The NHS at 3am on 31 March 2017 – Thursday night (not even a weekend and the wait time is 6 hours)

Had to visit A&E at 3 am last night. Leaving the house and getting in the car in the dark, a night strangely still and warm for late March. There was a blackbird singing in our garden, a blackbird singing in the dead of night. The streets were so clear and quiet, an unsettling mood enhanced by the sound of an Agnes Obel song on the CD player. L___ said it looked “Spooky like a zombie apocalypse”. “Ah, but without the zombies” I replied.

No problem parking at the hospital of course, not the usual stress of trying to find a space whilst being potentially late for an appointment. Through the car park, another Blackbird singing. I heard somewhere that some birds sing at night because they’re confused by our bright lights – like the baby turtles going the wrong way away from the sea after hatching.

A very thin woman in spotty pyjamas was smoking outside the entrance to A&E, she threw down her butt end, still burning, on the pavement outside the door. Inside was mostly quiet, the fluorescent hum of machines and some people mumbling in the waiting room. Checked in at the desk, the usual questions: name, date of birth, and what’s wrong. In the waiting room about six people in various states of pain and consciousness, one hunched over his comments clipboard by the window, chin resting on hand. Was he asleep or just wishing he was? Not sure how you could sleep in these hard metal chairs. A woman’s back in front of us, ringletted dark hair, wide shoulders. A man in a hospital wheelchair with his leg raised, bare footed like he’d been barefootin’ – but actually quite unlikely to dance as his foot looked all shiny and swollen.

The nurse called L___ in for the assessment. Same questions, what school, when did you last take pain killer, on a scale of 1-10 how much pain? (9). Umm…doesn’t that depend on whether you’ve ever given birth/had a broken bone etc. It’s all relative isn’t it? To a child who’s never had anything serious (fortunately), any pain could well be a 9. Silly question.

Back to the waiting room. Some patients getting impatient. Apparently some had been there for seven hours. What? There weren’t enough doctors in the area the receptionist said. Earlier in the night we had called the 111 number and a calm doctor had explained there were no out-of-hours doctors available to see in Eastbourne tonight, the nearest were in Brighton or Hastings (20 miles away), so we’d have to go to A&E at the DGH. If you phone 111 they invariably send you to A&E.

A paediatrician called us into a side room to prod L___ and ask the same questions. Really lovely, so calm she seemed a bit sleepy. She had a soft accent, from somewhere in Europe, I wondered if she’ll be allowed to stay after this EU exit rubbish is settled. When she left the room for a moment, the door was left slightly ajar. Through it I could see the internal room, the hub of A&E, a monitor displayed an x-ray of a man’s pelvis like a ghostly butterfly pinned on a blackboard. I had forgotten that x-rays showed the flesh as well as the bone. The image was so clear, the pelvis a sketch in white on black paper, the scene etched in my memory accompanied by the steady beep of a heart monitor and the bustling of nurses and doctors (not enough) in the dead of night. Like blackbirds singing out of hours.

On our exit we checked out at the main desk, some disgruntled commotion from the waiting room, I asked if people had really been waiting for seven hours, the receptionist said they had, she kept seeing them looking like lost souls. She remarked that it had been like this for several nights in a row, not sure how she remained so cheerful and friendly at this time, under these circumstances.

Inside – like a zombie apocalypse, with the zombies. Outside the blackbird still singing in the birch tree, as smooth as water flowing over cold stones.