I’d had thirteen hours of surgery to remove a rectal tumour - and who knows what else, not me, I didn’t like to ask - and was curled into a foetal position on a special mattress made up of individual, air-filled cells that intelligently moulded to my body as I moved around. Well, I say, “I’d had thirteen hours of surgery,” but I had no such experience, because I was lulled into unconsciousness at 9am and reawakened at 10pm. I had nothing to do with what happened during the time I was suspended in a state of near non-existence but was confident I was safe in the hands of two wonderful surgeons and their teams along with a fine anaesthetist.
I spent the next couple of days in a surreal whirl. When my eyes were open I seemed to know where I was and imagined I was conversing fairly sensibly with those around me, but if I closed my eyes, even just to rest for a few minutes, I was carried off into a trippy place that was both delightful and frightening, a bit like a painting by Richard Dadd.
I’d been cajoled by some of the kids I saw as a psychotherapist in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) to explore Minecraft and, as a result, I’d become a bit of a fan. I’m lying, I’d actually become a full-blown addict who couldn’t leave the damned thing alone. Prior to surgery I’d built towns, hamlets, cathedrals, solitary follies and grand railway networks (or so it seemed to me) and it was, perhaps, a form of cold Turkey that had me closing my eyes and finding myself caught up in a mad cycle of endless digging. This wasn’t like ordinary Minecraft digging, but went upwards, always upwards, and in an ever more frantic whirl of activity until I hit the surface and somehow had to start all over again. It felt dizzying and exhausting to the point that I almost feared going to sleep, because I was certain that sleeping Minecraft nightmares, even more powerful than the waking ones, would be waiting for me.
One reassuring aspect of my forty-eight hours in post-operative intensive care was the wraith-like figure that always seemed to be hovering, appearing whenever I was uncomfortable and rearranging me into a better position, where the bed was able to do its job of carefully supporting my body so that the pain released me. I later discovered that a doctor - a woman who managed to be both very tender and amusingly matter-of-fact at the same time - had spent those forty-eight hours being exclusively available to me. She is characterised as ‘mab’ in the poem ‘post operative care’.
After two days, I was moved to a bay on the main ward, where three other guys were already ensconced. The atmosphere in the bay was very positive. Considering that we were all going through a pretty difficult time of our lives (or perhaps because of it) there was a strong feeling of solidarity and a lot of humour. When I read the accounts of Holocaust survivors, political prisoners or trapped coalminers, in the midst of torment, terror and heroism there is always humour. Perhaps humour is the default position of people in critical situations.
One of my bay comrades, Wallace, had suffered an incident at work. I can’t call this an ‘industrial accident’, because as is so often the case there was clearly a significant element of employer negligence in the incident that led to his injuries. He had been horrifically wounded when a forklift truck pinned him against a lorry at one of his workplaces. He was lucky not to have been cut in half and was, understandably, as angry as hell about what had happened to him….but…Wallace’s humour shone through even when he was in pain and fearful of what may yet befall him. And when I was throwing up - probably from an over-use of the morphine-like Patient Controlled Analgesia that I could give myself, albeit in time-and-quantity restricted doses, it was Wallace who called for the nurses, got to his feet and came to my bedside to look after me.
Later, after Wallace had been allowed home, a Polish guy joined our little group. He spoke no English and, I imagined, was having a pretty lonely time with nobody to talk to until his visitors came in the evenings. Using the internet, I managed to learn a few phrases of Polish so we were able to exchange names, ask how each of us was feeling, say good morning and goodnight and, when I was discharged from the ward, wish one another good health. His name was (if I remember correctly) Sebastien and he gave me the loveliest smile when I dumped an unwanted packet of biscuits on him as I wished him well and left the ward. I hope he is over his health problems.
So there I was, in a bay of the main ward with three other guys, thinking about the poems I’d written since being diagnosed with what I called ‘the arse thing’, and it occurred to me that the they might hang together in some sort of song-cycle. Maybe they had some degree of coherence and, whilst I was lying there not trying to write, bits and pieces kept emerging and demanding to be knitted together as poems.
Most of these poems expressed my spontaneous response to what was happening. The first, ‘arseassination’, may seem a little playful but arose from my disbelief at having my self-diagnosis of a rectal tumour confirmed. I really had hoped to be wrong, and that my assessment was simply the paranoia of a hypochondriac, but there I was with proper medical experts telling me I was in trouble and my mind revolted. The next poem in the cycle, ‘black’, is perhaps a counterpoint to that. In any case, I wasn’t consciously writing a song-cycle or a collection of poems but simply jotting down (or, actually, typing into my mobile telephone) whatever came through.
Another poem that I should mention is ‘plastic fantastic drippy dressing day’, which was written sort of on commission from Sarah, a staff nurse in the Plastic Surgery Unit (PSU) of Addenbrooke's Hospital, who said I should write a poem about the PSU, because no one else had ever done it. When I thought back to my first visit there I remembered it was just a few days after being discharged from the ward. Everyone, me included, thought my surgical wound was sufficiently healed for a traditional dressing to suffice but in fact I was soaking with exudate by that evening. Over the weekend I was visited several times a day by the District Nurses, who did their best in a difficult situation to change the dressing. As the poem describes, over a number of weeks of regular visits to the PSU I got everything I could have hoped for.
I already had twenty-three poems and thought I should maybe make it twenty-five. I thought about that for quite a while but the idea became increasingly repellent to me. Twenty-five seemed like a square number, all hard edges and sharp corners (rather like the blocks in that damnable Minecraft game) and I decided not to go near it. I might write one more poem but I would refuse a twenty-fifth, I’d block it, I’d turn off my imagination, I’d refuse to record any element of an emerging twenty-fifth piece. Eventually, after discharge from hospital and as I approached post-operative chemotherapy, I drew on my memory of lying in the grass at a place we called The Scrambles, near Carrville, in County Durham, and produced the twenty-fourth poem, ‘afterword.’ And there it stopped.
So, after I was discharged from hospital and my post-discharge treatment was coming to an end, I decided I’d had quite enough of feeling lousy and shouldn’t suffer alone. As a result I decided I would inflict the short song-cycle I’d come to call ‘cancer songs’ on the tiny world of people who might be prepared to buy it.
I’m grateful to everyone associated with the book, including the wonderful NHS staff who have carried me through what would otherwise have been a pretty hopeless predicament and to whom I dedicate the poems with love.
I must also mention those of European origin - the Polish, Latvian, Ukrainian, Greek, Italian and Spanish people - who made up an important part of the professional group caring for me. Then there were the staff of African origin and those from the Indian sub-continent. Oh, and an Australian. Nor should I omit the Cuban GP who had been part of the medical mission sent from Cuba to set up free clinics in Venezuela and who took my blood when no one else could find a vein.
And, of course, there were many UK citizens in the team.
Love and solidarity to every one of them.