As a senior citizen, you can talk to anyone about anything at any time without fear or apprehension. The other day in the supermarket, I talked to a baby, and she chortled happily back to me. Mother looked a bit disapproving, but I wasn’t concerned.
Later that same day, while sitting in a hospital waiting room, I struck up a conversation with a lady in late middle age who was waiting for some cancer surgery. She seemed pleased to talk, so we did, and she talked on at some length. She told me three mini-stories, about her 15 years of life abroad with her husband.
But first, she told me that 35 years ago she was diagnosed with cancer, and was told she would not be expected to live. She survived that, and continued to survive repeated bouts of cancer over the years. She didn’t know how she had managed to survive, although she did mention her ‘genes’, but of course she had been through all the painful and debilitating treatments, some lasting months and even years, so her present visit to a cancer ward didn’t concern her at all. It was ‘minor’, and she had advised her husband not to bother coming with her as she could ‘handle this by myself’. Clearly a very brave lady, and a fine tribute to the many doctors and nurses who had looked after her all that time.
The first mini-story occurred during her time in Sydney, Australia, where her husband had a four year work contract. Medical services in Australia are privatised, and when she fell ill towards the end of their first year there, she was taken to a private hospital under the terms of her husband’s medical insurance policy, which came with his job. Unfortunately, the operation that she then underwent, went horribly wrong, and she was in great danger as a result. The hospital seemed most concerned that her husband might sue them for negligence. He said he would if she died. So the hospital pulled out all the stops to avoid this, and provided her with continuous one-to-one nursing care day and night for three weeks, to maximise her chances of recovery. She did recover, the husband didn’t sue, and the hospital sent them an itemised bill, totalling over £100,000, including every item from blood tests, plasters, throw-away syringes, pills etc. The pile of documents grew high in their apartment. The insurance company didn’t want to pay, and queried a lot of it, though eventually coughed-up. Stressful, but par for the course for many corporate privatised institutions (You don’t exactly get what you thought you were paying for).
Although she was in Australia, she was looked after by many English nurses, refugees from the NHS. Meanwhile, to fill the gaps, the NHS now recruits many of its nurses from Asia. Something crazy about that arrangement.
After two years in Australia, some kind of visa renewal process was required, and she failed it by 5 points (Australia has a points-based immigration system), because she was over 40 years of age (she passed the test on every other criteria). For a period of 12 days, until the problem was somehow overcome through administrative correspondence or pressure, she was in Australia as an illegal immigrant. When she returned to Australia many years later, she was pulled in for interview over the previous 12 days of illegal occupation. Clearly they are very strict about these matters there. Rees-Mogg would have approved, although he also wants a bonfire of the regulations. Some inconsistency there. Perhaps he wants to burn all regulations except immigration regulations. I’m not sure.
After their four years in Australia, they moved to Singapore. They were allocated an apartment, which was empty except for some beds. Her husband was immediately despatched for six weeks work to ‘nearby’ South Korea, and she was left alone in the apartment with only the beds, and unable to access money from their joint account, because her signature was not acceptable to the bank. Their crates of belongings and furniture were due to arrive by ship in two weeks. She survived the two weeks, and went to collect her crates, which needed a signature before they could be handed over to her. Her husband’s signature. They wouldn’t accept her signature. What to do? She was advised to write a cringing, humble letter to the Governor (I think she said Governor, although it might have been some other high up person) requesting his permission for her to sign in place of her husband. Which was eventually granted. Strict bureaucracy and possibly sexism clearly prevails in Singapore.
Their next posting was to Bangkok, Thailand, where they were placed in a five-star apartment on the main street. This was pleasant for them, but contrasted sharply with all the poor and destitute people living on the street and in the ditches just near the hotel. These ditches flooded periodically, especially during the monsoon season, because the drainage system couldn’t cope (sounds familiar).
The King of Thailand is revered by the people. When a major event occurred (I think it was a new king, or a coronation of some kind), lots of foreign visitors, dignitaries, prime ministers and presidents came to show their respect. There was a grand procession of the King and all the important people and foreigners along the main street past their apartment going to the palace. High white paling fencing was erected on either side of the road, for the length of the route, to ensure that no one in the procession saw or was exposed to the poverty and poor people on the sides of the road and in the ditches. And the monorail which ran above the street was closed, because no one was allowed to be higher than the King, and to look down on him. Strange hierarchy prevails here. I assume keeping the poor in their place is what Rees-Mogg wants for his Singapore (or Bangkok) on Thames.
At this point in our conversation we had to finish, although she seemed willing enough to go on a lot more.
I believe her stories were true, though of course it was a personal story which she had carried with her for many years, so could have unintentionally become a bit abridged, exaggerated or selective. I don’t blame her for that. That’s how memories are.
I thought it was interesting, and worth sharing. It’s surprising what you can learn from a casual conversation with a stranger.
Ed: Amid all the political, economic and military woes of our time, a personal story can illuminate the day to day issues we all have to face.
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