Leaving home at 17, and moving into the Nurses’ Home, was my first real chance at anything like a long term relationship. My boyfriend was Paul. We were together for about 9 months, during my two years’ orthopædic nursing at the Prince of Wales’ Hospital, Rhyd-Lafar, when we were both about 18, or so. The Prince of Wales’ Hospital, or simply “Rhyd-Lafar” as most people called it, was a fabulous hospital: an orthopædic “centre of excellence”. We learned the most compassionate foundations of patient care there, and all of us, no matter what our professional discipline or standing, were given an amazing grounding for our careers in the caring professions.
The hospital was an old World War II American Army complex, only one story high. It was like a spider-web network of wards, nurses’ residences, clinical departments, chapel, morgue, communal recreation hall – with a large stage – shops, Surgeons’ and Sisters’ dining room and everyone-else’s-dining-room, all spread along a maze of uphill corridors. Rhyd-Lafar was in a field in the middle of no-where, a couple of miles to the nearest villages, shops and pubs; about 3 miles to Llandaff and its ancient cathedral, and about 5 miles outside of Cardiff’s city centre.
Paul was gorgeous! He was a ballroom dance instructor, with thighs enough to crack wall nuts! Although he was round about my own age, the year was 1975, when being ‘out’ about being gay – especially in nursing – was a total ‘no-no’. Partial decriminalisation for ‘male homosexual acts’, between 2 consenting adults, over 21, and in private, had only happened 7 years earlier, in 1967, when I was 10. Our very age (18) meant we were breaking the law “if” we had sex (notice how cautious I am!) and doubly against the law, as the Nurses’ Home was not legally considered a private space.
Stupid, wasn’t it? All the female student nurses were free to have sex, if they so wished, and secretly – in those days – even have their boyfriends to stay over in the Nurses’ Home. But for us men, we would have been breaking the Law on 2 counts: 1) being under the age of legal consent (21) and 2) in contravention of the privacy classification of venue.
The fact that we had door locks on our private bedrooms, but, importantly, that the Home Warden had a master key to let herself in, had she so wished, meant they were not considered “private” in ways described in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. No doubt we would have been dispatched from the Nurses’ Home and our nursing careers, on the earliest available Rhyd-Lafar bus, had we been caught!
Funny thing is … given the high percentage of male students who were gay, the hospital layout was such that all the female student bedrooms were at one extreme end of the hospital complex, and the male students were segregated from them, at the opposite end – to keep “the sexes” apart – as thought it was a problem! We male students were housed with the female and male qualified nurses, SENs (State Enrolled Nurses) and SRNs (State Registered Nurses) as they were called in those days.
Paul and I are friends to this day, as is my oldest female friend, Ruth. Ruth and I communicate regularly and have done so for forty-plus years. For a long time, Ruth would say to me that she never knew I was gay! Maybe that was due, in part due, to the paranoia so many of us young gay men felt, in those days, about being designated “a homosexual” or “queer”. The only public ‘role’ models [sic] any of us gay males had back then, were mainly in the media, or on TV or Hollywood films. They were “homosexual” men either of the absolute screaming Nellies variety, so effeminate that even our orthopædic Plaster of Paris might not have been enough to splint up their limp wrists, or, alternatively, the criminal types: the spies, the duplicitous men, those who were presumed never to be able to hold down a long term relationship, due to their predilection for the casual!
Many years later, a priesthood-student friend of mine used to say “I might be an invert, Darling – but I’m not insatiable!” There was an assumption (sadly, still prevalent in parts of the media and society today), that gay means “man mad!” – or “dick crazy!”
Something else that used to rattle me, was when people would ask what I did for a living. I would say “I’m a nurse”, to which the guaranteed, de facto, response was always, “Oh, you’re a MALE nurse!” I felt like unzipping my pants and saying, “well last time I checked I was!”
People used to say that we “male” nurses – men in general, I suppose – could get away with anything. The female students couldn’t take the same liberties at all. Maybe that’s a reflection, partly, on the genderised ways many of us were brought up back then, too?
I remember one time when Paul gave me a “hicky”, a love bite, on my neck. I was going home to visit my Mother, who absolutely detested hickies. So I wore a polo-necked jumper. At one point on my days off at home, with aforesaid jumper in situ, I turned my head quickly, and Lil (my Mother) saw the hicky on my neck! “Is that what I think it is?” she knowingly enquired! “Oops, yes: sorry Mam!” I replied. To which she added, “Oh David, try not to have those things; you know I don’t like them”.
When I told my sister, Brenda, who was 10 years older than me, she said “You get away with everything! When I was your age and I had one; Mam made me wear a scarf around my neck – in the middle of summer! – every time I sat at the table with her!”
One final vignette before I return to Paul, and his toes! In those closeted days, when many of us gay males in nursing felt rather obliged to keep our sexuality hidden, I went to bed with a female student. I can assure you all: we never “did the deed”! (so I suppose, in the words of ‘Vicki Pollard’, you could say that – heterosexually speaking – I am still a “total virgin”!) Anyway, her best friend was one person I could never really get on with; we just disliked each other for some reason. The best friend caught me sneaking out of her friend’s bedroom, and gave me one of those knowing “walk-of-shame” smiles. But if anyone dared to suggest “David Evans is queer!” she would reply: “Oh no he isn’t: he’s been to bed with my best friend!”
Now back to Paul!
We male students were so lucky, in that we had a ‘Domestic’ (Nurses’ Home Cleaner) who was just so amazingly kind to us all. Unlike the Domestics on the girls’ blocks, Mavis would insist on making our beds for us each morning (which she really wasn’t supposed to) and sometimes she would even bring me a cup of coffee as soon as she got in to work of a morning! Sorry, Ruth, I don’t know whether I ever told you that one!
As it would have been dangerous for Paul – or any other male student’s boyfriend – to stay over when the Domestics were working, Paul would only stay on a Friday and Saturday night, as Mavis and her colleagues worked Mondays to Fridays.
This one weekend, however, Paul and I had our first row, and we didn’t see each other that Friday or Saturday. The break-up traumatised us both! There were no such things as ‘mobile phones’ in the ‘70s, so to call him would mean a trek up the long corridors, and no doubt a queue, to use one of only two public payphones servicing the whole hospital campus. By the time Sunday arrived, we both had a lot of making up to do. Paul drove up to the Nurses’ Home on his motor bike, and stayed over. We just didn’t think!
Early next morning, there we are – the two of us – lying in a single bed, when we heard Mavis in the corridor outside, bringing me a coffee. Neither or us had a stitch on! Paul hid in the built-in wardrobe, right next to the sink unit. Mavis came to the door and I stuck my head around it, telling her I didn’t have any clothes on; but she insisted I wrap a towel around my waist and she bring me my coffee. I tried like crazy to usher her out, saying I was late for work, but she was having none of it! First, she made my bed – “Mavis, please don’t bother …. I’m late for work!” – then she headed for the sink unit, where she straightened the remaining towels on the rack. She was looking down at the towels, when all of a sudden her eyes glanced inside the partly open wardrobe door! There were naked toes inside! As she started looking upwards, she saw the naked legs – those thighs! – then “MAVIS!” I said …. But before I could say another word, she just smiled and said “Ooh, Hello!” to Paul, then looked back at my glowing red face and continued, “David, if ever your friend wants to stay over again, let me know and I will give you a spare mattress and bedding!”
Thanks for the lovely memories, ‘Mavis’, Paul and Ruth!
5 September 2016