Friday, 6 February 2015

Odd Man In

Men were forbidden to set foot on the secret Isle of the Amazons,
but I once lived in their halls of residence.

My door was smeared with what I hoped was just honey, with tea leaves mixed into it.  Failing to get into my room without getting the tarry residue all over my hands, I quickly found there was worse to come. No object had been left unscattered or upright, no surface unlittered, no bed sheet not redistributed to an unlikely location.  Suspended above what was left of my bed was another sheet, forever ruined by the same sticky mixture.  But the letters it formed made any possibility of outrage at this violation impossible: "We'll miss you…".

My room: crime scene and perpetrators
Any chance of spending my last night at the Wellington Hospital Nurse's Hostel peacefully, or packing with any kind of efficiency the following morning had been sabotaged as thoroughly as my room. But I was moved by the effort and sentiment shown and spent my final few hours as a hostel resident happily with the perpetrators, before dragging cushions out of the TV lounge to try and catch some sleep in the conservatory.  (Had I been less tired I might have heard the quiet invitation to spend my last night somewhere more comfortable, but despite having huge ears this wasn't to be the last time I'd miss an opportunity by not paying attention).

A whole summer ago I had returned to Wellington for my second year as a hostel resident to find that what had to be a colossal administration error had taken place.  Instead of returning to the men's quarters where I had spent the previous year, I was now placed on a floor with thirty young female nursing students.  There was a degree of justified envy from my former floor-mates, but what could I do - breaks like this didn't come my way (or possibly anyone's way) very often.  I'd been educated at a single sex college, and was self-aware enough to realise it had done my social skills no good at all, so this was an opportunity.

Circa 1940: The original Nurse's hostel building (Later becoming the male residence
where I spent my first year.  What was to become my room in forty-four years time is
indicated with an arrow, at the far right. (Collections  1/2-037267-F)
And speaking of self-awareness, let's be clear on one point.  This was no male fantasy made real - my limitations were as apparent to my new neighbours as they have always been to me.  I might have spent most of my time adolescently love-struck, but to them I was tolerated, at best humoured and mainly capable only of attracting sisterly or even maternal affection.  Sometimes I felt like a harmless curiosity (they were all studying nursing, I was a design student), occasionally I was the comedy relief (a formidable young woman across the hall liked to bellow "Warm my bed, Boy!" at me in the evenings) and sometimes I was even an agony uncle.  Having almost no life experience of my own, I had little advice to offer so unwittingly possessed a vital skill and accompanying revelation which many males will always struggle with - often women just want to be listened to.  I was everything except a romantic possibility, but I was fine with that - I was happy just to be there.

But I learned quickly that not everyone appreciates cheerfulness first thing in the morning and also discovered first-hand confirmation of the phenomenon of syncronising biological cycles - which for me could be akin to picking my way through the middle of a vast minefield for a few days each month. Mainly, however, it was blissful. Most of us are happy to get home after a hard day, but imagine how much better it is to step out of a lift and be greeted by a TV lounge full of beautiful women.

Often I was company for someone coming off a late shift on the wards who was still 'buzzing' after a busy night and didn't feel like going to bed yet.  My course workload was brutal and so my light was on most hours. There would be a quiet knock at my door and a bright face proffering tea and toast for two would appear, who'd then sit and chat until sleepiness set in.

February 2010: The demolition of the old nurses hostel. The main (women's)
 residence, Riddiford House, can be seen behind. (Photo: Phil Reid/Dominion Post.)
I was occasionally the target of good natured practical jokes, but decided I'd had enough when I was woken up at 4.00am by someone loudly knocking and shouting that there was a fire.  I flung my door and mouth open to express annoyance and instantly choked on smoke.  It was for real.  I say I wasn't viewed as a romantic possibility by anyone but by the middle of the year had begun a rocky relationship with a Nursing student at the other end of the corridor.  I ran straight to her room and swept up into my arms... a cat.  How we came to illegally harbour a lost feline is another story, but I wanted to get the poor animal safely out of the building. The fact that I expressed more concern for the cat than the room's other occupant probably goes some way toward explaining this relationship's rough edges.  The excitement proved too much for the startled creature as I carried her down the fire escape and she clawed my face in fright before fleeing into the dark.  At least she was safe.
When the firemen finally arrived they must have thought their dreams had come true as they pulled into a car park packed with nursing students in their flimsy nightwear.  Oh, and some weird guy with a bleeding face.  The ‘blaze’ turned out to be a minor incident involving a discarded cigarette and a cushion, and we finally all trooped back in as dawn was breaking.

Just another night at the nurse's hostel?  Well, not quite.  As I'd stood in that car park with a trickle of blood running down my cheek, a new girl appeared through the crowd and gently dabbed it away with the sleeve of her dressing gown.  She had not-long moved in next door to me and all these many years later still picks me up and dusts me off when I need it.  I like to think I've done a passable job of looking after her throughout our married life, too.

I trundled my belongings on a borrowed hospital trolley through the sunny Newtown streets to my new flat at the end of that year, a very different person to the one I'd been when it began.  The comforting, cream, art deco monolith of the Nurses Hostel, a better centre of learning, self-improvement and opportunity than anywhere else I've ever attended, receded into the distance behind me; but will never be forgotten.  Whether I really had been given that particular room by error or design, I remain forever grateful.

April 2012: The carpark has been extended but the 63-year-old main residence,
having long since extended its hospitality to low income residents, Cook Strait
ferrymen and overseas restaurant cooks, faces closure for structural strengthening.

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