Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: Having my own A&E crisis
You know that scene in Ben Hur where Charlton Heston encounters the lepers? He sees them coming out of a cave and he hides behind a rock. Now, the lepers were his mother and sister, so it must have been quite upsetting - because they would have been in much better nick the last time he saw them. But at least he could get in behind a rock and hide.
They don't supply rocks in Beaumont Hospital. Granted, Billy is neither my mother nor my sister. He's only a boring b****x from up the road. But, still, as I look across at Billy propped up in the bed, I envy Charlton Heston with his plastic rock. I've nowhere to hide and it's too late to turn and run.
I've been spotted.
- Charlie Savage! It's Charlie Savage, lads! Come over here and have a look at this, Charlie!
It's going to be disgusting - I know that much. Billy has been revolting the neighbours with his leg for years. Before the leg it was something on the side of his neck.
I go over to him. Gingerly - is that the word? I go over to Billy very gingerly.
- Look at that! he says.
Billy doesn't have intimate conversations. He's talking to everyone in the ward, in the hospital, on the northside of Dublin.
I'm at the end of the bed. I brace myself. I haven't looked at the leg and I haven't looked at Billy. I'm looking at the sign to the left of Billy's head. Clean Hands, Safe Hands. It says nothing about legs.
- I don't have my reading glasses with me, Billy, I tell him. - What am I supposed to be looking at?
There's nothing there, just two feet and a pair of shins sticking out of his pajamas. One is a left foot and the other's a right but, other than that, they look the same.
- What do you see?!
- Nothing much, Billy.
I'm relieved, but disappointed. I've come all this way to visit a man I don't like, and he's grand - there's not a bother on him. I'm looking at a pair of legs in their late middle years. On a woman they'd be a disaster but on Billy they're kind of sweet.
Why are we scared of hospitals?
I came in expecting amputations and leprosy, Billy on a butcher's block or Billy in a shroud with a bell around his neck - 'Unclean, unclean!'
Men my age, we love our lepers. I mentioned leprosy to one of my grandkids once and he hadn't a clue what I was on about. When I was his age, I could have gone on Mastermind with 'Lepers and Leprosy' as my specialist subject. And I'd have won, unless I'd been up against another Irish kid my age.
It was Ben Hur and Father Damien that grabbed us. I remember our teacher, Mrs Ringland, crying when she was telling us about Father Damien and his leper colony. I can't remember the number of my house but I know that the name of the colony was Molokai.
But anyway. We're terrified of hospitals - it's not just me. I look around the ward. It's full of men on the mend, as far as I can judge. There's two of then cheerfully fighting over the remote control.
- Turn it on to the racing.
- Me cousin's daughter is on 'Jeremy Kyle'.
There's another chap lying back with his headphones on and his eyes shut. By the way he's wriggling his toes, I'm betting it's Stevie Wonder he's listening to, not a choir of angels.
There's one empty bed, so they might have hauled out a dead one just before I got here, but the rest are grand. A nurse walks in and they all sit up, every one of them, including the chap with his eyes shut. And me.
It's the getting into the place that terrifies us, I think. The A&E, the days on a trolley, the flus, the infections, the crying relatives on Joe Duffy, the Minister's hair going grey on the News. Every year. It's a disgrace - that's one thing. But it's ridiculous too, like building a house with no way into it. You know it's warm in there, and comfortable. But there's no proper door and the windows don't open.
But I'm in now and I'm looking at Billy. I'm nearly liking him. He'll be out soon, terrorising the neighbours, bringing down the house prices. He looks happy in the bed, and excited.
I know Billy: it isn't the cured leg that's making him happy.
- Are they letting you out tomorrow, Billy?
- They are not!
- How come?
He grabs his pajamas top and pulls it open.
- Oh, good Jesus… !
I'm gone, out of there. I make a dash for the safety of A&E.