REGISTRATION ROAD – PART 2

…my documents were rejected.

Not all of them, to be fair, but enough to delay me considerably. The document the university drafted for me apparently wasn’t detailed enough, so I had to get back in contact with the incredibly generous staff member who’d helped me previously and beg her to give a little more. She was a lecturer, and class had started by this point, so it was a further two months before she got back to me. Given that I was the one asking the favour, I figured it was rude to harass her.

My declaration of good health was rejected on the basis that I hadn’t been seen by the GP who assessed me in the previous six months. Of course I hadn’t — I’m in good health and have no need to regularly see a doctor. That was the whole point of the declaration. This line of reasoning was lost on them.
They also took issue with the fact that I hadn’t any experience in the field of midwifery. When I rang and explained that was because I am a nurse and not a midwife, the confused adolescent at the other end of the phone responded with: “Oh yeah, that’s tricky.” Tricky isn’t the word I’d use.
Round two: I eventually liaised with the contact at my university and she provided me with a second, more detailed, document. After all this, I wouldn’t be surprised if how regularly I went to the toilet at uni was listed in the document. I got checked over by another doctor and was once again deemed to be fit of mind and body to work as a nurse. And I had my current employer complete a document stating I had some experience in the world of midwifery. Which isn’t a complete lie — I had cared for two pregnant women in my career. My thanks go out to those two woman for allowing me to honest when checking that particular box on the endless requirement list.
Round two was sent off and I waited once again. I was told it could take up to three months for them to process my documents and get back to me. Three months after I’d already waited ten. By this point I had rented out my house and moved back in with my brother and his girlfriend in preparation for my overseas relocation in what was meant to be a very temporary situation. Luckily for me, they were unfailingly patient as I continued to reside in their home, month after month.
This was getting ridiculous. I had mentally made the move to the UK a year ago and that I was still in Australia was starting to grate, on principle alone. Plans I’d made to meet up with people overseas were falling through as I pushed my timeline back, and back again. So after talking it over with my brother, I decided to make the move before hearing back about my documents. I had provided them with every form, identification, history — personal, work, health, love life — that they had asked for, and I didn’t want to kill three more months that could be used for relocating. (Okay, not love life. That form wasn’t mandatory). So, fuck it. I bought my ticket.
And life was grand. I travelled through Italy with my cousin and his girlfriend, my soon-to-be roommates, and finally begun the trip I have envisioned a year ago. After three weeks of explore Italy, the three of us made our way to London, to our new home, and I picked up the task once more of battling for registration.
By this point it had been three and a half months since mailing off round two and I had yet to get an email confirming that my documentation was complete. Needless to say, I was a trifle nervous. I contacted them, waiting on-hold for half-an-hour before getting another juvenile young man who sounded as if he’d started work only the week before judging by the helpfulness of his answers.
I asked him why it was taking so long for my documents to be processed and when I could expect a response. He said he couldn’t access my account and so had no way of knowing. I asked why, when he worked for the organisation that managed the account, he couldn’t access it. He said that was how it worked, and seemed to think this was a completely satisfactory answer. I asked him if I was ever going to get a response, or had the organisation lost my paperwork, forcing me to attempt to gather the documents once again, a process that had taken me months to arrange. He suggested I wait one more week and see how I go. I asked if he really though one more week was really going to make a difference. He said it was worth a shot.
He was blowing me off.
But I couldn’t care. I was in London for only one week before jetting of to Austria for two weeks followed by two weeks in Greece, and registration stress could wait post-holiday.
A week later, in Austria, I received an email saying my paperwork had been received and to now wait for the outcome of the processing. Even though this was good news, I was kind of annoyed the vague and apathetic adolescent had been right.
It wasn’t until I was back in London that I received another email. They’d processed my paperwork. And according to them, things were outstanding. 1) The document from my university, and, 2) A declaration of good health. I fought the urge to cry from frustration.
I immediately contacted my helper from the university asking she resend the document, only to get an automated out-of-office email saying she was on long-service leave. Until December. At this point, it was September, meaning I wouldn’t get registered until at least the next year.
This was the lowest I’d felt during the whole process. To begin with, I’d met each hurdle with grinning gritted teeth, determined and resolved that, as long as I played the game, I’d win out. But over the months I’d felt my metaphorical back bend, and with each needless delay my resolve had warped and twisted into a cynical continuance, a plodding one foot in front of the other, more out of habit than the enthusiasm I had started with.
An old colleague of mine once told me not to let the bastards win. The bastards being anyone or anything that tries to beat you down. This expression has stuck with me during the years, and every time I felt like David in front of Goliath, completely dwarfed by the weight of stress or disappointment or expectation, I reminded myself of it. With this mantra in my head I straightened my metaphorical back, grinned my gritted teeth, and emailed the university asking if there was anyone else who could assist me while my contact was on long-service leave. Thankfully, they responded.
They couldn’t draft any new documents for me, but luckily they were able to assess the documentation that had already be created. They sent me a copy, and, reassured that the file did indeed exist and had been sent to the UK, I went about defending this position.
A phone call, a half-hour wait on-hold, and I was speaking to another person who was ready to dismiss my issue. I wasn’t having it. I insisted that all documents had been provided and if there was any issues, it was at their end. I detailed all that I had done, explaining that my university contact was on leave, that I had been doing this for a year now and I wasn’t going to be deterred. After a grumpy sigh like I was asking them to do more than their job, I was transferred to the correct department. They didn’t answer. When I bounced back to the original staff member they said I should try again in a few hours. I said I would’t do that, that every time I called I was on-hold for thirty minutes, and politely requested that they called me. She sulkily agreed. They never called me back.
Three days later I rang back and had a repeat of the same conversation. Again, the department I needed wasn’t available, but I the worker I spoke to this time was more proactive and promised they’d get in contact with me by the end of the day. I was skeptical, but two hours and forty minutes later, my phone rang.
I pleaded my case for the third time, this time to the right department, asking that, given that two documents from my university had already been sent, couldn’t I simply send the electronic copy I had to them? She was empathetic (or as empathetic as the organisation was capable of being, by which I mean she listened), but insisted that all documents had to be originals. She made me one allowance: If my university sent the same document I had to them, they would accept it.
Despite the fact that the electronic document was literally the same collections of 0s and 1s regardless of whether it came from me or my university, I didn’t argue, I thanked her and said she’d have it by the end of the week.
My new contact at the university was as confused as I was, but pleasantly agreed to send the form on. Her pleasantness may have come from the fact that my email to her practically dripped with platitudes and words of praise.
Meanwhile, I went about obtaining a NHS number, giving more forms of identification and proofs of address, so that I could see an English GP and get a third declaration of good health. If nothing else, it was validating to have three practitioners deem me mentally and physically sufficient.
This form was mailed off, I waited two days, and emailed asking if all documents had been received. She responded saying she’d look into it later that day.
That afternoon I got an email saying all paperwork had been cleared and I was free to book in the final exam. The final hurdle between me and registration. I was mildly pleased with this news. I’m pretty sure I literally clicked my heels at one point.
The final exam. It was a practical exam, meaning I have to physical demonstrate some aspects of nursing. This I knew, and was rather confident about. I think after six years working as a nurse, I’ve got my practical skills down. What rocked me, what I didn’t anticipate was the price tag that came with the exam. For the honour and privilege of sitting a one hour exam, I paid a grand sum of £1000. Roughly, $2200 Australian.
I knew there would be a cost associated with the exam, mostly because they had taken money from me at every juncture, why should this would be any different, but I didn’t realise it would be so much. But what could I do? I had come this far, and the wage difference working as a nurse as opposed to working a health care assistant as I was presently doing, was substantial. If I had any hope of recouping my loses due to the registration venture, it was through becoming registered.
I paid the money. It hurt.
And, at the time of writing this, I now have exactly one week until I sit the exam. The 23rd of December. An early Christmas present to myself.
I don’t think I’ve been more nervous about an exam. Not because I feel underprepared, but because I’ve never gambled $2200 on my own wits before. It adds a certain spice to the process.

So that has been my project for the past fifteen months. In between working, moving out of my house and into my brother’s, and eventually moving to London, I have been chipping away at a mountain at times I doubted I could level. One boulder now stands in my way.

Wish me luck.

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REGISTRATION ROAD – PART 1

About eighteen months ago I had the idea to move to England and work as a nurse. I thought it’d be fun to go and explore the world, and to pay my way with the skills I’ve earned. I knew that to work as a nurse in the United Kingdom, I’d first have to register. I figured I’d fill out a few forms, send a few documents over, and before I knew it I’d be cleaning out wounds and sticking people with needles while they said charming things like, “Are you having a laugh?” and offering me copious amounts of tea. This was a delusional and naive presumption. (Not the charming things British people say, more the few documents thing. I’ve already genuinely been called “Poppet.” Twice).

It didn’t seem like a naive presumption at the time. The facts are these: I went to university for three years to train as a nurse. During that time I sat many exams and went through months of placement to prove my skills and knowledge were sufficient. After university, I completed a graduate year at Austin Hospital, one of Melbourne’s major metropolitan hospitals. I then worked for five years for the Royal District Nursing Service, becoming a team manager after the first year. I’m skilled up to my eyeballs, dammit.

I figured another first-world country, a country that is the mother of the commonwealth, the international collective to which Australia is a part of, would recognise these skills. I was wrong. I had to prove myself.

And over the last eighteen months I have learnt one thing: The process to register in the United Kingdom is a cold and unflinching bitch.

I’m now going to detail the arduous requirements that all Australian and New Zealand nurses have to go through in order to do the job they’re already trained for. I had to live through it, people, you only have to read about it…


To begin the process, I went online and punched my details into the registration website. This created an account for me with the various stages of registration mapped out — although all I had access to was the first stage. They put me firmly in my place; they didn’t want me getting ahead of myself. Looking back, this could be their catch-phrase:

“Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

The first stage was asking for the scores and ID number of an exam. As yet, I had not sat that exam, so I went about booking myself in. The exam cost somewhere in the vicinity of $400, and I was strongly encouraged to study and prepare for the day. I felt I had been studying and preparing for the exam my whole life — the exam was an English exam. I had to prove I had the necessary English skills to work as a nurse. This is despite the fact that English is the only language I know, a language I’ve spoken since the age of two, a language I completed school and five years of tertiary education in, two years of that tertiary education being in an English diploma. None of this mattered; I had to sit the exam.

So I did. I filed into a classroom with a collection of people for whom English was a second language, showed my passport (it was all very official), took my seat, and spent five hours writing, reading, interpreting, listening and speaking in English. The speaking component was a one-on-one interview, and when I met my interviewer and sat down, and it was obvious I was Australian-born, she looked at me and asked: “So why do you have to do this?”

I wanted to ask her the same question.

You’ll all be relieved to know I passed the exam. Shocking, right? In fact, I got full marks except for the listening component where I drifted off for a second and missed something the pre-recorded voice read out, and lost half a mark. So I’m officially a bad listener.

Exam done, I excitedly logged back in and put in my results details, and was rewarded by being able to access the next stage in the process. The next stage was an exam. Another one. Once again I went about booking myself in. This exam was to test my nursing theory, and cost somewhere in the vicinity of $350.

I wasn’t sure what to expect for this exam. The body of medical knowledge is a rather large one, and I didn’t know how to prepare for such a general topic, given that any aspect of health theory could technically be tested. Luckily, I was sent a document of what to study. This document was a forty-four page table consisting of minute areas to be tested, broken in to headings, sub-headings and sub-sub-headings. Most of it was entirely useless.

The table gave vague one-line wanky descriptions of what would be covered, saying very little of actual substance. Things like: “The ability to express the desires of the patient.” What? How do I study for the ability to express the desires of the patient? What sort of multiple choice question summarises something as subjective and variable as the ability to express the desires of the patient?

The document followed this up with links to various sites to which I gathered were places where I could get my answers. I would estimate that ninety percent of the links were dead, taking me down pathways to websites that no longer existed, and the ones that did work took me to journal articles with obscure titles such as: “Interpreting body language – A case study.”

None of this was helpful, and there were no questions in the exam relating to body language.

I did my own independent study on what I reasoned were the fundamentals of nursing theory and I passed.

At this point, I thought I was through the crucible. I knew once I got to London I’d have to sit a third and final practical exam, but this didn’t worry me greatly. I had passed two exams and was ready to be on my way. I was drafting my letter of resignation in my head. Thankfully, I never put the words to paper. It was a further ten months before I resigned.

I logged back on to see what was next expected of me and discovered that a mountain of paperwork was needed before anything further could be done. So, one by one, I went about obtaining, scanning in, and sending off the required documents.

I had to order a birth certificate, providing verified copies of various forms of identification to prove I was me and entitled to a record of my birth, I needed police checks, one for both Australia and the UK (although how I was supposed to have a criminal record in a country I’d never been to I have no idea), I contacted my registration board in Australia and for a $80 fee they agreed to send a single piece of paper to England proving I was a registered nurse in Australia. I had a multitude of blood test and booster shots, provided bank statements, and obtained declarations of good health from GPs stating I was mentally and physically fit for work.

And, hardest of all, I got in contact with my old university, a different campus from the one I attended as the one I attended no longer existed, and cajoled them into producing an eight-page document detailing down to the exact hour the subjects and placements I completed six years ago during university.

After months of administration and paying more money for these documents, I sent off a packet to the UK, and sat back and waited for my paperwork to be approved. This was it. The final hurdle before jumping on a plane and dropping into the rest of the world.

My documents were rejected…

(To be continued in Part 2…you lucky things)


Recently I created a Patreon page as a way to share some of my creative fiction, as well as a means to fund my writing.

I’ve recently put up a new short story called “Thermodynamics and Reincarnation.”

If you want to give it a read and become a patron, head here: https://www.patreon.com/jonathanrobb?ty=c

You can pay whatever you like – $1, $5, or nothing at all. The important thing is that you read it.

 

LIFE IN LONDON #06

I knocked on his door, an ornate blue slab of wood flaking from neglect, and heard movement from inside the residence. This was already a win — it meant my patient was home, could hear my knocking, and was capable of moving around the house. The door-knocker’s trifecta.

When the door opened, I was surprised to be met by a younger man (younger being anything under seventy) of around fifty-five who squinted at me through blurry eyes set too-close together over a vein-tattooed nose.

‘Good morning, I’m Jonathan, the community phlebotomist. You must be Gerald?’

He gave the question thought as if unsure of who he must be, before asking,

‘What’s all this then?’

I wondered if I’d gotten the wrong address.

‘You are Gerald?’

‘Yap.’

‘Gerald, I’m Jonathan, I’m here to take a blood test.’

‘I don’t know anything about all this. Come in.’

I was surprised, expecting further resistance from a man with no knowledge of a scheduled blood test and a stranger showing up at his door welding needles.

‘Okay.’

I followed him through his dimly lit hallway, further narrowed with a collection of boxes, clothes, and assorted piles of what can only rightly be called trash. He stepped into his kitchen, the food-preparation based equivalent of his hallway, and plonked down in a seat by a dining table, picking up a glass of apple juice and taking a drink.

I slung my backpack onto the table and withdrew my yellow sharps container and the pre-prepared pouch of needle, tourniquet, blood vials and cotton ball. Gerald squinted at me again and asked,

‘What’s all this then?’

I had a feeling of déjà vu.

‘Ah, the blood test, remember?’

‘I don’t know anything about all this.’

‘I’m guessing your doctor ordered some tests to be done. Have you see your doctor lately?’

‘No! I haven’t seen anyone in, oh…’ He trailed off, apparently forgetting he was talking mid-sentence and took another drink of his juice.

‘Someone should have rung you yesterday to let you know I was coming. Did you get a phone call?’

Gerald shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I did, I wouldn’t remember. I’m a drunk.’ He took another sip of what I was quickly realising wasn’t apple juice.

I stopped the preparation of my equipment, stunned slightly by his completely unabashed confession.

He didn’t say it like it was something he partook in, he said it as a title, like how I imagine a pilot would introduce themselves. “Good morning, I’m the pilot.”

Only in Gerald’s case he wasn’t in charge of piloting us south-west at 10,000 feet, he was steering me through the booze-addled maze of his poor logic and patchy memory.

I pulled on a pair of gloves and he glanced at the needle and tubes now neatly arranged on his tabletop.

‘What is all this?’

Now that I knew what I was dealing with, it was easier to handle. ‘I’m taking a blood test, remember?’

‘No. But I suppose I wouldn’t. I’m a drunk. Do you want a drink?’

I tipped my head side-to-side, giving the question serious thought. ‘That’s very generous, but I better not.’ My eyes went instinctively to my watch. It was ten o’clock in the morning.

‘Sorry I’m drunk,’ he said, unapologetically.

I shrugged and wrapped a tourniquet around his upper arm. ‘It’s your house.’

I instructed him to keep his arm still as I swabbed his skin and aligned the needle, slipping the splinter of metal into the curve of a vein. A flash of blood appeared in a tiny chamber at the base of the needle. I slotted the first vial into a canister and watched as a dark line of maroon snaked down the thin tubing, filling the glass container.

‘What’s all this, then?’

The query was calmly asked given, to Gerald, his memory had just reset and he’d blinked awake to find a young man draining his blood. I respect that in a person.

‘I’m taking some blood samples your doctor ordered.’

‘I haven’t seen my doctor in months.’

I didn’t have it in me to explain again. ‘Weird, that.’

‘Well, maybe I did. I forget things. I’m a drunk.’

He went to reach for his glass and I clamped my hand on his, stopping him from moving it, dislodging the needle and bleeding all over he table. He blinked at where I clutched him, and then stretched out with his other arm and took a swig of wine.

‘Do you think that would affect my memory?’

I pulled the needle from his arm, pushing a cotton ball to the site and taping it down, and then snapped of my gloves.

‘Alcohol abuse can affect memories, absolutely. So I’d say that has something to do with it.’

‘Yeah, I’d say,’ he said, leaning forward and chortling a laugh as if we were sharing a joke. I didn’t want to be rude: I laughed too.

‘Well, we’re all done, my friend,’ I said, packing away my things and slipping my backpack on. ‘Thank you for your time, and your blood.’

I headed for the door and reasoned he had probably donated just as much alcohol as blood. Given his state of inebriation, someone could use his blood samples as smelling salts.

I reached for the door handle and was about to make my escape but Gerald was too quick for me.

‘I still don’t know what all this is about!’

‘I took your blood, Gerald!’ I said, dropping all tact.

‘Oh. Okay. Thanks then.’

‘And thank you, Gerald. I’ll leave you to it, mate.’

‘Right,’ he said, easing the door closed. ‘It’s about time for a drink.’


When relocating to London, I moved in with my cousin, Dom. Dom is a primary school teacher, and has spent his time in England working throughout different schools. He also has a blog, and has recently written an excellent piece about an intense conversation he had with a student. It’s worth a read, and worth a click of your mouse.

Click here to read: http://29andprimed.weebly.com/blog

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.

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.

LIFE IN LONDON #02

I had spent the morning travelling to a GP clinic for the pleasure of obtaining a tuberculosis immunisation. I needed the shot for work, and hadn’t received it prior, despite my working in health in Australia, because in most first-world countries TB isn’t a particularly common disease. In fact, if I was working outside of London, just a few kilometres out, I wouldn’t need the shot either. It’s only here, in Central London, that tuberculosis is prevalent enough to warrant protection against it. I’m not sure what that says about the health conditions of Central London, but I’m choosing not to think about it too hard in case I ditch health altogether and go work in a supermarket.

(Actually, I’ve worked in a supermarket — I’d probably be more likely to catch something there. Between the customers and handling money, it’s basically a petri-dish of communicable diseases. Thank god the days are gone when I have to accept sweaty money pulled from an obese woman’s cleavage. Now I just shower the obese woman. Maybe a supermarket isn’t that bad? Moving on…)

The TB immunisation is unique in that it’s not injected deep into the muscle like most vaccines, but is delivered just under the skin. Long story short, I now have a cute little bubble of inactive tuberculosis in my upper arm. The doctor told me that this cute little bubble will decay into a sore, and not to worry when this happens. He said some people see the red swollen skin and leaking pus and think something’s gone wrong. I said this was a fair reaction to purulent muck leaking from an injection site. He said it was completely normal and could take six months to heal. So I have that to look forward to.

After leaving the clinic I walked to the closest township (my exercise has increased dramatically without access to a car. It’s amazing how having no other option can really motivate you to walk). My new room more closely resembles a cheap hotel bedroom than a warm familiar place in which I can tuck myself away, and this is solely because it’s without ornamentation. While I remain unreasonably proud that I moved overseas with nothing more than a fourteen kilogram bag, it did leave little space for personal items. I decided I needed to put something on the very white walls so headed to a store to print some photos. There was an hour wait while the photos were printed so I bought a sandwich from a supermarket and went for a wander around a nearby park.

It’s important to note that I had headphones on and was listening to a podcast while taking my meal and stroll. And not little earbuds that could be hidden in ears and under hair, but big proper headphones, the sort that engulf your entire ears and block out all other sounds.

The reason I point this out is because, whilst leaning against an outside table-tennis table in the park and enjoying the sun, I realised someone was talking to me. There was a black blur at the edge of my vision that was vaguely human shaped, and I could just make out the murmur of words outside the noise vacuum of my headphones. I turned and found a short squat middle-aged woman talking to me. Apparently unperturbed by my back being to her or the presence of my headphones, she happily nattered away, needing very little prompting to keep the one-sided conversation going.

I slipped my headphones around my neck and faced her, and discovered that she was talking to me about immigration. Let me give you some more information about my new friend and see if you can guess what her opinion was on this delicate topic.

My new friend was in need of a shower. Her black hair looked like something that had been pulled out of a clogged drain pipe and her clothes were of the caliber most people would delegate to rags. In fact, it looked like her clothes had been used as rags for many months, but then, desperate for an outfit, she decided to reverse her decision and upgrade them back to clothes before leaving the house.

My new friend was also in need of teeth. To give her credit, she did have a full set along the bottom, although they were black and a little worn. But where her top set should have been was nothing but pink gum. It was grotesquely mesmerising to watch her talk.

What she wasn’t in need of was a drink. I was happy to see she was remaining well hydrated, and happier still to see that inside the brown paper bag clutched in her fist was a 500ml bottle of Guinness. She was Irish, so I feel she’s entitled to this one. The woman was clearly a patriot. And for an adorable little touch, she was drinking her beer with a straw. Maybe lacking upper teeth makes drinking from a bottle a messy process.

Have you guessed what her opinion was on the complicated and human issue of immigration? That’s right, contestants, she was against it!

This woman’s opening statement in an attempt to broker conversation with a young man she didn’t know was racist comments. Isn’t that an incredible topic to use to break the ice? You have to admire her confidence.

My immediate thought was: “I don’t want to talk to you.” Followed quickly by: “I definitely don’t want to talk to you about immigration.” But I had twenty minutes to kill and rather than give in to the instinct to mutter something about buses to catch and making a get away, I decided to commit to having a conversation with this person. In my work, conversations with people outside the normal sphere of society are common, and given that I will be commencing work again soon, I saw it as a good easing in process. She was also a woman lonely and desperate enough for interaction that she approached a stranger wearing headphones for a talk. The least I could do would be to give her that. It would cost me nothing but time, and being currently unemployed, time is one thing I have in abundance.

Firstly, I had to change the topic away from immigration. While I was happy to converse with my new friend, I didn’t need to sit through her biased and ill-informed opinions on this topic, and didn’t think she’d appreciate my conflicting views, so I said, “It’s a complicated issue,” and then commented on her accent and asked how long she’d been in London.

By the end of our conversation I learnt these facts:

  • She’d been in London for thirty years. No, forty years. No, wait, thirty years (she was a bit unsure at first).
  • She was married to a dope addict.
  • She believed dope to be as addictive as hard drugs, and that it was a habit that could severely affect the people living with the addict. I was glad we’d found something we could agree on.
  • Her husband was currently in a jail, although she wasn’t sure which jail.
  • She was in the park today waiting until two o’clock when she could enquire after which jail her husband had recently been taken to.
  • She was a Catholic (she was Irish, so this wasn’t exactly surprising).
  • She was in the habit of swearing profusely, then apologising profusely for her swearing, before immediately swearing profusely once again. And then apologising profusely.

My watch ticked over to two o’clock which meant my photos were ready to be picked up. I looked at my new friend and said simply: “I have to go.” I wished her well with her hunt through the penitentiary system for her husband, and she spilled religious blessing upon me as I walked away, to which I replied: “You too!”

I gave her a wave and she smiled a half-toothed smile, and we parted ways.

Despite the obvious unpleasant aspects of talking to her, her body odour being just one, I don’t regret making the effort to converse. One thing working in health, and even in a supermarket, has taught me is how to talk to people. And more than that: how to empathise with them. A small dose of genuine empathy from me could change this woman’s day, and give me an insight into a life I’ve never, thankfully, had to live. A show of empathy is like a ticket into a deeper part of a person, where they keep the small truths and vulnerabilities they usually mask over. It’s easy to think that this woman was undeserving of empathy, that she is the product of life choices she’s made and is living the consequences of her actions, but this isn’t true. She is a person, and one who has had to face choices I’ve never had to think about. And while I wouldn’t want to maintain an ongoing relationship with her (as a drinking buddy, I’m pretty sure she could drink me under the table), I don’t mind sacrificing twenty minutes of my day to hear a slice of her story.

Anyway, that’s the tale of how I made my first friend in London. It can only go up from here.

LIFE IN LONDON #01

I decided that, now that I’m back in the UK, entries from a travel journal aren’t really justified when, technically, I’m making a new home here in London. Even though this still feels very exotic (there are red double-decker buses everywhere!), and may feel like exploration, it is in fact a form of nesting. Of constructing a new home. And home, by definition, isn’t travelling.

But, invariably, by being in a new country and attempting to build a new life, things will happen that I want to write about. I imagine most of these will centre around me fumbling through the challenges of assimilating into a new culture. Subtle and delicate things like saying pants instead of trousers and having British people laugh at me. It should prove quite entertaining.

So in light of that entertainment, welcome to the first edition of Life in London.

Appropriately, the first entry in this segment involves my recent entry into London. It seemed like a good place to start.

 


 

I flew into Gatwick airport last night from Vienna, and planned to use public transport to make my way from the airport home. City mapper is an app that formulates every possible route from one location to another within London, be in via train or bus or tram or bike or walking or hover board. This isn’t me being witty, by the way. The trip from home to the nearest train station takes approximately eight minutes via hover board, according to city mapper.

I had checked the route earlier in the day while still in Vienna to get a feel for how long it’d take me to get home, and knew that a train, then a tram, then a bus would have me on my doorstep in just over an hour. I estimated I’d be in bed a little after midnight, provided I hadn’t gotten the time difference between Vienna and London mixed up. I had, but that proved redundant anyway.

The first hurdle to getting home was that my plane was delayed by half an hour, putting off the schedule of my planned route. The second hurdle was that, upon landing, I discovered that the internet on my phone wasn’t working. This frustrated me, but I put it down to poor reception and reasoned that I still had the previously loaded route on city mapper, and could follow that until reception improved. The app was offline due to lack of internet, so wouldn’t update, but still showed the path I needed to take.

After a twenty-minute wait on a windy platform, I caught the 12:16 AM train to East Croydon, then headed into the deserted streets towards a tram stop marked on my static map. As I stepped from the station into the night, I passed a cab rank, and prided myself on the money I was saving by using public transport, enjoying a superior silent chuckle at the lazy fools who pay exorbitant prices for a black cab.

I had my first sense of disquiet after about fifteen minutes of walking through the dark deserted streets of East Croydon, admitting to myself that wandering through unfamiliar London suburbs alone well past midnight probably wasn’t the smartest idea. The eight minute walk that my frozen app displayed took around half an hour, and involved a lot of back tracking, sprinting across multi-lane roads, and feeling incredible exposed as I wound through alleys with nothing but my small pack back.

Eventually I found the tram stop, a small island of light in a junction of empty streets, and stood, praying a tram would appear. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the flight delay and my own indirect path to the tram stop meant I had well and truly missed my tram, but as the internet in my phone continued to hibernate, I happily boarded the first tram to appear, giddy with relief that a tram had appeared at all. This relief soured after about ten minutes when the tram came to a stop in the middle of nowhere, the tram driver announcing end of the line, and the words “Out of Service” appearing in small lights on the side of the tram. With little options, I walked away from the tram stop and onto a long empty road, devoid of anything but factories and warehouses.

It was one o’clock in the morning (two o’clock Viennese time), and I was stranded in an industrial part of London.

Fuck.

As I stumbled up a seamlessly endless road, the odd truck rumbling past to break up the darkness and the silence, a part of me began to accept this was my life now. I was destined to wander the grid of London streets until the sun rose, and maybe even past then, living off my wits, the items in my back pack, and a phone that refused to cooperate and get me the hell home. I honestly had no idea how I would get from my current situation to my apartment. Without transportation, I was looking at a five-hour walk through unsafe streets. Every car that approached I begged just to drive on because I was convinced that if it stopped it would only to be for the driver and passengers to get out, mug me, beat me, and then carry on, leaving me without my back pack, my only ally. The phone they could have, for all the good it was doing me.

As I approached an intersection, two buses whisked by and I had to bite back a yelp at the joy of seeing a sign of civilisation. They sped around a corner to the left without stopping and disappeared. I knew that left would take me in the opposite direction from home, so faced the decision of following big red buses away from where I wanted to go, or go right, down another long empty street filled with potential rapers and muggers, in the vague direction of my apartment.

I went right (right is right, after all), and prayed I wouldn’t later come to regret this as the moment I made the stupidest decision ever. Actually, it couldn’t be the stupidest decision ever because I’d already passed that point when I confidently and cockily walked past the cab rank into the night, a dumb smug smile on my stupid face. I cursed myself as idiotic tight ass and marched up the right hand road.

I saw foxes scuttling across the asphalt, dimly lit by the street lights, and felt like one of them. I too padded cautiously through the dark, sending furtive glances to either side, shoulders hunched against the cold and an imagined attack. We were creatures of the night, only I was a big dumb animal, vulnerable and unable to scurry into the bushes like my nocturnal companions. They were made for the night, whereas I was made for sitting safely on a couch eating chips.

The road I strode up, which I was sure would stretch on forever, a purgatory road, a Möbius strip road, miraculously came to an intersection, although as dark and deserted as every other I’d encountered. I stood on the corner looking up and down the line of bitumen disappearing to either side and feeling very far from home, and noticed, almost hidden by a scree of trees, a bus stop. A bus stop! It was like finding a sealed bottle of water in the desert, spotting a ship when adrift in the ocean, discovering a chocolate bar in the back of the pantry when you’re really hankering for chocolate. It was salvation.

I trotted to the bus stop, pulling out my previously useless phone and putting it to use as a torch, and stifled a squeal of happiness when I read that it was a 24 hour bus line. This late at night, the bus would come at ten and forty past the hour. It was 01:20 AM (02:20 AM Viennese time). I had to only wait twenty minutes and I would be heading, roughly, closer to home. More importantly, I would be taken off the streets and tucked into a warm metal box on wheels, which would feel like a five-star hotel after wandering dimly lit London industrial streets.

Twenty minutes is a long time to wait in the dark, standing on the side of a road in the extreme early morning, head spinning from sleep deprivation, listening to every sound and being convinced it’s Jack the Ripper. (I know he only preyed on prostitutes, but given how perfect a target I’d made of myself, I figured he’d make an exception).

So I did the only reasonable thing a person can do in that circumstance to pass the time: I pulled out my book and started reading.

Picture me now, backpack on back, standing small and exposed on the shoulder of an empty road in the middle of the night, reading by moonlight. What a fucking idiot.

Eventually twin headlights lit up my ridiculous tableau and the bus pottered to the side of the asphalt, door swinging open like the gates of heaven, and I boarded. I was so ecstatic I could have hugged the bus driver if not for the plexiglass barrier and his complete look of apathy that clearly communicated the sentiment, “Just take a damn seat.”

While riding this bus I realised that if I got off in five stops I could catch another bus from there to Morden station, a fifteen minute walk from home. I had a plan. I was going to get home. I repressed the urge to attempt to hug the bus driver again.

I disembarked at the appropriate stop and looked for the times of the 118 bus line that would get me home. It was upon reading the bus schedule that I discovered the 118 isn’t a 24 hour bus line as I’d presumed. I scanned the list of numbers, desperately searching for what time the bus line terminated. It was 01:53 AM (02:53 AM Viennese time) and the very final bus of the day would come through my stop at 01:56 AM. In three minutes. A difference of three minutes and I would have been looking at a two and a half hour walk through the western suburbs of London, but instead I counted down the seconds and, right on time, the 118 pulled up to carry me home.

I had to clench my fists to resist any physical show of affection to my new bus driver, but couldn’t help giving him a huge grin as I swiped my oyster card and took a seat, to which he rolled his eyes, closed the doors, and pulled out onto the road. My night bus in red shining armour was taking me home.

I got off at the end of the line at Morden station and felt like I floated the fifteen minute walk home. I savoured every familiar sight, running loving fingers over the graffiti-scrawled roller doors of an indian restaurant, smiling at the outline of the post office, and eventually drifting blissfully through the wrought-iron gates to my apartment building. I climbed the three flights of stairs, unlocked the door, and stumbled into my bedroom. As I stood in the light of my room, safe and warm and with a bed beckoning to me at my feet, part of me couldn’t believe I was actually there, that my physical body had somehow ended up in this location. An hour before I had been nervously striding past shadowy factories with no concept of how to transport myself from that reality to this one, yet somehow, through some weird twisting of luck, here I stood, unmolested and intact, with my backpack still on my back at 02:30 AM (03:30 AM Viennese time), in my home.

It was at this point that I noticed the internet on my phone had decided to stir, and city mapper updated to announce that I had arrived at my destination. I glared at it like the annoying kid at school who claims to have known the answer all along and just didn’t want to say it, trying to decide whether to swear at it or throw it against the wall, and then just collapsed into bed.

My last thought before falling asleep was that, next time, I’d take the fucking taxi.