Shortly before Christmas I unexpectedly found myself sitting in a hospital. It all happened – J waking up in excruciating pain, being taken to hospital, undergoing emergency surgery, sitting up in bed playing Candy Crush – with bewildering and remarkable speed. I went with G to visit her in the evening, soon after she had been wheeled back to her ward. I brought her: a toothbrush, toothpaste, a copy of National Geographic, a phone charger. The room was sparse and functional. It said: “Get better but hurry up about it, there are others who need your bed.” The hospital had been recently renovated but the peach-coloured wallpaper could not gloss over the unmistakable Soviet spirit of the place.
There were three other women in the room. One was trying to sleep. Another was talking loudly and continuously on the phone. The distractingly attractive woman opposite J kept her phone close and occasionally disappeared to smoke. J had learned over the course of the day that the garrulous woman in the corner had had 78% of her stomach removed. Her husband wept down the phone: she, the victim, had to console him. The attractive woman, meanwhile, had told her husband not to bring the children to visit as she didn’t want to spoil their Christmas. It was an impressive display of female strength and resilience. J, G and I intuitively spoke in a whisper. Our hushed, respectful tone felt only natural around so much disease, misfortune and death. Moreover, we were there outside of visiting hours (although no one seemed to know or care).
As I sat there whispering away, feeling immensely relieved that J was okay, I experienced a strangely pleasing, even reassuring sensation. It was something akin to: home sweet home.
I feel truly in my element in hospitals. I stroll along the long, cold corridors with a spring in my step. I excitedly use the coffee vending machines to add to the suspense. I wait around secretly feeling like I’m in a holiday camp. Even worse, I am aroused by the mechanical efficiency of it all: the never-ending throughput of broken bodies and failing organs, the ruthlessly reductive pathologies, the vast turnover of palliative medicines. All our social ills come home to roost in a place that seldom bothers to address the underlying causes of the infirmities it treats: obesity, addiction, loneliness, despair, poverty, stress, punishing workloads, meaningless existences and inhuman rhythms of life. Faced with our frailty, we become a little kinder in hospitals. We chat with our fellow sufferers, root for their recovery, sympathise with their plight. Hospitals are one of the few places to bring out humility in people.
I probably feel at home in hospitals because I spent so much time in them throughout my childhood and adolescence thanks to several injuries that caused bleeding in my joints (it was excruciatingly painful). In all, I probably spent around a year of my youth supine in a hospital bed, with a cubicle curtain for privacy (J didn’t have one), a stack of books and comics by my side, and a bevy of lovely nurses to attend to my needs. I was schooled there, ate grapes there, and – a personal highlight – had a special request played for me on Great Ormond Street Hospital’s radio station (Bowie’s Starman).
But my fondest memory was when a student nurse took pity on me for being stuck in hospital over Christmas. She snuck me out of the hospital in a wheelchair, against all the regulations, and took me back to her room where we ate stale Christmas cake and listened to some of her Bowie records. I was only 11 or 12 but her kindness touched me to my achy breaky bones. Unfortunately, her physical loveliness also aroused an erotic obsession I have never managed to recover from. Hospitals, in my mind, are the ideal place for love to flourish (just as as they are fecund turf for the spread of Legionnaire’s, Norovirus and Influenza).
The naughty nurses had told J she would have to stay in hospital until New Year’s Eve. We were both greatly upset, as though we had lost 78% of our Yuletide, but then they discharged her after one night and she was back home for Christmas Eve.
Christmas was much the same as how we spend every weekend, only with fancier food and fairy lights flashing in the background. I gladly took care of my flaxen-haired valetudinarian as she lay, sore but perky, on the sofa. I got her a new coffee table and bathrobe from the moribund Vilnius branch of Marks & Spencer, a store that feels like a home from home to me, having kept me in socks and underwear for most of my life. J got me a ribbon-wrapped sense of belonging and purpose. It was a day of great happiness that neither of us will remember. It will blur into a generalised happiness that lingers like a grey fog in the nether regions of the brain. I will recall the fierce yellow of eggnog, the steady drip-drip infusion of vodka, the poor duck that ducked out of life for our ephemeral pleasure. And I may just remember the fact that George Michael was found dead at his home on Christmas morning.
2016 has been a bumper year for celebrity deaths. Many of the departees featured prominently in my early life, such as Carrie Fisher (I will never forget going to see Star Wars), Prince (all my friends were into The Smiths but I loved Prince), Terry Wogan (the wry voice of Eurovision), George Martin, Umberto Eco (I used to rewatch the grainy nude scene from The Name of the Rose again and again on my first VHS player), Johan Cruyff, Andrew Sachs, Ronnie Corbett (I was teased at school with a catchphrase from one of his crap comedies), and George Michael (I remember my geography teacher saying as everyone was rushing to leave the classroom: “Just a minute before you go go!”).
The general reaction to these deaths – otherwise known in the media as an “outpouring of grief” – has been laughably exaggerated. George Michael seemed like a decent human being but he was no genius. Carrie Fisher seemed like a lovely woman but the Star Wars movies were egregiously acted and embarrassingly scripted. Leonard Cohen had a way with words compared to George Michael but he was hardly the Dante his obituaries made him out to be. The elevation of mediocrity into genius in the wake of death is a kneejerk reaction of infantile desperation. Because you loved (or, more likely, liked) these figures does not mean you have any personal claim on them. Your meaningless life remains meaningless. Do not conflate their questionable achievements with your exaggerated adoration of them. If I were editor of a newspaper I would weigh these deaths to be worthy of a small paragraph hidden away in the back pages. Personally, I deplore the way that celebrity culture detracts from what is really important: making the world a better place.
It is hard to know if people are genuinely upset or just get carried away in the moment in a wave of nostalgia and sentimentality. I am incapable of feeling grief or remorse when I hear that someone has just died. The first thought that comes to my exhausted, perpetually besieged mind is: lucky you.
The one death this year that did momentarily make me look up thoughtfully at the corner of the ceiling was that of David Bowie. I admired Bowie’s intelligence and integrity. I loved some of his songs. I was fascinated by how he kept reinventing himself (though he eventually reincarnated himself to artistic death). I was jealous of his time in Berlin and intrigued by his relationship with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. I was impressed by how tastefully he died. But mostly I just associated him with being in hospital. I thought of how happy I was when the DJ for the Great Ormond Street radio station said, “And this one goes out to…”. I thought of how euphoric I was as I sat in a wheelchair eating stale Christmas cake with a student nurse in her dingy little room while listening to Young Americans.
Life gets easier as you get older; you become increasingly inured to pain and disappointment. Life gets harder as you get older: the weight of your mistakes and disillusionment gets harder to bear. I sometimes fantasize about taking a prolonged holiday in hospital to get away from it all. I would happily lie there, occasionally chatting away with my fellow sufferers, asking about their ailments, discussing the best remedies for them. But mostly I would stare with empty eyes at a corner of the ceiling feeling nothing. Because more than anything in the world, I want to feel nothing. Because at this rate, I am feeling myself to an early grave.