Tony Thomas

Return to the Wild: Part II

There was a tragic episode in my hospital stay. At primary school we all liked our classmate Annie, who was short and cute. She was a bundle of good humor and impish charm.

I heard from a visitor that Annie was in hospital too. I didn’t really know her and a decade had elapsed. But my gregarious self decided to pay her a visit.

When I came into her room, she was not the lively kid I remembered. Her parents and   other family members were there too. They were surprised at my arrival, in my dressing gown, but we all made small talk around the bedside. I asked Annie, “What are your plans when you get out of here?”

“I’ll be doing physiotherapy.”

“What’s up with you?”

“I was playing tennis and got a big headache. They’ve put me here to check up on it.”

I’m a great talker but eventually I intuited, from meaningful glances, that I had outworn my welcome.

Next day a sister dropped by my bed and said, “By the way, don’t visit Annie again. She just wants her family.”

Oh well, fair enough, I thought.

She died a few weeks later from her brain tumor. I kicked myself for having spoiled that evening with her family…

I was now in love with a small dark nurse, Vicky, who had a squeaky voice. Her other charms more than compensated. How angry I would get when my sister imitated her as Donald Duck!

All our meetings depended on when she was rostered to Ward 2B. One late evening other nurses, vicariously excited by our romantic goings-on, told me that Vicky was rostered on the same floor, on 2D among the women patients.

I decided to wander over. I didn’t really have a plan.

Just as I got to 2D a sister accosted me: “What are you doing here?”

“Isn’t this the bank?” I replied.

These days, with banks consisting of a box in the wall, my query might be answered with, “Yes, around the corner to the right”. But in those days, a “bank” was a substantial building you went into between 10am and 4pm. I just happened to blurt out my “bank” bit, not wanting to dob in Vicky.

“Stay right there,” said sister, and phoned for reinforcements.

I elaborated on the bank story to what was now two concerned sisters.

They escorted me back to bed and departed, conferring in low tones.

“They’ve gone to get matron,” said one of my nurses. “They think you’ve gone crazy.”

People do go crazy in hospitals. I might indeed have become a touch hyper, excited by the gallantry of my conduct. Well let’s do the crazy thing, I thought. When no-one was nearby, I hopped out of bed and dived under it, concealed by the overhangs.

A bustle outside, and the two sisters arrived, plus Matron.

I could see their six white shoes. I got a fit of the giggles and the bed twitched. Matron stooped and peered in at me.

She barely paused. Patient gone crazy. Follow-up required.

A nurse put me back into bed. As she tucked me up, she hissed: “Matron has gone to get the Registrar. He’ll send you off to Heathcote (a mental hospital across the Swan River). Stop this fooling around or you’ll be in big trouble!”

It was a shock like a smack in the face. How would I convince the Registrar that I was sane? Acting crazy is easy, but acting ‘sane’? What do ‘sane’ people say, what do they do? If they talk a lot or don’t say a lot, would it suggest sanity or insanity?

My ‘look sane’ solution was to haul out my chess set. I started playing a scripted game from my chess book, Alekhine vs Nimzowitsch 1930. (I had overlooked that many great chess players, like Bobby Fischer, were stir-crazy).

When Registrar arrived, I was deep in chessly analysis.

“I’m told you’ve been acting strangely.”

“I suppose so, but there could well be rational explanations.”

“Like what?”

“Well I’d rather not say, just take my word for it. There was a lady involved.”

Registrar glanced at my chess board. “That rook’s in trouble,” he said.

As they left the ward, he was speaking sharply to the Matron. Probably: “You mean you interrupted my work on next year’s budget cuts, to check out this insanity case?”

I assume that Matron rounded on the sisters, with similar irritation. Sisters probably gave nurses a hard time that night.

I finished the chess exercise and went to sleep…

From somewhere I acquired a do-it-yourself stereo amplifier kit, but only managed to achieve a rat’s-nest effect with my bedside soldering iron. A near-stranger, husband of a remote cousin, took it off me and brought it back a week later looking kosher with all the wiring as disciplined as a traffic grid. I had also acquired for some reason a used 3-disk 12in stereo opera set, Il Trovatore (1959) with Mario del Monaco, he of the clarion voice. I plugged in my stereo earphones and lowered the stylus onto the turntable. At that time stereo music was a novelty and stereo over earphones even more so a novelty.

I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was like the vault of the sky with each star beaming at me an instrument, a voice, a delight. The chorus – especially that anvil number – wrapped around my brain like the milky way. I lay back on my pillow, as ravished as St Teresa of Avila. Half way through the platter, a non-musical voice intruded into my first opera experience. It was Bill in the bed alongside: “Tony, you’re stuff’s on fire!” I opened my eyes: brown smoke was curling from the amplifier. I flung off the earphones and switched off the power. The transformer had shorted. No more heavenly music for me, I grieved. But my cousin’s husband re-emerged and swapped in a new, non-faulty transformer.   A half-century later I am still hooked on opera. But what if my first random choices had been, say, Richard Strauss’s Elektra or some pot-boiler by Massenet? Was it just a fluke that my first pick, Trovatore, was the most tuneful of all operas, or is there a divinity that shapes our ends?…

One evening we were assembled for a meeting, modestly attired in our dressing gowns. We came with a wide variety of health defects and a skewing towards the lower tiers of the social spectrum. For modesty’s sake, we were sex-segregated – male invalids seated left, females to the right. The Registrar and a small troupe of his assistants came in and one began taking notes on a clipboard. The minutes were read from the previous annual meeting, 1961. Not many of us were at the previous meeting, because we were either cured or deceased. Regardless, the “minutes” (whatever that  meant) were “adopted” and the Treasurer’s report approved – we owned some trivial bank account somewhere. The bigshots raced through the rest of the agenda and came to general business. Questions? A lady, whom I viewed then as old, began rabbitting on about how her son never visited because her daughter-in-law was an evil influence. The bigshots managed to shut her up and closed the meeting. They filed out briskly, and we patients shuffled back to our wards, none-the-wiser.

What was it all about? Looking back, I speculate that some years earlier than 1962, there had been a scandal of neglect or worse, and the health minister  demanded a mechanism by which inmates could ventilate their concerns, a “patients’ association” or some such. The formal charade of an annual meeting resulted, and the hospital bigshots could include the all-clear from the meeting in their annual report to the minister. For all I know, those annual meetings continue  to this day, and the aforementioned bank balance  has by now swelled to $80.23 or similar…

After three months I was all a-twitter because my sentence in the hospital was up. But when I inquired about my departure day, they told me, “Not yet.” (The Russian word ‘nyet’ gets the flavor even better).

It was three more months until I finally got the OK to exit.

I was gladness from tip to toe. I packed up my bedside possessions, and Mum collected me in my A40.

We arrived back in Willagee; there was the pine forest stretching across the valley, my home, my sleepout, freedom.

It was what my ego wanted, but my id had other ideas. I came down with my first migraine-style headache. Even now, at 72, I’ve never had another.

Mum rang the hospital, they send a cab to get me, and back I went into Ward 2B, with people getting my meals, taking my temperature, and feeding me pills.   

I stayed in 2B another week, and they released me again back into the wild. No migraine this time.

Mum had been driving my car for six months, ignoring the vibrations from the  front end.   That first day, I drove it to a garage, cursing Mum as the steering wheel danced in my hands. The foreman said he’d do a four-wheel balance. He took off the right front wheel, and saw the entire problem: that tyre was misaligned. But he insisted I pay for the whole four-wheel balancing job. Back in the wild, one must  be wary of predators.

I sort-of hated my hospital stay. But looking back, that youngster had some fun and maybe learnt a few things in Ward 2B.

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