The door to A&E opens automatically. It's changed beyond all recognition since the last time I was here, which is not surprising because this is a completely different building. The last place was a Victorian warren, whereas this is a shiny white tower.
I follow the signs to reception, where a headscarfed girl waits patiently behind shatterproof glass. She tells me the patient's only just arrived so would I mind waiting, so I wait. The seats are uncomfortably metallic, and bolted to the floor lest anyone try to hurl one across the room. An older lady sits beside me, new to using crutches and not yet adept. She comments on how good the coffee machine smells, but we both agree that no liquid which dribbled out of its nozzle would be drinkable.
In the corner of the room is a podium for a security guard. The architects appear to have built him an alcove where he can hide away and not quite see anything, which is ideal because there is absolutely nothing to see. He smiles weakly and paces up and down occasionally, because this is midweek teatime not weekend midnight. Behind him is a large free-standing poster warning of the 'current influenza outbreak', and asking all visitors to please stay at home rather than putting patients' lives at risk. Visitors ignore it, and each other, and continue to sit in withdrawn silence.
I ask again at reception, and am told that I can now pass through into A&E proper. I'm expecting rows of moaning invalids on trolleys, but instead meet a grey corridor bustling with nursing staff. Numerous cubicles are curtained off to either side, but never curtained off quite well enough to conceal all the goings on within. A hairy leg here, an exposed stomach there, and eye contact with a woman who'd rather I hadn't seen her modesty compromised. Further into the labyrinth I go, rather further than expected, and through the double doors at the end.
It's my second visit to Resus, but this time it's not me on the table. Millions of pounds of expensive equipment is stacked all around, complete with wires and pipes and cables, but thankfully is nothing being used for its life-preserving function. In the absence of Friday night debris or any sudden cardiac arrest, the resuscitation area is currently a mere extension of the cubicle campsite along the corridor. The tales these tables could tell would fill an entire series of Casualty, but none of the present clientèle would make it past the cutting room floor.
My must-visit patient is waiting patiently at the end, an extra tube in his arm compared to last time I saw him. He's been given the children's booth, the one with smiley Disney characters stuck to the wall and a variety of Fisher Price toys to play with. Yes, everything's fine, or it would be if only they'd hurry up and let him out. A steady drip of medical personnel stop by, one with a ham salad sandwich, another with a clipboard to jot down readings from the monitor. One reading suggests that the patient is dead, but closer inspection confirms that a lead is merely unplugged.
For long periods of time, nothing much happens. That's in our booth, whereas nextdoor a woman is very much in pain and I feel somewhat uncomfortable to be here. I walked in off the street not half an hour ago, unchallenged, and here I am standing in the heart of a busy hospital overhearing agonies anyone would rather keep private. Indeed nobody's even asked me to clean my hands, neither were the squirty alcohol dispensers sufficiently conspicuous along the long corridor for me to have noticed them. I have drifted into somebody else's workspace - an interloper, a fly on the wall, out of place.
Just when we fear we've been forgotten a doctor turns up and asks questions, so many questions. He's concerned, he's probing, he's interested, but thankfully he's relaxed. And soon, he says, please wait a little while longer, which extends into half an hour and then some. There are more readings to take - some sticky, some probing - as the best part of the evening ticks gently away. The lady nextdoor moans louder, and the nurses nip in with an extra screen lest I catch sight of why.
The staff are all brilliant, not least the way every nurse seems to know precisely what's going on despite not having been involved in any of the previous procedures. They smile, they cajole, and they nudge appropriate behaviour even when the patient would rather do quite the opposite. And finally they announce discharge, you're free to go, look after yourself. We thank them profusely and head for the exit, and they get their bed back for the next unwitting soul from the back of an ambulance.
I wash my hands on the way out. It seems better late than never.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.