Thursday, 3 June 2021

A Gift from Ginger Dog

We have a three year old semi-feral cat. His name is Ginger Dog. A week ago he went missing for several days. We weren’t concerned, he’d done this before. But, on his return, he wouldn’t eat or drink. He just lay in his kennel in our back yard and steadily became unresponsive. A vet examined him, but couldn’t find what was wrong. To save his life, Ginger Dog was admitted to the pet hospital and put on a drip. The next morning he was a bit brighter, but still wouldn’t eat. So they decided to feed him through a tube. After three liquid feeds, he began to eat. We were overjoyed. Then the vet sedated him and scanned him. The next call brought the bad news. Ginger Dog had cancer in both kidneys.

Lymphoma is rare in cats, especially younger ones. But it is an aggressive disease. We were told that GD had weeks, possibly months to live. There was no treatment that could cure him. When we got to the vets, GD was waiting in a cat carrier with a towel covering it. As soon as we spoke, he began to miaow. We drove home, speaking to him soothingly. He tentatively stepped out from the carrier and sniffed his surroundings. With the three large patches of fur that had been removed for the scan and the drip, he looked a little odd. But he was still the same GD. After some food and water, he came and sat in T’s lap and purred. And for the rest of the day he followed us around, just like he had done when we first got to know him (that's how he gained his name).

GD arrived almost three years ago, shortly after our collie, Rex, died. He was small and weedy. We reckoned that he had been abandoned as a kitten. Early on he learned to enter the house for food. Sometimes he would stay and sleep for a few hours. He came and went as he pleased. GD far preferred the outdoors, whatever the weather. Often he would sleep in a bush in the garden, or in Rex’s old kennel. Regularly he would go to hang out with other feral cats at a nearby farm.

Because he was still very weak, we tried to keep him indoors. We cleared a space in the utility room and put down a bed for him, food & water and a litter tray (something he had never used, for he had learned to miaow when he wanted to go outdoors). The next morning I found he had been climbing the higher shelves trying to find a way out, as stuff had been knocked to the ground. We decided to allow him outdoors under supervision. GD lay down beside us in the garden and appeared to be sleeping. But when our attention was elsewhere he crept away. I caught him once on his way down the lane to the farm. That evening we again put him in the utility room. He began to howl. We thought he would stop and settle. But he continued to howl plaintively. We opened the back door. GD purred, ate some food and sloped off into the night. We said our goodbyes, wondering if we would ever see him again.

After an intense late night discussion, we agreed a way forward. GD had lived as a semi-feral cat. So he had to be allowed to die as one. It was no good now trying to turn him into an indoor cat. It was his right to decide how to spend his final days and we had to respect that. 

The next morning GD was not waiting on the kitchen window sill for his breakfast. My heart sank. I’d got so used to seeing his little furry face first thing in the morning. It was easy to imagine that he was lying in a ditch somewhere in pain. And I shed a few tears. But, mid-morning, GD appeared as if nothing had happened. He ate a hearty breakfast, groomed a little and lay down in the hall for a nap. A little later, I found a dead mouse on the front door mat. It was a gift from Ginger Dog. The very first time he had ever done that. We wondered what he was saying to us. Perhaps it was ‘thank you’.

Friday, 21 May 2021

My Own Little Bike Shop

People are very resourceful. The strategies for surviving lockdown have been many and varied. More books were read, more TV was watched and more video games were played. Sales of booze, fags and confectionery grew substantially. Although, as an antidote to being cooped up, many people went out more, going walking and cycling (having first dusted down the old trainers and the old bike from the shed). Plenty of people also got involved in new projects around the house. Whether DIY, writing, painting, knitting or art-journaling, what mattered most was the immersion and the sense of purpose it gave.

Over the past year of lockdowns, I’ve engaged in four big projects. I completed my second collection of poetry and I wrote the first draft of a novel. During the first long lockdown last year, I built a bike from scratch. And during this year’s long lockdown, I built another. I got a great sense of purpose from each of these projects But I gained much more than that. I also developed and extended my skills and abilities. And in each project I ended up with an artefact that I could look at with pride and say, I made this.

I began to learn bike-maintenance because I had to. Some twenty years ago I started to go on solo multi-week cycle-touring trips; at first on this island and then to different parts of Europe. I loved the freedom and flexibility of this type of travelling. But as I discovered, you have to be able to fix basic problems yourself as there may not always be a bike shop around when you need it. So, bit by bit, I learnt how to fix bikes. And through this I gained the confidence to undertake tasks that previously I would have left to a bike shop. Indeed, you can’t always trust a shop mechanic. Some years ago a local shop returned one of my bikes with a dangerous bodge, instead of fixing it properly. When you do the job yourself you can be sure that it’s right. My garage now doubles as a bike workshop; the walls and bench are lined with bike parts, bike tools and bikes.

As a birthday present, I bought myself a Trek Domane SLR frameset. This lightweight carbon frame and forks had the great advantage of built-in shock absorption. For my first new build on a carbon frame I took great care, paying close attention to the torque settings. I fitted Shimano Ultegra components throughout and custom-made lightweight wheels from DCR. I ended up with a splendid carbon endurance bike that weighs just 17 pounds; a whole three pounds lighter than the Granfondo titanium bike that I’d built a year ago.

The Domane is my first full-carbon bike and I am very proud of it. The bike is designed for endurance riding; it is agile and fast. Because I had a bad knee injury, I did little cycling over the winter. So I have only recently started to do some longer rides (the maximum so far has been 53 miles). The bike’s lightness and shock absorption help you to be less fatigued over longer distances on our poorly maintained roads. The Domane now joins my stable of five other bikes in the garage. It also happens to be worth more than my car. In our new Covid-limited world, pastimes and hobbies are more important now than they ever were.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Break

It wasn’t the sort of down-time that we were looking for. My dearest T has broken a bone in her foot. She was leaning forward to pull the curtains and overbalanced, getting a sharp pain along the outside of her foot. It was very sore, so we rang the GP. Amazingly enough, she asked T to come in to the surgery straight away. The GP examined the swollen foot and recommended that T get an X-ray. Then she rang the Minor Injuries service and booked T in.

Shortly after T got back home from the GP, a triage nurse rang, asked about the injury and gave T an appointment an hour later at Daisy Hill Hospital. I drove T to the front door and she limped into the hospital on my late father’s walking stick. The Minor Injuries Unit is attached to A & E, and I think most hospitals in NI have one. I wasn’t allowed in with her, so I had to park and wait for updates by text message.

T didn’t have very long to wait. She was seen by a doctor and sent for an X-ray. When the images came back, the doctor pointed out that T had fractured a bone in her foot. But not just any bone. T had a small extra metatarsal on the edge of her foot and this had broken. Having this extra bone was very unusual and the doctor brought in several medical students to look at the X-rays.

The treatment was the same as for any broken bone. T was fitted with a large grey plastic boot and two elbow crutches. She was given two weeks supply of Co-codamol and Clexane anti-coagulant injections and sent home to rest. T would be reviewed in two weeks time at the Minor Injuries Unit and was given an appointment. I picked her up at the front door of the hospital and helped her into the car. The whole process had taken just three hours, much quicker than any visit to A & E.

When we got back home, I helped T into the house. She hobbled along the hallway on the crutches and sat down in an armchair. I went to make her a cup of coffee and some toast. At the back door was our semi-feral cat. He hadn’t arrived as usual that morning. I got him some food while the kettle was boiling. Then I noticed he was limping too, holding one of his forepaws up as he hopped to his bowl. Blimey, I was the only one in the house who wasn’t incapacitated. I had better take good care, they were all depending on me.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

My Anniversary

This is a special day. And one that I truly never thought I would see. Ten years ago today I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer. I remember the events vividly. How could I forget that awful night on a trolley in Casualty? The doctor grimly closing the curtains around my bed? And then those life-changing words? I shrank into the bed feeling sure that my life was at an end.

So much has happened since that day. And readers of this blog have learnt all about the many twists and turns of my journey. The two metastatic recurrences, the four major operations, the many weeks in hospital and the two occasions upon which I was told that I wasn’t expected to survive for very long.

But I am still here. Alive and very much kicking. I’ve come through a great ordeal. I’ve found a well of resources that I never knew I had. And I’ve gained the partner who I was always looking for. Someone who has stood beside me on every step of the way. It has certainly been a sea change in my life.

I am now a stronger and more resilient person than I was ten years ago. But that does not happen by default; these qualities are not just gifted to you. I had to find my way through the ordeal to gain these benefits. They are burnished by fire. And they are all the more powerful for it.  For I know that I can rely on them in any circumstance.

I am also now a better person than I was ten years ago. I’m clearer about who I am and how I want to live my life. I’m more open and honest; I’m more aware of my own limitations. I also feel that I have become more understanding of others. Most people are trying their best in their difficult circumstances. But I am less willing to suffer fools. Life is far too short.

So where do I go from here? Well, I travel hopefully. And try to make the best of things. I don’t think in the long term. In a month’s time I will have my next cancer surveillance scan. And all being well, we will be going on holiday to Co Clare in the late summer. Apart from that, I’m pretty much living day by day. Today is bright and sunny. I’ll post this blog and go outside to work in the garden or in the garage. Tomorrow, if the weather is still good, I’ll go for a bike ride.

Friday, 9 April 2021

The Jab and the Refusers

I’ve just had my second vaccination; with no ill effects, other than a sore arm. I was very glad to get it, coming as it did, ten weeks after the first. And in two weeks time I will be as fully protected as I can from Covid-19 and some of its variants. But I won’t be throwing away my facemask and going in search of crowds. The vaccination centre I attended gives several thousand injections a day. And the staff, mainly volunteers, continue to be cheerful in their work. As I stood in the socially-distanced line and noticed the great variety of people who had come to get inoculated, I suddenly thought about the Covid sceptics and the anti-vaxxers.

The majority of these are apparently ordinary people who have become highly disaffected by lockdown and who have developed grudges against agencies that they feel are conspiring to oppress them, such as the WHO or the NHS vaccination programme. These refusers have found meaning and purpose in social media groups that support their views and which organize anti-facemask/lockdown/vaccine protests or even invasions of hospitals to try and get Covid patients removed from ventilators and treated instead with vitamins. Social scientists would recognise these behaviours as symptoms of alienation, exacerbated by the mental health challenges of lockdown.

What I was shocked to find is that these strange views also exist in our little rural community. Walking down our quiet lane has become a popular activity for many local residents during lockdown. And when you meet someone you normally stop and pass the time of day. And before long the conversation will turn to Covid and vaccinations.

It’s not that I trust our Government. Far from it. For they have cynically used the pandemic to draw a cloak over a large number of dirty deeds: from lucrative contracts handed to their cronies, to swingeing cuts in social care, local government, overseas investment, fire safety in tall buildings, civil liberties and health workers’ pay. Because the refusers are looking through a distorted lens, they fail to notice these problems.

But I do trust the science. Have the anti-vaxxers forgotten about the many widespread diseases that worried our parent’s generation: polio, diphtheria, TB and the like, all of which have been brought under control by vaccination programmes? And what about the many people in the world who desperately need a Covid-19 vaccination? I’m not just thinking of the millions of people in Africa and Latin America, where the disease is out of control and healthcare systems are unable to cope, but of a friend of mine who lives in a nearby European country and who suffers from a severe lung disease. If he catches Covid he has been told that he is very likely to die. But he hasn’t been vaccinated yet and will have to cross his fingers and wait for a long time, because that country is vaccinating its people strictly in descending age order and taking no account of anyone with serious medical conditions.

Monday, 29 March 2021

The Shed has Landed

It didn’t come from another planet, but in sections on the back of a truck. Two fellas laid the base on concrete blocks, made sure it was level and then fitted the wall panels one by one. After that they screwed the roof panels on and covered them in bitumen felt, which they burned on to make sure it was watertight. In little more than an hour, the job was complete. We now had a new shed out the back of the house. Or to be more precise, T had a new shed where she could emulate Monty Don to her heart’s content.

The job had begun a week earlier, when two neighbours came round to help clear the back corner of debris and weeds. It was massively overgrown. Using a pickaxe and two shovels, we filled a wheelbarrow twenty times over. Along with thickets of briars and great tussocks of hard grass, we came across parts of an old boiler-house, the wreckage of a whirligig clothes line and two hula-hoops. After several hours of back-breaking work, we had it cleared.

The new shed is made of stained pine. Its two windows look out across T’s raised beds and containers to her greenhouse. The main elements of her cottage garden are now fully in place. The shed is sturdy and surprisingly roomy.  I wondered if she might consider setting up a counter where passers-by could get cakes, fruit pies and other delicacies made from produce grown in her garden. But down our lane there are more sheep than people. So I might have to eat the bigger part of it myself.

Then I thought of all the famous writers who had worked in garden sheds. George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman had all written large parts of their output in sheds. And most of these writing sheds were a bit smaller than ours. Then there was Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf, but they had worked in much larger and posher buildings, more akin to summer houses. A little voice began to suggest to me that T’s shed could also become a writing retreat. Then, I thought again. A lot of garden implements are pretty sharp and I didn’t want to upset her.

With thanks to Sheds NI


Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Summer Holiday

We have just booked a late-summer break. We briefly considered going abroad, but then decided it was safer to stay at home. So we chose a seaside cottage in Co Clare. It’s a county we have visited before, for the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. But this time we will be staying in West Clare, in a wee house beside the ocean. During these burdensome days of lockdown it’s given us something to look forward to. And this morning I found myself humming a little tune that took me way back. ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday. No more working for a week or two.’

I can picture Cliff Richard and the Shadows singing this. The song was from a film of the same name. It featured Cliff and his pals driving to the Cote D’Azur in a red London double-decker bus, looking to pick up girls. But the plot wasn’t important. The film was a succession of song and dance routines. It was the second most popular film in the UK in 1963, only beaten by From Russia with Love. I don’t recall seeing the film at the time. But I do remember the song. It was No 1 in the charts in June of that year.

A decade or so later, I did the very same thing. My journey to the south of France with my mates wasn’t in a London bus. We went by plane to Corsica and stayed on a National Union of Students campsite. I recall getting sunburnt during the days on the beach and drunk on cheap red wine in the evenings. Unlike Cliff, I wasn’t very successful at pulling girls (my main preoccupation at the time). Halfway through the first week, I decided to go exploring on my own. I rented a tiny moped and set off down the coast for a ride. Instead of turning back, I just kept going. I ended up travelling around a good bit of the island.

Corsica is mountainous and the roads were pretty rough. The little moped wasn’t powerful enough to take me up the steep hills. It had pedals like a bicycle, but I often had to get off and push. I wasn’t in any way prepared for this jaunt. I had no map or tent with me. I’d headed off on the spur of the moment in just the clothes I stood up in. I was also fairly skint. I slept in woods on the edge of villages that nestled among the hills. I lay down on the sandy soil with pine trees for shelter. Despite the heat of the day, it got chilly by during the night. I lived on lemonade and baguettes for a few days. When I got back, my mates were still going to the beach each day and drinking red wine at night. On our last weekend, there was a great firework display to celebrate Napoleon’s birthday. I returned home fairly pleased with myself. I hadn’t pulled but I did have a great adventure (the forerunner of many such trips I would take by motorbike and cycle in the years to come).

T and I will be carrying our creature comforts with us in the car to Co Clare. Some days we will go out on trips, others we will just sit and think. The cottage has picture windows that overlook the ocean and a remote beach. In the evenings we may drink a little red wine, but it will more likely be cups of tea. Happily, my pulling days are behind me.