Wednesday, 30 December 2015


(tea-time of the gods, part 3)

*   *   *
Topgod and Fate sit side by side on rocks at the top of a pointy mountain, a place chosen for its panoramic view of an absence of humans, for although the cries and ringing hammer-blows of the climbers working their way up the rocks form a melodious reminder of the human presence, few come to the actual summit; if any do, they tend to shy off, for they feel the presence of the supernatural even though they are unable to see it.

Fate has just relayed to Topgod the shocking request of Godlet Gamma that he should become a human, to share the human experience, especially the knowledge of his own mortality; and his even more insane motive – a wish to undo some of the harm he has wrought during his time as overseer of Terra
Somewhere below, Godlet Gamma himself is reclining halfway up Easy Ridge, from which he can watch the action on Impossible Wall, clearly no longer impossible for there are two hard men hammering in pitons, slowly ascending what looks to be a totally smooth section of vertical rock; over to their right two teenagers are following a faintly worried geography teacher up a rather less smooth and vertical section, amid a tangled mess of rope; the geographer (whom his parents, the Doolittles, had twenty-six years previously named Will, to the later sniggers of his pupils) is right to be worried, for his pupils are far more interested in a riveting piece of information about deviant sexual practices recently revealed to them than in staying alive. Their merry voices float across: “and he shoves this light-bulb so far up his mumble mumble snigger…”

The godlet longs to join them, for he is entranced by the sheer music of it all: the rhythmic ringing of the hammers, the ostinato of the mumble-snigger, the occasional tenor call of Mr Doolittle “For-god-sake pay at-TEN-tion, Godfrey” are simultaneously a pleasure to the hearing and an apparent call to his very own self: they cannot possibly know that he is there, but it is as if they somehow feel his presence, as if he is a kind of torch illuminating the murk of their  …

But these musings are cut short by a summons from above, and Godlet Gamma swiftly rises to the summit, suddenly aware that perhaps his future has now been decided.

Fate has brought oatcakes and manchego and a bottle of Glenmorangie, and offers Gamma refreshment. “I couldn’t find any of that frog you brought last time, but this is nearly as good, and easier to pronounce.”

“Or” chips in Topgod “you might want to stick to just nectar and ambrosia and keep a clear head till you’ve decided.”

Godlet Gamma is struck immediately by the change in Topgod’s speech-patterns: he has given up capitals and “thou”. What can this mean? a significant change in his thinking? Is there hope?

And then another thing strikes him: “till you’ve decided” is what Topgod said. So it is to be his, Gamma’s, decision. Yes! He’ll be human, he’ll be mortal, he’ll have an experience no other entity has ever known!  He will be Unique.

But they are gazing at him with – could it be pity? surely not?

“So, Gamma, I believe you want to be human? To experience death and fear? This is not just some obscure godlet joke?” Topgod sniffed the Glenmorangie fumes with a little grunt of pleasure. “Remind me of your reasons, leaving out the bit about undoing harm – you know fine that harm can’t be undone – let’s have the real reason.”

Gamma is taken aback. He had hoped that undoing harm would cut some ice, win approval for his project. Surely it is at least arguable (and shows him in a good light)?

“But for example I could organise a disease that would wipe out, say, 90% of humans, and the overpopulation problem would go away.”

Topgod sighs and tries to remain patient. “You did that a while back, with the help of our good friend Rat, and how well did that work, long-term? You could try it again. there’s no need to be mortal to do that. Come on, cut out the faff, tell us what you really want.”

“Um …” Gamma searches for the words that will convey his longing. “You see, I’ve watched and listened, maybe more than I was supposed to.” Pause.

Glug, crunch, mmm was all the comment he heard.

“And I see how nasty their lives are a lot of the time, and what a lot of suffering they have to put up with, but then I see that there are times when they experience pleasure and satisfaction that seems to go way beyond anything that I’ve ever felt – like these guys here fumbling about on this little piece of rock, see how hard they have to work to do something that a goat or cat or beetle would have no trouble with, if it wanted to, but look what enjoyment they get from doing this totally useless thing.” He pauses to collect his thoughts.

“And then,” he goes on, hesitatingly, sensing neither approval nor dissent from his listeners (are they actually listening?), “then there is the music. Ah, the music, I can’t get it out of my head, I need more. Just the other day, deedle-deedle-pom-pom, deedle-deedle-pompitty, magnificent, makes me want to dance!” He does a little dance and croaks out a little song to illustrate the splendour of the human achievement.

Down there on Impossible Wall Godfrey asks Mr Doolittle “Hey, Doolittle, that croaking noise, is that you (snigger)?” and Mr Doolittle replies, with well-concealed hatred in his heart, “Oh, that’s just the raven, it has a nest in the next gully to the west, it’s always floating about here, watching.”

Fate and Topgod look at each other, questions in their eyes. Fate says, “So is that it, Gamma, pleasure, song, dance – is that the lot?”

Deedle-deedle-pompitty – sorry! No, one other thing. I feel that a lot of the pleasure and music is because they know that one day they won’t be alive any longer. These guys here, for instance, they could fall off any minute and be killed, there’s something there that I want, no, I need to feel. So I need to be mortal.”

Gamma thinks he’s probably just messed up, they won’t understand, how can they? a while back, he wouldn’t have had any idea … until he’d heard de-de-de-DUM … but Topgod is standing up  Usually that means he’s decided.

“Thank you for a most interesting explanation, Gamma,” begins Topgod, approval in his stance (on one leg, scratching his ear, good sign). “Fate and I have discussed it thoroughly.”

And terribly quickly! thinks Gamma, and wonders if they’ve even listened … but of course Time is different for entities of that grade.

“And we think it best to give you a choice.”

Ah, success! deedle-deedle 

“Becoming mortal yourself is unfortunately not an option at present,” awww! “because we are not made of stuff, and can’t be transferred across to things made of stuff, at least not yet; there may come a time when it can be done, there are entities working on it, so don’t lose hope.” ahhh!

“Here’s what we can offer: either you can live here with the humans permanently, but you will remain invisible to them, and you will have no power to alter things, no power at all. And of course you cannot die, but the day may come when transfer to being mortal becomes possible, and you would be first on the list.”

A pause, while Gamma digests this idea. Down below, Godfrey is getting bored, he has run out of sexual-deviance stories and is thirsty, for the day is warm. “Eh, Doolittle, you got any Irn-Bru?” “No, it’s down in the car.” “Fuxek, what good is it there?” Not for the first time Will Doolittle reflects how much he would like to clip Godfrey round the earhole and how swiftly he would be out of a job … but at least they are near the top.

“Or you could do another job,” continues Topgod, “while you wait for the transfer technology to become workable. There’s a planet in Alpha Centauri where life forms have emerged that are beginning to need overseeing. And we feel that with your intense experience on Terra, you are exactly the right entity to do this. A timely forward push for them, a new opportunity for you to use your skills. What do you think?”

Will Doolittle brings Godfrey and Jeremy to the top, unties himself from the rope and says, “We need to go to the summit, we want to tick it off in our Munro list.”

“Nah,” says Godfrey “fuk the summit, we’ll wait here.” “Right, sort out the rope, back in a minute,” and off strides Doolittle, sped on a wave of relief. “Hey, Jezzer, got any fags on ya?” “Aye, Gozzer, mebbe somewhere,” Jeremy pats his pockets.

Gamma is torn between despair and hope: on the one hand … on the other … so many questions. “How much time can I have to think about it?”

“All the time you want, no hurry,“ says Fate, but I think we should go elsewhere now, for I see some humans are finished their climb, and one of them is heading this way. Pack the food and drink away, would you, Gamma?”

Will Doolittle is racing across the ground, so glad to be away from Godfrey and Jeremy that he notices nothing until he bumps into … something, SOME THING, nothing he can see or touch, but a huge energy and power that fills him with a terror that unhinges his brain and brings the taste of ash to his mouth; he turns and runs, blindly, seeing nothing … straight over the edge and down into the gully where the raven wheels and croaks.

“Oh dear, I wonder why he was going so fast, what a pity, I must write it up”, says Fate, as they shimmer off on their huge leathery wings.

“That was our fault, I feel guilty, what a pity,” moans Godlet Gamma.

“Nobody’s fault. Stuff happens,” says Topgod. “Come on, Gamma, find us some more of that great cheese …”

“Fuxek,” Godfrey mutters through a cloud of fragrant smoke, “what got into old Doolittle? What’re we supposed to do now?”

“Climb down, I suppose, down’s got to be easier than up, and we’re roped together, we’ll be fine. The Irn-Bru’s down there in the car. C’mon, Gozzer, you go first, I’ll hold the rope.” On the way up he hadn’t noticed the bit about getting tied on to something that wouldn’t give way.

Godfrey, whose athletic dexterity far outshines his verbal ability, is nearly at the end of the rope before one foot slides off a little round knob at the moment when he is feeling around for something to hold on to. Quite gracefully, he peels off, and Jeremy, who is standing at the edge trying to see down, and who has not tied himself to anything, is plucked over the edge.

Down they whirr, and a faint Fuxek! floats up the gully mingling musically with the raven’s croak.

The hard men barely need discussion: swiftly they decide that this is not a day for doing difficult when easy is available, swiftly they traverse to the right where a series of big safe holds takes them to the top, where they share a calming fag.

Drifting away, Fate asks Topgod, very quietly, “This life form on the Alpha Centauri planet, what sort of a thing is it?”

“Oh, it’s like a huge sea-slug. Most fascinating, lots of varieties, great colours. No music as yet, but probably Gamma’ll sort something out before long.”

Faintly from far, far off, comes a croaking that could be the call of another raven but is in fact the song of Godlet Gamma in victory mode: deedle-deedle-pom-pom, deedle-deedle-pompitty, de-de-de-DUM! DUM! DUM! 

*   *   * 

Saturday, 26 December 2015


(teatime of the gods, part 2)

*   *   *
“Why consult me?” asked Godlet Gamma, a touch peevishly, “I did a baddish Job and was taken off the Case. It was handed over to thee, I’m not allowed to intervene, I expect that includes consult?” and he reached for the consolation of the Laphroaig which he happened to have brought with him.

“Aye, right” said Fate, who believed that two affirmatives made a negative – indeed that two of anything made its opposite: for instance, two wrongs made a right, two adults made an infant, etcetera. “Come on, stop that snivelling, grow up and smell the reality. What’s in that bottle? Lap-phrow-ayg? How do you say it, what is it, anyway?”

“Er, it’s a Kind of Nectar, La-froig, I think. Wouldst thou like to try it? I like the smoky Flavour, and the After-burn.”

Some time passed in meditative sipping and noises of appreciation. Then Godlet Gamma suddenly remembered that he was consulting. Or being consulted. Or something, something to do with the Terra job, and reality …

“Um? What reality? … Reality?”

“Ach, forget that capital stuff, we don’t need it between just the two of us. And forget that thou/thee stuff as well, who needs it? The old  guy, Topgod, has to cover his ass in case of misunderstanding, but we understand each other fine.”

It took Gamma some time to grasp this startling idea. “I suppose so,” he finally replied. “Well, but what is there to consult about? You are Fate. Surely you decide what happens next, just you? All other inputs are out. Er, so to speak.”

“No, no, laddie, that’s not the reality, that’s the myth. See, I don’t decide anything. Stuff happens, and I just record it. Er this frog nectar is great stuff, could I …?”

“LaFROIG. Yes, of course, help yourself, plenty more where that came from. But who makes the decisions, then? It must be someone’s job. I suppose Topgod …”

“No, no, he’s just the administrator. See, no-one decides. Stuff just happens, like I said.”

“And that’s all you do, record it? That’s not really a top job, is it? I mean, you have to be totally reliable, of course, that’s important, but it’s not cutting-edge, not like making decisions, like I was doing before he took me off the job.”

“Ah well, recording is only a bit of what I have to do. The really fascinating bit is, once I’ve got What happened and Who did it and Where and When, I have to work out How and Why the stuff happened. That’s a lot harder, verging on the impossible sometimes.”

“So when you hear people saying It was Fated …?”

“It’s rubbish. See, I work out how and why the stuff happened retrospectively, and then folk can see that Z happened because Y had happened and Y happened because X had happened, and so on, back to the beginning of time. And because I’ve shown them this logical trail, they think I must have been in charge of it. And actually no-one was in charge: the stuff happened just because that’s the way things work. You could predict the future if you knew enough, but none of us knows enough.”

“Not even Topgod?”

“Mm. I’m not sure about that, but I suspect even Topgod doesn’t know absolutely everything. I’ve seen him looking surprised.”

“Oh? like when?”

“For instance, on Terra, when the human invented the bicycle – it took such a time after the wheel that he didn’t think it was going to join two wheels and add pedals … and I think the aeroplane was a bit of a surprise as well, not because of lack of inventiveness, more because it wasn’t needed, when there was bicycle and boat, and of course train – he really loved the train ... Och this is a really really great nectar, has he tasted it? I bet that surprised him.“

(When they speak about Topgod, they aren’t actually saying “he”, of course: none of them are he or she or it but something else, like “being” or “entity”, but there isn’t an appropriate pronoun in any human language, so we rolled the dice to decide what to use, and it decided on “he”. Was that really a random decision? Does randomness really exist? You may well ask. But back to Fate and Gamma …)

After a considerable pause, to savour the after-burn of the great new nectar, Gamma brought himself back, with an effort, to the matter in hand. Whatever that was. He felt not quite in precision-think mode.

“He hasn’t had any yet, I’m keeping it to soften him up about what I’d like to do next, something I really want to do, but he’ll probably say it can’t be done.”

“Most things can be done,” said Fate, “so long as it isn’t against a law of nature, you couldn’t cancel Gravity, for instance. What are you wanting to do? By the way, I have a rather fine store of biscuits and cheese over in that cupboard, maybe there’d be something that would go with this frog, would you have a rummage and see what you can find?”

After a bit of a rummage Gamma returned bearing a packet of oatcakes and a cheese platter sporting brie, stilton, manchego, camembert and wensleydale. They tucked in wordlessly for a while, before Gamma summoned up his nerve and outlined his near-unthinkable proposal, hesitantly at first.

“What I’d like to do, it’s maybe impossible, but what I really really want to do, is be a human for a while. For ages I’ve watched them finding ways to do things that seemed impossible, living in desert or snow-and-ice, inventing different languages, sailing, flying, climbing to a height where they can’t breathe; they take huge risks, and they’re so brave, even when they’re frightened a lot of the time. I’ve watched this and I want to know what it feels like to do it, to do something that could destroy me, make me not exist, it’s beyond imagining. I want to know what being mortal feelsh like. Hic! feelslike.” He hesitated, watching to see if Fate was shocked, but Fate was concentrating on a rather crumbly oatcake loaded with camembert, so he seized the wensleydale and went on.

“I made mishtakesh, and now Terra is a messh. If I had really undershtood what it wash like to be a human, I might of avoided the mishtakes. Hic! And I might be able to put shome of it right.”

A silence fell, broken only by the sound of intermittent munch and glug, and presently by shriek and hiss as word got round the local seagulls that a free lunch was developing.

Presently a small, tentative clearing of the throat came through the mix of crumb, laphroaig and wensleydale. “Er, ish it too shilly to even think about, hic!?”

“No, no-no-no-no. I’m thinking what an admirable and well-meaning young thing you are. And of course wondering where to get a whole crate of this frog which is making thinking so painless as to be easy and sharp – very, very sharp and to the point, ha-hah,” and Fate swayed, ever so slightly.

“Thing ish,” he went on, “thing is, how to do it. “We can turn you into a human, no big problem, but you couldn’t shurvive, survive a week, you don’t know how to do anything, you don’t undershtand money, you couldn’t pick up a fish’n’chipsh and take it home and watch telly and have a beer and a chat, you couldn’t be ordinary, not shtraight  off, you’d need practish, practice …”

^Oh. Yesh. I shee, see the problem. But…” (pause, munch, pause, glug) “… but hic! shposhe, shuppose I wash born human and learnt bit by bit, like what a baby doesh? Baby doeshn’t need money for fish’n’chipsh … “ and with this brilliant suggestion, Godlet Gamma keeled over quite slowly and lay among the oatcake crumbs and bits of wensleydale, mumbling blurrily de-de-de-DUM, de-de-de-DUM. de-de-de- …

Fate rested his head on his upper legs for a while. Then with an effort he picked up Godlet Gamma in his beak, spread his great leathery wings and floated off. Gamma’s de-de-de-DUM grew ever fainter and soon the shrieks of the seagulls drowned it out entirely.
*   *   *

Thursday, 24 December 2015


(teatime of the gods, part 1)

*   *   *
“So,” said Topgod, taking a mouthful of ambrosia and washing it down with a glug of nectar, “what hast thou discovered … mm, a very decent Nectar, this, where didst thou get it?”

Deeply unfashionable though it was, Topgod preferred the old singular form for the second person, to remove all doubt and later dispute about exactly how many he had been talking to at the time.

“Elysian Fields has just released it, apparently there’s a new Honeybee working there now, with high Resistance to the Varroa Mite; strangely, they call it the Varry Mitey Bee …”

“Their Sense of Humour has always been a Bit of a Mystery.”

You could actually hear the capital letters in Topgod’s speech, so finely cadenced was it. He felt that capitals were absolutely necessary to distinguish (for example) station the verb from Station the stopping place for trains … back when there had been Trains, ah! what Fun that had been …

“But back to Business, Youngster, what are thy Findings this Time? Thou hadst great Hopes for Terra last Assessment; art thou satisfied with recent Progress? May I?” and he topped up his glass.

Godlet Gamma sighed. “I thought I’d sorted it out nicely when I gave them Evolution: what could go wrong? Everything would adapt and survive or fail to adapt and die out, and we’d have a Planet that ran smoothly because every Creature fitted its Environment – no Worries.”

^It seemed like a massively good Plan, yes. But thou soundst as if there was a Flaw. What has happened?”

“Well, I assumed that the Whale would turn out to be the dominant Creature, and in fact it did well, there was plenty of Food in the Sea, it was reasonably peaceful, and its Music was splendid – bewitching, even; but I worried about the Human: it seemed terribly lacking in Strength compared to the Elephant or the Tiger or even our good Friend the Rat, and its Rate of Evolution was so slow compared to the Virus; I feared it would be wiped out.”

“But wasn’t that the whole Point of Evolution? To get rid of unfit Creatures? What was there to fear?”

“Well, thou seest, even back at the Beginning the Human had this Sense of Humour, it made Jokes about Everything, and that was so refreshing because almost Everything else, especially the Virus, was so very serious; only the Rat made Jokes, and they were just so anally basic, they hardly made me laugh at all. So I tried to protect the Human, to give it at least a Chance.”

“Mm, this Ambrosia has gone soggy, dost thou mind if I get another Batch out? … So what Protection didst thou give – tough Hide? Claws? Wings?”

“Sure, help thyself ... No, no, I had an Idea that I wanted to try out. I gave it three Things – Three and Seven are usually lucky Numbers, aren’t they? – I gave it the opposable Thumb so that it could hold Things and work on them and make new Things out of them …”

“That isn’t particularly new, it’s been done before and no great Harm resulted … yes, this new Batch is much crisper, thou hast to tell me where thou didst get it.”

“As thou dost say, done before, no Harm, safe enough. And then I made it walk upright so that it could see farther and reach the high Fruit and leave the Hands free for throwing Stones.”

“It still hardly sounds too dangerous?”

“But thirdly I gave it a relatively big Brain, I made it clever. And then it began to get Ideas, Stuff I hadn’t thought of began to happen, Stuff I hadn’t intended … Stuff it invented all by itself, out of its own Cleverness.”

“Thou art describing an Unintended Consequence? Well we always get a Few of those. But after all, thy Job is to foresee possible Consequences and avoid them happening unintendedly. What was it that thou didst not foresee? After all, thou didst steer clear of giving it Religion, did’nst thou … er, didst thou not?” There were times when Topgod felt that old-second-person precision was hardly worth the trouble.

“How could I have foreseen that it would be so clever as to teach itself to speak? And there came a Time when these human Animals discussed Problems and found Answers that allowed them to survive. And at first I thought this was a huge Success, for their Jokes became ever more sophisticated and multilingual, and I encouraged them, saying “Go forth and multiply” and of course that was a Disaster, because they have gone forth into Places that I never intended a Human to live, and they have multiplied so as to take up all the available Space, and they have killed off all Manner of harmless Beasts, such as the Dodo, which I loved because it was harmless and helpless and a Joke in itself …” and Godlet Gamma trailed off into heaving sobs.

Topgod patted Gamma comfortingly, and for a little while both were silent, munching the comforting crispness of the ambrosia.

Then, with a great sigh, Godlet Gamma continued. “But the worst Thing of all was – thou saidst I steered clear of Religion? Well, it’s true, I did. But what happened was – thou wilt scarcely believe this – what happened was, the Humans invented it for themselves!”

“No!” Topgod could scarcely believe what he was hearing, and nearly spat out his current swig of nectar. “That never happened anywhere else.”

“And because the Humans had divided themselves into Tribes, distinguished by physical Characteristics such as Colour, Shape of Eyes, Hairiness, and so on, each Tribe invented its own Religion; and each Tribe pictured its God in its own Image, and in its convoluted Way thought that its God had made the Human in its own Image …”

“Ah yes, back-to-front Reasoning – a quite common Failing in quasi-rational Creatures, a good Thing there are only a Few of them. My, my, the Bottle’s nearly empty, couldst thou …”

Godlet Gamma disappeared to get a new Bottle. After a while he reappeared clutching a magnificent Maxiflagon of Varry Mitey XXXX. Some time passed wrestling with the cork, and then he went on with his tale of horror.

“… so each Tribe had a God that looked different from all the other Tribes’ Gods, and this gave rise to an Imperative: thou shalt destroy the Unbeliever …”

“And naturally,” interrupted Topgod, “the Unbeliever was Everyone except one’s own Tribe. I see how this Imperative would give rise to an awesome Amount of Warfare. But surely it would also give rise to a significant Decrease in Population, thus doing at least some Good?”

“Thou wouldst think so, wouldn’tst thou, er, wouldst thou not? But what in fact happened was that this continual Warfare and enormous Number of Deaths caused the Human to concentrate on breeding more Humans, almost to the Exclusion of any other Activity. Except possibly for making Music. And, thou knowst, its Music is the best that has been produced anywhere … de-de-de-DUM, de-de-de-DUM hic! hast thou heard that one, can’t get it out of my Head … far better than anything the Whale did, course the Whale didn’t have the thingy Thumb, hic!” Godlet Gamma seemed to be drifting into another realm of thought.
“Well now, that is a veritable Train of Disaster (ahh! Trains! if only!) that thou tellst. Didst thou not realise that such Micromanagement was never Part of thy Remit? It would seem that thou hast done a baddish Job on Terra. I cannot be pleased with thy Report. Although I have to say that thy Sourcing of Food and Drink is excellent.”

“I know, I know, it’s all gone Pear-shaped and is likely to get worse if I don’t intervene … I was thinking that what I could do …”

“Stop right there. Thou hast intervened already and look at the Outcome -  a Disaster. The last Thing thou shouldst do is intervene again. Terra must now be left to itself: whether it survives or not is out of thy Hands. I now pass Terra and its Outcome to Fate. I have spoken.”

“Thou knowst it was my very first Assignment and meant a Lot to me …”

“That was the Trouble, thou wast too caught up and thou didst interfere overmuch. Best to stand back and let Things take their Course at the Dictate of Evolution; we have seen how wonderfully well it works.”

Godlet Gamma shrugged its shoulders like one relieved of a heavy burden. “I hear hic! and I obey” it slurred, “and now shall I show thee where I found this crispy Ambrosia, and hic! the Meadow where the Varry Mitey Bee …”

Spreading their great wings, off into the distance they flowed, relieved of the boredom of Assessment, getting on with the things dear to their hearts. Fainter and fainter came Godlet Gamma’s creaky tenor: de-de-de-DUM, de-de-de-DUM, hic!

*   *   *

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Ragnar Hairybreeks Question
*   *   *   *   *
So, once again the routine fasting, pill, etc. etc., into the black and out again, surfacing to High Dependency and a degree of pain that overrode anything I’d experienced before.
They often ask you to rate your pain, 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst you’d ever known. My 10 had been tooth abscess or childbirth (in their different ways they make you want to bang your head against the wall). When the nurses turned me over after the hip operations, that rated 15, but at least it didn’t last long. This pain was monstrous, way beyond 20, and the nurses hadn’t even got near the turnover bit. When they came near, I gripped the rails and wouldn’t be turned. They retreated, muttering. The monster carried on biting.
Then Karen appeared and saw that this was beyond the usual amount of nastiness. Almost at once her professional eye saw what was wrong. “Your morphine line isn’t connected,” she said, swiftly scanned the room to see who was available, and, there being no-one, connected it up; as the blessed dope took hold, I drifted back down towards the old 10 mark. Phew.
There is absolutely nothing so good as having one of your own folk looking out for you when you’re helpless.
That hiccup aside, recovery was straightforward, but the outcome was a notch or two across the fuzzy line that divides disabled from normal: I still (about 5 years later) need crutches, and even with crutches the sense of balance is iffy, for the bad leg is now a bit shorter than it used to be; it’s surprising how small a difference is enough to throw a body off balance. Moving about now is like doing a slightly difficult climb, looking all the time for the next hold, so as not to tip over.
Would I have to go into rehab, conquer the stairs, make breakfast? No, because now I had a nurse at home (Karen), they were happy to let me go. Grateful as I was for being mended, and for the effort that had gone into the repairs, and for the nurses, doctors, auxiliaries, tea-ladies, vampires, cleaners, physios and OTs, many of whom had gone out of their way to be kind and helpful beyond the call of duty, I didn’t want to go back in there again.
While home was where I wanted to be, there were things that went on being difficult, and still are: putting socks on, for instance; showering – for as soon as the shampoo makes me shut my eyes, I start falling, so each shower provides excitement parallel to a day on the Buachaille long ago.
shadows on the road at sunset
Gradually crutching distance has increased, but now I’ve gone as far as I can -  on a good day about 500 yards, half way to the nearest bus stop; when I get back after this enormous distance I am far more exhausted than after the 8-hour day long ago when Allen and I sewed up the whole of Glencoe [post of August 2013], a total ascent of 8,600 feet. Age plays a part in the difference, of course, but a minor part.
It will be obvious to any reader of the early posts in this blog that I have vivid memories of weekends spent with climbing buddies. Almost all of them died on the hill, far too young. One winter night I lay sleepless in the C.I.C. hut beneath the cliffs of Ben Nevis, knowing that Ted, one of our group, was lying outside the hut in a plastic bag, having fallen on the way down from the summit. How cold and lonely he must be out there in the snow - even while I realised how absurd that thought was, for the thing in the body-bag would never be cold or lonely again.
Back then, each fatality was shocking. Now I envy them. No doubt the end was unpleasant, but it was quick, and each one of them died doing the thing he loved.
Whereas I have lived on to become ultimately a burden, costing the NHS an amount both in money and in effort that would doubtless stagger me if I knew what it was.
Of course I am grateful for the effort that has mended this aged body, and for the time that Mike and Margaret, Sheena, Trish and Peter, Ken and Pauline, Lesley, as well as my immediate family have spent visiting; and of course the present state of the aged body, while irritating, is perfectly liveable.
Only I wonder if it has been worth that much effort.
As Ragnar Hairybreeks (was it?) asked: "Is this how you wish to be remembered?"
Back in February ’07, as I lay on the kitchen floor wondering if Widget was going to eat me, might it not have been far more economical to shoot Old and Idle now that it was broken and useless?
*   *   *   *   *
(The end (with luck))

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Twa Corbies
*   *   *   *   *
So, once again the routine checks, the fasting, the wee pill, the backless flowery gown, the trolley ride to the bright light, the calm, competent team in bonny green, the slide from trolley to table, the merciful blackness. A moment later (it seems), waking again in High Dependency, with the catheter and oxygen and the blessed morphine. Once more the bit where two nurses turn you, to prevent bedsores, and it hurts like b*ggery in spite of the morphine. (Surgeons and doctors seem unaware of this, but of course they aren’t around to hear the language and – sometimes – screams.)
Again the transfer to a ward, but this time it’s a single room with toilet, hurrah. And there’s a new feature: a weight is attached to the new cement leg, which apparently will end up a bit shorter than it was, and the weight is there to minimise the shortening. An unnerving feeling of being gradually dragged over the edge, though obviously the weight would stop when it hit the floor.
Fine to have an adjacent loo; only, when the need arose, I had to call a nurse first to remove the weight so that I could get up and make the slow zimmeration loowards, so it took quite a time to get there; since I had the blessing of a catheter it was only Number Two that needed the journey, but the antibiotic in the cement had a powerful loosening effect on the bowels, and an Urgent Need could strike very suddenly. Many near-accidents and one frightful uncontrollable episode live in the memory. Truly nurses have a shitty job.
Aside from the recurrent bowel emergency, there was little to entertain. so the brain dipped into its resources: heaps of music lived in there, but it only played what it felt like at the time; dollops of Great (and small) Literature were scattered about too, surely something amusing would surface?
Out of all that Greek and Latin stuff, was there not a snippet or two? What came to mind was Petronius, who wrote the first (possibly) novel ever (oddly, epic doesn’t count as “novel”), including a satirical account of a rich vulgar dinner-party hosted by Trimalchio, who was almost certainly a cartoon version of Nero; Nero was not pleased, and soon Petronius found himself in a situation where suicide was the best option; he invited his friends round, and they had a great party with wine and posh nosh and song and jokes, during which P. slit his veins open, bandaged them from time to time if a particularly good riff of jokes was on the go, and amid the feasting and revelry gradually handed in his dinner-pail (in a manner of speaking). Clever Petronius, I thought, remembering the white tunnel and the peaceful feeling. Best not dwell on that just now, though. How about music?
What popped up was a poem-plus-song, The Twa Corbies, by that greatest of all balladeers, Anon. Old Blind Dogs’ version was singing in my head. Everyone knows it – a tale of (probable) skulduggery and treachery told by the eponymous Corbies as they discuss their dinner-options: “I ken whaur there lies a new-slain knight,
and naebody kens that he lies there
but his hawk, his hound and his lady fair.
His hound is tae the huntin gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's tain anither mate,
So we may mak oor dinner swate."
"Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pick oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We'll theek oor nest whan it grows bare."
So we’re left to guess who done him in: his missus? the bloke she’s moved in with? both together? he was bonny, but maybe seriously boring? all we get is the Corbies’ point of view, which is limited to nosh and stuff for nest-lining – lots there to brood over, great plot material, masterly story-telling, far, far better than Shakespeare, it seems to me.
Dark thoughts, and Old Blind Dogs go on and on about the corbies picking oot his bonny blue een, but they pass the time. Days come and go, zimmering gets a little easier, Christmas is drawing near. Let me have a shot with elbow-crutches … no, impossible.
But Karen and family are coming back from South Africa for their summer holiday and they will stay with me, so I can go home. This is the most cheering news imaginable.
And on Christmas Eve they come and get me. Home means negotiating a tiny step, about one inch high, at the gate, and another at the door, incredibly difficult, but at last I can sink into an armchair and hope that zimmering the two steps down into the kitchen and bathroom will somehow be possible.
Only 10 weeks to go now, until bye-bye, cement, hello, new prosthesis. This might be the beginning of the end.
*   *   *   *   *
(alas, old’n’idle has droned on so long aboot thon pome that we’ll have to leave the rest till another instalment)

Monday, 21 September 2015

Washout and Girdlestone
*   *   *   *   *
Back in ARI, the surgeon considered the rat that was trying to escape from my scar. “We’ll open it up and wash it out,” he said. Um, did that mean the flowery gown and the balance along the prune spectrum, all over again? Of course it did. But it would be a very minor thing this time, no learning to walk again, no rehab, home as soon as the stitches were out.
And so it proved. Whew! So that was fixed, then?
Well, not entirely, because it wouldn’t quite close up again, and stuff kept oozing out of it. Community nurses came two or three times a week to change the dressing. Every month I went back to the clinic, where the surgeon took a look: it’s just laudable pus, he said; oh, so that’s all right then, and we discussed cars (his a Porsche (envy), mine a mere Alfa Romeo) and his deerhound; he showed me its picture on his iphone, a splendid beast; of course I knew that cats (especially mine) were superior to dogs, but felt that truth was best left unsaid.
I wondered what was so laudable about pus, but the surgeon inspired confidence and the community nurses were a fine bunch – I looked forward to their visits, and I was at home, and able to walk not too badly, improving steadily. Surely this little thing would clear itself up?
Going shopping was a bit iffy, because quite often the pus would unpredictably burst forth from its dressing and start to leak through my trousers, and the passers-by would be embarrassed, not realising that it was just pus, and laudable.
Sometimes they tried a new type of dressing, but still the leak continued. “It’s bound to get better eventually,” I said to the most experienced nurse; she looked away and changed the subject, and I realised I was wrong. But so what? It was a nuisance, but that’s all, basically I was fine.
But there came a day when the surgeon said “I think we should do a revision”, and went on to explain what he had in mind: open up the leg and take out the existing prosthesis. But how will I get about without a bone? Well, we then fill up the space with cement full of powerful antibiotic, and that’ll zap the remaining infection. You’ll keep the cement leg for 10 weeks, and you’ll be able to get about on it. And then we’ll open it up and remove the cement and give you a new prosthesis, and you’ll be fine.
I felt a powerful resistance to this notion: two more lots of prune etc. Why not just carry on? The pus was a nuisance but I was doing okay, it was liveable.
He told me about long-term consequences of not dealing with the infection, and made an appointment for me to see the head of Infection Control, so that I could get another opinion.

Meantime I did some googling; it seemed that the unzapped MRSA bug could result in “pneumonia or inflammation of the heart, organ disruption and even death”. Mm.
On Girdlestone I found the description of how to do it (aarrggh) and this advice to the surgeon: “This is a difficult procedure and is for more experienced surgeons only ... If you are inexperienced: (1) The joint cavity may become infected and seal off. (2) You can injure his sciatic nerve. (3) You may have to abandon the procedure uncompleted, in which case you will feel ashamed, and he will be made worse.” Double aarrggh.
I went to hear Infection Control’s message. He considered all the technical details of the infection and state of leg, and inspected my hands, especially the nails, with care. He told me what would likely happen if the bug didn’t get zapped, and it was just as Google had said. His strong recommendation was to have the revision.
Back at the clinic, the surgeon said “My predecessor wouldn’t do this; he’d do the Girdlestone bit, but not a new prosthesis. He used to do Shetland. If you go up there you’ll see folk walking like this,“ and he did a realistic imitation of a chap limping along bent over, with one leg shorter than the other. Yes I’d seen folk walking like that, though I hadn’t known what was wrong. “It’s a difficult procedure; and you’ll need a longer prosthesis, specially ordered, expensive. But I’m willing to offer it. It’s your choice, no-one’s forcing you. If we’re going to do it, the sooner the better.” And we reverted to discussing Porsches and deerhounds, to give me time to think.
I tossed a mental penny, yes or no, and shut the frontal lobes down and consulted the lizard …
“Yes,” I said, “go ahead.”
*   *   *   *   *

(How amusing will a cement leg turn out to be? Will a new, longer prosthesis be fun? or not? the next (and possibly last) instalment will reveal all)

Sunday, 20 September 2015

In the Cupboard
*   *   *   *   *
How long for the vancomycin to zap the MRSA? When will I be back home? The doctor, a kindly soul, strokes his chin. “Oh, just a few weeks?” I note the question in his voice and the way he’s looking into the far distance, and reckon on it being a fair number of weeks. So in that case, how amusing is it going to be in the cupboard?
Pluses: I feel reasonably ok; there is a bed, a wee chest of drawers, a washbasin, a commode, a window high up with a view of the sky; I might be able to open that window; I won’t need to practise putting on socks.
Minuses: intravenous medication for an hour twice daily; strictly no socialising with other patients (that might be a plus, of course, depending); boredom?
But surely there’s enough random rubbish in the head to keep the boredom at bay? And of course visitors can come and tell me what’s doing in the great outside world where there is weather and the owl at night, and my cats – I worry about the cats.
Mike and Margaret, my nearest neighbours, come regularly: the cats are fine, no need to worry, here are your clean clothes, give us your dirty ones, here’s a bacon sandwich from M&S, and some dark-chocolate-coated ginger biscuits. Oh yum yum. I keep the sandwich up on the high windowsill to eat at 5 a.m., before the day shift comes on with breakfast. What a drag it must be to come and visit, parking is a nightmare, but they do it week in, week out, bringing treats. My indebtedness is very soon far beyond any chance of repaying.
Other neighbours pop in from time to time, and even a neighbour's sister, visiting from South Africa because her father is somewhere in this hospital, comes for a chat.
Lesley, once a colleague in Stromness, comes all the way from Montrose, bringing news of Orkney, for she visits there regularly. Madeline, once a fellow student, comes all the way from Edinburgh, with a fat book about the depopulation of St Kilda.
Without the visitors the cupboard could have been a tad desolate. But even outside visiting hours there was some light entertainment. For instance, the battle of Getting Into Bed.
Getting out of bed was a doddle, necessary either to wash or to evacuate into the commode, or to access the bacon sandwich on the high windowsill. But getting back into bed was seriously difficult, because the bad leg was by now enormously swollen and so heavy that even heaving with both hands I couldn’t get it off the floor. I tried asking for help. We can’t lift that, they said, we aren’t allowed, it would hurt our backs. Health And Safety rules.
So I asked for a slip sheet (a piece of slippery material which makes sliding on to the bed possible – I’d been given one in Inverurie). No, too dangerous. Why? You could slide right across the bed and shoot off to the floor, Health And Safety.
Arrant rubbish, of course. No way could that happen. But I guessed what might be going on: perhaps they’d been told to make me try harder, because I was a lazy attention-seeker, unwilling to make an effort. (Which, of course, I was, only not in that particular context.)
Next I evolved a Cunning Plan. I kept a big plastic bag in which Mike and Margaret had brought my clean clothes. When no one was observing, I laid it on the edge of the bed, slid smoothly over it and safely into bed, then hid the plastic bag.
For quite some time no one knew, or if they knew they kept silent. And with practice it gradually became easier and quicker. But one day they said “We’ve been told to check how you get safely into bed.” “Oh, no need,” I said, “it’s no problem.” “Aye, but we’ve been told …” Gulp. I got out of bed, wondering how to get out of this, but no Cunning Plan B came to mind. So making an enormous effort and heaving with both hands I got my huge swollen leg with its attendant sorry carcass back into bed. Hah.
The weeks were passing, and it was getting steadily more difficult to find a vein. There came a time when only one nurse, the Chief Vampire, could get a cannula to work, and she was usually on night shift somewhere upstairs, available around midnight. So they decided to put in a Hickman line, a tube in my chest, straight into a major blood vessel. Under local anaesthetic I watched the x-ray movie as the tube went in – the most entertainment for ages. After that, getting the medicine aboard was easier.
The vancomycin course came to an end, but the MRSA was still there, unzapped. What next? Was it time to give up? No, they had another weapon that might be the answer, gentamicin. How long would that take? Oh, er, a few weeks? Hmm.
One day, a deputation came. I needed to be moved, not clear why. There was choice: Inverurie, Oldmeldrum or Elgin. The obvious place was Inverurie, only 10 miles from home (home – would I ever go home?)
Back again to Inverurie, but this time not a big ward, not a cupboard, but a spacious bedroom with attached bathroom - basin, proper flushing looand SHOWER – and a fridge and TV. All to myself. With many windows looking onto grass and trees and people walking about.
Ecstasy. Bacon sandwiches kept much better in the fridge. Mike and Margaret sometimes took me out in a wheelchair to watch the skateboarders doing their amazing thing.
The bad leg was less swollen now, getting into bed was a doddle, the morning shower bliss. Soon be home.
The weeks ground slowly past, I felt fine. One day the Hickman line had clogged up, and the medication wouldn’t travel in, so they sent me back to hospital, where the line was pulled out. By now the veins were once more adequate.
A day came when they said “You can go home tomorrow.” Home? HOME! Tomorrow? TOMORROW!
Next day, as I packed things and got ready, I suddenly felt a shivering tremor. The same shiver that had marked the onset of the MRSA months back? No. Absolutely not.
Mike came and took me home, and I found that he had got Charlie, the blacksmith down the road, to put in two strong rails at the steps between kitchen and livingroom. The Occupational Therapist fixed a rail beside the bath and a board across the bath so that I could shower sitting down.
And there were the cats, well looked after all this time, and we started going for walks again, a bit shakily at first, but soon into the woods, following our old tracks.
A joyous time.
Until one day I noticed that the scar was a bit red. A day or two later it was bulging; it looked as if a rat was trying to get out. I took it along to the GP. He gave it one look and phoned for an ambulance. And gave me half an hour to get home and find my things for going back to hospital.
*   *   *   *   *

(Is Old’n’Idle doomed? Has the superbug won? Next instalment may reveal all, or possibly not.)