Sunday, 29 September 2013

Boreas Domus Mare Amicus
(the north our home, the sea our friend)
“Now tell me this,” said Edwin Harrold, with a twinkle in his eye and a much-too-solemn face, “if a hen and a half lays an egg and a half in a day and a half, how many eggs will three hens lay in three days?”
Oh, no, it was riddle time, and there was no right answer; some of the possible replies were
1. 3 eggs, the expected answer?
2. you can’t have half-hens laying half-eggs, true but boring
3. 6 eggs, disappointing?
Which would be best? #1 would give the pleasure of seeing the ferrylouper (incomer) fall into the trap; #2 would label you as an anorak; #3 would be a nuisance – a more cunning trap needed.
But it was too wondrous a place to worry overmuch, because we were in Happy Valley, which Edwin had created out of a rather dismal stretch of moorland, converting it into a tiny paradise by planting trees and creating waterfalls in the little burn. Edwin’s house grew heather on its roof and had an electric light bulb which lit up when Edwin pulled a wire which caused a little paddle-wheel to dip into the water of the burn and generate electricity.
Edwin is no more, but he typified all that was attractive in the Orcadian: a fine craftsman, inventive, independent, happy with a kind of life that had hardly changed (except for the wire and the light bulb) in the last many thousands of years. Before retiring, he had repaired ancient monuments such as brochs for a living, and one could easily imagine him building a broch and living in it, cosily and efficiently, peaceful but ready to repel any invader, whether by riddle or by even sterner measures.
The ferrylouper had to be assessed to find out whether and where it might fit into the community, and was subjected to many tests, though none of them quite as difficult as the Happy Valley Inquisition. “What do you think of Orkney butter/cheese/homebrew?” was easy. But it was also very easy to put a foot wrong, through blind southern habit. There was a day that we took the canoe to Harray Loch, paddled up to the other end, a distance of about 4.5 miles, and beached the canoe, intending to walk back to the car; but no need, for up drove our car, helmed by our postman, who gently let us know the error of our big-city ways: “You’d taken the keys, so I had to hot-wire her.” We grovelled; but at least we hadn’t locked her, for we were learning.
We had arrived in the winter of 1968-69, and since there were no teacher’s houses available in Stromness itself, we were housed in Kirbister schoolhouse three miles or so away; “Will your man put you to the school?” asked the Director of Education, revealing an expectation of feminine inability that had long since vanished farther south; legend had it that the last teacher at this school had been a stern woman who made the children cut her grass with nail-scissors – a teaching practice unknown in the south. And there was plenty of grass to cut, for the school had an acre of land, some of it tarmacked but all the rest grass and wild flowers.
the road was drifted in
It was an interesting winter, with a lot of snow drifting in wind which reached over 100 knots before it blew away the Kirkwall airport anemometer. In our house drifts of snow piled up inside tightly closed windows, and when I went out to fetch coke for the stove I was blown away up the iced tarmac and had to crawl back. The road was drifted in, but it was not too far to walk to Stromness, so long as I started about an hour earlier than usual; one morning when I set out around 7:30, with the full moon shining on an unnaturally windless and totally silver landscape and not a human nor a vehicle to be seen for miles, I have to confess that I turned back, with the excuse that the two-thirds of the pupils who were bussed in from the country would not be going to school that day. An inglorious decision, but a beautiful day, in which we built an igloo, and took a candle into it that evening and sat very cosily in sleeping-bags reading our books.
“The sea our friend” says Orkney’s coat of arms but the sea around Orkney has strong tidal currents; an online pilotage guide for small craft advises how to navigate the Pentland Firth:
when a swell is opposed to the tidal stream, a sea is raised which can scarcely be imagined by those who have never experienced it; and, if … the wind is light and with the stream, a sailing vessel becomes unmanageable.
The morning of 18 March 1969, when the maroon went off, I was teaching, and was struck by the indrawn breath and absolute silence in class; all eyes were fixed on the window, which looked out over the harbour. They knew what it meant, though I did not, having been in Orkney less than four months.
It meant a call-out for the lifeboat, all of whose crew were known to, or even fathers of, the pupils, most of whom also knew the reason for the call-out: the Longhope lifeboat had gone missing in the Pentland Firth the previous night, in a force 9 gale and 60-foot waves, on her way to help the Irene, in difficulties off the coast of South Ronaldsay. The Irene ran aground, and all her crew were rescued by breeches buoy, but the lifeboat had disappeared.
Later that day she was found, capsized, the entire crew drowned, a man lost from every home in the tiny community where the lifeboat was based. If 130,000 men were wiped out today in Edinburgh in the space of 24 hours it would parallel that catastrophe in numbers, but not in personal grief unless the 130,000 were all neighbours and friends of the entire population of Edinburgh; worse still, two families had each lost a father and two sons - what sort of parallel could you find for that in a big city? It was an incident in the face of which mere statistics tell you little of importance.
As this dire news trickled in, the whole island grieved, for, as we were coming to realise, this was a place where John Donne’s famous lines
no man is an island, entire of itself; … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee
were part of the way of life for people needing to survive in a small group of islands nearer Norway than London.
So much for Mare Amicus. Perhaps Orcadians called the sea “friendly” in the same spirit that the ancient Greeks called the Furies Eumenides  – “kindly”?
Old Man of Hoy
Our travel between Orkney and Scotland was usually two hours in the Ola, passing Hoy and its Old Man, across the Pentland Firth to Scrabster; it could be a lovely journey or unlovely-going-on-horrendous. One return to Stromness after a holiday south with the three bairns lives in the memory. Leaving Scrabster the word was that it was too bad to go the usual route west of Hoy, so we’d head eastwards and get into the shelter of Scapa Flow. Not many minutes out of Scrabster, mass passenger-puke started, and the luggage began to slither to and fro across the floor. Time passed, and the entrance to the Flow drew nearer, but so did the cliffs as the Ola fought against the tide-race off Hoxa Head (probably where the Longhope lifeboat had capsized), a fight that the tide-race won, so back up the Pentland Firth we lurched, past the awesome western cliffs of Hoy, round the corner into Hoy Sound, and finally into Stromness Harbour, where the luggage settled, colour returned to the passengers’ faces and, after more than seven hours, we were home. Well nearly, because there was no-one to meet us, the spouse having given up on us and gone to a party. But a car pulled up, its door opened and our doctor said “You’ll be needing a lift” and took us out to Kirbister.
In one day, the worst and the best aspects of life on an island. Hardly blemished even by finding the sink in the schoolhouse piled with a fortnight’s worth of washing-up.
~   ~   ~   ~   ~
coat of arms, 1975
Boreas Domus: now that the north was our home, how appealing was the landscape to the eye of a mountain addict?
At first, unexciting: fields, fences, a bit of moorland, no rocks, no trees. But the periphery, cliffs interrupted by the occasional beach, was where the buzz lay. The coast near Yesnaby was just two miles away across moorland from our house; and there were miles of cliffs, caves, geos, sea stacks; in a few places one could get down to sea level, where on a stormy day the ground could be covered by sinister foam over welly-boot-height: sinister, because there was no telling what (if anything) lay underneath it, and because a big wave could come in and suck you away unless you kept a look out and were nimble; mostly the cliffs leaned outwards, and only from down at sea level could you see the caves that crouched below the overhang. The local wisdom was that Orkney was gradually tilting over to the west, whereas the rest of UK was tilting to the east; where, I wondered was the place where the two opposing tilts were grinding past each other – perhaps the middle of the Pentland Firth? No one would hazard a guess, or perhaps it was an ignorant question.
Yesnaby Castle
Two sea-stacks south of Yesnaby were once arches jutting out from the land until the middle of the arch collapsed into the sea; this was how the Old Man of Hoy had morphed from headland in 1750 to arch by 1820 and later become a stack (“ - for now!”, as gleefully adds).
interesting rock detail
Near Yesnaby was an arch across which you could reach a platform allowing a fine view of the cliff face; I went there a lot, with caution because a sudden gust of wind could easily hurl you down past all that interesting rock detail and smash you on the spikiness at its base, and also because the whole structure had the feel of something that might collapse at any time. I confided this thought to the local wisdom, a fount of geographical lore, and it bent on me a patronising smile of sympathy for my cowardice and said “It’s been there for thousands of years, it won’t be collapsing any time soon” – a train of logic that I found odd, considering the history of the Old Man of Hoy, and decided to stay cautious, fearful and (hopefully) unsmashed.
The next week end I went back to exercise my fearful caution once more … and it was gone. The whole lot, arch and platform, had fallen into the sea, and near the edge, where it had connected with the land, the ground now sported a series of parallel cracks, as though great chunks of the cliff edge were just about to dive off after their brothers into the friendliness of the sea.
moors near Yesnaby in winter
Often I would walk from Kirbister across the moorland to reach the cliffs; half–way there was a tiny tree, a prostrate juniper roughly two inches tall; I used to bend down and sniff its leaves for the gorgeous smell of gin that it gave off; one warm day I lay down beside it for a prolonged gin-snuffle and became aware that the ear pressed to the ground could hear the booming of the sea sucking in and out of the caves far below, a mile away from the edge of the land. Suddenly it felt like being on a honeycomb rather than solid ground.
Yesnaby, looking south to Hoy
There was a misty winter day when I’d left home later than usual, and darkness fell before I’d reached the sea, but I kept on, thinking no wind, not too cold, if necessary I could follow the cliffs north to Yesnaby and return by road. As heather and peat underfoot gave way to grass and gravel I knew that the edge of the cliffs must be near, but could see nothing through the foggy darkness. Until the feet stopped of their own accord and the ears told me that something had changed – there was a low echoing mutter that had not been there a second ago. As I stood there the mist drifted and parted, and I saw that I was standing a few inches from the edge, where the next step would have been my last … if the old lizard brain hadn’t done its job.

After all, this northern home, this friendly(?) sea had its excitements.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Heptade of the Were-Toad
There are lots of downsides in the later stages of pregnancy: two of the less gross ones are not being able to breathe lying down and having to lean back to counterbalance the weight. You long for it to be over, and simultaneously dread the process of getting it over, and the quality of the life-after is hazy and uncertain. But the magic of hormones takes care of some of the fear and angst, because you become unnaturally calm in the face of the unknown, though unwontedly irritable with your partner.
You have changed shape, your physical and emotional balance is altered, you are now a were-toad, dragging your massive belly around searching for strange foods. Or a were-jellyfish, floating mindlessly in the warm sea of ignorance, stinging anyone who swims too near. What it must be like to be the partner of a person who has suddenly become a were-toad/jellyfish is beyond imagining.
Of course, everyone’s experience is different, this is only mine, a person who had not troubled to find out much about the production and rearing of offspring, and lacked the skills necessary to survive in this strange new landscape. At some phase of the nine months it takes to make a new person I was aware of an enormous door hissing shut on all the accumulated skills of the previous 31 years and opening on to a quite unfamiliar prospect, a kind of Desert of Unknowingness: I was now no longer a mountaineer or linguist or mathematician, I was Elderly Prim, a piece of meat a bit past its use-by date.
Prim not in its normal sense but short for primigravida, pregnant for the first time (discounting any that got away in a miscarriage). And “elderly” is “over-25, or -30 or -40” or whatever is currently believed to be the maximum desirable age for women to reproduce. Women, not men. It’s perfectly OK for a 90-year old man to reproduce, cheers. This is not unfair dealing, just a fact of life.
So as the great door hissed shut and blotted out the familiar terrain of the past it was like being parachuted onto the great Cairngorm plateau at midwinter in a whiteout, with no map, compass or whistle to blow for help; I could walk straight over the edge without even knowing it was there; too cold to stop, too lost to turn back, the only thing to do was keep on, and hope. What a fine source of metaphor is the mountain!
No good now comes of consulting the wisdom of the ancients: they were almost all blokes, and all they wrote about was bloke stuff – war, politics, law, how to build aqueducts, chaps in wee boats being blown hither and thither in the Mediterranean – interesting enough in its way but largely irrelevant to the conduct of a pregnancy.
Fortunately for the survival of the human (or any) race, ignorance hardly matters. The organism knows what to do, at a level even more basic than the old lizard brain (which spends the months snoozing with its feet up, unless there is an emergency) and just carries on with all that fantastically clever cell-division, organisation of specialised bits, checking that the feet are on the right way round and timing of the escape mechanism, without you having to do or think anything. All you have to do is obey commands: if it says “eat coal” or “drink lemon juice”, you need to eat coal or drink lemon juice for whatever component is the chemical that the organism needs. And on the process goes, unstoppable.
During this time, agitation and speculation from the big brain would be a nuisance, hindering the basic organism’s smooth operation, but luckily a peculiar calm fogs the little grey cells and sends them to lie about sleepily in hammocks with flowers in their hair; until the moment comes when the GP sends you to hospital, whereupon the peaceful reliance on basic organism is stopped in its tracks, and the wonders of medicalization take over.
The process should have been medicalized much earlier, for there existed pre-natal clinics that one was supposed to attend; but I went to only one, and it was so reminiscent of a combination of Kafka and Primary School - mindless bureaucracy coupled with infantile bullying - that I never went back.
Arriving at the hospital, I was told “It’s the wrong day, the clinic’s on Tuesday.” When I said the GP had told me to come, they asked “What  for?” I think the bump wasn’t showing as much as it ought to. Eventually they admitted me and the process of humiliation began. The elderly prim had no name, it was simply “mother”, with a note of exasperation, the very word spat out like a curse. Hearing the well-known and beloved note of my Ariel coming into the parking, I remarked “That’s my bike, that’ll be my husband,” and they tutted at me as if I’d lost my marbles. The moment when push came to shove arrived, and the nurse said “O gawd, what am I supposed to do?” and scurried away to get her Ladybird Book of Midwifery. Not reassuring.
I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, it wasn’t a Ladybird book.
(The next two births were at home, a much cosier experience; and from what I hear, a hospital birth now is very different from what it used to be.)
Back home, not only did a succession of hormones rage on and on, but there were the well-known sleep-deprivation effects, used to torture the captive for as long as humans have wanted to be nasty to each other:
Sleep deprivation can cause impaired memory and cognitive functioning, decreased short term memory, speech impairment, hallucinations, psychosis, … stress, anxiety and depression. (The Justice Campaign: Torture Techniques used in Guantanamo)
Mm, yes. And sleep-deprivation was visited on me in spades by this new tiny creature. Now not only had I turned into a were-toad in a Cairngorm white-out but I was becoming a hallucinating, psychotic, stressed, anxious and depressed were-toad. What hope was there for the future of Kay, the new child?
You might easily think “None”. But fortunately for Kay and all new humans, at the basic animal level we inherit millions of years of experience in how to produce and rear a child, and the basic animal cares not at all for the mutterings of that big useless lump of grey matter beneath the skull, its doubts, its worries, its ignorance; the animal just keeps going, day after day, probably copying what its own mother did, way back, and - with luck - the new creature survives and grows.
And the most astonishing thing happens. You fall in love, not the wishy-washy love of the romantic novel, not the lust of the bodice-ripping Sir Jasper, but a determination to do everything needed for the creature’s survival, even at the cost of your own health, sanity or, if necessary, life. Because it has been part of you and always will be, in some degree.
But it is also, of course, its own self, and that’s another source of wonderment: that this new human, with hardly any experience of life, already has its own personality, different from yours or your partner’s, different from subsequent siblings’, something entirely its own; where did that come from? Fascinating to live with and watch what happens.
creatures with their own personality
These are the features that gradually unfold as the mist dissipates and the view becomes clearer: love, wonder and fascination, and the daily grind necessary to enable the continued survival of the loved, wonderful, fascinating creatures that - in spite of all your ignorance - you have produced. Wherever you go in the future, whatever job you undertake, they are your primary concern; and if that alters where you might go or what you might do for a living, so be it.
Later on the wonderful creatures will come to rebel; they will ignore your advice, despise your habits, laugh merrily at your food, clothes, language, music … go their own way as independent people, as they must do. And you may feel the occasional surge of irritation, but you don’t really mind, because it’s so fascinating. As if you were watching a David Attenborough wildlife series, day after day. No way would I want to live for ever, but it would be most entertaining to be able to survive in the form of a succession of flies on the wall, simply watching what happens next.
So, during a seven-year stretch (a heptade) in the ‘60s, Kay, Cee and Em entered the world in Edinburgh, each in a different place, for our moves during those years were frequent. At the start of the heptade I was a singleton, a teacher in Crieff living for weekends; by the end of it I was part of a tribe, learning how to live the tribal life, and - after entrepreneurial rise and fall - a teacher once more, without having yet properly emerged from the condition of hallucinating psychotic were-toad/jellyfish, possibly delusional about the wondrousness of the small people of the tribe. And living now in Orkney, an unfamiliar place, among a people with a way of life and culture rather different from what I’d been used to, but a place and people that taught me, during the next three heptades, far more about living than I ever taught them about the ancient culture and language that it was my job to reveal.

But Orkney needs a whole post to itself, perhaps even more than one.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Utter Bloody Madness

Or so said those of our friends who knew anything about Business. And they were right, for we were scarily ignorant.
And yet it seemed a good idea. On the one hand, here were we, looking for a way to make a living, and one of us with huge expertise in the world of racing dinghies; and over there were numerous dinghy sailors who could find no place locally to buy the necessary fittings, rope and paint. If we could find a place to operate from and induce suppliers to give us stock on credit, we could make a start and see if it would work.
Hence the birth of the Boat Shop, in a mews in a posh bit of the New Town. In no time at all the Jack Holt dinghy fittings, the International paint and the Marlow rope were flying off the shelves, and any empty space was filling up with bits of paper, some of it printed, called Invoice and (presently) Statement, some of it handwritten notes saying, e.g., “Fred: 2 yellow 1 black”, some of it banknotes escaping from the Shoebox of Takings, which doubled as the Shoebox of Lunch Money.
It took only a few days to realise that the paperwork had to be conquered, that we were the army that must conquer it, since who else was there? And yet how? We did not even know what an invoice was, nor had we much idea how to keep track of what our customers had taken and how to extract an appropriate amount of money from them. The task looked impossible.
If you had a problem in the extremely olden days you might use the technique of the sortes Vergilianae: you shut your eyes, let your Aeneid fall open, stabbed the page with a finger and read the wisdom of the stabbed line. So, for example, if your finger stabbed v.143:
convulsum remis rostrisque tridentibus aequor
“Aha!” you would cry, “the sea convulsed with oars and three-pronged beaks  - this surely means put in an order for oars and … eh, toasting-forks? Can that be right?” Such was the Wisdom of the Ancients.
However, what we chanced to have handy was not the Aeneid but a booklet full of quotes from Napoleon, and we reckoned that this would serve the same purpose. After all, had he not been a great strategist? His ideas could well be helpful.
So we let the booklet fall open and stabbed it.
     impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools
Fine, OK. But something more positive, please, M. Bonaparte?
     never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake
Hm, good thinking, but surely for a world more savage than the world of bits of boats. Give him a last try.
     an army marches on its stomach
Yes! At last, the message: go and have lunch.
Napoleon being short of advice for the war against paper, we applied for help to the spouse’s mother who, it turned out, knew how to do this stuff, and set us up with a simple, easy system and an explanation of what and when and how and why.
Other pieces of advice came our way. A wealthy customer, as he loaded a mass of rope and paint into his car, advised us: “If anyone doesn’t pay after you’ve sent your final demand, take him to court, or he won’t respect you.” He was the only customer who never paid us.
the ice yacht at Newhaven
Soon we needed more space, and we moved into a shop down in Newhaven, opposite the Chain Pier Bar. (This was where the ice yacht described in Ready About took shape.) Furnished with used egg-crates, it allowed a better display, and it had a basement where we could cook lunch and do the paperwork.
By this time I was pregnant and beginning to find the future bleak, for we were still living with the in-laws and although the shop was going well we couldn’t see any possibility of buying a place to live. The shop basement was certainly liveable for adults who needed only a sleeping-bag, but it would hardly do for a baby. Or so I thought, but actually I had no idea what a baby might need.
regatta at Loch Earn: spouse, OK dinghy, van
Meantime we still went to regattas, with the van full of things for sale, so that it was not easy to live in. I now found the OK too much to handle in strong winds, and capsizes hard to recover from, so I began to stay put and leave the regattas to the spouse. Things were closing in, the years of playing about on the hill or the water were finished, it was growing-up time and felt desolate.
Maybe  as a result of a particularly brisk wind at Helensburgh regatta and a lot of capsizing (which convinced me that I needed to stop sailing), or maybe because it’s quite a common thing to happen, I had a miscarriage and spent a number of days in bed at the in-laws’ house miscarrying into a Heinz Beans tin and emptying it periodically into the far-off loo.
At the next weekend, the spouse went to South Queensferry regatta to sail with his ex-girlfriend Samantha, whom he’d not married (he told me) because she had too many accidents and was thus unfit to rear children. It was a curious coincidence that after she’d taken up with a different boyfriend she stopped having accidents. How interesting.
Anyway, there I was, on a sunny Saturday, feeling weak as a kitten, minding the shop down at Newhaven and beginning to think that I wanted no part of Growing Up, and perhaps the time had come to admit that this was a way of life that I wasn’t fitted for, and I’d better get out while I still could.
When who should appear but Tommy, last seen in the bar of the Kingshouse in Glencoe telling me I couldn't marry Joe McCash; “You’re looking a bit miserable,” he said. So I told him the story and he said “I’m away to Glencoe with my sister and her husband and the girlfriend, do you want to come?” Shakily I packed the old rucksack, closed the shop, and went off with my old friend to stay in my old tent at the foot of that old playground, the Buachaille. The girlfriend wore spectacularly bright horizontally striped knee-socks and seemed disgruntled – she’d probably been expecting a weekend alone with Tommy.
Sleepless with happiness I lay and listened to the sounds of the river flowing past and presently the rain pattering on the tent, and intermittent squeaks of “Get OFF!” from nearby. Not, I thought, from the sister’s tent.
Next day, we went west into Ardnamurchan and lost the rain, and Tommy hurled off his clothes and dived into the sea, as happy as could be, while the striped kneesocks lay on its back refusing to watch him, and sulked. Which didn’t bother him at all.
And so, with that brief sating of nostalgic craving, the crisis passed.
Pitt Street, Kay in pram
Presently we moved into a shop at the foot of Pitt (now Dundas) Street, with not only a basement but also a sub-basement, way down where the big rats lived and where we thought we too could live, relieving the in-laws of our presence, for by now we had our first child, Kay, who slept in the double-sleeping-bag with us for protection from the rats. To get to the loo in the night one had to negotiate the eerie rooms of the sub-basement by torchlight which reflected the baleful red eyes of the indigenous inhabitants. Aarggh.
I suggested to the spouse that we might block the obvious big hole in the skirting of the room where we slept (it was hardly a bedroom) but he said it was better to leave it open, because that way we knew where the rats would come out; if we blocked it they would just make another hole, and we wouldn’t know where that was. I could see the logic of this, especially when he said that his father had wide knowledge of the ways of the rat, that the rats travelled freely through all the sub-basements of Edinburgh and could never be blocked.
The next night there was a tremendous amount of squealing from the hole.
-               - What’s that?
-               -  Mr Rat, of course
-               -  But why is he squealing like that?
-               - That’s the young rat. The old rat nips his tail to make him go through the hole first, in case someone’s waiting to kill him
-               -  Mm. Clever Mr Rat
Through the window, down there in the fiefdom of Mr Rat, could be seen the feet of passing pedestrians, and a tiny bit of sky, way high up. It was scarcely the best ambience for a tiny child.
Just round the corner, a top floor flat came up for sale for £1,200 (£300,000 – £400,000 now, I guess) and before long we were living at an altitude that for Mr Rat was probably the Death Zone – at any rate we seemed to have shaken him off. The flat had rooms so huge that my sister said the whole of her house floor plan would have fitted into our dining-room. Only the pram did not share our satisfaction: he was big and heavy and didn’t want to go up and down three flights of stairs. I used to take Kay up first, tie her to the railings, go down, lug the pram up, unlock the door, bring Kay and the pram indoors – and reverse the process for going down. Nowadays, Health and Safety would probably raise their eyebrows.
But to return to the rise and fall of the Boat Shop. Helping in the shop had become difficult, especially when the second child, Cee, arrived; and when the spouse decided that he needed to expand I could hardly argue, although by now he was employing a secretary and a book-keeper, their pay took precedence over our own, and I couldn’t see where the finance for expansion was to come from.
Economics and money are beyond my comprehension. Why must growth and expansion go on after a certain point? Surely to think one must go on growing is the thinking of a cancer? And, because a cancer ultimately kills the organism it is lodged in, it’s a thing whose unwitting purpose is its own extinction.
Long ago I’d been gripped by a photo of a lad on a station platform waiting for the train to Snowdonia; on his back was everything he needed, and though tilted forward slightly to counterbalance the weight, he carried it easily and looked happy. This, I realised, was what I wanted: to travel light, accumulate the bare minimum and resist any unnecessary extra.
A business that had to keep on growing seemed to me to be set on self-destruction, but I didn’t know enough, and wasn’t contributing enough, to make any serious objection, and on we went, expanding in various directions that seemed only to be ridding ourselves of profit without making any return.
There came a time when suppliers had to be paid, and where was the money to come from? By selling the flat, of course, for house prices were rising. Where to live? We bought a caravan, towed it to a hillside not far from the airport, stashed all our furniture on the paving down by the double basement of the shop, and hoped it wouldn’t rain. The secretary looked at it and said the best thing to do with all that bruck would be to douse it with petrol and set fire to it.
The crisis passed and we managed to find another house, down in Trinity, looking out over the Forth. But before very long the suppliers ran out of patience and the Boat Shop folded. Not long afterwards I produced our third and last child, Em.
Our meals became monotonous: roast potato with mashed potato, boiled potato with turnip. My teeth began to fall out. When the day came that I spent our last few pence on a big turnip which turned out to be riddled with worms, I decided that since my qualifications would probably get me a job, I must become a teacher again. A temporary post at a posh school was offered; I took it, and went on looking for something permanent.
Stromness, Orkney, was advertised. I went up there for an interview and got the job. We had a week to sell the house; the spouse’s father was decorating the walls with the thinnest conceivable layer of magnolia emulsion even while the people were looking around.
Our belongings, including the caravan, went on board the St Rognvald at Leith, followed by ourselves. We were fed an enormous meal of salt beef and beetroot, Em being particularly taken with the beetroot, and then went to our cabin where, since there were only four berths, I lay on my back, clasping Em tightly on top of me. It was too much trouble to remove my white polo-neck pullover and trousers.
In the middle of the night it became stormy as we crossed the Pentland Firth in a gale, and Em tipped her partially-digested beetroot over my white polo-neck pullover, where it festered for the three days it took for our luggage to be brought from Kirkwall to Stromness.
Thus began a new and exceptionally interesting life, copying the lad in the iconic photo by carrying only what I stood up in, but covered in bright purple vomit.  

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Attack of the Earworms

The placard that hung above our heads on the bedroom wall urged us:

Any educationist can tell you what happens when you tell someone NOT to do something: the NOT is edited out automatically by a special bit of the human brain that evolved there a long time ago, possibly in response to the Ten Commandments, most likely even earlier. So the transmuted message was what reached us throughout our formative years; by the time we left home it had had many years to sink in.
Luckily for my sister and me, the message hung behind our beds, so that we only glimpsed it in passing; but it probably gripped my mother’s attention as she did all that cleaning and dusting stuff that used to happen in the olden days, and she was by nature a worrier to start with. Far into the night we could hear through the wall my mother’s voice worrying incessantly. About what? We couldn’t hear the words, only the tone. And in the pauses which were signalled by a questioning rise in tone we could hear a reassuring response that my father had become able to make even while deeply asleep.
These two voices are so deeply lodged in my memory that they have become earworms, liable to stir and emerge from their burrows in times of stress, and when they emerge they come not simply as tones of voice but with actual words. 
on the way up Ben Macdui
There was a day, for instance, the last day of my holiday, when I felt a need to knock off Ben Macdui before returning to the flat lands of Oxford. From Glenclova Hostel I cycled the 60 or so miles to Inverey, where the hostel was listed as having food, so I didn’t stop in Braemar to pick up provisions. It turned out that in practice Inverey Hostel had no food and no warden, and by then it was too late to go back to Braemar.
Rummaging in the saddlebag I found a wee cache of dried apple flakes and some glucose tablets; that would have to do. Some apple flakes in hot water (pumped up from the well, beautiful water, no chlorine) for supper and off to bed.
Ben Macdui summit cairn
This was the first time I’d been in the Cairngorms so I started up the track to Derry Lodge, carried on part way through the Lairig Ghru, up by the March Burn, over the summit plateau of Macdui (4295ft) in thick mist (aarrgh, was that the dreaded Fear Liath Mòr (Big Grey Man) up ahead at the top? no, only the summit cairn, phew), down the other side, past Loch Etchachan, down Glen Derry. It’s a reasonably long walk, and a fair climb to the top of Macdui, and I was really pretty hungry in spite of chewing the remainder of the apple flakes en route, but still it was a surprise when I fell over on the way down Glen Derry. A glucose tablet, and the legs started whirring again, but not for long, down again, another glucose.
Presently the attack of the earworms started. It began with my mother’s voice, “Oh dear, you’ll never manage,” which triggered another topple to the peat and another glucose; oh dearie me, I found myself thinking, I’ll never manage, I’m going to just lie here and rot away, and turn into whitening bones … In came my father’s voice, “You can do it, get up, you’ll be all right,” and up I got and carried on … until here came the song of the mother worm again, “Oh dear …”
The alternating worms kept up their songs until the glucose and the father worm got me back to Inverey, on to the bike, along to Braemar, where the hostel had great wads of food, for by this time rationing was easing. I got bacon and bread and kippers and a tin of spaghetti, and fried them all together in a massive great pan, a potent nosh to remember on the long train journey back down to the flat lands and spires of Oxford.

Not far away, in Abingdon, lived my sister Joan; in the more than 80 years that I knew her, I never fathomed what made her tick, but I have clear memories of her expertise at coping with the minutiae of daily living. Back when we shared the bedroom of

I T   M A Y   H A P P E N
our school uniform consisted of white blouse, navy tunic, long black stockings and sensible shoes; under the blouse was a device known as a liberty bodice, whose job was to hold up the stockings via four suspenders: it gave the enclosed body liberty in contrast to the full whale-boned corset which preceded it, and in due course it would be overtaken by the suspender-belt, which was what was left of a liberty bodice if you cut it in half and took away the top bit; for the liberty-bodice was a substantial garment with shoulder-straps, which went over the vest and descended to the bum, and on its lower rim were the suspenders that held up the long black stockings; over this lot went the knickers - vast, navy school knickers with a pocket for your hankie during gym. Putting all this on early in the freezing morning was neither easy nor quick, and especially slow was the careful fastening of the stockings to the suspenders so that the seams would not become grotesquely twisted.
liberty bodice
So, faced with this routine challenge, which continued for six school years, Joan evolved a time-and-stress-saving strategy: having once got the stockings suspended at exactly the right position and height, she thereafter left the whole lot fastened, crawling neatly out of the apparatus at the end of the school day, and leaping aboard it with scarcely credible agility in the morning; during the night it hung on a coat-hanger from a hook in the door, its off-white body and dangling dark legs a startling vision in the moonlight for a sister sharing the bedroom and half-waking from the fantasy of a dream.
After school and university, came our first jobs: Joan was living in Abingdon and working at Harwell; I was in Oxford, proof-reading at the OUP and had a bedsit on the Iffley Road. When I first went there, the landlady, Ivy, showed me my room, lined with a wallpaper whose pattern was huge, dark, ominous leaves, and told me “I call this my Autumn Room, it’s where my husband went mad.” Joan’s first digs were with a family who drew the curtains when the sun shone “because it puts the fire out”, and threw a wobbly if she happened to lay down her knife and fork crossing one another (no reason given, possibly because too horrific to speak about).
On a Sunday my landlady would cook a wondrous lunch of roast beef and yorkshire pud, splendid, but far too huge for me with a stomach shrunk by a decade of rationing. It seemed a brilliant idea to share it with another shrunken stomach, and accordingly Joan cycled across from Abingdon one Sunday, and we split the massive Sunday lunch before going out on our bikes. But this upset Ivy who raged that she’d cooked it for me, not for my sister. It was a time when you absolutely did not argue with the diktat, no matter how grotesque, of your landlady - you might as well argue with a spitting cobra; so next Sunday Joan cycled across and crouched outside the window of my room while I passed out half the fodder. We totally escaped detection.
Eventually I moved to a different bedsit, where the landlady believed that her dead uncle came in the night and told her which horse to back on the morrow. “Hark!” she would cry, “I can hear him tap-tap-tapping at the window, he’ll have the winner for the 2.15”, and she would hurry to open the window while I crept away upstairs. She had a stomach ulcer, and during the day she puked into a bucket which she kept to show me as soon as I got in the door after work. I stayed out later and later, pacing the streets and admiring the amazing Oxford architecture, while the mother earworm lamented.
Presently I moved again, to live with Torquil and Sheila and their small daughter, all of whom were sane. Torquil had been a prisoner-of war for several years; when asked how bad that had been he was dismissive: "it wasn't very nice, but nothing like as bad as Eton". Torquil’s mother was an aristocrat, who disapproved of his marriage to a commoner (and of him giving house-room to common lodgers) and would pay surprise visits to express that disapproval. When her car was observed approaching, the warning cry went up “Lady Muck!” whereupon everyone had to lie on the floor underneath the windows, invisible to a person peering in from outside, until she gave up and went away.  
Oor Wullie
During these years our mother would send the Sunday Post down to Joan every week. This hugely popular folk-Scots production featured in its middle pages the cartoon adventures of Oor Wullie and The Broons, whose speech was broad Central Belt. Joan took it to Harwell, where there was a considerable contingent of Welshmen who were glad to engage with another non-English culture and got Joan to read aloud and explain the speech-bubbles of the characters. I pictured the cluster of Welshmen in one of the most hi-tech ambiences of the time, listening to Joan’s best native accent “Jings, whit a rammy in Peasy’s Alley” and her translation of jings and rammy.
Joan got engaged (“oh dear”) and our parents travelled down for the wedding. On the eve of which my mother got hold of her and spent many hours urging her to cancel it (“it’s not too late to change your mind”); it was an obvious effort for Joan to make it, pale and shaking, through the proceedings the next day, but luckily my mother was neutralised by the bridegroom’s mother, who gripped her arm and poured into her ear the long, long saga of all her only son’s childhood ailments.
the ascendancy
The flat lands were pleasant enough, if you liked that sort of thing, and they suited Joan. But they were ruled by the ascendancy, fine people in their way but used to a degree of inequality that one hardly saw at all in the north. I had long since become thirled to a starker landscape, and the need to return to it became stronger with the years. So I left Oxford and during the long train journey north, two men got in, somewhere around the Borders, and fell into conversation (not done in England), and what they discussed with one another was Theology (not a thing you would speak about in England).
a starker landscape

Yes, here was a culture I could understand. In the early light of dawn, bare, steep hillsides rolled past outside the window, and clouds wheeched briskly across the sky, growing dark from time to time with a blatter of rain. It would be cold out there.

This was where I needed to be.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Journal of a Right Leg
with observations from
Master Organism, Right Knee
and possibly
Mr Brain

Part 1: waiting
needing replacement
For a long time this dark cloud has hung in the offing: hospital; knee replacement operation; what will it be like? Reading all the stuff on the web provides some enlightenment (and sounds less than totally pleasurable) but nothing can tell you what it is going to feel like, being there, experiencing that. The only possible strategy is to ignore it and divert one’s attention in shallow fantasy ...
Tuesday 1 April
R Leg: so here i am in Ward 9, Woodend, whither the Master Organism (MO) has brought me ... a day of utter scenic brightness, theatrically clear and flat, interspersed by blattering showers, a not bad day for saying goodbye to the dear familiarity of home and hello to the as-yet-unknown. i arose early, impelled by the MO’s long-standing desire to be Not Late For Register Class (MO is slow to adapt to non-working mode of life) - so early that not only had i time to take my Furry Friends for their statutory walklet but even arrived early at Woodend, where they drew an arrow on me, doubtless to ensure that the gaffer with the saw would not lose the place ...
cheering card
MO: ... although, had they tried to attack Mr Left Leg (currently the better one) they would of been met by a biro message on the kneecap:
G O   A W A Y
t h i s   o n e
which entertained the Kiwi admission doctor no end.
Dr Kiwi said that the actual op was easy - “anyone could do it” (well, in the same sense as anyone could read the Complete Works of Shakespeare -  if they were willing to put in the time and effort) - but that the hard part came afterwards, for the owner of the new knee, working at the exercises, getting mobile again. Bad news for a trained idler such as oneself.
With Dr Kiwi one explored the nastiest possibility, how much worse life could be if everything went as wrong as it could possibly go (Late Deep Infection (found on the net, aarrggh)), and also what a bundle of laughs it will be after everything has gone (as it surely will) right ...
R Knee: ... though not for moi, pardon me for interrupting you, MO, but from the point of view of moi, that bundle of laughs comes from me being carved into tiny slivers and likely enough chucked in the compost bin (NOT a pretty thought) ... (continues wittering & mumbling self-piteously)
MO: ... despite my hope (which proved physically impossible to realise) of retaining the former R Knee as a conversation-piece at the dining-table ...
R Leg: ... but in any case, Knee, by that time you will no longer be as it were a Together Entity, so you will hardly notice how much a bundle of non-laughs it will be for you; anyway, that aside, ‘tis not uncosy in here, and time wheechs past, what with people coming and going, wanting this, asking that ...
MO: like who is my next of kin - how do I know? They don't want all three luvvies, do they, how to decide? I am 120/80, might get a choice between general anaesthetic and spinal thingy, have to see what Mr Anaesthetist thinks (also Mr Brain).

R Leg: meantime R&V come with tall flowers and depart with alacrity, lunch happens, the MO does its homework (Information for Patients with Knee Replacement) and queries the many ambiguities therein, probably p-ing off a tall fluting staffie with nsoh (who however with luck will realise attitude only deriving from pre-traumatic stress nerves (ptsn)) ... well, basically, i is bored already and it’s still only Tuesday, might as well be festering in the tent on a wet weekend ...
MO: ... except peeing’s a lot easier here, and if you touch the roof it probably doesn’t let the rain in ...
Tutti: ... and just then, in came the Knee King, attended by Dr Kiwi and other anonymous acolytes, and we exchanged views. KK says 6 weeks of elastic stockings is “bollocks” and possibly driving ok earlier than 6 weeks, but DO NOT KNEEL because post-op numb patch would not feel tack in carpet, blimey, KK some sort of god, knowing of tacks in carpet? On the whole, vastly encouraging ...
R Knee: ... except of course for moi ... (snivel)
MO: ... as I was saying, encouraging, because these guys give off the unmistakable whiff of highly-competent good craftsmanship, together with a preference for telling the truth (though possibly not too much of it in advance) ... btw, severe arthritis was what I heard mentioned. Hah! must gloat to GP (who said surprisingly little).
*   *   *
(NB tea = supper (apparently))
*   *   *
(later, after tea=supper)

MO + Mr Brain: we were reading some Primo Levi but many interruptions and besides ptsn (see above) impede concentration, so got a Ben Elton out of books in tea=supper-room; begins with rat eating chap’s rotted leg, chap (to get rid of rat) cuts off leg with blunt knife : “flesh ... falls apart before the blade, as if it has been braised. In a moment, man and leg are parted.” Hey Ben, what about bone, you ever try cutting through braised bone with blunt knife, eh? ... Memo: question Dr Kiwi about feasibility ... (or maybe not, perhaps best shut up, not put ideas in people’s minds?)
R Knee: (peenge, whimper, gulp)
(evening comes and goes, and so does a night of restlessness and longing for the heat and noise of machinery to stop and for furry people to be in bed purring beside one - viz for normality)
MO: people keep coming and wondering if one is All Right, all by oneself. Yes, all by oneself is just fine: after all who wants to chat about the basic what-ifness of the current situation?
Wednesday 2 April
R Leg: (yawns) porridge, rice krispies, anotherthing, prunes ... gimme prunes, cos that is how i feels, black-souled and wizened
R Knee: moi aussi, and barely surfaced as we are, here comes KK with his attendant phalanx, their eyes bright, their tails bushy, seeking whom they may chop up in little bits for the compost-bin (peenge) - no, not me! not yet! i have surely another 24 hours here in this mortal pain, sorry, plane ... ochone, ochone, ‘twas difficult to find repose, accustomed as one is to the surround of fur and growls and the wheech of the cold night air and the whoo of the owl and the cats’ song of hate and the far-off cry of the semi-mythical pumas in the forest to the north ...
R Leg: ach belt up, we all get right scunnered when you go all bardic ...

(a great white bird passes the window carrying folk from maybe Schipol to ABZ)
MO: Last time I was this bored-&-apprehensive was in Final Hons year, having just realised I’d done the wrong lot of set books ...
(another great white bird)
... we must be on the landing flight path, so the wind could well be in the NW, could it? ... wish I had a compass with me
R Leg: MO, don’t you think you’re forgetting the purpose of this Journal?
R Knee: Yes. Forgetting. Not thinking of moi (whimper)
MO: Shuddup. So, what is the Journal’s purpose then, R Leg? Enlighten me.
R Leg: Well ... er ... hmh ...
MO: Yesss? We haven’t all day ...
R Leg: Oh? Haven’t we? ...well then, would you not agree that the purpose is to divert us all to some extent in this comfortable and well-attended yet stimulus-free zone of mounting tension, by enabling us to rabbit on free-associatively, in between tiny bouts of book and radio, to neither of which we are able to attend?
R Knee: corblimeymate

R Leg: ... the night was long, was it not?
MO: It was. I attribute its length to (a) heat; (b) no fur; (c) incessant machinery noise; (d) remorseless eye of light beaming through door; (e) bardic stuff R Knee was on about earlier ..
R Knee: ... yes! yes! ...
MO: shuddup ... and (f) at a tentative guess I’d say we might be lying E-W here, while N-S is what we are used to, and who knows how that might affect the psyche?
Messrs Bowels: quick! quick!!
(time passes)
* * *
MO: ... ahhhh! Powerful guys, those prunes.
R Leg: and still only 9.35, usually we’re still at breakfast, feet up, knees covered with fur ...
All: We must do our exercises; we must get home asap
R Knee: ... at any rate, whatever tiny piteous fragments of moi...
(a time of blank non-reflection ensues; in the corridor, people pass and re-pass; the distant chatter and mindless music-bites of a TV drift around; you could, I suppose, get used to this; if you had to; would you come to look back on it with nostalgia, even? Who can say? time passes, punctuated by peenges from R Knee)
MO: ... lunch... not hungry ... coffee... ‘tis like the dentist waiting-room: keep hearing intermittent whine of drill (saw?) - seems unlikely as op theatre some little distance away ... here comes the physio bearing chart of exercises for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ...
R Knee: here comes the anaesthetist to talk to moi
R Leg: don’t be silly; you are a basically quite unfeeling dude, it is me that he is interested in
MO: actually it is all of us, but principally me ...
So anyway, after some discussion, it seems best to stay awake (though numb) during the procedure, so as not to miss out on a possibly-not-to-be-repeated experience, and also to be able to write it all up for Posterity; and having established that, during the procedure, chat, far from a distraction, will actually be helpful, we have fixed on a mutually agreeable subject, viz: Small Sailing Dinghies (like e.g. OKs and Hornets)
R Knee: you guys actually propose to not talk about MOI? In my LAST MOMENTS?

R Leg: get real, Knee, you will be being ensliverated and thus in no fit state - and besides the droning/rasping/whine of the saw will blot out all chat for you ... but to choose not to talk about ME? When i am the prima ballerina in the whole enterprise ...
MO: guys, guys, we’re all in this together; after all, you will feel no pain: if there is pain to be felt, ‘twill be in the head, thus I shall be the one to feel it ... I shall be the one needing diversion.
Mr Brain: actually, pain is perceived in the Brain, without me, you would feel nothing ...
(enter L with Grauniad, Private Eye and newsie)
(tea=supper (nice fish): last food for yonks; got to be up at 6, shower etc. arrggh ... night; heat; noise)
During these two days, bloods have been taken, pee analysed, BP measured, an ECG done, pee analysed again because of tiny bit of nitra/ites first time round (meaning? - who knows); the body is seemingly ok enough ...

Part 2: op day (and after)
Thursday 3 April
MO: Sparrowfart (6 a.m.), up, questions, shower, inadequate gown with tiny flowers, more questions, tummy pill, “mild” sedative offered and declined (might put one to sleep - miss all excitement), op-time approaches, bored, restless, aarrggh ...
R Leg: stop twitching, Knee

R Knee: can’t help it, condemned knee didn’t even get hearty breakfast, let alone Last Wish
R Leg: your voice has gone all tiny and wobbly, cheer up, things could be a lot worse
R Knee: easy for you to say, b*st*rd MO sold me down the river, never a thankyou, all these years carrying it about uncomplaining, and now to be tossed aside like a
R Leg: shuddUP ... wot about ME, doomed to sawing and hammering and bandaging and monster exercising for who knows how long, arrrgh
MO: you are - both of you - extremely valued members of our little microcosm, we value your input, press 1 if you want to pay a bill, 2 to speak to an actual person, 3 to hear the menu again ... oh, oh, sorry, sorry, wrong mode, flipped slightly there ... Knee, I love and appreciate you and want to stop hurting you when we walk about, this is why we are here
R Knee: so stay sitting down, don’t walk about, leave me alone, b*st*rd
MO: can’t manage that, Knee, need food, drink, toys; think it through: no food > fading energies > death > dissolution ... and that includes you as well, inextricably bound to your loving Master Organism ...
The black cloud is upon us - a flurry of action supervenes, and the various bits fall silent, legs and their components being numb, MO being too interested in the action to speak except with Mr Anaesthetist, which it does at some length. It is some little time before one can resume this Journal
(much later, around 2.15 p.m.)

Well, we got wheeled to the workplace and it all happened ...the spinal thingy (legs went all warm and cosy and stopped belonging); smell of meth (reminiscent of lighting the primus in the tent in days gone by); extra jab to block R Leg for longer: already hooked up to oxygen and tube(s?); R Leg is raised and ceases to be a part of one (no feedback arrives from it, hence old lizard brain knows real leg is lying flat and what happens to raised leg is of no importance - it’s just a simulation - even though logic suggests that (since they said the leg would be raised) the raised leg must be the real one); cloth barrier prevents view of action but can see big inflatable(?) collar travelling up R Leg to stop bleeding; sad to miss view but heard discussion of properties of bone cement (e.g. desired temperature - not unlike building glassfibre dinghy), enjoyed the song of the saw, less horrid than dentist’s drill and no pain or smell of burning bone.
But the interesting and gripping bit was long chat (as previously arranged) with Anaesthetist, who comes from Edinburgh, sailed at Lochearn Sailing Club (as did I), got his spouse there (as did I), did elective at mission hospital in Africa where instead of chatting with Zulu women during caesarian (not being able to speak Zulu) got them to sing, whereupon the rest of the theatre joined in, marvellous. We discussed Hornets, OKs, Lasers; the funky kite-sailed experimental proa built by late spouse; how much more difficult two children are than one (less than you might think); and so the time passed, and one was far less apprehensive than otherwise one might have been.
Another source of surprising comfort was the intermittent squeeze on the arm of a cuff (monitoring BP?) which felt like a reassuring hand. Nevertheless, towards the end of perhaps (unsure because no watch) an hour and a half sawing and hammering (feeling like a tent-peg), one was beginning to feel just a tad flaky, and it was a relief when the monster bandage went on, leg was lowered and one was wheeled into recovery, where people kept looking and checking, and one actually had to make quite an effort not to blub. Could have murdered a big juicy fillet steak. And a nice long sleep, nobody asking questions.

Back in bed, time passed without pain (lovely on-demand morphine) but nastily: nastiest of all was not being able to feel/control legs; second nastiest was having to lie on back, which gets v. stiff and sore if it can’t change position. Toes were checked frequently for sensation and warmth; presently there was a prickling, and by around 2.30 p.m. the legs came back to life and things improved a bit.
So no pain, some discomfort from back but not unbearable, no hunger/thirst, it’s ok here travelling through the black cloud, but it’s being a very long day and I wish there was a fast-forward device.
S visits at night briefly.
Friday 4 April
Tired, tired, tired, want to sleep for ever. Tubes out, except for drain, in course of day, replaced by various pain-killer and anti-inflammatory pills, plus aspirin to protect against clots. BP way down. Sensation of doing tight turn in glider, things nearly, but not quite, greying out. Shuffle partly on one side, exquisite comfort for back, but not for long - the Knee King and his minions come by, he turns me on my back again with the words “Life’s a bitch sometimes”, an oddly comforting comment because true.
Lunch (fried fish, wondrous good), more pills, negotiate for fewer because think possibly don’t need so many. Keep falling asleep. BP wheechs about. 88/44 or thereabouts.
L comes with Grauniad and new postage stamps of fruits with hats and legs of choice to stick on separately - doubt if I’ll ever have the energy for that much creativity. More bloods. Going to be shifted to another room, with People in it. Ochone.
Down inside that huge fat dressing there is no chat at all from leg or knee.
Visit and newsie from young A: they are cutting the trees to the south, aha! More sun in the winter, can’t be bad.
Saturday 5 April
Sparrowfart. Big fat dressing away, drain out (weirdest sensation), all lovely. New thin stick-on dressing. Great. Tube thing out of hand. Use zimmer supervised (easy), do exercises (murder). Lots of pills, keep falling asleep.
Visit from R&V with email from K and grapes. Difficult to stay awake long enough to speak.
Exercises (4 batches / day, 10 exercises / batch) give grief, but different grief from previous knee grief, and even in this short time getting less grievous. Reduce number of pills again, fear total zonkment.
People in the room are fine enough. No-one wants TV on (good), can hear continuous canned gameshow laughter from blokes’ room across the corridor.
Sunday 6 April
Get a row for falling out of bed (retrieving watch from floor). No pain-relievers, just aspirin and anti-inflammatories.
Unattended bog and shower, hurrah, zimmer to phone (hurrah), no-one in.
Finally managed a crap (fourth day since last one) - enormous, solid cement, phew!
Visit and newsie from L.

Lots of twitching in leg. Been zooming to and fro, now quite swollen and bruised. Been refusing pain-relievers, maybe rethink and have some paracetamol - sore through the night, though not unduly so; but lots of disturbance, massively hot (open window without permission, how stroppy), screams at 2.15 a.m. from Queen Edna (“two husbands, lovely people, did everything for me” and “I’m 81 so I am the senior person in the ward”). In the corner Ann the Fan (she needs a fan running all night because she’s too hot) thrashes about, calling nurse to get more water, to find her special wee green facecloth. Which nurse very patiently does. Two others are quiet, they are due to leave today.
Monday 7 April
Visit from Knee King who is pleased with progress. Give him Going Home propaganda.
Busy, busy: physio; more exercises; can do 85° bend (need 90° for getting home); get sticks instead of zimmer, walk to dining-room with them. Tire v. quickly, back on painkillers, otherwise exercises too sore. To x-ray, see pix of new knee, formidable, wonder if I can get copy.
Visits from R&V and M&M. Exercises take a long time. V. tired.
Can’t sleep. Ann the Fan blowing a gale. At 2, go walkies far far along darkened corridor into well-lit stretch where nurses playing cards in dining-room, and way beyond that. What is to stop a person escaping? ... and going where exactly, in pyjamas, on two sticks, with no car, hmm? Oh well, just a thought, but I’m needing out of here ...
Tuesday 8 April
Knee King. Feed him the Going Home propaganda again. He decides 90° bend ok, knee flat on bed ok, if physio passes ability on stairs then ok. Later do bar exercises ok and 10 stairs, up and down, with 2 sticks, and one-stick-plus-rail, twice, ok (easy-peasy, actually, far easier than knee bend), so can Go Home. Hah!
Phone L: come and get me, L.
Get stacks of pills, info sheets, lots of paperwork, negotiate for copies of x-rays, manage to get socks and lace-up shoes on, wait impatiently ...

L comes, walk out to her car, try to get in, one way, another way, impossible ... panic, must I go back to the heat in the night, aarrggh, no no, big effort, finally get in. 
Part 3: home
Arrive. Out of car (difficult), call cats, out they come, purring like anything, straight past me, to L - oh well, I expect I smell all wrong. While L unlocks house, walk along road, to hide tears of thankful relief running down face, because everything is so beautiful. Get to first gate and have to come back, totally wiped.
lots of fur
Night. Cool, quiet, window open, owl in woods, lots of fur (they’ve decided to recognise me since I gave them treats).
Later ... can’t get up off WC, mighty effort, hear ligament snap at R knee, burst of pure agony, like bad sprain. Aarggh. Find old zimmer (which came with the house, what luck!) and set up a tottery mechanism to aid future attempts; but do not dare try to get in bath/shower. Oh well, a bit of dirt doesn’t matter.
Later ... Occupational Therapy come and install disabled WC seat, bath board, kitchen stool, making life a heap easier.
L sees I can manage ok and goes home. She claims she’s had a lovely holiday (cooking! weeding!) Don’t know how I can ever repay debt of gratitude to her; I’d have coped if she hadn’t been here, but it would’ve been much less easy.
Edginess, twitching, total blockage of bowels. Stop Voltarol. Stop Tramadol. Lots better; calmer; bowels gradually sort themselves out, with a bit of help of unparalleled grossness (no, you don’t want to know).

Day 10 or so, post-op: staples out. Middle daughter visiting, so make her film it on videocam, wish I’d got film of actual op. Much better without staples, though not a pretty sight. Take photos and email them here and there. Replies say “Gross”, and so it is.
Walk a little farther each day.
Later, at about 5 weeks post-op, get in car (not easy) drive round the parking space a couple of times, feels ok. Drive down to the smithy at the corner, turn and come back, doesn’t feel ok, vibration hurts.
Staircase dream. A repeat dream of a large factory-like interior, with an iron staircase twisting upwards to a metal balcony high up near the roof of the building. In previous dreams the metal was rusting, treads broken, gaps in the handrail, pieces missing from the balcony, difficult and frightening to negotiate, a little worse each time the dream came round. This time, someone had repaired all the gaps, replaced the treads, added a bonny new highly-polished brass handrail, everything easy and safe to negotiate. How metaphorical can you get?
6 weeks: driving is now ok, though I go cautiously, by quiet roads, prudent/cowardly.
8 weeks: to Woodend for checkup, all ok. Drive there with no problems, but still don’t want to go through middle of town.
Later ... scar is growing fur. Left knee is as bald as an egg, always has been, so has right knee always been, but now it’s FURRY. Take its photo and email to K. Her reply: “gross”.

card from middle daughter
August: 4 months: don’t need sticks around house, mostly one stick in garden (which is big and rough), 2 sticks for distance and/or rough ground, otherwise bad limp develops. Walking down the road, experiment, count paces with no sticks until limp becomes bad. Gradually extend this till one day 200 paces, chuffed as anything, get out strimmer and attack jungle for 3 hours. Big mistake, can hardly walk for next two weeks.
September: middle daughter’s wedding in Orkney; long drive, lots of stairs, late nights, have super time, v.v. tired.
Late Sept: left knee has become iffy like right knee used to be 3 years or so ago; it’s the reason I still need one stick walking down the road. Go see GP and we agree that best to get left knee done, so ...
... all this is going to have to happen again ...