S&C regular contributor and author of the memoir Read Rees, Gareth Rees, was fit and healthy all his life until just before last Christmas when he was admitted to Queen Alexandra Hospital with mysterious pains in his stomach. What follows is his account of staving off boredom, bureaucracy and hopelessness as he resists a disease he describes as ‘a stay of execution’.
My life on the run has landed me in hospital. It’s my fifth day here and I’m in pain. Troubling, because I’ve always thought I’ve merely flirted on the edges of bohemian excess. For years I’ve been getting up at eight a.m. to do yoga and stand on my head. I took long walks by the sea or in the woods. Then the colour and the zest of the world began to escape me. Food was tasting insipid. I’d stopped laughing in the tavern and was going home without finishing my ale.
Now, in bed on the ward, I just want to cry and cry. But I’m not yet able. Perhaps my childhood training regime saw giving in to emotion as incompatible with running an empire. Once, when I was eight years old, all the cigarette smoke on the bus to school made me feel sick. I got off the bus, vomited and then caught the next bus. When I told my father about the incident, he said he was proud of me for not making a fuss. Was I fitting into the ‘manly’ mould of toughness by staying oblivious to my own distress?
Years later, I saw Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac backstage strapping on a guitar and preparing to perform. I thought, ‘There’s a man despite the un-military long hair and colourful clothes.’ And then later still, holding a baby to my breast, I felt manly in a way I’d never felt on the school rugby pitch when, hearing the approaching thud of boots on turf, I wanted to run away instead of catch the ball and get trampled.
I think it’s a good idea that no government minister should ever make a decision unless holding a baby at the same time.
It’s 10.30 a.m. now. Sun is streaming through the window and I can see over the city to the Isle of Wight. I’ve been waiting for a scan for four days but keep getting put back on the list because my case isn’t considered urgent. That would suggest there’s nothing seriously wrong with me.
I finally go for the scan and a doctor tells me I can leave hospital. I laugh with joy. A fragrant fragment from somewhere in the Book of Isaiah comes to me: ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that announceth glad tidings.’
Another doctor calls at my bed just as I am getting ready to leave. He says the upshot is ‘serious’. This time I don’t laugh. I feel sober and composed. I don’t say anything.
Been at home for five days now. Just played ‘Away in a Manger’ on the harmonica. And then, just as I am tucking into bacon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, the phone rings. I’m told to go back to hospital to hear the verdict of the panel of experts. ‘The Inquisition,’ I think. I’m going to have to pay at last for my sins.
The verdict is delivered by a man who exudes professional expertise but is not without a spiritual dimension. He leans back, smiling, and says, ‘Of course there is hope. Where would we be without it?’
‘Stay of execution’ is how I read the verdict. The entirety of life is that way, isn’t it? There need be no shock. And yet I am shocked. I run in circles as though crazed. I wish I can be a reed which merely bends when the Furies rush in.
I am thankful for calls and text messages conveying good wishes. ‘You’ve met some amazing people,’ I think.
One of the callers says, ‘Your voice sounds low on animation. But there are gong baths.’
‘And what are those?’ I wonder. ‘Does someone strike a gong as you’re laid back in hot water and lathering yourself? Sounds all right.’
And there’s still yoga. I see not just feline positions of grace but the grace behind the grace as well. Standing on your head is good and it’s funny sometimes to see the world upside down. Anyway, I hope as a result of yoga the heavens grant safety to my purposes.
A nurse telephones and inquires after stools which I understand to be something other than three-legged items of furniture designed for a sedentary life. The nurse asks if I am spiritual or religious. I don’t think about it, I just say yes.
Settling down for a night’s sleep is the hardest time because I neither settle nor do I hardly sleep. It’s one reason I took up beer-drinking in the evenings. It made me sleepy and I’d be asleep ten minutes after getting home from the tavern.
But now, it’s like walking through the Valley in the Shadow of Death and wondering desperately, where is the Comforter? And the hours of turmoil slowly, slowly pass. But tonight is different. I eat a lavender chocolate and it is like eating a delicious bath. And then I play ‘Silent Night’ on the piano.
I go to bed at 11 p.m. Though I haven’t drunk anything alcoholic for two weeks, on this night I sip a tiny glass of red wine. It doesn’t taste good but maybe it soothes me. Anyway, I fall asleep immediately and don’t wake until eight the next morning.
On Christmas Day, I receive passion fruit curd which I spread on a pancake. I give hyacinths.
On Boxing Day, I wonder whether careful nutrition plays an important part in one’s treatment. Sometimes the ‘it’s good for you’ ethos – or vice versa – only adds to anxiety and too much anxiety, don’t you think, is more injurious to health than anything else, including even bacon, egg and fried bread? I’ve been eating a lot of sweet stuff like custard. Isn’t refined, white sugar an addictive and damaging drug?
My next appointment is about deciding on the way ahead. I think the policy is to meet aggression with aggression. It’s like calling in the air force to bomb a terrorist den. Maybe the enemy will be annihilated or some of them will escape and stir more trouble elsewhere.
I will probably lose my hair, Doc Delilah tells me. I think of wicked Delilah in the Bible who, by arranging for super-man Samson’s hair to be shorn while he slept, destroyed the spell that had given him the strength to take on and vanquish enemy armies all by himself. Strength gone, Samson was delivered up to his enemies. But after some earnest praying, the strength came back to him so that he could bring down the temple of his captors. He killed them as well as himself.
Did Samson sulk? Did he develop that most ghastly of attitudes: if I can’t be happy, I’ll make as many other people as I can go down with me? The attitude of a suicide bomber.
When I got home after my first term at university, my father was disgusted at how I’d allowed my hair to grow. I said that Rudolf Nureyev had long hair. My father said, ‘When you’ve achieved what he’s achieved, we’ll resume the discussion.’
Hanging on to long hair was about hanging on to pride – the stupid sort. I’ve been a follower of the stupid sort all my life. I was once offered a trip to Mexico. We were going to drive from Ontario. The guy who owned the car said I had to cut my hair. ‘Look man, we’ll be going through places like Texas and we don’t want to provoke anything ill. You’ve seen Easy Rider. Well, the folks down there see long hair as a rebellion against the US Constitution and the draft for Vietnam.’
I refused to cut my hair and I lost the trip.
In the communist countries of those days there was paranoia about the penetration of libertarian and musical rays of light from England. Long hair symbolised a subversive attitude. That, I supposed, was why I was hauled off a train in Bulgaria and stopped from resuming the journey back to England until I shaved my head. I was mortified to come home nearly bald. I started rubbing almond oil into my scalp a hundred times a day to try and make the hair grow back quicker. Pride and vanity. How much of life is wasted serving at the feet of those false gods?
I feel on the run from the cold. I go out to buy V8 juice and can hardly wait to get back home into a warm bed again. Boredom is creeping up on me. My mind is pleasantly occupied by a Victorian novel, the Premier League soap opera or cricket from Australia. However, distractions can only distract for a while.
The distraction of the nightly routine of visiting the tavern is no more. Release can be confused with freedom. I may be free of one form of incarceration but once I’m released from my cell, there is a big question about how I use my freedom. Do I embrace the gift of life or do I retreat? Freedom is too difficult. Thinking becomes unbearable, morbid. I have an attack of morbidity tonight.
I wake suddenly and find my consciousness altered. The ‘real’ world as I’ve supposed it to be, the world of the familiar seems distant. Is this dying, I ask myself? And then I remember the licks of cannabis oil I took before going to sleep. My heaven-sent supporters went to great effort and expense to procure this ‘miracle cure’. Initially, I resisted because I didn’t want my mind to be tempted down the dark, gnarled, tree root path to paranoia. But last night I tried some and perhaps that’s why I am in this scary state now. Instead of panicking and crying out for help like the lost child I feel myself to be, I calm myself by saying, ‘This too will pass.’ And it does.
I keep saying to discomfort, ‘This too will pass.’ Discomfort? Yes, just discomfort. Don’t make a fuss. But then, after quite a while of feeling pretty good, I suffer an ambush and have to admit to myself it isn’t discomfort. It is pain. It has me on my knees, rocking backwards and forwards. The night outside is wild and a gust of wind sends a tin can rattling down the street.
All my life I’ve thought I’d get unwell and then get better again. But there comes a time when you don’t get better and this won’t pass unless it be the passing of the body.
It’s strange, here I am hoping to walk away from morphia while simultaneously contemplating walking towards it. Anything for a rest from this regime of pain. But now I remember some of my mother’s last words: ‘I don’t want any more painkillers.’ And how about life beyond pain, beyond the veil, beyond the multiplicity of distractions? This life is hardly ever lived to the full anyway, is it? It’s like hardly ever getting beyond second gear.
I was talking to a bloke in the tavern in ‘the good old days’ about a book we’d both read, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. He’d read it in prison and asked if I’d been in prison as well. When I said I hadn’t, he looked at me with contempt and said that I must therefore be an aristocrat.
As I lie in bed, I wonder if listening to Gardeners’ Question Time puts me into that aristocratic bracket as well. They speak of parsnips and I think of my early forays into low-budget cooking and how I lived for a while on a mash of carrot, parsnip and potato.
A woman in the audience complains that a badger has dug up her maple tree and that, after replanting, it was failing to prosper. The expert says the maple tree is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Well, aren’t we all to an extent? It’s another reason I’m only partially alive. The rest of me is still stunned by the shock of arriving into this world.
They go on to discuss grapevines and how it’s vital to be ‘ruthless’ about pruning lest energy go into the growth of strangling branches rather than into fruit.
At the end of the programme, a man says, ‘Don’t forget, because we’re gardening we’re happy people.’
Blessed are the gardeners. If no-one in government should make a decision unless he or she is holding a baby, perhaps they should also be holding proudly a basket of haricot and sweet peas they have cultivated in their own garden.
I put down my turmeric and ginger tea and go out on a cold yet sunny morning. I have another appointment with the professionals in the vast hospital. I’m concerned by the bigness of the medical system, its logic of centralisation. I remember the same problem when I was working as a schoolteacher. Schools trebled in size. Teachers couldn’t remember the names of the children they taught.
I’m known to none in this huge cathedral of medicine.
Blood pressure reading. Injection. Waiting room. Take out a book. Cherry and apricot trees in a small town garden in Hungary in the 1930s. A mother sewing Stars of David onto clothes. Dark clouds lowering over childhood. And the authors writes of his father that, for a long time, he must have ‘studiously cultivated detachment to delude himself into believing that somehow he stood outside events.’
Later I replace my clothes with a loose gown and conducted to a bed with much machinery in the room and three business-like employees who start to operate on me. I yelp a couple of times and then it’s all over. I can go home. On the way out of the hospital, I stop in the shop to buy a mango smoothie. It is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever tasted.
I go to the see the GP the next day. Afterwards, I wish I hadn’t. There is little colour about the doctor’s presence and her sense of humour seems a long way off. Maybe it’s hard to be bright and cheery when so much time is spent listening to complaints. She uses negative words like ‘incurable’ and speaks of a morphia future. Maybe she was being realistic rather than pessimistic. But the logic seems to be that, if an invasion force has progressed, it will continue to progress. That’s not scientific, is it? Maybe the invader will tire and decide to retreat. Of course, that is my hope. The doctor’s message seems to suggest a supine capitulation to pain. Pain can be allayed but will, in the end, choke out life.
Although she didn’t, I half-expected the doctor to employ that euphemistic formula about getting your affairs in order. Had she done so, I might have laughed. My affairs have never been in order. Why should that change now?
Yet all my life I’ve dreamed of inner chaos and conflict somehow resolving themselves into peace. That prospect seems more remote than ever now. Perhaps, after all, I’ve wrapped myself up with the dubious comforts of this world so much that I’ve just about forgotten another world. I wonder even if there is another world. Is there anything left after the demise of the body? Is the future extinction and oblivion? That’s not an enticing thought. It would also appear to contradict imagination.
Being bored I don’t like to admit to. But I am. Marking time. Until what? Expiry. Then shouldn’t I be on my knees trying to find composure and making peace with my maker? Instead, I turn on the television, a habit of a lifetime. It doesn’t work. It too is boring and the dramas sad, sad, sad. Food is dull now but that’s down to the medication messing up my taste buds. Although I’m hungry, what I eat tastes poisonous after a few mouthfuls – unless it’s sweet. I could eat custard, ice cream and chocolate all day. I look forward to a breakfast of brioche soaked in freshly-brewed coffee. I marvel at the contradiction that I am doing yoga one minute and then getting sugared-up. How mad that is.
In hospital I could eat puddings all day if I wanted. And that’s all I wanted. Yet voices tell me sugar, especially of the refined white variety, is the greatest enemy. It’s craved by the force that’s working for my demise. I’m still, it seems, pretty much an addict.
The Dalai Lama said life is a preparation for death. I’m inclined to agree but it’s all too much to think about. I want the comforts of this world, the only one I know, even though these comforts are unsatisfactory just now. They have become just distractions, too, and ancient attachments acquired in childhood like competitive sport. Oh, the Six Nations rugby tournament starts tomorrow but I’m not interested anymore. Seems so unevolved, deriving elation at the price of another’s defeat and desolation. Surely, I should have gravitated to seeking harmony by this point in my life.
Sometimes I pick up my guitar or the harmonica, or play some chords on the piano. Always feel better when I do.
I’m realising I’ve passed so much time running. ‘Born to run’ like Bruce Springsteen. Shame about ‘Born in the USA’; more pile-driver than music. I’ve been reading his memoirs, though, and he’s a very good writer. Authentic.
Books. Books. I need books. I find a thick Anthony Trollope I haven’t read and am much pleased by that. I’ve also been dipping into Alan Bennett’s diaries. Don’t know Alan Bennett except that he writes plays I’ve never seen. I find him a warm, attractive personality. Cruises around Yorkshire villages buying raspberry jam and visiting old churches. I like doing the same maybe because I grew up in that old English country milieu.
Bennett’s not living exclusively in ye olde worlde, though. He goes to New York. Sometimes he’s in a small town in France or in Rome. And then he’s in a supermarket in London with a couple of kindly women trying to remove some ice cream they say some children have smeared on the back of his coat. Actually, it’s cover for a pick-pocketing mission and they rob him of £1500 he’s just withdrawn from the bank to pay builders.
We are now in February and it’s premature to start saying spring is here. I buy some daffodils anyway. The scent breaks the straitjacket of mundanity and lets me into heaven for an instant.
While I’d like to trip out to the Meon Valley and spot some snow drops, I feel too weak for outings. Is this the way it’s going to be from now on? The question scares me. I think not of the fields of Elysium but just the Big Dark. That too will pass, I hope.
Photography by Alexander Sebley.