By David Cooper:
Outside, beyond the guanoed glass, was the place that I’d left two decades earlier. Each day, for three full weeks, I looked out to get a purchase on the city that, however long I’ve lived elsewhere, will always be fixed as home. Every so often, though, I adjusted my focus so that I could see the reflection of the room on the surface of the window. In the glass I was reminded that, behind me, my Dad’s failing body lay flat on a bed.
During those three weeks, I thought a lot about places. Inevitably, I thought about the places in which my Dad had spent his life. He’d always lived in cities. The first five years of his life were in Cardiff. Later on, he spent much of his twenties in pre-gentrified New Cross, just around the corner from Goldsmith’s. Nottingham, though, was my Dad’s city: the place that he spent most of his childhood and adolescence. Growing up, we listened to his stories of summer days spent fishing on the Trent and of Saturday morning meetings by the lions on Slab Square. In our house, the suburbs of Arnold and Mapperley, Carlton and Hucknall, were edenic elsewheres.
If Nottingham was a remembered place, Liverpool was an always-emerging present: the city where my Dad lived and worked for most of his adult life. Looking out of 9HDU, it was impossible not to worry about the politics of this place. Up here, from the ninth floor of the Royal, Liverpool seemed to turn its back on the rest of England. In the past, I’ve always felt a more-than-slight embarrassment with Liverpool’s narratives of exceptionalism. Yet, on 9HDU, unease was replaced by approval: I respected the city’s ambivalence towards establishment ideas of Englishness; I admired the apparent disinterest in the visions of Albion being pedalled by Rees-Mogg’s aristo-vaudeville act 200 miles to the south in the Palace of Westminster. Here, on the rim of the Irish Sea and looking towards north Wales, Etonian England seemed a long way behind us. But, of course, Liverpool is only ever semi-detached from the rest of the country and its political landscape. To the right, I could see the docklands whose transformation owed so much to European funding. Closer still was the shell of the new Royal. Originally scheduled to open in March 2017, building work on this hospital stalled early in 2018 as Carillion collapsed.
Sitting, hour after hour in a punishing plastic chair, I also thought about the relationship between the worlds inside and out. In the day, the contrast was marked. Indoors, 9HDU was a zone of measured hyperactivity. The nurses – countries of birth: India, Italy, the Philippines, Portugal – danced between the beds with choreographed care. The doctors – countries of birth: England, Nigeria, Sri Lanka – monitored, reflected and, recorded. This sense of activity was acoustic too. Throughout the day, the keynote was the rhythmical beeps of the dialysis machines scattered across the unit. As my Mum put it on Day 12: ‘you tune into their music after a while’. In contrast, the world outside seemed serenely still. Although we looked out across the city centre, we couldn’t – through a geometric quirk - see any road traffic from our vantage point on floor nine. From here, then, the city seemed a static space. Over time, we got our eyes in and began to read the undulations on the Mersey in the middle-distance. We had to work pretty hard, though, to pick out such surface movements. For the most part, the ward window provided a frame for a motionless panorama; an updated version of Ben Johnson’s acrylic painting of the city a decade on from its year as European Capital of Culture.
The dark, however, brought a reversal. Towards the end, we spent a few long nights alongside my Dad in the hospital. During ‘the hours of hush’, the strip lights were dimmed and 9HDU morphed into a soothing space. This strange stasis was juxtaposed with the dozens of dots flitting across the autumnal darkness outside. Looking down, tiny lights progressed slowly up the Mersey and out into Liverpool Bay. Looking up, more lights flashed as planes followed the arc of the river when coming into land in Speke. At night, we were reminded that this is, and always has been, a city of comings and goings.
9HDU seemed to be hermetically sealed. If I shifted the plastic chair into a particular spot, however, I could feel cold air entering the room through a gap around a window that, absurdly, could only be opened through the nurses’ use of a stained silver tea-spoon. For the staff working on 9HDU, that gap was a practical problem as well as a constant reminder that the new hospital remained not much more than an architect’s fantasy. The only solution, to prevent the cold from getting in, was to shut out the city by pulling across the disposable curtains. I felt differently, though. I wanted those curtains to be yanked back so that my Dad, lying flat on the bed, could see the spikes and sandstone of the city’s two cathedrals. I wanted the cold air to come into the room and to flow towards him.
As I sat there, I thought about the wind moving towards us. It came over the Clywdian Hills and across the flatlands of the Wirral. It travelled over the Mersey and snaked through the city’s streets and alleys, squares and churchyards; it picked up pace as it headed past Lime Street and up London Road towards the Royal. I imagined that something of the city came with that wind as it crept through the gap and into 9HDU. The city flowed into the room, and into my Dad, as, at the last, he struggled to breathe back out.
Three months on, I spoke to my Mum on the phone one evening. It was getting dark outside but she told me that didn’t want to shut the curtains in the living-room at home. ‘We used to close them to tuck ourselves in’, she said, ‘but I can’t feel tucked in anymore’. Those curtains have remained open.
David Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in English (Place Writing) at Manchester Metropolitan University whose research concentrates on literary geographies. David on Twitter.