When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in RED BOXES continued chap.Two

When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in Red Boxes by Gladys Hobson.
A pick and mix assortment of childhood memories 1939-53

Chapter Two

No NHS

If ever I feel like grousing about our National Health Service, I dig out of my memory bank of how things used to be. Fortunately for our family, my dad paid into something or other that took care of some medical bills.
During the Second World War we had a lovely old doctor, Dr Bonner. He had served as an army doctor during the earlier war, and was well beyond retirement age. He loved children and gave us little pieces of fruit cake sent to him from South Africa, and let us pick the bluebells from his vast garden. He also showed us inside his underground air-raid shelter, built in a clearing a little way from his huge house. He always gave us time and made a fuss of us. If he had been practising today, the way he examined me when I had chickenpox – as if it had invaded my intimate parts – might well have brought his motives under scrutiny.
But he wasn’t the only dodgy friendly doctor. Some years later I had to visit a consultant chest specialist. Alone in his room, he had me sitting in a chair opposite him. We were in front of a roaring coal fire. He slipped my vest straps off my shoulders while he examined my chest in fine detail. Then, still sitting in the chairs, he pulled me up to him while he examined my back with his stethoscope. I was practically on his knees, pressed hard to his chest with my head on his shoulder, his Brylcreem strong in my nostrils.
One day, when I was getting better after a serious illness, Dr Bonner came to see me. Afterwards he took me with him in his car while he visited a few sick people. A girl sent me out one of her precious oranges. It was the first time I had been in a car and I had not had such exotic fruit for ages. Only infants and the sick were allowed to have oranges. Like all food coming from abroad during the sinking of supply ships, they were in very short supply.
With Dr Bonner’s casual approach to time, it was hardly surprising if patients could wait for two hours or more to see him. The situation was made worse because he dispensed his own medicines: counting out pills and pouring out colourful liquid – usually pink linctus, iron tonic or brown cough medicine – out of huge jars into small bottles. Of course, there were no antibiotics, and for painkillers we just had aspirins. Mother made bread poultices to draw out boils, rendered goose-grease for chesty coughs, and we all had good old TCP to gargle with and tackle any other problem. We only went to old Bony, or he came to us, if all else failed or we were very poorly indeed.
But if there was a long wait, there were compensations. Our doctor had dramatic pictures on his waiting-room walls. These were no tatty posters concerned with health warnings, or advertisements of groups and associations there to support and advise. I can only remember such things existing in public lavatories where we were all expecting to get VD if we sat on the seats. No, these were framed prints hung on each wall – a veritable picture gallery.
The one I liked the best was of a man being punished by being publicly sawn in half. On reflection, it may be that he was going through the last stages of the traitor’s fate – the dreaded drawing and quartering. On the other hand, it might have been a surgeon’s very public demonstration of his skill with knife and saw. That, and the other pictures, set our young imaginations alight, giving us sober food for thought whilst waiting for our kindly Dr Bonner to give us his personal attention. Yes, it was worth the wait just to view the doctor’s art gallery.
Hospitals were places you never wanted to enter; people died in them! Surgery was not advised unless it was considered a dire necessity. When I was just turned twelve, I went with my mother to see my dad after he’d had his hernia fixed. He was in the large surgery ward of Nottingham City Hospital. It was packed with very poorly people secured in neatly-made beds. The nurses, in starched white uniforms, made sure there were only two visitors to each bed and that they all left at the ring of the bell. Young children were not allowed inside. Just as well perhaps, because by the door was a young man with meningitis. He was a terrible sight, his eyes wild and his whole body shaking. There was a strong smell of disinfectant about the place but it failed to hide all the other smells. My dad’s wound had turned septic and the pus was making a bit of a stink. The man in the bed next to my dad was dying. The whole atmosphere was depressing and there was no privacy. I expect the nurse had to be able to see around the whole ward. The only happy thing out of the visit was to see my dad and know that he was getting his nightly bottle of stout.
But I was not totally shocked by the hospital scene. I had been in hospital myself, twice.
I had just turned seven. It was December 1939 and the war had recently started. And my own happy little world was about to be shattered.
I had been sitting at my desk working away at my lessons, when the teacher came up close to me and looked at my face. She seemed quite alarmed and wanted to know how I was feeling. She sent for the headmistress. Between them, it was decided that I should be taken to the clinic for a medical opinion. No doubt they were mostly concerned to know if I had a contagious disease and wanted to get me away from the rest of the children. The clinic confirmed that I had Scarlet Fever. In those days, it was a notifiable disease and regarded as being quite dangerous. Years ago there were no antibiotics or medicines to cure such diseases. The body had to heal itself with the help of rest and healthy food. Complete isolation of the patient was needed. For the unlucky ones, like myself, this had to be in an isolation hospital.
My adult brother, Jack, caught the disease too, but he refused to go away. Mother had to nurse him at home, keeping him isolated in his bedroom until he was better. She had to take him his meals, water to wash with, and empty his smelly chamber-pot every day so he didn’t use the bathroom. It was the only time she ever smoked cigarettes! The whole house had to be fumigated to prevent the disease spreading.
After being taken to the clinic, I was taken home and handed over to my mother and our own doctor was contacted as soon as possible. By the time the doctor arrived I was tucked up in bed wondering what was going to happen to me. After the doctor had done his examination, he took my mother over to the window to have a quiet word with her. They had little looks towards the bed and I could see that my mother was looking very worried. I heard the doctor talking about hospital and eventually saw my mother nodding her head in agreement.
Sure enough, when the doctor left, my mother came back upstairs to tell me that I was going to be taken to hospital.
“Don’t worry, Luvvy, I’ll come and see you. You’ll soon be home again.”
But I did worry. It all felt strange and unreal. Soon the ambulance arrived. I heard it stop outside the bedroom window. There was a knock at the door, the sound of voices in the hall, footsteps on the stairs, and then a uniformed man came into the room. He rolled me in a blanket with my arms by my sides, threw me over his shoulder, and took me down to the street and into the ambulance. I began to live in a timeless world away from everything and everyone I knew and loved. I was very poorly and exceedingly unhappy, but I tried not to cry.
I was taken to the isolation hospital miles away into the country. There I was put to bed in the women’s ward. As a young child I had little control over my life but in that place, I had none.
I was put in an end bed next to a girl who was about twelve years old. I was too young for her to talk to me. Except for a baby in a cot, we were the only children in a ward of adults. I was next to the nurses’ small office. Since there was a window in the wall, I could just see into the room, at least, the upper part of it. There was a clock on the wall. By patients asking me to tell them where the hands were, I was soon able to tell the time. At least, it was a bit of education and the only sort I was going to receive for a while. There were no books to look at or toys to play with.
After the first night in hospital, I wet the bed. I felt such a big baby. No one was cross with me but I felt the shame of it keenly. What would my parents and the rest of the family think?
I was to spend the first two weeks in bed. Then, for another four weeks, I would be allowed to get up and dress each day. I was given a very odd garment to wear in bed. It had sleeves and legs, buttoned right down the front, and had a buttoned flap at the back so that I could use the bedpan without having to get undressed. I hated it, especially that silly flap.
The bedpan was quite new to me and seemed a very strange shape. In those days they were made of enamel and shaped like frying pans with a hollow handle and rim. I hated having to sit on them in full view of other patients. It was terribly embarrassing when I made a smell, then having to wait for the nurse to come and get rid of the pan and its contents.
It must have been the first day after my arrival at the hospital that I called for the nurse, as I thought I had been told to.
“Nurse, nurse, I need the bread pan,” I called. Afraid of wetting the bed, I yelled for the pan again. “Nurse, nurse, I need the bread pan.”
The nurse came with the pan, plus a broad smile on her face.
“What did you ask for?”
“The bread pan”, I answered, nearly in tears because everyone was laughing.
She burst into fits of laughter and so did the ladies in their beds.
“Bedpan, Gladys,” she said. “You use it in bed.”
I had, of course, merely repeated what I thought I had heard, without reasoning as to what it meant in the context of how it was being used. Since it was shaped like a frying pan, it was not unreasonable to think it was a pan for frying bread in. I felt exceedingly stupid. Knowing what went into it, of course they would not use it for cooking!
Every morning we had a banana for breakfast. They must have been some of the precious few available before the war was over. Funny, as I write, I can actually smell the banana and taste the bread that came with it. Early morning, a nurse would wake me up so that I could use the bedpan. She would ask me if I’d had my bowels moved. Bowels moved? What were they and who would move them? No doubt she explained. If I said no, then I was given some horrid black medicine and told to eat my breakfast banana with it. So I only had the piece of bread for breakfast. It seemed a long time until dinner-time. The food was terrible. Usually mince for dinner, and bread and jam for tea, unless the patients had their own eggs for the nurses to boil for them.
My parents were the only permitted visitors. They had to talk to me through the glass windows. Visiting was for thirty minutes, twice a week. Only my mother could get to visit me in the week and sometimes father would come with her on Saturdays. Although it was a two-bus journey and the weather was very bad, my mother always came. Once a week I was given a sixpence to buy pop. Altogether, it must have been a very expensive time for my mother.
I had been in hospital nearly two weeks and I was going to be allowed out of bed to go to the Christmas party. My mother had been asked to bring me some clothes to wear for the occasion. She forgot and I was bitterly disappointed. It must have been very hard for my mother because she would have known how I felt and she could not even give me a cuddle.
The nurse said that I could wear a hospital dressing gown to go to the party in. My parents thought that would make me happy and were able to go home feeling that all was well. But all was not well. I was feeling utterly sad and alone. I wanted to be home with my family, not in that strange place where I was continually being teased that there were crickets in my bed. I wanted to be back in bed with my sister and to have someone to play with. I did not like bedpans, or being woken up to take nasty medicine. I wanted my mother. But I did not say so. I did not say anything.
I put on the dressing gown and began the lonely walk to the party in the men’s ward, on the other side of the hallway. I felt utterly, utterly, alone and unsure of myself. Would they laugh at me in a dressing gown? I did not know much about parties as we never had any at home. There had been a school party once. We wore our best clothes and I knew the children and teachers. Now I was in a dressing gown and I had no friends. I was overwhelmed by misery.
Tears trickled down my cheeks as I passed the nurses’ office door.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked a nurse when she saw and heard me cry.
I did not know what to say. Wanting my mother and to go home, were things that must never be said.
“I’m cold,” I lied.
She threw a blanket at me. “What a big baby. Put this round you and stop crying.”
Stung by the rebuke, I did as I was told. Thinking that I looked even more stupid with a blanket wrapped around me, I pushed open the door to the men’s ward and walked up to the table where everyone was about to start the party. There was just the one empty seat.
Before long we were all pulling crackers. Someone helped me to pull mine. I looked for the little toy. There was none.
“Gladys hasn’t got anything in her cracker”, said the person next to me.
“Gladys doesn’t deserve anything,” said the nurse who had thrown me the blanket.
Now everyone would know that I was a bad girl.
I was beginning to experience the harsh realities of life beyond the security of my home and family. I must not cry. I must not show how I feel. I must be good. I did not know the word rejection but I felt it just the same. I did not know the meaning of isolation but I was experiencing it. That hospital was built to keep seriously diseased people apart from the rest of the community in order to avoid epidemics. But it also had an effect of promoting a deep sense of individual isolation, and of being unclean and unwanted.
The Christmas party over, I went back to bed in the women’s ward and waited for Santa to come. I had a brown baby doll in my bag. I was asked to let the crying baby play with it. The baby pulled its head off and then messed on its body.
When allowed out of bed, I watched snow falling outside of the window and looked for footprints on the soft white carpet. I waited for my parents to visit. I waited for the sixpence. I waited to go home.
At last, after six long weeks, the day arrived when my mother brought my outdoor clothes. The clothes that I had worn in hospital, along with my small collection of personal things, were stoved. I put my clothes on in the office. I had to wear almost two of everything. It was a cold day and snow still lay on the ground. It was my first time out for six weeks and there was a long journey home. I stepped outside into the sweet fresh air. I was free! I was with my mother. I was holding her hand. I was going home!
Later that year, my brother was rushed into hospital. He had been suffering a lot of pain with appendicitis. The doctor sent for an ambulance. By the time he reached the hospital, his appendix had burst and the whole area had become numb. The surgeon went straight ahead with the operation and only gave him a whiff of something when the feeling returned during the operation. I was very impressed with my brother’s bravery.
But it was only another year or so before I had another hospital experience. Before the days of penicillin, tonsillitis was a painful and debilitating problem. The popular cure was to have them removed, along with your adenoids. Lured by the promise of ice-cream and jelly, I agreed to be treated – not that I had a choice!
Along with my sister, Mother took me to hospital where she handed us over to a nurse. We were herded with other children into a ward that consisted of two rows of iron-framed beds. Before long, we were dressed in gowns and waterproof hats. When we were all ready, we were taken to a waiting room that had a seat running around all four walls.
Two nurses kept us singing with loud voices. Every few minutes a door opened and a child was taken out. So we had to sing all the louder. “Ten green bottles” might have been more appropriate than the “White cliffs of Dover”!
My turn came – not many of us singing by this time! The door opened. Someone took my hand and, trembling with fear, I was walked to the other side of a corridor. A door opened the way to the operating theatre. I saw the high narrow table, overhung with brilliant lights and surrounded by people in white gowns wearing masks and head coverings. I was lifted onto the table and had something placed over my mouth. I was frightened; I couldn’t get my breath. I opened my mouth and screamed.
I woke up lying on a bed. An enamel bowl was wedged against my mouth to catch the blood trickling from my nose and throat. I hurt badly. I looked down the line of beds. Each child was like me: head at the bottom of the bed resting on a rubber sheet, and with a bowl bright with blood. Some children were crying for their mummies; some were moaning or whimpering. None was eating ice-cream and jelly! Occasionally the sound of a bowl falling on the floor brought a nurse scurrying to mop up the blood. Someone would come round wiping mouths to see if the bleeding had stopped. To my young mind, it was a scene from hell!
Next morning we were all lying in bed the right way round and a doctor came to examine our throats. If we were healing all right, we could go home.
Not long after getting home, my sister was found to have chickenpox and a little later, I too had the same infection. I do not know which was worse, the sore throat or the dreadful itching!
Immunisation had arrived and we were given injections to save us from diphtheria and smallpox. The site of the injection swelled and spread out into a large painful circle and I felt a little unwell. But having suffered from all the other childhood diseases – and they were very debilitating – it was worth the price.
But disease was not the only public health concern. Wartime conditions spread parasites that lived under the skin. Not long after being in hospital, along with my mother and sister I had to pay a visit to a cleansing centre. I was in the grip of utter shame and humiliation. I had scabies!
I could not tell my classmates why I was not at school. My closest friend’s mother, possibly worried her children might catch whatever I had, continually quizzed me.
“Come on, Gladys, what’s the matter with you?”
“Summer rash, I think,” I would say, hiding my hands with their tell-tale scratch marks.
“Don’t be shy; you can tell us. We won’t think you’re a spy if you’ve got German measles!”
“I’ve eaten too many plums and they’ve given me an itchy rash.”
By that time I was not contagious. I had already been cleansed.
The clinic was set up in an old village school. We had to catch two buses to get there. I felt like an unclean outcast. The nurses were kindly enough but the procedure was very humiliating. I had to strip and take a hot bath. Then, while I stood in the bath completely naked, the nurse used a big shaving brush to cover me with a creamy substance. I had to part my legs while she worked the stuff into ever crack and cranny. I then had to wave my arms about to get the stuff to dry. Even while the cream was still damp on my body, I was told to dress and run around the old playground. Although in a fairly isolated spot, I was frightened of being seen by someone who knew us.
If I thought that experience humiliating, there was even worse to come. When I moved up to the girls’ school, I managed to pick up head lice. The headmistress had a policy of name and shame. The nit nurse visited the school at regular intervals. Fear gripped the whole class when she walked into the classroom. You stood in a line while she parted your hair, hoping that your name would not go down in her little black book. Knowing what was going to happen, some children would sit down crying. In the morning at the end of assembly, the head would read aloud the name of every pupil on the nurse’s list.
“These girls have dirty heads. Stay away from them.”
During the war years, many children were infected with head lice. We were constantly using a nit comb. It was a bit like going fishing. With a sheet of newspaper on the floor, we would kneel and comb through our hair, watching the lice fall and run. We picked them up and killed them between our thumbnails. How many caught today? Then the eggs, sticking on to hairs, had to be removed. With the usual hair washing, using soap with a vinegar rinse – no fancy shampoos in those days – we had a bottle of stuff from the chemist to help us clean up. But we still managed to keep picking up the little beasties. When my name was read out, I could have wept for shame. Girls close to me moved further away. Once more, I was unclean!
What joy when my name was no longer read out. I heard a girl standing behind me whisper, “Gladys is off the list.”
Worms too, became a menace. With the shortage of paper in the school lavatories and less-than-perfect washing facilities, it was easy for an epidemic to break out. London evacuees were always blamed, but that was unfair. With our cold damp house and lack of hot water, I could be just as scruffy as anyone else could. The nit nurse told me off for having a dirty neck.
“Well, soap’s on ration,” my friend’s mother said, when told of my disgrace. I thought she might have been thinking of her own neck.
No way was I going to strip down to wash in freezing cold conditions. Some nights the water pipes, which ran under our bed, froze. So much ice gathered on the window pane, it was hard to scratch it off. My sister would come home from night shift and snuggle up to my sister and me. She was incredibly cold. We had hot-water bottles and heated bricks in the beds, but we still put our clothes on top of the quilt to keep us warm. We didn’t want our clothes to be frozen either! As it was, I suffered severe chilblains every winter.
Having outside lavatories probably helped spread worms and diseases. Our baker, who called several times a week, always used our back lavatory. He never once washed his hands, even though bread was unwrapped in those days. Other callers – tea vendor, milkman, greengrocer, sweep, insurance man and various collectors of money – were just the same. Food was handled in shops but no one complained. People had their chamber pots under their beds, as did we, but there was no washing of hands afterwards. During the night, the bathroom was only used in summer. It was a cold dark trip to both
light-switch and bathroom. Many people only had an outdoor lavatory. So why bother going out in the rain and frost?
Unless there was an attendant, public lavatories left much to be desired. They could get very smelly. The containers for dirty sanitary towels tended to fill up. Having no bin liners or bags to put discarded objects in, made the situation worse. I once saw the refuse collector come out of the ladies’ lavatories carrying an armful of the smelly objects.
My father was disabled and there were no special lavatories or facilities of any kind. Every time my mother pushed him out in his wheelchair they had to carry an empty milk bottle with them.
There was little help for the disabled when I was young. Being so helpless after a very active working life, made my father very bad tempered. His wheelchair had a mind of its own and would occasionally veer to the right. Whilst being pushed around Nottingham University Park, several times he nearly landed in the lake with the fish.
“Your mother’s trying to bloody drown me!” he was wont to yell.
Unable to get to work to do his job, he was forced to retire on sick benefit – very little in those days. Mother had a number of cleaning jobs and Dad tried to earn money by working from home – shoe repairs, leather work, motor restoration, and relining baby prams. Weary with pain and immobility, he became very frustrated when things went wrong. The air became blue with his language and Mother suffered much verbal abuse. Home was not always a happy place to be. Even at night, I sometimes heard my dad yell with agonising cramp.
“Give me a knife so I can cut the bloody thing off!”
Sometimes, when he was poorly, we went out at night to find an open fish and chip shop where we would queue for hours to get his favourite food. Because he was hurting, we hurt too.
With others, my dad struggled to get disabled people motorised vehicles and, eventually, the government provided them. They were only single-seated and some of the most dangerous vehicles on the road but at least he was mobile. Thankfully, we now have a more caring society.

Published by Magpies Nest Publishing IBSN 0-9548885-0-2

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