Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Wanderer

Cyril has returned. We encountered him down the lane, not far from where I first found him. He cried out and came running over to us when we called him. We were delighted. In the back of our minds was the fear that he had been injured in a fight with the local feral cats or even worse. We walked together back towards the house, Cyril trotting along the lane in fits and starts. When we got near to the house he seemed to suddenly recognise where he was and ran ahead. He was waiting by the front door when we arrived.

As usual he tucked in to several bowlfuls of milk and food. He looked like he had been sleeping rough, his fur was a bit muddy and his ears were flecked with specks of dried blood. He licked himself all over and then went to sleep on the bed for some hours. Later on he got up and fed again, returning to bed after. That evening he went out into the darkness. As we closed the front door, we wondered if we would ever see him again.

But the next morning Cyril was back for a hearty breakfast. On the front doorstep was a piece of grey rabbit fur with a slice of flesh attached to the inside skin: a cat gift to reaffirm the bond. Afterwards I went to the local Post Office to remove the missing cat poster.

‘Did the cat come back on its own?’ said the postmistress.

I explained and thanked her.

‘Is it a boy?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘They do wander,’ she said, shaking her head.

Cyril had been away for the best part of two weeks. We had looked everywhere for him, especially down the lane where I first found him. Near the disused railway line was an old barn with bales of straw in it. I had pushed apart the brambles to reveal a cat sized hole in the straw in the corner.  We called and called but there was no Cyril to be found anywhere.

We had given up hope of seeing him again and had feared the worst. But wee Cyril has proved himself to be self-sufficient, in spite of our townland being full of wild creatures: feral cats, badgers and foxes.

His little purring presence and big personality have made a real difference to our house. He’s been with us all this week. We hope Cyril stays for a good long while before his next wander.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Cats and the Bonfire

We enjoyed having Cyril with us. He was easy to get along with. He would be out all night, returning early in the morning with a gift of a dead mouse or shrew. After his large breakfast he would sleep. Towards evening he would liven up and play with us and his toys. He enjoyed accompanying us on our after-dinner walks, trotting along like a little ginger dog. After a hearty supper he would go out for the night. Cyril was good company. Unfortunately, one day last week he disappeared. We have looked everywhere for him. We even put a notice in the local Post Office, offering a reward if he was found. But there is still an empty space where he used to sleep.

Despite Cyril only being with us for a short time, we miss him. We think he was attacked by one of the local feral cats. They regard our garden as part of their territory. I had been feeding them for several years after some rodents got into my loft. They solved the rodent problem. You rarely see the feral cats, but there are three that come into the garden regularly. The first was all black with green eyes, we call him Pangur. We haven’t seen him for a while. His place has been taken by a big blue-grey cat we call The Da. So named because we thought he could have been Pangur’s Da. But for all we know it might be The Ma. There is also a black and white cat we call Scruffy because he has lost part of his tail and is left with a bony stub. Any of these would be bigger and stronger than Cyril, who was fairly small and domesticated. We imagine that faced with a fight with any of the feral cats he would have run away.

With the good weather we have again been working hard in the garden. This also provided some displacement from worrying about Cyril. We cut back several ground covering conifers that had run amok in the rear border and had grown down into the back yard. Some of their branches were as thick as your arm and unable to be cut with my heavy-duty lopper, they had to be sawn. We collected these and all the prunings from the other shrubs, the apple tree and the ash hedge and ferried them into the corner of the farmer’s field next door. This took ages and built a huge pile. Then we burnt it.

There is something very satisfying about a good bonfire. Perhaps this is reawakening a primitive bond with fire. Perhaps it is a ritual cleansing of all the debris of winter that marks the turning towards the natural plenty of Summer. When the flames take hold, leaping through the branches and the smoke billows and rises into the sky there is something in my heart that sings. After you stoke it with fresh prunings and branches it burns all afternoon and evening. Then you are left with ashes – the symbol of mourning. 

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Adoption

Following a long weekend of gardening, I went for an after dinner walk to try and ease my aching muscles. I was down the lane at the old railway bridge admiring the sunset when I heard a plaintive cry. A ginger cat was walking towards me mewing. It leapt up onto the parapet and began to rub its head against my arm. I stroked the cat and it began to purr. After a while I turned to go back home and the cat followed me.

I knew there were plenty of feral cats in our townland, although I hadn’t seen this one before. They always took the food I put out for them but were very wary of people. You couldn’t normally get within twenty feet of one before it would run away. The ginger cat was different, it seemed used to people.

The journey home was about three-quarters of a mile. The ginger cat trotted along with me. Often it stopped and went into the hedge or a field at the side of the road to explore a scent. I waited for it and called it to come along. It semi-ignored me, behaving a little like a dog, and only came on again when it was ready. At one point it climbed up the trunk of a tree, then backed itself down and carried on along the lane. With all these diversions it took the best part of an hour to get back to our house and it was dark when we arrived.

I opened the front door and the cat followed me into the kitchen. I gave it some cat food, which it ignored, then a bowl of milk which it drank eagerly. I refilled the bowl. The cat drank it all again. Then it started on the food and ate it all. Then it drank another bowl of milk. After four bowls of milk and three of cat food it seemed satiated and headed for the front door and out into the darkness.

The next morning the ginger cat reappeared, jumping up onto the kitchen window sill and mewing. Its hunger was somewhat abated for it only consumed two bowls of milk and two of cat food. When it finished the cat began to explore the house. We followed him as if his retinue. He sniffed around every room, then leapt onto our bed, kneaded the duvet and went to sleep.

T named him Cyril. I have no idea why. We asked around to see if anyone locally had lost a cat. Nobody had. One neighbour said they had seen a ginger cat down the lane recently. Several reckoned that someone from out of the area had driven here and abandoned him

Cyril remained asleep until the evening. Then he had another two bowls of milk and food and went out into the night. The next morning he reappeared for breakfast. But I noticed that he had left the half-eaten carcass of a mouse on the back door step and its entrails on the front door step. With these offerings the adoption was sealed.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Thankful for Small Irritations

It has been a normal week. Nothing dramatic has happened to us. Admittedly, there are plenty of small irritations in our lives which cause discomfort. But that is normal too. The smooth flow of life without setbacks is an illusion, perpetuated by lifestyle product advertising. Like most people, we do our best to live with the irritations.

My dearest T is getting accustomed to her breathing machine and it’s helping her a lot, although some nights it works better than others. The problem seems to be with the fit of the mask. During sleep it can be partially dislodged, meaning that the flow of air goes across her face rather than into her mouth to keep her airway open. On the bad nights she hasn’t slept properly due to apnic episodes and is very tired in the morning. She is experimenting with different pillows and has requested a different mask from the hospital.

I am still waiting to see the surgeon about my diaphragm repair. He agreed to delay the surgery until after my scan result was known, but also said that he wanted to see me again before the procedure. That was the best part of a month ago. I’ve rung his secretary to find out what is happening but she doesn’t know and wasn’t able to find out as the surgeon was away. So I feel I am dangling again, having to prepare myself for another hospital admission but having no idea when.

I ought to be used to this situation, given how often I’ve been here over the past six years. But I still find it frustrating and disturbing. As a cancer patient in the NHS, you always seem to be inbetween scans, treatments and reviews. It’s more a permanent state than a transitional one.

When I was first diagnosed, surviving to five years was the big objective. But that is an artificial target. Statistics on cancers and patient survival are only kept for five years. And many cancers, mine included, are known to recur significantly beyond this deadline – even decades later. So you are never really free of the threat.  

But surviving is what matters. All around us are many examples of the opposite: from famine in four countries in Africa caused primarily by wars, to the sudden deaths of family members, friends and acquaintances.

A group from Concern recently came back from the Central African Republic. It is the poorest country in the world, according to UN statistics. This large country, eight times the size of Ireland, has just 5 million people. They reported that outside the capital city there is no basic infrastructure: no roads, no water and no electricity. Most people get by in small-scale subsistence agriculture. There is no famine at present, but they are stuck in grinding poverty with many endemic diseases and virtually no medical care. The country’s mineral resources have been sold to the Chinese by the ruling elite, who also want to be the sole distributors of international aid. They don’t like NGOs. And aid is often distributed only at election time. This sort of fragile state is so easily pushed into famine by war, as has been happening in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan.

Earlier this week I learned of the untimely death of friend, who I was close to when I lived in Glasgow, but who I lost touch with after I moved here. His partner, expecting him to be at home, had rung him but got no reply. After several attempts she went round to the flat and found him lying on the floor, as if asleep. He had died from a heart attack.

Having to live with a series of small irritations is the stuff of normal life. It means you are alive and kicking. Making the best of your situation, with humour and resilience is what matters. I’m trying to get better at it. I hope that as I progress along this road, bigger problems might become a little smaller.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Sleep of the Lambs

It has been another tough week. My dearest T has needed to see two different specialists: an Endocrinologist and a Respiratory specialist. The good news is that she got a diagnosis and began a course of treatment; the less good news is that she will probably need this treatment for life.

Around a year ago I was at a clinic waiting for an asthma review when I saw a poster on the wall: ‘Does Someone you Love Snore?’ The poster explained that bad snoring can be a symptom of a dangerous respiratory disease called sleep apnoea, and said that there was a simple test for this. I went home and spoke to T about it.

She snores very loudly. I often found it difficult to sleep in the same room as her, even wearing earplugs. Not only was her snoring loud, it was disturbing in other ways because she sometimes sounded like she was choking. We looked up sleep apnoea; it was dangerous because your airway would become blocked whilst sleeping. Usually your nervous system would kick start your body and wake you from deep sleep to reopen the airway. But when you subsided into deep sleep, the airway would often block again and you would need another kick start. Over time this process would put a lot of strain on your heart and could lead to high blood pressure, a stroke or a heart attack. 

I asked T to go for the test. At first she was reluctant but I persisted. Then she began to suffer other symptoms: extreme tiredness, bad headaches, shaking, occasional blurred vision, pins and needles. She went to her GP who gave her some blood tests. The results showed that her hormone levels were abnormal. After some discussion he referred her to see the two specialists. Then, through an acquaintance of T’s, we learnt that sleep apnoea with disturbed hormone levels can be a symptom of a problem with the pituitary gland. Her husband had a tumour on his pituitary gland which had caused the sleep apnoea. We began to worry a good bit more.

The sleep apnoea test is quite odd. T was fitted with a heart (mini ECG) monitor and finger (blood/oxygen) monitor. A small microphone was also taped to her forehead. She wore this for one night, and returned the kit to the hospital the next morning. Then we waited. Strangely enough both of the appointments came in the same week.

The Endocrinologist was first. He spent the best part of an hour talking through T’s symptoms. His view was that the core problem was sleep apnoea because the majority of her symptoms were intermittent. He felt that if there was a problem with the pituitary gland these symptoms would be continuous. But to double-check he sent her for a suite of blood tests.

The Respiratory specialist told her that she had mild to moderate sleep apnoea. The test showed that she had woken up 15 times an hour for ten seconds or more. She was shocked, that meant she was waking up from deep sleep over 100 times a night. But this had been happening automatically, she was hardly ever aware of it. When your sleep is this disturbed it disrupts your body’s maintenance systems and can cause a whole host of distressing symptoms. No wonder she was feeling so tired and debilitated.

The treatment is a small breathing machine which keeps her airway open at night. The machine pumps in air to her nose and mouth through a close fitting mask. It makes her look like a cross between a Second World War pilot and Hannibal Lecter. We both laugh at it. But, given the dangers, it is a small inconvenience. The first night with the mask on her snoring stopped and, despite suffering from a bad cold, T began to feel a little better the next morning.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Pickle and Caravaggio

After all of the stress of recent weeks we had a weekend away in Dublin. The weather wasn’t good but it didn’t seem to matter. We wandered the streets in the cold and damp, managing to escape the rainstorms. There were two main highlights: a new Indian restaurant in Camden Street called Pickle and the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition at the National Gallery. Both of these experiences were filled with drama and intensity.

I’d lived in Birmingham and Manchester for many years and was used to eating good quality Indian food. These areas had substantial communities from the Indian sub-continent and this meant that they offered a range of authentic eating places. Many were small Indian cafes whose windows were stacked with brightly coloured sweets. There was normally only one curry on the menu. Indeed there was rarely a menu, just the dish of the day, usually a vegetable curry dominated by whatever produce was going cheap in the market at the time. In these cafes, set in the grimy streets of the inner city, the majority of the customers would be from the Indian sub-continent. In more affluent suburbs and in the city centre there would be more upmarket restaurants which would cater for the British customer, but amongst these there would always be some that produced good quality and authentic Indian food.

Coming to live and work in Belfast I was very disappointed to find that there was a very small community from the Indian sub-continent here and consequently very little choice in the Indian restaurants. The only one that I found which produced good quality food was the oddly named Lolita in Stranmillis, which unfortunately closed a few years ago. Sadly I’d not found a good Indian restaurant in Dublin either. But I’d heard that a new one called Pickle was good and was keen to try it. We were not disappointed.

We had the early evening menu, two courses for €22. I had Seek Kebab and Chicken Tikka, two items you would find on most menus. But the aromas and tastes of these dishes were extraordinary. The chef is from northern India. He grinds and mixes his own spices and it shows. As I drank in the flavours, I was back in Saleem’s in Balsall Heath where as a student I had first tasted those intensely rich and heady spices. I was almost expecting to find the dodgy jukebox in the corner filled with Bollywood anthems. But Pickle is squarely aimed at an upmarket customer and is more discreet in its style. On the a la carte menu, which we will be going back for, most of the main courses are over €20. As we left we noticed a plaque in the foyer which showed that Pickle had been chosen as the best Indian restaurant in Ireland.

Richness, drama and intensity also mark out the paintings of Caravaggio. The exhibition, on tour from the National Gallery in London, displays the huge impact that he had on other artists during his short life (1571-1610). There were only four Caravaggios on show. This confirms how highly valued and closely guarded his work continues to be. They included the iconic ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ and the ‘Supper at Emmaus’. The remainder of the exhibition featured paintings by his contemporaries who were seeking to emulate and utilise his powerful new style. Some achieved this so successfully that for many years their paintings were actually thought to be by Caravaggio himself.

What I love about Caravaggio is the extremely skilful composition of each of his pieces. The paintings are intense and dramatic, the human figures are in close up and every gesture connects you to another part of the scene that is realised in an intensity of light and dark paint (called chiaroscuro). Apparently he worked using sketches of live models who posed each figure in the drama, which he then put together into the final rich and powerful composition. You look at the whole painting and then your gaze is slowly taken around and across it by the shape of the bodies, the gestures of the figures and the play of light and darkness.

My favourite piece by Caravaggio is a triptych in the church of San Luigi dei Franchesi in Rome. On three walls of a chapel are displayed episodes from the life of St Matthew. The left wall appears to be a scene in a tavern; it is in fact at a tax collectors. Men are sitting around a table, lit from a window to the right. There is a complex interplay of gestures and sightlines. A bearded man has entered the room and points towards a young man in a feathered hat, brightly lit at the centre of a canvas. Jesus has chosen the disciple to follow him.  On the right wall an assassin in loincloth with rippling muscles is about to thrust a sword into the supine saint, who lifts up his arms in protest. Smartly clothed men look on almost impassively, whilst a young boy turns away in terror. The sightlines, gestures and chiaroscuro of these two pieces on opposite walls interact extremely powerfully and dramatically. The centrepiece is the least interesting, depicting the saint with a halo and an angel above. Apparently it is the second version. The first was rejected because it was considered too radical. The saint and the angel were depicted intertwined around his writing of the gospel. This picture hung in a museum in Berlin but was destroyed during the Second World War.

This triptych, painted in 1600, was Caravaggio’s first major commission and made his name. After that he became patronised by a rich Cardinal and painted many of the great works on religious themes that he is now known for. Unfortunately, you cannot transport a chapel in Rome to an exhibition in Dublin.

The Crucifixion of St Peter 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Appointment with the Oncologist

The Cancer Centre has self check-in. You input your sex and date of birth at a terminal and the system puts your details on the screen. You confirm them and your appointment appears on the screen. You confirm it and a ticket is printed with your number at the bottom. You take the ticket and go into the large waiting room and find a seat. It has comfy chairs. But the people there are not sitting easily.

No-one makes eye contact and hardly anyone is speaking. Most people are sitting blankly, staring at the panel on the wall which scrolls through the list of the consultants in the clinic today and the average waiting time for each. Then a number flashes onto the screen and a voice says ‘will patient number x please go to room y.’ All the patients in the waiting room glance at their tickets. Someone gets up and enters through the double doors that are opened by a push button at the side.

I wait for about twenty minutes, and I am called. Beyond the double doors is a white hospital corridor with a series of numbered rooms with closed blue doors. A slim young woman about half my age is standing outside the door that I have been called to. I haven’t seen her before. She introduces herself as my consultant’s registrar, escorts me into the room and asks me to sit beside the desk. An even younger man with a wispy beard is sitting in the corner. She says he is a fourth-year medical student and asks me if I mind him sitting in on our review meeting. I give a weak smile and say that I don’t mind.

‘How are you feeling?’ says the registrar.
‘Okay,’ I say, sitting stiffly in the chair. ‘I’m just over a bad cold.’
She nods and glances at a file on her desk. ‘Well, your interval scan shows no appreciable change.’
I gulp. ‘So there’s nothing sinister been found?’
‘No,’ she smiles, ‘not at all’.
‘That’s great’. I sigh and notice that my hands are clutching the arms of the chair.
‘It’s much the same as last time,’ she says.
‘Thank you.’ I smile and begin to relax my grip.

I ask for a copy of the scan report and she prints one off. I read through it and ask questions about statements I don’t understand. She explains the medical language to me. Apparently I have a gallstone. But don’t worry, she says, many people have them and they don’t cause any trouble at all. And I have an enlarged prostate. But that’s also normal for someone of my age, she tells me.

I finish my questions and she asks to examine me. I take my top half off and lie on my back on a paper covered couch behind a screen. She places one hand on top of the other and presses them into different parts of my abdomen whilst looking intently at my face. I feel no pain and tell her that I only have twinges when I use my abdominal muscles to sit up. The medical student watches from the end of the couch. She asks me to sit up. I lever myself up with my arms. She takes the stethoscope and listens to my lungs. Then she stands behind me and feels around my neck and under my chin.

That’s all fine, she says, you can get dressed now. They leave me behind the screen. When I come out, she is sitting at the desk looking at my file. The medical student is back on his chair in the corner. I return to my seat beside the desk. She looks up and tells me that I will be scanned again in three months time. I thank her. I explain that had been worrying that they might extend the interval this time. We’ll keep a close eye on you for the first year, she says.

I thank her again and leave. Out in the waiting room, the fear in the faces that are staring at the screen is plain to see. I wonder if they can see the relief in mine.