Many moons ago, after slaving for nearly four months working in the kitchens and bars of London's Savoy hotel as a army recruit/hetero-hazed/bum wallah/pond scum/galley slave I was fed up, suffering the flu and desperate to do anything that would pay the rent on my one-roomed dog-box in York Street, W1H1FF. And it was a pretty whiffy place too, with a drunken Irish neighbour who I never ever saw using the Bath Room (as opposed to the 'Toilet Room' at the other end of the hall) in the entire eighteen months I lived there.
Anyhow, the recruiting agency said there was a temp job at a MenCap facility near Banstead, Surrey. Full time, for three months. I took it sight unseen, uninterviewed and was ready to work less than three hours later. The nearest town had a bus that dropped me off at the bottom of a huge, tree-lined driveway. The hospital looked huge and as I trudged nervously to the front office, with too many 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' images swirling about, a chap with his trousers up under his armpits and resembling Bill Oddie wearing far too much lip-gloss jumped in front of me.
"Wwoooooo Wwoooooo," he said - loudly and longly - over and over.
"Erm hi there, er buddy. You don't know where the kitchen manager's office is, do you?
"Wwoooooo Wwoooooo, Wwwooooo----"
"Rightio. Thanks for that."
It was a confronting way to start the job. After meeting the rotund Head Cook, June, (who looked more like one of the patients than the patients did), Derek, the second cook and Brian, the patient who helped scrub the pots, I was put onto the potatoes. Not literally, but as one of the most popular foodstuffs, it was imperative that they be peeled, pronto. I was to pour a huge bag of them into what looked like a large centrifuge, flick a switch, hear it whizz and whine, and let the skins get bashed off against the inside walls. Easy.
Well, yes, except I was also asked to make up some sandwiches and seal them in those clear plastic triangles for any patients who were hungry in between meals. It was fun sealing the front off with a hot iron and they looked rather professional. As I stood admiring the mound of cheese'n'pickled railway sarnies, I realised that the potatoes were still spinning.
What started out as fist-sized veges were now albino cherry tomatoes. It was clear that even in this job - with the dazzling perks of all-you-can-eat sandwiches and left over instant cheesecake filling mixture - I had to keep my wits about me.
Particularly regarding Brian. He more than vaguely resembled Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character, but was several feet taller. He'd come in and say "Hello Kath, you have lovely yellow hair, yellow hair, yellow hair..." in a sing-song voice before getting stuck into the pots and pans. He'd then keep to himself for the rest of the day, even during smoko and lunch breaks.
"No thank you Kath, lovely yellow hair, yellow hair, yellow hair - I'll go to my room and come back when it is time to start again. Yellow hair, yellow hair, yellow hair..."
OK, my so hair was yellow (as in pale blonde) and, in 1991, rather long and still being treated to the occasional (and disastrous, in hindsight) spiral perm. It had been yanked and grabbed by local blokes in Egypt during a Christmas break and seemed to interest Brian to almost the same level except it was mostly covered in a fetching hair net and paper kitchen hat.
The other patients I saw very regularly - they'd walk in to find out what was on the menu, to ask for snacks and for general conversation. All of them wore their trousers up to their armpits, and walked with a pronounced limp. One of their carers explained to me that none of them were actually injured, but that the rocking gait was a soothing way of moving around and the high trousers made them feel comfortable. (Try it sometime in the privacy of your home, you'll be terrified to discover just how nice it feels).
Adding to these two peculiar mannerisms were the clothes they all wore. Limited hospital budgets and fairly brutal laundry facilities meant that most of the patients were dressed in Oxfam cast offs. Whilst they were clearly warm and sensible, they were also items that fashion had preferred to forget. Think orange ribbed and flared slacks, Nehru coats, Jenny Kee chunky knits, jump suits, felt skirts and Cold-War-Era track pants. When worn by folk who sometimes yelled out stuff like, "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away" or "Let me show you my willy," at unforeseen moments, it certainly made a humdrum job a fair bit more eventful.
Despite these physical and fashionable setbacks, the patients were always cheerful and it was a real education to see how kindly and respectfully they were treated by the hospital and kitchen staff. Most of the patients lived in wings that were set up like share houses with six single bedrooms, a common room and shared bathroom. Their common rooms tended to have a Jason recliner for each room mate and a selection of posters, rugs, ornaments and antimacassars that both Grandma and the writer from Boogie Nights would have heartily approved of.
"Hey Kath, why don't you stay here tonight and watch 'Antiques Roadshow' with us?" fifty something Gerald asked me one day.
"Sorry Gerald, I've got a two hour ride back home and promised a friend I'd be round for dinner tonight. Maybe some other time."
"OK but remember, I want to show you my willy and-----"
This was no longer a shock to me. "Yes I know Gerald, but remember that I don't want to see it and that Gloria your nurse has said that it's not the nicest thing to say to your friends."
He'd smile sheepishly and admit, "That's right, I keep forgetting. Can I have a sandwich please?"
On my very last day, I was on my haunches under the sink, looking for some oven trays that we were going to cook the lunch time pizzas on. I thought that something had landed on the back of my head, and as I turned around, I saw Brian, large pair of bacon scissors in his hand, clearly intent on cutting off a chunk of my hair.
"Brian! No, Brian! You mustn't cut people's hair!"
A nurse ran in and ushered Brian out. I honestly don't think he was going to hurt me, but my hair was obviously something he'd decided he'd like to souvenir before I left for my next exciting job as a mortgage collector.
I shook hands with pretty well all of the patients I'd served, chatted with and made sandwiches for, and was offered a lift into Banstead on their weekly mini-bus. Some of the them were allowed to go into town to do some shopping, banking and have a meal at the local cafe.
As we pulled away from the hospital, I felt some tears starting to emerge. It was a dull job made fascinating by the staff, the patients and the situations I found myself in. It was also a huge learning experience and one in which I felt as though I'd certainly got more from than I'd given. Brian had apologised and asked me to send him a photograph of me "With your hair not in a net or a hat like here, yellow hair, yellow hair, yellow hair," and then turned his back and promptly started his scrubbing duties.
Seven other passengers were with me: all silent, yet happily slapping their bank deposit books against their foreheads, rhythmically and blissfully. I felt proud to have known them.