Last week Littlest Son developed a minor health problem. It led to him scooting in swift succession from GP surgery to Accident and Emergency to the children's ward at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital.
As with all our children's encounters with the staff at the RD and E, as it is affectionately known in these parts, the care we received was outstanding. Thank you so much to Reg, our night nurse. When I was about to kip down on the fold-out chair beside LS at midnight, he took one look at my shattered expression and brought me an egg and tomato sandwich. Above and beyond, and so kind.
That midnight feast was manna from heaven, as far as I was concerned. But oh glory, I could not believe the meal LS was dished up the following day.
We'd skipped breakfast as LS was flirting with surgery and was nil by mouth. But by lunch he was just "under observation" and ravenous. "The lunch trolley is here!" said our student nurse Niki (who was another saint) and off we went to join the queue in the children's dining area.
A very nice lady was doling out the food and there was a perfectly acceptable-sounding menu. Vegetable lasagne, fish pie, or roast pork. "Oh good, just like Sunday lunch," said LS, opting for the latter, followed by apple crumble. He can be a fussy eater at times, so I was relieved that this meal was one of his all-time favourites.
As a parent, I wasn't entitled to the free food, and I felt really rather envious. I knew my fate lay in the food shop in the main entrance and had already heard one of the other mums saying she feared she was about to "turn in to a ham and cheese baguette" after a week's stay on the ward with her child.
But LS's little face soon fell and soon he was pushing the food about his plate, refusing to eat. "Come on," I said. "You love roast pork. Tuck in, you must be starving." But no, he pushed the plate away in disgust.
I assumed he was just being hard to please and as I was pretty hungry myself, I said: "In that case, hand it over, I'm famished. You can have a sandwich from the shop."
Reader, what I then ate was simply staggering. I cannot believe that anyone who has the nerve to call themselves a professional chef could produce such utter... muck. The pork was like eating solidified wallpaper paste. How do you do that to meat? And how do you make gravy that is glutinous, see-through orange and completely tasteless. What ingredients can you possibly use to produce such a thing?
As for the mashed potato – why was it brown, dessicated on top, and completely devoid of flavour? Revolting.
The carrots had been boiled into submission for so long that you didn't need to chew them. You could just squish them into their constituent molecules between your finger and thumb. The apple crumble had a topping that was as dry as a handful of hay, above stewed apple that, once again, seemed to have gone through some sort of chemical process rather than actual cooking. It looked like apple, but tasted of nothing. What do they do to the food here – X-ray it to death beforehand or bathe it in hand sanitiser?
I don't mind for myself. I wasn't even supposed to be eating this rubbish, it wasn't my lunch. And just a few hours later, LS was at home and eating real food back in the real world. But in our stay on Bramble Ward, I got talking to parents whose children had been there for weeks, months even. There is a school there.
There are kids on that ward who are so incredibly ill, it is just heartbreaking. They are so brave, and so are their parents. We cannot possibly expect sick children to eat this joyless garbage and get better. I'm no medic, but I'm quite certain that if you ate that every day, you'd get ill.
My suggestion is that the hospital managers get themselves down to Bramble Ward every lunchtime from now on and jolly well eat what the poor patients have to. I guarantee that within a week, they'd have it sorted. Failing that, give me the ingredients and I will cook it. I don't say this lightly but the food I experienced at this hospital was an absolute disgrace.