I’m having coffee with a nurse friend. She has been doing what she does for 15 years and can’t remember the last time her feet didn’t hurt. She is on her fourth espresso and has the wide-eyed stare of a kitten that has just seen wool for the first time. She leans across the table and says; “I’m thinking of making a break for it.”
I glance down at the table and notice the little wooden stick they give you in coffee shops for no reason. She knows what I’m thinking. “I’m not going to dig a tunnel. No time. And anyway there are guards everywhere. They know nurses are leaving in their droves. They’ll do anything to stop us. Except pay us properly.”
At that moment a man in a cheap suit and with no chin walks past and my friend goes quiet. I fill the silence with the first thing that comes into my mind.
“Why do those marshmallows only come in two colours?”
The man moves on. Trawling coffee shops looking for escaped nurses. Or current nurses hatching plans of escape.
“How are you going to get out?” I asked
“I’m going to hide in the laundry even though they have those new apprentices checking that now. Remember Alison? She tried to get out by hiding in the medicine trolley. Forgetting that nobody ever takes the medicine trolley off the ward. When they found her she was badly dehydrated. They put her on nights. She can’t remember where she lives.”
She looked around and whispered. “I could pretend to go on a course?”
“Don’t be ridiculous” I hissed. “There are no courses anymore. There is online governance training and a film about fire you have to do in your own time.” I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her but my manual handling wasn’t up to date.
“Anyway” I said, worried that my friend might be arrested by Jeremy Hunt’s personal guard and detained indefinitely without increments. “If you did get out, where would you go?”
She smiled, “I’ve heard of places, encampments of escaped nurses. Some of them are doing landscape gardening, some are working in vegetarian cafés. Lots of them are just running free in the mountains, gathering around the fire and sharing stories of fully staffed wards, safe nursing practice and lunch breaks. They make shelter from the bark from trees bound together by now-redundant support tights.”
“Shhh” I said, as the man with no chin came back. I had to admit it sounded great, but deep down I knew she would never get off the ward. Even if she got past Hunt’s cronies how will she escape the plaintive look in the eye of the needy patient; the marine-like commitment to her remaining team; the near-delusional sense that things must get better because the government keeps saying everything is going really well.
I gave her my chocolate brownie – “Here, take this.”
“No, I couldn’t” she said, but we both knew she wasn’t going to eat again for 12 hours, and then it will be a past its sell-bydate cheese slice left over from Christmas. “No really, if you don’t eat it you can use it for trade, barter a lift to the promised land.”
“I have to go” she said. “I’ll be late.”
“Good luck” I said. “Remember they’ll pick the laundry up at 6, hide under the towels, they don’t like to check the towels.”
She smiled. “Maybe,” she said. “Or I may leave it until next week, the charge nurse is off sick today. They need me.”
And off she went, clutching her chocolate brownie. And I think I saw the man with no chin smile.
Mark Radcliffe is author of Stranger than Kindness.
Follow him on Twitter @markacradcliffe