It has to be done. What is – is.

PART II

At around 0715 the following morning, before the ward lights had come on and while the night nurse was still busying around, a man turned up pushing an empty bed. He was looking for Bed 24. That was me. And he wanted me off Bed 24 and onto the one he was pushing. We set off down the corridor, with me gazing at the ceiling going past and the upper parts of walls. There came the occasional waft of cold air from outside in the normal world as we passed an open window. There had been no pre-med. This was to be by local anaesthetic. And I was wide, wide awake.

Why a local? I mean, why can’t they do it the way other hospitals do and knock you out before you even get sight of the theatre? Well, in the course of this procedure – known apparently in the trade as a ‘carotid endarterectomy’ – certain nerves in the neck are exposed. These have to be worked around with care. Damage any of them and the patient could lose the use of certain facial, hand and/or foot muscles. Were they to give you a general anaesthetic – and once upon a time that was the way it was done – the surgeon would have to wait until the patient had come round from that anaesthetic in order to ask if they could still move those muscles. By which time, it could be too late. Anyway, I’ll come to the present day way around that in a moment.

So I’m wheeled into the theatre. This is the bit you don’t normally see. I’m laid out on a table with a huge array of monitors and glittering IT gadgets of many sorts being set up on all sides; with about a dozen medical people walking around, chattering as they set up this and that, with a vast circular light like the underside of that space ship in ‘Independence Day’ being arranged right over my face and the anaesthetist somewhere by my right shoulder asking if I’d like just a little medication to ‘take the edge off things’, something equivalent to ‘a glass of wine?’ (‘Yes, please,’ I say, ‘but can you make it equivalent to a large scotch?’) when someone presses into my hand a squeaky rubber toy – the sort dogs chew on and chase about the house. “Every now and then,” that someone says to me, “we’ll ask you to give us a squeak. And if we hear one, we’ll know you’re compos mentis and your fingers and things like that are still working.” There was something homely and comforting about this toy; a refugee from the normal world.

I turn my head to one side, feel the anaesthetic quickly numbing my left shoulder and that side of my neck, and I think to myself, “Let’s do this thing. Let’s just get it over with.” And so it was. I felt an odd tingly sensation in my neck which, I presumed, was the start of things. I was very aware of the risks I’d consented to – one of which was a stroke; the other death. As the surgeon and the medics began their work and a virtual silence descended on the theatre, and as I settled myself into some place inside my own head – I remember seeing in my mind’s eye a sort of wall into which was let a rectangular white panel. If I were to die, that’s where I would go – through that white panel. I had no sense of not continuing to exist if I died; I would simply pass through that panel. I had no sense of what lay on the far side of it. I felt no reason to be afraid.

In its later stages, the operation was quite challenging.  At some point I heard a sound like water being sucked up through a pipe. The anaesthetist who kept up a dialogue with me during the whole procedure, said to me. “You can probably hear that noise. That’s the rubbish being sucked out of your artery.”  I remember calmly replying, “Yeh, I thought so.” And as I heard myself say it, I thought, “Christ, how amazingly one’s values shift with changed circumstances!”

By that time, I was – I was going to say ‘relaxed’ – that’s hardly the word – I was at least reassured the operation was going to plan. There was too much obviously casual chatter going on amongst everybody around me for there to be a problem. A short time later, I heard the surgeon – I presume it was the surgeon – say, “Stitch.”  A few minutes after that – or so it seemed – someone said, “You can sit up now.” With no effort whatever, I did so. There was no hangover such as one gets from having had a general anaesthetic, and sitting up was just like doing so in bed in the morning. I looked around. Everyone seemed to be smiling, and mostly at me! The clock on the wall said 1130 – I had been lying on that table for two and a half hours! I said to the surgeon, “When I go back on the ward will I be able to get up out of bed on my own? Walk to the bathroom for example?”

“You can do whatever you like,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go to the gym for a few days!”

And so it was. There was no pain.  I could get out of bed and walk. I slept well that night, and was out of hospital by mid-afternoon the next day, clutching a plastic bag containing my medication.

It had been an extraordinary forty-eight hours. It felt like the experience of as many days had been crammed into it. Looking back, there are many impressions which remain with me, and always will. One of the most outstanding is that of the extraordinary skill of that surgeon and his team, to whom I may quite possibly owe my life and if not that, then certainly the freedom from a stroke. The other is the operation itself. I recall it as taking place in an intensely hi-tech, high-octane atmosphere; and visually of having an unreal, almost tactile, glittery, graphic quality reminiscent of the very high-contrast black and white images in American films noirs of the ’40’s.

I’d had no reason to expect the day I’d planned would deviate much from that plan. In the event, it bore almost no relation to it. In one sense that was scary – I’d been deprived of my free will; my ability to determine my own actions had been utterly subverted. But in another sense, had that day indeed been as I’d planned I would even now be walking around, unwittingly cooking up, at the very least, a stroke. Fortuitous? Luck? Something else?

Two months now down the line, and I’m completely recovered. I feel incredibly well. I won’t divulge my age – except to say I remember what an air-raid warning sounds like. I feel that somehow and from somewhere I’ve been granted an extension to my life. I have to use that extra time to its very best advantage.

Epilogue

The books I was taking – so I thought – to my friends in central London were, weeks later, still in my backpack. It was only a few days ago that I eventually got around to delivering them. I feel profoundly grateful that I had the common sense or whatever it was to accept, rather than turn away from, a quite harrowing situation that threw itself at me like an oncoming train. It was a hugely powerful, if nerve-wracking, life lesson. There’s an old saying – ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’.

What is – really is.

 

 

 

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‘Albatross’ – Extract 2

Herewith the second extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’ which has recently been published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is – https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/

5.

The black Jaguar threw water up from the road as it swung wildly into the forecourt and slithered to a stop on the gravel. Heavy rain driven by a strong wind, lashed the bonnet and windscreen. The two occupants conducted a hurried conversation behind the sweeping wipers. The man emerged, pulled his jacket up over his head and sprinted the short distance to the office.
The woman flipped down the vanity mirror, checked her appearance, then flipped the mirror back up again.
Room 410 was the last in a long, down-at-heel row. There were parking spaces in front of each. Rainwater filled the potholes in the asphalt. The only other vehicle was a battered Ford pickup in front of 409. The Jaguar rocked and splashed into its parking space. There was a lot of laughter from the steamed-up interior before both occupants tumbled from it and ran through the rain each clutching a briefcase. His lank, thinning hair trailed across his forehead in the wind. He flicked it impatiently back as he fumbled with the key in the lock. She held tight onto his arm and giggled.
“Can’t get it in the hole,” he said.
She shrieked with brief laughter before clamping a hand over her mouth.
The door of 410 slammed behind them.
In the window of the next room a corner of the curtain was lifted, then allowed to fall back again.
Steam rose from the bonnet of the Jaguar as it cooled in the wind and the rain.

6.

Barnaby Marechal looked up from his book. Red brick houses flashing past. One or two with their front steps polished bright red. ‘Red raddle’ – was that what they called it? Long rear gardens with washing flapping, garden sheds, a pigeon loft. A corner shop, a knot of women with pushchairs, talking. A bus full of faces bound for a place he’d once vaguely heard of. A shadowy world still half-remembered.
The train crashed through the girders of a metal bridge spanning a wide, empty, sluggish river far below, mud banks on either side, tidal, a thin, discoloured mist hanging low over it. Past a run-down industrial estate. In the carpark of one of the units, rubbish piled high in its own back yard, a man – early thirties perhaps, smartly-dressed, medium height with dark hair – walked towards a shiny black car. Nervously juggling a briefcase and car keys, he struggled out of his jacket. Barney watched until a factory wall wiped the view.

He went back to his book. The words floated up and past him like flecks of dust in the wind. The weight of this thing grew by the day, forcing him into an ever-narrowing slice of the here and now. With a flick of the wrist he shut his book. He closed his eyes, sat back and took a deep breath. He exhaled slowly, trying to believe what he had once read about the outgoing breath dismissing all that has been. If only. He saw the house in Halifax. The green front door. The roses in the garden. He’d never got the measure of roses. Perhaps he’d never really tried. The clickety-clacking of the wheels of the pushchair on the uneven pavements.
He sat up straight again. Set himself to mull over the last twenty-four hours. Lunch today with the usual band of ill-assorted dignitaries – how could one local authority summon up that many people of ‘dignity’? – had gone well enough. He’d played the part so many times he knew it by heart and back again. Hands had been shaken, drinks drunk, smiles smiled, compliments and airy promises exchanged. Tout le monde had gone away claiming to have got “so much” out of it. So he had done his job. OK, fine.
His performance the previous evening however had been disappointing. His talk had veered off-centre and he had not been able to pull it back. It was unlike him. He was a natural communicator. Audiences warmed to him. He charmed them. It was said he could give a veneer of meaning to the utterly meaningless. A priceless skill in politics. But last night the magic had not happened. The talk had been edgy, the charm consciously applied.
His audience had irritated him. Audiences these days did. A self-important gaggle of small-town businessmen and women, sycophantic and dressed for the kill. In days gone by he would have licked his lips. He would cajole, amuse, impress, infuriate then placate them, make them think a little, shock them, then make them laugh out loud. He would take them up hill and down dale and they would follow – captivated, admiring.
But last evening, his irritation had been such that he’d had difficulty concealing it. At least, he hoped he’d concealed it. Either way, at the end of his talk, there they were, drinks in hand, eager to press the flesh and flash their comely smiles. How shallow and predictable the whole circus. And he the ringmaster. There came into his mind the young man back there getting into his company car. What pressures of money and targets and all the sweaty struggle for supremacy and to make ends meet was the poor lad under? And for what? This?
The train was slowing down past drab housing estates, rows of small shops, past a faux-doric supermarket surrounded by cars nuzzling it like piglets at a sow. A man walked a white dog by a stream in a park. A purple wall of Victorian brick slid across the window. From a diagonal crack across its surface, some sort of shrub waved its thin branches. How does a thing like that eke out a life from solid brick?
A long, sweeping platform and name-board – ‘Wigan’. Ah – Wigan. ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Read once, so long ago he’d forgotten almost everything about it. Wigan. A name he’d ever seen, rightly or wrongly, as iconic of the industrial north. Now no doubt a bloodless remnant of its past glories. ‘Oh Maggie, what have we done to England?’ The Floyd. Where are they now? Vanished. Like Wigan’s glory. England’s glory. All our glory.
Two men in thick overcoats, loaded with cases and laptops, struggled past him towards the exit. The train juddered to a stop. The sudden cessation of movement was disorienting. On the cinema screen of the window people glided past – pushchairs, suitcases, backpacks. Men, women, mothers with children, students, lone men, suited men, wide-shouldered career women, babies in arms, toddlers – so very many of those little people with their glowing cheeks and expectant eyes, newcomers to these cut-price shores. A feeling of huge pointlessness was on him. Then without knowing why, without the slightest preconsideration, he too found himself on the move. On his feet, slipping his book into his jacket pocket, pulling down his overnight case from the rack. He hurried to the end of the coach, and jumped down onto the platform just as the automatic door closed behind him. The chill of autumn hit him. The low sun made him squint.
People were pulling wheeled suitcases and hauling tardy youngsters along behind them, flowing around him as a stream bubbles around a boulder. Then the accelerating drumbeat of the train wheels vibrating the platform beneath his feet, the coach windows blinding him in the autumn sun. The backwash from the last coach flicked his trousers cold against his calves. He watched the train snaking away down the tracks – taking with it his world. There it went – ever smaller until the last remnant of the final coach and the little red light that clung to it was lost behind distant trees bearing the auburn, red and yellowing leaves of Autumn. Gone.
What, in God’s name, had he done?

He sat on a cold metal seat on the station forecourt. Gusts of wind chased newspaper and fast-food cartons across the asphalt like urban tumbleweed. The small car park was almost empty of cars. On the main road he could see buses and people. A banner across a shop window – ‘Payday Advances’. People in cheap clothes. A man stared at him like he had no right to be there. Perhaps he hadn’t. He looked down at himself – Savile Row suit, Crombie coat. Church’s shoes. Patek Philippe wristwatch. Louis Vuitton overnight case. He felt vulnerable. A cab appeared. He climbed into the rear seat and said the first thing that came into his head. “A hotel please.”
“Which one?”
“Any one.”
“What – a place to stay, like? Or do you – well – you know?” The man’s Lancashire accent came as a surprise.
“A place to stay. What else would I want with a hotel?”
The man shrugged. “You’re the boss.” The cab pulled away.
He stared from the window. Wigan was a disappointment. Where were the mill chimneys, the colliery winding gear and other remnants of the gritty industrial north?
“Up here on business then, are you?”
He mumbled some half-intelligible reply. It seemed to satisfy. The man said no more.
He took from his pocket his mobile phone. Checked it was still switched off. Then slipped it back into his pocket. He looked out of the window again. Saw the odd half-timbered building. Not what he would have expected.
The cab pulled onto a tree-encircled forecourt. The Balmoral Hotel.
“Grand place, this,” said the driver. “They’ll see you alright.”
Wide steps led up to an ornate entrance. Revolving doors with well-polished wood and highly-shone brass handrails. He paid the driver and thanked him. He got out, went up the steps. A chalked notice board announced that the Balmoral Hotel was today proud host to a conference of local businessmen and women. He put his nose to the glass of the revolving doors. The lobby was a crush of wide-shouldered suits, showy frocks with cleavage and jewellery, glasses in hand. Bustling, guffawing, pontificating.
He went back down the steps.
He walked. Just walked. For a long time, his mind empty. His overnight bag grew heavy. The shadows lengthened and the autumn air turned cold. As dusk was turning to night he found himself in a street of run-down, rambling, Victorian houses. One of them was the ‘Welcome Hotel’.

He was nervous. His palms and fingers were sweating, making it difficult to get a grip on the casing of his mobile phone. Then with a sudden, sharp, snapping sound it seemed to spring off almost of its own accord. He peered curiously into the phone’s innards. That thing – that red thing was the sim card. He was sure of that. But how to get it out? Press with the fingertip. The finger was too big. Press, then slide. The sweaty tip wouldn’t grip it. But then, by edging a fingernail in around the edge, he eased it out.
He placed it carefully into his wallet. Then put the body of the phone in his overnight case, open on the bed. He was pleased with himself. It seemed important to have done that.
He sat back and studied his surroundings. The windows needed cleaning. There was a tear in one of the net curtains. The hangers in the rickety wardrobe were the wire things you get from dry-cleaning outfits. There were black marks on the threadbare carpet. Odd stains on the wallpaper above the bed. There was a faint and strangely unpleasant odour – like a cocktail of stale food and dust.
He was hungry. It was dark outside in the empty street. He wasn’t going to eat in the hotel dining room. The last thing he wanted was some eager face bearing down on him, bent on either glad-handing him or telling him what a mess they were making of the country. Though he doubted there were many staying in a place like this who took any interest in the news or politics, it was a risk he daren’t take. Nor dare he take that same – and probably much greater – risk in any decent restaurant in the town. He picked up the telephone and asked Reception to put him through to Room Service.
“Through to what?” She sounded hardly out of school.
“Room Service.”
Long pause. “I don’t think we have one of them.”
Barney frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said I don’t think we have a room service.”
“No room service?” He was instantly and profoundly irritated. “What is a guest supposed to do if they want to take dinner in their room?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why is there no room service?”
Pause. “I don’t think there’s any call for one.”
He put the phone down.
He looked in his overnight bag. Two bananas which he’d taken from the fruit trolley at lunchtime, and a packet of biscuits Ellen must have put in. On the dressing table by the window there was a cheap electric kettle, some tea bags and a few of those tiny plastic tubs of milk. He’d survive.

That night, in a dream, he saw the man. On the wooden seat on the far side of the rose garden. He caught sight of him through the now almost bare branches of the philadelphus. The black coat, and the long red scarf trailing almost to the gravel path. He called out to him, but his shouts were whispers. The man stood up. His face was turned the other way. He tried to run to him, but his feet were lead. When he stood at last by the seat, the man was gone. He could hear the river in the meadow the other side of the high garden wall as it rippled gently across the line of boulders.
He shot upright in bed. His heart was pounding, his hot body running with perspiration. His pyjama jacket clung to him, cold, wet. He pulled it off and threw it to the floor. Sat back, closed his eyes.
He struggled out of bed, filled the plastic kettle with water and switched it on. He was cold and had no dressing gown. He put on his cast-off shirt. He felt foolish waiting for the kettle to boil wearing only a shirt. Outside in the street, beyond the torn curtain, a red neon sign flickered. Its light turned the film of dust on the windows pink and flooded the room red like a desert whorehouse. He was too old, too used to five-star hotels. He made himself a cup of tea then stood looking out of the window. A clock struck the half-hour. He sipped. The night was cloudless. A lemon-silk powdering of moonlight lay over the jumbled, silent rooftops.
Was Ellen asleep?
Don’t go there.
Was she? And dreaming? Or just lying in bed unable to sleep, wondering, worrying?
Tell her, then. Ring her and tell her.
Tell her what?
The truth.
It’s not just the boy.
She wouldn’t need to know the rest.
The rest’s almost as much a part of it.
Let’s think of it like this then. As it stands, the situation’s recoverable. You’ve a single night’s absence to explain away – that’s all. Too many glasses of vino at lunch. Decided to stay on another night but fell asleep in the afternoon. ‘And do you know what, I didn’t open my eyes again till this morning!’
Then what?
Then finito. Over and done with.
Six months on, I’d be back here. Or at some other flyblown hotel jumping through the same hoops. I can’t not feel what I’m feeling. I’ve spent most of my life trying.
You really should have thought of this a long time ago.
A police siren threads its way through the city. Barney shivers, sips his tea. It warms him. But he is still cold.
Just a thought – have you considered the possibility that Ellen herself might quite take to the idea?
He puts the empty cup to one side. The moon hangs precariously off the edge of a roof.
Ellen is not a children person.
Are you?
I hear his cries in the night when there are no cries to hear.
The lights of a car sweep briefly across the frayed curtains, chasing shadows around the walls like cavorting grotesques.
I gave up trying to sleep. Took my notebook from my briefcase. I wrote –
‘Let’s be clear. Do this, and –
a – it’s the end of my career.
b – it’s the end of my marriage, in any meaningful sense.
c – it’s going to hurt others.
d – it could all come to nothing.’
I am sixty-five. I am not a brave man but I have to deal with this. It is crowding out my ability to live. I sense I’ve trespassed against some fundamental law of the universe.

7.

By morning he was ravenous. He ate the bananas and the biscuits. The sun was shining and the day looked inviting. He opened the window. The torn curtain flapped in the clear, fresh air. It was still early and there were few people about. His eye was caught by a sudden movement. He experienced a wave of almost childlike pleasure at the sight of a canal boat, its Romany-style decoration brilliant in the low morning sun, threading its way silently between distant buildings. Sitting on its roof was a large black dog. Perhaps it thought it was the captain of the ship. And maybe it was.
He sat down on the bed. Decision time. If he were to go on with this he would have do something about his appearance. And do it now. Not that he could do a lot – he had with him only the few overnight clothes Ellen had packed. But something had to be possible. Not shaving would be a start. A beard makes one look older, changes the shape of a face. He’d never grown a beard. He’d heard they itched. He lay out on the bed the clothes he had with him. Wearing only his underwear and socks, he stood before the cheap wall mirror. He would effect what change he could.
One clean light-blue shirt – classic and timeless. He put that on. OK. The only trousers were his suit trousers. He put them on. The only footwear were the John Church brogues. He put them on. But already he was back to the middle-class executive. The trousers needed to be replaced with jeans, the brogues with trainers. Barnaby Marechal in jeans and trainers! How would he cope? A conditioned reflex sent his hand out for his tie. No. Leave the neck open. He did, but felt half-dressed.
Ellen, careful soul, had also included a thick, dark-grey sweater – autumn, she’d said, was on us. The evenings could be cold. He put that on over his blue shirt, then eased the collar of the shirt out so that it sat outside the sweater. That took the edge off the executive.
His hair. Although not a lot of it left, what remained was too well-cut. It needed to be longer. Maybe even a little messy. A bit arty. That would take time. Meanwhile he’d have to just keep it – sort of – untidy. He pushed his fingers into it and ruffled it up. It was too short to ruffle much. Men put some sort of pomade, Brylcreem or something, on their hair these days. And forced it into waves and odd shapes. That might be worth trying. He could of course dye it some other colour. That seemed a step too far. Though it might not seem so at a later date.
The overall effect wasn’t convincing. The John Church shoes, the Savile Row trousers and the Fenwicks sweater – he looked like an off-duty middle-class executive who’d forgotten to brush his hair.
But then a brainwave. Always, at this time of the year, he carried with him a pair of sunglasses. If one is driving, the low sunlight of October and early November can play havoc with one’s vision. He fished them out of his briefcase, settled them on his nose. With just the tips of his fingers he adjusted them so they sat nicely. There. Back a touch. Now – he was getting somewhere. He looked all around, up and down. The world was too dark for comfort, but he supposed it was a question of getting used to that.
He took a few steps back from the mirror. It was a start. He was beginning to look a little unlike Barnaby Marechal MP. When the trousers and shoes had become jeans and trainers; when his hair and beard had grown to a reasonable length, those in SW1 would be hard pressed to know who he was. A black leather jacket would not go amiss. And what about a hat? Maybe even that.
Without actually having made a decision, this thing seemed to be happening. He would not stop it.
He looked at his watch. Only half-eight. Should he risk the dining room and breakfast? He had to start somewhere. He checked himself again in the mirror. OK. Then stepped out into the corridor, locked his door and in the semi-darkness brought on by his sunglasses, set off uncertainly towards the lift. He guessed he looked something of a poser. But these days posers abound.

Here’s the link to the paperback and Kindle versions –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

And if there are any who are interested in supporting a UK bookseller, it is now also available at this seriously excellent bookshop in South London  – http://booksellercrow.co.uk

 

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It has to be done. What is – is.

 

Some days things fall more or less into place. By which I mean there are days when things happen – give or take a few hiccups – in just about the way you’d hoped for and intended. After such a day you can be forgiven for thinking, ‘Maybe I’ve hit a good patch – this could be a nice week.’

Then something happens –

PART ONE

I sat in a little room in a large building in South London. The surgeon, a man with an aura about him of enormous gentleness, looked at me across his desk. I looked back at him. “It’s got to be done, hasn’t it?” I said.

He nodded. “Yes. It has to be done.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Start at the beginning.

At ten o’clock that morning – 3 December last year – I had an appointment in the ophthalmology department of Kings College Hospital in South London. Very big hospital, one of the main trauma centres in the UK. My appointment was for a check on a cataract my optician had told me was developing in my left eye.

The doctor – softly-spoken, and Eastern European to judge by his accent – did his checks, including the interior pressure of the eye which, he told me, was absolutely fine. As for the cataract he said, “It is a small one.” And by the expression on his face, I presumed he felt it was not deserving of an operation. I assumed the appointment was virtually at an end.

But then I thought I’d just mention to him something that had been worrying me. Over about the last six months, what I can only describe as a fawn coloured ‘curtain’ had, from time to time, dropped slowly down over that left eye, obscuring my vision. There had been no pain; it had remained there for perhaps three or four minutes, then faded away with no apparent after-effect. I had told the optician about this, but he had assured me it was simply an effect of the cataract.

The doctor’s face tightened. He got up, left the room, and came back a couple of minutes later with a stethoscope which he placed against the left side of my neck. “What,” I asked, puzzled, “are you doing?” His reply was hardly audible as he hurried to his desk and started making notes. Something had clearly taken off here. I needed to know what it was. “Doctor,” I said in what I guess was a pretty demanding tone, “is this something I should be concerned about?”

He looked up at me, pen in hand. All he said was, “Speed is of the essence.”

Ninety minutes later – cut to the surgeon and I looking at each other again across the desk. “What,” I asked, “will it involve?”

“First, we make an incision in the left side of the neck from just under the ear to just above the breastbone. We expose the carotid artery and clamp it off above and below the fork where one arm of it goes to the facial muscles, the other arm to the brain. We then open it up and clear out the blockage. Then put things back together again. It will take about two and a half hours.”

I swallowed hard.

“And,” he added, “we do it under a local anaesthetic.”

I tried not to imagine that. It had to be done, and it had to be done his way. I trusted him absolutely. “And will you be doing it?” I asked.

“I will.”

“And when do you want to do it?”

He smiled. “First thing tomorrow morning.”

This day was not going to be the day I’d had in mind. I had in my back pack two copies of my recently published novel which I was going to deliver to two friends in central London. That was out. As was everything else I might have thought of doing for the next few days or however long. That was assuming there were going to be a ‘next few days’ for me. One of the risks the surgeon had been bound to put to me about the procedure I was to undergo the following morning, was that of a stroke. The other was death. They amounted to no more than a one-in-fifty chance, nationally speaking. But it  concentrated the mind.

The next few hours constituted a very strange period. What I did with myself in that hospital for the rest of the day, I can’t really remember. Except I rang my partner Anita at home in Crystal Palace; and my youngest son, Sam, at work in Streatham. Both, after getting over the initial shock, reacted in the same way – what is – is.

And I know I did no thinking. I was not even tempted to do so. I did not worry about what might be, about whether I would come through it or not, and if I did, in what state; I spent no time on the people I might never see again. The all-too-common, pointless mental merry-go-round had been frozen out. I was glad. I think it was the enormity of the thing – i.e. I was staring my own mortality in the face – which held shut the door on the usual mental wanderings.

At about 23oo hrs the lights in the wards were switched off. I was to be taken down to theatre at half seven the next morning. I hoped I’d get at least some sleep. Either way, it had to be done.

 

Part Two next week. And for the squeamish – there’ll be no gory bits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Albatross’ – Extract 1

In my last post (https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/again-i-say-it-the-human-race-is-insane/) after having sung the praises of a bird in the park and expressed dismay at certain aspects of we humans as a species, I promised the anxiously waiting literary millions out there that I’d begin this week on posting extracts from my recently published novel – ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’. Here’s the first; it is in fact the first few pages of the book. Obviously I hope that those of you who read it enjoy it. And I’d be interested to receive views and comments – good, bad or indifferent – provided they’re serious.

1.

I leave the light on at night, and lie on my back. That way I can keep an eye on the small black hole in the ceiling – there, just above the door. The home of two geckos – I presume that’s what they are. I saw them last night. Man and wife. They emerged from the darkness very slowly, warily – then remained there upside down, still as stones. They’re harmless, I’m told. But nocturnal, and apt to lose their grip in the night. What sleep I get is shallow and short-lived.
The mattress on my bed is thin. Through it, I feel the bedsprings. There is no spring left in them. The floor and the walls are bare concrete. I have nowhere to wash. There is a small cupboard fixed to one wall. It’s where I keep my toothbrush. I’ve run out of toothpaste. The one wooden chair has a broken leg and lies useless on the concrete floor. By the bed, there is a small wooden table.
I have been in this place three weeks. It may be more. Things have got confused. Youssef said he would be back today. He wasn’t. But he’ll turn up. Maybe tomorrow. I trust him. I doubt he’ll return with anything to add to the little we’ve managed to put together – I’m not holding my breath. I had offered to go with him. His response was to the effect that it would cramp his style. I didn’t ask him to elaborate. This has all cost me dear in both time and money. The latter is not a problem. But I’m running out of the former.
The occupant of the next room forces open his creaking door yet one more time and urinates luxuriously against the outside wall in the darkness. That’s where I do it. It’s the best place. It’s that, or the fly-infested privy across the courtyard which hasn’t been cleaned since Mafeking was relieved. It’s not a place to visit in the dark.
I’m calling time on all this. When Youssef returns we will leave the others and set out on the ball-breaker of a journey back to the capital. Fifteen hours down a plumb line of a road in forty-five degrees. But at the other end there’ll be a shower. There’ll be soap. A real bed. I haven’t slept in a real bed for a long time. I can’t sleep in this place anyway – geckos or no geckos. The air-con unit under the window grinds away with a whining, cyclical note that sets my teeth on edge. I’ve told them about it. They say they’ll see to it. But nothing happens. Something about a problem with getting parts from Europe – France? Turning it off is not an option. I’d suffocate. I borrowed Youssef’s electric razor and shaved my beard off. That helped. The heat made it itch. Without it I feel naked. But I’m getting used to it. I trim the stubble once, occasionally twice a week.
Where am I? Who am I? I knew, once. I was the king. The talker-king. I knew all things. There was no subject on earth or in the heavens about which I did not have an opinion. I had an opinion for this, an opinion for that and should some matter arise about which I had no opinion I’d pretty soon come up with one. They needed to know, you see. They needed to know. And whatever came out of my mouth they believed, and so knew – sort of. They would gaze at me like children at a party watching the conjurer. And inside, all I had for them was pity. Not the pity that comes from compassion but that dark pity – which isn’t really pity at all but the offshoot of some corrupt conviction that one is superior. I looked past them, seeing only my own reflection.
I take up the little dog-eared black and white photograph and gaze at it yet again. He could be anybody; yet I know he’s of me, mine. As I put it down again on the rough table by the bed, lines from a Chinese poem are in my mind.
‘Let me go down next year with the spring waters
And search for you to the end of the white clouds in the East.’
2.

It had been an ordinary day. Ellen liked ordinary days. You could potter more or less amiably through them. Then, as evening drew on, put your feet up knowing there was a fair chance you’d have a decent night’s sleep. She looked at the clock. Poured herself a small whisky. She added just a drop of still spring water. Those who knew said it brought out the bouquet. Ellen liked to do things properly.
She yawned. Then felt a twinge of unease. There was an outside chance she might have forgotten to tell him she’d be staying on here in the country tonight. If so, he might just be on his way to London, expecting to join her there. But as she thought about it, she decided it was hardly the sort of thing she would forget. And in any case, as he wasn’t answering his mobile phone, there was little she could do about it.
She rang it once more but again it went straight through to his voicemail. No doubt he had switched it off before giving his talk then forgotten to switch it back on again afterwards. In the days when she had thought she might make a difference, she’d suggested that at times like that he didn’t switch it off but simply set it to ‘Vibrate’ or even ‘Silent’. But he objected to having it ‘jumping around in his pocket’ on ‘Vibrate’, and he wouldn’t put it on ‘Silent’ because how then would he know it had rung? Barney and technology didn’t mix. Their one desktop computer sat in the study here, gathering dust. Their friends spoke casually of ordering things ‘online’. The modern world was passing them by.
She sipped her whisky. Then got up to draw the curtains. Dusk was settling over the garden. The shrubs were black hulks now, their lovely autumn colours in abeyance till morning. Between the hills to the east, the lights of Ludlow were coming on, twinkling through a slight haze. Already a sliver of pale moon hung amidst the silhouetted branches of the big beech and a robin somewhere piped the last of his day’s song. She closed the world off and sat down again. Stretched her legs and closed her eyes. The whisky warmed her. It had been a nice, ordinary day.
3.

The afternoon was grey with a low, heavy overcast. The sea was calm but with an oily, sullen swell. What breath of wind there was wafted inland a penetrating drizzle. On the low wall near the very end of the breakwater a man sat alone. He aroused the interest of two fishermen who were packing up their lines and tackle. He was getting on in years, hatless, wearing a suit, collar and tie and expensive black overcoat. His shoes were well-polished black brogues. His clothes were soaking wet. On the wall by his side was an expensive black leather briefcase with a gold clasp. He sat forward, elbows on his knees, his eyes on the ground. What remained of his hair was plastered by the rain to his forehead and face. The fishermen passed him on their back way to the shore. Each tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t look up. They continued on.
They called in at the chandler’s shop to ask the man who ran it if he’d noticed the man at the end of the breakwater. Yes, he said, he’s been there most of the afternoon. They wondered if they should notify someone – the police perhaps. Or the council. But they decided it was most likely he just wanted to be alone.
It was dusk when the man in the chandler’s shop closed for the day. Before he left for home he took a walk to the end of the breakwater. The man had gone.
4.

It was an afternoon in early Spring when the man came to ask questions. Ellen was nervous. Although he was there at her instigation, she had, even so, a sense of being party to a betrayal. He flicked through the pages of his notebook. She hadn’t expected in this day and age a man with a notebook and pencil. Nor a man in his sixties. Yet he seemed spry and sharp enough.
The afternoon sun shifted shadows across the deep pile carpet. She felt uncomfortably hot, got up from her chair and opened a window. The long curtains moved idly in the sudden draught. She sat down again opposite him and arranged her skirt with fingers which bore the early signs of arthritis.
He cleared his throat. “So,” he said, “what sort of time – roughly – was this? Can you remember?”
She could. It was burned into her brain. “Three minutes past four in the afternoon. He said the sun was going down and it was starting to get cold.”
“And that is the big garden – ” – the man turned and pointed out the rear window – “ – at the back of the house? He came in from there?”
“Yes.” She shifted a little in her chair. “The walled garden. He quite often sat out there on his own. When there was some sun anyway.”
He consulted his notes.
She watched. Was he married? Were he and his wife still together? He wore a ring. That of course didn’t mean they were. Or even that he was still married. What did it mean? Little. All you could be sure of was that he was wearing a ring. A gold one. Or at least one that looked gold. And he was overweight. If he had a wife how did she feel about that? Did she notice? Or was she too tied up in her own concerns, her own anxieties? Life is short. You hear its running footsteps.
He ran a hand through what remained of his hair – as though that took the edge off some awkwardness. “How did he – er – how did your husband describe this person?”
She spoke almost mechanically, as though verbalizing something that had gone around in her head many times, rehearsed but unspoken. “A young man. Probably in his late twenties or early thirties. He had almost shoulder-length dark hair and wore a black overcoat. And a red scarf even though it was warm for mid-October. He was sitting on the wooden bench at the far side of the rose garden by the philadelphus – close to the gate that leads out to the meadow and the river.”
“What sort of distance was there between your husband and this person?”
“They were on opposite sides of the garden.” She shrugged. “Thirty or forty yards, maybe.”
“Did your husband challenge him – call out to him?”
“He said he was too shocked – even though he’d seen him before. ‘Shaken’ was the actual word he – “
“He’d seen him before?” He was surprised.
“Yes.”
“Once? More than once?”
“Once.”
“Where?”
“The same place. On that bench. Wearing the same clothes.”
His eyes narrowed. “And did he challenge him?”
She turned away. Beyond the window, early leaves stirred in the wind. She felt a need to forestall any suspicion of her husband’s timidity. She turned back to him and said, “By the time he’d gathered himself together enough to call out the man had disappeared.”
“Where did he ‘disappear’ to?”
“There’s a beech hedge – a rather tall one. You have only to take a step or two from where he was sitting to be hidden by it.”
“I presume your husband went after him?”
“He said he did.”
“And – what?”
“There was nobody. Nobody behind the hedge, nobody on the pathway, nobody in the herb garden, nobody on the lawn. Nobody.”
His pencil squeaked across the paper. “Had he managed to get a sight of the man’s face?”
She looked down and picked at an imaginary loose thread on her skirt. “He said not.” She paused. “It was one of those late autumn days when once the sun goes down it gets cold and slightly misty. Things can be deceptive in that light.” She sensed an awkwardness. “Maybe you’ve noticed.”
He stopped writing and looked up. “In the weeks or months prior to this incident had you noticed any change in his behaviour?”
“What sort of change?”
“Was he as he always had been with you for example? Did he appear preoccupied, distant? That sort of thing.”
“He had probably been a bit stressed. But then he quite often was. His work is – well – I’m sure you understand.”
“Had he seemed perhaps more so than usual?”
She shrugged. “Perhaps. If so, it would be something to do with work. He seldom talked about his work.”
“You spoke of a gate – “ – he flicked over the pages of his notebook – “ – in the rear wall. Could this person have gained entrance that way to the garden?”
“He could. But it was locked. It’s always locked unless there’s some specific reason for it not to be. If Peter’s here for example. He’s the gardener. And he wasn’t here that day.”
“Are there any other ways out of that garden?”
“Through the house. That’s all. Through the kitchen.”
“And you yourself were in the kitchen at that time?”
“I was.”
His pencil squeaked. How often do people write with pencils these days? His shoes were well-polished but old. Too old really, and polished beyond their useful life. Perhaps he wasn’t very well-off. He seemed to be writing for ever.
Eventually he looked up. “You say your husband said he’d been ‘shaken’ by what he saw.”
“When he came into the kitchen he was quite pale. I thought at first he was ill.”
He scribbled a final note. Closed the book with a flourish and said he thought that was all for the time being. Thanking her, he stood up.
She eased herself with some difficulty out of her chair.
“Oh – one other thing.” He slipped his notebook back into his briefcase. “How would you describe your husband?”
She looked puzzled.
“What sort of a man would you say he is?”
“A nice man. A conventional man – in a proper sort of way. Adores Mozart. No frills. Kind.” She smiled. “A man who remembers my birthday.”
“I see. Thank you.” He went to leave.
She lay a hand on his arm. “This is between you and me – and absolutely nobody else. That is understood? There are people not so much interested in the truth as in what capital they may make from it.”
“You have my word.”
They shook hands. She saw him out, then sat again in the armchair and listened to the sound of his car as it faded along the lane. The sudden emptiness of the room pressed in on her. She felt if she reached out she might actually touch it.”

The link to the paperback and Kindle versions is  –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

 

 

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Again I say it – the human race is insane.

1. Dawn over London

At about seven o’clock this morning I spent a few minutes looking out on the scene from my kitchen window. As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, I live in a flat on the sixth floor. It overlooks a small and very attractive park in the Crystal Palace area of South London. Dawn was not far off, but the millions of lights of this sprawling city were still on – mostly yellow streetlights interspersed with reds, greens, blues from advertisements. And weaving in and out among them, on every side, the white headlights and red tail-lights of cars and vans as drivers alone and drivers with passengers made their way to work or to whatever was calling them at that time of the morning.  The sky was just beginning to lighten with a pale yellow glow tinged with pink spreading from the east. Across it flew a large black bird – a crow, of whom there are many round here. And higher than the lone crow, the heaving bulk of a British Airways 747 jumbo – from Buenos Aires? Hong Kong? Beijing? – dropping ever so slowly down on its final approach into Heathrow twenty miles to the west.

And then – cutting across all this, like a knife through butter, came the song of a bird. Powerful, confident, full of life and exuberance, ringing out across the park. A mistle thrush. For those who don’t know about birds, the mistle thrush is part of the same family as the ubiquitous blackbird, and slightly larger. It’s resident in the UK – among other countries – and is sadly, like so many of our birds, in serious decline. This specific male (only the male sings) has been around in the park now for about a month, on and off, hoping no doubt, eventually to attract a mate. The mistle thrush’s song is not melodious, but it’s incredibly strong, confident, exhilarating. Mistle thrushes will sing in pretty well any weather – rain, gales, hail, snow. In fact in some parts of the country I believe, the other name given to them for that reason, is ‘storm cock’.

The sound of that bird singing his wonderful song, a sound which seemed to thread its way right through and across virtually the whole of west London as it lay spread out before me at dawn was very moving. I stood for some minutes looking and listening, thinking nothing, just taking it in.

Eventually, feeling very still and aware, I turned away, back into the flat to make my breakfast. I switched the radio on. The news. Welcome to the world of human beings. Conflict. Chaos. Pain. Cruelty. Intolerance. Anger. And outside that wonderful bird still singing.

2. My recently published book, ‘Albatross’

In my last post I said I would very soon start posting selected chapters from ‘Albatross’. I’ll be putting up the first of those over this coming weekend, if not before. Meantime, once again, here’s the link to it –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

 

 

Posted in Birds/birdsong, Life, love and living, London | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Albatross – or Here we go again!

So here we go again. Light a fire-cracker! We’re into another New Year. Though why we insist on calling this period the start of a year I’m not sure. After all, nothing’s really ‘started’, has it? One day follows the next and the next and the next and so on for ever and ever – so each and every day is, realistically, the start of a new year. If you want to look at it that way. But I guess you’ve got to have some sort of general rule about when a year starts and when an old one ends. Else there’d be mayhem around the globe. Of which there is plenty anyway, though that sort of mayhem has not so much to do with when a year starts or ends as with the wholesale mess which we, as a species, seem intent on making of this extraordinary, beautiful world we inhabit. I don’t blame it for fighting back – floods, tempests, rising sea-levels, landslides. Maybe we’re about to be taught a lesson or two. And we don’t teach easy – so we could be in for trouble.

So anyway – here, at the start (or thereabouts) of this particular New Year I’m returning to my blog which I put to one side three years ago in order to spend my writing time writing a novel. Which – is now done! Its title is ‘Albatross’. OK, writing a novel’s hardly news these days – almost everyone’s writing something or other – poetry, novels, criticism, tweets, porn, rubbish. Why is it, I wonder, that writing has become such a thing to do? When I was at school – which is going back a bit – and I announced to a couple of friends that I was going to be a writer ‘when I grow up’, I was met with incredulous grins.

Maybe, as a society, we are finding within us an unconscious need to unburden ourselves. From what? you ask. Well, where to begin? Take a look around. It could be I’m an old cynic but our society today has about it the marks of a thing struggling to stay on its feet while actually falling apart from the inside. We’re all at war with each other, and at every level – international, national, social, domestic, personal. What is our problem? For sure as hell we have one! How about – the dispossessed and desperate are washed up out of the sea and we put up razor wire to keep them out. No good can come of this.

But I have to restrain myself! This is about MY BOOK! A book whose title is ‘ALBATROSS’ – subtitle – ‘the scent of honeysuckle.’ If you’d like to read it – and please do! – here is the link to it –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

The blurb on the back cover (a cover I designed and executed myself) tells you what it’s about – at least enough, I think, to make you want to buy it or not. So all I’ll say here is it’s about a man’s troubled and eventful search for the son he abandoned when the boy was a small child. The child’s absence in his life begins to haunt him to the point where he feels compelled to give up marriage, career, everything he’s ever achieved in order to find this boy.

Elsewhere in this blog –

https://besonian.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/the-importance-of-fathers

– I’ve written of my own experience of living without a father. It’s sadly all too common these days. I hope most of all that ‘Albatross’ is a good read. But it would also be good if in some way it helped any absentee father and/or any child trying to navigate life without a father.

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting – among other things – excerpts from ‘Albatross’ here on this blog. It won’t be the whole book – it’s almost 400 pages – but the selections will be in chronological order. I’ll be putting the first one up next week. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Posted in boys without fathers, Growing up without a father, Life, love and living, novel writing, Refugees, Uncategorized, writing | Leave a comment

South London’s annual riot

Crystal Palace, that unsung gem in South London, held another of its summer (well, that’s what they’re calling it despite the recent, prolonged drenching everywhere’s had) festivals this last weekend. And like in 2011, the beautiful little park in which it’s held and over which the kitchen window of this flat looks, was packed to the gunwales. To mark the event, the extraordinarily hard-working people from the Midlands who had upgraded the children’s playground last year, had taken that upgrading a stage further. Other things – devices? – had been installed, such as a hammock (!), extra seating for parents who  want to come and watch (or make out they’re watching) their little ones throwing themselves around. And this –

Climbing tower

Now, this is something else. It’s compulsive. It’s one of the most imaginative things for children I’ve seen in a children’s playground. It deserves a great round of applause, for it treats children as competent and intelligent, thinking human beings. There are at least four ways of getting into it (and probably more depending on your determination and the fertility of your imagination) and then reaching the top platform where the slide starts. You can be conventional and start off up the steps which are notches in the woodwork; you can arrive there by swinging yourself above the ground along a series of handles like the things you hang onto in buses and Underground trains; you can climb up a vertical wooden wall with hand and foot grips in it –

– and you can – though this is for the hardcore and I’ve seen only two children give it a serious try – haul yourself by your hands up a slim vertical pole, and by, at the same time ‘walking’ up the wall on outstretched legs. (You can also descend by this pole, if you’ve a mind for a rapid vertical descent). Then, by whatever means you’ve arrived at the top platform, you whizz down a slide which has a pretty sharp angle on it, tipping you off at the other end rather unceremoniously like a sack of potatoes. And because it’s compulsive – it’s popular.

There was a rock band, music all day. There were cookery demonstrations. In among the trees there were umpteem food stalls selling everything from fresh-cooked pizzas to spit-roast hog to vegetarian pasties to fresh oysters. There were black people, white people and every shade between. And the whole thing, just like last year, was thoroughly good-natured.

It all rolled on from eleven in the morning till just after six in the evening. At which point the end was announced and slowly, lingering only for a last jig to imagined music or a last guffaw with friends, they all gradually dispersed and left the park to the birds and the squirrels.

Multi- coloured balloons

It is very reassuring – and gets nowhere near the publicity it deserves –  that a few thousand people of all colours can actually get together for a day, thoroughly enjoy themselves, then part quietly and thoughtfully when it’s all over. And this is London – Sin City, SE19.

Toy animals on bus

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