LIFE IN LONDON #05

I scanned my list of names again and found her address. The number matched the rust-bitten silver digits screwed into the black door and I consulted my paper to find her flat letter. I leaned on the “A” doorbell and stepped back, waiting for the little box beside me to squawk into life with my patient’s voice asking who it was.

I locked eyes with a landscaper working in the neighbouring garden and flashed him a smile. He nodded, a recognition of a fellow community worker navigating the maze of London houses and apartments.

When the response finally came, it wasn’t from the direction I’d anticipated. The metal box remained silent and instead a wavering voice drifted down from above.

‘Hello. I’m up here.’

I glanced up to find a thin elderly woman in her nineties leaning out from an upstairs window, a bird-like hand waving at me, and a toothy smile grinning down at me. It was instinct: I waved back.

‘Hello,’ I said, remembering why I was there. ‘I’m Jonathan, the community phlebotomist. I’m just here for a blood test. You must be Catherine.’

‘Oh, right you are. I’m not good on my feet. I’ll have to throw the keys down.’

‘Oh.’ This was new. ‘Okay, sure,’ I said to an empty window, my patient already disappearing inside.

I rocked on my heels, waiting on a stranger to throw her door keys at me, and shared another look with the landscaper. I gave a weak smile and glanced away, repressing the urge to tell him this isn’t how it normally went.

After five minutes the frail face reappeared in the square of window frame. ‘Oh good, you’re still there. I’m throwing them down now.’

I raised my arms above my head and clapped my hands. ‘Go ahead,  I’m a good catch,’ I said, then felt an absurd surge of anxiety that I’d drop them with the landscaper watching. I couldn’t tell you why I wanted to impress a stranger with my key-catching abilities, but there it was.

Catherine gave a little flick of her claw of a hand and the keys hung in the air. I traced the arc of the descent with my eyes and my hand snaked out, snatching them from the sky with a contraction of my fist. I felt a flood of elation and sneaked a glance at the landscaper to see if he’d seen. He gave a raise of his brows and I shrugged like it was no big thing.

‘It’s just the one by the handle, and then the bigger one unlocks the lower lock.’

Catherine’s words snapped me from my victorious reverie and it occurred to me to put the keys I was still holding aloft like a trophy to use. I followed my patient’s instructions, unlocking deadbolts and locks with keys straight out of the Victoria era, big fat keys with the small square of teeth at the end. I stepped inside and into an apartment that could have been lifted from a Sherlock Homes’ novel. Sunlight filtered through the dusty air and a rug-lined staircase twisted up through the wooden foyer to the bedroom above.

I mounted the stairs and found my patient sitting in her nightie and dressing gown on a two-seater couch that looked as old as she was. She looked small in the big bedroom instead of the image I previously had of her hanging out a window.

‘Catherine, it’s nice to meet you,’ I said, handing the keys back, stupidly triumphant in this exchange of property, as if it was a challenge I had risen to and won.

I slipped into my role of health carer, providing the necessary small talk and questions while simultaneously preparing equipment and poking this sweet old lady with something sharp. If done well, you can have your patient more absorbed in the conversation than the act of taking blood, and they’ll swear afterwards that they didn’t feel a thing, even if in the moment they winced as the needle pierced flesh. This I treat as a real triumph — the ultimate victory.

I completed the necessary paperwork and Catherine fell silent as I worked. When finished, I looked up to find that she had a portable phone in her hand.

‘The council are always so hard to reach,’ she said.

‘Tell me about it,’ I replied while slipping on my backpack. While I’d never tried to reach my local council in London, I felt I’d waited on-hold long enough with equivalent organisational bodies to share an eye-roll at the ineptitude of Catherine’s local council.

‘I just ring the gas-leak number,’ she said with a wicked and satisfied little smirk I wouldn’t have believe this old dear to be capable of, and she pressed dial on her phone.

I laughed and gave her a silent tip of the hat, and as I waved her goodbye and turned to head down the stairs I heard this exchange:

‘Hello! No, no, there’s no gas leak. I just need more of those green compost bags…Oh, you could? Oh, well, thank you, dear.’

As I made my way down the stairs I couldn’t help shake the feeling that there was a lot Catherine could have taught me about navigating life in London.

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LIFE IN LONDON #04

In the old days (by which I mean a few months ago when I lived in Australia) I used to work as a district nurse. This involved driving from patient’s home to patient’s home and providing nursing care in the person’s own environment. The work day would finish by heading back to the office and sitting around a table with my peers and having a serious discussion about our patient’s needs. It also involved having a not-so-serious discussion about the absurd things we’d come across that day, each of us trying to best each other’s latest edition of the bizarre things humans are capable of.

Working in the community opens you up to a plethora of (what’s the politically correct way of phrasing this?) “interesting” people. These are the people who treat social norms as more of loose guidelines than hard-and-fast rules. Normally, this is a good thing. Life would be boring if we all behaved the same, dressed the same, and said the same things. Unfortunately, some of these patients take it too far, and dismiss certain social norms that are norms for very good reasons. Let me give you an example to help clarify what I mean.

One day a friend of mine told me casually over the work table that she’d been met at the door by her patient, a middle-aged man, “windmilling” his penis at her. I think he was wearing an open robe, but it’s equally likely he was stark naked. This is one of those times where the social norm is beneficial for everybody — let’s stick to shaking hands instead of shaking alternative appendages.

For anyone wondering, I think the term “windmilling” was invented by my friend, and I find it brilliant because right now everyone reading this has an image in their head of exactly what took place. You lucky things.

This is the first example that came to mind, but rest assured there are many more. From a smoker with a chest wound that puffed out cigarette smoke every time he coughed, to a woman dressing in a garbage bag while having her catheter changed to preserve her dignity (mind you, a hole had to be created to get to her catheter, so I’m not really sure what this achieved).

A colleague who has worked as a nurse for over thirty years once said to me that she wished she’d written some of these stories down, that for all the ridiculous tales she could remember there were twice as many she’d forgotten.

Now that I’m in London and doing essentially the same sort of work, I thought I’d learn from my friend’s hindsight and pencil some of the stranger incidences down.


From the outside, the block of apartments looked dignified. Ancient trees drooped limp branches over the grass ringing the building, and the flats were constructed of old brick begging to be strewn with a lace-work of ivy. I read the name from my sheet — Patricia — and pictured the sweet old lady that belonged to this sweet old building, already looking forward to her proper accent and polite ways.

I walked around the apartment block and found the line of buzzers by the exterior door, checking her number on my list of patients and pushing the button. A few seconds later, there was a mechanical whirr and a click, and I pushed on the door and stepped into the stairway. It was dank, but it’s London, so that wasn’t particularly unusual. I climbed the creaking wooden stairs, scanning door numbers until a green door bearing the appropriate digits stood before me, and I rapped on the wood.

Footsteps sounded from inside the apartment and I straighten my coat, wanting to make a good first impression. Appearances can say a lot, after all. The door opened and I blinked, my introduction falling from my lips on instinct.

‘Good morning, I’m Jonathan, the community phlebotomist.’

An adult diaper covered her crotch and buttocks, but everything else from her flabby breasts to her varicose-veined legs were on show. She was younger than I’d anticipated, around sixty-five, although from what I could see, time had not been kind to her. She smiled at me, a toothless smile revealing gums as naked as the rest of her, and she asked, ‘Are you here for the blood?’

‘That’s me,’ I replied. She seemed completely comfortable with her attire, entirely unperturbed at being barely clad in front of a young male stranger. I felt the weird sensation that it would have been rude of me to make an issue of it.

She waddled down her dark hallway and into her cluttered living room, saying over her shoulder, ‘You’ve caught me in my nappy.’

‘I can see that,’ I said, moving into the room and inhaling the scent of years of cigarette smoke soaked into walls and floorboards. Her house was stifling from the warmth of her heater, and I pulled off my jacket before I began to sweat. A method of cutting down on her heating bill occurred to me, but I decided not to mention it. I reasoned that I had obviously interrupted her preparing for the shower, and wanted to give her an out. ‘I not bothered by it if you aren’t.’

‘No, I’m not bothered.’

‘I’m happy to wait,’ I said, sliding my backpack to the ground, letting the implication hang in the air that the time spent to put clothes on was no burden to me.

She plonked down onto the couch, plucking an already lit cigarette from an ashtray on a coffee table and took a drag. ‘Wait for what?’

That was when I realised she obviously wasn’t putting clothes on, and just as obviously hadn’t been preparing for any shower.

‘Never-mind,’ I said, smiling at her, and wondering exactly when it was this woman had last showered.

With an internal shrug, I went to work going through the routine of preparing my blood-letting equipment while keeping up a stream of small talk. For those of you who have never attempted to take blood from an elderly woman wearing nothing but a diaper, I can tell you, it’s a distracting process. It’s hard thing to carefully thread a needle into the twisted and constricted veins of an actively smoking patient while her breasts are bobbing in your periphery. I had to bite down the urge to ask “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable with clothes on?”, the subtext of the query being that I sure as hell would have been more comfortable if she’d put some clothes on.

Luckily for me, Patricia was as unbothered by the situation as she had stated, and merrily nattered away, as comfortable as a babe in her crib. Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what she looked like. Well, an ancient over-sized baby in a nicotine-stained couch, but it equates to the same thing.

Once I had pierced her vein and drained the required blood, I taped a cotton ball to the site and pressed the fingers from her opposite arm to the cotton ball, instructing her to apply pressure for at least a minute. She kept up her flow of conversation while I squatted on a stool and wrote her details in the microscopic space provided on the tubes. It wasn’t until I was done that I looked up and found that she was bleeding.

The minute I had asked for her to apply pressure had lasted for as long as it’d taken me to glance away, and blood had seeped out from the small hole I’d created in her vein.

‘Patricia, you’re bleeding.’

‘What?’

She lifted her arm and revealed a red puddle running down her arm and pooling on her thighs. I instructed her, again, to apply pressure to the cotton ball while pulling on another pair of gloves and got to work cleaning her up.

A bleed always looks worse than it is and it didn’t take long to mop up the spilled fluid from her arm and thighs and have her back in her not-so-clean state. She smiled at me, that naked-gum smile to match her outfit, and thanked me.

‘No problem, Patricia. It turns out it was a good thing you weren’t wearing any pants,’ I said, raising my brows and nodding at her recently blood-smeared thighs.

‘Yeah,’ she answered cheerfully, ‘it really was.’ She seemed proud of this, as if the decision to wear nothing but a nappy had been a genius stroke of forethought on her behalf, rather than the neglect of a very basic human desire to put on clothes. I let her have it — I figured an adult who spends their day walking around their home in an adult diaper didn’t get many wins.

‘Nicely played,’ I said, shrugging on my jacket and giving her a wink, and immediately reflecting that winking at an almost naked elderly patient probably wasn’t the smoothest thing I could do.

I said my farewells and waved goodbye to my new nudist friend, stepping back into the stairway and making my way out into the fresh air and away from the tropical heat and cigarette-perfumed environment I had just left with relief.

As I found the address of my next patient and begun trudging away, I looked back over my shoulder at the beautiful English building I had just left. It really did look quite dignified.

But looks can be deceiving, I suppose.

ON MOVING

I never really wanted to live overseas.

When I was growing up, becoming a teenager and realising I had some control over where my life went, I never really saw myself venturing across the pond to start an alternative life. I rationalised that I had a good life in Australia, that I had family and friends, that I had managed to find employment and secure comforts, and why would I risk all this to attempt to recreate the same in a different country? I was a teenager, and therefore very wise in the ways of the world.

A lot of it was fear. The idea of standing on foreign soil, of being an outsider, and then attempting to carve my own niche into a country that owed me nothing, was terrifying. I could see myself floundering, unable to find a place to live or a source of income, and eventually turning around and scurrying back to Mum and Dad broke and embarrassed, and swearing to never again come out of my room because the world’s a bully.

Of course, I never said this. When it came up in conversation, I detailed how Australia was the lucky country, how we had so many rights and luxuries, and I wouldn’t want to give these up. That of course I wanted to see the world, but could do this through vacations. Vacations are safe, you see. Well, relatively. They’re little bubbles of escape, taste-testers of culture and sights, a chance to shed your old life while knowing all the while that your old life is safe and warm and comfy, and right where you left it.

I held onto this narrow-minded belief right up until I actually went on a vacation. Being able to taste-test exotic experiences didn’t make me pine for the comforts of home, but instead made me wonder what else was out there away from my well-worn safety-net. If I could experience this level of immersion and adventure just from skimming the surface in a matter of weeks, what would I discover if I stayed longer? And what if I threw myself in completely and moved there?

Even though the seed of intrigue had been planted, I still didn’t give the idea serious consideration. For most of my adult life I had been in a relationship, and the notion of uprooting, and expecting my partner to pull up her own roots, seemed inherently selfish. We were building something, and we were building it in Australia. There was the answer.

It wasn’t until I found myself single and with savings behind me that I realised I no longer had a justification for not trying something new. The only thing holding me back was the same thing that had made teenage-me bluster on about the grandness of Australia: fear. I was still scared of putting myself out there and failing. Of stripping away the security blanket of family and friends and a familiar environment where I knew all the rules, and making myself vulnerable to a different culture. So still, I didn’t give the idea much thought.

But then I began to stagnate. I was tucked away in my pillow fort of ease and niceness, well out of reach of anything that could be considered difficult or frightening. I got up each morning and went to work, and returned home each night to an empty house. I exercised and cooked dinner for one, and then went to bed to get a solid eight hours of sleep so I could be well-rested for the next day of work. I saw family and friends on weekends, which broke the tedium of the work-week, and at least added some flavour to my existence. But I wasn’t making anything. I wasn’t going anywhere. It was ease and niceness, and I was boring myself with my own company. And as a special person recently told me: nice is a carpet. I didn’t want nice.

It wasn’t until I got away from this circular rut of work that I realised I needed to change something. I knew I wasn’t particularly happy, but reasoned that I was an adult now, living an adult lifestyle, and adults weren’t supposed to be particularly happy. Let me state emphatically that this is not a belief to which I still prescribe. Granted, the stressors of an adult life are taxing, but if you’re not happy, what the hell are you making all that effort for? Change something, change anything! Don’t just sit there in a puddle of your own misery thinking, “Well, this didn’t turn out like I expected.”

What broke this cycle and misconception for me was a trip through the United States of America. I don’t know if it was the excitement of busing it from one side of North America to the other (west coast to east coast, for those playing at home), or simply getting my head away from the fog of work, but the realisation that I was unhappy hit me like truck shot from a cannon falling from the sky. It hit me hard.

Part of me was shocked. Why hadn’t anyone told me I was unhappy? I talked about it with my brother after returning home and he said that, yeah, he knew I was unhappy. Of course he did, he knew me better than anyone. Better than myself, apparently.

It felt like my blinders had been ripped off and I was squinting against the glare of reality. Of course, the blinders had been self-imposed. No-one had told me to construct the life I had made for myself, no-one instructed me to continue in the habits I had developed, and because of this, no-one could tell me stop because it wasn’t working. I had made my own bed and it was up to me to burn it out from under me.

After shaking off this shock of personal insight, I knew I had to change something. The framework of living I had made was fine if I had a partner to share it with, if I was making something in the form of a family, but doing it solo simply wasn’t anything.

And then I considered moving. Not just moving from my house, or from the suburb I lived in, but moving from the country altogether. The old idea rose and this time all the fears and arguments against it seemed brittle and pathetic. I didn’t care about the risk of housing and employment, those challenges seemed interesting more than frightening. Mostly because they were challenges, and I was sick of going unchallenged. (Little did I realise what a challenge UK nursing registration was, but let’s not detract from the point I’m making.) It dawned on me that I had built a small nest in a small corner of a big country tucked away in the southern hemisphere while there was an entire world of experiences and new things going on all the time. I was unhappy and lonely and bored, and there was a whole globe to explore. What the hell was I doing sitting at home alone? So I decided to get out into it and explore it.

And thank god I did. Already, I have seen sights, been places and done things that I never imagined myself doing. I have met incredible people and shared amazing experiences that have changed me in the best of ways. Primarily, they’ve made me happy.

By no means has the venture been easy. I have had to make myself vulnerable and walk into situations well outside my comfort zone. I’ve faced challenges in language barriers and navigating public transport (one particular two AM stroll through London comes to mind). I’ve missed my family and friends, and have had times where I wanted to just drop back into my old life for a day. I’ve worried about money and housing, and employment.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it. Because all those fears and beautiful moments roll around together, and make you feel alive. They make you into something bigger and more detailed, and more interesting. And it feels good to be making something again.

LIFE IN LONDON #03

My last few weeks in London have revolved around obtaining employment. This has been a series of opening bank accounts, getting blood test, sitting interviews which turned out to be secret examinations, providing endless documents, proving I have a clean criminal record in both Australia and the UK (there’s no record if you’ve never been caught…wink. Or, in my case, if you’ve never committed a crime), and getting a national insurance number to ensure the government gets a cut of my money once I do start earning an income. God bless the queen.

But I’m happy to jump through all these hoops for two reasons.

One: I like money. Money means buying food and shelter, and food and shelter means staying alive. There’s no getting around it, really.

And, two: I’ve decided that without working, without being a contributing member of society, I can’t really claim to be living in London. And given these posts are all listed under the title of “Life in London,” it seems contradictory to claim to detail life in London when I’m not adding to the life of London. Don’t get me wrong, I am technically alive, and my physical body is technically in London, but without delving into that world of employment that makes up the cogs of a community, I’m stuck on the sidelines. I’m an observer. No, worse than that. I’m a tourist. And nobody likes a tourist.

I’ve been unemployed now for exactly three months and one day, which is the longest I have been out of a job since I was fifteen and got shown to my first register, and told to memorise the fruit and vegetable codes. Iceberg lettuce is 4016 for anybody who’s wondering.

I’m now twenty-eight years and ten months old, which means I’ve been working for almost exactly half of my life. And after working half my life and now being unemployed for three months and one day, I have learned something.

Being unemployed is amazing.

But I should really qualify that statement: Being unemployed, and having money, is amazing.

These last three months and one day have been so relaxing and liberating, and full of new experiences and sights, that I know I’ve changed as a person. Not changed as in shedding my old self, but just in letting my old self put down the weight of stress for a while, stretch out the muscles, maybe have a bath, catch up on some sleep, and see how I feel in the morning.

And how I feel is incredible. Working as a nurse, it’s inevitable that you take on the stress and anxiety of the people you care for. Their health is your responsibility, and when their health drops, so does your mood. They look at you and ask questions that have answers they don’t want to hear. Family members rain comments and queries at you, as if trying to catch you out. I know why they do it — they do it because they feel helpless, and this is the only thing they can think of to feel like they’re contributing to the care of their loved one. But as the person under the firing line of questions, all it does is drain you.

And, of course, you really are responsible for their health. How you place their catheter directly affects their wellbeing. The care you take with a wound dressing alters the healing of the wound.  How you speak to them and the empathy you show impacts on their outlook. And any mistakes you make directly impinges on your patient’s health. This means when you wake up feeling tired and unmotivated, you can’t console yourself by thinking you’ll just phone-it-in that day and play solitaire on the computer when the boss isn’t looking. Every day, regardless of energy levels, you have to give everything. Because they’re sick and they need you.

Being able to put that stress down, to be able to be selfish and think only of my own wants, felt like the lifetime equivalent of getting a solid eight hours of sleep. That sort of sleep where you don’t move all night and wake up in a pool of your own saliva, but you don’t care because you feel so damn rested. It was good to be unemployed. It was rejuvenating.

But, life isn’t about being stress-free. In fact, it could be argued that life is stress, and how we deal with it and turn it in to good things is living. And the point of this rejuvenation isn’t to put the stress of work behind me, but to stop, flush out the muck building up in my subconscious’s nooks and crannies, and feel ready to pick it up again. After all, as incredible as it is to lay around doing nothing but eating and drinking, and being studiously idle, no one wants to live in a resort forever.

And now I’m not. After my three months and one day, I am now once again employed. Which means I am officially living in London.

While I intend to eventually work as a nurse, until the UK nursing registration board decides to stop choking me with red tape, that’s not going to happen. So for now I am working as a community phlebotomist. While this sounds like a noise you might make clearing your throat, or maybe a procedure where they remove part of your brain, it’s actually just what would be referred to in Australia as a pathologist. Basically, I take blood for a living.

My day begins with me catching the tube up north into London and alighting in Camden. This trip takes about an hour, but I don’t mind as it’s time spent reading or writing, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good investment of time. I wear a backpack, the same trusty backpack that was my staunch ally through the deserted streets of East Croydon at two o’clock in the morning, which I’ve packed the day before full of tubes, needles, tourniquets, cotton balls, and tape. Basically, an IV drug-users goldmine. Luckily, I am a fine upstanding member of society, and don’t use these items to take drugs. I just drain strangers of their blood.

I then walk to people’s homes. I have a list of patients I need to visit throughout the day, and with the power of my own legs, I navigate the streets of Camden and the surrounding areas, knocking on doors and introducing myself before wrapping a tourniquet around my host’s arm and sticking them with something sharp. Most are surprising gracious about it.

So far, the hardest aspect of my job isn’t persuading people to let me have some of their bodily fluids, but the walking. Using google maps and a bit of guessing, I’d say I walk over twenty kilometres a day. I’ve just finished working four days, which means I walked in excess of eighty kilometres this week. That’s a lot. I know this because my feet ache, and my legs ache, and, weirdly, my bum aches. Just the sides, over the hips. Apparently these underused muscles get a workout when walking excessively. So the upside is, if I keep doing this work, I may eventually develop a bum. At the moment I’m mostly just back and legs.

But the real upside (besides a bum a black woman would be jealous of) is that I get to see London on foot. It’s a surreal image when I stop and picture myself, backpack on back, umbrella in hand, crisscrossing through London streets, navigating my way through the biggest and most famous of English cities. This is so far removed from my life of only six months ago that sometimes it’s hard to hold the reality of it in my head.

If I’m honest, though, the real surreality is in how much it’s the same. Once I find my next patient’s home amongst the stacked apartments and units A, B, C and Ds, knock on their door and disappear inside, leaving behind the big red buses and black taxi cabs, I could be forgiven for thinking I’m back in Melbourne, making my rounds as a district nurse. The formula remains the same, except in the introduction of: “Good morning, I’m Jonathan, the district nurse,” where I replace “district nurse” with “community phlebotomist.” I use the same small talk as I pick my way to the kitchen or living room, say the same jokes to break the ice, get the same responses to the same jokes, bluff my way through a sports conversation with the same generic ambiguous statements (it turns out saying: “It’s hard to say who’ll have a win, but it should be a good match,” can be applied to almost any sport), and thank my patient in the some way once I’m done. The only difference is instead of dressing wounds or changing stoma bags or administering medication, I’m only doing the one task — taking blood.

Even with the vertigo I sometimes get when I remember I’m half way around the world from a life I once knew, it turns out human beings just simply aren’t that different.

The final upside (besides becoming bootylicious and seeing London on foot) is that I am once again part of the community. I truly am living in London. I like being a member of society, I like dropping in amongst the people and sweating beside them as we work, and knowing I’m now one of them. I first had this sensation when working at the supermarket and recognising my customers down the street. They’d give me a nod and a smile, and I’d give a nod and wink, which was our secret little code saying, “I know you. You belong here.” Like the new kid at school invited to play foursquare, I had been accepted. And I killed it on the foursquare court. (For those unfamiliar with the game, it involves drawing four aligning squares in chalk on concrete and then slapping a tennis ball between them. It’s the closest you can get to exercising without actually exercising — it was right up my alley).

There is something to having someone acknowledge that you’re contributing to the social cause on some level, a shift that occurs in the brain when you transition from “me and them” to “us.”

I have assimilated into London culture through the avenue of work and been accepted.

The Brits want to play foursquare with me.

It feels good.