Thursday, 30 June 2011

Back in the jug

Kelly's oncology meeting doesn't go exactly to plan. I have another sleepless night, the third on the trot and when Kate lets herself in at 7 o' clock I have had an hours sleep. They wake me as they leave and I leap like a gibbon from the bed, throwing clothes at myself in vain, they leave without me. I skulk around the house unable to properly wake and equally unable to go back to bed. I let caffeine take the strain and imbibe a kettle full of teeth staining tannins.It hits me like a live current, jangling me into life. A reluctant Frankenstein's monster I want to pull the electrodes out and get another five minutes's.

Deirdre rings me. Following the oncology meeting Kelly has been admitted for tests and further observation, could I pack her some pyjamas, her drugs and over night things. I'm mostly worried about her drugs - there have been so many changes and different ideas about drug combinations (sounds like Keith Richards' underwear) that I'm not entirely sure which ones are still "in". I pack them all, realising that in doing so Kelly's overnight bag is going to be an overnight suitcase. I add pants and a dressing-gown to the mix to make it seem less ludicrous.

Deirdre and I speed across town, pausing only for me to stand in a long and listless Post office queue, as I attempt to post back by outsize Dr. Martens. when we arrive Mo and Kate are already in attendance and Kelly is waiting on her new bed. She is tired and slightly glassy-eyed but she is smiling. Her voice, when it comes, is a hesitant whisper, breathless, but her cheeks and hands are warm and she is on funny, charming form. It takes her a little longer to get to the punchline but it's worth the wait.

We move up to the hospital room. It's a single room on the third floor so there is an excellent view of Black Hill and the protean Belfast skies as fat clouds tumble across the skies like sheep with bruised arses. The room is en suite, spacious and clean! You wouldn't get that in that London. Nurses come in and ask a lot of questions, upsetting Kelly briefly, clod-hopping around the question of her never-born children. A junior doctor does the same, prodding in the same places. Kelly gets a laugh by claiming her religious faith is "Catholic agnostic" and asking the doctor to send in the nuns!

Now we are sat alone in the hospital room. "Open Book" is playing on Radio Four and Kelly is drifting in and out of sleep; wading back into consciousness occasionally to deliver an enormous grin. She has been hallucinating fuzzy insects (though she isn't scared of them - reasoning that they are hallucinations) - I hope she recognises me.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Start the day as you mean to go on - cringing in your pants

I spent most of the weekend doing a drawing for free for somebody's Mum. Originally I thought it was for Kelly's mum. When I found out that it wasn't for Kelly's mum but an altogether different mum, a mum that I had never met, I carried on anyway - I could do with the money. It was only when I was half way through doing it that I found out there was to be no money - Kelly had waived the fee on my behalf!

I continued. It felt good to flex the atrophied pencil muscles. I hadn't had a drawing to do for a long while and it was gratifying to see that after initial rustiness the "mad skills" returned. And the drawing was a good one: flattering to the point of deceit and containing all the required elements: a roast chicken, a gin and tonic, coronation street and the mum's children. I messaged the recipient telling her that it was ready. I heard nothing. And then Kelly's health went tits up and we were at panic stations for a couple of days. Last night, past midnight I received an e mail again saying "let me know when I can pick it up". I didn't answer, figuring that yes, I'll let her know when to pick it up - but she can wait till morning.

In the morning I decide to run a bath - a luxury these days. And I think, I'll have a cup of tea while I'm in the bath! Outrageous decadence, I know. It had been a rough night, with Kelly in extreme discomfort and me barely sleeping, but she was much brighter in the morning and happily engaging with the "Gilmore Girls". Her sister Dee asks if she can come round but Kelly says no, come round in a couple of hours - she's better but not necessarily up to visitors. I nip down to the kitchen in my voluminous leisure knickers and put the kettle on. The doorbell rings. It's the friend! She's just decided to come round anyway! I'm trapped! Kelly leaps up, the most I've seen her move in the best part of a week, to answer the door. The first thing I hear is "Are you not well?" - the friend is a fucking genius.

I look around for something to put on - the layout of the house means there is no way upstairs without passing the front door and I'm stuck in virtually nothing but body hair, water-weight and a wisp of gauze hiding my shame. Usually there are clothes on the radiator or in neat piles on the kitchen table but no, because we have been more than usually inundated with visitors I have been more than usually house-proud and have put them away. There is nothing but tea-towels.

"Where is the drawing John?"

It's Kelly, her voice breathless and weak. I can already tell that she has been up and down the stairs looking for the fucking thing; she has been practically comatose for a week and she's expending her energy on this.

"There's a Gene Deitch book on the bed," I shout back, "tell her to go. It's in the spare room, look in the year "1945"

These instructions aren't quite as confusing as they seem. The Deitch book is big and flat and heavy and an excellent place for storing delicate pen and ink works. And it is divided into years: the drawing is resting at the memorable year 1945. There is silence. I decide to make a break for the living room, hoping there are some clothes I've missed lying around. I open the door. The friend is sitting on the sofa. I stand framed in the doorway, aware that there is hardly any negative space between me and the door-frame. She grins up at me and my fat naked hairiness.

"What are you doing here?" I say in an odd strangulated voice and rush through. I meet Kelly on the stairs, wheezing, my trousers and shirt in her arms. The beautiful silly idiot.

I dress. By the time I come down again the friend is gone. I start crying like the big fat Mary I am.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Well the doctor has been and gone, a nice man called Millar. He prodded Kelly and asked a few questions and ...well...what? He asked about her belly, suggested a number of things; she might have a virus, it could be an ongoing problem with her liver or it could be her new medication or any combination of her old medications. He didn't seem to know and didn't seem to think that at this stage it was all that worrying. That was the case with the oncologist and the other doctors at the hospital as well - while they were concerned and interested and they phoned and kept in contact none of them seem to think that there was anything much to worry about! At least at this stage. It's oddly heartening. I know it's not normal for somebody to sleep 18 hours out of twenty four but their unflappability has convinced me that its not too bad either, however counter intuitively. I may even sleep tonight.

Am I misreading the enviable sang froid of the medical profession or are Kelly's doctor's all socio-paths? And is socio-path really hyphenated as spell-check suggests?
Waiting on the doctor to come out. He has specified "lunchtime" as his e.t.a. I insist on the urgency of the case but he won't be harried. He says he will come as a matter of urgency and that Kelly will be prioritised but his tone is understated, his manner infuriatingly calm. I suspect it is a device used to defuse situations - doctors are in part, or at least should be, emotional bomb experts. But it doesn't work on me. I want him sliding down a fireman's pole and making all haste in an ambulance. Contrarily I also want to kill him and his soft purring voice: I don't have a blanket over my knee and nor am I owner/operator of a bath-chair so don't talk to me as if I've been a bad boy and won't finish my Horlicks.

The hospital ring. They tell me that if the GP becomes confused he can ring Dr Cochrane at the hospital. Dr Cochrane is the palliative doctor but not Kelly's usual doctor, the oncologist Dr. Hurwicz. The GP is a Dr Coughlan, not Kelly's usual Dr, Dr Miller. I have no one to ring if I become confused. Luckily it's not a confusing issue - I'm going to stand over them and make them sort out what's wrong with her. This is all happening too quickly, it's too symptomatic for it to be the end.

I phone Kate, who has stayed over-night at North road, to let her know the situation but she is too worried to hear what I'm saying and talks over me, imagining a conversation that we're having rather than the one we are having. Although with only two of us in the conversation who is to say we aren't having her conversation rather than mine. Eventually we meet at a mutual point and agree that she should come over at 12.30. This is the start of lunch-time according to Dr. Coulter.

Kelly is still in bed. Her stomach looks more swollen than ever and she has been subject to violent coughing fits for the best part of the morning. Periodically I go into see her, to find out if there is anything she wants or needs (she hasn't had her pills yet either). She wakes up/ stops coughing for long enough to tell me to go away.

Monday, 27 June 2011

It's impossible to work out how ill Kelly is. A week ago she attended her Grandmother's funeral and was regal and erect and funny and crabby, worried, as usual, about her cough spoiling the ceremony. A week ago. It's impossible to imagine how much her condition has deteriorated since then. She's awake only to take her pills and have her meals. When she is awake she seems fogged and dazed (albeit happily, she claims to be "content"). The doctor is coming out to see her and speaking to her oncologist she seems happy for her to start her new, her third, chemotherapy on Thursday. She explains the chronic fatigue and swollen belly away as a complication from the problems with her liver. But I don't know. For the first time it is possible for me to imagine her dying. I see the same vagueness, the same dislocation I saw in my dad before he died. It's hard to guage exactly how much of it is down to the tiredness. But I wake several times a night to check on her.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Belfast Kills Me

So...notable events. Kelly's back on the steroids. Tori visits us from the Spa Town over the weekend. Poor Tori. We get word that while Kelly is being summoned to the hospital from her counsellor's office, across town Granny Mullan becomes ill and is admitted to hospital. She dies the following afternoon. Sunday and Monday Kelly spends at the wake (I only manage the Monday)and Tuesday is the funeral (they do things quickly here). Meanwhile riots break out in the Short Strand area of east Belfast (confusingly it is apparently the UVF beating the shit out of a strongly UVF area. But that's local politics for you - I don't understand it at all). Helicopters buzz the house all night.

Today Kelly is irritable from the get go - even doe-eyed Dee can't raise her spirits. People instantly panic that the steroids are sending her manic again, even though the situation, circumstances, symptoms and dosage are all different. I attempt to convince myself that sometimes a crab is just a crab. But I'm kidding myself.

Have found out that the shoes that I bought in London, without trying them on, are the wrong size. I asked the assistant for the right sized shoes and he brought me the wrong ones. I just spent an hour circumnavigating the city, which has no street signs or if it has they are obscured by scaffolding on a semi-permanent basis. I found the "Doc Shop" in the incongruously delightfully named "Pottinger's Entry". The shop is empty bar the bloke behind the counter. He is a standard Belfast male in that he is fat and bald with blurred tattoos on fore-arms that are crossed over his chest. Before I came to Belfast I would have found this look a threatening proposition but it's so ubiquitous here that it has no meaning at all - skinheads have spunked their currency in this town!). His arms remained crossed throughout our transaction. "You didn't get those here," he said. "I know," I say, "I got them in London," "Let's have a look at them, then," he says. The bag is between us on the counter. He makes no attempt to move so I open the bag and show them to him. "I can't do anything about it. We're an independent," "So why did I have to show you the shoes?" He shrugs.

On the bus home I'm sat between a crying baby and three shouting tramps. Belfast your'e pushing me.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Back in the hospital again. Kelly's doctor has phoned her at her counsellor's and advised her that because of problems with her liver she may need to start a course of steroids again. This after we had already accepted that she would need to stop her hormone therapy and start another course of chemo (described as "light" chemo, in the manner of a subtle hammer). That was a knock. The hair loss is predicted to be "light" as well. But the steroid treatment is devastating; it's the same treatment that produced her massive manic period over Christmas; the treatment that saw her running to the respite house and then onto the hospital, that made her scared and mistrustful of even her closest family and saw me banished from our house before she would return to it. The dose is lower and there has been no direct-to-head radiotherapy this time and she is still sleeping (she was sleeping an hour a night at the height of her mania)but it is still shit scary.

Scotch Notes...

...writing in a rainstorm...scratching my sunburnt head, above me crows fight. Signs advising that I "Beware of Red Squirrels". Pheasants so gaudy and docile that they walk right up to you unaware of the stench of blood on my breath.

Have been looking at the photographs of me when we went to the magic castle: sunburnt in a blazer and pink shirt, my contact lenses in and my paunch hanging over my casual slacks - I am my dad on holiday. Except I'm not insisting on buying the drinks.

My golf round...


The soundtrack was provided by The Union Gap with "Lady Willpower" They Might be Giants with "Science is Real" and Billy Bragg and Wilco with "Ain't nobody that can sing like me"

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Smoke lingers round yer fingers...

I'm travelling home. I don't have to go anywhere after this. I have no plans at all. The trip was interesting and saw me belting out a Foo Fighter's song I didn't know to a sweaty room full of middle-aged women after being awake for twenty hours straight. The next day saw me chip my front tooth on an onion ring (something my magnificent teeth have bested only once before when I left a brand new filling in a cheese soufflé).I spent Sunday snoozing on a sofa with a pregnant woman, trying to convince her that the best possible name for her unborn child would be "Stella". I'm glad I didn't convince her now as I've gone off it a bit and, as we were watching both "Countess Dracula" and "Crucible of Terror" (my choices - a guest's privilege!)the choice seems so obvious to me now: Jess, Simon, the name of your daughter should be INGRID RAVEN ENDICOTT! (a name designed to inspire ire, no doubt!)

I took a shopping trip to Carnaby Street with the other tourists, bought shoes identical to the ones I was wearing, skipped over the river like a stone. Wrote a poem about Alan Price, and a film treatment for a blues based rom-com and cast it (Eric Stoltz to direct!). There was even a minor role for Joss Stone and bizarrely, as I write this in a bar in Heathrow, a news report flashes up that two men from Manchester have been arrested for plotting to kill the soul-diva-by-royal-appointment: I was only plotting to cast as a snippy secretary!)

I've drunk a lot of wine, eaten very little and bathed less and all i all had a very good time with my remarkable friends. I'm continually amazed that I'm able to inspire loyalty and kindness in people that I'm uniformly rude and sarcastic to. It can only be Kelly's benign influence; it would certainly never have happened before. In fact her beautiful face beaming sleepily down from our bedroom window as I drove off in a taxi at five in the morning has haunted me throughout this trip. I can't believe I'm loved by such a remarkable woman. Nor can a lot of my friends, mind you! I miss her so much that I don't think I'll ever be able to leave her again. A holiday is a luxury that I can ill afford.

That said I haven't laughed so much in a long time: when Mike suggested that a workable punk-rock analogue for Johnny Rotten would be "Ernie Fartz", with that dead-pan innocence that he does so well, I creased about six different fluids out of my body. In fact he had said "Ernie Farce" - in his mind there is an exact correlation between saying something is rotten is the same as saying "this is a bloody farce". This is because, in his heart of hearts, Mike is a 1960's Soho bookie's runner. But I do prefer Ernie Fartz because I nearly died laughing at it and by the end of the evening we had the entire band: Ernie Fartz, Peter Zout, Walter Torcher, Sven Diagram and Kenny B. Leivitt. I'd buy that record any day.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Can't take criticism...

My brother reads my short story "Desire Path" to my mother. She refers to the style as "flowery" and states that I write like an "Old Master" (a line she's cribbed from a school report some thirty years ago and which she has deployed at regular intervals ever since).

She moves on to more specific criticisms: she objects to a line comparing tree-blossom to a wedding dress not because it is trite and rather ordinary but because "not all brides wear white nowadays". She's right, of course. A reference to the tram-line brocade on military uniform trousers vexes her because I don't specify the direction the stripes go in. On having read it to the end she merely asks "Is that it?".

I'm going to try and get her to critique everything I write. (I was going to write "everything I do" but she does that already). She has a unique insight and extraordinary grasp of what I'm not trying to do. Her specific interests are always arresting and alarming and unique to her. She claims that Dickens is her favourite writer but will admit to skimming over all the "descriptions"

My brother, in his cups, tells me that "Desire Path" isn't funny. I say it isn't mean't to be funny. He says "isn't all of your stuff was supposed to be funny?" Touche.

I've spent a long time listening to people telling me that I can't take criticism. In fact the opposite is true: I am a craven masochist - I'm desperate for people to point out the many flaws in my work. I love it. Mnnn. You hate it? Delicious! Can I get some coffee with this?

There are two reasons why. Firstly it means that somebody has actually read it. I'm still at the stage where I can't give away the prose; I'm hustling verse on street corners like pencils in a tin cup. I'd pretend to be a war veteran or hold up a sign saying "Will work for appraisal" if I thought it would do any good. When someone has read my work it is a big deal.

Secondly, I do this stuff to the best of my ability before I show it to anybody but, and it's a Kardashian of a but, eventually you will go word-blind. Text looks diffeent in a notebook, on a computer-screen and printed onto paper (and probably carved into a basalt column): the simple mechanism of printing it onto paper can reveal a myriad of mistakes that hours spent blinking at a monitor will never reveal. So how much better would it be if another pair of eyes scan it; another brain engages with it? Brilliant.

But...this is where I get my rep for being unable to take criticism. I didn't realise for a very long time that there was a social contract meaning that if someone critiques your work you smile politely, take "onboard" what they are saying and buy them a glass of wine/blueberry muffin, depending on circumstances. I always assumed it was a debate or an exchange of views. If there was something I disagreed with I thought it was honourable to defend my work. After all, I wouldn't have wasted their time presenting them with something that I didn't think was very good, now would I?

I realise now that I was very wrong. These days I will meekly accept any barely realised, half-chewed philosophical nugget you choose to spit in my direction. I will scrape it from the wall behind me and swallow it whole.

Because I need you! Help me!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

An Englishman Overboard

More comedy social anxiety in the Mews: there was a car parked outside my house with its back door open and a hand-bag visible. It was open as i went to the shop but i thought nothing of it assuming that shopping was being unpacked. A half hour later when I returned it was still open. I went to close the door but Kelly wouldnt let me in case somebody would be left locked out of their car. I was fairly sure

it was next door's car so I rang her doorbell. No answer. I went to the house on the other side of us to see if Michael, our friendly neighbour, could identify the car. He wasn't in. I crossed the street to see if Ann, our friendly neighbour across the street, could identify the mystery vehicle. She wasn't in. There are 12 houses in our wee cul-de-sac. I went methodically through them all. There was nobody in any of the houses. It's the Cul-de-sac of the damned.

The only house that had a light on in it was number 8. We have beef with number 8. Brigeen, Kelly's sister, reversed into the flank of number 8's car. Accidentally. This was the cause of said beef, not inspired by it. We got out to investigate and there was not a mark on it. We didn't know who's car it was, (the parking's a free-for-all down our way)so we went out. I swear to you there was not a scratch on that car - the only physical difference made to it was a dent in the surface dust that Brigeen had made while checking for bumps and scrapes. At worst the car sustained a localised cleaning.

On our return home there was a snotty letter through the letterbox telling us that another, as yet unidentified, neighbour had seen the whole thing and grassed us to number 8. Further negotiations have left Brigeen with a bill for £260 (!) and me with a deep-seated aversion to the snidey opportunistic shits. But, regardless, we were about to knock on their door in an effort to be "neighbourly"...

It didn't come to it. Our next door neighbour burst out of her house (through the door) in a tizz and some pyjamas explaining that she hadn't heard the bell because she had Sky sports on in two seperate rooms and proceeded to give us an elegantly honed version of the story of her life. Kelly was the involved focus of this and remained cool and interested throughout, while I was squirming jelly of social misery - I'm from London! I don't like eye-contact. I don't like neighbours and I don't want to engage.

But don't worry about me. I made it through to the other side. In maybe five, ten years I could laugh about it. But until then I'm calling this "My Vietnam".

The Visitors

We're halfway through (more than halfway through) the visiting season and all has gone well thus far. Visits from D & G and M & R went swimmingly but the news that my mother was preparing to visit and stay for a week came with some trepidation...I needn't have worried. She was a joy from start to finish.

Kelly is bearing up well. She has lost a lot of weight because of stomach pains and is surviving mainly on a diet of compliments and energy drinks. Unfortunately the cough that she developed over Christmas is back again and this time the Codeine Linctus seems less effective; the coughing fits are sometimes so severe that she throws up the food that she struggles so hard to keep down. It is heart-breaking.

She says that her panic, her terminal dread, has left her now. And certainly since we moved back there had been a panicked, haunted look in her eyes. She seems less despairing now and says as much. But then again most of her time is taken up with a choking cough, anxiety and bone-deep fatigue: I'm not sure she has time to despair.

One thing that does lend creedence to her statement that the dread has lifted (and I do believe her, but this is corrobarative)is that she has started writing again! This pleases me more than anything as she is a fabulous, lucid and human writer. A new computer arrives tomorrow ( unbelievably kindly donated by beyond-the-call-of-duty friends D & G) - I can't wait to see what she does with it.

We're off to Scotland on the weekend, visiting my sister and brother-in-law and their delightful children. I hope she's well.