The Man with Big Balls.

It’s tough being a street performer. You have to mark out your area, claim a space that was never meant to be yours, and set about persuading people who had no intention of watching you, or anyone else, perform for them in the middle of their busy day to watch. Everybody, even those who are simply sightseeing, has something else that they were about to do. You have to stop them in their tracks and take control of their day with nothing to help you- no comfortable seats, no admission charge, no stage, no lighting, no microphones.

It was fascinating watching Man With Big Balls weave his way into the lunchtime crowd in York. He needed to assert himself over the passing crowd and persuade them to do what he needed them to do while remaining positive and friendly. He kept those people who had stopped to listen interested and made them active participants, while commenting on others who were only walking past and attempting to draw them in. He had to establish his credentials, make us believe that something was about to happen that was worth sticking around for. There were regular teasers about what we were about to see while at the same time he was asserting ownership of his space, getting people to follow his instructions in order to form an audience who became a unit, even enlisting their help in dealing with a pair of drinkers who were nowhere near as funny as they thought they were. I loved the fact that a middle aged woman who had simply been walking past a few minutes before was prepared to wade in on his behalf- after he overheard her comment and asked for her help- in order to tell the two men politely exactly why she thought that they should move on. They did. Finally we were treated to a feat of juggling, balancing and catching. Balls were thrown by members of the crowd. The success of the final feat relied on the ability of a few strangers to listen to instructions and carry them out. Never has any performer worked harder to earn the performance money which had to be persuaded out of the audience at the end. I reckon if you can pull off a successful street performance you can probably perform just about anything, anywhere. Well done that man!


Seagoing Crows

We have carrion crows in the bay here and they are by far the most fascinating birds that I share the beach with when I walk my dog. They are sharply aware, careful but unafraid, eyeballing me as they strut past, puffing out their chest and lifting their feet high. They will only rarely allow themselves to be interrupted, using a minimum of effort to keep their distance. They clearly regard themselves as more than my equal, and in these circumstances they are absolutely right. They know exactly who they are and what they can do and they have worked out long ago that I am clumsy and inept in their world by comparison. Their look tells me that, frankly, they have never met a human being who is their equal and certainly not this one. A few hops or a casual flap of a wing are usually enough to deal with me and if they are concerned they will just soar lazily upwards for a few yards. If I stand still and look straight at them they are happy to stare me out. There is nothing like facing the stark, bright eye of a crow- one of the most intelligent of all birds- to put you in your place. You know that you have met your match.

Life is relatively easy on the beach for them as there is plenty of food along the tide line, where both the corpses of sea life and the discarded remains of holiday packed lunches end up. There is not too much competition- seagulls are all mouth and easily fooled. All the crow needs is a quick eye and the wit to get their claws and beak into what they find fast. They have to be ready for anything. I have watched them rip apart and eat a range of things, from a sparkling fresh cuttlefish to a soggy pizza, dumped at the edge of the sea, still in its open box. It doesn’t pay to be choosy.

A beach crow has worked out early in life that dogs may be quicker on their feet than them but they are no threat and quite easy to deal with. When a dog interrupts their meal they will simply take a few flaps back to stand and wait, knowing that someone else will often sort things out for them by calling the dog away. As payback for occasional losses I have seen them knowingly tease one of my dogs all the way down the long stretch of sand, making her run and bark, staying just out of reach, occupying their mind and having fun- just seeing what would happen and testing their power.

There is no undignified squabbling to mar a crow’s life as they do not live in bad tempered flocks like many seabirds. They walk their walk almost alone, independent minded and practical, above such things. We could learn a lot from them.

At present their conservation status is classed as “least concern”. I am not surprised as they are well able to look after themselves. Long may that continue.


The search for Ruby Slippers. In the discharge lounge.

Hospital discharge lounges are not the most cheerful of places, they are filled with people who would really rather be somewhere else. You can put up nice prints on the wall, scatter magazines on tables and be careful to bring cups of tea exactly as the person likes it, but several hours in a hospital discharge lounge is never going to be a day out. You are left waiting for medication, waiting for patient transport, waiting for life to resume normal service. For some that isn’t going to happen as not everyone who is discharged from hospital is well. The healthiest patients will probably leave hospital without ever seeing the inside of a discharge lounge, only the elderly, the vulnerable and the lonely tend to end up there. They have been patched up, made just well enough to cope outside a hospital ward for a while and now they are being sent away, wearing imaginary ruby slippers, on the grounds that there is no place like home.

Amy would have suited Ruby slippers, sparkling ones with kitten heels. She was in her mid seventies, perhaps older, tall and thin as a dry twig, with bulging varicose veins and mottled skin but that didn’t prevent the girlish elegance that she had graced in her youth from showing through. Her hair was pure white, nicely bobbed at chin height, and her eyes lit up her face, intense and sparkling. She wore only a thin girlish nightgown that suited her very well, lace edged with tiny flowers. She had tremendous interest in everything around her- especially the people. She had once been beautiful- she still was in a different way- and she had not lost the ease that beauty often brings with it. People noticed her.- they always had. Weakness and worry were a nuisance but people were also kind. A fall- so silly- had left her with an injured arm but the kind nurse kept coming to position it properly in the sling (each time she walked away Amy absent-mindedly took her arm straight out again and laid it carefully on her knee) or return her to her chair if she floated away to have a wander. Perhaps she was looking for the stages and catwalks that her beauty had led her onto in her youth. Not that she was confused. She had found her keys, told them that she wanted to try a night at home to see how she got on and they had given her the phone number of a care home who could fit her in if she found that she couldn’t cope. It would be all right. Things usually were. For now she had found someone to talk to.

“You see there is good in everything. If I hadn’t been in here I would never have met you.”

Amy’s new companion was older than her, ninety two in fact. His name was Joseph and he was a self proclaimed ladies man in the best sense. A gentleman. Short and stocky with a kind, thoughtful, intelligent face. A former translator who spoke six languages. He was one of the many Polish men who came over to Britain to play their part in world war two. He had met Winston Churchill, and the camp commandant of Auschwitz back then, and Margaret Thatcher later. He had liked Churchill very much because he made you feel like a king when he talked to you, and when he had time alone with the commandant and he was asked “what will you do to me” he gave the one answer that the commandant didn’t expect. “Nothing.” He had seen war and wanted no more of its brutality. He didn’t tell Amy any of this of course- gentlemen don’t talk about themselves that much- but we had met before during his weeks up on the ward. She liked him and turned herself towards him, making eye contact, content to be listened to. If only the years could have fallen away it might have been the beginning of a love story.

Amy finally left with a shy smile and a gentle wave. A thin, pale blue hospital bedspread was wrapped around her and flung over her shoulder where a cashmere shawl might once have been as she made her way out into a first blast of cool air. I watched her leave thinking quietly that people don’t really change, they just become more themselves.


“Be like.” (On the Scarborough train.)

The three young women are clearly members of the same tribe. It is the tall one that I notice first. She is like a young amazon- built on a different scale to the others, broad backed and strong. A tribute to good food and good genes. She is wearing a short skirt, a green top with a French slogan across it and her long hair is dyed a shade of blonde that is almost white, not platinum blonde- almost grey. A tiny part of it sits in a bun on top of her head. She is a striking young woman. One of her friends has the same hair colour, scraped into a messy bun above a tiny tight dress and the other is very slim, waif-like n a tiny spaghetti string top and shorts clinging to the top of bruised legs. All of them are wearing heavy make up. You see young women like them everywhere. They have each made a portrait of themselves to show the world on their day out at the seaside. The cans of cider in front of them have already kicked off the celebrations but they are not going to make fools of themselves like some of the groups of young men you see drinking on trains. They have more self respect than that. Their flat sneakers might be leopardskin or butterfly print but they are also comfortable. Nobody is in danger of looking daft when their feet hurt. This is a performance and it has to be a good one, both for each other and for anyone else who crosses their path. It is not about ego, it is about being there together and having the confidence to strut your stuff. Their conversation is full of questions, statements, posturing. They are a tight little unit ready for anything. The interaction is relentless. None of them allow themselves a single second alone inside their own head. No wonder one of them flags momentarily.
“That does drain me.”
Proof of belonging is asked for over and over again.
“You know when you get off the train and swing into Boots?”
There are nods- they all do know- of course they do.
As they use their phones they remind me of a perfectly choreographed dance company, aware of each other and moving as a unit. They are constantly telling, recording, showing and there is never any need for anyone to ask or explain what is needed- they all look in the right direction and pose instantly on request. Every gem held out to be admired on a glowing screen is examined and celebrated.They are experts.
“Oh my god.”
“Did you snog him?”
“What did she say?”
Their phones are a part of them. They are using them as a second language and they would not dream of being together without them or putting them away. They are an entertainment, a connection, a distraction, a crutch, a prop.
“We’re high fiving.”
“My God that’s amazing- we’ll take a picture of that later.”
“I’m like what?”
Just before we reach the last stop the young amazon puts her hands up in front of her and shakes them slightly, pulling a face.
“And then literally………”
The waif-like one widens her eyes.
“ECT. Electro convulsive therapy. Yeah, that’s what it is.”
She savours the words, proud that she remembers them.
The one in the little dress gathers her things together as the train slows down.
“Sounds good!”


Please Obtain Putting Equipment at the Trampolines.


Sometimes when you think about the past it’s the small things that you miss. I have lived close to our local park for a very long time- about twenty five years- and I have known it well for much longer than that. Filey is a seaside holiday town and in the summer it gets very well used. There is a boating pool, a putting green, crazy golf, slides, swings, a climbing frame, trampolines, little motorised bumper bikes to ride that run round a small track, tiny tricycles to ride along the paths and a cafe. Most importantly there is a large stretch of grass where visiting schools can eat their packed lunches and groups of energetic people can play football, cricket or rounders. There are seats everywhere for those who need a rest and flowers in the Spring. In lots of ways it has changed very little; forty years ago I was enjoying putting or playing cricket on the same grass and now I am within sight of the age where I will need a good sit down. I am glad that the park is still there, still giving pleasure, but some things have gone…………..

When I was growing up there were two putting greens, not one. You bought your ticket, which doubled as a score card, from a man sitting alone inside a small mock Tudor booth. I can remember his face very well. Early middle aged, round, cheerful, neat brown hair, tie. Like magic he would produce a putter, just the right size, and a golf ball for you and pass them through the window. When I was seven or eight this was exciting ( be tolerant there was no internet back then) and he would talk to me. When I brought the clubs back, running ahead of my dad, he would ask me how I had done. That was his day. Over and over again. One person after another. By the end of the first week of your holidays he might know your name and by the end of the second week you might have shown him your new Tressy doll and told him which of the beach ponies you liked best. Sometimes it was so busy that you had to wait for someone to bring their golf clubs back. I loved it. It might as well have been St Andrews. It was St Andrews.

That man is long gone now and his booth is used to store the crazy golf equipment. The putting greens are never busy. The window he used to look out of has been boarded up and there is a sign placed on it. “Please obtain putting equipment at the trampolines.” I always feel sad when I walk past it, almost as though the man who I remember is still hidden in the dark inside, longing to be let out, along with a whole world of childhood memories that come with him. He has been forgotten- very few of the people walking past will ever have known that he once sat in there. They do things differently now, in our hurry up and be careful world. The man at the trampolines has a busy day. As well as timing how long children spend jumping up and down he has to look after the golf clubs, set out the crazy golf, and monitor the bikes and the little racetrack. I doubt that anyone shows him their new doll, although I hope they do, and I sometimes wonder what would happen if one of the more determined toddlers tried to head for freedom on one of the trikes. You can get a long way in ten minutes.


Lunch is in the Bag.

I know her name because her friend has announced it loudly when they arrived at the patient transport hatch. Beryl Pick. Beryl wants to go home and she isn’t sure why she can’t. She has seen the doctor and now she has been brought here and her friend, a loud, middle aged woman who never stops talking, won’t tell her why. She whispers anxiously. Her friend isn’t listening.
“Why do you want a taxi? Someone will come and get you. We just have to wait here”
Beryl’s delicate, still girlish, once pretty, face stares straight ahead, clouded by worry. Her lips move, barely, and just a whisper of a voice comes out. Her friend leans in close. It isn’t meant to be a threat but it looks like one.
“Why do you want a taxi?”
Over and over again the question comes at Beryl and she doesn’t have the energy to fight it off. Her lips continue to move silently. If they would just listen. She wants to go home. Why is nobody taking her? Her fingers grip onto the tiny pale blue cloth bag on her knee. It has LUNCH IS IN THE BAG printed on it in large white capital letters. A stale joke that is meant for livelier, sparkier people.
“You’ve to wait for the patient transport.”
“Put your leg over the other side of the wheelchair.”
Her friend is pointing at her left leg now. Beryl looks at it in surprise. It has crept over onto the other footpad and leaned against her right leg. It is comfortable. It is where it wants to be.
“Put it on the other side.”
Slowly, very slowly, she eases it over onto the left footpad of the wheelchair to please her friend.
“I’m going to leave you now- I’ve someone else who is actually in hospital who I need to visit.”
Beryl’s eyes show a tiny flicker of panic. Slyly her leg moves back onto the other footpad.
“I’ll turn you round the other way- so you can see when someone comes.”
Who would come? When?
Suddenly the wheelchair is moving and she finds herself facing the other way towards the young man behind the hatch at the patient transport window. He can’t hear properly. She had tried to tell him her name and he hadn’t heard. She whispers it again, just to herself, to make sure.
“Beryl Pick.”
“What are you saying your name for?”
Beryl is too tired to explain.
“You’ll see now when they come to get you. See all the people come and go. I’ll leave you now.”
She watches her friend bustle off and looks down at her little bag. Lunch. Yes, there is food in there. Very slowly she starts to try to find it. Her long, thin fingers search the small space and she brings out a tiny square of white bread wrapped in a tissue. The crusts have been cut off and it is white and clammy, with waxy pale cheese inside. She hunches over it and puts it to her lips. Gently, eyes looking out watchfully like a grazing rabbit, she nibbles a tiny piece from the end. Her mouth barely moves as she chews. It is impossible to tell whether she is enjoying it or not and there is nobody to ask her. When she has finished she holds out the tissue helplessly but there is nobody to take it from her. She retreats back into herself and returns it to the bag.
I move round to where she can see me.
“They’ll come and take you home soon.”
She looks at me and somewhere behind her eyes there is the beginning of a smile. The remnants of the person that she once was. Someone who had been pretty, funny and confident. Someone who had made their own choices. Someone who had been young. Her reply comes in a whisper.
“I hope so.”
The ambulance driver arrives, all quickness and efficiency, too quick for Beryl. It makes her panic.
“Are you Beryl Pick?”
Yes she is. Silently Beryl’s lips form her name. He looks at the small screen in his hand.
“Beryl Pick?”
Beryl looks at him anxiously. He waits.
“Is that your name love?”
Beryl’s whole self tries to show him without words that it really is her name.
“Can you say your name for me?”
Her lips move again. I can see that she is saying Beryl Pick but there is still no sound and he needs to hear it. He turns away to talk to the young man behind the hatch.
“Do you know this lady’s name?”
After some muffled conversation he comes back.
“Can you tell me your name?”
With a mighty effort Beryl manages to make her name just about audible and he is happy. I smile at her.
“You’ll be all right. He’s going to take you home.”
Her face is swept out of sight as the wheelchair turns.

High Dependency. Snapshots from ICU.

Danny’s face appears next to my bed in the middle of the night.
“I need to turn you over.”
He watches me, concerned, for a few seconds. I look back at him, half asleep. I don’t want to be turned over.
“I’m comfy.”
For another few seconds he looks into my eyes and I am silently begging him to leave me alone. His compassion wins out. He massages the area of my bum which has been taking the pressure of my weight and leaves me alone. For now.

She is in her early teens, dressed in her best, and she walks through the ward alone, straight backed, staring straight ahead. She knows where her dad’s bed is and if she avoids looking sideways she will not see something horrible before she gets to it.

He is a member of the house staff and his work is clearly being done somewhere else but every time he walks past he has the kind of rhythm and confidence that comes from knowing what he does is important. Just watching him sashay past my bed makes me feel better.

A nurse has just given me a lethal injection in the middle of the night. I don’t know how I know that it is lethal but I do. When I realise that it has already happened and there is nothing that I can do about it I wake up in a panic. There is nobody by my bed.

The middle aged woman carrying a chair towards her husband’s bed is wearing a smart suit and shiny shoes. Her hair is immaculate. Her fixed smile does not reach her eyes. It is a defence against a world that has let her down. It shows anyone who sees it that she is all right, they are both all right, really they are. They will get through this. If she makes sure that everything that she can control is exactly as it should be everything will be fine.

I am having a bad night. There is a large mask sending hot oxygen across my face and droplets of warm water are running down the inside of the plastic surface. I am burning up. Behind the closed screen there are the random sounds of someone whose life is being fought for. I catch a glimpse of a grey, still face. There is no panic, no rush, just focused, intense activity. Then nothing. The lights are snapped off, the intensity evaporates and for a short while there is silence before quiet, secluded conversations and gentle encouragement. Louise comes to do my observations. I wonder how she is.
“You have all been working very hard.”
It’s a stupid thing to say but it’s all that I can think of. She says nothing- just brings a fan to cool me down. Death is not mentioned.

I am being washed all over by someone who has only just told me their name.

Something is very wrong. I have no memory of what has happened but I know that returning to consciousness to find a semi circle of cardiologists and nurses talking about you is never a good thing. Especially when the last- or is it first?- thing that you remember is a doctor’s voice saying “Oh shit”. I catch fragments of conversation. A pacing machine, heart rhythm, the number 200. Slowly it makes sense. My heart had stopped. For two minutes. That seems like a very long time. Is it long enough to count as being dead I wonder?
I am asked by one of the cardiologists how I am feeling.
This is not quite true. I know I should be scared and that is why I say it but it’s all a bit too much like a Saturday night TV drama to take seriously. I am trying to work out what has happened and why- so are the doctors. There is no space in my head for fear.
“My dad has a heart rhythm problem” I tell them.
One of the team explains that they think the cause was the pacing machine picking up on the wrong part of my heart rhythm. I am grateful that he has listened and taken me seriously and- bizarrely- I am quite proud that my heart wanted to beat in its own way and not be dictated to by a machine.
The next day I tell one of the nurses who wasn’t there about it and he sticks his chin out and gives me a quietly impressed nod. When the nurse who was in charge of the ward is back on duty she tells me cheerfully, “we didn’t have to do much to bring you back.”
No…….. not much.

Rana looks at me anxiously. “Drink! Drink! Drink!” They keep telling me to drink more. How did that get to be so hard?

The lady who makes the toast has long dark hair and a bright smile. She puts real butter on the bread and marmalade, spreads it carefully and brings it to me cut in half with a napkin over it to keep it warm. It is the best part of my day. There are no small jobs here.

I am fascinated by the fact that my entire bedding can be changed and I can be given a bath without me ever having to get out of bed. The sheer number of people who are taking an interest in my well being is overwhelming. I always have my own special nurse- a rotating day and night team of them who seem to have arrived from all over the world just for my benefit and groups of doctors who come and talk about me.

Jiao is new. She has been looking after me and she is standing at the end of my bed being praised after carefully watching my side drain being put in.. The nurse in charge is telling one of the consultants that she is doing very well. She stands listening shyly, trying not to look too full of herself but she is very happy. This is not an easy place to get used to and there is a lot to remember. I add my two pennyworth- not that anyone is that bothered..
“Jiao is lovely.”

I have no idea what is being put into my system through the lines in my neck and hand. Blood yes, and fluids. Potassium- I know that because one time they bring it to me to drink orally and it tastes strange and horrible. There are tablets too, diuretics, painkillers, warfarin, I’m not sure what else. I am carefully told what they are each time,but I forget immediately. It doesn’t seem to be any of my business.

The cheerful physiotherapist comes and stands by my bed. He wants me to wriggle my swollen feet and raise my hands. Soon I am standing up, holding onto a frame and gently marching on the spot. He smiles happily.
“You’ll be racing Usain Bolt soon.”
I look at him grimly.
“I think he might win.”
We both laugh.

I have a rash. I look like an illustration from a nineteenth century medical textbook. Everybody is fascinated by this and comes to look at it and talk about it. Ideas are bandied about. It seems like an allergy. What have I been given? (Don’t ask me) What have I not had before? I struggle to remember- I seem to have been down here in ICU/high dependency for a lifetime. Finally one of the ICU doctors declares, “Well it is as it is- we can’t mobilise you down here.” They will have to sort it out upstairs.

Ayuub is glad that I have come round from the anaesthetic after my fluid drainage. It has taken too long. He has been watching me all day. Now that my breathing tube has been taken out he wants to know about me. Am I married? Do I have children? What do I like to eat? What is my profession? When I tell him that I have no children he is sorry but consoles himself with the fact that I must be a rich woman. His children have done well and he is proud of them but they have given him grey hairs. He is excited because his sister is visiting from far away and he is going to cook her chicken, fish and prawns.

This is a nice dinner. Roasted vegetables, cauliflower cheese, roast potatoes and rhubarb crumble. Someone is encouraging me.
“You’re enjoying that aren’t you.”
“Did you not want the meat?”
It is my second stay in ICU and the first time that I have thought food was a good thing since my surgery. My plate is clean.

Danny reassures me.
“You will go home. It may take a few more days but you WILL go home.”
I believe him.