Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

The catheter stung exquisitely when I lay down. So I stood up. All night I stood by my hospital bed, tethered by my penis to the transparent collection bag hanging off the bed rail, reading Artemis Cooper's life of Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 1931, not knowing what to do with himself, Paddy walked to Constantinople, as he called it. I rested the paperback on my pillow under the spotlight and walked with him across Europe, much of it still feudal.

Our hero had just emerged from a hayrick after having a spontaneous foursome with his Serbian girlfriend and two Hungarian peasant girls they had met in a field, when I made a startling and revolutionising discovery.

For the past 12 hours I'd been labouring under the false belief that the catheter bag was fixed immovably to the bed rail, and that the two feet of clear tubing from me to it were a kind of punitive leash. But at around three in the morning, irritated enough by the catheter's painful restrictions to bend down for a closer look, I realised that the blood-filled bag was merely suspended from the rail by a hook, and could be detached by merely lifting it with an outstretched forefinger, and could be walked around with, like an outre handbag, even as far as Constantinople if needs be. (Though it would have been a damned nuisance in hayricks with Hungarian peasant women. ) It was a moment of liberation. I picked up my bag and went for an early morning stroll around the ward. Twenty-eight male patients were asleep in three dormitories. The noise!

It was like Romford market on a Saturday morning. There were snorers and grunters, and groaners and babblers, and wailers and moaners, and even a demented shouter. Each bed bay was dimly and eerily lit, so I might have been wandering among the gruesome exhibits of a waxworks museum, with exaggerated sound effects played on a loop.

On the way round I met one of the night nurses, an affable, brisk Chinese woman.

'Good evening, Mr Clarke!' she said, delighted to see me up and about, even at that hour.

She couldn't stop. But in passing she briefly narrowed her eyes at the contents of my bag.

It was full - about a litre of what looked to me like blood. But where I saw blood, she saw cause for congratulation. 'Oh, well done!' she said. And it occurred to me how one is extravagantly praised for excreta both at the beginning of life and towards the end. …

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