confused than he was on Friday. He tries to get out of bed, which he’s not allowed to do yet for obvious structural reasons.
‘Where have you been for the last forty-eight hours?’
‘I was here twice yesterday, and the day before.’
‘I know that!’
‘Ooh-baf, ooh-baf, ooh-baaa…’ goes the dinosaur.
‘I’m just popping outside for a smoke. I have my own lighter’, says Cook.
‘No you can’t. Your hip. Please stay in bed or the chair. And there’s no smoking in hospital, no, not out there, and not in here either’, says the nurse. Smoking is bad for a building’s windows and ventilation.
‘What have you done with Esther?’ the pilot asks. She’s still in Scotland. He falls asleep holding the newspaper and starts to snore. He then wakes up, and turns the page, still snoring somehow. He needs to get better—your lifestyle has a large effect on your making, so it’s important to be healthy and careful. The pilot hasn’t always been healthy or careful.
At the end of the ward is a new patient, and he’s lying on his front. He doesn’t move. There’s a thick rectilinear lattice of scaffolding over most of his body, over which a surgical drape is fastened, and it either prevents him from moving, or is keeping him together. He looks a bit like a building wrapped in cloth. They bring master masons to consult, and when they inspect him behind a second curtain scaffold drawn around his bed, we can often hear the clink of their tiny hammers on stone.
Tucked into a corner at the end of the ward is a thin young man with dark hair, who’s in a wheelchair with one arm and one leg in plaster and covered in faint stitching scars. He’s been in this ward for twenty-three weeks, but his motorbike was barely scratched. They want to send him home this week, but he lost his flat whilst a patient. He feels like he lives here now.
The pilot is still confused, and increasingly frustrated at being stuck in hospital. We argue about whether the doctors are to be obeyed, or whether common sense can pull rank on healthcare’s risk-averse bureaucracy. He’s annoyed that we’ve missed our meeting, seemingly because I’m late. But the only meeting we have is now—me visiting him six till eight here in hospital. He mutters something about his back hurting from lying in bed all the time. When a nurse comes later to check him for bedsores, the motorbike tells me a rumour: last year a patient had to be cut away from the bed because they became welded to it. It was a kind of ‘adhesive friction’.
His memory is dredging old stuff up to the surface, and cementing new connections that didn’t previously exist. He wants to write a letter, but knows that his handwriting is shaky. So he suggests that he dictates to me: a letter to Esther, and also one to his mother who’d like that.
When a person completes their life and making their building, we found them in the ground, with the building poking into the air. The undertakers do this. The building grows quickly to its full size after that, and has its maker-name attached, and then can be used by people.
The pilot explains that the walking frames are harder to walk with than they appear to be. Because he is weak, his frame has padded rests for his forearms and grips at the end, which makes him look like a tower building on temporary supports. And then he tells me a funny joke: We should get the men on the ward lined up with their frames, and race a circuit of the ward, in and out of the bays. I will be the bookmaker, but must be careful to be fair and honest with the money. We’re both laughing. Then his faces changes and he says ‘I did that circuit with Myrna, the day before she died…’
He thinks we’re at home and suggests we go downstairs where it’s more relaxing. Then he thinks we’re at home and that he’s popped upstairs, where he can get a proper night’s sleep. He knows for sure though that he doesn’t want to be here. There’s a stand-off between the pilot sitting on bed, hands locked onto the side rails, and me and three nurses trying to stop him going home. When he looks at me it feels like a betrayal to side with them.
The doctor says that he has a raised indicator for inflammation, and perhaps that’s causing his confusion. More tests are to be done, but it’s making Doctor a bit nervous. Me too. I don’t like hospitals because they make you more aware of your own body’s pains and failures. My chest hurts.
Last night they found the pilot out of bed, on his knees where he had collapsed, his legs buckling.
He sleeps, and the others are also quiet. It’s as if the room has received bad news, but they’re all there—no-one’s gone. A nurse tells me it’s because they all had a restless night—this is to be expected when there’s a full moon: patients don’t sleep as well, and casualty departments are usually busier.
The nurses are wheeling some equipment trolleys past the bay. I see a box of those tiny spare tiles hospitals have so many of, delicate concrete spans sealed in medical bags, steel beams tied in a twisty-grip, jacks, finger-sized angle-grinders. A man the motorbike identifies as the quantity surveyor follows the trolleys holding a clipboard, and a construction engineer with a theodolite the size of a metronome. These tools and materials the surgeon-engineers and architectural physicians use to fix people and their makings. They’re the ones swaggering about with stethoscopes and site-boots.
The pilot asks how Myrna and Esther are. OK, I say, but he has drifted and asks the same question again. They’re fine.
‘Ooh aw ow’ says Peter Cook, feeling his hip.
‘Coff’ replies Cornelius, reassuringly. Cornelius is looking happy because he’ll be going home soon. The columns cantilevered out from his hips are recovering from their ‘eccentric load’ according to the architect.
I have used the alcohol rub every time—on the way in and out—but still I feel hospital-sick. Now I see other people not as people or even makers, but as walking skeleton-buildings, scaffolds, or as sloppy bags of bacteria and concrete aggregate. It makes me shiver. I am afraid of sickness, of death. I feel weak. I miss the village, under the sky, its ice-covered river, the sun.
The Ant keeps his head down. I suspect he is malingering, preferring the heightened attention of nurses, orderlies and porters to whatever quietness waits at home. He takes off his glasses to clean them—his eyes look like full stops.
The pilot’s newspaper droops towards the bed, he sleeps, and his first snore wakes him up. The paper is raised before dropping again thirty seconds later.
‘Who’s bringing that then?’ Peter Cook suddenly asks to the room. No-one replies.
The pilot is asleep, and when he isn’t he thinks it’s three in the morning not the afternoon, and tries to send me home to get some sleep. He’s pretty sure that the doctor said he could go home this morning, but if not, thinks they’re keeping him here for financial reasons. And then loudly explains why the health service is riddled with inefficiency. Apparently it’s the only organisation paid for what it fails to provide. And besides, the bedding is too big to fit the beds.
Cook: ‘Well, where am I going to sleep?’
There, in your bed, says the motorbike man.
‘What, there?’ And for a second it’s like the real Peter Cook is there with us, his eyes wide in comic disbelief.
Last night I keeled over in the ward. A passing nurse took me in hand, and they’re doing tests. Perhaps I am an interior—one of those patients whose making is on the inside—in their insides!—rather than on the outside. I can feel movements in me, as if something is shifting or being laid down. Sometimes the pain comes like a pile driver.
The doctor shows me my x-ray. Instead of the neat set of overlaid force-diagram lines that most people have, mine are all over the place, going in all directions, which I’ve never seen. Maybe they will send me for an MRI scan next.
Strange dreams last night. I was in a city that had buildings with no names. But the real shock was that none of the people were making anything! They seemed to be running around looking for something.
I am in a bed across from the pilot. Both the doctors and the architects say they need to do more tests on me because it isn’t clear what is happening to me yet. It’s not as simple as some missing roof tiles or a wall that needs under-pinning…
I have heard that they sometimes need to do an ‘exploratory excavation’ on such cases, lifting the roof off the structure to reveal its internal layout. I have heard the orderlies call this un-building, and hope it won’t happen to me.
But when I catch the architects’ eyes and see they have no ideas, it’s like they’ve dropped me through a hole in the ice and I shatter.
By Rod, 26 April, 2006; direct link.