A Practical Joke by Ronald Mackay
I was still at an age when I believed that work should involve the odd practical joke. Until that day, my job as a porter in the Sterile Unit at Guy’s Hospital in London had been all too serious and occasionally humiliating. Using autoclaves buried deep in the bowels of the building, our tasks were to sterilize all surgical instruments and to ensure the wards never ran out. That was the serious part. The humiliating part, at least to a 17-year old like myself, was never ever to be regarded by the nurses as anything other than the lowest man on the totem pole. None would deign to fraternize with a porter.
So, when the opportunity for some fun at the expense of a nurse presented itself, I took it.
The early shift, which I preferred and my fellow porters detested, demanded that I not only man the steam and gamma-ray autoclaves but also respond to emergency requests made at the service desk.
I lived near Notting Hill Gate and relished my daily dawn stroll through the leafy Serpentine park to catch the underground to Southwark and, later in the early afternoon when my shift was over, the leisurely and exploratory return. My work-day, book-ended between these glorious walks in London at its least busy in 1959, satisfied me enormously and I was determined to hang onto such an agreeable, albeit temporary, way of life.
I’d just loaded a row of autoclaves and adjusted each to guarantee sterilization when the service bell rang. Waiting patiently at the desk was a pretty young woman no older than myself, in the uniform of a trainee nurse. She was, I noticed, the very kind of young woman I would have been proud to walk across the Serpentine with either before or after work, any day of the week. She stood obediently behind the desk with a pleasant, even deferential smile on her face. Our unit bore all the marks of high technology and commanded respect.
“She’ll abandon her congeniality towards me,” I observed glumly, “as soon as experience tells her that, despite my immaculate white uniform and shoes, I am merely a humble sterile porter. Then her smile will be reserved exclusively for young male interns with grubby coats casually unbuttoned and stethoscopes nonchalantly poking out of their wide pockets.
“What can I get for you?” Nurses made visits to the Sterile Unit only when they needed an instrument in an emergency. And even then, the Ward Sister always sent the most lowly of her charges on such an expedition.
She hesitated, looked away and blushed.
Her embarrassment confirmed that she was very, very new indeed. Even a few weeks working in a hospital goes far to eliminate bashfulness relating to any aspect of the human body. And so, knowing that it was useless to raise my hopes of finding a companion with whom to stroll the leafy London parks, I decided, malevolently, to indulge in a little humour.
‘What is it that your Ward Sister needs so urgently?”
She blushed again, “Sister sent me for a… for a…”
“For a what?”
“For a… a circumcision pack.” She finally got it out.
“A what?” Cruelly, I forced her to repeat the request.
“A… a… a circumcision pack,” she whispered, unable to meet my eyes.
“Of course,” I said helpfully. She relaxed. Then, intent on milking the moment for all it was worth, with a straight face and in a matter of fact tone, I persisted, “What size?”
She staggered as if I had dealt her a physical blow, her eyes full of alarm.
“Circumcision packs come in small, medium and large,” I lied helpfully. “What size does the case you are addressing require?”
Her eyes glazed over. She paused, looked at the wall, at the ceiling, anywhere but at me.
“I’m really busy,” I made my voice kind, “why don’t you go back and ask the Sister what size is needed?”
She looked startled. Her fear of returning to the Ward Sister empty-handed was even greater than her embarrassment about estimating the size of the circumcision pack required for the operation. She hesitated.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said, feigning kindness. “I’ll show you the small pack and you can decide if you need a bigger one.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. Her relief was palpable but I could see that she was still concerned about how she was going to make the choice.
“Wait here!” I disappeared into the sterile unit and grabbed, from the packing table, pair of pinking shears that the women who prepared the instruments into packs used to cut the autoclave paper. Their blades were brutally long and menacingly serrated. I wrapped them, sealed the pack with tape and returned to the desk.
Calmed by my affable offer of assistance, the student nurse was able to look at me. I placed the package on the desk and pushed it towards her. “This is the small size. Open it! Tell me if you think you might need the medium or the large.” I counted on her inexperience not to notice that the tape sealing the package did not carry the dark bars indicating that it had been through the autoclave.
Tentatively, the young nurse picked at the tape and unfolded the thick brown paper to reveal the pinking shears with their slim, shark-toothed 12” blades. She almost collapsed at the sight; her eyes as big as saucers. She was trying desperately to imagine how the Sister might wield these with surgical precision to serve the terrified patient. She let out a gasp.
“These are the small ones,” I repeated. “But I can bring you bigger ones if you think you need them.” Helpfully, I stretched my hands out to show just how big the shears could go. I was enjoying her discomposure.
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut to erase the image. “These should be adequate!” And with that, she ran for her ward and the impatiently waiting Sister.
Five minutes later, the phone in Mr Nelson’s office rang angrily. Mr Nelson was manager of the Sterile Unit and ran his domain as he had the company of soldiers before his short-term commission ended and he moved to Guy’s.
I could hear nothing through the glass but could see his face become more and more grave. He nodded, hung up and emerged into the large hall where we conducted our work.
“Right. All of you. Here. Line up!”
Puzzled, my two or three colleagues moved swiftly to obey. He looked at us with the utmost seriousness. I stood on his extreme right having come from the bank of gamma radiation autoclaves.
“Who did it?” he roared at his quaking troops. “That was Sister from Day Surgery on the phone. Which one of you did it?”
I wasn’t going to respond to such a broad query, hoping that one of my fellow-porters had done something foolish.
“One step forward whoever was responsible. Who gave the nurse a pair of 12” stainless steel pinking shears as a circumcision pack?”
No longer could I fool myself that the call had been about anything but my peccadillo. I stepped forward. “It was me, Mr Nelson.” I could see my sunny walks across leafy London parks vanish forever.
“I should fire you!” He roared. “For dereliction of duty. Do you understand?”
I nodded but clung to the clemency implied in his “should”.
“For impertinence. For sheer effrontery.”
I stood still, hoping.
“But, I won’t. Not this time. Be warned, though. If such a thing happens again, you will be dishonourably discharged!” He glared at us.
I swallowed, mightily relieved.
His right eye, invisible to all but me, winked. Or did it?
Ten minutes later, a forlorn, trainee-nurse crept into the service area and slipped an untidy package onto the desk. She didn’t ring the bell, didn’t look at me and crept off again hoping that her ignominy might not have been witnessed. But I could tell by the subtle change in her bearing that she had learned an unforgettable lesson.
So, I realised, had I, and felt at once both guilty and glad.