I’ve been called Queen & Country but my name is Cat. My job is cushty. I don’t have to manhandle no one. I just press the alarm whenever a patient pisses me off and the Nigerian ex-soldiers–turned-nurses do their bit. Animal tranquilizers and whup-ass à la mode are popular treatments. I enjoy watching them with tea and Madeira cake.
But what I really love are the fake names we nurses came up with to mess with patients’ heads. I chose Cat Power even though I’m a hard-boiled, six-foot Somali transvestite and the real Cat Power is a sensitive white chick with a sultry voice and slight drinking problem. Her name had draglicious flavour.
My sistren, however, got all spiritual and ting. They called themselves ‘Blessing’, ‘Providence’, ‘Zipporah’. The patients didn’t swallow that mess but they couldn’t say shit. One nurse called herself ‘Corinthians 13’, whilst another one-upped her by calling herself ‘The Holy Bible’. ‘Cat Power,’ by contrast, seemed perfectly reasonable.
‘Zipporah’ ruled the roost. She was a dashiki-wearing earth-woman with soft hands and soulless eyes. She had a babyish voice and she called pliant patients ‘My Little Ponies.’ Disrespectful ones were dubbed, ‘My Little Piggies.’ ‘Little Ponies’ were treated to extra servings of slop, cigarettes and sedatives. ‘Little Piggies’ were manhandled in the corridors, stripped and injected in the ass by Zipporah’s goon-squad. After they had been drugged, ‘Little Piggies’ were left lying on the floor. Zippy would pat their heads and smile, ‘Rest well.’
She didn’t like me. She disliked the idea of a man wearing stockings to work. She disliked my weave, acrylic nails and ‘ostentatious spirit.’
‘Isn’t that too much lipstick, dear?’ she smiled one morning.
‘You can’t have too much of a good thing,’ I replied.
‘I think you can.’
I reached for my lip-gloss and smeared some on. Zippy’s smile froze. I strutted down the corridor to catcalls.
‘See?’ I called out to her. ‘You can never have too much of a good thing.’
Like all mental clinks, our rules were crazier than our patients. In keeping with our weirdness quota Zipporah had devised a system called ‘Five Steps to Paradise.’ Modelled on ‘The Seven Heavenly Virtues’ (charity, chastity, etc.), Zipporah’s hospital regulations incorporated such gems as:
Those who tripped on the stairway to Heaven landed on the ‘naughty step.’ For staff ‘naughty steps’ meant less hours, fewer holidays, night shifts, harsh reviews. Obedience was the trait Zipporah adored most in others.
This is where Riley comes in.
He was an eighteen-year-old patient who doubled as Zipporah’s lapdog. They made for a surprisingly compatible duo. He was a rough skinhead from Stoke-on-Trent. She was a dreadlocked sadist who loved sycophants. He slobbered, she lengthened her leash.
Riley had a history of violence. He enjoyed ‘dancing with Snow White’, which muddled his head. He started mistaking his mother for the Treasury Department and tiefed from her ass like she was bricking blocks of gold. When she called the cops he grabbed a knife and sliced her salami-pink face. The police busted him. But the devil danced in his eyes. He pleaded insanity and landed here, where Zipporah served as the perfect carer/drug-dealer, plying him with all the Xanax, Ativan and Valium he could need. Forget ‘Snow White’. Boy was now big on Benzos.
Naturally, he had to earn his ‘keep.’ If an obstinate patient refused to leave their room, Riley was sent to harass them out. He once stole an old man’s shoes. The old man hobbled out on bare feet and complained to Zipporah, who acted clueless. After wandering around the ward for hours the old man started crying, and Riley replaced the shoes where he had found them. Zipporah recorded that the old man had left his room for three hours that day and was improving. The old man slept in his shoes that night.
The patients weren’t the only ones being harassed. When I came to work one day in high heels, Zippy was not amused. No one else gave a shit. Zippy, however, didn’t think my love of bootleg Louboutins had any place in her ‘paradise’ programme. So she set Riley on me.
I was preparing breakfast for the patients one day when Riley snuck into the kitchen and grabbed my ass. I turned and faced him. He flicked his tongue.
‘Wanna fuck me?’ he said.
I laughed. ‘I don’t fuck devil-spawn.’
He flinched. I stood still. He turned around and bolted.
When I started serving breakfast, Riley entered the dining-hall, bubbling with spite. ‘Fuck you gaylord,’ he shouted.
I ignored him and handed out toast.
‘Didn’t you hear me, you fucking fag? You’re the one who belongs in here. Not us. You look like a crazy bitch.’
‘You’re downright disrespectful,’ said the old man whose shoes he had stolen.
‘Let him have his moment,’ I said. But his moment stretched to an hour, two hours, a day. At first he was all talk. But with each passing ‘moment,’ he took more liberties. I didn’t file a complaint when he pressed his hands in between my thighs. In fact, I let him cop a feel. His tobacco-stained fingers ruffled up my skirt. But I let him enjoy. I let him caress me like we were badly drawn lovers in a weird, psychosexual edition of Mills & Boon. I didn’t cringe when I caught his whiff. I didn’t curl up and die when he started touching himself. I let him. And when he was done smacking his salami, I smirked (as you do). He enjoyed a free-for-all piss-take, which pissed me off. As he enjoyed my chicken cutlet boobs I began to calibrate my retaliation. Homeboy had to be put in check.
The idea hit me while I was on night-duty. Riley refused to take pills from ‘a sket queer’ and I figured it was time to correct him. After all the patients had gone to bed, I stole a syringe and filled it with water. I snuck into his room. It ponged of socks, semen and smoke. I shoved him awake. He stiffened at the feel of my syringe against his neck.
‘Don’t move,’ I hissed. ‘Don’t make a sound. In fact, don’t breathe.’
‘You’re a determined little fucker, aintcha?’
‘What do you want?’ His voice was shaky. He began to hyperventilate.
‘Poor baby,’ I tutted. ‘Don’t you like the other side of harassment? You disturb my peace, I return the favour.’
‘You won’t get away with this.
‘This needle is filled with Pavulon. One little prick of this bad boy and your heart will stop in three minutes. You, my friend, will die a swift, agonizing death.’
He was petrified. I leant closer.
‘If you remain a bad little piggy, I’ll be forced to kill you. Comprende?’
‘Good,’ I said, putting a cap on the needle and shoving it into my pocket. As I was walking out, I turned around and said, ‘I’d clean this room if I were you. It smells like death.’
The next morning, I was summoned to the Meeting Room. There was a circle in the centre, which consisted of chief-of-staff Dr. Feldman, Zipporah, Riley and his mother. Dr. Feldman tapped his notebook. Zipporah was poised, pen at the ready. Riley’s mother was sweaty with rage. Riley quivered at the sight of me.
‘What’s the problem?’ I said.
‘You fucking tranny,’ screamed Riley’s mother. ‘I can’t believe you’d allow a tranny to be a nurse.’
‘Mrs Granger, please do not use that language,’ said Dr. Feldman. ‘This is a circle of trust.’
‘The fuck are you on about?’ she shouted, ‘this bloody queen threatened to kill my son.’
‘Excuse me?’ I said.
‘You heard me, Titty La Rouge. I’m not about to have my son sectioned because some homicidal transfanny tried to top him. It’s a hospital for fuck’s sake. And you’re his nurse.’
‘Look,’ I turned to Dr. Feldman. ‘When I signed up for this job, I knew there would be challenges. But it didn’t include transphobic slurs and murder accusations.’
‘Nurse Cat –’ began Dr. Feldman, nervously.
‘Admit it,’ burst out Zipporah.
‘That you tried to kill this boy.’
‘Yeah,’ chimed the enraged mother. ‘Admit it.’
‘What did I threaten to kill him with?’ I asked.
This stumped everyone for a second. They turned to Riley, who had bags under his eyes.
‘Pav…Pav,’ he stuttered.
‘Yes?’ encouraged Zipporah.
‘Spit it out,’ said the mother. ‘I’ve got an appointment with Work Directions in an hour.’
‘Puh…Pavilion,’ said Riley. ‘That’s it. He tried to kill me with Pavilion.’
‘What the fuck is ‘Pavilion?’ asked the mother.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘what is ‘Pavilion?’’
‘It kills you,’ said Riley.
‘Are you sure it wasn’t something else?’ asked Zipporah.
‘I’m sure,’ said Riley.
I looked at Dr. Feldman, who was clearly clenching his butt-cheeks. I looked at Zipporah, whose jaw was tighter than a fist.
‘Not to make this any more awkward for you,’ I said, ‘but not only will I take this incident to an employment tribunal, but I will sue the bejeezus out of this hospital for transphobia. You have repeatedly victimized me. Why, because I wear tights and a bit of slap? You compromised my physical and emotional safety by encouraging an environment of naked hostility towards me. To then accuse me of trying to murder a patient is despicable and unjust.’
I stormed out of the room. Twenty minutes later, they followed. Riley was weeping. Zipporah wasn’t consoling him. Instead she looked shit-scared, like someone about to lose her job. The next day Riley was transferred to a different wing. A week later Zippy went on ‘extended sick leave.’
Many months later I bumped into Riley outside the hospital. He had gained some weight and had a healthy glow in his cheeks. He was struggling to light his cigarette. He froze when he saw me. I didn’t say anything. Instead I reached into my pocket and withdrew my own lighter. I lit it and held the fire towards him. He inched back. But when he saw that I wasn’t trying to annihilate him, he moved closer. Close enough for me to smell him. He smelt of Nivea and coffee. He lit his cigarette. I shoved the lighter back into my pocket and started walking off.
‘Thanks,’ he called out. I smiled.