This is not the usual sort of post you’ll find on Beestonia, but as it’s Christmas I thought I’d indulge myself in a longer-form piece. There are other reasons, you’ll see early on, why this is so. It’s not really about Beeston either, despite a mention from a twice-Booker prize winning literary genius at some point. A hugely happy Christmas to all in Beeston and beyond, I look forward to a New Year where I heal with the same rapidity of our town centre, and unlike that poor thing, don’t have to be opened up and fiddled around with again come January.
Last minute shopping on Christmas Eve is never going to be an enjoyable experience. Though it would have been easier if wasn’t for an invisible fist, wrapped round a red-hot knife, punching me in the side of my abdomen as I negotiate the tinsel-strewn aisles.
I assumed, when the first slam of pain burst from my midriff, that this was a hangover. I practically gave up alcohol in August after realising I’d probably exceeded my quota over the last thirty years, but make exceptions for special occasions. Aware Christmas would be one of these periods of dissolved teetotalism, a festive visit to the pub on the day before Christmas Eve seemed like an actual prudent, sensible choice. Ease myself back in. Build myself up. And so a pint was ordered, and enjoyed. A glass of red wine was when poured at home, yet not relished. When returning to alcohol after some time away, it’s staggering to realise how much booze tastes of…well, booze. A weak lager takes on the taste of Special Brew. A light red sips like Port or a strong sherry; a low-strength cider tastes like the roughest Somerset cider some unscrupulous orchard owner would dare sell, so raw and unfiltered pips bob on the surface.
So the pain was my kidneys, obviously. As was the roaring thirst, which even the hangover panacea that is Irn Bru could not slake. The pain was intermittent, disappearing so fast and with so little trace it could be easily dismissed as never happening at all; until it slammed back in, deep agony so much more acutely loud than any other piece of information the brain was receiving that it became the only thing: sound would be the shrieking ring of the screaming nerve endings; sight exclusively the white pulsing heat of the burning; even taste became metallic, the knife twisting deep within me and seeping into my saliva. As I came-to from one of these sensory bursts, with objects around me taking form and ambient sounds once again flowing in, I found myself on the ethnic food aisle at Tesco, with other shoppers bemusedly glaring as I grimaced at the Kosher biscuits and snacks. Ever the self-concious liberal, I hoped they didn’t think I was in any way expressing some anti-Semitic feelings.
AN AMBULANCE ARRIVES
Home, and to bed by seven pm. When I was a child, i’d try to get to bed as early as possible on Christmas Eve so as to have Christmas arrive sooner; as I’d sleep earlier, and Santa would not have to kick around on my roof waiting for me to nod off. This time, however, was necessity. I felt drained, swollen, and annoyed that I was being denied an evening mawkishly digesting as much festive sugared slop as the TV could throw.
A fiery, feverish sleep ensued, where I writhed, kicked and moaned before breaking back through to waking. Ellie, noting my temperature was now outpacing the radiators, called the NHS, who in turn sent two paramedics, who in turn bundled me into an ambulance and off to the QMC. Strange small talk was made en route, the quality and content of that which can only be had among strangers in odd circumstances indiscreet, rude and very, very black. Conversation where social conventions are forgot. Similarly, while I was waiting outside the pre-operation room a few days later, the nurse who’d wheeled me down told me, seemingly apropos of nothing, that after a terrible Christmas she had decided to divorce her third husband ‘He’s lazy, bone idle. I did everything, and had to come here as well’ . She told me that as she was getting on, this would be her last crack of happiness. I assured her that my own gran met her last boyfriend when deep into her seventies, and when he died she felt sure she’d get another, although the criteria for said suitor by then was just ‘no arms, no legs, no bad habits’. She laughed. I laugh with the paramedics too, as they tell tales of their dark work picking up the broken bits of the population.
A SMACKED OUT CHRISTMAS
An A+E department on a traditionally super-boozy night of the year sounds like hell, but I seemed to arrive before the breaking wave of the broken drunk and get dealt with pretty swiftly. Injections, a drip fed into the arm, a swift diagnosis. My appendix was massive + I’d had trouble with it before 18 years ago = I had the very common and very treatable appendicitis. I was deemed Nil By Mouth, put in a surgical gown, and fed an oral syringe of sticky sweet morphine. My poor wife sat by me throughout, despite having a pretty nasty chest infection and attendant cold. We’d been sure that it would be her ailments – she’d been bed-ridden a couple of days before -that would impact upon our Christmas plans. I felt like a spoiled child who so craves attention he has to go one higher, one step more extreme. Further, while I lay in bed as opiates smoothed off the sharp edges and drifted me off from the clinical, strip-lit surroundings into a softer, lighter place, Ellie had to endure the night feeling crap, until her blood sugar ran so low she lurched forward in her chair, groaning, while a nurse revived her with hot tea and biscuits. The clock, it’s hands no longer creeping round it’s face but flopping forward in confusing throws, told us it was midnight. It was Christmas. Our first Christmas together as a married couple.
Hours passed, and eventually an exhausted Ellie took a taxi home to rest. By then, a stew of antibiotics, saline and morphine was slopping round my blood stream, and I felt pedestrian to my own existence. I was moved onto a different ward, where Slade were playing on the radio, and the nurses seemed less harried. Some sported deely boppers, some tinsel halos. We were high up in the hospital, and I was given a bed by the window. The striking red grid of Aspire, the tall metal sculpture that stands proud on Jubilee Campus, stood out against the sharp blue sky. I imagined the view from here the night fire roared through the GSK chemistry building earlier that year: blazing embers, Aspire glowing angry and red as it reflected the inferno, it’s red now not just a statement of ambition, but bloody, angry, inflamed, a screaming horn hellishly wailing from the burning white hot centre. I requested more morphine.
CHRISTMAS DINNER VIA DRIP
No Christmas dinner, or any food or drink whatsoever. I found a present had been left by my bedside, a generic gift for all spending Christmas inside the QMC. Shower gel, some body spray, a box of Minstrels. The latter would grow in frustration as hunger began to grow. Ellie bought me in some Irn Bru: again, it was untouchable, impossibly alluring, teasing. Nurses came, nurses went. My fever subsided and doctors nodded approvingly. I was given surgical stockings to wear, and told I was next on the emergency operation list. Time seemed to corrugate, sleep and waking less distinct. Reading became impossible – the words wouldn’t fix to my mind, but drift off when placed. Stuff confuses. The Hilary Mantel novel I’m trying to read seems to be partially set in Beeston, which couldn’t be right* – yet I found it fine to just float, to let life surround and carry me. Fireworks cracked and whizzed outside at some point, the relentlessly festive music turned off after a final play of Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop the Cavalry’, which with it’s melancholic homesick refrain of wishing to be home for Christmas tugged at me inside. No tears, my emotions were blunted and my body too dry to waste moisture. Yet a sadness. Things weren’t meant to be like this.
THE SCROOGES MOVE IN.
Still no operation, and as my health returned and morphine decreased a focus was bought to my surroundings. The nurses took form, and their routines plotted. I found my glasses, so could observe my neighbours on the bay. Four other men, all elderly, all loudly coughing, moaning, snoring, farting, belching and, in rare moments of lucidity, asking when they could leave. One thing really stood out. If you were to believe the press over the last few years, you’d believe that the NHS was stretched to it’s extremes due to the demand of a growing population; from here it is easy to extrapolate, as most lazy writers do; that this is driven by immigration. We have too many people coming here clogging up the NHS, costing us more money, putting huge stresses on the very existence of our health service.
I did see lots of non-British people there, people from all over the EU, Africa, the Far East and the sub-continent. They were the ones working the long shifts, flushing the drips, washing the infirm, cleaning the shit. They were the ones mopping the floors, bringing the meals, consoling the patients, cooling the brows. They were the ones rounding the wards, checking the symptoms, making the diagnosis, cutting the flesh and saving the life.
The patients were predominantly the aged, the result of having an NHS that had allowed them to live well beyond what their ancestors would have expected. This was the true problem in the NHS. Yet even that feels wrong. It is a false-dichotomy to go that way. The NHS will struggle to survive with an aging population, and the net gain that immigration gives certainly props up the parts under greatest strain.
Yet to further erode the free principle of the NHS and slice off areas to private providers is ridiculous. People won’t stop being old. People won’t stop being ill. To move towards a model when the only people who can mitigate against this dual inevitability are those that can afford it will keep the population down, for sure. The rich will get richer, the poor will get poorlier.
We are a rich country, we are a powerhouse of genius. We have led the world medically for years, and the NHS model is the envy of the world: efficient, popular, and most importantly, for all of us. Don’t let your birthright to this institution be sold beneath you, and don’t let those same people wanting to turn your pains into profit get away with scapegoating those who do most to contribute to the NHS; the silent, uncomplaining, hard working army of dedicated workers, both foreign and native, who will never earn in a lifetime what a banker will get for his Christmas bonus.
Spleen out of the way. Let’s get back to other innards.
By the third day of Nil By Mouth my lips bled as the dryness cracked them. Swabs were provided to moisture my mouth, but these became new form of frustration. I was told not to swallow the water, the cold, wet, beautiful water. This fresh torment was added to that of the almost constant thought of thirst. Two cans of Irn Bru sat on my bedside table, almost erotic in their calling. I thought of all the times I had been able to freely drink Irn Bru, or tea, or just plain water, and chose not to. How I had squandered these times! How I had wasted so many opportunities to pour liquid into me, feel it wash round my mouth, soothe my throat, fill me with relief! When I was able to drink again, I would ensure I would, and with gusto. My fridge would be crammed with every soft drink available,each selected and slurped with the louche precision of the connoisseur. The evening hot drinks service came round, the guy serving reading the note above my bed and giving me a ‘sorry mate’ shrug as he retreated. The other patients on the ward, why were they not cheering? Why were they not saying ‘everything’ when asked which drink they’d like? Why were they not moaning in pleasure when that first sip of tea hit the tongue and washed round the mouth? How arrogant, how privileged, how spoiled were these ingrates?
My drip dispensed another millilitre of saline into my blood, imperceptibly.
We’re just tubes, really, a load of tubes with a brain perched on top. When in hospital, the tubes get filled, flushed, diverted, cut, replaced. We’re transit systems for liquids, little more. As you get older, the more these tubes fail, so the amount of external tubes on each patient on the ward seems directly proportional to the age of the tube-carrier. I have few tubes, and only one in a bad way. Others have barely a single functioning tube; the tubes getting stuff in needing assistance; the tubes pushing stuff around needing stimulation; the tubes carrying stuff out needing pumps and plastic. Forget bones, muscle, nerves and flesh, they just prop it all up, we are tubes, just tubes.
Then, on the 27th, it happened. Ellie was by my bedside, telling me of the snow that had fell so heavily the night before. How the taxi driver that had taken her home from the hospital had refused to drive her the last quarter of a mile as he didn’t want to get stuck down a country road so had kicked her out, forcing her to make the rest of the journey home on foot, through a blizzard on her own. My own solipsism shifted to rage against external factors, but before I could ring the taxi firm and demand an explanation I was told to get ready, They Are Coming For You.
And then they were there, running through my notes and passing me papers to sign as I was wheeled to a spartan, windowless area of the hospital. Not a sign of Christmas here, this was purely clinical. A strong painkiller put in my drip, which smeared everything. Then the stuff to knock me out. This was my first general anaesthetic, but I’d thought about this bit a lot. I’d pledged if I ever was told to count down from 10, I’d try to get at least to five. Those that failed to do so seemed somehow lacking moral fibre, so easily letting themselves slip away into the arms of Morpheus.
No, I would be stronger, would show steel and impress the anesthesiologist with my will. They’d probably need to give me another dose, and up the number countdown to at least fifty.
‘Ok Mr Goold, try and stay awake as long as you can’ the plunger was pushed down. I think I mouthed ‘Ten’, but got no further.
Of course, I read online what the operation would be like beforehand. Who wouldn’t? While I cannot bear any hospital based TV programmes, and squirm from shots of surgery, when it comes to one’s own procedures a morbid fascination descends. The gory thought of my innards being briefly outtards fascinates me.
The operation itself, laparoscopic keyhole, where three holes are made on the belly and a camera inserted, sounds so outrageously hi-tech I imagine groups of medical students crowding the theatre gallery to get a glimpse at this complex, rare procedure; rather than the dull reality of it being a very straight-forward, extremely common bit of surgery. Still, the tales of gas being inserted to raise my abdomen, micro-tools coursing round my guts and bits of me being snipped away make me wish i’d stayed awake, or at least asked one of the surgeons to video it on my phone. This from a bloke who can’t even watch someone else receive an injection.
WAKING UP STUPID
I come to with the loose laughter of the drunk who wakes to find himself still drunk, an oxygen mask is being raised from my face and a blurred figure above me says ‘Welcome back..’ – hesitation while it reads my wristband ‘ -‘Welcome back, Mr Goob’. I laugh again, and then take a big pull on the oxygen stuff, ‘Good stuff, this’ I tell the blur ‘It’s disconnected’ it replies.
CHRISTMAS DEFERRED, CHRISTMAS APPRECIATED
Now home, three small stitched holes in my abdomen, and unable to bend very much while they heal. It’s not a bad time to be recovering: the period between Christmas and New Year has always been a limbo of lounging around, with little agenda. It’s not been the Christmas I hoped for. After a year where I seem to have lived a dozen lives, a year where so much has happened this time of year should have been a period of reflection, of filing it away, putting it in context and mounting it in the psychic photo album. Instead, my body decided it needed to see out the year with a flourish, a coda, an appendix.
Yet in some ways it was a great Christmas for seeing something else: the great gift that is our NHS, the ceaseless love and care of others, especially my wife, who had to go home alone on Christmas evenings to an empty house and still-wrapped presents, while the world snugly wrapped themselves in friends and family outside. To see the side of Christmas where the smallest acts of charity – the hospital visitors who came to cheer up the elderly, family-less patients, the box of Minstrels left by my bed- this is Christmas raw and away from the gaudy baubles of John Lewis ads and Coca Cola lorries. It was a time where I saw what I had, what luxuries I am surrounded with – not just cans of Irn Bru but my family, my friends, my life right now, right here – and feel a clenching pledge to hold it all dear, to cherish and never take for granted, for one day it will be gone.
And the most simple saying of the charity of Christmas we tell ourselves, when faced with the ugly excesses of indulgence each Christmas, rang truer than ever this year: as a diseased, burning part was removed from my ileum, it truly is better to give, than to receive.
*it is weirdly. Nice to know at least some of my opiate delusions were factual. Though I think I can conclude that the memory of the snow singing as it fell was thoroughly in the realm of the opium-eater.