Since December 2017, Portsmouth author and S&C regular Gareth Rees has been battling serious illness and pondering some deep questions about his own existence. Here he recounts finding solace in Charles Dickens, chirpy NHS staff and a trip to the Meon Valley.
I haven’t achieved self-mastery yet. Haven’t even arrived at the foothills. Haven’t learned to replace cursing with blessing, to convert anger into compassion, to understand instead of to judge. Haven’t found a yin and yang removed from a world riven into harsh opposites. Haven’t learned to mediate between the dreadful polarity of life and death. Haven’t found an inner wisdom to guide me to the truth in a world screaming out fake prescriptions.
I mean, do I eat nuts or not? And when it says on the label the cashews are honey-roasted but I find it’s more sugar than honey, do I retreat to my hermitage mind in despair, unable to trust the world?
Maybe all those cashews – and the protein they contain – I ate last night caused the churning in my guts which broke my sleep. Fruit juice? Oh no, too much sugar. What about the apple and rhubarb juice from Waitrose? Something mysterious and wonderful about rhubarb. Salvation through rhubarb! Maple syrup’s all right though, isn’t it? But it’s still sugar. What about gluten-free porridge with date syrup?
This nutrition hysteria is a substitute for church with its emphasis on sin and righteousness. The cold, marble-faced seriousness that eventually leads to the banning of fun, music, dance and even kite-flying. I heard the Puritans even banned mince pies. I’m scared to admit that all I feel like at the moment is a slice of toasted Tesco white bread with plenty of butter and marmalade slapped on it.
The Persian philosopher Rumi comes to mind. ‘Beyond the fields of Right and Wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.’
Who is Right, who is Wrong? It’s an ongoing, life-long labour to disentangle the fake from the true. In the end, I have to be an empiricist and trust to my own experience. I must ask myself if the feeling I have is conducive to my own well-being and will cause no harm to others.
Cold, marble-faced seriousness. No expression. Such a face meets me when I call at the GP’s to renew a prescription. The face tells me I must wait four days for my medicine. Resisting my inheritance of deference, I say, ‘No, that’s not acceptable.’ Instead of four days, the medicine is available at the pharmacy in two hours.
I’m desperately searching for a new book. The charity shops and the local library are dried-up rivers on that score. Then I question my rule about not reading a book twice. I don’t apply the same rule to music. So I grab from the library Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.
When I read it for the first time, I felt like I’d discovered an oasis. I was, after all, sitting in a caravan in the moonlit Libyan desert in the late 1970s. As ‘nodding donkeys’ sucked oil outside, I disappeared into Victorian England where the people may have lacked modern ‘necessities’ like vacuum cleaners and electricity, but they lived much like people live today, with love existing side-by-side with cruelty. Some things about human nature never change, and I like being part of it. I’m just another frail human being, but I’m not alone.
I was distracted from my book and reminded I was in the depths of the Sahara when a huge insect flew into the caravan. I sprayed it with insecticide and watched its death agony. I felt bad. But was its suffering greater just because it was large? Would I have felt better if I’d flicked at a fly? Worse if I’d shot an elephant or harpooned a whale?
Back in a waiting room inside the cathedral of medicine. The receptionist gives me the code FFJ and instructs me to watch a screen. I’m twenty minutes early but worry I might lose myself in Dombey and Son and miss my calling.
The screen tells me to go to ‘Sub-Wait Three’. Not much poetry there, not like being called to an assignation in Love Apple Lane. Feeling like a circus animal who’s long forgotten its natural environment, I push through double doors and am welcomed by smiling humanity. ‘Hello, I’m Ingrid. Please, this way. Let me weigh you.’
I don’t ask what my weight is now. I don’t want reminding of the hostile being within me which is realising its identity by stealing my substance.
My meetings with doctors or ‘heads of team’ are seldom useful. There’s a screen, always a screen, and then a collation of data, an interpretation of that data and then an oily seepage of gloom. In contrast, the hands-on people, the nurses and the operatives who change dressings, take blood, attach tubes and so forth, are warm and upbeat. That’s how it is today. I leave the hospital feeling cheerful.
A new day and I am feeling less weak and less likely to be blown over by a puff of wind upon venturing out. Instead of head bent low and looking down at the pavement, my gaze is horizontal.
I buy some more daffodils and apricot juice. Don’t care for the apricot fruit, but the juice is ambrosial. I recall that, in the 1950s, a National Geographic journalist accessed a remote Shangri-La-type valley somewhere amidst the mountains of Pakistan. Apricot orchards abounded and the writer reckoned the centrality of that fruit in the diet of the inhabitants gave them health and longevity.
It’s 9.30 p.m. Up until a couple of months ago, I’d be drinking beer in the tavern at this time. All I’m imbibing now is medicine from a bottle housed in the left hand pocket of my shirt. It’s pumped in drips via a tube into an opening in my right arm.
I don’t miss the beer nor tavern company hugely but feel a vacuum during this part of the day. It’s too early to switch off the light. I fear the sleeplessness which will follow. If sleep comes, I fear that too. Both states are like a troubled dream.
But I must jump off this train of despondency. A pancake with maple syrup and a dash of double cream. And then some chords on the guitar, a bluegrass kind of thing. After that, ‘Amazing Grace’ on the harmonica and the foul emotion that produces a line like ‘a wretch like me’ is wafted away by the perfume of the music.
It seems little Dombey in Dombey and Son is dying. But I know he doesn’t so I’m not sad when I put the book down and turn off the light. Compared to other recent nights, sleep comes quickly and I rest well. Brilliant sunshine – another rarity – greets me in the morning.
I stand on my head for a bit and then do some ‘salute to the sun’ yoga moves. Then it’s a round of alternate nostril breathing. I go through the alphabet on each intake and exhalation, thinking up words as I go.
‘A’ is for the Aroma when I take off the cap of my wee bottle of jasmine oil.
‘B’ is for the Soft Footfall of Beloved.
Seeking the Divine.
Faith, Gladness, Hope.
The Inner Way to the Kingdom of Light and Mercy.
Orange blossom at dawn.
The Peace of God beyond understanding.
A Quiet Mind.
Reeds on the shore of Galilee.
A man in an allotment cutting Sweet Peas for his wife.
The Vision of little pips.
The Well of Well-Being.
And now it’s time for breakfast: apple juice and a fresh croissant soaked in coffee.
‘And the child lies calm and beautiful on his little bed.’ So I’m wrong, little Dombey does die. I must have left that memory behind in the Sahara. And his poor sister, who has already lost her mother as well, is in terrible grief. But is it comforting to be told at the funeral that ‘all grief is unavailing and it is our duty to submit’?
When to accept and when to resist ?
To the Meon Valley. The English countryside still wintry, lifeless, bedraggled. At least snowdrops are blooming on the grass verges of the lanes. Thomas Lord, founder of Lords cricket ground, lived in the village of West Meon and there’s a pub named after him. In that pub is a log fire and chips like roast potatoes that are golden and delicious, especially with a scoop of mayonnaise.
It’s joy to have my appetite returned. I think of the Jesus story when a family believed its sick little girl had died. Jesus cleared the room of all the wailing hysteria. The child turned out to be asleep and, when she woke, Jesus hastened her recovery by ordering food for her.
Gareth’s book Read Rees is available to purchase here.
Photography by Alexander Sebley.