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 –
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.
“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.