24 Aug 2016

J floor

When I went to live with my grandmother, as a baby of about three months, she gave up her full-time job and pension and started working part-time. She worked at home, and she worked one day a week in the "office"  on J floor of Groote Schuur Hospital, in Observatory, Cape Town.

Groote Schuur old hospital (photo: www.capetownmagazine.co.za)

I went to the office often with her as a child. The polished linoleum floors were perfect for roller-skating, and the orderlies didn't seem to mind me skittering around the long passages of the old hospital. Occasionally, as I waited for the lift to take me back up to J, the top floor of the building, a bed with a person on it would come out of the big lifts -- big enough for a full-length stretcher to fit in along with a couple of nurses or helpers. It was a bit creepy  the stiff white sheets, the theatre staff in their green scrubs, the tubes and bags and funny smells  but if there was space I'd often sidle in with the patient and tuck myself into the corner by the lift buttons.

I loved the lift buttons. They were big and black, with white incised numbers or letters on them, and they were stalk-shaped  the stalk was thinner than the top, so your fingers fitted comfortable round the buttons in a surprisingly tactile way. Sometimes there was a lift operator, but usually not on the weekends.

Ping. The lift reached J floor, leaving the wards far below. J floor was doctors' offices and admin. The passages were unlit on weekends but enough light came in from windows not to make them too creepy. There was a hospital ghost, my grandmother's colleagues said (others agree). I never saw it though.

From the lift, I made my way down the passage to the left, past many closed and locked doors. Professor Beck, Professor Commerford, Professor Opie, Bill Piller and others whose names I have forgotten. Down till almost the end. There's my grandmother's door -- the Cardiac Clinic Library.

Open the door. It's very quiet in here. There's thick carpet on the floor.

The library was a big room with some easy chairs for reading, filing cabinets, high shelves with bound volumes, and my grandmother's desk. Opposite the door were tall windows in an alcove and a view out over the highways and suburbs, towards the cooling towers and the airport. Doctors came in here to read up on cases published in The Lancet and other medical journals. These were printed on shiny paper and bound into volumes by the University of Cape Town book-bindery, based at the Michaelis campus on Orange Street. Big burgundy, navy, racing green and mustard volumes, taller than A4 and several inches thick. Reshelving the volumes was part of my grandmother's work, and one that I was more suited to than her, as she got older. I climbed on the ladder carrying one or two heavy volumes, and slotted them into the right space; all the volumes were ordered by date. We tried to get all the volumes of one journal bound in the same colour, but this was a challenge as sometimes the same colour leather was no longer available. Then the colours on the shelves were disrupted by a lighter or darker hue.

As the person in charge of the library, my grandmother got a lot of post -- requests for reprints, queries from doctors and researchers from across the world. Postcards and letters arrived, often in terrible doctor-handwriting and using difficult terms like "myocardiopathy", "ischaemic heart disease" and "ventricular tachycardia" -- my grandmother would decipher it all although she had not been to high school. She knew many of the writers by name although she hadn't met them. She recognised them in part from the stamps on their letters. Here's another one from Hungary -- forints on the stamp. Here's one from America. This one's from Poland, with the abbreviation zl. My grandmother's stamp collection grew apace stored in a stripy suitcase with a zip.

At both her home office and her work office, my grandmother had a sizeable wooden desk, identified with a black stencil on the back as being a hospital asset. When I first heard the term "asset register", I heard "acid register" and only realised much later what must have been intended.

On the desk in the hospital library sat a large typewriter, electric. At the point when my grandmother was doing more work at home than at the hospital, she brought it home. I think we wheeled it down the passage balanced on a chair. Perhaps we got help lifting it into the boot, perhaps from a porter? Perhaps my grandfather was persuaded to come along and help.

The typewriter was the most marvellous machine. It flicked on with a switch under the keyboard, and could be used immediately (unlike the desk-top computer my grandmother got much later in life, which needed several minutes to get to a place where you could type).

You only had to touch the typewriter keys lightly  in fact, the keyboard was so sensitive that it was easy to type multiple kkkkkks or aaaaas before realising it. It was completely different to the manual machine that preceded it, and that still hung around the office. That was a clunky machine with keys that needed pounding, and that must have strengthened every typist's arms and hands by endurance. In one school holiday, my grandmother brought the manual home, and for a while I sat at a small table and typed "letters" on it, as my grandmother did her actual work on the electric machine.


I also helped her with the post. When I was younger, I did nothing much more than stick stamps on envelopes  sometimes big piles of small or A4 brown envelopes. I couldn't yet read, but "one blue + one red" stamp made up enough postage for local delivery. Or perhaps it was "one heron + one arum lily" stamp. We sat together at the big shiny dining-room table and sorted them all.


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