This week: getting to know the Nimbus 3 Advanced Dynamic Flotation System

Down and out.

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My father has expressed a wish that I do not, for the time being, write about him and his woes. Fair enough. I can, though, write about his mattress. One day we were in his hospital room and, as sometimes happened, we all noticed a background noise that had suddenly intensified, become clankier, more irritating. It was like a Victorian central heating system through which unquiet spirits from beyond the veil were trying to communicate.

But the Royal Free is not a Victorian building, far from it. Also, I have no time for unquiet spirits. (I have a theory that correlates political conservatism and belief in ghosts, based on the fact that the only person I know who makes a living from what might be loosely called ghost stories is slightly to the right of Margaret Thatcher, but this isn’t the place to go into the theory. One day, if you’re good, perhaps.)

Eventually I tracked the maddening noise down to a gadget about the size of a small briefcase hanging off the end of the bed. I shoved a wodge of tissues between one of its arms and the frame, and the noise stopped. I was congratulated for my ingenuity and thought no more of the matter. Having spent a lot of time in hospitals lately and become quite the connoisseur (if you want to go to one of those hospitals that are all modern but eerily empty, as if it’s a front for a sinister spy operation shortly to be investigated by Mrs Peel and John Steed from The Avengers, just ask me), I had become used to the presence of these gadgets at the end of the bed, but had not examined their purpose.

Usually one doesn’t. It is a relation, I assumed, of “the machine that goes ping”, its purpose not to be questioned by those of us who have not had the necessary training. I assumed, because it had an on/off switch and some lights on it, that it somehow kept the patient alive, rather like the “Wings Stay On/Wings Fall Off” switch in the Gary Larson cartoon. I took care not to press the switch.

Well, it all goes to show how you shouldn’t take things for granted. Allow me to introduce you to the Nimbus 3 Advanced Dynamic Flotation System, an air mattress designed to stop bed-bound patients from getting pressure sores. (Sometimes I ask myself why I haven’t got pressure sores; maybe I move around just enough, and usually make it downstairs by six o’clock, when I get round to the evening’s exercise of sitting in a chair.) The gadget, which looks pretty spiffy if you’re from the early 1980s, is the air pump that keeps the mattress inflated.

The other night as I was sitting reading to him, one of the nurses came in to see how my father was getting on.

“You have hair leaking from the mattress,” he said. (English is not his first language.) “We will have to get that changed.”

And he showed me where the tubes from the pump plugged into the mattress, and lo, there was a faint hissing noise. Thus began a saga that lasted almost until nightfall, as mattress after mattress and – once we realised it was not the mattress’s fault – gadget after gadget was brought in to get the mattress inflated.

This became an increasingly dispiriting exercise. I remember the first time I had my children round to the Hovel, and getting an air mattress for one or two of them to sleep on (probably the most depressing purchase of my entire life.) It was a bugger to inflate until I got the electric pump fixed.

The Nimbus 3 Advanced Dynamic Flotation System is more complex than something you buy from John Lewis. Unfortunately, its air pump produces air at the rate of – well, the rate of someone breathing their last breath. A mirror would have barely been fogged. After an hour of being pumped up, the Nimbus 3 had made no impression whatsoever on the mattress. I would have done better by breathing down the tube myself. If I’d sat down by the air hole and read aloud to it, it would have filled up quicker. Or we could have taken our cue from the nurse and actually filled it with hair.

I wish to cast no aspersions on the good intentions of the people behind the Nimbus 3 system. But they would not have felt proud to see my father shivering in his chair as pump after pump was brought in and found wanting. You just wonder about how age and illness conspire to heap unimagined indignities on the body before technology does its bit, too. The more complex a system is, the more ways it can break down. And that is today’s lesson.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars