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Virginia Ironside

Regulars | By Virginia Ironside | May 2016

I am 72 years old. I am ridiculous. And yet these small victories meant so much to me as I lay there in the darkness, listening to the beeps and shouts from outside my room

I was in hospital recently (sometimes I think I spend more time these days in hospitals or doctors’ surgeries than at home), having a spur shaved off my shoulder joint. Apparently when you age, and your cartilage disappears, as mine has, your bones start behaving rather like a two-year-old trying to ‘help’ in the kitchen when you’re cooking. As you are busy zesting the oranges and slicing them up, the two-year-old is busy ‘helping’ by ‘washing up’ the specially made syrup you prepared and contributing a pudding of her own consisting of cat food mixed with earth. 

The motive is excellent, but the result disastrous. In my case, the bone was trying to help by kindly growing a little spur, a spur that caught on a tendon every time I reached for a mug on the top shelf. ‘No cartilage, Mummy!’ it was saying, ‘but don’t worry, look what I done! I made you this speshul spur!’

At least that is how I think it works. I may of course be quite wrong and my shoulder surgeon may be reading this with his hand to his forehead in horror at my cack-handed description of this delicate condition and operation. 

But back to hospitals. What I hate about them is how they make me feel so, to use current jargon, disempowered. 

‘Do not have anything to eat or drink after 7.30’ ordered the booklet called Admission to the Hospital. And yet I found myself eating and drinking up to eight o’clock, cackling the while, just to feel I was getting my own back at the hospital dictators. And before I left for the hospital, at ten o’clock, I couldn’t resist a tiny sip of water. Just to spite them.

Naturally I had smuggled in some painkillers and sleeping pills just in case they weren’t forthcoming and filled the bottles with cotton wool to stop them rattling. 

I tried to refuse the white anti-DVT stockings but this nurse was stronger than most and declared that they simply wouldn’t carry out the operation if I didn’t look like a refugee from the opera Pagliacci. I declared that it would be impossible for me to sleep with my legs bound in tight elastic stockings. She said that we would see about that later. Round one to her. 

But when, later, she refused to give me anything to eat until I’d properly come round, I told her very politely and firmly that I would starve unless I had a hot meal right that minute. And when she insisted I had to wear the garment that poses as a nightdress, which does up at the back, to sleep in, I drew the line and though I didn’t actually scweem and scweem and scweem till I made myself sick it was clear that I was prepared to go to any lengths to get my way. With a tense smile she allowed me my nightdress. Round two to me. 

The moment she left the room with a firm ‘goodnight’ was the moment I lowered my legs from the bed and proceeded with great difficultly, using one arm only, to extricate myself from the tortuous stockings. 

A hospital bedroom is like a fairground at night. There was a flashing green light from the emergency drug cupboard that lit up the whole room every second; there was a curious coil of plastic that let off an eerie blue light; the light from the handset glared up at the ceiling, and the door had slots inserted in the window so that nurses could peer in at night. Swiftly, I covered everything up, and, jamming my discarded hospital nightdress into the top of the bedroom door, managed to construct a curtain to make myself invisible from any prying eyes in the small hours. 

And, despite the fact I’d already received a sleeping pill, I couldn’t resist adding a Solpadeine of my own, secretly extricated from its noiseless cotton-wool swaddling. Just to show them. 

I am 72 years old. I am ridiculous. And yet these small victories meant so much to me as I lay there in the darkness, listening to the beeps and shouts from outside my room. To them, I might simply be the old arthritic female patient in Room 146. But really I am, I thought, not just a human being but a seditionist, a traitor and, dammit, something of a revolutionary. 

Virginia’s latest book is ‘No Thanks!

I’m Quite Happy Standing’ (Quercus £16.99), and she’ll be appearing in Teddington at the end of the month. See

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now