During my stint as a steeplejack I was too exhausted to go out in the evenings, and so remained a total celibate during the three months that I stuck with the job. I could not have afforded the time to devote to a girlfriend, even if there was one readily available. It was like being in a desert with no oasis in sight. My entire bank of energy was used up in the effort to survive. I decided that my nerve was going to go completely unless I could change the work where I could at least keep my feet on the ground. The Home Office agreed to my being allowed to look for something less hazardous. When a vacancy for a porter at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, near Kings Cross, came to my attention, I applied. I also found alternative lodgings – a room in Sydney Street.
Elizabeth Garret Anderson had been the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Britain and she founded the hospital, originally a dispensary for women, in 1866.
The establishment was meant for women and was staffed entirely by women, except for the portering staff, who were exclusively male.
There was a common room where the porters could sit and here they would stay, waiting to be dispatched to one part of the hospital or another when a suitable job needed doing. The task they were called on to deal with included collecting rubbish or waste, wheeling patients between departments and removing dead bodies from the ward to the mortuary.
There were occasions when a summons came for a porter to go to the operating theatre to lug heavy equipment about. If this happened, the man was required to gown up in the same outfit as theatre staff and surgeons and observe the same rigorous hygiene precautions to ensure a bacteria-free area around any patient on the operating table.
Mondays were the day for women to attend as out-patients for minor gynaecological surgery. Although they were put to sleep with anaesthetic for any surgical procedure, they were expected to go home again by evening. On Mondays I was often asked to attend the theatre in my porter capacity, to stand by in case of an emergency.
It was an odd situation for me to occupy in an all-female establishment. I was completely untrained in medical matters, yet found myself witnessing the laying bare of women’s intimate parts on a regular basis.
It was as if I became a pair of eyes that was expected to see nothing, though it was impossible for me to ignore the activity that formed the centre of attention in the operating theatre.
My own affinity with the female anatomy suffered a minor setback after the shock of observing the technique used for stretching the vagina in a woman where the passage had been too tight to allow proper examination.
The effects of this did not last long however. I was leaving home at 6am each morning to catch the first tube that ran from South Kensington to Kings Cross and starting my day at the hospital by having breakfast with a host of foreign maids. I was soon making up for my months of celibacy when working on the power lines. Suddenly it was bonanza time. I could select from among the number of girls in the evening and was spoilt for choice. I was back in my element and thanked the benevolent lord for my good fortune. Not only had I survived the traumas of my steeplejack days but here I was, landed in the most enviable situation of being looked after both physically and emotionally by a bevy of women with whom I had a great deal in common.
They, too, were having to cope with personal difficulties to preserve their sense of identity while working in the hospital. The work they did was not so much out of choice but out of necessity, so they could learn English and familiarise themselves with a new environment in a strange country. Their future was as uncertain as mine, and the common factor between them was a determination to make a better life for themselves.
My dreams and those of the girls coincided, with the result that they gave each other encouragement and enjoyed a serenity in each other’s company that was hard to define.
Then there was more good news. When I came to make my application to have my annual residency permit renewed, I was told by the Home Office that I no longer needed to observe the original restriction. I was being accorded permanent residency in the United Kingdom and could now seek any job I wanted. The dawn of better days in store was beginning to come true. Hallelujah!