The best nights tend to be spontaneous ones. I’ve heard that so often I think it’s now a stereotype. Something that, by its nature, can’t be planned, and something that can only be commented on in retrospect given the complete lack of predication involved. It also works best if it’s a surprise too, then you don’t have time to overthink it and reason a hundred different ways as how it doesn’t work, or how you can’t attend, or if it’s really a good idea.
As you may gathered I’m not that good at spontaneity. This makes me a fairly efficient elective operating nurse but not a very good clubber. Which is what makes last night all the more bizarre.
After a heavy week all I usually want to do is crack open the wine, have a bath and sleep. Often in that order. But I bumped into a surgeon yesterday who told me it was his last day operating and he was planning a meet up at the pub that borders the hospital. Expensive, but not posh it’s our local and I’ve been going there fairly regularly since I moved hospitals back in 2011.
I arrive last having had to clear up some things in work and immediately find the surgeon in question ordering another round. So I take him up on the offer of a drink and away we go. And for the next couple of hours it’s very much drink, order, repeat. I never bought a round but I think it was because the medical staff attending were more eager to buy than the nursing crew (to be fair the ratio was around 50/50) and the unwritten rule, at least in the UK, is the medical staff are on higher pay grades and therefore should be able to afford to pay for their hard-working and long-suffering minions who don’t get overtime pay.
Seriously, we don’t. We get “time owing” which is basically free overtime and something the private sector would have a coronary over if it was ever compulsory on a national basis.
I have very little tolerance for alcohol at the best of times. One or two mixers are usually my limit. In two hours I’ve blown that theory to bits, and am aware that I am well on the way to becoming very inebriated (which is a lovely word). I recognise the stages like destination stops on a train line: garrulousness, loose numbness in most limbs, loss of feeling in the base of my spinal column while walking to the bathroom, ease to tell everyone in attendance some of the more unusual or outrageous things I’ve done in my youth and difficulty focusing on more than one facial feature at a time. The latter is a warning sign which proves I’ve drunk too much and should stop now. I ignore it when the next glass of Captain Morgan arrives, ice cubes optional.
Then we go for dinner. The surgeon booked a table at the local Indian for eight. And I don’t know whether it was the alcohol or the unusual circumstances but the invitation was open to everybody, both the nursing and medical staff.
I know the above may sound like mountains from the proverbial molehills but I’ve noticed that, at least in the UK, at least in the hospitals I’ve worked in the medical and nursing communities only really mix outside the hospital during the holiday season, often when declination of the big events would raise eyebrows. I’ve heard the stories, surgeons operating telling the tales of how their drinking habits are the same as anyone else but the company they keep is critiqued by their superiors. And how the registrars are watched by the consultants, who are watched by the head consultants, who are watched by the professors, who are watched by heaven knows who.
I didn’t want to impede, this is something that I’ve always had issue with. I think it has something to do with being an only child, the lack of peer interaction from an early age makes it tricky for me to see specific professional boundaries, as a result I air on the side of caution when it comes to relationships outside of work. After asking repeatedly if it was ok to tag along and was finally assured it would be we all toddled down the road in various stages of drunkenness to the restaurant’s only private booth, secreted at the back, away from the stares of other diners. This would be important for several reasons, hospital staff tend to fall into type when they socialise, all the more when you include a skinfull of alcohol. Stories of international conferences that turn into 48 hour drinking sessions, med school hijinks that would shock any editors of the right-wing papers and personal opinions of patients that don’t exactly follow the codes of conduct we all publically follow like engineers at a local nuclear power plant.
We sit down and the chief surgeon there immediately orders bottles of red and white with the kind of authority that suggests it will be more than one each before the night is over. Poppadums arrive and are eaten without really thinking about it, and the plan for food finally becoming an “order something each and we stick it in the middle and share it”. rice and bread and bottled water fly to the table nonchalantly. The white wine goes down surprisingly easily.
Eventually the food arrives and it becomes a free-for-all. My mild korma dish (I have the traditional hebrewic stomach) never actually arrives but I don’t mind, sticking to the hanks of sizzling chicken arriving on the black slate chop-boards. And the seven of us just talked about things, talking about the things we all talk about over the dinner table. Growing up, drinking, stupid stuff.
The head consultant told us the story of how he went to his first Irish wake as a young boy and had to ride home through the twisting roads of Galway, having gorged himself on coke and being forcibly hung out the passenger window by his father to avoid him retched on the plush leather interior of a borrowed Mercedes. Three of us made repeated trips outside to smoke, even though we preach nicotine abstinence to our patients (smoking being the main cause of bladder cancer), I told the story of my father taking me for drinks at our local tavern, my first and really only experiment with cider that led to my own mad dash to the bathroom after getting home. And people’s faces got more slack and animated as the levels of liquid in the wine bottles went down and the replacements arrived.
Coffee was ordered and came in tall latte glasses. The heavy cream mixing in the dark drink, sugar cubes stacked like cinder blocks.
Then the head consultant leaves for a second. He doesn’t go to the toilets.
Suddenly the platter of champagne flutes arrives. we all take one and the toasting begins. First for the surgeon leaving, then to the department through a time of change. The head consultant toasts the two nurses present, I being one of them. We apparently hold the department together most of the time. I get on the bandwagon and toast the leaving surgeon, my fellow nurse toasts the head consultant, and for the first time in my nursing career I feel proud to work in something.
The booth we’d been encamped in had no direct line of sight to the street outside. We could be on the moon for all I knew.
Then the bill arrives.
The head surgeon takes it and pays quickly. We all sit quietly in awe and respect of such generosity. He leaves a £30 tip. So heaven knows what the bill was. we all sit quietly in respect of the man. Several of them order taxis, I don’t need to but it gives me an idea of the time. when I leave the booth I find the rest of the restaurant empty; empty and immaculately clean, now I realise why the staff were looking so anxious. they wanted us gone, gone and out and away into the night, which is now pitch black beyond the facing glass.
The staff asks if I’m ok. I nod. Words are tricky at this point. I wave and totter out into the sticky hour, just prior to midnight.
It was one of the best meals of my life. One of the best nights since I left Aberystwyth back in 2003.
I don’t think a night like this will happen again. If so not for a long time, not until another prominent surgeon leaves for a consultancy post in another city and I so happen to be in the pub at the time. It was a pity I was dressed in the clothes I hastily pulled on at 6am that morning; grape combats and an orange Illni hoodie. Though it wasn’t a big thing, my fellow nurse rode to work and was toting her lid around with her for the entire evening.
But for one night I was on the inside looking out. And it was somewhere that I missed, that I never thought I’d feel again. And it will stay with me for a long time. So tomorrow when I’m on duty until 10pm (not a night shift, but something else) I’ll think of that night, and I know it will stand me up when I feel like my back’s against the wall.