In the village where I was born there was a cottage hospital and here, between finishing A levels and going to drama school, I went to work as a pre-student nurse. The work was mainly menial – making beds, emptying bed-pans and feeding patients. Since the ward I was on was Men’s Surgical, I was also expected to shave the patients. (Before you men get a fit of the horrors I’d better say I’m talking about their face.)
Why these lovely, mainly elderly gentlemen weren’t to be trusted with a razor I couldn’t say and never thought to ask. Maybe it was the absence of mirrors, considered by the ward sister an unnecessary frivolity. Whatever the reason, I was ordered to shave these old gentlemen and can still see their mild, benign faces striving not to register despair as I approached with water and shaving mug.
They never complained. They even thanked me. There they’d lie when the job was done, with as many patches on their face as a Restoration fop, except that these were bits of white tissue soaking up blood. Resignation, that’s what I remember most clearly, and a faint embarrassment when their visitors arrived.
Some of them went home after a while and no doubt wallowed in returned health and a flawless shave. Others died, usually at night, their empty morning bed made up so neatly it seemed to deny ever having had them as an occupant.
I can still remember them: Mr Peele, Mr Noel, Mr Broadbent, and others whose name escapes me though their faces are clear – always stuck about with bits of bloody paper, of course. Peace to you, Men’s Surgical.