Ode To The Hitch

FeaturedOde To The Hitch


Friday, February 17, 2012

I started this blog at the beginning of a fairly traumatic and fatalistic journey which would explain the opening line I first wrote: “And so to journal the end, which is nigh, it seems.”

Well, whilst that statement could be construed as true in just about any circumstances, on a personal level I feel now that it gives the reader a less than perfect impression of what follows so I’m going to offer the following alternative beginning so as not to hide the good news that my friend will want to hear. Most of this was written almost live, just after it happened or even as it was happening, some was added after to fill in gaps, so on occasion the context might appear not to quite fit and the construction definitely leaves room for improvement:

And so to journal what could so very easily have been the end, which is not quite as nigh as I at first thought, it seems.

I’m not sure quite what I expected when I decided to go (finally) and ask for an investigation into what I was already sure was that dreaded beast, the cancer. Admittedly, I feared it was the same as dear Christopher’s, (Hitchens) the esophageal kind. For once the doc appears to have been correct in casting aside my self-diagnosis, proffering the much more likely (and somewhat inane) alternative of the lung kind and writing me up for the low tech scan of the x-ray kind.

It wasn’t fear that caused me to delay getting my ass to the hospital, any more than it had been the cause of the twelve month’s procrastination over getting into the doctors surgery. It was far more mundane a cause than that. In the case of the doctor it was the groan at the thought of the hurdles the surgery places in the way of dispensing it’s services – a rant for another time. That coupled with the fact that every time it occurred to me was in the middle of the night when symptoms presented and woke me up. A cough to be precise, a dry, back-of-the-throat cough, the very kind I had heard was the early symptom of Christopher’s kind, the kind that gets ignored until much worse symptoms arise- the difficulty in swallowing; change in voice; coughing up blood. Hence the poor survival rate, fourteen percent if I recall the stats correctly. No-one suspects the cough, why would they. Everyone coughs don’t they. At least every smoker coughs and smokers get more bronchial conditions and that usually presents as a cough and when the rest of the symptoms wane, the cough persists, doesn’t it? And it’s hard to judge when the cough should have stopped…but after a while you know. you just know.

So every time I tell myself, time to get your ass to the surgery, which doctor will you see? Any one, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to get “any one” anyway regardless what you plan and, “anyway” it doesn’t really matter does it, so long as they know how to refer you to a man who actually knows something – a real doctor, a “specialist”. And then you drift off to sleep and in the morning you wake and the treadmill starts over. One thing takes over, then another and so on. Occasionally I remember and write a note and then the other thing, the hurdles thing, pushes it to the bottom of the pile of “much more important” stuff and next thing you know, it’s the middle of the night, you’re awake again and you’re coughing again…

It could have been the same with the x-ray but this took me only a few days. I didn’t worry about it, didn’t fret, just figured I’d get it done in a few days, no rush, I’d taken the big step, no big hurdles with this one. And nor were there, easiest interaction I’ve ever had with the NHS. I turned up, parked (legitimately) right outside the front door, checked in at radiology reception, no queues, no hassle, no delays, ten minutes later I’m having my innermost secrets photographed in not so glorious monochrome. Including the conversation with the radiologist as to why one removes one’s shirt for a machine that can penetrate all bar lead – buttons and unusual stitching in case you are wondering – the entire process from parking to departing took twenty minutes dead, if you’ll pardon the, oh never mind. I guess all those billions have achieved something after all, to be fair, though it seems to us mere mortals that this wasn’t rocket science – we understand why rocket science costs billions.

Looking back I can see how this might seem odd but at no stage did I fret over the results. Having consciously sought out a scan and an investigation to satisfy my conviction that by now, and given my symptoms, I must actually have cancer, it never actually occurred to me that I did – does that make sense?
I’ve had my blood pressure checked, always well within range, my cholesterol: “perfect”; Liver function: “fine”; this lump just here: “fatty lump, sir, nothing to worry about”. Easy for you to say, I thought back then, but this perfect person doesn’t do “fatty lumps” that appear for no particular reason and aren’t even a symptom of a disease – but given they’ve been there a good few years now, don’t seem to be going anywhere, and generally seem to mind their own business – apparently I do do these innocuous things.

You get my point? I’ve indulged a few investigations over recent years and all my fears have always proved groundless to the point that I begin to fear a reputation as a hypochondriac, though I’m not. There was absolutely no reason to suspect that this would be any different. It was a formality I had to go through because I owed it to myself, and to others, to get it checked so I could say that I’d done all the right things, proved there was nothing to worry about and now I could put it behind me and move on. Just like all those other formalities undertaken for precisely the same reasons and in every case, the caution exercised, the investigation complete, there was absolutely nothing to report”….

So it’s Friday evening, around 5.45 and I’m chatting to Simon in the office because Simon is always the last to leave and I like to talk to Simon. I like Simon generally but he’s especially good to share things with and generally have a pleasant rant about the state of the world, the galaxy and everything.

My phone rings, I was expecting nothing and so whatever it was would have been a surprise but, on reflection, some surprises are not as nice as others. “It’s Dr Fulker”, now that I was not expecting, on so many levels. I wasn’t expecting a call from a doctor because that doesn’t happen, at least not to me, no, it just doesn’t happen. I wasn’t expecting a call from Dr Fulker who I had only met once, a week or so ago. I certainly wasn’t expecting the next part, “I have the results of your x-ray”

…what x-ray? What’s she talking about? Oh, that x-ray, no,that’s not possible, I only had it done two days ago….and all the time that these parallel, rather than sequential thoughts, were firing in my synapses her other words only registered on a semi-conscious level and, even then, it wasn’t the words that made me pause and reflect. It was the quality of her voice. Having only met her briefly I didn’t have the usual tools to draw upon, the familiarity with inflection or intonation, but it was there, unmistakably. The measured, uncertain but gentle, hesitating sound of someone delivering bad news. Someone sitting next to you on a couch, knees closed, turned toward you, a wish to reach out and touch a knee as they speak, as if to stop you taking flight, both to reassure, to express empathy but as much to tempt you to stay seated, “…now don’t take this badly, but…” but not done, the touching knee, because you just don’t know each other that well, in that way.

All of this was in the voice. Who would want this job? The woman doesn’t know me, has no reason to care about me, doesn’t care in any personal sense but she is human and she’s fallible, almost vulnerable in a situation like this. All that professional deportment, that education, that status, it doesn’t take away a person’s humanity, that innate sense of compassion for another human being, especially when she knows, better than most, the likely finality of the message she’s delivering. She didn’t make the call because she wanted to, because she cared, she called because that’s her job and she wishes it wasn’t and because she has to, the act of doing it triggers the compassion. What a shit end to her day, she must feel.

She must wonder, when she puts down the phone, how I’m feeling. Did he understand the significance of those words, she must ask herself because she knows she didn’t explain it and I didn’t ask (because I knew) and was he just taking it very well? Was that why he seemed so calm and measured, so matter of fact, so polite? “Thank you so much for calling to tell me” isn’t what you expect, now, is it? She will also have wondered about the other option, the truth. “Shock” would be far too superlative a description but did he really take in what I just told him?

And that’s the truth, I heard every word, I understood every word and the meaning contained in those words but I can’t claim that I fully “took it in” on a conscious level. My body’s visceral and emotional centre took it in ok. The hairs on the back of the neck, the shiver rising from somewhere, the tightness in the throat, the tremor in the tear ducts – the control mechanisms cutting in on auto-pilot to suppress it – because that’s what we do, it’s what we’re trained to do. It’s what we have to do.

“The x-ray shows a four centimetre lesion on your right lung”. Long pause, not waiting for a response, letting it sink in, searching for what to say next. “I’ll arrange a referral to a respiratory consultant as soon as possible. It’ll probably be seven to ten days.”

“On your flamin’ nelly will it be seven to ten days…”. Even then, with all this swirling around in my head, even then it kicks in, even before I’ve actually absorbed the enormity of this thing. Save your approach for the passive ones, they need it, I need to take this on in my own way. I can’t beat it, I know that but having done this to myself, having procrastinated all by myself, now the objective is revealed, the gears get engaged, at least now I can actually take part in this thing. The challenge, the problem to be solved, the obstacle to be overcome, the emotions subsumed, subdued, there’s a problem to deal with, an urgent problem, no time for indulgences and certainly no time to hand over the fate of the outcome to someone else, especially someone that represents the laissez-faire bureaucracy you cannot abide. You’re not one of the followers, it’s innate, you dig out the facts, you learn what you need to know and you make your own judgment, make your own arrangements – for better or worse but it’s yours, not theirs.

“Well, Simon, that wasn’t the best news I’ve ever had”. I relate the conversation, not over egging it in any way, playing it down if anything. A moment of sharing, it felt comforting to share, it was the last I was going to feel for a while. “Please keep this between us, Si”. “Of course”.

There’s a burning desire to tell everyone you know, to get on the phone and call all your friends, muster help and support, make those apologies, arrange meetings, journeys, visits, all those things you know you’ve put off – as if you can make up for all that previous indifference – but most of all just to share. And then you quickly realise all the things that are wrong with that.

What if it’s a mistake? What if it turns out to be one of the other curable things that, at the absolutely outside chance, it just could be? You put your friends through all that grief for nothing…that’s an important issue right there, you’re putting them through grief. False alarm or not, what right do you have to do that? When is it right? What about Ri, my wife. If I tell her she won’t just be worried sick, she’ll be devastated, debilitated. No, I have to handle this myself until I know more, at least that. If it can be sorted then you can tell the story in hindsight and bask in the happy ending. If it goes the other way then we can at least wait until we have all the facts so that there’s no room for supposition, hypothesis. Facts are facts, you can plan, put things in order, face up to it squarely, even learn to be accepting of it. Uncertainty is constant questioning, what if, if only, try this, perhaps that. I can’t be doing it. There’s a way to deal with this like everything else. Figure out the facts, put them in sequence, get on with them and all the while continue to function, to carry on with those things that need to be done on a daily basis, a minute by minute basis. The pets still need to be fed, the dog needs to be walked, there are people relying on you, you have staff, you have customers, you need to sleep, to wash, to get up and start your day as if there were some point to it. No, no one must know, sorry you had to, Simon.

Simon leaves, I think he’s upset (see, it proves my point). I turn to the nearest computer, nip downstairs and pull out the file on the health insurance policy I’ve paid all these years and never used. Back upstairs with it so no one can see what I’m looking at. Ok, how does this work, better call them, start a claim and figure out how it all works. “Office hours 8am to 6pm” Damn! What are they on? People only get sick 9-5? Damn that doctor, why didn’t she call earlier in the day, now I have the worst of all worlds, its Friday evening, there’s an entire weekend ahead, I’ve just been handed a potential death sentence and I can’t begin work on a potential reprieve until Monday ruddy morning! …and I can’t even share it with anyone, can’t rant, can’t dump…can’t cry, can’t scream.

Gotta be practical then, what can I do? Read the file…the hospital list, ok, how does this work? Three lists, “Countrywide”, “London extended list”, “London super duper list” and you know, don’t you, before you even check…of course you do, these were both optional extras weren’t they? How were you to know, you’ve never been seriously ill, why would you think to include all the hospitals you would actually want to use should you ever need to, The Wellington, The Royal Brompton, The Cromwell. I check their web sites, yep, they are exactly what I need. Ri has a fabulous respiratory surgeon at Royal Brompton, her insurance covers her for the Royal Brompton, it doesn’t cover her for Toby Maher, the bright young guy she really needs and got a consultation with because we paid for it directly. Hers, of course, is the only insurance company that doesn’t cover him. This is the kind of thing that gives privatisation of health a bad name, unfairly so because it doesn’t have to be this way.

So I spend an hour or two researching who I need, the best consultants, the best hospitals. Of course, they are all the ones I don’t have access to. Let’s do it the other way around, take a look at those on the London list that I am covered for. Mostly NHS hospitals that have sought private clients as a way of making additional cash, so run on NHS principals but with nice food? Nothing impressed. The only one I felt I could accept might be Royal Marsden, not because of any good news on the web site but because of it’s fame and reputation. I resolve to call them first thing Monday morning, given that’s really the only option.

Monday morning: I call the Private Patients Appointment secretary.
“I have lung cancer and I need an urgent scan and a consultation with your top specialist”.
“Have you been referred by your GP?”
“No, I have no GP and I have no idea where the one who gave me this news might have referred me. I am paying privately, I don’t need a referral.”
“I can’t do anything without a GP referral”
“You do realise you are offering private health care? I don’t have a referral, I need a specialist, privately.”
“I can’t do anything without a referral from your GP”.
OK, I could have explained to her how our surgery works, the fact that I hadn’t a hope in hell’s chance of getting a referral letter out of them in less than two to three days and that I was not planning on wasting my time trying but, I figured, let’s skip that obstacle for now and move on.
“So, suppose I can get my hands on a referral letter, and suppose I deliver it to you by hand, how soon can we arrange an appointment?”
“Well it normally takes seven to ten days….” Where have I heard that before, oh yes, from an NHS GP…
“I don’t think you quite understand the situation. The average lifespan of someone diagnosed with lung cancer is 52 weeks. I have absolutely no intention of wasting one of those fifty-two waiting for you to make me an appointment.”
“Well, it might be less than that…”
“Thanks but I think I’ve heard enough. I’ll make alternative arrangements.”

I call The Cromwell. Within two hours I have an appointment for a PET/CT scan for Weds and an appointment with one of the world’s most highly qualified pulmonary oncologists. The consultation is at 6pm on Tuesday and, the lovely Lina asks, “please let us know if you can’t make it for any reason as Dr Lewanski is coming in to see you especially”. Those words, I wanted to cry as I pondered the wonders of chalk and cheese. These were total strangers to me but Lina cared, this consultant cared, it was evident in every word, in every act, in every call and the attention to detail, ensuring that I was kept fully informed at every step. This is health care.

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m in the shower when the phone rings. It’s the appointments secretary from East Surrey Abattoir, sorry, hospital. I literally shuddered at the prospect. “Thank you but I already have an appointment.” “Oh? When?” “I have an appointment for this evening at The Cromwell”. “What, today?”. “Today, yes. Thank you for calling. Goodbye”.

I’ve been working, it seems pointless but you keep going until you can’t, that’s what I learned, I don’t know from where. I guess from my mother. I kept smiling at how important people clearly felt their inane issues were. I pandered to them. I kept up appearances. It all seemed so empty, so well, like I said, pointless.

With Lina’s words in my head and me figuring “like I would miss this appointment for anything in the world”, I decided to play completely safe and give myself oodles of time. Travelling up on the Gatwick Express I started writing this little blog. It seemed important to write it all down so that…I don’t know. It just seemed important. It also gave me something to focus on. Arriving at Victoria with more than two hours to spare, I waited till everyone else got off the train. They were all in such a rush, why? Here I was with less time than any of them and I was not in any kind of a rush. I wanted to distance myself from their rush, take my time, everything deliberate, calm, remembered. These were important days for me and I wanted to remember them. I would walk to The Cromwell, it was an unseasonally beautiful sunny February afternoon and I wanted to experience it in a very close and personal way. Crossing up to Eaton Square, eyes turned upward, as always when walking in London, to see all the things that are so overlooked as people hustle and bustle through their busy lives. I noted the prevalent use of clipped box and other topiary, even the odd Niwaki – obvious if unimaginatively used plants when all you have is a balcony to sculpt with. I was studying people too. Al kinds of people, the well heeled and the not so well, the students and the retired, the busy young things, the busy working people, the constant rush of the traffic. Through Sloane Square, up Sloane Street, down Brompton Road, past so many so familiar places, past the Vistoria and Albert, passing the Natural History Museum that cathedral to the things I love and my totally absorbing fascination, life itself.

The reception staff in the Radiotherapy department were welcoming, smiling folk who knew exactly why they were there and what their visitors were going through. “You’re very early?”, they said. I explained that Dr Lewanski was travelling in especially and they thought this was very considerate. “This is one appointment I was never going to miss” I countered to assure them that altruism is a two way street. Alina, in the way of someone showing you the ropes you were going to get very familiar with, showed me how to work the coffee machine and which was the strongest brew.

Dr Conrad Lewanski, greeted me with a warm, gentle smile and a firm handshake. We sat and he asked me all the things you would expect. He took his time, an hour of his time. He let me talk about things that were clearly not important to the reason I was there, he encouraged it and joined in. Every now and then he would steer us back to “business”. He wanted to make sure that I knew everything I needed to know, that I had asked all the questions I wanted to ask. When my eyes welled up, as they did several times, he would pause and respect my embarrasment. Most of all he wanted to tell me that there were lots of good reasons for remaining optimistic but there was no time to waste. He wanted to know what other symptoms I had and was clearly excited by the fact that I had none. I told him about my walk from Victoria, at which he happliy crossed “breathlessness” off the mental list of typical symptoms. My scan was moved to Thursday at a time when the required starvation would be less of a burden for me. An appointment was made for another consult on Friday, at which time he would have all the results and we would know the situation for sure. He urged me to remain optimistic, implied that he had a good feeling about “this one”. He allowed me to hang on to the possibility that it might not be cancer though he also let me read between the lines sufficiently to appreciate that was all that it was, a hope. It all hanged, in reality, over whether this little invader was a well-behaved individual or an exploding fire-cracker sending it’s starburst seedlings throughout the rest of my body in minute fragments.

So, it’s Thursday and first off I have to give blood for the tests, wouldn’t do to try it with the green-glowing radioactive blood that I’ll have after the scans. Then off to have my lung function tested, fabulous nurse who gave me every possible encouragement to keep blowing when my head felt like it would explode. 112% on the initial blow (that’s 12% better than average for the arithmetically challenged) but overall 76% of normal. Not bad, Conrad guessed it would be around 70% so, hey, this is ten percent better than that, right?

Then, here I am in a small room, sitting on a bed, dressed – if you could call it that – in one of those silly hospital gowns that I haven’t figured how to fasten. So it’s just wrapped around me…there’s some debate over whether or not I should have drunk black tea and coffee when told to fast. I assure the lovely Claudia that Dr Lewanski did tell me that was ok and that I confirmed it with the guy who called yesterday to confirm the appointment – I even repeated back, “so just water, black tea, black coffee, no sugar, right?” “That’s exactly right!” he says to me. I realised an issue with The black tea thing as I was getting ready – Ri isn’t an incredibly observant individual, especially first thing in the morning but it would be just my luck for her to spot it and realise that a) this lack of milk was a total break from the norm and b) as a veteran of many hospital exploratory missions and operations that “no milk” was the order of the day…I needn’t have worried, she didn’t spot it, which is just as well as I didn’t have any clever excuse I could think of.

Claudia stabs my finger and checks the blood sugar – can she see that I had some in my first cup of tea? An injection of radioactive glow juice, but a warning I might need another, something to do with the coffee, my Pet/CT becomes a CT. followed by a PET. No effects of the first injection at all, (really shouldn’t have put that quarter spoon of sugar in the first black tea…).
I’m escorted back upstairs and handed over to Michelle in the CT room. A little difficult to understand, her east-Asian accent, very nice but not big on the charisma thing. Seemed to really struggle to get a vein up in my left arm, she felt the right had been abused enough with the blood tests (did I mention those? oh no well there were the blood test phlebotomy appointment first, interesting conversations about rubber gloves and people smuggling drugs through customs (programme on TV, Nothing to Declare). She could see “a nice big juicy vein” but for some reason didn’t get it to come up the way she wanted. Lots of rubber straps, clenching of fist and finger slapping later it appeared the cannula was in but I didn’t feel it happen so good on yer, Michelle, nice one.

When that stuff starts pumping, whatever radioactive goo it is, your face gets a flush like the biggest blush you’ve ever felt, simultaneously your bladder feels warm and full, in a comforting way as if you could lie there and wet yourself and not fear doing so but rather indulge in the warm comfort of it. Odd how it’s not just the mental surrender one feels in the impotence of the situation, the abboragation of responsibility, the deference to the professionals but even your body becomes similarly compliant to whatever forces are deployed upon it.

It’s an entirely comfortable, almost comforting experience, the knowledge that your body is yielding up its deepest darkest and hitherto well hidden secrets to the overpowering might of modern technology. No longer are these things strange, awe inspiring secrets of the science of the body, they have been conquered, they shall be revealed in all their base ordinary mundanity. So much the better if these steps are taken early enough, the fear is that we are not looking at a nice, tight, contained circular lesion but rather a scattergun pattern of itty bitty cancers swirling around looking for a dark, secretive hiding place amongst the maze of the lymphatic system. If that’s what we find then, folks, let’s get real here. If on the other hand, it turns out to be the most orderly and well mannered of evil critters – strike you as a bit much to hope for? – then hey, they can cut out a piece of my right lung and toss it away and Bob, as they say, becomes a close blood relative.

So CT over I’m escorted back down the stairs into the care of the antipodean Claudia (Melbourne actually) who politely parks me in my waiting room for half an hour with the lights turned down with instructions to just rest and relax. Not the most arduous of preparations I’ve ever had to undergo but leaving me in silence with nothing but my own thoughts doesn’t come without its own special challenges. When she collects and shepherds me into the room containing the waiting space-age marvel of a modern day PET scanner the first thing I spot is the CD in the boogie box, “Do I get music?”. Indeed I did and great it was too, perhaps it’s a sign of the average age of today’s cancer patient or perhaps it’s such fabulous and timeless music that it will endure across the ages for ever more. If I recall the sequence, Dionne Warwick, The Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin, Smokey Robinson, after that I’m a little hazy but there were only a few more tracks before the whirring sounds and the various horizontal manoeuvrings of the table bed ceased and I was delivered to the brighter lights outside the machine signalling the end of my all too simple, too pleasant experience.

Back in my little room, removed from the strange embarrassment of hospital gown, slippers and robe and once more in my own comfortable skin, the inevitable impatient question but, what do you know, she’s forbidden to reveal anything. Not so much as a nod or a wink or the proffering of glossy literature on suitable funeral homes. A bit of a disappointment but not unexpected. At least this is NOT the NHS and so I only have to wait until midday tomorrow, one more difficult to explain trip to London – these interminable legal meetings, oi vey! So midday tomorrow and Conrad will tell me what? Can he tell that it is, incontrovertibly, the dreaded cancer, I think he can but they will still want to do a biopsy of course to determine which of the seven (yes, seven) different species of cancer if might be. They range in severity from the benign “I was just sitting here because it seemed to be a nice piece of real estate upon which to hang my hat” variety through to the raging, ghengis khan types that just want to kill, conquer and ultimately commit suicide by literally biting the hand that feeds and killing me, its obliging host. I can’t help but wonder, well, wouldn’t you?

So, my array of tests over, I met with Daniel yesterday, what a lovely man. I felt I had to share this with him, for very practical reasons, and felt relatively easy about it because on the one hand, though we are very friendly, he’s not what you would describe as “inside one’s circle of close friends – so he’s less likely to be deeply affected by the news, I hoped. On the other, not being in that circle, the information was certainly safe in his hands. I need new trustees for the trust, and I believe I can trust Daniel to treat such a role both professionally and in a way that he would think I would have wanted. I also figure the issue of a will has kinda become rather important and, it occurs to me as I write, it would be a good idea to prepare a list of people who should be advised of my departure so that Ri doesn’t have to cope with that in the midst of what will for her be considerable grief. But back to the will, again I need an executor and who better than Daniel to both draw it up and execute it. All in all this is quite a considerable burden to place on one person, I must make sure he’s properly compensated so there is no contention in his mind, or anyone else’s, when it comes to rendering an account for his services as executor on both matters. He readily agreed to everything i asked of him, went out of his way to reassure me in various ways and proffered his help in any way at all whenever I might need it. Last night he sent a very touching email just to prove that my first contention was entirely wrong. He was clearly very affected and has just moved to the heart of that aforementioned circle.

So I’m once more aboard the Gatwick Express, it’s Friday and I’m heading in to meet Conrad, Dr Lewanski, to get his verdict. One more invented business appointment to satisfy Ri’s curiosity which is fast becoming ‘suspicion’, even the ubiquitous “are you having an affair” enquiry this morning. I am strangely calm. In a sense, this is the biggest event of my (only) week long journey to date – it seems much longer. A genuine Pullman Belle train to my right! Fabulous sight and has got the whole train buzzing and phones/cameras clicking. See what I mean? Calm, as always, it’s a thing, a task, a challenge, something to be dealt with. Gather the facts, assess it calmly, decide on a “solution”, a course of action at least. Here we are at Victoria, no rush, let the crowd move out, my time is precious and I again refuse to join in the hectic bustle for no apparent reason. Twice this week I’ve walked to The Cromwell. This time I don’t have the spare hour. I’ll walk part way and hail a cab to finish the journey…

Sloane Square, by a different route this time, good place to stop, sit, I know, I know but also to have my “last” cigarette. That’s three different routes I’ve used and on the way, a piece of memorabilia. “Eaton Continental” on the corner of Eaton Terrace and, what, Chester Row? A little grocer-cum-reckons-itself-a-bit-of-a-speciality-foods store, a customer from circa 1979/80 for my Redmile-Gordon Provisioners (Wholesale Division). Wow, I’d completely forgotten.

From here I can walk a little more, grab a cab later or grab it now and walk locally. Don’t want to be late for my own sentencing now do I? I think we play safe and grab the cab now.

On the radio in the cab, a discussion about the mansion tax, talk of poor people walking out of the estate agent’s with a cheque for two million quid because they had to sell the house as they couldn’t afford the tax…”Not a problem you and I are likely to worry about, eh, cabbie?”. After that of course we spent the next five minutes putting the world to rights and then I’m here. Familiar smiling faces in Radiotherapy reception, I remember the coffee machine instructions. Bizarre, there’s apparently something special about Fridays, a sort of club has formed. Three guys all around my age or more, everyone knows each other, chatting about the different people they see, calling out pleasantries to the reception staff – about whom they have clearly learned some personal details. Is this what it’s like when you start a treatment programme? I guess it would be. People you don’t actually know but whose shared experience removes all barriers and the need to explain or apologise. Hmmm…

“You guys sound like regulars”, I volunteer to introduce myself. “Us, we’ve got loyalty cards, we have”, jokes one. I laugh. I was going to make a crack about living long enough to collect on the points but that’s the kind of crack reserved for established friends or acquaintances, not Londoners you just met thirty seconds ago. “This your first time?”, asks his friend. “I’m here for my sentence”, I offer, I quickly tame it down but still got the chuckle I was aiming for,”Well, my diagnosis”.

It’s 12:10, he’s running late. On one level it seems cruel, on another it likely means he’s spending time with someone who needs that time. Who wouldn’t want the same thing in his place?

A mature nurse chats to some of the patients, clearly familiar with them and genuinely great in the way she relates, like a kindly aunt. “Is this your daughter?” she enquires of a guy about my age, mid-eastern origin, cool looking, westernised. When he confirms, the nurse turns to the daughter and, for conversations sake, asks “So, how is he behaving himself?”. “Not so good with the smoking”, she replies. You can feel the unspoken plea behind the words, it’s gut wrenching stuff. 12:20 now.

At 12:25 and fearing I’m supposed to be meeting somewhere else I step up to the reception desk just as Conrad is approaching to invite me in. By the way, that’s what happens in a private health care environment, doctors come to you and invite you in, they don’t summon you with a bell or at the bidding of an underling.

I don’t know where I start, how I carry on relating the story from here. I guess I have to explain it all but mostly I just want to run out in the street screaming, jump up an down shout, hug perfect strangers and generally CELEBRATE! I don’t understand why they don’t keep a fully stocked bar in reception for just such occasions – I suppose it would be a little insensitive for some but I’m sure most people in this situation would just want to share in any good news story that was going. We, Alina/Lina/Stephanie and me, we’re going to lobby for one.

I guess I should explain, to myself more than anyone. Yes, I do have cancer, that’s now an established and indisputable fact. Yes, I do have a 4.2 cm spitulate lesion on my right lung. Ugly looking little fucker. That’s what we’re celebrating. That’s what I’ve got. That’s the sum total of what I’ve got, that’s the good news – all I have is lung cancer!! I don’t have fifteen other cancers, I have nothing creeping around in my nooks and crannies, I have nothing in my lymph, in my spine, in my throat (despite the huge lump that’s there right now), in my groin or my bladder, in my prostate or my colon, nothing, not a solitary sausage, not a minute fragment. I just have what looks like one huge evil creepy looking, spiky lesion that looks like its crawling, hunting, espying it’s prey as it feeds glutton-like on the sugars in the fluid they injected. It feeds so much, it steals so much of the available sugar and consumes it with such energy that it glows white hot on the CT, white hot! Other organs consuming said sugar at a fast rate only rank yellow on the full colour display, the colour being heat sensitive.

But that’s it. Evil as it looks, voracious and aggressive as it clearly is, it has actually behaved itself impeccably, keeping itself to itself. It has not exploded its cells into a myriad parts and scattered them across my finite internal universe. It appears operable. It appears that whilst I have to donate an important and irreplaceable part of my lung – and my resulting lung capacity – this thing can be removed. It can be cut out. In short, it can be destroyed – before it destroys me.

Conrad, we’re operating on first name terms at my request, after all, as I said to him at the outset of this consult, he’s likely to be the most important person in my life, for the rest of my life, however long that may be, or not. Anyway, Conrad was just great. He was almost as excited as me. He showed me all the scans, turning my whole body around on the screen in glorious full colour 3D, pointing to my various organs and showing not just the total absence of any black specs (we’re on the PET scan now not the CT, come on, keep up), but also the perfectly healthy appearance of each of them. He has of course combined that with the blood test results which confirm exactly that. Cholesterol: perfect, Liver function, all the numbers: perfect, this is a body that just keeps on trucking regardless, it just does its thing, it works, there’s just this one bastard invading organism that it couldn’t stop. “With a liver like that you can drink yourself silly”, says Conrad with a big smile on his face.

He’s spoken to a colleague of his, Brian O’Connor who would do the bronchoscopy that I need. They give me a sedative and then slide a camera/whatever/thingumy up my nose and down into the lung where they (hopefully) see the little critter from the inside, bite a small chunk out of it and take it away for analysis. A biopsy if you will. There is a possibility that it is of a kind that they can’t easily remove but Conrad really doesn’t think so – he’s been right so far so I’m inclined toward optimism.

He calls his friend who operates out of the mews near the hospital entrance and yes, he will see me more or less immediately for a consultation. At his request, Alina offers to escort me over there and on the way she said something to which my eyes, throat and tear ducts responded in telltale fashion. Without hesitation she grabbed me and gave me a big hug, sweetness itself and how wonderful to feel that gentle human contact, it took every effort I could summon to let go.

Brian is a lovely man, a big softly spoken Irishman, a Dubliner who migrated twenty years ago and time has softened that Dublin accent so much I thought he was from the west. He looks at all the pictures and is clearly amazed at what a lucky little sod I am. “Normally”, he says, “when I’m talking to someone with lung cancer my eyes are down on the floor because, frankly, I’m usually looking at a death sentence.”. He continues, “In your case, you know what? I think we’ve got it just in time”. Again with the throat thing and the tear ducts, for about the tenth time today. I feel like a great big stupid soft thing but then, in my more self-forgiving moments, I figure I have some justification.

We talked about the smoking. We talked about the insurance company. In this context Ri cropped up in conversation, the ironies of fibrosis for a non-smoker, and he asked who her lung guy was. “excellent guy” he says when I tell him about Toby Maher, “leading world authority”. “I don’t know him personally”, he continues with perhaps the most glowing reference of all, “I know his ‘boss'”.

So I’m on the train home, writing this and I get the call I’ve been waiting for from the insurance company – they will cover me after all. Seems this is my lucky day.  Thank you Hitch.

Domestic Abuse, Families and the State. My story.

Lockdown has made this a hot topic, again and the passage of a new government Bill through Parliament has added grist to the mill. Last Thursday I was invited to attend a video conference to listen to speakers on the topic. It was organised by a charitable fundraising group I have supported and so I accepted the invitation.

We heard from a couple of professionals on the topic but the main segment was given over to a woman called Kerry-not-her-real-name who described the harrowing experiences that she and her son were subjected to, initially by her husband and subsequently by the full panoply of the State apparatus: police, justice, care home, social services, benefits system, etc, etc.

I found the experience extremely challenging. I was very uncomfortable throughout and on several occasions I just wanted to turn it off and leave. To do so felt like I was betraying not only ‘Kerry’ and her son, but all those who’d taken the time to put this together and all those other women, children and, yes, men who suffer in one way or another. I stayed to the end feeling terribly uncomfortable, like a voyeur and a perpetrator and a victim, all at once.

It was only on reflection that I considered whether my own story had an impact on my reaction. It’s not that I dwell on it in any sense, nor that I feel I need help with it or, heaven forbid, sympathy but it is in me, it’s part of my character, of me and these things do, as we know, have a subconscious impact on us in many ways, often unrecognised, unappreciated or indeed, unimportant. Some of them may indeed be important but I don’t dwell, I just let it all be me, whatever that is, for good or ill.

What struck me most, during this terrible tale from ‘Kerry’ was the failure of the state apparatus to do what they say on their tins. They don’t protect, they don’t support, they are not blind in their dispensation of justice and they do not offer a protective and supportive environment for those they claim to “be there” for. Often they fail because they believe they are doing the right thing, a very subjective basis for decision-making. It struck me, in particular, because it was exactly the same for my mother, and my family, over sixty years ago and, to my jaundiced eye, precious little has changed or improved in all those years.

My mind was taken back to my mother’s journals which I discovered before she died, aged ninety, in a care home and suffering from dementia. Unfortunately, she was already too far “gone” for me to discuss them with her and, in any event, why would I want to take her back to those traumatic times in her last days on earth?

I looked them out last night and sat up till 3 am reading them, again. It’s the closest I’ve felt to my mum in a long time. The humanity, bewilderment, desperation, her struggles to find solutions, to get help, her loneliness, attempts to try to get my dad to stop drinking, her lost children, her embarrassment, degradation, imprisonment and incarceration. It would be heart-wrenching if I was reading about a stranger, like ‘Kerry’ but this was my mum, me, my brothers, my family. It doesn’t come closer than this.

These journals were written for a purpose. I’m sure it was important for her to get these memories and events down in writing, in many ways, not least of all catharsis but the driver behind writing them was the divorce she wanted from my father. Divorce was no simple matter in those days and any woman seeking to divorce their husband needed compelling evidence to have any chance of success – unless he agreed, which he didn’t. With that in mind, and without the merest hint of a slight to my mother, I regard these memoirs as *her truth, with no judgment from me. There are enough facts in there I recognise that I know most of it to be founded in fact.

I’ll save my comments to the end. For the bulk of this article, I’ll leave my mum to do the talking. I will just set the scene, a little. My mother was born in 1918, my dad a couple of years earlier. My mum’s father was a violent drunk, a veteran of the First War. My Gran threw him out and, god knows how, raised four children on her own, remarkably successfully in the circumstances, post war and through the Great Depression. Mum, being the eldest, became Gran’s right-hand helper when she should have been enjoying childhood. This was the background to my mother’s own family experience which mirrors ours almost perfectly. Mum’s sister (along with her daughter, my cousin) is the only immediate survivor of that young family at the time of writing but I have many younger relations, in Australia, as my two Uncles both emigrated there in the fifties. My mother was engaged to be married before the Second War to someone “eminently suitable”, I gather. When war broke out, my mum was keen to sign up, to do whatever she could. Her fiancee was totally opposed to the notion of working women and actually used that time honoured phrase, “No wife of mine will be seen going out to work!”. He obviously didn’t know her very well. That red rag to my mother’s bull had her marching down to the recruitment centre in double time. She enlisted in the Womens’ Royal Air Corp and spent the war driving ambulances on RAF airfields. What horrific sights she must have seen. Her fiancee took umbrage, called off the wedding and threatened to sue her for ruining his reputation. Then, inevitably, my mother made the mistake of falling in love with a fighter pilot who, as was a statistical certainty, didn’t make it through the Battle of Britain. She was bereft. I’m not sure she ever recovered.

I know very little about my Dad’s family but I remember Granny Gordon and my Aunt Rita, though I saw very little of them, they weren’t close to us. I believe my paternal grandfather was rather like the maternal one, rather like my dad, funny that. I never met either of them.

Dad was in the Territorial Army before the Second War and so enlisted and was urgently shipped out with the British Expeditionary Force, almost immediately war broke out. He was in the force sent to Belgium in those early days and was thus, one of the defeated soldiers rescued from the hell hole that was Dunkirk. After a couple of years back in Blighty, he was shipped out to North Africa as a Bombardier in the Royal Artillery with the Eighth Army fighting against Rommel. A Desert Rat, if you will. After Rommel’s defeat he was shipped to Italy, to that other hotspot, the Battle for Monte Casino. I think that was his last major engagement. During this he was promoted to War Sergeant, a rank that means you don’t receive the full benefits of rank once the war is over, it was a cost-saving promotion. He declined it but it was imposed on him anyway. I’d love to know that back-story but I never will.

He and mum met a couple of years after the end of the war, I don’t know how. At this point, I’ll let Mum take up the story:

“The day we were married, we went home to his Mother’s house. His Mother was very upset because we were getting married, she said he had only just come home from the war and she did not expect to lose him again so soon. So, very much against my better judgement, I agreed to live with her [and her daughter] for a while.

I think we arrived there about 8:30pm. We did not go ‘away’ at all. At 9pm Bill [my father] asked if I would mind if he went out to meet the boys for an hour. What else could I say but “no”. He came back at 11pm.

There are only two downstairs rooms in his Mother’s house, the kitchen and the living room but the living room was never used and they lived in the kitchen. As soon as Bill went out, his Mother and Sister announced that they were going to bed and went, at 9 o’clock, leaving me sitting in the kitchen. I went up into what was supposed to be our bedroom and waited for Bill to come in, he was rolling drunk when he came.

We had arranged to go to Goodwood Races the following day, as our honeymoon. We arrived back around 9pm and again he asked if I minded if hr went out for an hour. The following day he went out and I was left at home with his mother who pretty well expected me to do all the housework and all the meals too. She only had a dirty old range to cook on. When she asked me to do the cooking and baking I had to tell her I was perfectly willing to prepare the food for her but I couldn’t possibly bake on that kind of an over as I’d never had any experience of such fire ovens. I had no knowledge of how to regulate it and learning the art was liable to prove expensive.

When I suggested she use the living room she was bewildered and said the kitchen was much more convenient and comfortable. What she meant by comfortable I couldn’t imagine. We were only there a few weeks and I couldn’t stand it. Bill never gave me a penny this whole time.

I found two rooms for 25/= per week and persuaded him to take them. When we moved he offered me 30/= per week for housekeeping. I told him I couldn’t possibly manage on that. I think he was drawing £7 at the time. ….My cigarettes were rationed. At one time he made me cut down to five per day, he handed them to me one at a time. He still went out as soon as he’d finished his tea and returned between 11pm and midnight. I was alone in the house all day and half the night. I couldn’t stand this but I was pregnant and did not know what to do. So I sank all my pride and asked Mother if she would let us have a room in her house until the baby was born……

[My dad was an inveterate gambler and drinker. The pattern he established on the night of their wedding continued for every single day of their marriage. He would go dancing or to a club, he would never, ever stay home. He doubtless had affairs]

The day Christopher [my recently deceased brother] was born, the nurses left me and did not return until 15 minutes after the birth. Consequently he got his lungs full of fluid (he was born at midday) and kept choking. We were continually calling the doctor and nurses back to drain him, towards evening he actually died [stopped breathing]. I revived him myself and the catheter tube was then left with me in case I needed it again.

I asked the nurses to call at the flat to ask Bill to come and help me….

The next day he came to see me…..He said he must have been asleep in bed when the nurse called. He had had a few drinks “to wet the babies head” and had gone straight home to bed. When I eventually arrived home, I found he had been sick all over the bedroom and the bed, he said he had drunk some bad beer the night Christopher was born. Whenever he is sick, it’s always because he’s drunk some bad beer, never the fact that he had drunk too much.

While we were in the flat he would come home between 11:30 and 1am so drunk and abusive that on about six occasions I went out and walked the streets wondering what I could do. I had to return because of the children and when I did he was fast asleep in bed not even knowing or caring that I was out.While I was carrying Christopher I was so miserable and upset by his behaviour that I used to sit in the chair from the time he went out at 6:30pm until he came in rolling drunk at midnight, sobbing my heart out. I don’t think he ever knew. When he came in he would pull me out of the chair and push me into the bedroom and tell me to get into bed.

A fortnight before my first daughter was born [I have no sisters, all three miscarried] she was already four weeks overdue – I had Christopher vaccinated. He was very ill after it and one night half an hour after Bill had come in and gone to bed, he woke up screaming at around 1:30am. I tried to wake Bill but he was too drunk so I got up myself and picked Christopher up. He was struggling and fighting, he was delirious. Nigel [my elder brother] wakened and I asked him to try to waken Bill. He couldn’t and I could neither hold Christopher nor put him down, he was struggling so hard and kicking me all the time. I knew he was killing the baby but I could do nothing about it…. The next day I knew the baby was dead.

….A friend once persuaded me to go with her to the cinema. Bill gave his permission willingly but when the friend arrived, Bill was not back from the club as promised. I rang him once and he said he was on his way. Half an hour later I rang him again and he said he had forgotten.

[I’m seriously abbreviating the dialogue to spare you, the reader, whilst giving you a broad flavour of the situation]

When Robin was born [finally I get a walk-on part!] we could not afford a home help and he arranged to take a fortnight’s holiday to look after me. Every day after dinner, he would lock Nigel and Christopher in the bedroom with me, while he went out. He said he went to the office to do some work but he was supposed to be on holiday [and always came home drunk].

When I drew my insurance in 1950, I bought Nigel his first outdoor suit, it cost me £8.5/=. While I was in Hellingly [a mental institution, read on] Robin was wearing it, it was still in perfect condition and showed no signs of wear. Bill did not supervise Robin properly and he burned the coat. Bill claimed £3 from his insurance company but I never saw any of it. I could not afford to replace the coat and Robin had to continue wearing it with a big ugly patch right in the front. I was obliged to cut up the cap to patch the coat.

While I was in Hellingly, Bill transferred the mortgage from the Building Society to a private mortgage where he only pays the interest on the money borrowed and had increased the amount to £1,400. [The house cost £1,010]. [This was to cover drinking and gambling debts].

[That particular journal then goes on to list various examples of my dad’s poor behaviour, I’ll spare you. On a loose, torn page at the end, it reads:

Separation or Divorce, which is best for the Children.

[I could add much to the dialogue but I’ll refrain because this is her story. As a witness, I can attest to the constant arguing, shouting, door slamming, fighting, occasionally carving knife incidents. Life at home was miserable most of the time, especially if they were both home. My brothers would fight, routinely (can’t imagine where they got that idea from) or they’d gang up on me and beat me mercilessly. I don’t blame them, not now. The pervasive threads were that Mum worked all day, out, which Dad hated because that meant Mum wasn’t always there to wait on him, and then again back at home. Dad, an FCA, a practising Chartered Accountant, drank every day working or not. He was always drunk, even though he was practised at maintaining composure, he stank of it. He only watched TV for the races, or wrestling, or anything else he gambled on and only so he could check on what usually turned out to be his losses. Fast forward a couple of years and Mum picks up the story]

“I had repeatedly asked my doctor for help, without success. I thought that if someone whom he respected would speak to him with authority and show him where he was wrong, then he might alter a little but Dr Sutherland [family GP] was a client, I tried to impress upon him the severity of the situation without blackening Bill’s character too much.

He was continually forcing me into pregnancy, I had 6 children in 8 years. He said he wanted a football team but didn’t consider that the children all had to be clothed and fed. Any old rags were good enough to clothe them with. If I said anything he would say “Your wealth is in your children, not in material possessions”. After the death of the first girl, he told me he wouldn’t have known what to do with a daughter anyway but he had proved himself a man by being able to produce one…..

I always seemed to be ill while I was pregnant, I was always thoroughly tired and exhausted. My doctor never found anything wrong but every time I went to hospital they took a blood count and pumped iron into me and instructed me to continue this when I left. I suffered agonies with cramp at night, which the doctor didn’t diagnose, he kept saying the baby must be lying on a nerve. [!] It was not until I heard a broadcast on cramp by the radio doctor, that I suspected the true cause and when I mentioned this to my doctor, he agreed that it was caused by a vitamin deficiency and he eventually prescribed Ossivite [Calcium Carbonate and Vitamin D3].

During these years I nearly drove myself mad trying to work out a solution. I could not leave him with the children. I had nowhere to go and I was unable to go out to work. [because of the children]. I could get no help from anyone and there was only one way out. I threatened him with this time and time again as I could foresee no future at all for the children. He simply treated me as a troublesome child or with derision. The fact that I might be serious was beyond his comprehension. A wife’s purpose was merely to provide her husband with his children and nothing more.

He once told me that he had chosen me to be the mother of his children because I was more intelligent than any woman he had ever known.

One evening in 1956 we went to the Seven Club. We had called in several pubs on the way. We never go out to one place, whenever he takes me out we always go on a pub crawl. He was so disgustingly drunk this night, I just left him and started to walk home. As I got to the corner of Buckhurst Road, a taxi drew up, he was in it, he opened the door and said “do you want a lift”. I ignored him and he carried on. I didn’t know what to do. I had wanted to get home before he did so that I could lock the doors, now I could not do that. I was terrified of going home, at the same time the children were alone with him and I was frightened of what he might do to them, he gets visions and is violent when he’s very drunk. I walked back to the sea front and sat in a shelter on the colonnade wondering what to do. Eventually a policeman, who had passed me twice, came to speak, he wanted to know what I was doing there, I have no idea what the time was. I did not tell him anything and I think I aroused his suspicions.

Eventually I decided to go to the police station and asked if someone could accompany me home and told them the reason. A policeman took me home, he did not come in but waited on the doorstep while I checked everything. Bill was asleep so I told the policeman it would be alright, so he left.

On Sunday Oct 28th he came in to dinner about 2:45 or 3pm. This time I had not waited for him [every Sunday we would be left sitting at the dinner table waiting for Dad to come home, late and drunk] but he was drunk and picked up the carving knife and held it over me ready to strike. I didn’t know what to do so I remained as calm as I could and got ready to try to grab his wrist if he attempted to strike me with it. After a few minutes, he put it down.

I was trembling and couldn’t speak. Mother just sat there and watched, saying nothing, the children did not say anything either. I never knew what they thought, Nigel’s face had gone white.

I realised now there was only one solution, I could not possibly leave the children in his hands and there was no time to get a court order against him, in any case knowing the way he can talk I had no doubt he would be able to get it rescinded.

There was only one hope and that would mean very drastic action, I had to give him a very severe shock, if that were possible, it seemed nothing could touch him. He just didn’t believe anything I said. The next four days I spent trying to figure out the best way to sort things out. I thought of asking Mr Kimber [family solicitor] to speak to him but decided things had gone too far for that. In any case, he would probably take the same attitude as Ben [Dr Sutherland].

There was only one thing to do. Before actually murdering the children and committing suicide I would see if I could shock him into some sense of responsibility by threatening it in earnest. I had to be very careful to make it appear really authentic or I would just be back where I started.

In the meantime since Sunday’s episode I had been sleeping in the nursery with the boys and moving a very heavy oak bed in front of the door so that he could not get in the room. I was frightened of him trying to do something while we were asleep. In moving this bed, I must have torn something in the abdomen, the pain got progressively worse.

If any further impetus was needed this was it. I did not know what I had done nor how serious. I had to make the final attempt to finish things completely. I decided to give him a last chance.

On the Thursday afternoon before meeting the children I wrote 3 letters, one to Bill, one to Mother and a third in the form of a will. At this time I had a part-time job driving an old lady occasionally and her car was garaged next door ro me. I filled the car with pillows and rugs, put the hose pipe in the back and took some Pethidine tablets with me, also some comics and sweets for the children. I arranged things so that I would be leaving the house at 5:35 just as Mother was coming in, I knew she would stop me going and I anticipated that Bill would arrive while we were arguing but unfortunately she was late on this evening. I waited until 5:45 and knew that Bill would be coming and if I waited any longer he would know that I had waited on purpose and the whole effort would fall to pieces.

I had to go and rely on him calling the police to find me. I had intended going down Pebsham Lane to the footbridge and waiting there. I told the children I was taking them to see the aeroplanes lit up but when I got to Pebsham Lane, I found the road under repair and impassable. I drove around a long time and eventually got on to the Pevensey Marshes. I had no idea where I was and just stayed there, it seemed hours. I was beginning to think that I had no choice but to carry out that threat, I could not possibly just go back as I would have achieved nothing except to confirm Bill’s belief that I did not mean what I said. I was just considering going somewhere else less open and going through with it when a car came along the road behind me. I moved forward for him to pass me because the road was too narrow and then turned a corner and stopped to allow this other car room. He pulled up in front of me and I saw it was a police car.

I had given them up by this time and I was extremely relieved to see them. I did not know what I was in for. I was not aware I had committed a legal offence, I had not attempted anything. I had only threatened and the letters were addressed to members of my own family. I did not know they could charge me with this. I feel sure even now that they could have preferred no charge without my husband’s instructions to do so. Anything I did was completely within my own family circle and affected no other members of society. [Mum was actually charged with Attempted Murder of my elder brother, Nigel. A “sample charge” as it’s known]

I was taken to the Inspector who had been called out. He asked me if I wished to make a statement. I said I would only make a statement to my solicitor and would he contact him. He asked me if I was willing to go into Hellingly, I said “for what purpose”, he did not answer me. He asked if I wanted to see my husband, I said “yes, he’ll get Mr Kimber for me”.

They took me to the cells, later Bill came in and I asked him to phone Kimber. He said he couldn’t at that time of night but would see him first thing in the morning. Meanwhile, Ben was there and would see me. Ben examined me, I told him about the torn muscle, I was bent almost double with the pain from it. I did not have an opportunity of speaking with him privately. I was extremely embarrassed and ashamed of the clothes I was wearing, a thin cotton vest and pants, a thin cotton frock and my old spring maternity coat. I had nothing else to wear. I was frozen, I was shivering all over. This was November 2nd.

He gave me a sleeping pill but I did not sleep. Mrs Russell [family friend] sat in the cell all night with me. In the morning they brought me something to eat but I couldn’t face it. Then Bill came in and said Kimber would be coming later.

Kimber came rushing in and said “What’s all this about?” We were not alone so I started to tell him what I had done. I told him I had taken the hose and Pethidine tablets and the children in the car, that was as far as I got. He said “Well, I have to be in court in two minutes, I have to go now” and rushed out. I never saw him again to speak to until I came out of Hellingly.

I was taken into court and Kimber and Ben tried to get me sent to Hellingly on remand, it had all been arranged with Dr. Rice and I would be well guarded but the police objected, saying they were considering the safety of the children and the magistrate ordered me to be sent to Holloway. I nearly collapsed when I heard this. I was so stunned, I couldn’t even speak, I just hobbled out of the box on the arm of the policewoman, I could not stand up for the pain.

I was taken to Holloway and left in a cubicle alone for a long time then I was taken to an office where all my clothes were taken from me and replaced with a dressing gown that would not go around me. I was told to have a bath. I had the bath and was then put through several revolting medical examinations, still with no clothes except the inadequate dressing gown and there were dozens of other prisoners wandering about the hall. When the doctor saw me she said “Oh I see you’re pregnant, is it your husband’s child?”

I was given some prison clothes which would not fit and taken to the ward in the hospital. The warder who took me kept telling me to hurry and stand up straight. It was a terribly long way, up and down huge flights of iron stairways.

Before I left Bexhill I had asked Ben for a supply of Ossivite tablets, I could not go without them but he said they would give them to me when I got there. Mother bought me some new clothes and sent them in for me, the governor gave me permission to wear them. The governor and the Matron were very nice but had to be careful not to show any preference.

I was on a ward with ten other women, including the woman who murdered her twins by stamping on their faces in high-heeled shoes and setting fire to the houseboat, an abortionist who murdered her daughter and another woman who was sentenced to death, I cannot remember who she was.

In the cells were the woman who murdered her children with Chloral tablets and a girl who stabbed her adoptive mother with a breadknife. Some of them never disclosed why they were there, I never mentioned my case.

I was forced to go out on exercise twice a day in the snow and frost. The pain seemed to be getting worse and spreading over a larger area. I could not get my Ossivite tablets, the doctor there had never heard of them.

I was told to attend a medical parade for VD infection, some of the women told me this was a revolting examination and I refused to go. On the Thursday before I was due to leave I had to see the psychiatrist and she asked me why I had refused the examination. I told her that in my case she ought to realised it was unnecessary but she advised me to go as they could keep me there if I did not have it, so I stupidly went. She really put me through the mill. It was not for two weeks afterward that I realised what she must have done.

My womb will never stay in the correct position, it twists back to front and I think this was the trouble at the time and she put it right. The baby’s position was higher and more comfortable after she had finished with me. I went straight back to the ward and lay on my bed.

This time the warders and nurses didn’t say anything to me, I think they must have been warned. I kept getting contractions and was terrified the baby would arrive before I could get out of there. I got through the night without mishap and got up in the morning very carefully, the pains were quite bad and I thought “if only I can get out of here I may be able to get to a hospital in time”, I went downstairs and I was told to wait. I sat on a form and waited some time still in pain and I had a contraction again, stronger than the others and I was terribly worried in case I didn’t get out.

I was then told I would have to go to reception to collect my belongings. It was about a mile away up and down steep flights of iron stairs. I knew I would never make it and said that I did not want my things, I would go without them but they would not let me. I said I did not feel well enough to walk that far. It made no difference, I was ordered to go. I knew I would be lucky if I got half way there, let alone back again. I just had to tell them I was in pain. They put me to bed in a cell close by and sent for the doctor.

I was frantic, I couldn’t get out, I could not communicate with anyone and I knew if they left me there till the last minute and I had a hemorrhage it would be too late. They kept me in bed for a couple of days and one of the nurses told me she didn’t believe I had any pain at all. She told me I had been lying. When my brother came to see me at the weekend he told me they had postponed the case for three weeks.”

Not surprisingly, mum miscarried this third in utero sister of mine.

When she finally got to court, she was sent to the mental institution, ‘the loony bin’, at Hellingly. My two brothers had been sent to live with my uncle and aunt. I was placed in a childrens’ home in, ironically, Sutherland Avenue. I have absolutely no recollection of the place, aside from one visual snapshot of the exterior on arriving there. I can picture it now.

I honestly have no idea whether Mum intended to murder us all and commit suicide but I am tempted to believe her more convincing claim that she was just screaming for attention, to be taken seriously. I have the vaguest of memories of driving around for hours with the promise that we were to go and watch the aeroplanes at Lydd Airport. I don’t know what year this was, I think I was four or five. I have one other snapshot memory, slightly more detailed, of being in a nice warm police station, in the mess room. My older brothers were playing snooker on the huge table that I couldn’t quite see over, so I just rolled balls onto the table. I remember huge, friendly policemen bringing me slices of rich fruit slab cake cut from the largest cake I had ever seen.

I don’t feel like a victim, I don’t seek sympathy, nor do I feel any need to blame anyone nor to seek therapeutic help but I am well aware that I didn’t escape the effects that will have deeply impacted my character. I didn’t treat my mother well, as a child. I was almost certainly influenced by love for my mostly absent and permanently drunk father, the permanent feeling of living in a battle zone, the actions and reactions of my two older brothers. Not what you’d call a happy childhood, that’s for sure. If anything it helped make me who I am today, for better or worse. I vowed never to have any children of my own as I knew, only too well, that I was poorly equipped as a father. My first wife had other ideas and ‘forgot’ her contraception on a couple of occasions, enough to bless me with two boys who I love to bits. I did my utmost to ensure they never suffered everything like that I had. I think it worked, in the main. I am aware that I have traits in common with each of my parents, some great, some not so good. I work against those as far as possible but I’m not ashamed of my genes. I am proud of both my parents, for very different reasons. We are all a mix of good and less good qualities. My father was fighting his own demons, his poor childhood, his horrific wartime experiences and a Victorian culture of marriage. Until his drinking started to affect his work, he was admired as an eminent accountant, particularly by his clients who greatly admired his work. He was awarded the Victor Ludorum three years running at the same Grammar School that we three boys attended, as was pointed out to me by the masters on frequent occasions, in an effort to shame/motivate me. He never imparted those sporting genes to me, I have zero interest in any form of sport, to this day – aside from motor racing. After my father eventually left home, I saw him just once, in Hastings on a weekend visit from my Approved School which, it turned out, was largely a way of him extracting some more largess from the Chartered Accountant’s Benevolent Association and the DHSS. He had given up work as he was incapable of employment. Unfortunately, that was also the day I succumbed to Hepatitis and had to return early whereupon I was put into an isolation ward in an Essex hospital for the next six weeks. One morning, many months later, I was coming downstairs and paused at the top, seeing my mother at the foot of the stairs. She called up to me in a completely flat tone, “Your father’s dead”. That was it, that was her genteel way of breaking bad news to a 15 year old.

My mother had a similarly terrible childhood and a Victorian attitude but she imbued in me a sense of determination, of never giving up even when I was utterly exhausted by the challenges, of always finding a solution to every problem because there has to be one, of standing up to bullies of all kinds, the knowledge that whatever I wanted, I could achieve, if I would only try. As she would frequently admonish us, “There’s no such word as can’t”. My mother never did divorce my father, she settled for a legal separation agreement wherein he was ordered to pay her 2/= per year, not that he kept that up, even. Years later, in her eighties, I was intrigued to note that she had added a couple of framed pictures to her wall. One was my father’s Chartered Accountant’s Fellowship Certificate, the other was a picture of him performing the Mikado in an Amateur Dramatic society play. Nostalgia? Regret? Who knows. She must have loved him, in one way or another, despite everything.

That was our family story. Of course, there is much more to it. Of course, many have a much worse tale to tell. I don’t think one can measure and compare very easily. To a young child, pain and loss is pain and loss. It’s all-embracing, overpowering but it’s also for some of us, an education, a foundation for one’s character and determination. I’ve met many people with similarly horrible tales to tell and, for the most part, they are adults whom I admire greatly and contribute much to society. It’s not that I advocate hardship in childhood, you understand but nor do I shy away from it’s existence, it’s effects and its place in the panoply of human experience. To call for its eradication is like trying to control the weather. What is possible and what we should all be focussed on, is drastically improving the social fabric that is there to support and assist people in such situations. Those State Institutions, those neighbours, those friends and professionals in the law, medicine and everywhere appear to my eye to have not progressed one jot in the intervening sixty years, aside from the words. Words are cheap, action is what’s needed. x

Uganda: Arrest, betrayal, detention, conviction and escape – never to return.

So, it’s August 1986, I’m supposedly being interviewed at Entebbe Airport for “Attempting to enter Uganda without a valid travel document, to wit, a passport.”. In actual fact I’m sitting there with Bill and two of my local team, who are taking it in turns to negotiate on my behalf, scratching their heads, making phone calls and looking very worried on our behalf. Not a good look.

It went on for hours, it was exceedingly boring. Then, when I thought I was bored enough, it suddenly became rather, I’m hovering on using the word “exciting” but I think I’ll stick with “worrying”. We were to be taken to Entebbe Police Station and held overnight before being interviewed by, I kid you not, Interpol in the capital, Kampala. I wasn’t actually too worried about any of the implications of all this, just the thought of spending a night in a Ugandan Police Station. Forget anything you ever thought you knew about jail, police, police custody, we’re talking a poverty-stricken war zone where even in good times the conditions would have been slightly worse than appalling. After decades of government mismanagement, wars, police executions (that’s executions of police officers) and so on, there was nowhere in the entire country that was fit to live, least of all a police station.  This is it on a good day:

My guys were alternately, doing their best to assure me that they would be working flat out to sort things out whilst looking so decidedly worried that I started to think that I should feel that way, too. We were handed over to a policeman, armed obviously, and led away to an old banger of a “taxi” that served as their official transport, I seem to remember it was a 1960s Ford Anglia. To say it had seen better days would just be having a laugh, it was beyond belief that it would travel at thirty miles an hour, much less have a hope in hell of ever stopping, if it did.

Sam and Fred sheepishly said their goodbyes and off we went. I’m not quite sure how to describe Entebbe Police Station or, indeed, the part of it to which we were taken. Suffice to say, the highest offices of State in Uganda were little better than tumble-down, shell-shattered ruins, sometimes brushed clean of dust and debris, sometimes not. There always seemed to be a bloke with a bucket of dirty water and a wet mop which would be used to mix the dust into a fine grinding paste and spread it around the invariably painted concrete floor. It gave an impression of civilisation, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

As the Ford Anglia pulled up at the rear of the building, a level below the roadside frontage, I could see the look of horror on Bill’s face and, probably for the hundredth time in the last 24 hours, I patted him on the shoulder, urged him not to worry and assured him that everything would be sorted out and it would all be fine. I genuinely believed that to be true, as well, though I had scant basis for such optimism, frankly.

Like most buildings it was made of colonial vintage concrete which had once been painted white but which ends up covered in the fine red clay dust that covers literally everything, inside and out. Natuarally, it had bars on those few windows that existed and a big steel warehouse door. This was clearly the tradesman’s entrance to the storeroom, as confirmed when we were led into the almost pitch black interior. Candles were lit, there may even have been a Tilley lamp, and I could see wooden shelving, in aisles with a few meagre supplies stacked on them. I was surprisingly cheered when I realised some of this was canned foodstuffs, big catering size ones but food nonetheless. We weren’t going to starve.

We were led to the back of the room and I can’t remember what was actually on the floor, in the way of makeshift bedding but I remember thinking that this was the last place on earth I was actually going to lay down, unless at gunpoint – which of course, I was. The policeman were all very graceful, smiling, apologetic, clearly embarrassed, determined to make us as comfortable as they could, given the lack of resources at their disposal. That was comforting. They didn’t seem like the kind that would take us out and put us up against the wall in the dead of night. Some would. They had a smattering of English between them, not much. We sat on the floor and wondered what came next.

We were left alone, in candlelight and I spent my time trying to keep Bill’s spirits up, poor guy. This was a different universe for him and he wanted to get back on the spaceship and set a course for home. Didn’t we all. A couple of hours later, and I’ve never been more grateful to see anyone in my life, the cavalry arrived. It was Capt. Joe Roy and one of his crew. The first we knew of it was the sound of raised voices coming from outside the building, lots of shouting, then the door opened and Joe strode in. He was beside himself with apologies, on behalf of his country, his people, his police service, etc. He had heard that we’d been taken here and came straight away, he was taking us to the “Airport Hotel” for the night. He’d spoken to the Chief of Police, taken personal responsibility for our detention and promised to deliver us to Interpol the following morning. I imagine a little lubricant greased the palms so as to assist a smooth passage of the terms but it’s impolite to ask, so I didn’t.

Joe spirited us away on his white charger, a smart 4×4 of some make or other, and took us back to the airport where we spent a half-decent night on the flea-infested bed, in the mosquito and cockroach ridden space that passed for a room in the “Airport Hotel”.  The “Hotel” was actually just a few rooms on an upper floor of the terminal building, dispel any illusions the word “Hotel” may impart.  To us, it felt like the Park Lane Hilton. In the morning we had a light breakfast, actual food: fruit, pastries and coffee which Joe joined us for and then, good as his word to the police, he took us back to his car and we drove the forty miles back to Kampala. Joe could shed no light on what was going on, why there seemed to be such importance given to our “case” or who might be pulling the strings and, at this point, I hadn’t begun to suspect the truth. He parked outside a large building of four or five stories, in the middle of Kampala, not far from the Speke Hotel, once a symbol of national pride but, by the time I stayed there, in ’82 I think it was, a faded symbol of a once glorious colonial time. Whisky was served to me back then in a CocaCola bottle, the original style, and a wide brimmed stainless steel water jug was presented to me, as if as a challenge, to see how much of it I could get through the narrow neck of the Coke bottle, rather than in my lap. They’d run out of glasses. I had soup there four days running. Each day the menu gave it a glowing and appetising title – Cream of Mushroom, Pea and Ham, Parsley and something or other. Each time, it was exactly the same, lumpy cornflour and water with the faintest possible taste of vegetable broth. I think the lumps were intended to give it substance.

Joe led us upstairs a couple of floors and handed us over to one of the “Interpol” “detectives”. I’m sorry, I just can’t take either of those words seriously, in the current context. I mean, this was an absolute joke. A Bic biro was a prized treasure, for gods sake, you never lent yours to anyone and paper was a luxury commodity – this was meant to be an office of Interpol?!? They did have a telex machine (as did anyone that needed to communicate with the outside world in a land where telephones were more often office decoration than a functional communications device) so it’s not impossible that they had a method of communicating with foreign police forces. Joe wished us well and left us in the care of these bemused but friendly fellows. We were assigned to one officer who spoke a little English and who smiled a lot, offered us tea and seemed to be concerned for our welfare.

It was to be another tedious period of boredom, sitting on our hands, waiting, waiting, always waiting…. Eventually, after hours of this, our guardian came to us concerned to know if we had anything with us to eat? We shrugged and indicated we had nothing but, yes, we were hungry. Incredibly, he advised us that there was an eating place just down the road (I think he referred to it as a restaurant) and suggested we go on down there and get our own lunch. He would remain there but we should come back as soon as we’d finished eating….

I looked at Bill and he at me, we shrugged and left the building. So, here we were, international criminals under investigation by Interpol and we’d been sent out onto the city streets unaccompanied and seemingly with no concern that we might flee.

Bill seized the moment, “Let’s make a run for it!”, he exclaimed, “What’s to stop us?”, tugging at my arm. “Let’s get some lunch”, I said calmly and we carried on walking down to where, sure enough, there was a large cafe of sorts. While we were standing in the queue, I explained to Bill, “It’s about 200km to the border with Kenya, it’s an eight hour drive over one of the worst roads you’ve ever seen. There are armed police and army roadblocks every few miles on every road around Kampala. We have a minor problem with our passports, we don’t have any, so we’re not going to get into Kenya, either. On top of that, Joe has given his word that we’d toe the line and he’d be in big trouble if we were to do a runner. We’re not armed bank robbers. Let’s keep calm and let my guys do their thing. What do you want to eat?” I finished.

We were sat at a table outside having just started eating when I spotted our guardian Interpol man, running down the road and into the area of the cafe, his eyes darting everywhere, clearly hoping for a glimpse of us. I didn’t catch his eye but I saw him pull up short when he spotted us and, as nonchalantly as he could possibly muster, he pulled up a chair at a distant table and sat facing us. I waved, mischievously, and he signalled, gesturing back not to get up, carry on with your lunch, he’d wait. I shared the joke with Bill and we chuckled. Obviously his boss must have enquired where his two charges were and was probably none too pleased when he was advised we’d been sent out to get our lunch! International desperadoes loose on the streets of the capital, he’d never live it down.

Once we’d finished eating, we collected our guardian and walked back up the hill and back upstairs to the boring office corridor where we’d been parked for most of the day. Next thing I know, the Deputy Consul from the British High Commission arrives, up the stairs to our corridor and approaches us, full of apologies and deeply concerned for our well-being. “Have you brought passports?” I asked, pointedly, my face hopefully expressing my contempt for his sudden concern. “Err, no, he responded, we still have some checks to complete.” “What friggin checks!?” I demanded, “We’re here, under Interpol custody all for the lack of a ruddy passport which you have every power to issue right here, right now!”. “It’s not that simple”, he tried to convince me, “matters have escalated, procedures to be followed, I’m in touch with the Foreign Office in London, your wife has been camped in their offices for the last 24 hours, insisting we help you!”. Good for her! I thought, and probably said. It was amazingly comforting news to know that word had got back home and that Paula was fighting our corner, too. “You’re going to have to spend another night in custody, I’m afraid, and then in the morning you’ll be taken to the Magistrates Court where you will be tried for immigration offences. Don’t worry, I’ll see you again tomorrow, I’m sure everything will be fine….”

I was gobsmacked, I didn’t want to alienate him completely, one needs allies in these situations, even if you can’t choose who they be. I left him in no doubt how poor a show I thought this was by the British Diplomatic Service but I was polite, if not deferential. “I’m now going to take you to the Central Police Station where you’ll be held tonight.” and that’s precisely what he did. I was struggling with this concept, perhaps basing my thinking rather too heavily on those Jason Bourne novels. It just seemed incredible to me that a British Deputy Consul, rather than handing me a passport, literally my passport out of this nightmare, was acting as a prison escort instead. I despised this man, and his ilk and always will.

I’d never even noticed the Central Police Station in Kampala before, it was one of the more creatively styled buildings as shown in this picture. A rather brutal piece of Art Deco. That convex structure in the middle was the facade to the large spiral staircase which is etched in my mind. Led by the Consul into the main lobby, we were handed over to two policemen who led us both down the staircase, two floors, as I recall, toward the “cells”. There was a great deal of noise coming from down below, that got louder as we descended. On the second landing, another policeman guarded a large trestle table on which were piled an assortment of tired looking footwear. As we were led past, the officer remonstrated with our guards, clearly indicating that we were expected to remove our shoes and hand them in. Our guards argued back, protectively, and there were some angry words exchanged but we were led on down with our shoes still on our feet – thank god.

We approached the top of another staircase, leading off the first and were greeted by the most horrific sight. At the bottom of this flight there was a traditional jail gate, heavy iron bars. Projecting through the gaps between the bars were an untold number of outstretched arms. This was where the noise had been coming from. What seemed like a mass of semi-naked humanity was pressed against the bars of the gate, each reaching out, for what, I have no idea. I felt I was looking at the original model for Dante’s Gates of Hell and the thought that we were about to pass through them was, I must confess, a terrifying prospect but pass through them we were indeed going to do.

One of the guards unlocked the gate and pulled it outward, shouting at the inmates behond to get back and threatening them with his police issue truncheon. The sea of noisy, grasping bodies parted slowly and we were ushered inside, rather than led, and as we passed down the remaining steps, into the blackness below, items we had under our arms, in our hands or pockets, disappeared so that we had just the clothes we stood up in when we arrived at the foot of the stairs. Right there and then, I assumed we were about to be violently raped and murdered and that no one would lift a finger to help, or raise the slightest objection. I can’t begin to imagine how terrified Bill must have been.

Out of the throng, one guy stepped forward, took me by the hand as I grabbed hold of Bill’s arm, dragging him along with me, and led us through this crowded huddle of around a hundred souls, some of them with shorts on, most with nothing at all. I had no idea if we were being led to our death or rescued by some comic superhero. I had suspended disbelief about five minutes earlier. The series of rooms and spaces we passed through were impossible to make out, given it was pitch black, apart from the candle our guide held aloft. Did I mention the smell? It was an overpowering stench. A toxic mix of every bodily fluid odour, imaginable. It literally made one wretch and, trust me, I was determined not to vomit for fear of being set upon for showing any sign of weakness.

The man pushed open a door and lifted the candle up higher to illuminate the scene. As I took in the gloomy scene in front of me, I realised what I was looking at. It was a traditional, rectangular prison cell but completely bereft of any furniture or fittings. On the wall opposite, up high, was a small window with no glazing and iron bars set vertically in. I later discovered that the bottom of the window was at ground level with the outside world, saving the rats the effort of having to climb to get in.

The toilet that had once been located in the far right corner, was gone but the half-wall that once provided the user with the smallest of modesty was still present. Covering the floor were various cut up pieces of tired looking foam rubber forming a mattress and seating area for the occupants, of whom there were about a dozen. Our guide removed his flipflops and parked them at the entrance, Bill and I looked at each other and with our eyes, only, agreed that we would decline the hospitality gesture and were keeping our shoes firmly on our feet. Our guide did speak English and he welcomed us into his little tribe who were all equally gracious and welcoming, in their decidedly shabby conditions. As we took a seat on the foam rubber, he went on to explain that this was the VIP cell and that everyone there was a political prisoner, not a common thief or criminal. It’s possible he was telling the truth, it’s equally possible that their crimes were bribery and corruption, neither of which was considered a crime in this part of the world and both of which were commonly used excuses for locking up one’s political opponents. Certainly they were relatively well to do and seemingly educated and, hitherto at least, financially successful.

Bill and I were both dying for a pee but we agreed that, for the time being, we had no desire to venture outside that door once more, if we could possibly avoid it. Being white in a friendly black country has always had its benefits, in my experience, a certain embarrassing deference does indeed pave roads not otherwise available. This was no different. From the police officers who escorted us down into hell, the terrifying mob outside and now this gentle bunch of warm and generous men, it was clear, we were the closest thing to celebrities that this place had seen in a long time. Bob Astles, Amin’s sidekick, being our only known predecessor.

We got to talking with our hosts. Several of them had been held for many months on remand while they were awaiting a court hearing. They explained how things worked inside. Here’s what the authorities provided: Nothing. No water to drink, no sanitation, no bathrooms, no food, no bedding, no clothing, nothing, absolutely zero. If you had no-one on the outside to bring you supplies, then you had to beg, barter or steal – good luck with that last one in here.

Just then some women appeared with a variety of aluminium saucepans and a gas camping stove and started to heat up some food they had prepared at home. They set up the stove in the middle of the room, pushing aside the highly flammable scraps of foam rubber “mattresses” and got to work. Our new friends made sure we were served first and I didn’t dare bother to enquire what it was that I was about to put in my mouth. At least I couldn’t see it and it tasted amazingly good, considering, though I fear that was mainly the just knowing that at least we wouldn’t starve. I hoped we wouldn’t be here for many months or, frankly, too many days.

People came and went freely in and out of our cell. They would stand up and walk barefooted across the floor covering of foam rubber bedding, replacing their flip-flops from the pile by the door, and venture outside to who knows where. When they returned, they would dutifully take them off again, at the door, and walk across the bedding to take their allotted place.

Our meal finished, the women departed, an invisible signal indicated it was time to “turn out the lights” and turn in. Each one of our compatriots seemed to have a reserved space so we watched them settle down and then crawled into the remaining vacant spaces, which didn’t really seem big enough for an entire body, even a small one. We were clearly going to be cosy. I didn’t have quite enough width to accommodate my arms by my side, so I layed with my arms outstetched over my head. A decision I came to regret the next morning, as they had clearly been a beacon to every stray mosquito in Kampala, there being nothing to stop them flying through the bars to our window. I was bitten rotten up and down the length of both arms.  It must have looked very much like this scene from an African prison:

An hour or so into our repose, neither Bill nor I could hold our bladders any longer. I reached over to our host and shook him gently by the arm, apologising profusely for disturbing him but explaining that we both needed to use the toilet. The “WC” as it’s commonly known in this part of the world, you might be surprised to learn. He was very understanding and got out his candle so he could show us the way. We followed him, trying our best to pick our way through the sleeping bodies without walking on anyone or inadvertently kicking them with our hard shoes. This of course was made all the more difficult because we were walking on foam rubber and wobbling a lot. We made it to the door without too many casualties and ventured out into the pitch black just following the candle our host held aloft.

We were in a corridor that had a very slight fall to it. With each step along it, that stench became more and more intolerable. Then I realised I was splashing in some shallow puddle or something. We continued for about forty or fifty feet and then our host pushed open another door and raised his candle higher, gesturing to us to “enter”. Frankly, my stomach was complaining bitterly and it was all I could do to keep it’s contents down where they belonged.

We peered inside, then we looked at each other, we looked down at our shoes and we both burst out laughing aloud – our host quickly “Shhhhh”d us. We realised the liquid we had been splashing in was over the tops of our shoes. We were three inches deep in sewage. We put our hands to our mouths and giggled inanely. The room we were looking at was exactly like the one we’d just left. It too had the toilet removed from the far right hand corner. In lieu, if you’d pardon the pun, the entire room had become the toilet. It was swimming six inches deep in urine and faeces. The splashing we had experienced was the excess fluid that had escaped into the corridor which, helpfully, ran slightly uphill keeping the raw sewage reasonably contained at the far end as it rose up the slope. The joke that had us both in fits, was the fact that we’d been impressed by the hygeine on display by our hosts, dutifully removing their flipflops at the entrance when in fact their feet must have been bathed in this foul liquid and trodden all over that bedding, many, many times over. We never exchanged one word, we just shared identical thoughts.

Standing side by side in the doorway, we peed as far as we could into the room, as young boys do in pissing contests. In our case, we were just trying to avoid the splash-back!

Still giggling, we made our way back to our communal cell, thought about taking off our shoes and immediately thought better of it. What, after all, was the point?

After an interminably restless flea and mosquito infested night, the rising sun elbowed its way through the bars of our little window as dawn broke around 6am, as it always does on the Equator. I had been listening to the grunts and farts of our cell companions for the previous few hours and hoping I wouldn’t succumb to the toxicity of the resultant olfactory environment, the stench. I’m told that the body odour of white people is as offensive to black people as ours is to them, I have no idea of the voracity of that claim but it is certainly, distinctly different and it is probably that difference that makes it appear to be so prominent, especially when you are pressed nose to armpit, face to backside in such close proximity. It’s a night I would dearly like to forget.

Neither of us could quite bring ourselves to face another visit to the latrine unless bladders were literally in danger of bursting so we both controlled ourselves with a discipline I have never managed before or since. We passed the time chatting with our companions, listening to their stories of political intrigue and betrayal and nodding vigorously at the injustice of it all, without ever questioning what frightening level of corruption they might possibly have engaged in. Somehow, it seemed churlish, and rather foolish, to raise such issues, given the circumstances.

Eventually, someone relayed a message into our cell that we were being summoned and we rose to begin the disconcerting journey we would have to take, through the huddled throng, in the darkened area outside in the main area of this dungeon jail. We shook hands with our companions and heartily thanked them for the hospitality they had shown us, miserable as it inevitably was but the generosity was unmistakable.

We were escorted through the loud, bustling, semi-naked multitude, a genuine curiosity to these poor and wretched people, many of whom had never been up close and personal with a white man before. The jail gate with it’s heavy iron bars was pulled open and we began the climb up the various flights of stairs. Although we had absolutely no idea what awaited us, the mere fact that the din and the smell was receding with every step we climbed, gave us a euphoric sense of impending freedom.

Back in the main lobby of the Central Police Station, we were greeted by the Deputy Consul. He appeared genuinely contrite at his failure to intervene in our proceedings the previous day and extremely concerned for our well-being. I was acutely aware that I stunk to high heaven. That no part of my body had seen water for some 72 hours and that I had just spend the last 15 or so hours, lying on urine soaked bedding, shaking many hands with urine and faecal contamination. He reached out his own hand, to shake mine. If it were anyone else, I would have declined and excused myself for the very reasons I’ve mentioned. In his case, I complied willingly, hoping desperately that I would at least be passing on the disgusting aroma and, hopefully, a rather virulent infection.

Once again he had come to transport us to the next phase in our humiliation. This time, he was taking us to the Courtroom where we were to stand trial in front of the Magistrate. The Court itself, like most things in Uganda in those days, bore a striking resemblance to their equivalent back home in the UK but in an extremely dilapidated and dirty condition. The dark wood panelling, the lack of electric lighting and the limited windows gave the room a distinctly Dickensian feel which seemed entirely appropriate.

On our way into the courtroom, and with more arrayed at the back of the court, we witnessed a throng of local newspaper reporters and TV crews that were assembled. Just as Fred had warned me, they wanted to make this a show trial and we were to be made an example of. We took up seats at the very front of the court, directly facing the Magistrate who sat high up on her seat behind the bench. Facing her, and some way below, was the Clerk of The Court, with his back to us. Away to our right and some rows behind us, was the dock. I don’t recall a separate witness box but that may be because no witnesses were ever called in any of the proceedings that we ourselves, were witness to.

These proceedings all followed an identical pattern. First, a blinking, confused prisoner was led up the stairs, in handcuffs, from the holding room below. One by one, they appeared, looking around the room with a frightened, rabbit-in-headlights demeanour. As this was happening, the Clerk of the Court was reading out the charges, in English, in a softly spoken voice that I, no more than six feet away, struggled to hear clearly. The Magistrate spoke in an almost identical murmour ,in passing further detention sentences. Imagine the plight of the poor prisoner, most of whom spoke no English, and who had missed most of the introduction on his way to the dock, who was then (in some cases) asked how he pleaded. Most of them didn’t understand that simple question. In all cases, once pleadings were dealt with, the Prosecuting attorney would advise the Magistrate that they hadn’t yet completed their investigations and they requested a further adjournment. In all cases this was granted and further remand approved. This meant further confinement on remand for each poor prisoner, for reasons they seemingly knew not and, as they were each led back down to the holding cell, anxiously looking around for explanations or divine intervention, my heart went out to them in a depth of feeling it’s difficult to describe. I now had first hand experience of the conditions they were being held in and, frankly, you’d be guilty of animal cruelty in this country, if nothing else.

Eventually, it was our turn. We were the only defendants in court that day who had legal representation though quite who he was or what he knew of our case, was a total mystery. As I’d told Bill, the brief was to say nothing unless spoken to, to be humble and polite if we were, and to exhibit the body language of contrition at any and every opportunity. I’m a proud man but I know which side my bread is buttered when my back is up against the wall, if I may mix two metaphors in a single sentence.

After a mere 5-10 minutes, as I recall, matters turned to sentencing. We were each fined the princely sum of, I believe, 40,000/=, Uganda Shillings, a month’s salary if you had a good government job, or about £6 in real money. I waited to hear the word, “deportation”, but it didn’t come, at least not to my hearing. We thanked the Magistrate apologetically and graciously and followed the lawyer out of the Court, where we were greeted by my guys, jubilant at the result.

“Were we deported”? I quizzed them. No we weren’t, they assured me, looking as pleased as punch with themselves. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that they had been beavering away on our behalf, negotiating and probably bribing their way to this stunning result. Not to appear ungrateful but I had to resist the temptation to suggest that, if they’d got their act together a couple of days earlier, that would have been appreciated. I didn’t spoil their moment. Apparently, they’d also secured some embargo on the TV news issue so that whilst we would, and did, headline the Uganda Times the following day, there was no TV exposure.

The Deputy Consul was there too and he wanted to transport us, yet again, but this time back to the High Commission where we were to be given brand new passports.

We had to stop off en route to get photographs. It was the 1980s and I had my Kevin Keegan perm (We can perm it straight, they assured me, it doesn’t have to be curly – lying bastards) which was now going to be immortalised in my shiny new passport. I still have it. Who cares, I just wanted to get my hand on that lovely Blue Book that was, quite literally, my passport back to civilisation.

Initially, despite what we’d been through, I had every intention of carrying on where we’d left off, getting back to Entebbe to press on with fitting out the hotel rooms. Bill, bless him, was pretty spaced out by everything that had happened over the past few days. He didn’t urge me to cut and run but it was painfully evident that he was considerably less enamoured of the place than he’d hoped he would feel, once he’d got over the fact that he was venturing into foreign parts. I don’t know where we stayed that night. I have little or no memory of the rest of that day. At some point, however, it was related to me that some forces in the country were exceedingly unhappy that we had not been deported and were looking at ways to get us back into court, to have us charged with some other offence or, in one way or another, to do us harm. I spoke with my partner, Colin, in Mombasa and he convinced me that it would be best if we just got out, pronto, and came to Mombasa – given there was no flight back to the UK for several days and given that DAS Air probably wouldn’t want to take the risk of being seen to help us again.

Uganda Airlines, at that time, had one Boeing 707 and two Fokker F27 Friendships, turboprop aircraft used on internal and regional flights. There was an F27 flight scheduled to Mombasa the following day but there was also a sailing tournament scheduled for that weekend and many expats had already booked to spend the weekend there. The flight was full and overbooked. We had strong relationships with the airline, we were their General Sales Agent (for cargo) and we handled their aircraft back at London Gatwick. That didn’t help us on this occasion. We decided there was only one thing for it, we chartered a four-seater Cessna aircraft off a local company and so we’d fly out first thing in the morning, in complete privacy using the private facilities, avoiding the usual immigration controls on exit and indeed the waiting passenger crowds in the terminal, such as they normally were.

We arrived at the crack of dawn and were dropped off in the charter outfit’s little office. The Captain greeted us warmly and asked us for our passports so he could, as is common practice, take them to immigration and get them stamped without us needing to attend. Ten minutes later, he returned, looking rather disconcerted. “They insist you accompany me”, he announced, very apologetically and obviously a little surprised by this break with convention. We were led into a small room where, sat at a bare desk, upon which was just a rubber inking pad, a rubber stamp and a ballpoint pen, was our very own little Himmler. The very same man, with the NHS pebble glasses. He avoided eye contact, not just as we entered, but for the entire time we were stood in that room. He spoke not one word that I can recall. He held out his hand for our passports and opened each one slowly and purposefully. He turned to the first blank page, and inking his stamp, placed an exit stamp in my passport. He then, even more purposefully, took his pen and drew a vertical line down the centre of the rubber stamp, studied his work and then drew a horizontal line bisecting across the first, to form a cross.

This was a coded signal to anyone looking at my passport to see that I had been deported. He closed my passport and handed it back to me before proceeding to duplicate the process with Bill’s. When he’d finished, we were whisked away by our Captain without further ado and not one word was spoken during the entire encounter.

I expected that we would get to our aircraft, across the apron by a special exit but instead, our Captain led us back through the departure “lounge” of the terminal building. It was exceptionally crowded and noisy, lots of British and other expats, drinking beer and generally exchanging bonhomie, at 7 o’clock in the morning. You can take a Brit out of Britain….

This was the last thing I wanted, we were much too visible in this situation. As we approached a raised dais crowded with drinkers I spotted my “friend” and “housemate”, Ian Brebner. He all but spat out his beer when he saw me, word clearly had not reached him that we had NOT been deported. I threw him an unmistakably hostile stare and hurried along behind our Captain, toward the exit door. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ian put down his glass on a table, excuse himself with his companions and take up pursuit.

There was a policeman at the exit door, his rifle slung over his shoulder. The Captain waved our passports at him and without hesitation kept leading us through the door and out onto the tarmac. I saw the plane out on the apron about a hundred yards away. Then I heard a shout behind us and, turning around, I saw Ian gesticulating wildly and shouting in the face of the policeman. Ian was a typically arrogant expat who treated “the locals” in a disgustingly disparaging way. He was telling the policeman to stop us, “What are you waiting for?” he shouted, “they’re getting away!”. I’ve picked up my pace markedly in these few seconds and now I see the policeman, unshouldering his rifle. I grabbed Bill’s arm, “Run!”, I said, “Run!”.

We and the Captain legged that hundred yards across the apron, he’d seen the policeman take aim in our direction. He gesticulated to his engineer/co-pilot as he ran to get the engine started and I was relieved to see it burst into life almost immediately.

I have to confess the symptoms of age and time and memory at this point. I’ve had it fixed in my head that at some point in all this, the policeman actually fired his rifle at us. That shots rang out around our heads. The truth is, I don’t actually know whether he did or not. In actuality, I don’t even know that it matters. What I do know, is that we arrived, breathless from our exertions and threw ourselves and our bags through the little door, onto the floor of the aircraft. The co-pilot held open and then closed the door for us as the Captain, first through the door, ran to his seat and the aircraft started moving well before we’d got to our seats.

We taxied out to the runway and, without pause, began our takeoff. When I could look back at the terminal building there was a small crowd of people on the tarmac, several policemen in their light blue uniforms and a great deal of commotion going on. I didn’t care. We had rotated, our wheels had left the ground and our little aircraft and we were heading sharply skyward as I breathed a huge and meaningful sigh of relief.

“Free!, Free at last!” was all that rang from my lips, at least, in my head. There was no point talking anyway, no-one would hear it over the noise of the engine.

The End

I’ve never been back to Uganda.
Ian Brebner never achieved anything, not even from his chicanery and died some years later.
Whilst I may not agree with his politics, Yuweri Museveni appears to have kept Uganda stable these past thirty odd years, that’s remarkable in that part of the world.
I’ve seen my friend and associate Fred Kamihanda once since then and I’ve not seen anyone else from Uganda in all this time, it’s not something I regret but I would love to see Jack Calnan and Joe Roy again.
The Chinese now own Uganda, as so much of the third world, it was evident back then that it was happening.