I’ve never had what could be described as any kind of fear of hospitals, or even a particular dislike. For most of my life there has been a matter-of-factness about hospitals that was neither alluring nor off-putting. As if the institutions and buildings themselves had their own clinical detachment from me. As the years inevitably pass, my relationship has changed. Now it is to do with the lingering pain of those I love and not the acute stitch, suture, redact or set of youthful misadventure. “Ow, that must hurt”. “You’ve made a bit of a mess, haven’t you?” “Oh, it’s worse than it looks”. Inconvenience then, not tragedy and life-changing diagnoses.
I hear that for many people the smell is the dominant factor in their dislike, triggering all those unhappy associations. That completely unique smell that invades the lungs and clings to the clothes. Despite the fact that smell is very important to me, that isn’t the problem. My problem with hospitals is the heat: there seems to be an institutional belief in the necessity of a uniform temperature similar to that inside a clay kiln.
So after an hour on the ward I am drowsy, dehydrated and irritable, my throat and nasal passages just as dried out as my hands are from all the applications of alcohol gel. Dried-out and emotional. The cold February air carries a light taste of approaching rain, inviting me to breathe deeply. Once, twice, a third time and I realise I am breathing rhythmically in an attempt to calm, reach out and connect. This is the place where I grew up, surely I should be able to make some connection? This place of suburban sprawl, municipally spartan verges and brutally pruned shrubs. I trudge past the low gardens replaced by gravel and monoblock, drab wintery lawns and skeletal standard roses. Death without the promise of rebirth. Where are the snowdrops, the crocuses, the first insistent shoots of narcissus and daffodil?
What I am longing for is the towering cathedral of land and sky; to reach into the fecund mud and disappear into the green. But that didn’t come until later: near black mud and a holly grove; damp leaf mould and a ring of beech trees; a singularly special hornbeam tree beside a river. These places where my druidry came alive are miles and years from this grey place, yet these are the places my wild soul reaches for when I need comfort.
So where is my connection to this place? It pulses low within my sensory memory. The shore. The shore. It was my childhood refuge and many a troubled adolescent evening was spent trudging the sand and staring out at the waves. I can feel the pull, the green-grey swell huge and wintery, filling my vision. The tides pull at the waters of my own spirit. The deep healing waters of the soul, the collective unconscious. Such a simple and primal massiveness, so powerful that it would envelop me and sweep me away.
I only know I had my eyes closed because now I opened them and dragged in a deep breath to steady my swimming head. I couldn’t face all of that like this. Too big. Too much. There is a rising fear within me. Don’t go anywhere near it. Turn away. Grab all these swirling feelings and stuff them into a box inside. Seal it up, walk away. My jaw is clenched and my eyes are stinging.
A quarter of an hour later I am facing the sea. No surging swell, no crashing breakers. The Cattle of Tethys are conspicuous by their absence. The sea is calm and almost still, waves lapping low against the shore. No drama. Just a pale, grey stillness. Even the horizon was an indistinct smudge barely separating the sea and the sky. Nothing was certain, nothing was clear.
The sky is neither blue nor dark slate grey but an uneven paleness. Sea and sky blurred and became indistinct, the weather itself featureless, almost wind and almost rain. Nothing, not even the sound of the wind and the waves, is solid or definitive. Even in this muted space I can feel the pull of the sea. It could pull my sorrow away, replacing it with the gentle lapping. Dissolve away the pain, the uncertainty, the confusion and leave only a formless grey. Take everything, even memory itself. A cruel irony, nature imitating life. I don’t know if I will feel better after this, but I realise I’m not really doing it for me.
I step towards the water’s edge and I begin to pray.