Sunday, 6 August 2017

Of Mice and Mother-in-Laws

Les Dawson built a comedy career around a series of mother-in-law jokes. A notorious one goes: ‘I can always tell when my mother-in-law is coming to stay, the mice come out and throw themselves onto the traps.’ It was the day before T’s mother was due to stay with us. T suddenly screamed. I rushed from my study to see what was happening. T was in the corridor, one hand to her mouth, the other pointing. Streaking past me along the corridor was a mouse.

The mouse ran into the front room.

We pursued it and closed the door behind us.

‘Now we’ve got it’, I said.

The mouse was lying low.

I slowly moved an armchair and peeked behind it.

T screamed again.

The mouse ran out, along the skirting board and behind the TV unit.

I strode forward, trying to flush it out.

The mouse stayed under cover.

T handed me an umbrella.

I looked quizzically at her.

‘You can bash it’, she said.

The mouse must have heard. It ran across the room and past the fireplace.

T screamed piercingly.

The mouse was behind us at the closed door. It was small and brown and desperately trying to find a way out.

I glanced at the crooked handle of the umbrella and back to the mouse. I didn’t want to kill it.

‘Can we catch it?’, I said.

We scanned the room, there was nothing to hand that would work.

The mouse was running backwards and forwards along the base of the door.

Resignedly, I grasped the umbrella.

The mouse stopped halfway along the door and began to squirm under. It’s rear legs and tail wriggled, then it disappeared.

I snatched open the door and peered along the corridor.

The mouse was nowhere to be seen.

We called him Usain and put down traps. It was the first mouse I had seen in the house for years. The next day T’s mother arrived. The visit went well. Each morning we checked the traps but Usain hadn’t thrown himself onto any of them. In Cyril’s continuing absence, we also thought about putting a poster on the front door: Cat Wanted, Enquire Within.




Sunday, 30 July 2017

Anniversary Days Out

The pattern of this summer seems to be set: good weather for a couple of days followed by three or more bad. We check the forecasts regularly and are primed to make the most of the good days. We have even become adroit at snatching the couple of hours of good sunshine that can appear amidst a rainy and windy day. We have also passed an auspicious milestone: our four-year anniversary.

The sun shone strongly on our anniversary day and we drove south to tour Co Louth. We started in Dromiskin which has the remains of a 5th century monastery with fine round tower and oddly a stone Viking longship which was built 5 years ago: commemorating both the monks and their raiders. We had a picnic lunch at the coast and went rockpooling and then paddling. Later we went to Monasterboice and saw the high crosses and round tower and then to Mellifont abbey. T had never been to either place and was very impressed. We rounded off the day with a trip to a Lebanese restaurant in Drogheda, reputedly the best in Co Louth. The food tasted fine but we both had bad guts after.

I’ve been keeping up my regular cycling. I drove down to Duleek, just beyond Drogheda and did a tour of scenic Co Meath. I rode past Tara and down the Boyne valley to Bective Abbey, another Cistercian monastery with plenty of its structure remaining beautifully situated beside the river. I had a snack lunch sitting on the monastery steps, entirely alone until a teenage girl in skimpy shorts and a bikini top came and lay down on the grass just a few feet away.

I rode on to Trim, a lovely heritage town with the largest Norman castle in Ireland (used in Braveheart) a medieval gate and monastery. Then back to Duleek through mostly quiet roads. It was a lovely day out and at 50 miles, my longest ride so far this year. I felt fine throughout with no gut problems and only got a bit tired in the last five miles. I’ve ridden over 100 miles in each of the past three weeks so I’m feeling cycling fit at present. I’m sleeping pretty well and have mostly stopped worrying about the impending surgery.

We also had a day out at the John Hewitt Summer School. This has a special place in our hearts as it was where we first met. After an excellent early evening meal at the Castle Tower restaurant we enjoyed Garrett Carr’s multimedia presentation of his Borderlands book and the exceptional poetry of Mark Doty. The Market Place Theatre during this week is somewhere you are bound to meet old friends and have the opportunity to make new ones.

I’m absolutely delighted I met T there four years ago. My life has changed so much for the good since then. The challenges that come along (such as my two recent cancer recurrences) are so much more easily faced together. A loving relationship makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Our Days Out

We inhabit an island with unpredictable weather. T’s mother says that there is only one rule for living here: when the sun shines drop everything and go out. On our staycation we have been doing our best to follow her advice. Our two long sunny days out were good in the main, but with an unexpected twist. And it is bucketing down as I write this.

Monday promised to be a hot day with unbroken sunshine. T arranged to meet a pal of hers in Belfast for lunch and some shopping. I took the bike down to Castlebellingham in Co Louth and followed the coast road south. My bike computer showed 80 degrees F with a cooling breeze coming off the sea. I stopped at Termonfeckin for lunch. It sounded like a place out of Father Ted, but the cafe brought me a good bowl of soup and bread. When cycling with my herniated diaphragm and restricted stomach, I know I need to eat foods that are easily digested.

I headed on into Drogheda, a pretty undistinguished place apart from one medieval gate. Turning inland I lost the sea breeze, the sun got hotter and the hills began. By the time I got to Mellifont Abbey, the remains of the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, I was feeling rough. The lunch had disagreed with me, my stomach was inflating with wind and was depressing my left lung. I was overheating. I tried to drink more but it wouldn’t go down.

From there it was a lumpy 15 miles back to the car. I struggled up the hills, very salty sweat running into my eyes. The bike computer showed 92 F, the highest I had seen on this island. As I cycled on, via Monasterboice, I began to have irrational thoughts, almost delusions. I saw myself standing by the side of the road watching me inch my way up the hill in bottom gear. It felt a little like when I was cycling in Sri Lanka around ten years ago and I got a touch of heat stroke.

I managed to keep on going and thankfully reached the car. It was 6pm and still 80F. Despite the bad guts, depressed lung and dehydration, I had just completed my longest ride this year: 46 miles. I rested for a while; then drove home very slowly. T was already home and tended me caringly. I lay on the bed and drank rehydration salts. Enormous farts began and continued all through the night. I didn’t sleep much. Although I am accustomed to the sun, my face, arms and legs felt sore. The next morning I had the runs. My light lunch in Termonfeckin had indeed proved costly.

By midday I was starting to perk up and T was keen to go out into the clear blue afternoon. ‘It’s boiling’, she said. Unlike the day before, I packed a hat. We did a tour of Lecale by car, starting off at the stone circle in Ballynoe, which is the largest in NI and has a lovely holloway down to it. Unfortunately over recent years it has become festooned with hippy tat; ribbons, wool, bits of shiny metal dangle beside your head as you make your way there. Thankfully we were alone at the stones themselves.

We drove on through Killough and Ardglass, which was a major medieval port and a holiday resort for early Victorians, with a ladies’ bathing house in the harbour. At Kilclief Bay we had a picnic, went paddling and spotted small flatfish and a hermit crab in rock pools. After ice cream at Strangford we walked to Audley’s Castle and around the coast to Castle Ward.

Two grand days out in warm sunshine before four days forecast with unseasonable wind and rain. Mammy T had indeed been right.




Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Staycation

The deadline for confirming our hotel break was nigh but the weather forecasted for Mayo was very unstable. T and I had to make a decision about whether we would take the room or not. We talked it through but found it hard to decide. Then I confessed that I had first made the hotel reservation because I thought she wanted to go away. T confessed that she had agreed to this trip because she thought I wanted to go away. We laughed. We were both trying to please the other when each of us would have preferred something else.

O Henry wrote a story that illustrates this type of misunderstanding. A young but very poor couple want to buy each other a special present for Xmas. The woman has long, beautiful hair but sells it to buy her husband a gold chain for the pocket watch that he has inherited from his grandfather. The man sells his grandfather’s watch to buy his wife a jewelled comb for her beautiful hair.

The good thing is that we confessed to each other before any disappointment could occur. Otherwise we might have ended up driving all the way to Mayo, watching the rain beating against the hotel room window and feeling some resentment against the other. So we cancelled the hotel reservation and began to plan days out and days at home.

T wanted time to sort out her clothes, books and other things, having been hard at work and dealing with me in and out of hospital since she moved in a year ago. I wanted time to do a series of good long bike rides before I went back into hospital and became incapacitated for months.

The next day the sun shone and we embarked on both of these plans. T pulled out all of her things that had been stored in boxes and began to sort through them. She put them in piles to keep and piles to give to the charity shop. Then she set about rearranging her books and other possessions. It was a grand summer spring clean.

I got out my maps and planned to redo a bike ride that I had last done before I got cancer. I drove to Ardee in Co Louth and rode through winding back roads to Kells in Co Meath. I had lunch in a second-hand bookshop with a cafe and then returned via a new set of back roads to Ardee. It was a grand day out in warm sunshine, the bike ride was 42 miles and took me the best part of five hours in total. The drive to Ardee down the motorway took less than an hour.

At the end of the day we both felt happy and satisfied. Our staycation had begun well.




Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Getaway

June elapsed, day by anxious day. I was sleeping fitfully with bad dreams and plenty of wakeful episodes with worrying thoughts. I arose most mornings feeling worn out. My hospital bag was packed and sat on the bed in the spare room. I twitched every time the phone rang and again when the post dropped through the letter box. By not being called in to hospital I had a ‘stay of execution’, but it was an unhappy and stressful escape. After pondering for a while, I decided to face my demons. I would ring the hospital to find out when my surgery, planned for June, would actually take place.

I began with my surgeon’s secretary, but I couldn’t get through. I left a message on her voicemail. The next day she rang me back. I explained that I was waiting for surgery and had been told I would be operated on in June. She gave me the phone number of the person who scheduled cardio-thoracic surgery at the Royal. I got another answerphone and I left another message. The scheduler rang me back several hours later. I told her my story.

‘The soonest you could be admitted for surgery would be September,’ she said.

I gasped.

She went on. ‘His theatre list is already full for the summer with people needing surgery for cancer.’  

‘I understand,’ I said, ‘I’m only ringing because the surgeon himself told me that I would be brought in during June.’

‘That was a little unrealistic,’ she said, ‘he’s only in theatre one day every two weeks.’

I thanked her, put the phone down and sighed with relief. A heavy weight had fallen away from me. I told T. She was delighted.

‘We’ve been given the summer back,’ she said.

I grinned. ‘Let’s book a holiday.’ 

I turned to my computer and found the website of our favourite hotel: The Mulranny Park. It overlooks Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick. They were offering short breaks and we booked one. That evening we went out for a meal at our favourite restaurant: The Mourne Seafood Bar. The food was excellent as usual. Afterwards we walked on the beach at Murlough, fresh sea air blowing into our faces. And that night I slept more soundly than I had for many weeks.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Long Runs The Fox

The fox walked steadily up the centre of our lawn, nose to the ground. I grabbed my camera and took this picture through the bay window as it passed about fifteen feet away. The fox proceeded to the top of the garden and then came back down following the hedge. It was an adult fox, more brown than red, and the first fox I have ever seen in our garden. Although we live in the country, foxes are infrequently seen hereabouts. But the very next day, I saw a different fox, smaller and redder, coming towards me down the lane from our house. What should I make of this visitation?

The fox appears in mythology and folklore all over the world. It is an animal that is clever and resourceful, able to outwit the efforts of the more powerful to hamper or persecute it. For many cultures the fox is a magical creature, a spirit messenger. The fox can also take human form, most often as a woman. The fox is intelligent and passionate but rarely a malevolent spirit. The fox is most often a helper, offering its qualities of quick thinking and adaptability to those in need.

Meanwhile, I still twitch when the post arrives or jerk when the phone rings. But I have heard nothing from the hospital. My first thought was to phone them and chase up my admission for surgery. But then I thought that no news is also good news. I don’t have to ring and remind them. I have a ‘stay of execution’ in which I can enjoy more of the good weather of the summer and do a few more bike rides in the fresh country air. It also means that I am able to attend the end of year parties of my Writers Group and of the Sing for Life Choir.

I take it one day at a time and do my best not to think about the ordeal to come. However, anxious thoughts about the dangers of the surgery and the pain I will be in afterwards still come to me regularly. Sometimes I also imagine myself as crippled by the procedure and in permanent pain. I do my best to calm myself and dismiss these thoughts, but they still come to me unbidden, most often at night.

I am even starting to bargain with myself about the impending surgery. A little voice keeps saying to me – ‘well you are fine at the moment and can do most of the things you want to, so why do you need to have that terrible surgery at all? Haven’t you suffered enough already?’ I know there are a lot of good reasons why I should have the surgery but it seems so much easier to run away from it at the moment.

My hospital bag remains packed and sits on the bed in the spare room. I wonder if that fox was trying to tell me something?  After all, isn’t the fox an archetypal survivor?


Monday, 12 June 2017

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

It has been an eventful week, during which my mind has turned to the Scottish play. After a campaign of smears and mud-slinging by the right-wing press, I’m delighted the national electorate swung towards a message of hope. Discredited Theresa May is now said to be on ‘death row’ and there have been street protests in Britain about her new friends, the DUP. Locally, I’m sad that our hard-working constituency MP, Margaret Ritchie, has been beaten by an abstensionist. This effectively silences us on any issue, as our new MP will not turn up to do anything on our behalf at Westminster.

I have my hospital bag packed. But I’ve not had a call from Admissions. So I wait anxiously, try to stay well and don’t make plans. It’s not exactly ‘death row’ but each day I wonder if this will be the last time I am able to go for a bike ride, or mow the lawn, or go out for a meal, before I have the surgery and become incapacitated for a long while. I’m living normal life with a heightened intensity as there is an underlying sense of grief at the losses I will suffer for many months to come after going under the knife again. Allied to this is also the fear that something might go wrong and I could be incapacitated forever.

Being experienced at major surgery (having come through two episodes of it in the last 18 months) means that I also know how tough an ordeal it is. I know my body can recover but I have no illusions about the severity of the pain that has to be endured and the long, hard struggle of recovery.

Our dear ginger cat, Cyril, has been missing for several weeks now. We’ve looked everywhere for him, and have put posters up offering a reward. Next door were feeding him each day in the porch of our house whilst we were away in England for a long weekend. But he has been missing since then, whilst his nemesis the big grey feral cat has been very evident in the garden. We think Cyril was beaten up and chased away so that the big grey cat could take all the food. One day last week the big grey feral cat sat in our back yard all afternoon in heavy rain. He just shook his wet pointy-eared head and glowered at us, green eyes glinting. We have renamed him Grey Malkin after the witches’ cat in the Scottish play.

Perhaps I now need to boil a brew of toad, newt, snake, bat, frog, lizard and owl to help foretell my future. But even then I probably wouldn’t be much better off, as the witches’ spells for Macbeth were highly equivocal. The only way to reliably get to the future is to dig deep and live through whatever ordeal you are presently confronted with. This is as true for me as it is for the UK.