The Haunted Sick Bay

In last week’s blog, I explained about two of the three rooms in the school sick bay. The room called Firefly was better than the one called Bluebird because it had a radio. But the other room was far less pleasant than either of them.

The third room was called Britannia, and was the worst to be in. It was the furthest from the entrance and so always felt isolated and out of the way.

For all that, I do have one good memory of that room.

I was down there on one occasion and a friend came to visit. She busied herself tucking the blankets round me and then remarked, “If I do all this for you, what would I do for someone I really liked?”

(By this she meant, I think, a Manchester United football player.)

That story aside, I really didn’t like Britannia, and my feelings about the room were not helped by one of the older girls telling me that the room was haunted.

Nowadays, of course, I would find that really rather interesting, but at the time it made me very uneasy. Alone in Britannia one night, I thought I heard the springs creaking in one of the other, unoccupied, beds. I lay there in fear, wondering whether I had been joined by the ghost of a former patient, perhaps one who had not made it out of the sick bay alive.

I can’t tell you how relieved I was when daylight finally started to shine in through the curtains and revealed that I truly was alone.

According to schoolgirl legend, we had a number of ghosts at our school. As the main building had been a 17th-century manor house, this might not have been all that surprising, but all the spectres were, in the stories I heard, of much more recent vintage. There was The Grey Lady, for instance, who was reputed to wander the corridors at night.

For some reason, I never met anyone who had actually encountered her, though.

Then there was the legend of Stella.

We had an impressive entrance hall and rising up from it was an oak staircase with a shiny brass handrail. There was a dent in the rail near the bottom. The story went that a girl, Stella, was so unhappy at Chorleywood that she had thrown herself from the top of the oak stairs, hit her head on the rail at the bottom, and subsequently died. The tale was entirely fictitious but this didn’t stop it being handed down from year to year. In fact it was remarkably enduring for a piece of fake news.

But returning to the subject of the sick bay, I ought to mention that we were well provided for, in that there was always a qualified nurse in charge, and even those who stood in for her when she was off duty generally had some nursing training. My friend and I would often sit in Surgery, after the evening rush had died down, and talk to the nurses, one of whom has remained a friend to this day.

All alone with the Romans

In my last blog, I was telling you about the Chorleywood College ‘flu epidemic of 1976 and how I ended up in the school sick bay.

On that occasion, I was in the nicer of the two two-bed rooms, and one of my form-mates was in there too, so at least I had someone to talk to. It could have been worse, and on other occasions it was. Sick bay could be a very lonely place.

I remember being by myself in there one time and hearing my friends talking as they walked along the form-room corridor. In reality, they were only a few feet away from where I lay, but my isolation made it feel more like a million miles.

Being in sick bay was always a bit of a mixed experience. If you were really poorly, of course, you were just grateful to be in bed. When you were feeling a little better, however, you could lie there in blissful idleness while imagining everyone else grinding away at their lessons. You had to enjoy this fleeting pleasure while you could, however, because once you were fit again you were expected to work twice as hard in order to catch up on everything that you had missed.

All the dormitories at my school were named after ships and boats and the rooms in sick bay followed the same pattern. I think the reason behind this ludicrously inappropriate nautical theme was that the school originally started at a barn in a village called Jordans, which was supposed to have some of the wood from the Pilgrim Fathers’ ship the Mayflower incorporated into its structure. This tenuous historical maritime link was sufficient to engender a constant obsession with comparing the school to a ship, a symbolism particularly noticeable in the school song. This was entitled “Our ship” and had music by Albert E. Bevan and words by Gwen Upcott. It contained the memorable line, “Once aboard the Cedars, (i.e. the school) you’re never going back” (see Memory 80 on this page for the full lyrics). We found these words darkly ominous and all hated the school song with a vengeance.

Anyway, the first two-bed room in the sick bay was called Firefly. It had a radio in it, which helped to while away the hours and was one of the reasons I thought it was the better room. The middle room, Bluebird, had no such amenity. I remember being confined there once with an infectious illness, so that I was not allowed any visitors. I had no company apart from my book, Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow, which was about the Romans trying to invade Germany.

Much as I enjoyed historical fiction, I did get bored. I certainly got fed up with my own company.

What made it worse was that there were two girls in Firefly and I could hear them talking through the wall. One day, one of the care staff came in and remarked that Liz and Elaine next door were feeling bored. I nearly screamed, “How dare they say that they’re bored! They have each other and a radio!”

When I felt well enough, I explored all the lockers in the room and found a pack of Lexicon cards with which I tried to amuse myself by dealing hands and making as many words as I could.

Not scintillating fun, but needs must!

–0-0–

As you see, I dealt with the loneliness and boredom as well as I could. But being scared stiff was another thing altogether. I’ll tell you all about that next week.

What happened the day after Agincourt

I will start by addressing the burning question of the day. No, not who won the US election but whether I have put my central heating on yet.

The answer is, “Yes.” I succumbed at the start of November.

We are in lockdown again here in the UK and some friends and I were musing on the ‘flu epidemic of 1976. To be honest, I don’t know if there really was an epidemic in the country at large or whether it was just at our special school for the visually impaired, Chorleywood College. But you can imagine how fast an infectious illness travels at a boarding school. Our sick bay had eight beds. There were two two-bed rooms and one four-bed. In no time at all these were all taken and dormitories were being pressed into service as sick bay extensions.

This all happened in my O-level year. One of the books we were studying for English Literature, which we called “English Lit”, was Shakespeare’s Henry V. I generally like Shakespeare’s plays, but Henry V is not one of my favourites.

As it happened, the famous film adaptation with Laurence Olivier was being screened at the local community centre, and our form were due to go. When it came to the evening in question, however, there were only two of us left standing. So, we set off with the new P.E. teacher, whom we really liked, because she was friendly and funny and easy to talk to.

Now, I know this film is much loved by Olivier fans but, I’m sorry to say, it did absolutely nothing for me. Henry could have gone once more into the breach until doomsday as far as I was concerned and I would still have been completely unmoved. It was all utterly unmemorable. In fact, the only aspect of the film that sticks in my mind at all is the recollection that the French king sounded a little bit like Kojak when he laughed. Unfortunately, at the time this gave me the giggles and, all in all, I didn’t take the occasion very seriously at all.

My friend and I felt quite smug that we were the only two members of our form well enough to go to the film. And we got to go with our favourite teacher.

Karma kicked in, though, and the following day we duly succumbed to the ‘flu.

A bed in sick bay must have come free just as I staggered along to Surgery as I soon found myself in the privileged position of being housed in the first of the proper two-bed sick-bay rooms, with the added bonus of sharing the room with someone from my form.

All in all, that stay in sick bay wasn’t too bad. Sometimes, though, it could be a very lonely place. I’ll tell you more about that next week.

Devon boats, trains and cars (not to mention cathedrals and Jurassic cream teas!)

I promised last week to tell you some more about the holiday my friend Mary and I took in Exmouth recently.

The day after our abortive ice-cream sundae hunt, we took our second boat trip of the week. This voyage was along the so-called Jurassic Coast and included a Devon cream tea, which was absolutely delicious. Whereas on Sunday’s river cruise the water had done no more than lap gently at the side of the boat, this time there was a definite swell and there was no mistaking that we were out to sea. The boat bobbed up and down and the waves slapped vigorously at the sides of the vessel. This was all very satisfactory from my point of view. I don’t want a calm mill pond, I want a sea that is alive and kicking so that I can get the full experience – and on this occasion I certainly did!

Another fun if slightly more sedate trip was riding on the land-train around the town. Again, we got a commentary as we went along and this helped us get a good idea of where everything was.

Our explorations of south Devon by land and sea were extended still further when, half-way through our holiday, a college friend of mine who lives in the area came over and took us out in her car for a pub lunch and a drive along the coast.

On Friday we decided to venture into Exeter. This meant travelling on the train. We hadn’t booked assistance in advance but the station staff at Exmouth and Exeter Central were wonderful. They put wheelchair ramps in place and made sure we got safely on and off the train.

I have been to Exeter Cathedral before but it repays visiting more than once. It has a lot of history attached to it and is a magnificent building. One of the volunteers on duty offered us a guided tour, which we were pleased to accept. She was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. She knew the best route for the wheelchair, found a braille guide and showed us a tactile floor plan of the cathedral. This was really useful. I know what the layout is likely to be up to a point but when you can’t see it can be quite hard to hold the image of such a large building in your mind’s eye and work out which bits link up and where. They also had an architect’s model of the outside of the building which gave me a different perspective. Again, drawing a picture in of such a large structure just in your head can be very difficult.

Late summer was already becoming autumn and the weather started to turn colder and wetter towards the end of our stay. We had chosen a good week for our holiday but now it was time to go home.

We came back refreshed and feeling we had been very fortunate.

So now it’s back to work. No peace for the wicked, as my P.E. teacher used to say!

Exmouth

After our rather difficult summer, my friend Mary and I felt we needed a complete change of scene. We settled on Exmouth as a place she knew well and somewhere where there would be level walking to enable ease of wheelchair locomotion.

I was quite nervous about travelling by train with a wheelchair, walking frame and luggage but my sister and brother-in-law came to our rescue and enabled us to hire a car and driver to take us there and back door-to-door. So, off we set.

The flat was on the ground floor of a Victorian villa. The rooms were large, with high ceilings, and in the lounge we had a beautiful fireplace, complete with carved decoration. I do love  a tactile fireplace!

We had obviously done a good deed or two somewhere along the line because we were blessed with amazing weather for September. The sun shone warm and bright and the day after we arrived we went on our first boat excursion. This was along the river Exe and we were entertained with a commentary on the wildlife, local places of interest and how expensive buying a flat in the area is. One had recently sold for over  a million pounds. They wheeled me onto the boat in my chair and parked us at the front. I drank red wine and Mary ate an ice-cream. (She said that she didn’t want to be found driving a wheelchair whilst under the influence of alcohol.) We agreed that we were living the good life.

Later we sat on the seafront just listening to the sea and reading our books.

The next day we explored the town, treating ourselves to coffee and cake. This was the beginning of our unhealthy eating plan which we kept up, I’m pleased to say, for the whole week.

Which is not to say that we didn’t have our occasional failures.

We were sure we had seen somewhere that a local eatery served ice-cream sundaes. We walked (well, I didn’t!) around the town and along the seafront but could not find this elusive establishment. Mary even nipped back into the flat to check the visitor information but, no, there was nothing there about ice-cream sundaes. So we kept on looking.

Eventually we found a sign advertising ice-cream sundaes on a shop near the flat which was probably what we had originally seen. But it was out of date, a false prophet of illusory frozen dessert delights which in reality were no longer available. Further enquiries confirmed that there wasn’t anywhere in town that actually served ice-cream sundaes. I found this amazing. There was plenty of gorgeous full-cream Devon ice-cream for sale, however, so that day we “made do” with a cone each. Now we are back in Swindon, however, we will have to make up for this holiday disappointment by ordering something suitably calorific from our local branch of Kaspa’s.

We hadn’t been resident in Exmouth for long before we met our upstairs neighbour. He was a retired army captain who had been living in Spain but who had returned to England on the death of his wife so as to be near his children. He was delighted to find people to talk to and accompanied us into town, telling us where the best bakeries, coffee shops and pubs were and warning us about the expensive restaurants. He seemed to know the names of most of the counter staff in these establishments and told us, wherever we went to eat, to say that Richard had sent us.

He was keen to help on a practical level too and kept strolling into the middle of the road and holding his hand up to stop the traffic for us. Generally, Devon drivers had already proven sympathetic to wheelchair users, but it was great to be treated like VIPs!

Later in the week he twisted his knee and Mary was able to repay some of his kindness by doing some shopping for him.

We had other adventures, too, during our stay in Exmouth, but I’ll tell you about those in next week’s blog.

Greek temples, oracles & tombs

In my last two blog posts, I’ve been sharing some memories of a holiday my friends and I took in Greece years ago, just after we graduated.

–0-0–

Someone told us that there was an ancient temple dedicated to Artemis not far from the hotel where we were staying so, one day, we set off to find it. After a while, my friends spied it in the distance.

Then we seemed to enter some kind of space-time vortex.

Whichever path we took, we never got any closer. It was quite uncanny and, Greece being a country steeped in legend, we began to feel some supernatural force was at work. At one point we even started to walk across the fields but this was messy and the going was hard so we retreated back to the path.

I can’t even remember how we got there but, eventually, Artemis stopped playing with us and we arrived. It was like stepping back in time. The temple was amazingly well preserved and very quiet, not being on the usual tourist trail.

We also went on some organised trips, one being to Delphi. We went by road, which was certainly memorable…

Now, I’m going to say something about driving in Greece. I don’t mean to offend anyone. I loved both my holidays there – this one on the mainland and a later one on Corfu – but the Greek attitude to driving was certainly different from what I had been used to in the UK. All the drivers, whether cabbies, bus drivers or ordinary commuters, adorned their vehicles with crosses and religious icons. We soon got the impression, though, that their display of piety was in lieu of safe driving practices.

They trusted in God and ignored red lights.

At one point our bus stopped suddenly on a clifftop road and we all nearly fell out of our seats. When we were told that the many shrines along the cliff roads were in memory of people who had died in traffic accidents, we were hardly surprised but certainly more than a little concerned!

The shrine at Delphi, where the famous oracle used to prophesy, was up a steep hill. Despite my arthritis, I climbed the many, many steps but, by the time I had reached the top, I was definitely struggling. A nice young man in our party carried me down.

Another indication of how small I was then! No young man in his right mind would offer to carry me down a steep flight of steps these days, especially not in such heat.

My memory of whether I was allowed to touch buildings and artefacts is a bit blurry now, but I don’t remember anyone telling me not to. My general recollection is that everyone at the historic sites was friendly and helpful.

We struck out on our own on one occasion, taking the bus into Athens and going to watch the changing of the guard outside the parliament building. At least, we thought that was what was happening. My friend Kris described it to me as being more like a dance than a military manoeuvre.

I wonder if that says something about the gracefulness or perhaps just the liveliness and exuberance of the Greeks.

It was a great day. We browsed the market stalls and I still have the jewellery I bought. I also purchased a lovely embroidered blouse which I wore for many years as a reminder of a wonderful holiday. I’ve grown out of it now, but the memories still remain.

It’s still all Greek

I was telling you about the holiday my friends and I had years ago in Greece, just after we graduated.

Our hotel room had a balcony and we sometimes sat out there in the evening when we felt we needed a change from sitting in the bar. We always left the balcony door open to cool the room, but there were a lot of insects around and one night when we came back into our room, we found a large, leggy creature on the ceiling over my bed. I didn’t want it to fall on my head during the night so my friends hunted about for something to kill it with.

It was a high ceiling. Nothing would reach.

In the end they stood on my bed holding the table from the balcony between them and used it as  a giant fly swatter. I stood bravely out of the way.

We had a lovely chambermaid who not only made our beds each day but also folded my nightdress into pretty flower shapes for me to find.

I will never forget the day my friend Kris tried asking her to spray the room with fly-spray. She had no English and we had no Greek. Apart, that is, from the only phrase I recalled from school, which was “He hippe,” which means “Oh horse.”

This wasn’t very suitable for our needs so instead Kris tried a combination of words and actions. She made a buzzing sound, followed by a “psst” sound accompanied by a mime of pressing down a spray, followed by a clap of the hands. In other words: fly, spray, dead.

It worked!

Our chambermaid understood and started spraying our room vigorously each day.

While on the subject of the language: we noticed the word “catinos” by the lift. I may not have spelt this correctly. We speculated that it might mean there was a cat in the lift but presumably it has a more sensible meaning. (Editor’s note: maybe the sign read καντίνας, which means “canteen”?)

It’s all Greek to me

It’s summer here in England and raining hard. As the water pours incessantly down, I thought I would reminisce, once again, about sun-drenched holidays of the past…

When we finished our degree, my friends and I thought we deserved a break so we went to a travel agent to see if there were any last-minute cheap holidays in Greece. Lo and behold, there were, so, off we went.

We set off from Gatwick Airport at some ridiculous hour of the morning. In fact it was so ridiculous, we didn’t even go to bed the night before but sat up talking, packing, washing our hair and doing all the things you do when you go on holiday. The only thing I recall about the flight is breaking two plastic knives on something with pastry on it. Plastic knives, are, in my view, pointless pieces of cutlery.

Safely landed at our destination, we were met at the airport by a tour company rep and driven away in a minibus to start our Greek odyssey.

We had, quite by accident, hit pay dirt.

The accommodation was comfortable and the beach amazing. We were on the Aegean coast and our hotel was in a small bay that seemed to be frequented mainly by the three of us, apart from at weekends, when the locals took over. That was fine by us. We weren’t greedy.

The sand was soft and golden and the sea always calm. It was also fairly shallow, so you could easily sit in it and it was like sitting in a warm bath. You could swim if you went out a little further but, even then, it wasn’t very deep. Silver fish swam about and it couldn’t have been more idyllic. There was even a nearby taverna where we could purchase cool lager.

We mostly ate in the hotel. The food was delicious. The meat was always tender and we had a good variety of vegetables, mostly squashes and chips.

I don’t think there is anything particularly Greek about chips. When I went to Corfu some years later, the guide told us that chips were common on the island and were a legacy of British rule. I suspect they served them at our hotel to keep the Brits happy.

In those days I was very slim and, being very short as well, the impression was of a very small person. When the waiter serving our table had been round everybody else, he would return and give me whatever was left in the dish. He must have thought I needed feeding up.

Oh for those days when I could eat anything and everything and still fit into size 10 jeans!

The one item they could not produce to our satisfaction was tea. They used warm milk and it was disgusting. I stuck to coffee which was thick black, strong and delicious.

Duck Terror!

Have you ever been terrorised by a duck? I have. Let me tell you all about it.

At this time of year, under normal circumstances, schoolchildren would be going on outings. I only recall one such trip during my time in a mainstream school but it left an indelible mark on my memory.

We were doing a project on London that focused on prominent buildings such as the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To help us with this, the school arranged a trip to London. I was quite young but my sight had already started to deteriorate – a point which I will come back to later – and my recollection of standing outside these venerable buildings is hazy. I do remember seeing a soldier on guard outside Buckingham Palace, though, wearing the most amazing headgear, a busby.

What sticks in my mind most of all is having a picnic lunch in St James’s Park. I sat on a bench with my classmates and brought out my packed lunch, which consisted of Bovril and Dairylea cream cheese sandwiches. This combination was my favourite at the time.

A great flock of ducks suddenly waddled over to us. One very large duck, possibly a drake, stood in front of me and fixed me with a beady eye. He continued to stare unblinkingly until I tossed him a piece of my sandwich, which he gulped down enthusiastically.

Was this enough to placate him?

No, of course it wasn’t. Having discovered that I could be intimidated, he stood firm and stared me out again. And again.

And again.

I reckon he had around half of my lunch. I don’t remember being particularly upset. I was just astonished at his strength of will compared to mine. And I could be pretty stubborn myself!

This is one of my most vivid and happy childhood memories, but it nearly didn’t happen at all.

In the 1960s, disabled people like myself were brought up to believe that we should be grateful for any crumbs the able-bodied world threw our way. The idea of disabled rights wasn’t even on the horizon. I recall the first time I heard a disabled person speaking on behalf of an organization called “Rights not Patronage” in the 1970s and being blown away by this novel concept. However, back in the 60s, rights weren’t part of our vocabulary and they certainly weren’t part of my parents’ vocabulary. Whenever an outing with the school or the Girls’ Brigade was mentioned, my mother warned me I might not be able to go. This wasn’t primarily because she was worried about me, although no doubt she was, but because she felt it wasn’t fair to ask teachers or Brigade leaders to take responsibility for me.

Can you imagine that nowadays, when families take schools to court to insist their disabled children join in all the activities on offer?

My going on the school outing to London was a landmark in my young life because, for once, I won the argument. I pleaded and, at last, Mum agreed I could go.

My parents weren’t being unkind. They were lovely people who loved all of us dearly, but they did feel keenly the responsibility of caring for a disabled child and were concerned not to ask too much of other people in that regard.

So that predatory duck will stay imprinted on my mind’s eye for ever. I hope he lived a long and happy life, extorting sandwiches out of tourists and schoolchildren and I hope some of them were there because the people around them believed that they should be, disability or not.

Hearing

I have just been listening to a blackbird in my garden. I don’t think I have heard one there before. Is it the lockdown which allows me to hear this one?

I have heard several people say that they are more aware of birdsong since the lockdown. There is less traffic noise, fewer planes and, for many of us, more time to pay attention to the world around us. It has made me think about the whole business of listening and hearing.

Every visually-impaired person will be asked at some point in their life, “Do you find that your other senses are sharpened to compensate for your lack of sight?”

I find this interesting. Does the question arise from some inbuilt desire that there should be some kind of natural justice or karma in the world that compensates people for what they lack in life?

If you do feel the universe should readjust matters so that there is some kind of cosmic fair-play, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.

Certainly I know people with little or no sight who have brilliant hearing, but I also know plenty who don’t, myself included. I also know sighted people with great hearing.

Another commonly held belief is that blind people are all musical. Sorry, again: not true! Obviously many are, but so then are many sighted people.

Despite all that, I do think something interesting is going on in relation to visually impaired people and hearing. I don’t think that we necessarily have more acute hearing, but it may be that we concentrate more.

I have written before about the problems of watching television with my parents before the days of audio-description. They would be so busy trying to work out who the actors were that they would often miss great chunks of dialogue. I would end up explaining the plot to them when the programme finished! The reason I could do this was that I had to concentrate on what was being said and any sound effects which I could identify.

Concentration also plays a large part in mobility if you can’t see. You have to think about where the steps are, how far it is to the end of such-and-such a wall, where potential obstacles might be, and so on. You don’t magically acquire super powers when you lose your sight, you just learn to put your brain to work to help you fill in the gaps.

Now it is true that, as a child, I lost all the sight in my right eye without anyone noticing. The hospital, who should have been checking, said my left eye must have taken over and compensated for this loss. The fact remains, though, that I did miss things. I found I couldn’t always read what was written on the blackboard but, at the age of six, it didn’t occur to me that this was because I couldn’t see. I thought I was being stupid and kept quiet about it.

Just as many people with hearing-loss learn to lip-read so, out of necessity, when you lose your eyesight, you have to learn tricks for getting round the problems life throws at you. You end up developing certain skills, but you don’t automatically acquire bat-like hearing (or, indeed, the ability to hang upside down from the ceiling, which is a pity!). Sadly, I think my hearing is actually pretty mediocre, and I can’t sing in tune to save my life.

I hope I haven’t just shattered all your illusions.

Just in case I have depressed you, let me lighten the mood.

I mentioned bats just now and have to confess that I have a particularly soft spot for these nocturnal flying mammals. It all started when I fell in love with Count Dracula in the person of Louis Jourdan in a 1977 BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel and that led to a love of bats more generally.

Bats of all shapes and sizes and made of many materials now adorn my house. One of my lodgers thought this was part of an ironic take on my disability. I was amused by the suggestion and decided not to disabuse him!