PUSH #19 is out this week from joeenglandbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/push-19-5managers-issue-2.html – please buy it, not just because I’ve got a story in there. Here’s a story I had in the last issue, which I’d like to dedicate to Laura, with love x
He didn’t notice himself getting ill until he was properly sick, same as he hadn’t noticed becoming middle aged. He tried to kid himself the things that were happening to his mind and his body were simply part of getting older. Fifty five wasn’t old, though the dreadful amalgam of ageing and illness seemed to arrive ominously together. Incrementally and independent of each other, they fused symbiotically, as if they were intent on destroying him. All his adult life he’d told people he didn’t worry about the inevitable. Now every third thought was of his death. When the specialist at the hospital, taking his hand in hers and squeezing positive energy into his palms, had gently explained both the diagnosis and prognosis, everything fell into place. The symptoms he’d not taken any notice of individually all combined to make the medical cause of his recent troubles the most logical thing in the world. If only he’d been able to take a rational, dispassionate look at his health sooner, then maybe the situation wouldn’t have got so bad. The problem had been that while these physical changes had been happening inside his body, his mental side had either failed to grasp or totally ignored the possible cause and potential significance of the debilitating symptoms.
For months everyone had thought he was looking under the weather. A bit tired. People at work noticed he was taking longer to complete tasks, when he’d always prided himself on beating deadlines and exceeding targets. Innovations and refinements to current practise caused him problems. Things went wrong and stuff was said, informally to his face and cruelly behind his back. Concentrating was difficult. Last year, out in town they’d ran into a bloke he’d been in a band with at University. Over a couple of pints she’d listened in fascination as they told stories of gigs they’d played and songs he’d written. He recalled how the skin on his left finger tips had once been worn smooth by the constant holding down of strings, but not while she’d known him. He had a battered old acoustic, but he hardly touched it. With a landmark birthday in the post, she decided he needed to rediscover his muse, so she splashed out on the Gretsch semi acoustic he’d stop to admire in the guitar shop every time they walked past. She’d bought him the whole package. Case and amplifier as well. He’d been so delighted that morning. A radiant happiness she’d never seen in him before. At first he was determined to reclaim the talent he’d once had. Regular practise every day, playing acoustic if she was in and amplified if she was out. Wipe down the strings and polish the body with a soft cloth before laying it gently in the hard case. But as the exhaustion took over his life, these sessions became infrequent. His mind wouldn’t settle and his playing deteriorated. The versions of other people’s songs he’d loved all his life that she’d initially marvelled at, were dashed off, lacklustre and uninspired. She couldn’t remember him talking it out the case these last three months, but said nothing.
Friends told him he was losing weight, but not in a good way. The papery skin on his face lined and creased. All eyes and teeth. His hair and shirt collars too big for his shrinking head. Thursday night five a side, sacrosanct for thirty years, became a struggle. He’d been lucky so far, never getting a serious injury, while the revolving and evolving cast of regular players saw old campaigners jacking it in because of twisted ankles, tendonitis or bad backs. He still turned up in all weathers, sometimes loaded with cold or weighed down by life’s pressures, but with his pace long gone, his energy deserted him as well. She knew about the fatigue that plagued him, as he’d come home from work worn out and crawl into bed for a nap instead of watching the news. Sometimes he’d be flat out for a couple of hours, so he’d taken to setting the alarm on Thursdays evenings, in case he missed kick off.
When they’d first met a decade or so back, he’d told her about his Thursday five a side games. Filling in the blanks. Trying to show the depth and breadth of his interests. Renaissance man in shin pads. Explained how he’d never stop playing while he had breath in his body. She’d laughed in a nice way and accused him of being a daft geriatric desperately grabbing at the departing coat tails of youth. He grinned and knew she understood. She didn’t want to stop him doing anything, to control or change him. That was why he knew she was the one and that they’d grow old together.
She thought it was cute that even though half of the players were in their 40s, the whole lot of them would take the bus, beg lifts or even get a taxi to Goalz, so they could go out afterwards. Friday morning hangovers were the stuff of legends. Then the world intervened. Kids, age and responsibilities began to chip away at the regular sessions. These days three or four at most would steal half an hour for a quick pint or even a soft drink, before heading back to family life. He’d lost all that stuff after the divorce of course, but second time around the two of them knew they didn’t need kids to complete their world. They had themselves and, in time, they got the dog from the shelter. He always called it the mutt, but he loved it as much as she did and as much as they loved each other. The mutt always needed walking last thing at night. He started to use this chore, once so relished and now almost dreaded, as his excuse to swerve the pub on Thursdays. After an hour of kicking a ball around, he’d drag himself home and crash out. Most nights, his fatigue was so bad he couldn’t summon up the energy for their nightly stroll. They’d always gone out together with the mutt, weather permitting. They’d talk and laugh and shush the daft dog when it started barking at leaves or passing cars. Now, she’d let the dog out in the back garden for ten minutes and fret about his constant exhaustion. The dog whimpered at his feet as he snored, comatose.
Worst of all was the pain in the guts he suffered, secretly and in silence, all the time he was awake. Like toothache behind the navel, it raged and boiled constantly. As the weight fell off, his hips reappeared and his belly shrank, then hardened to a rounded lump. An aching, gurgling rock that didn’t get any smaller, even though she’d noticed he only nibbled at meal times, when he’d always said her cooking was the best he’d ever tasted. The only thing he was eating regularly were the cartons of fresh soup he’d microwave at work each day. They seemed to warm and settle his insides, while anything substantial that needed chewing would burn and tear at his guts. The situation got harder to hide when his trips to the toilet became so frequent they attracted comments at work and at home. He’d taken to getting up earlier than her, on the pretence of making the cuppas. At dawn he’d hide in the bathroom, squirting blood and liquid faeces into the bags they used for cleaning up the dog’s mess, which he’d stuff in his coat pockets to bin when talking the mutt out. Eventually she caught him in the act one Monday morning. He’d not locked the bathroom door. The shower was like Psycho remade for coprophiliacs. He was ashamed and tearful. She was shocked and sympathetic. They were frightened. They knew they had to get help.
She was brilliant. Called in sick for him, took a day’s leave, then organised an emergency appointment. The GP was good. Didn’t make him feel small for not seeking help sooner. No attempt at frightening him with worst case scenarios or patronising, chummy optimism. Arranged the appointment with the specialist for the end of that week. After months of inaction, things were happening fast. He had the surgery within a fortnight. The specialist told him the urgency with which they’d got him into theatre was a good thing. He was on the cusp of endgame. Any worse and it would have been chemotherapy at best. Or palliative care.
He was home just over a week after they’d cut him open, taken the badness out and sewed him up again. His belly bruised and crisscrossed with stitches that held his insides together. The medics were cautiously optimistic. He wasn’t. It didn’t matter if he sat or stood or lay down, everything hurt. Like he’d been thrown down stairs repeatedly. The wound wasn’t great either. Tablets and nurses calling round to change his bandages every morning. The irony was he’d gone from sleeping 12 hour stretches, to shallow dozing and regular bouts of pain flavoured insomnia.
At first all he did was lie on the sofa, idly flicking through the channels or waste time on the laptop. He’d listen to music on shuffle mode as whole albums were daunting. Same with books. They intimidated. He could handle magazines, where everything was short and to the point. Even got into social media, liking and retweeting. A hundred trivial comments and opinions an hour. It stopped him from worrying about how she was coping or about the news he might get at his next check-up. Once the scars and soreness from the surgery had healed, it would be time to find out if there was any future to speak of. At least the mortgage had been paid off. All he could do was lie around and hope he got better by the time his sick note ran out.
Then he told himself that wasn’t all he could do. He had to make an effort to recover. Treading water and squandering time on the pretence of recuperating was no good. He owed that much to her and to the mutt. He had to repay the faith, the time and the love they’d showered unconditionally on him. It would be a long time before he could think about recommencing their nightly walks, talking her round town or giving her some dirty five a side kit to wash, but he had to try.
It was an age from when she said her goodbyes each morning, kissing his forehead as he stretched on the sofa with the mutt at his feet, until her key scraped in the lock after work. Still in awful pain, dizzy and shaky on his feet, he became determined. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he started to put the time to some use. Washing the dishes. Running the hoover inexpertly round the place, with the mutt hiding under the bed. Making a one pot evening meal he’d force down. These tasks took it out of him and he’d often spend the afternoon drifting in and out of consciousness, swathed in a blanket of medication. He did the weekly shop on line for the first time and had it delivered the day before she normally went to the supermarket. The gratitude she showered on him made all the pain and anxiety worth it.
Out of the blue, he picked up the guitar, beguiled by its shape. Intrigued by its possibilities. His mind drew a blank when he tried to summon up the classics by Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Neil Young that he’d loved playing. Instead, he found himself running through all the old tunes he’d written back in the day. He couldn’t call them songs any longer as the lyrics had faded from his memory. Perhaps the words existed on scraps of paper in his trunk of keepsakes in the attic, but he was in no state to go searching for them. Instead, a new melody was forming, not particularly innovative or challenging, but insistently coursing from his mind to his fingers. He had to bring it to fruition. Practise and composition became daily events. Housework and cooking every morning. Guitar every afternoon. One time as he handed her the mutt’s lead, she remarked on how his fingertips were smooth and hard, like shells. It was a sign, it was working.
Some days were harder than others, but he dragged himself from his bed, grimacing and mutely squealing in pain. He had to finish the task he’d set himself. The letter from the hospital came. His next appointment with the specialist was imminent. He circled the day in black on the kitchen calendar. He had work to do before then. When the tune was complete, the words came in a torrent. Three days of solid effort and the song was done. He downloaded a programme, then recorded it on the lap top, for reference. However, he’d always loved playing live. There was one gig left in him.
She was amazed, coming home from work on a Friday, to see he had arranged the armchairs like an intimate viewing gallery facing his amp and guitar. The mutt sat on one and she took the other, where he’d provided a cuppa. He laboriously hoisted the guitar over his head, pain streaking through his bones and muscles. He smoothed the strap. Picked up his plectrum. Checked the settings. Little bit of reverb and a touch of treble to complement the style of the number and then he was away. He knew the lyrics by heart and had created a chorus so infectious she sang along from the second time through. He played the solo coda faultlessly, closing his eyes and relying on instinct.
When he’d finished, she cried helplessly. She was happier than he’d ever seen her. The mutt trotted over and nuzzled his strumming hand. Whatever the future held, it didn’t matter. They had their song. Forever.