Saturday-Sunday, May 02-03

Pride before a fall. I wake up feeling exhausted, depressed, in a (thankfully so far rare) foul mood. That kidney ache again, prodding me awake. I’m snappy with poor Anna (soz, darling.) Something’s amiss. I decide to lay off the apricot kernels until after the op. I’ve built up to four a day now and they’ve been the only controversial addition to my routine. I like the idea of the kidney cancer reacting badly to the cyanide and kicking up a fuss, even if it’s painful. But what’s the point? In ten days it’ll be out of me. Keep the apricot kernels for the lungs later. Better to try to get as many good night’s sleep as possible in the run-up to the op.

I feel wiped out all day. I just have energy enough to write two posts for the blog, but it’s like driving a long journey in second gear. Even a break at my local café, Social Pantry, fails to revive me. I’ve always got on well with the people who work there and earlier this week they applauded my success in persuading the owner to get rid of the wretched Daily Mail. But when lovely Rosie, who hails from Cameroon, asks how I am, I’m looking a bit pale, I’m non-plussed. What should I say? I can’t keep on giving her my usual cheery ‘well, thanks.’ It seems like a breach of trust after a month of dissembling. So I tell her. She stands there disbelievingly, tears welling in her eyes. I know she’s thinking about Maddy, whom she adores and always asks after, as much me.

Later, she comes to my table. ‘I’m going to pray for you, Bart. Every day. And I want you to come in the day before your operation. I don’t work Mondays, but there’ll be a little present for you.’ The kindness of ‘strangers,’ time and time again.   I can barely stay awake when I get home. My mood’s improved but I just don’t have any anything in the tank. Is it the bending and lifting on the deck yesterday? If so, it shows how feeble I’m becoming. Or is it lack of protein?  I’m almost relieved when Anna phones at 5 o’clock and says Maddy’s fallen fast asleep. Just like the other night. An hour later, our little girl’s still out for the count. I don’t think it’s a good idea to wake her up and drag her over to ‘mine’ for our intended ‘sleep-over.’ I’m disappointed, not just because I’ve prepared us all a simple meal; and so is Anna. But Maddy’s needs come first. Better she stays there. And, desperate for a good night’s sleep myself, I’ll stay here and review where I am.

All said, I can detect signs of progress in remaking myself when I get an email from my long-distance friend Tony in Australia (I lodged with him for several months in Bulawayo, southern Zimbabwe, in 1988). He’s another example of a friend with whom I have profoundly different political opinions on some topics, especially the Tories and Israel / Palestine, but get along with well. Tony’s pretty ill himself with Parkinson’s which makes his succession of supportive emails all the more appreciated. Unsolicited by me, (not that I minded), he took the first three posts to discuss at his Sydney writers’ group and is sending his analysis of the encounter. The group was fairly evenly divided. Some liked the blog, others were plain hostile, complaining about displaying one’s suffering in public in this way – one even used the phrase ‘pain porn’ (nice, I’ll steal that for myself!) I’m completely unmoved by the negative reactions. The blog wasn’t meant for total strangers like this group, but to keep friends and family in the loop in the most efficient way possible; and to offer potential support for fellow sufferers and their carers. If others beyond those circles read it, that’s their business – it comes with pretty explicit health warnings at the outset.

Tony - writer, teacher and talented guitarist
Tony – writer, teacher and talented guitarist

I watch the evening news on BBC; it’s all about the new royal baby, born at St Mary’s. The Lindo Wing bears no resemblance to where I was for my pre-op! Perhaps when I go in, it’ll be somewhere as nice as this. I can’t stand the fawning, and after half-an-hour waiting for real news, I switch off. I wish the ‘royals’ well as a couple but this incredible fuss is plainly hegemony at work. Will it influence the election?   I’m in bed by nine-thirty, listening to the soothing voice of Deepak Chopra, falling suddenly asleep, waking again just long enough to slide the Ipad onto the floor…

Typical of this roller-coaster, I sleep beautifully and there’s no kidney pain. Could it really have been the apricot kernels? Whatever, I’m not going back to them for the moment…

Soon after breakfast, I get a call from my old Durham friend Mike, asking how I am. He’s been in the wars himself of late, suffering a cardiac arrest in February while he was in the jacuzzi, following a swim (why do these health mishaps seem to happen to swimmers like Mike and me?) at his local pool in Devon. He’d have drowned if a sharp-eyed woman doing lengths hadn’t seen his head lolling into the water, Revived just before he drowned by the life-guard, happily trained in the use of a defibrillator. Rushed to hospital, Mike entered what he describes as a bizarre in-between state, neither alive or dead.

I’ve always had a special affection for Mike, not just because of his warmth and side-splitting sense of humour (one day I hope to share with you the caption he suggested for a photo of ‘Lord’ Janner cosying up to Michael Gove which I sent him); but also perhaps because it was with him I took acid for the first and only time. The highlights included one of the most skilful, but probably one of the slowest, games of table-football in history played out over what seemed like hours in the student union. This was followed by consumption in the adjoining café of probably the most thinly sliced Mars Bar since they were invented. Wafer by wafer we swallowed, looking at each other in utter awe on account of its sheer deliciousness, the myriad shades of sweetness enfolding our tongues in paroxysms of ecstasy.

Then came a trip (literally this time) to ‘the flea-pit,’ as Durham’s ancient cinema was unkindly known. Fleas or not, it provided another out-of-this-world experience. In those days you got a double-bill for your 20p ticket. I can’t recall what was on, but I remember oh so vividly how, during the intermission, I watched what seemed like every film I’d ever seen, replaying on the blank grey screen. No jumble or confusion. Samson and Delilah, Dr Zhivago, Aguirre – Wrath of God, they marched past like Banquo’s ghosts. Except that they were side by side. Somehow I was seeing in a thousand dimensions simultaneously and taking in every one of them. Why was it the only time I took acid, despite its amazing effects? Because when I came down, it was into the deepest depression I’d ever inflicted on myself, real crawling-on-your-knees misery. Never again, I decided, it just isn’t worth it…

Mike - well into recovery mode
Mike – well into recovery mode

Talking to Mike makes me recognise how large a part my old Durham friends are playing in this blog (two more are coming for lunch tomorrow.) I guess it’s because when we were there in the early 1970s, the ‘city’ wasn’t much bigger than a large village and there weren’t many distractions. Hardly anyone had a car, hardly anybody had much money to spare (I remember being outraged when a pint of Sam Smith’s went up to 23p!), so there was little to do except work, or listen to music, get high (usually on gentler stuff than acid) or drunk when you could afford it, go to discos in the student union and, above all, get to know people incredibly well. Add the natural openness of youth and you have the foundations of life-long relationships, the intensity of which I’ve not experienced to anywhere near the same extent in bigger places like Oxford or London.

Later in the morning, Jonathon, Anna’s ‘step-dad,’ comes to help me finish arranging the deck. Like Gideon, he’s knowledgeable about plants (and lots of other things, especially Indian music), so the job’s quickly done. Then we set about pressure-washing. This is a lot of fun, though I dread Maddy getting hold of the Karcher. She’d like nothing better than causing mischievous mayhem with it. Jonathon’s very kindly agreed to stock the now ready-for-planting pots while I’m in hospital, to evade the last of the frosts. It’s so exposed up here, on top of the hill. Despite the dizzying 180 degree views of London, it’s tough on plants, too cold and windy half the year, too hot in the summers. But May and June are usually good. By the time I get back from St Mary’s, I should have a blaze of colour to convalesce in.

Jonathon - talented musician, CEO of a music software firm and excellent deck-hand!
Jonathon – talented musician, CEO of a music software firm and excellent deck-hand!

Then it’s to Northcote Road, to meet the family for lunch at Buona Sera. Maddy catches sight of me as I approach and runs the length of two rooms to meet me at the door. It’s so lovely to see her, feel her hand squeezing mine, as she breathlessly updates me on the morning’s news. I have to play the role of Kristoff from Frozen for a while before she lets me eat my lunch. Yes, folks, I had chicken (slathered in lemon, of course) to bulk up that protein intake. Have to say, it tastes delicious, as do the roasties, even dripping with lemon. Tomorrow I’ll investigate other protein alternatives.

Afterwards, while ‘father-in-law’ John sets off back to north London, and Anna, Maddy and Tara head off to shop for wedding gear and shoes, I decide to see if I can manage a walk through the pleasant warm spring sunshine. It’s fairly steep up to Clapham Common from Northcote Rd (which used to be a river in the old days) and I’m soon puffing. I decide to divert for a pit-stop at Tim and Elena’s on the off-chance they’re in. They are – and the welcome’s warm as ever. Elena makes me one of the delicious coffees she and Tim specialise in and we sit out on the sunny terrace discussing final details of the wedding (remember, they’re going to be our witnesses.) They so kindly offer to sweep round and pick us all up in a swish car (neither Anna nor I have one.) Their daughter Isi seems delighted that she’ll be walking behind us up the ‘aisle’ with Maddy. Elena’s investigating bridesmaid’s outfits. I’d love Maddy to wear Anna’s old one, but it’s probably beyond repair.

I manage to recruit myself sufficiently to continue the walk and get as far as the Victorian band-stand in the middle of Clapham Common. I used to run round the whole outside perimeter, three and a half miles, sometimes twice round, when I was in my pomp. Now I’m gasping and coughing after barely a mile’s snail-like progress. Is this what my novelistic hero Walter experienced when his TB set in? (I should know, but you get what I mean) It makes me wonder why they’re not chopping out the infection from the lungs, as they often used to do with TB ‘spots’ before the war. It was a hazardous operation then, for sure. But these days? It’s something to ask Mr Khoubehi’s Registrar when I speak to her this week.

I hobble over later to Anna’s, feeling a little dizzy by the time I get there. Have I over-done it again or is it just the heat? Cousin Tara, who’s come for a ‘sleep-over,’ and Maddy are ensconced on the sofa, watching kids’ t.v. Apparently I’ve missed a good laugh. Our little girl was in a bit of a mood when they first got back, despite her utterly gorgeous new wedding shoes. When Tara asked why she was being grumpy, Maddy apparently folded her arms (how did she come to associate this gesture with being pissed off?), frowned and pronounced. ‘I’m never grumpy. Just serious. Huh!’

Soon a restored Maddy’s eaten, bathed and in bed, where I recount the latest in the adventures of Kaa, which she insists on these days to the exclusion of everything else (I’m flattered!). Tara, Anna and I settle back in the living-room. What’s on t.v. tonight?  Anna reminds me about The C-Word, a new film about someone blogging about their cancer. Of course I should watch it. But not just now, I decide – later, on I-player (unless any of you kind folk out there recorded it?). It’s Bank Holiday Sunday and Tara’s here and I don’t know how I might react to something so close to home. So I second Tara’s suggestion, the remake of St Trinian’s. It’s really silly but lots of fun and at different times we all fall about at the gags. Perfect Bank Holiday relaxation.

‘We mustn’t ever let Maddy see St Trinian’s,’ I laugh, as the credits roll, ‘she’ll insist on going there instead of Wix.’

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