I had shoved The Virtues of the Table into my tote bag on my way to the hospital. “There’ll be plenty of time to read,” I thought, especially if they have to do tests.

I had shoved The Virtues of the Table into my tote bag on my way to the hospital. “There’ll be plenty of time to read,” I thought, especially if they have to do tests.

I couldn’t concentrate on the book due to such visceral attacks the assaults on the senses: retching, smells of vomiting and defecation, the window next to my bed slamming open and shut with gusts of the wind. Surprise at the complete lack of privacy, patient histories as public ward performances. The afternoon was punctured by my excitement at the offer of a cup of tea. Executed in just the way I liked, neither ‘white water’ nor ‘stewed prune’, perfectly slurpable.

It was particularly busy on the ward. I hadn’t slept at all during the night. At one point I cried quietly and felt simultaneous guilt and shame. And almost ironically, given the circumstances – loneliness. There was shouting and a constant, groaning cry on the ward.

“Should I be worried?” he asked, as I turned my pounding head back to the pillow.  “I think I’ll be ok,” I replied, scrolling through Google results on my phone… “One woman ended up paralysed from a stroke upon orgasming, but apparently severe sex headaches are not uncommon.” Luckily, I felt ok. And I didn’t fancy a visit to a hospital in another country. I would go to my GP when I got back to Scotland if it happened again. Of course, it had happened again, and a few days later I ended up in A & E, then on a ward, so they could rule out a postcoital subarachnoid haemorrhage.

We were presented with porridge in the morning. It was lumpy and glutinous with a quiver of goo sitting in a cold pool of milk. Two sachets of sugar thrown onto the tray. No possible additions of honey, nor dried fruit like my university canteen offered. I opened one sachet and tried to stir it all together, thinning out the gloop to make it edible.

More tea, from the cheerful male attendee. I became hyper-aware of my every trip to the toilet, my ‘tea-drinker’s bladder’ under new-found observation. There were only two of us who could actually walk to the toilet. The other never put the seat down.

Ham and pea soup for lunch. Followed by sandwiches I eyeballed, but couldn’t bring myself to eat. White plastic bread with glaringly orange cheese, chicken with salad (I spy lettuce and tomato), or an egg and cress, but no, I’d stick to the soup. Everyone talked about the soup. It was pleasant and unremarkable, broad in its colour and flavour. In some ways, it seemed to be the highlight of the day for everyone, or maybe the routine was just part of comic hospital discourse  – a daily sales patter performed for patients extolling the virtues of our NHS food. I wondered when and where the staff ate, they really didn’t seem to get many breaks. “Vanilla flavour” ice cream for pudding. I read the label: a depressing list of numbers and chemicals. My inner-Joanna Blythman couldn’t resist taking a sly photo of the ingredients list: Palm Oil, E numbers – colourings and flavourings as agents of change.

I became fond of a distinguished older gentleman on the ward, due to his vocal complaints about the cutlery. He considered the fork too modern, unflatteringly tapered. These concerns were repeated these at every mealtime: “The cutlery was wrong!” I really felt for him, as surely this was his way of trying to declare that his hands were not functioning as he expected.

We pre-ordered at 3 o’clock for dinner at 5pm, much to the amusement of the Spaniard. I opted for the bangers and mash. What better comfort food for a Brit? Surely it would be hard to go wrong…

I messaged a friend about my lumbar puncture whilst I waited for the all clear. “I feel like a birch tree!” (Tapped.) I knew she’d understand, as both a forager and a regular customer of the NHS. She advised: “Whatever you do, don’t order the mash!” Damn. Too late, I had ordered the mash, never considering that it was possible that it was made without real potatoes. 

The procedure wasn’t as bad as I had expected. I explained by text to the Spaniard that it felt like a ‘weird massage’. “Don’t go telling people that”…he replied, laughing…”it sounds kind of kinky!”

I was hoping to be discharged before dinner, but I was warned by staff that it was possible I would be kept in another night. 5pm passed and the food arrived. I tucked in eagerly. My friend was right. It was bad, but I was hungry. Then it occurred to me if I was going to be so critical of our free NHS food, produced at a likely average of around £4.00 a day in Scotland, I should endeavour to actually try to understand my experience, especially the taste… “Think of what it looks like, the smell, the texture, the flavour,” I thought. I picked a small amount of the mash onto a fork again to try to taste properly this time, to consider the flavour. I’m not sure I’d had instant mash before? Certainly buttery, boiled, fried, fondant, roasted, dauphinoise, an array of heritage varieties, but never powdered Smash? A perplexing texture reminiscent of ground rice served in my primary school days but with a taste neither of potato nor the joy of butter or a generous pinch of salt. On a spectrum between grim and utterly disgusting, I can’t finish it.

“You look like a food critic.” said the tea-making member of staff, loudly echoing across the ward. Nervous, we both laugh. I hadn’t realised I was being watched, my fork poised in the air, completely lost in my own thoughts. Oh, for the anonymity of quiet contemplation! “I was just trying to work out what it tasted like!” I replied, somewhat awkwardly, feeling ever-more self-conscious about my choice of book which lay face down on the portable table, now hovering over my bed.

The staff are eager to discuss the sausage… a nurse proclaiming “it repeats… it repeats on you!” I become instantly aware of the lingering taste of rusk mingling with a tang of thyme, akin to gnawing on a cardboard box of mixed herbs. I’m disappointed, but not surprised that the NHS can’t get something like bangers and mash right. Using real potatoes would be a good start.

Finally, I’m discharged. I’m overjoyed. I leave the hospital with a muggy cloud of pain in my head, clammy skin and the clagging remnants of mixed herbs and rusk in my mouth. The unread book shoved back into my bag, I wish I’d packed toothpaste instead.