I walked into A & E at Kings at 10 past 5 in the late afternoon of January 17th 2002. It looked more like a post office than the casualty department of one of Londons busiest hospitals. A bizarre 10 metre long reception desk finished with mock mahogany and topped by toughened tinted glass, faced rows of steel seating (easier to wash the blood off than cushioned fabric I imagined) on which sat that day's walking wounded.
Behind the glass, in the gloom of a single angle poise and the light coming from an open office door, sat several receptionist. English was not their first language. I was soon to learn that English was not the first language of anyone in the department that afternoon, including the English. Anyway it was completely irrelevant what language you spoke because the designer of the desk hadn't reckoned on anyone actually wanting to communicate across it. You couldn't hear what the receptionist said and they couldn't hear you. Of course the walking wounded sitting behind me could hear every word I shouted as I vainly tried to explain my predicament.
"Ive been referred here by my GP for an emergency CAT scan".
"A brain scan. I've been having blinding headaches during sex with my partner ... Hello?".
A saw her mouth move but no words were audible.
"I'm sorry?" I said.
She spoke again and this time I caught "ticket" and "sit over there".
Then I noticed there was a narrow gap between the top of the desk and the bottom of the glass. I bent down to listen through it. I was to observe countless other hapless A&E virgins repeating this absurd pantomime over the coming hours. She raised a finger and I turned to look over my shoulder in the direction she was pointing. A tiny sign read "Take a ticket and the Assessment Nurse will call you when its your turn."
"But I don't need an assessment" I shouted through the gap. "I've been referred to a specialist who wants to see me immediately. I'm on the system."
The finger didn't waver so I took a ticket and sat down. Number 44. Looking round I noticed a display in the corner of the room reading "42". I'll be out of here soon enough I thought.
My GP has suggested I take a bag in case they wanted to keep me in overnight. I considered reading the book I'd packed earlier, along with my toothbrush, a set of ear plugs, nightshirt, and a Walkman, but decided I wouldn't have time. Walkman? No, I might miss my call.
Over the next 30 minutes, as I kept one eye on the display, I slowly became aware of my surroundings. The smell of antiseptic and vomit. The cleverly patterned linoleum, white with yellow, brown and red spec’s (think about it). The endless PA announcements, many incoherent but one clear as day. "Housekeeper to paediatrics with a mop and bucket". And then more insistently 2 minutes later, "Housekeeper to paediatrics with a mop and bucket PLEASE!".
When my number came up I waited for the call. Nothing. time passed. Then the displayed moved on to 45. Wait a minute! A picked up my bag, looked around and saw a sign at the far end of the desk reading "Assessment Nurse". In an gap between the desk and the wall sat a petite, young and attractive oriental girl, murmuring "45" into a microphone that clearly wasn't switched on.
"Excuse me" I said pointing back to the seats.
"I'm 44 and we can't hear you out there".
"OK. Sit down" she sighed. She was bored with me already. I can tell these things.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
At least I assumed that's what she said. English and her were strangers too. She stared to enter my details into a database. I didn't understand much of what she asked me but because I had a clear view of the questions on her screen was able to supply some answers. Not that she understood me. I had to constantly correct her typing. Thus eventually "Mad" was corrected to "Matt", "Slanting Toad" to "St Louis Rd" and so on for what seemed like several hours. I explained my symptoms. Blinding headaches during sex. Possibility of blood leaking into the brain.
"When did you get them?" she asked.
"When I'm near orgasm" I replied, suddenly becoming aware of three or four patients milling around behind me.
"No. I mean when, yesterday? last week?"
When it was all over she told me to take a seat and wait to be called. It was 6.10pm. A father came in with his son. The boy was wearing cricket flannels and had a large purple bump on his forehead. Every few minutes a patient's name would either be announced over the PA or a keypad protected door would open and a doctor would emerge from an inner sanctum to call a patient. It was the ambition of everyone in reception to get through those doors. Fearing the door would close behind them and lock them out, consigning them to reception hell like the rest of us, the doctors would hold onto the handle with an outstretched arm and attempt to call round the corner of the desk. Unfortunately this made them both invisible and inaudible to all but those sitting closest. A TV above our heads on a shelf was showing "Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom". I suppose it could have been worse. Might have been "ER".
It was around this time that I first became aware of the man we would come to refer to as Mad Mini Isaac Hayes. I heard him before I saw him, talking away to himself in a mixture of French, Nigerian and broken English. He was tiny, black and bald with a moustache. He wore a red polo neck sweater, black full length leather jacket and clutched a large envelope of x-rays. He made a fruitless trip to the reception desk every few minutes or so to ask if his name had been called yet.
A doctor emerged.
Mad Mini Isaac Hayes rushed forward. "Who? who?"
"Catherine Woodward? me? me?"
"Catherine Woodward." The doctor's expression blank.
"Catherine Woodward? No no no! not me". Mad Mini Isaac Hayes poked his own chest and shook his head, rejecting as ridiculous the idea that he was she. He turned and faced me.
"You Catherine Woodward?"
It was going to be a long night.
Mad Mini Isaac Hayes made everything that happened in that reception over the following hours his personal business. He had been waiting since 2pm that afternoon.
Around about 7.15pm T turned up. She was very worried and obviously found the circumstances traumatic.
"What's happened? When are you going to have your scan?"
I told her there was no way of knowing. It could be in 10 minutes, it might be several hours.
"You should go home" I said.
"Certainly not! I'm going to stay here with you however long it takes".
Word she would come to regret. We sat and talked. I felt both guilty that she was having to endure this madhouse and glad I finally had someone sane to talk to. I gave her the lowdown on Mad Mini Isaac Hayes.
"But he looks more like Errol Brown".
Of course she was right but it was too late to change his name now. We spent the next few minutes trying to remember some of Hot Chocolate's numerous hits but could only come up with "You Sexy Thing" and "I Believe In Miracles", which we later realised were the same song.
When I first arrived I had noticed a man with closely cropped hair wearing a blue puffa jacket with the word "Security" printed on the back. This turned out to be Brendan. Brendan wandered in and out. He was always either outside "having a fag" or inside slumped on a seat surrounded by numerous bags, suitcases and rucksacks. Occasionally he would lie across several seats with his head on a green plastic carrier bag containing a soft toy monkey. A worried looking woman in a track suit followed him about, administering Snickers bars and tea.
"Don't go to sleep Brendan, don't you fall asleep! You'll miss them calling you."
Brendan had been coshed on the back of his head several days before, suffered a fractured skull and had been getting progressively worse ever since. As the hours passed Brendan looked less and less steady on his feet until he finally collapsed unconscious.
"Oh Brendan, Brendan!" His partner started crying.
Mad Mini Isaac Hayes was off. He charged to the reception, demanding a nurse attend immediately and then ran back.
"He'll be OK, don't worry" he reassured Brendan's tearful partner.
A bored nurse appeared. She bent over Brendan, who's eyes were rolling back in his head.
Nothing. Mad Mini Isaac Hayes offered some incomprehensible advice. The nurse turned and walked slowly back to reception.
"Porter to reception" came the announcement. On the TV Indiana Jones was fighting off a horde whilst climbing a rope. After some minutes a porter appeared with a wheelchair. He approached Brendan and stopped.
"Put the brake on, PUT THE BRAKE ON!" shouted Mad Mini Isaac Hayes.
The porter looked at him blankly.
"Put the brake on! PUT THE BRAKE ON!"
"He has put the brake on" said another patient with a lazy eye and a bandaged hand.
"I have put the brake on" echoed the porter.
Brendan was lifted into the chair and wheeled into the inner sanctum. I considered affecting a blackout myself.
Patients came and went with perhaps a hardcore of six or seven waiting patiently hour after hour. The more adventurous entered into conversations.
"How long you been here?"
"Since 11.00 this morning. You?"
"Got here at 3pm"
"This waiting is f****** outrageous. Bloody NHS. They treat us like cattle. It's not like this in the private. There's no excuse. Absolutely no excuse whatsoever. F****** out of order I say".
"They have to give priority to emergencies and children."
At about 9pm Brendan reappeared, looking remarkably recovered for someone with a fractured skull. He was walking and talking. Mad Mini Isaac Hayes and him had a "chat". At 9.30pm a nurse emerged and called my name and T and I were finally admitted to the inner sanctum. It wasn't anything to write home about but I was relieved. Unbelievably I had begun to tire of Mad Mini Isaac Hayes.
We were lead past rows of lying wounded (in the inner sanctum the hard steel seats of reception were replace by trolleys with plastic mattresses) to an alcove behind a plastic curtain. There were two seats, a table with a box of plastic gloves, and a hand basin above which a poster was pinned with exacting instructions for washing your hands. Soon a doctor arrived, she looked about 25 years old, accompanied by a giggling student doctor wearing winkle pickers named Catherine. Catherine was to examine me under the watchful eye of her superior.
There followed a hilarious process of examination during which I shamefully flirted with Catherine in an attempt to embarrass her. It wasn't difficult. They tried in vain to find some evidence of mental abnormality by wagging fingers at me, peering into my eyes, stroking my neck and face and carrying out other weird diagnostic experiments familiar to anyone who's attempted sex after a few beers and a curry. Eventually they went away to consult a consultant.
2 hours past during which T entertained me by attempting to put on a pair of surgical gloves (you had to be there). Eventually a bemused looking man arrived, I assumed he was the consultant. He sat down and asked me about my sex life and symptoms. Throughout he wore a boyish grin. It occurred to me that he might not be a doctor at all but a researcher for a reality TV show. Eventually he delivered his diagnosis.
"Coitus headache. You can go home. You're lucky it's intermittent. Some men get it all the time and can't ever ejaculate."
"Is it dangerous?" I asked.
"Oh no, ejaculation's quite safe."
Great. Just what the world needs, a comedy consultant.
"Right. Let's go" I said to T. It was 12.30am.
Outside we phoned for a cab. Brendan's missus and Mad Mini Isaac Hayes emerged for a chat and a fag. They're probably still there.