Royal icing on the cake

A VIP visit and a gentleman surgeon turned a hospital stay into a fond memory for Janine Spencer

December 17, 2009

It was a Thursday afternoon and I was trying to stay sitting up in bed in my new, pale pink satin pyjamas. I'd had to jump in quickly and I'd forgotten to take off my pink slippers. I was 23 and had never done anything like this before. My stomach was beginning to churn. I closed my eyes and tried to clear my head before my guest arrived.

I wasn't sure what the appropriate attire should have been for such an occasion, but I loved the pyjamas as soon as I saw them. They were slinky, a bit sexy and the purest shade of pink. They looked wonderful on the mannequin and I bought them without even trying them on. That I managed to get matching slippers was a bit of luck - a little kitsch, but so pretty. I suppose I should have thought of the practicality of satin but I didn't. The pyjamas were beautiful and I wanted them. When I finally put them on, they didn't look quite as good as I had imagined. The bottoms were a bit snugger than I'd have liked and the top kept slipping off my shoulders. It didn't matter: just running my hands up and down the smooth satin felt wonderful, and so did I. What I hadn't bargained for was how slippery they were. They were fine for standing or lying, but not so great for sitting. And I had no choice but to sit up in bed and wait, constantly shifting my bottom as my pyjamas slid against the sheets. It was exhausting and there was still a long wait.

Three weeks previously, I'd gone with my mother into town for the day. I've always liked Marylebone High Street. In those days, there were a few little shopping treasures squeezed between the throng of dreary charity shops (nowadays they call themselves vintage stores, but then they were full of cast-off clothes) and it was these that made the street so special. I had spent much of my youth in the area and I felt at home there. I still do. I remember sitting in Daunt Books flicking through overpriced volumes, choosing between one to enjoy and one that was critically acclaimed. Trash won out, as usual.

We ended the day taking a slow walk down the street to Sagne, now known as Patisserie Valerie. I had a weakness for their millefeuille with its velvety, sticky custard, which probably explains why my satin pyjamas were too tight. Sitting in the gloom of the cafe with its trompe l'oeil walls, I felt good. The past few years hadn't been easy. I got rheumatoid arthritis at 18, which my quack of a GP treated by cutting out almost every food pleasurable to man. By the time I met my lovely rheumatologist, the damage had been done. But I was soon going to resemble the Six Million Dollar Woman, with two new knees, and I couldn't wait.

"My darling girl, how are you?" said the elegant, imposing woman I was startled to find looking down at me as I took another bite of my millefeuille. "I'm so glad I ran into you. I was planning on phoning you this afternoon but I may as well tell you my news now."

"How lovely to see you, Miss Shipsey," said my mother, crisply enunciating each word with the accent she usually reserved for answering the phone. Miss Shipsey was the matron of the military hospital around the corner and was considered the commander-in-chief.

"You too, my dear," she said with tones of Miss Marple. "Now, as you may know, the new wing on the third floor is complete." Her voice took on a note of deference. "And I am delighted to tell you that Her Majesty The Queen has kindly agreed to perform the opening ceremony. She will be visiting us on the same day you are to be admitted, my dear." The excitement was building in her voice; my mother egging her on with murmurs of "how wonderful, how wonderful".

"My darling girl, I've known you since you were barely more than a child, so," continued Miss Shipsey, pausing for dramatic effect, "would you and your dear Mama like to meet the Queen? Of course, you will be in bed and not expected to curtsey." She turned to my mother. "But your dear Mama will."

I tried not to smile. This was going to be fun.

My mother is a typical Jewish matriarch. She rules her family from on high and loves us all fiercely. There isn't anything she wouldn't do for us and we always come first. However, outside the family, she is different. She doesn't suffer fools and speaks her mind with wild abandonment. I've noticed recently how alike we are. So for her to curtsey to a stranger was a big deal. I'm afraid I teased her mercilessly. How low should the curtsey be? Should she wave her arm before her as she bowed? And should she murmur a deferential "Ma'am" on her way down? She would wave me off with an "ahh" and a slight smile. But I was going to be in hospital for five weeks and I knew she wanted it to start off perfectly.

The fateful Thursday came. While my dear Mama fussed over me in my hospital room, my dear Papa waited in the car several streets away. The police had warned him to stay with his vehicle lest it be towed. I remember cameras flashing as I hobbled up the stairs to the entrance on my crumbling knees. I wasn't anybody, but the press weren't taking chances. So for three hours, my lovely, caring, sweet father held on to his bladder and sat in the car while his wife and his Jewish princess mingled with royalty.

As we waited, officials kept popping in and out of my room to make sure I was all right and knew the protocol - "In conversation, address the Queen as 'Your Majesty' and then subsequently as 'Ma'am' (as in ham) and sit up as straight as you can." Even though I was in bed, I was instructed to bow my head slightly. I giggled with my mother over it but in truth I was a little nervous. I was due to have my first knee replacement in the morning and I wanted to enjoy the pomp and ceremony today. I was thinking through possible topics of conversation (perhaps her favourite daughter-in-law?) when she walked in.

I can't believe the only thought in my head was what beautiful skin she had - something my grandmother once told me that I had dismissed as the stock comment of myopic old royalists.

"And where are you from?" the Queen asked.

"London, your Majesty. I mean your Ma'am." My voice was shaking and the Ma'am came out like I was a sheep. Politely ignoring my slip, she continued.

"And how is your hip?" There was nothing wrong with my hip, but not wanting to appear rude I suggested that considering everything it wasn't too bad. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my mother doing her curtsey. She'd planned it to be a slight bow but as the Queen didn't seem to notice, she did it a couple more times. When the Queen eventually glanced over at her, my mother suddenly genuflected deeply, holding out one corner of her skirt, made a fluttering sweep with her hand and said, "Your Majesty". I couldn't help it. I guffawed. What was even funnier was that the Queen ignored her completely. Prince Philip smiled at me with a twinkle in his eye, and gave my mother a wink.

I was really grateful to Miss Shipsey for giving me the opportunity to meet the Queen. I did feel honoured, but that wasn't the reason I was so grateful. I laughed so much that day with my mother over her curtsey that I felt completely relaxed the next day when I went up to surgery.

My surgeon, Sir Rodney Sweetnam, was a perfectionist. He insisted on replacing one knee and checking its progress before replacing the other. He was stern, old school, but a real gentleman. I did and still do respect him greatly. I don't remember the pain of either operation. I suppose that's a good thing and I can't say it bothers me at all. But I do remember waking up ten days after my second surgery and realising that my second new knee wasn't completely straight. It seems ridiculous now, but I was inconsolable. As is usual when I'm upset, I called my mother. Within the hour, Sir Rodney was sitting by my bed telling me that there'd been enough tears that day, what with Mrs Thatcher resigning, that I simply must stop crying. I don't know if it was his intention, but he made me snort with laughter.

After two and a half weeks stuck in one room, I was allowed home for half a day. I was not as excited as I should have been, because I had quickly become institutionalised. I refused to use a wheelchair, which meant that it took half an hour to walk the 50-odd feet to the car. My parents had put a lot of effort into making sure the day would be perfect. We had smoked salmon bagels for lunch followed by cheese Danish and the type of loud conversation found up and down the country in Jewish households. My grandparents came round to squeeze my face and generally make a fuss of me.

It wasn't until I eventually came home from hospital three weeks later that my mother told me she'd broken a mirror on the morning of my short visit. She looked so upset, worrying about possible bad luck. I reacted in the only way I knew how - I laughed gleefully until she joined in.

Having new knees changed my life. In the first few weeks, there wasn't a lot I could do, so I made a thank-you Christmas cake for Sir Rodney. The only thing I've ever done that resembles a hobby is to make fancy cakes. I decided to make a teddy bears' winter picnic, with a surgeon tending to a bear who'd broken his leg. It was quite good - although I'm sure I've made better since - but what I remember most was waiting in the hospital library with my parents for Sir Rodney to finish surgery. I still have the photographs of me standing next to him and the cake. A few days later a handwritten letter arrived saying how I'd stopped him losing his driving licence. Apparently he liked driving fast and would often take advantage of a clear road late at night. But on this night he had the cake balanced on the seat, so he drove more cautiously - and avoided a lurking police speed trap.

For years, Sir Rodney would send me a card at Christmas. He'd always tell me how the cake still took pride of place on his hall table during the festive season. I couldn't imagine how saintly his wife must have been to allow a dusty old cake to be brought out year after year. He did finally use the cake, some five years later, for his granddaughter's christening! I still smile when I think about that old cake and sometimes wonder why such an eminent man should have been so touched by such a small gesture. I don't suppose I'll ever know, but it still brings a smile to my face.

That was half a lifetime ago now and so much has happened since then. I still stroll up and down Marylebone High Street and occasionally buy the odd trashy book from Daunt Books. You may even catch me tucking into a millefeuille in Patisserie Valerie. I've had a few other bionics added to me over the past few years and I'm now the matriarch of my own family. With Sir Rodney's encouragement and my parents' continuous support, I went to university and on to do a PhD. I remember sitting through some very dull lectures learning about memory research, thinking that it wasn't so much memory that interested me as memories. Indeed, as I sit here and write this, I think not about working memory or even Turing machines, but about how right C.S. Lewis was when he said "a pleasure is only full grown once it's remembered".

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