Gay men were dying of Aids at a terrifying rate: visiting my friend on the HIV ward

Chris Mazeika sits with Steven David in the Broderip HIV ward, Middlesex hospital, London, March 1993

Steven and I were neighbours in Deptford, south London; although he was never my partner, he was, in a way, the love of my life. Every time I got home and switched on the lights, my landline would ring: Why am I being neglected? he would say, in his strong Belfast accent.

The Broderip ward at the Middlesex hospital was the first dedicated Aids ward in London. It was opened in 1987 by Princess Diana. In 1993, before effective medications were available, gay men were dying of Aids at a terrifying rate. There was a lot of hostility and fear about the disease; families of young men often rejected them. Broderip and its sister ward, Charles Bell, became places of warmth and love for the patients, and the nursing staff were like their family. The rooms were home-like, with subdued lighting and duvets. The nursing staff greeted patients with hugs. It was a new way of nursing, and incredibly forward-thinking for its time. I worked there for five years as a shiatsu massage therapist, supporting the nursing team.

Steven was there on and off for a sequence of treatments. He had a private room, which hed furnished with a fish tank. He never got really ill there; he wasnt one of the living skeletons you saw. It wasnt unusual to turn up for a visit only to be told he was shopping over the road in Heals, or had gone clubbing the night before and hadnt made it back yet. His room became a convenient West End pied–terre. I once went to a club to find him; he told me hed taken five ecstasy tablets. I think he was trying to die dancing.

In this photograph, hes wearing my Birkenstocks with socks (pretty fashion-forward for 1993) and three shirts and his jacket. He was losing weight and they padded him out. We often lay on his bed in each others arms, and would fall asleep like that, whatever time of day. I dont remember Gideon [Mendel, the photographer] taking the picture. He took a whole series for a 1993 book and Photographers Gallery exhibition called Positive Lives, a project run with the Terrence Higgins Trust.

To walk down the street back then was a forbidding prospect: you never knew who you would bump into and discover who was recently diagnosed, who was sick, who was already gone. Sometimes it was enough to pass strangers ravaged by this disease to set the ticking fear in your head. Yet we held out a hope that we would triumph over this thing.

Steven died on 1 October 1993. I can still remember his mum lifting him from his coffin to hug him for the last time.

Around 1996, the wards started to empty. People Id known who looked as if they had days to live suddenly got better. Steven and the other patients were the unlucky ones who got sick just before treatment became available. Only last month, the Centre for Disease Control declared that people who are HIV positive and taking medication cannot pass the virus on through sex. We live in such different times.

The Ward, by Gideon Mendel, is published by Trolley Books. An exhibition of the book is at the Fitzrovia Chapel, London W1, every Wednesday and Sunday until 3 December.

Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/nov/24/gay-men-dying-aids-chris-mazeika-hiv-ward

Author: Billy Roland

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