In my year off I worked five months as a domestic assistant in Banstead Mental Hospital. This was excellent experience for a fortunate but naïve young man on his way to university.
I was assigned to N2, a locked long-stay male ward. Here I was right at the bottom of the hierarchy, below even the two student nurses from the Philippines. A domestic was paid much better than a student nurse, which aggravated their contempt but made it much easier to bear.
They did not use my name or formal title, just “cleaner”. They tried to impose a rule that nurses were allowed to sit in the patients’ lounge in their tea break, but cleaners were not. They were proud of their English, and quick to correct mine. When I said: “A policeman came up to my brother and me…” they shouted me down: “It’s my brother and I!” I just got on with the cleaning.
On a double shift one Saturday they came to me with a dilemma. The nursing staff were running a sweepstake on the Grand National that afternoon. They had one unsold ticket. They had already bought two each, and could not afford another one. They had told the organisers they could sell these tickets, and did not want to lose face by taking one back unsold. So they offered it to me, as long as I did not win. I should remember that this was the nurses’ sweepstake.
I said that I did not control the race. Did they want to sell me the ticket or not? Reluctantly they handed me the last ticket and took my pound note. On the ticket was the name of my horse, Rag Trade. I was relieved. Rag Trade did not sound a likely winner of the Grand National. The previous year he had finished last.
As we sat in the patients’ lounge watching the start on television, I had a strong intuition what was going to happen. Rag Trade stayed with the leaders until the last fence, when he ran clear and won ahead of Red Rum.
The two student nurses accompanied me to the prize giving in the social club. The nursing staff were furious with them for selling the winning ticket to a domestic. Any one of them would have put a pound on Rag Trade. The students should have remembered that this was the nurses’ sweepstake.
I was handed an envelope containing £35. This was two weeks’ pay for a student nurse. The looks on their faces were priceless.
Related: Life at the Bottom