Friday, 6 February 2015

How Fragile We Are

I was going to write a sombre-toned post-Charlie-Hebdo blog post about this winter's work mission to fashion week in Paris. You know, grey rooftops and the Eiffel Tower glittering in spite of all that horror. A jitteriness in the air that we may well have been imagining, jittery ourselves. And this contrasted with the wild and rewarding disco night we enjoyed, crowned with countless glasses of champagne. For Paris - she has lived revolution, siege and warfare - is licking her wounds.

But no. I came home from the tragic city to a small-scale family emergency. A child of mine in an ambulance. Everything thankfully resolved hours later in a local hospital. Then a day of follow-up in the wards of the massive hospital in town. Hours of standing, waiting, wishing for food, praying no one would jump the queue, finishing my book and nagging said child, as one does. A long day through which it all came home, how fragile we are. How we think we are steering our destinies but, in the grand arc of our lives, we are not. How we can try so hard to be healthy, to keep our dear ones healthy - and fail.

Like most of us I view hospitals as locations of dread. Awful nights of agony or the agony of a loved one - which you wish you could bear yourself. Mostly, these are relatively minor things which provide stonking stories afterwards: the time that guy crashed into your son and he was carried down the slopes on a stretcher; the time you put on snow chains halfway up the pass coming back from Agordo with your daughter's cracked arm in plaster and sling. But then there are the traumatic moments of fear, tests.. trying to read the doctor's face. The waiting. The knowledge that apart from childbirth or routine checkups, you are never going to be here for an innocent reason. It will always be because something it's wrong or if it isn't now, it will be one day.

Australian Tim Winton grew up 'In the Shadow of the Hospital' and wrote this stirring piece for Granta. 'No wonder so many great novels have been set in hospitals.. Hospitals make rich fictional settings because from the inside they are such chillingly plausible worlds themselves. They have their own surreal logic, their own absurd governance, their own uncanny weather, and the impotence and boredom they induce is hard to match anywhere by prison or the military.'

Once I finish reading my book I spend numerous hours looking at everybody around. There's a real cast of characters. Old creaky folk on stretchers, a pregnant African lady I can see is in pain, a labourer with blood running down under his cap, listless babies wrapped in scarves. Everyone is exposed, at some extremity of emotion. As Tim Winton says: ' the lee of the hospital social camouflage slips away.. Where else do people bear their narratives so openly? Body language is heightened, almost balletic..'

Eight hours later when we go outside to the car park it is dark and colder. My son can walk now. We are both starving and glad of our release into the real world. But is it the real world? Or just a reprieve? Still more people pour over the bridge to the main entrance, an endless stream. Hard faces, each of them; fast paces, big coats. Nobody wanders into a hospital.

That night I remember dancing half-drunk in Paris just days ago, and the long drive home through France and up into the mountains, rain thrashing the windscreen, trucks passing outside the Psycho Hotel where myself and my colleagues hardly slept a wink.

I am grateful.