One by one the strip lights flicker out and an anaemic gloom descends on Chestnut Ward. Welcome to the twilight zone. Night time on Chestnut Ward is fun time. This is when the Chestnutjobs come out to play. Shadowy figures begin to rise shakily from their beds like ghosts from the grave. Patients who haven’t so much as farted all day suddenly come round from their comatose state and seemingly decide now would be a great time for a moonlit stroll. And so there are now 3 or 4 translucent skinned, pot-bellied, raggedy bearded and toothless ill men cantering about the ward like zombies in the paddock before some sort of Living Dead Grand National. Some are silent, others more vocal. One, a wild-eyed, powerfully built Charles Manson lookey-likey called Andy is muttering to no-one in particular, “In this country one must have a television license, it’s the law, one must, must, must have a license if one has a television, in this country.” I predict that if Andy were employed by the Television License people to go round knocking on the doors of license evaders they would no longer have a problem. A nurse is now gamely attempting to round up the night prowlers and steer them back to their respective beds. Andy plants himself cross-legged on the floor, refusing to budge. Demonstrating what can only be described as 360-degree owl-vision the nurse somehow manages to spot one of the patients making a break for the exit behind her back. She sprints out of a deft spin and covers the length of the ward just in time to turn the patient round by the shoulders and guide him back towards his bed. I’m enjoying the show. Patients are stumbling off in all directions. All it needs now is for Mike Read to come on and shout, “Run around now!” No sooner has the nurse got one patient back in bed then another gets out again. It’s basically a plate-spinning act with sick people. And I’ve got a ringside seat. Say what you like about the NHS, but I bet you wouldn’t get this with Bupa. Andy’s sit-down protest climaxes with a bestial wail right out of Hammer House. Classic. Sedatives are administered and relative calm falls once more on Chestnut Ward.
Sick men seem to fear the night. When the lights go out it’s like they suddenly regress through time to that age when the bogeyman posed a very real, although entirely imaged threat. Darkness has an almost instant effect on them. They become children. It’s not unusual to hear barely concealed sniffles emanate from the darkness. There are agonising cries, trembling howls and snotty, wobbly-lipped hollers. Gut wrenching pleas of “Nurse, nurse!” and “Help me, please!” punctuate the night. The dark seems to magnify their pain, almost as if losing their sense of sight causes their other senses to overcompensate. Or maybe the darkness just reminds them too closely of the inevitable extinguishing of life’s light? It may be a case of the Grim Reaper replacing the childhood bogeyman. At the far end of the ward a nurse lit by the yellow arc of an angle poise lamp tends to a patient. It looks like a scene captured in an Edward Hopper painting. The hours of darkness for me are a patchwork quilt of snatched sleep, trips to the toilet and long periods where my mind, like an obstinate teenager, seems dead set on staying awake. This is when my thoughts turn to the possibility of the operation, of what life would be like wearing a poo pouch, how much pain I can expect, will I have to wear baggy clown clothes and other more general ruminations on my own intestines. Not so much navel gazing, but gazing past the navel to what lurks beneath. I also compose whole paragraphs in my head, some of which even see the light of day, like the one you’re reading now.