Ode To The Hitch

FeaturedOde To The Hitch

NSCLC

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.

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Don’t check my bags if you please, Mr Customs Man.

Sartori in Uganda, part II

“Flying into Los Angelee-ees, bringin’ in a couple of keys, don’t check my bags if you please, Mr Customs ma-a-an”, (or my passport). Arlo Guthrie.

So….It’s August 1986, I have to fly to Uganda with my craftsman, friend and master builder, Bill, who’s only foreign foray to date is a van journey to Switzerland and back.  I don’t have a passport, because it’s been stolen, he only has a British Visitor’s Passport oh, and I haven’t yet bagged an aircraft to hitch a lift on.

For those not familiar, a British Visitor’s Passport was issued by the Post Office, https://www.passport-collector.com/the-simplicity-of-a-travel-document-the-british-visitors-passport/ and was valid for a whole list of countries, including most European and some Commonwealth countries.  Most importantly you could get it immediately at any Post Office on production of a birth certificate.  Interestingly, it was discontinued in 1995 because several EEC countries, notably Spain, had some problem with it – so much for Free Movement or, as it was initially sold, Freeedom of Travel.

I called the Uganda High Commission in London, they were clients of mine, but I didn’t know the clerks in the consular department.  I spoke to a woman there, explained my situation and asked her to confirm whether the BVP was acceptable as a travel document for entry to Uganda.  “Yes”, she told me.  “Good”, I said.  Now I just needed an aircraft.

I called my friends at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DAS_Air_Cargo a small cargo airline started in 1983, owned and run by Joe and Daisy Roy, a lovely, engaging and entrepreneurial Ugandan couple.  No problem, they had a flight out of Amsterdam ferrying back to Entebbe, empty after a flower run from Nairobi.  I could grab two jump seats but I’d need to get a flight to AMS.

Called another friend and the Amsterdam leg was sorted too, out of LGW, in plenty of time to connect with Joe, who was also Chief Pilot for his airline.

Another lovely Ugandan was Chief Pilot, my dear friend, Jack Calnan of Uganda Airlines.  Jack was mixed race, I believe his father was Irish, and he and his beautiful and knowledgeable wife, Nina put me up in their lovely little house in Entebbe for a few weeks, a few years earlier.  She and I became very close, she was just a few years older than me but she mothered me, which, when you’re young(ish) and away from your own wife and family, is a lovely thing.  I remember she had a huge scar on one leg, about a foot or more long.  I plucked up courage to ask her about it one day and she explained that as a young woman, she had been bitten by a snake, a Green Mamba as I recall.  Her mother had quickly made up a “magic” poultice using ingredients I can’t recall.  She then took a sharp knife to Nina’s leg and drew a long slit, folding back the flesh and packing the resulting wound with the poultice, before sewing it up, the full length and bandaging her up.  I was in awe of this story, both the bravery of mother and the daughter and the traditional yet scientific knowledge that had been handed down.

I got introduced to Robert Ludlum by Jack and got through many Ludlum volumes on that stay, it was my introduction to Jason Bourne, which gripped me inexplicably.  Still does.  The movies are great but the books are so much better, unless of course you’re a literary snob.

Something just happened.  As I write, I now have tears running down my cheeks and I’m really, really devastated.  My memory isn’t perfect, these days, after thirty odd years,  and I have to Google to remind myself of things.  I just Googled Jack Calnan and I came across this https://www.newvision.co.ug/new_vision/news/1086327/police-probe-calnan-eur-wife-death

Nina was hacked to death and strangled by thieves, burglars, who made off with a stereo and a mobile phone.  I’m beside myself. That beautiful, loving woman.  It happened 17 years ago but it only just happened for me and I’m deeply, deeply upset.

Prior to 1986, most of my memories of that amazing country are good ones.  I remember planting an avenue of sticks, one foot lengths of the trunk of something or other, on each side of Jack’s crescent-shaped driveway.  Six months later, it was an avenue of trees. The deep red soil was so fertile, the sun always shone and the rain always fell.  That’s what the equator is like, just amazing.

I was so taken with it that I started working with a young local entrepreneur, David Chambadi, as I recall, though that spelling seems more Indian than Bugandan.  David had a dream to export pineapples from Uganda, I made that dream come to fruition for him and for me.  It was a painful learning process.  Damages were frequent.  Cold storage at Entebbe was intermittent, and expensive, as were the flights but we persevered.  Within months we were fetching record prices for pineapples at New Covent Garden market.  Harrods were our #1 customer.  Air flown pineapples from Uganda on the shelves of Harrods, it’d never been done before.  Pineapples were picked as green canon balls in the Ivory Coast and shipped by sea container in the hope they might just ripen, en route.  They never did, they were disgusting things.  You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a sun-ripened pineapple, warm in the field and had the sweet warm juice run through your hands and all over your face as the delicious taste lights up your eyes.

Of course, we had our struggles, both down on the ground; handling, packing and shipping but also back home in blighty, on arrival.  The official handling agents at Gatwick, Gatwick Handling, were a bunch of thieves and vagabonds.  I tried every trick in the book to avoid their pilferage, running around 10-15% of the shipments, but they were so brazen and never, ever got taken to task by Customs or the police for fear they’d walk out and the airport would grind to a halt – and they knew it.  They were heavily unionised and some of the most despicable people ever to encounter, let alone to be forced to deal with.  Jeremy Corbyn was probably their shop steward back then.

With the pineapples successful, we looked at other things we could grow and export.  We moved onto Passion Fruit.  Not many people have ever experienced a Passion Fruit farm but it is an incredible thing of beauty.  A structure, not unlike a giant rose pergola, stretched over an acre or three of ground and the Passion Fruit vines climb up and through the structure.  The fruit hang down above your head making them easy to harvest by hand, without even bending.  Back home we were used to these shrivelled up things that looked like walnuts and about the same size.  These were the real thing, fat and plump and smooth, the size of a large lemon.  Indeed, we had two varieties, the traditional purple ones and a lemon-yellow variety.  I can’t describe how wonderful they taste, but I can remember it.  They were a huge success.  Then David found us a fantastic farm property on the shores of the Nile River.  The earth was so black it looked as if it had been ravaged by fire but it was fertile beyond anything I’ve ever encountered.  Add in the climate and you could literally grow anything, at three times the speed of anywhere else on earth.  The problem wasn’t growing, it was coping with the speed of growth.  Courgettes had to be picked three times a day, else they were marrows.  Tomatoes put on so much growth that whatever we erected to support them collapsed under the strain, until I went for the nuclear option, chain-link fencing strung between concrete fence posts, that worked!

Uganda was a war-ravaged hellhole with no economy, no government, no security, no reliable law enforcement, riddled with corruption from top to bottom.  But it had fabulous assets.  It had the kind of climate that meant you didn’t really need a roof over your head, a climate and a soil that meant you could never go hungry but most of all it had a people who every day got up and put a smile on their face and kept it there, all day and all through the evening, though they possessed little more than the clothes on their back and had no idea, from one day to the next, where the next fistful of shillings was coming from.  Lovely people.  Back here in the civilised West, I hear complaints of poverty and deprivation, of how the government must do this and should do that.  Quite frankly it makes me embarrassed to hear these spoiled brats with their first world problems.  These Ugandan fellows would emerge from their mud huts each morning, with a freshly, laundered shirt and pressed trousers.  Don’t ask me how.  They didn’t sell drugs, they didn’t steal or beat each other and they certainly didn’t knife each other.  They enjoyed a beer with friends in the little shanty bars and cafes by the roadside.  The biggest danger you faced were running the gauntlet of army roadblocks, official and unofficial.  The army never got paid, this was their way of solving that problem.  It helped to be a smoker, cigarettes were currency, and rolling your own was a magic passport to entry, they assumed it was ganga.   The teeny steps we were making to grow produce and to export it to the outside world, was more than just a business, it was a symbol to these lovely people of what riches they could achieve, if they could just be given the chance and the guidance.

Bill and I spent a day running around buying a swathe of new tools to take with us, everything we could think we might need.  I was building an hotel in Entebbe with a local partner, John Mukasa.  The first person I ever knew, personally, to die of AIDS not surprising, really, in the AIDS capital of the world.  John was an energetic local entrepreneur, a rabid philanderer, husband to multiple wives and father of many children, the daughters being regularly paraded, literally lined up on parade for me to inspect and select, as tokens to me of his hospitality (ugh).  I always politely declined, in case you’re wondering.

Our joint company, Palm Tree Hotel Ltd,  had got a large loan from the Uganda Development Bank, we owned the land on the shores of Lake Victoria, a stone’s throw from the airport, it was beyond special.  The building was half constructed and I wanted to set up one of the rooms with high quality fittings that I’d already shipped down there.  The idea was that Bill would construct and fit out the first one, showing the local builders how it’s done and leaving them a model to follow – I knew there was little possibility this would work but it was worth a try.

Armed with bags and boxes of tools, a pair of BV passports and a pocketful of cash, we hopped aboard one cargo flight in Gatwick and arrived at Entebbe on another, early the next morning, ready to start work.  A flight in your very own, personal 707, when it’s empty of cargo, is a luxury I never failed to appreciate but it spoiled me for modern air travel where I feel like a penned steer, literally being treated like cattle.  This was flying and it was fun.  We always tried to make sure the crew wasn’t too drunk to know what they were doing.  Though sometimes it was hard to get them out of the hotel bar for those 5am starts, sometimes we skipped the sleep part, or just forgot it altogether, until the load master had to try to get his fogged head around those tricky calculations.  Would we make it off the runway with this payload at this altitude at this time of the day?  One key thing to remember, make sure you check the fuel load, it doesn’t do to run out of fuel at 30,000 feet.  Not everyone remembered. In fact, many of the crews I flew with, didn’t make it to retirement.  Air Cargo is a buccaneer business, operating in and out of some decidedly iffy places, many of them war zones, most of them corrupt.  You always seem to be bending one rule or breaking another but if you didn’t, nothing would happen, the whole corrupt process would simply grind to a halt.

I guess I should explain that I had a company based in Uganda with offices in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, at Tororo on the Kenyan border, with my English partner in Mombasa and Nairobi, in Kampala, the capital city and another in the front, corner, ground floor office of the Entebbe Terminal building.  I was thirty-three years old.  Those who have seen the movie of the Israeli hostage raid will not be surprised to hear the facade of the building (and much else) was peppered with bullet holes but they probably don’t realise that it was further and much more widely damaged, three years later, when the Tanzanian Army backing Milton Obote invaded, as part of the Ugandan War of Liberation to oust Idi Amin.  In short, the place was a dire and decaying shithole but it was all they had.  My story takes place seven years after the war but in truth, you hardly knew it was over.  In the meantime, another war had occurred, this time a successful revolutionary bush war, I believe it was the first successful one of its kind.  The young Yoweri Museveni https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoweri_Museveni who had been exiled in Tanzania by Obote, formed the NRA, the National Resistance Army and we, my companies and I, had been active supporters supplying much needed assistance in a variety of ways.  In January of that year, Museveni came to power and with him, the father/father-in-law of my two stalwart employees, as Prime Minister.  Incidentally, Margaret Thatcher and Tiny Rowlands, of Lonrho fame, were also supporters.

My office had a prime view of the cargo sheds and the whole of the airport apron.  The eldest son of the Prime Minister, Samson Kisekka, also called Samson Kisekka, but Jr. worked for me as did the PM’s son in law, Fred Kamihanda.  Boy, it’s amazing how these names I haven’t thought of in years just roll off the tongue when I need them.  In other words, I had modest connections but then, so did everyone.

Accompanying the crew and Joe we presented ourselves to immigration…. but there was no one there.  This is not unusual.  There were only half a dozen flights a week into Entebbe from anywhere, and most of those were domestic.  Add to that the fact that government employees were rarely paid and, if they were, it was always many months behind and not worth a week’s worth of beer when it came.  Everyone had multiple ways of earning a living, much of that involved fleecing anyone you could in the form of a bribe to do the job you were rarely paid a paltry sum to do.  Why rush out of bed in the morning when there’s no work and no pay?

Frankly, we could and should have just gone on our way but Joe was concerned to follow the rulebook, because enemies in Uganda would have readily pounced on the slightest infraction of the rules, if it profited them, as it surely would.  He was what they hated, successful and respected.  He had his own airline for heaven’s sake!

So, we wandered through to the “airport hotel” where someone rustled up something vaguely like a mug of warm, sweet tea and we chatted and waited till the immigration man arrived.  I knew this fellow slightly from seeing him on multiple occasions but we’d never had any dealings and he certainly didn’t have any reason to like me. I was a white man that had never paid him a single bribe, I wish I had, now but what I didn’t know was that I had competition.  He was a small fellow with a small round face and a hare-lip.  He had a pair of NHS pebble spectacles, 1960s vintage, and reminded me of Goebbels.

We all wandered down to see him and I went first with Bill.  He didn’t acknowledge me but complained about our BV passports and claimed they were not valid travel documents.  I spoke calmly to him, pointing out that he knew me well enough (trust me, the local gossip machine meant he’d have known my inside leg measurement), that the Uganda High Commission had confirmed that it was a valid document, described how I’d had my original stolen at Parliament and suggested he called the Prime Minister’s son to confirm.  He was having none of it.

My guys, who should have been there to meet me (standard practice in case of events just such as these) had still not turned up.  He told me that I was denied entry to the country but that I could stay in the “airport hotel”.  You might wonder why I use inverted commas around that term, presume the worst!  What he seemed to be overlooking was that the hotel is “land-side”, not airside and so in inviting me to stay there he had actually granted me entry to the country.

The PM’s son in law turned up and spoke with the guy whilst Joe and I were having fun chatting and exchanging stories.  He eventually came back, red-faced, and announced that he’d achieved nothing and that someone, somewhere was pulling invisible strings, he was completely bemused. By this time, I was bored and I wanted to get home to my bed.  I told Joe we were leaving and that I’d go to the British High Commission next morning, get another passport and sort it all out.  We waived goodbye and drove the 40 miles to my house near Kampala.

I shared the house with another English guy, Ian Brebner, his name just came back to me.  His home was in Worthing and he ran a business in Uganda selling generators, big generators.  Your average Ugandan citizen nor business could ever have bought one of Ian’s generators.  The official exchange rate was, something under 200 shillings to the pound.  The unofficial or real rate was 6000 shillings to the pound.  To give you an indication of what 6000 shillings would buy you, apart from a pound – and buying pounds was illegal – I used to fill a shoe box to take with me in the morning, filled with cash, so that I might be able to buy lunch, if I could find anywhere selling something vaguely resembling food.  The place was a mess.  So, who did buy Ian’s generators?  People who had received bank loans, bought with plentiful bribes, from banks funded by the IMF or the World Bank.  In other words, your taxes.  They didn’t buy the generator just because they needed one, they bought one so that you could double or treble the price they actually paid and you would hand back the difference in cash, some of which may be used to pay back the loan, maybe.  Every one’s a winner…..

It’s not that people are corrupt, you understand, people were desperate.  They were also entrepreneurial and if the outside world was dumb enough to shower western taxpayers’ money into their corrupt institutions then it would be even dumber not to relieve them of some of their burden, so that you could send your kids to school or pay their hospital bills or, at a push, feed them.

So that was the business Ian was engaged in, much like every other foreigner and resident alike, one way or another.  Ian wanted me to buy the hotel generators from him.  Everybody needed generators if you wanted electricity and a hotel without electricity would not be a good hotel.  I had explained to Ian that this was my money I was spending, it wasn’t some government stooge’s money, it was my hard-earned cash so, sure I’d buy from him but it would be an appropriate ex UK price, just like I would buy from anyone else.  I knew that hadn’t pleased him and, sure enough, his prices were way higher than anything else I’d been quoted.  What I hadn’t appreciated is just how badly this had gone down with him.

Ian was at the house when we turned up that evening, it was evening by the time we got in from Entebbe.  Uganda is on the equator so at 6pm precisely, summer or winter, the sun falls out of the sky seemingly so quickly, it can catch you unawares.  It was dark when we arrived.  Fred dropped us off and Ian “greeted” us but I was confused by what seemed like a look of surprise to see us, despite me having telexed him a day or so back.  He was unusually edgy, sort of irritated and not his usual self.  At one point I remember he took down his handgun and showed it to Bill and I.  I knew he kept one there, I was glad of it, we’re talking a pretty lawless place here.  We had something to eat and before we all settled down to bed, I arranged with Ian to wake us in the morning and give us a lift into Kampala so I could pick up a car.

Bill and I awoke around 10 am, late.  Ian was nowhere to be found, nor was his gun.  I know, because I checked, as this behaviour was starting to concern me.  I was annoyed but more confused than anything.  I was particularly concerned because I’d wanted to get to the High Commission early to get the jump on this immigration thing before it turned into something big.  I called my guys and go them to come and collect us and take us into town.

When we got to the office, I spoke with my guys and asked them what was going on with the guy in Entebbe and why they hadn’t been able to square things.  I got a phone call from Joe Roy.  Things were kicking off and the little Himmler chap was demanding that Joe get me back to Entebbe to answer questions.  I told him I had to go to the High Commission first, sort out a passport and then I’d be over directly.

When we got to the High Commission, sigh, staffed of course by useless uncivil servants, their lack of concern, urgency or downright decency was something to behold.  I had a lengthy discussion with a Deputy Consul. He asked questions like, “Well, why did you leave England without a passport?”.  I had already explained the Speaker’s Regatta incident, the House of Crooks experience and the fact that I had checked with the Uganda High Commission re the validity of a BV passport. “I didn’t leave without a passport, as I told you, I had a BV passport”.  “Well, that’s not valid for Uganda”.  “I know that now but forgive me for trusting the British Post Office and the Uganda High Commission, the question is, when can I have a new one?”.  “Oh, that could take a week or two”.  “A WEEK!?”, “I’ve just explained to you that the immigration official at Entebbe wants me back there to answer questions and this could escalate quickly if I can’t give him a document he’s happy with, I need one now!”.

Eventually, he asked me to come back after lunch, by which time he would have made some enquiries.  How bloody British is that?  After ruddy lunch.  “I’ll just finish this game of bowls, your majesty, then we’ll go see about those Spanish and their little Armada.”

He was unmovable and unmoved.  I shrugged at Bill and decided I’d go and explain all this to Himmler, and then we’d come back that afternoon and sort out new documents.  Bill, I should explain, was petrified from the moment this all began.  He said nothing, not until several weeks later, in fact, but he was petrified.  He just followed my lead and did as he was told.  Bill is a guy that likes his supper on the table at a certain time, his slippers parked in the right direction and absolutely nothing unusual to ever occur, ever.

When we arrived at Entebbe, things went from bad to worse.  We were immediately “imprisoned” in an office, guarded by armed police.  All the police were armed but the soldiers were the ones to worry about, usually because they were either drunk or on drugs and frequently belligerent.

Samson Kisekka Jnr and Fred Kamihanda were both there, they kept going off to negotiate with Himmler and others and then returning to fill me in with what had been said.  Fred kept saying, “I don’t understand it, someone is pulling strings in high places and they seem to be one step ahead of us every time.”.  “They want to charge you, they want to put you on trial, they want to make a show trial of you.”.  I probably said something like, “Fred, speak to your father, how much do they want?”.  “It’s not money, he said, this is something else, they want you and they want you on TV, very publicly imprisoned and then deported”.

….to be continued…..

House of Crooks – SW1A 0AA

aka Used and Abused in Uganda (Part I)

 

Diplomatic Passport(rev)

Despite the now faded smell of urine and filth, I have a very soft spot for this old friend.

Let me tell you a story…

It was the summer of 1986, a hot August day and I’d been invited to a jolly by my long-time friend and insurance broker, Gordon.  The Speaker’s Regatta, an annual event where MPs and their staff mess around in boats on the Thames and generally have a good lark.  All good-natured fun, of a very British kind.

Guests were hosted on the members’ terrace of the House of Commons, very appealing to the upwardly mobile of the day, elitist even, in the modern jargon.

I arrived around 10:30 and it was already hot.  The Terrace was a hive of activity with no shade, not even a token umbrella.  There were already jolly gapes going on, down below in and on the water.  My friend greeted me and offered me a drink.  He gestured to the Beefeater Marquee set up at the end of the terrace and announced that we had a choice of Gin, with or without tonic.  I accepted mine with, it seemed the wiser option, given the hour of the morning.

And so it continued throughout the day.  We were all having a fine time, watching those respectable members pushing each other into the murky waters of London’s largest sewer, laughing and screaming with delight as they did so.

The TerraceI remember the enormous bulk of Cyril Smith who stood for seemingly hours, sentry-like at the entrance from the House onto the terrace, engaged in conversation with various folk.  He was wearing his trademark brown, broadly pinstriped, three-piece suit and as I watched the rivers of perspiration running down his face, I couldn’t help wondering how desperately uncomfortable he must feel.  It wasn’t a pleasant sight, at all and this was well before any of us knew about his aberrant pastimes.

I do recall there was a buffet-like snack available but there wasn’t so much eating going on, just a whole lot of drinking.

By mid-afternoon I found myself perched on the end of a trestle table, the end nearest the Palace, away from the water.  I’d just finished a chat with someone when this fellow ambled past seeming, it must be said, by the nature of his gait and by the garbled sound of his voice when he spoke, a little the worse for wear.  “Dja wanajdrink?” he asked, good naturedly and smiling inanely.  I might not have cottoned on but for the fact that he had paused his steps and held out a brimming tumbler in my direction, at arm’s-length.  I noted it was full, which I found reassuring (you never know where these people have been) and glancing at my own, that it was empty and so I replied, “Why thank you, don’t mind if I do!”

We saluted each other casually, he stumbled on and I reflected cheerfully on the good timing of the encounter, raising my new glass to refresh myself in the hot afternoon sunshine.  I didn’t so much recoil, when the taste first hit my tongue, but I definitely winced a tad, thinking, “Boy! That fella likes a strong G&T!”

Some while later, my glass being empty yet again, I wandered down to the only refreshment offering available, the Beefeater Marquee, and joked with the bartender.  “Ooh, what should I have?  Perhaps a nice Gin & Tonic?”

Beefeater“‘fraid not”, said he, “We ran out of tonic an hour or two back, only gin now. Plenty of ice though!”  It dawned on me, as in the light bulb moment, that the tall tumbler of strong G&T I’d just downed was, actually, just G with absolutely no T whatsoever.  In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought.  “Well I’ll have a nice long glass of your finest gin and a little ice, then, please!” I ordered. I have absolutely no idea how many times I might have repeated that process and I remember nothing more about the afternoon’s events on the terrace until it came time to leave.

This was the ’80s, I must remind you so I should not be embarrassed to refer to the fact that I had arrived carrying my “man-bag”.  I shouldn’t be but I am, still.  I had left it on a chair by the entrance door where there were various other personal items that guests had rested down, probably with the traditional “keep an eye on that for me, won’t you?” request that one makes in such situations, naively.

It was still there.  I retrieved it and my friend and I went on our very jolly way, feeling on top of the world and ready for a night out on the town.  The evening was young, the sun still shone and we were healthy thirty-somethings with constitutions like the proverbial oxen. I don’t know what made me think to check but, in any event, I did and slipped my hand into a pocket in my bag to make sure my passport was still there.  It was the blue, hardbacked kind so very easy to recognise by touch.  In those days I always carried my passport with me, everywhere, because I was forever jumping onto aircraft at the drop of a hat to jet off somewhere, usually some part of the world where civilisation is, shall we say, not as we’ve come to know it.  My passport wasn’t there.  I panicked, I had a trip coming up in two days’ time, adding to the anxiety which filled me and I frantically emptied out the bag’s contents on the pavement, outside the members’ entrance to the HoC.  It wasn’t there.  I stuffed everything back inside, told my friend to wait there for me and dashed off back to the terrace to interrogate the staff.  They were politely useless but, in fairness, what could they do?  If, as they implied, I was dumb enough to leave my passport, in a bag on a chair in what should be one of the safest places on earth – what did I expect?  HoC stands for House of Crooks, they told me.  How right they are, still.

Resigned to the situation and determined not to waste a perfectly good summer evening in London, I re-joined my friend and we happily trotted off along the embankment, wondering where to stop for a drink, as you do.  That’s when we spied The Hispaniola, moored adjacent Hungerford Bridge, along the embankment. It was quite a novelty back then but has since become an intrinsic part of the scenery in that part of London.  We stood up on the top deck and had a couple of drinks before we headed off again, up Northumberland Avenue, where we spied the Sherlock Holmes pub.  It was full of after office drinkers and, I dare say, quite a few tourists like ourselves and we had a couple more drinks…..

We were getting quite hungry by this time so when we left the pub and found ourselves back on Northumberland Avenue, we were wondering where we might go for a good meal.  Having made all the calls so far that evening, I said to Gordon, my friend, “OK, I’ll get the cab and you tell him where to take us?”.  Gordon signified agreement, so without further ado, I strode into the middle of Northumberland Avenue and held up my hand in front of a speeding cab.  As the cab screeched to a halt, inches from my outstretched palm, I’m sure the cabby was uttering a slew of foul language, in my direction but I didn’t stop to look. I thanked him and opening the rear door, stepped inside and took my seat as Gordon didn’t so much lean into the passenger side window as leer.  “Take us to a dirty restaurant, he slurred”.  I was taken aback but I burst out laughing and resigned myself to whatever the destination turned out to be!  At least the word restaurant held the promise of food and that was the main thing on my mind at the time.

GaslightThe cabby dropped us in St James’ and a doorman came and opened our cab door for us.  This, my friends, was not only my first (and last) ever visit to The Gaslight Club, it was my very first experience of a “clip-joint”.  A phrase I had heard many times on movies, growing up, but never once stopped to check what it meant.  Wikipedia now carries a very fine summary:

“A clip joint or fleshpot is an establishment, usually a strip club or night club in which customers are tricked into paying excessive amounts of money, for surprisingly low-grade goods or services — or sometimes, nothing — in return.”.  Couldn’t put it better, myself.

I should perhaps pause to explain that Gordon worked for his brother’s firm, his elder brother, who had always made him feel like a very junior member of the establishment.  Gordon was excellent at his job and, as far as I know, faithful to his beloved wife, as was I, more or less.  Not his wife, obviously, but I’d always been faithful to my own.  I digress.  Gordon was thus taking me on a company jolly, on company expenses but his brother kept him on a fairly tight leash.  On this gratis day, therefore, Gordon was insistent that he paid for everything and I felt it would be churlish to disabuse him of that privilege.  Unfortunately, that had its limitations, due to the fact that Gordon’s brother didn’t trust him to have a credit card, merely a cheque book and accompanying cheque guarantee card which, in those days, was limited to fifty pounds per cheque.  A very wise move on his brother’s part, as it turned out.

We descended the seedy stairway into the bowels of the club and were greeted at the bottom by a host and hostess whose job, collectively, was to greet you, check your coats and appraise your ability to pay.  That was enough of a warning sign right there and I smiled at his brother’s consternation when he saw the bill that was coming.  I was beginning to understand the meaning of “clip joint”.  They were extremely pleasant, right up until the time where Gordon announced that he didn’t have a credit card and showed them his cheque book, all the while assuring him that he had a cheque guarantee card, which he waved reassuringly.  They looked at each other and I detected it was a guilty look, as someone leading lambs to slaughter might feel.  Anticipating their dilemma, I assured them that I did have a credit card so there would be no difficulty.  They immediately relaxed and waived us on through, handing over our shepherding to one of the ladies in bathing-suits who beamed widely and seductively as she led us to our table.

Gaslight1We were soon joined by an exuberant twenty-something young woman who was equally scantily but tastefully clad (I remember thinking) and who apparently only drank champagne.  Well of course she did.  With each bottle delivered, a waiter appeared, with a bill to be paid, and Gordon wrote out a cheque, each one in excess of the £50 limit of his guarantee card.  Each time, there was a look of fear that crossed Gordon’s face as he hesitatingly signed the check and muttered something about the costs of the evening….and each time, I reached across the table and patted his hand and reassured him, mischievously, “Don’t worry, Gordon, your brother’s paying, not you!”.

Eventually, I had to cave.  They wouldn’t accept any more cheques, having already accepted several and each being completely outside the scope of the guarantee.  I offered my gold Amex card to the slaughter.

For some reason, it never occurred to me to check that they would be sensitive to their married customers’ needs and use some euphemism or other on the establishment name given to the credit card company.  That’s what I’d assumed, foolishly.  So I was a little taken aback, some weeks later, when I heard my wife call out in the office to Alison, our lovely and diligent book-keeper, “Alison, what’s the Gaslight Club?”

Oh god!  I was in the other office, close to the exit door, as it dawned on me that my wife was checking my credit card bill…..I leaned down low and peered around the doorway to be met by Alison’s quizzical gaze as she similarly had ducked below the divider between her desk and my wife’s – whom she faced and who had her back to me.  “What the hell do you want me to say?”, she was asking with her facial gesture.  I had no idea how to communicate an appropriate response in sign language and couldn’t speak for fear of attracting my wife’s attention to our “collusion” but I heard her say something like, “I think it’s a restaurant, or something….”

Then my wife’s unmistakable tones of disbelief: “One thousand, eight hundred pounds for a flaming restaurant!?!??”.

I have no idea what more was said, I was already out of the door and on my way to an urgent appointment.

But I was going to tell you about my incarceration in a Ugandan jail, or two, wasn’t I?  Well, that occurred after the Gaslight Club and before the bill arrived – see part two.

Before I leave the subject altogether though, I should talk about the day Gordon announced he was to become the Financial Director of, wait for it, The Gaslight Club.  Yep.  It was several years later when his close acquaintance, and one I’d rather forget but never can, bought the club…… mainly on the back of his prostitution racket…. yeah, the one he continued to run from the Governor’s office of Ford Prison, after he was banged up for mortgage fraud.  It’s been a very full life, what can I tell you.  And so, to Uganda…..