Florence Nottingale

The Domestic Science wing at my school was known as The Crimea. This was on account of some connection with Florence Nightingale, the Lady With The Lamp. The headmistress never stopped banging on about old Florence and gave us the impression that wounded soldiers were actually nursed in our Domestic Science wing, in beds, in rows, like the picture above. I never quite understood this, because I thought they were on the battlefield and she went out to them.

You’d think this might have inspired me to be a nurse, or a heroine of some kind, but all I ever wanted to be was a Poet. My parents were not impressed when I told them this. They said I would be making better use of my time as a shorthand typist for the Electricity Board. Actually, over a whole frittered lifetime, there turned out to be nothing much I would have been better using my time doing.

Fast forward and here I am apparently nursing a stray cat with an amputated leg. I mean a very amputated leg, right up at the shoulder. His name is Nicholas, because he has a white necklace. When you have quite a few black and white cats it’s easier to remember them that way, like recognising seabirds by their beaks or whales by their fins. I have been feeding him outside for some time. He and Sunshine (another un-neutered tom) were sharing the garden on an unspoken rota basis. But Nicholas has been missing for several day.

Yesterday I got home from a routine visit the vet’s to find Nicholas outside. He looked brisk and business-like enough but he was holding a front paw in the air. Perhaps a thorn, I thought, or a cut. Looking on the bright side, or trying to, I reached down and scooped him up. Bad sign, that he let me do that.

Several phone calls to the vet, the RSPCA (to get an Incident Number), to the vet again, to a taxi firm. I can’t take a sick cat all that way on the bus. By lunchtime we are back at the vets. Probably an abscess, says the vet, in that Russian-type accent I have never been able to reproduce. If you are going to take him I will do the operation and castrate him at the same time. But when the x-rays come in he shows me – that leg is shattered. You have three options he says: have the cat put to sleep, refer him to an orthopaedic surgeon – because I can’t fix that – which would cost you around £4,000 – or have the leg amputated and the castration done at the same time, which I could do cheaply for you for only… Only?

The cat might be adopted afterwards, of course. He looks round from his computer and grins. ‘You don’t have to take them all.’ But he knows perfectly well that I do.

And so here I am – Mrs Squeamish, who hates any kind of physical responsibility, trying to be Florence Nightingale. Nicholas is alternately stretched out and curled up in an untidy heap of pet bed, blanket and folded fleece in the corner, partly covered by a blanket. He doesn’t look too bright, but he has eaten something and doesn’t seem averse to a stroke and a purr every now and again, between long sleeps. For some reason I think about Beowulf, and Grendel and his arm torn off at the shoulder at the battle of Heriot…

Concentrate, woman…

To be honest, I have never seen a newly-amputated creature before. An amputee is one thing – you see them on TV all the time – but a new wound is another. I had to bathe it this morning, and of course there are ugly things, like stitches and blood and shaven, puckered skin. I shall be so glad when that fur begins to grow back, Nicholas. He squirms over onto his tummy and squints up at me. I am going to get so bitten, I think, approaching on creaking knees with the cotton wool and the bowl of warm water. But no, he lies patiently and lets me clean him up and looks ever so slightly less appalling afterwards. Much smarter, I say.

I was thinking about angels, and that mysterious old man on the bus who talked to me about the meaning of life, recited Desiderata and vanished. I was wondering if we are all obliged to do ‘Angel Duty’ – a bit like conscription – at some point, or in one aspect of our lives. I was thinking maybe it was my job to be Nicholas’ angel today, and that he had at least chosen the right person to hobble to. I was wondering who my right person was, or would be if and when the time came, to hobble to.

I was thinking about competence and incompetence, and how the both things can exist in the same person at the same time. I was thinking that my sister doesn’t speak to me now, and wondering if it is because she has got lumbered with all the financial and practical stuff in connection with my mother, and despises me and my irresponsibility/incompetence/host of financial phobias and anxieties, for having backed out of all that so smartly. Did I let her down? At the time I just knew she would be better at it, but all the same… I’m the older sister and that should have been my responsibility.

No, you don’t have to take them all in. And you don’t have to be an Angel in everything. You have your one thing, and maybe only that one thing. That’s your mission, should you choose to accept it…

I should like to be a horse

Queen Elizabeth II is more or less the same age as my Mum, but there the similarity ends. Oh no, they both have those old lady perms. Except that Mum’s has more or less grown out now. The ward where they section them doesn’t provide hairdressers, although you can import your own as long as it’s not at meal times (which take up most of the day) and as long as they have sixty days’ notice in writing, or whatever. It’s a very depressing place. If you weren’t depressed before you entered though those ultra-thick key-padded doors, you will be  pretty soon. Although there is the odd cheerful one. I suppose it’s when a jolly insouciance forms part of the illness. On Sunday I got a hug from a tiny hunched-up lady in a nightie, with a  surgical brace on one wrist. She asked me if I was from the circus. I wondered if perhaps I might be. She told me my Mum was confused. “I’m confused too,” she said, grinning up at me and opening her arms for another hug. I find it quite difficult to hug people, especially when they are half my height, but I did my best.

“What about her feet?” I ask. “She had a chiropodist… outside.”

“I’ll refer her for Podiatry,” says the nurse in the cherry red, hammering something invisible into the computer.”

“I believe there was a consent form for me to sign? It was going to be left behind the desk?”

“Form? Which form? Who exactly told you there was a form behind the desk?”

“Kate. Her name was Kate. She telephoned my sister.”


“Have you checked her laundry basket for washing?” a nurse asks. I had no idea she had a laundry basket, or indeed where she was sleeping, or that washing was supposed to be dealt with by the next of kin of those who have been snatched from them against their wishes. Surely, if you take over someone’s life you take over their washing, too? Isn’t it your moral responsibility?

“Only in cases of incontinence,” the same nurse snaps.

“Our washing machine broke down this morning,” says another nurse. “Water all over the place.” That makes more sense. So why not just say that?

Mum says nothing. She slumps in an armchair and we try to talk to her. She asks if her house is still there, as if it might already have been demolished to make way for a row of cottage-style town houses with very little in the way of garden. She asks what she should do next. What do we want her to do? She doesn’t understand. Her eyes keep closing. She takes off her dust-smeared glasses and stares down into her lap. They’re all heathens in here. Heathens!

Anyway, the Queen apparently said, when asked as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up (a silly thing to ask the heir to the throne, I would have thought) that she should like to be a horse. And why not? I have often wanted to be a cat, a giraffe in the zoo, an aardvark, an octopus – almost anything that just gets fed and made a fuss of and isn’t expected to sort through a laundry basket of stale clothes on the Sunday before Easter in a tropically overheated hospital ward when she might have been home with her feet up on the coffee table watching The Andrew Marr Show.

Grouchy? Me?