It all starts with a phone call.
“Mummy,” Olivia yells. “It’s an emergency, I came off my bike and my tooth has come out. There’s blood everywhere.”
It is impossible to work out from the hysterical rant where she is but we rush out of the house at 11.30 at night in the general direction of Headington. By the time we are half way there Olivia has taken control, called an ambulance and is being looked after by paramedics. We arrange to meet at the A & E unit of the John Radcliffe hospital.
“We’ll probably be here until four in the morning,” I half-joke to Rupert as we walk in.
Soon afterwards Olivia gets there. She looks awful. Swollen lips and blood on her face and hands.
“I have the tooth,” she tells me proudly. I want to weep.
The ambulance lady tells us to go to the waiting room while she sorts out the paperwork with the admin staff. An hour and a half later we are seen by a nurse who takes Olivia’s temperature, does some blood tests and runs an ECG.
“You’ll have to wait to see the doctor,” she says.
“How long?” asks Olivia, who is by now in pain and terribly uncomfortable with ECG plasters all over her and a needle in her arm.
“Well, there are nine people in front of you. Probably about an hour and a half.”
I look at my phone; it is just after 1am.
“Why don’t you go home?” I say to Rupert in true Swedish masochistic fashion. “There’s no point both of us waiting.”
Rupert leaves quicker than you can say Zlatan. Olivia and I settle back into our chairs in the waiting room.
Happily there are no horrific injuries. In fact with some people it’s tough to determine who is the patient and who is the carer. Opposite us there is a mother there still wearing her Oratory School overall with her two red-haired sons who look like they are in their late teens. To our left an elderly woman is huddled up in the corner using a nylon onsie as a pillow. I have no idea what’s wrong with her, apart from her onsie that is, and some rather dodgy slippers. Olivia offers to help her open a carton of orange juice she is struggling with, but she firmly refuses. A boy in white football kit sits on the other side of the room, the initials LM on his shirt, just like the pros. He is barefoot so I assume something has happened to his feet. To the right of us, almost hidden by a coffee machine that invites us to “relax with a long milky latte” on a small screen, is what I think must be a homeless man by the look of him. He is snoring lightly, clutching a green plastic bag with ‘Patients Possessions’ written on it in black. He wears thick red and white socks and no shoes.
An elderly man arrives and plonks himself next to us. He immediately offers Olivia an orange juice from a white paper bag. Olivia shakes her head.
“The snack packs you get at this time of night are not up to much,” he tells us helpfully. He must be a regular. Olivia groans in pain and looks for her headphones. They’re covered in blood from the fall. I wipe them with a tissue.
“I’m diabetic as well,” says the regular to no one in particular.
“Philip,” we hear a nurse raising her voice from a treatment cubicle not far from the waiting room. “No spitting.”
“I’m from AFRICA,” shouts Philip in defiance. “From Uganda.”
“That’s great,” says the nurse. “We need to rehydrate you Philip, you’ve had too much to drink. I need to put this needle in.”
The regular burps or farts, I can’t tell which. “Pardon me,” he says smiling at us. “Does your friend want some orange juice?” he asks Olivia, nodding towards me.
Olivia removes her headphones. “She’s my mother.” Then she lies back in the chair and closes her eyes.
“How long did it take you to do your nails?” asks the regular in his warm Oxfordshire tones. Olivia doesn’t respond.
“I think she’s asleep,” I say.
“Oh,” he replies. “I thought she was just dozing.”
There is a loud crash. Philip has thrown something at the nurse.
“You’re the devil,” he shouts.
“I’ll call security,” she threatens.
There is an alarm coming from somewhere that never ceases. It is made up of two beeps, one low sonorous one and the other shorter and sharper on top. A rather repetitive hospital concerto.
The regular huffs and puffs and tries to strike up a conversation with the lady with the onsie, she’s not interested.
“Liam Mulligan,” calls a blonde nurse. The young footballer gets up and follows her on his shoeless feet.
“Philip do you know why you’re here?” asks the nurse in the distance.
“Your neighbours found you collapsed in the lift and called an ambulance.”
Everyone is here for a reason. Obviously most people come because they’re ill or hurt. But the regular just seems to be looking for someone to talk to. I wonder how often he comes here. He still bears the marks of a normal human being, for example his blue check short-sleeved shirt is immaculately ironed. But he wears filthy slippers and his hair is dirty. His manners though are impeccable. The regular was obviously a man of discipline and rules before he fell into this circle of hell that is the A&E unit. Now he can’t seem to get out. I imagine him there night after night with his inferior snack pack trying to strike up conversations with people who don’t want to talk.
As it gets later (or earlier depending on which way you look at it) the circles of hell get more sinister. After 3 am we are getting to the business end of the night. A fat drunk person of indeterminate sex and more tattoos than clear skin walks in, glares at the woman with the onsie for a few minutes as if they are about to murder her (or maybe steal her onsie), then lies down on the floor and falls asleep.
In the distance the alarm churns out its monotonous symphony. It has now penetrated my head to such an extent that I think if I will hear it for hours after we leave, rather like you sway after getting off a boat.
The tussle with Philip is finally over. He must have fallen asleep.
It is now almost 4am. Olivia is still asleep. Three young students come in; one of them so drunk he can barely move. He sits down next to the Oratory school mother who moves seats immediately in case he projectile vomits. He doesn’t, he just leans forward onto his arms and falls asleep, his head hanging like a heavy pendulum from his neck.
His two friends sit close by: a boy and a girl. They are formal with each other, almost shy. The girl, who has blonde hair scraped back into a ponytail, has brought some studies with her. Very sensible.
A nurse comes and calls the name Thomas. The pendulum sways slightly.
“Thomas, can you stand?” she asks, approaching him. Again there is a sign that he has heard her, but barely any movement. The nurse and Thomas’s friends heave him to his feet and take him off to a cubicle.
Oratory mother’s son comes back from his check-up and they leave. So now it’s just us and the nutters. The regular has fallen asleep, an unopened orange juice in one hand.
The homeless man is called. He moves unsteadily, obviously drunk as well. As he sways past us I see a tattoo all the way down his left arm. Carpe Diem it reads. He clearly didn’t.
It is half past four. Olivia wakes up in pain. “I just want to go home,” she wails. I ask the nurse how many more until we see the doctor. Two more. The bright neon lights now feel like an instrument of torture. Everything hurts and I’m not even injured.
Thomas is wheeled past. His friends get up to follow the bed. They stand a respectful distance from the cubicle, but close to each other. They talk about Thomas, just to keep the conversation going. They smile a lot. I wonder if they were at a party and about to start snogging before Thomas lost the plot. Maybe they will joke about this night on their wedding day.
A nurse comes in and wakes up the regular. She gives him a small plastic pot.
“No rush,” she says. “But when you can.”
The regular looks at her and then the pot. “If I don’t want to widdle I don’t want to widdle. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
Another drunk arrives. He sits down for a minute then gets up, his frayed, dirty jeans covering his bare feet. He shuffles up and down the corridor opposite the waiting room like a tiger in a cage. Does anyone wear shoes in this place?
At 5 o’clock a doctor finally comes for us. He is neither McDreamy nor McSteamy. In fact the closest we have had to any lookers is an orderly with a fleeting resemblance to Eden Hazard.
“Hello,” says the doctor brightly. “And what brings you to A&E this morning?”
“Actually we arrived last night,” I tell him.
He examines Olivia, asks some questions and then we are free to go. My neighbour who is a doctor thinks they might have kept us in to check for any signs of concussion, but they might have told us that. It feels like an extremely long wait for not much.
The ambulance lady from earlier reappears.
“Have you come to drive me home?” asks Olivia sleepily.
“You wish,” she smiles, giving her a hug.
We walk out into the broad daylight.
“You go in when it’s dark and come out when it’s light,” I say to Olivia. “It’s the opposite of going to the cinema.”
We see Rupert driving towards us. I can’t wait to get home. “And I thought the film went on a bit.”
It all starts with a phone call.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019