By Monday the hippo-strength antibiotics prescribed by my GP were not even making a dent in the spread of infection and my right lower-leg was looking like a prosthesis discarded from use in The Elephant Man for being too gruesome to be true. The GP referred me immediately to a local hospital to which I was admitted without delay, put on intraveinous superjuice and told I could be incarcerated for up to ten days.
The hospital is arranged in numerous wards of varying sizes, all of them split into lettered sections known as bays each containing six beds. My first port of call had me in Bed 1, a quiet fellow with gastric troubles in Bed 2, argumentative drunks in Beds 3, 4 and 5 who had been together for many days and enjoyed little more than shouting their ignorant opinions on a wide range of topics, and a quiet old fellow in Bed 6 who appeared to want nothing more than to die after having spent two nights with Messrs 3, 4 and 5. Two things were clear from the beginning. There were no circumstances in which I was going to get involved in the "debates" and sleep would be impossible.
It was while on this ward I had my only encounter with the Consultant in charge of gammy legs. At least I presume that's who she was, she introduced neither herself nor her colleague by either name or rank but drew the curtain round my bed and started looking and prodding in a manner I would expect of a consultant and she certainly had the saggy, unmaintained features of someone who has spent many years working in the NHS. After looking at my leg and expressing agreement with earlier diagnoses she noted I had a history of liver problems and took it upon herself to try stabbing her bony fingers in the general direction of that troubled organ. My jacket was drawn shut apace, the sheet removed from my covered limb and I pointed, saying firmly "I think you'll find I'm here because of my leg - this is the one, here". She looked as though I'd just slapped her with a wet trout which, had it happened, would have been highly appropriate considering her facial features and general demeanour. She went off in a huff, never to be seen again and to remain anonymous for evermore.
By this time it was about 11pm and my mind turned to ways of amusing myself during the sleepless hours to come without engaging in conversation with the drunks. Hope lay in the fact that it was E Bay. Just before midnight bids appeared to have closed and the quiet chap in Bed 2 and I were moved elsewhere, far away. Only two others occupied the new Bay on our arrival, a hunched religious fundamentalist and a man practicing for the World Coughing Championships. The latter proved a captive audience for the former who, fortunately, spoke at mild volume. Sleep was difficult, as it had been for the last few days, but it was reassuring that pain rather than vocalised idiocy was the cause. No improvement was noticeable until Tuesday afternoon just after receipt of my second set of injections for the day. The redness started to recede ever so slightly and the swelling followed suit. At the same time two beds became available in a much nicer ward. Only I was invited to view these sumptuous properties and so the perfect setting was found for the remainder of my sentence.
No doubt time on a ward with other people will always be slightly troublesome, particularly for someone who thrives on solitude, but this was probably as good as it gets. Bed 1 featured an East European junkie of impeccable manners, Bed 2 a cockney junkie with the same excellent trait, in Bed 3 was an elderly gentleman of subcontinental origin who enjoyed a good moan and lengthy loud phone conversations with family and friends but showed himself to be of warm and generous spirit if those conversations were any evidence, I had Bed 4 - opposite Bed 3 and enjoying a splendid view from the window, Bed 5 contained a young oriental fellow who spoke no English and the occupant of Bed 6 was always hidden under his bedclothes and too ill to do anything except fart.
8am Wednesday saw the eighth set of injections being administered followed shortly afterwards by a visit from a new doctor, a fine looking young lady without a single truttaceous quality. She too strayed onto the subject of the FatBigot liver and was asked "what's that got to do with my leg?" The wry smile showed her bosses' ruse had failed. Shortly after the ninth set of injections following lunch on Wednesday a short nap was required, during which I ran a high temperature and sweated like a pig. On waking, all fever had passed although the pain in my leg was intense for about an hour. It was clear the nastly little bugs had put up their final desperate fight for dominance, only to be defeated by a combination of the 21 large pills and 18 massive injections of antibiotics administered over the previous 124 hours. They were beaten by modern medicine, not a single crystal or drop of homeopathic waters proved necessary, and a day later injections themselves were no longer necessary. I was granted parole on condition I continue to take seven pills a day for the next ten days to make sure all trace of the little buggers has been eliminated.
But anyway, what's all this got to do with "the most pointless task in history"? On each of the three wards graced by my flabby presence others were subjected to visits from relatives and some, even, by people they liked. It's such a very cringeworthy thing to witness. Let me give just three examples.
The quiet fellow with gastric difficulties, who I would estimate to be about thirty-five years old, was visited by his mother. When he did not telephone her as expected on Sunday she went round to his flat and on getting no reply called the police who broke the door down. He was already in hospital and now faced the cost of replacing his front door as well as the potential loss of all his personal property because it was not left fully secure. Her visit comprised an hour-long tirade against her stupidity during which it transpired that a neighbour knocked on what was left of the door while the police were inside and informed them that the occupant had left in an ambulance a couple of hours earlier and that his girlfriend was out of town on business. The words "unthinking stupid old woman" featured in the address to the jury.
Then there was the challenger for the title of World Coughing Champion. His wife nestled down in the way only a certain type of middle-aged lady can nestle. Those old enough to remember Les Dawson and Roy Barrowclough as Cissy and Ada will know exactly what I mean. She wasn't going to risk any of her words missing their target, so she said nothing as she bustled onto the ward in her raincoat and bonnet, snuggled her ample backside on and over the edges of the reasonably generous chair and fixed her husband with a glare he obviously knew well. And then she started. Many years of experience had taught him not to interrupt and a good hour-and-a-half monologue followed, ranging from the state of the cat's bowels and the price of the weekly shop to the most important topic of all - her husband's inadequacies. If ever someone was turned from having a nasty cough to wishing for a terminal condition, it was him.
The third example was the kindly subcontinental gentleman. He has one child, a son aged around forty, who brought his rather frail mother along. She was clearly very distressed to see her husband of long-standing in a state of both immobility and pain and he knew he had to try to cheer her up. It seemed to work, but by the end of the exercise the poor man was exhausted.
And so I ask - what is the point of hospital visits?
My own experience is limited to my only previous sentence to a term of hospitalisation, when I had a heart attack a few years ago. I had visits from relatives and friends and found it all utterly tiresome. The only news I ever had to impart was that a heart attack hurts like billy-o but the pain ceased after I was drugged up to the gills and I would go home when the doctors decided it was appropriate. Apart from that it was pointless smalltalk. My final visitors on that occasion were a neighbour who is a dear friend and her niece whom I have known for many years. You simply couldn't meet nicer people but I had nothing to say to them. It was an hour of sheer torture when all I wanted was to be left alone.
This time round I contacted all those likely to threaten to visit and made clear that I did not want visitors, thank you very much. I had books to read and people to observe, I wasn't going to have that spoiled by spending time saying "it hurts less than yesterday and expect it to hurt less again tomorrow". This spell inside has proved to me beyond any doubt that visiting people in hospital is the most pointless task in history