Saturday 1 February 2014

Sniff & Sew

I have a friend who thinks blogs are indulgent.  In fact he used a more derogatory word, but as he can barely write a birthday card without his wife’s help I’m unlikely to turn to him for artistic or literary advice.  And anyway, if somebody reads, identifies with, or enjoys them then what’s the harm?

I have other friends who are encouraging about my blogs, and one gave me a small, bulky book for my last birthday called “The Writer’s Block”.   I’ve enjoyed dipping into it for random ideas but I haven’t actually needed it.

Well, not until this week.  When after a rough fortnight I found myself suddenly, for the first time, unable to write.  I thought this only happened to other people, I whined to no-one but myself.  How come I can’t find a single cohesive word when over the Christmas holidays I was exceptionally productive?   Can one’s imagination run out of juice that suddenly, or is stress giving me stage-fright the way guys occasionally get performance anxiety?  Whatever.  It isn’t sexy. 

So, aware that a blog composed as therapy leaves me open to criticism… I have dipped into an old creative-writing exercise and chosen a couple of random words around which I have now set myself the challenge of writing exactly five hundred and one thousand words respectively.  I like alliteration so, for better or worse, here are two stories on: ‘sniff’ and ‘sew’.


Have you ever considered murder?  Not “I could kill him” murder… “I really hate her” murder… but mapping out a route-to-action murder?

I did last week, on the train from Wolverhampton to Milton Keynes.  And it wasn’t the route which proved provocative, but the man sitting opposite.

He boards at Wolverhampton and wakes me by banging into my legs.  He stands like an ominous shadow emptying his pockets and dropping things noisily onto the table.  I’m in the aisle.  He claims the opposite window with his iphone and other contraptions.  When he moves to sit he kicks my legs again.  Two minutes later, wanting something he’s forgotten, he stomps on my toes.  I keep my eyes closed trying to reclaim a sense of peace, but his bulky frame inches from my face is distracting.  Eventually he sits with only one more kick.  No apology but at last stillness. 

Then the disturbing behaviour begins.  He sniffs.  One long, loud, deep sniff so disgusting I feel sure it’s a taunt.  Yet upon opening my eyes to glare he is fiddling with his phone and not at all aware of me.  I close them again, discombobulated, but figuring such behaviour must be an accidental one-off. 

Wrong.  In a minute he does it again.  And again, and again, so as the train rolls from an embarkation point of horror to an unsure hell I dislike this man more than I can ever remember disliking anyone.  Sniff.  Sniff. Sniff.  Not in a rhythmic, regulated way – such that I might prepare for the next onslaught - but in a random, in-your-face, assault rifle kind of way.  Sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff… loud, unpredictable, and in a tone so increasingly high-pitched and filled with mucus I feel I might be sick.

Nothing could be more gross.  And the idiot with no handkerchief or manners has absolutely no idea what offence he is causing.  Indeed he’s so ignorant and rude, hiding behind his hoodie and earphones, he wouldn’t care anyway. 

So murder is my only solution.  He is too big to abuse.  He might fight back.  There aren’t enough free seats on the train to shift; if indeed other corners are safer.  He must be banged on the head with a heavy object and thrown off the train while it’s moving.  The crows will have their way with him and I’ll escape at Euston with no traceable evidence because everyone else in the carriage is inexplicably still sleeping! 

I try to imagine Poirot working backwards to solve a case of Murder on the Wolverhamption to Milton Keynes… as I’m keen to avoid rookie mistakes… but my weapons are limited and my plan starting to feel shaky when, suddenly, the sniffing zombie stands, pushes past my legs, bangs me on the head as he swipes his bag from the shelf above, and jumps off the train as the doors close on Milton Keynes.

Oh the quiet, from there to Euston, is one of the most pleasurable of my life.


Aussies are very aware of the risk of skin cancer; especially those of Irish or Scottish descent.  So a few months ago I present myself at a skin-clinic in London.  “Yes, there are a few freckles that have got a little darker, but no great change” I say confidently.  The doctors get very excited and want to chop three of them out. 

This seems a little over-the-top, when monitoring may work as well, but if the NHS is happy to volunteer preventative services then I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth.  I ring to make a hospital appointment, only to be told “it will be an experienced GP carrying out the procedure”.  I baulk.  “I’m sorry” I say, quickly processing.  “I’m sure he or she is very good, but I would only be happy with a surgeon, a specialist thank you, otherwise I’d rather not go ahead”.  The secretary is speechless.  She can not rationalise that 1) I’m not really used to the NHS and expect to have a choice, and 2) this is advice I have received many times from my late father, himself a surgeon, and nothing will provoke me to change my mind. 

Correspondence is exchanged; a new appointment made.  Then as Christmas approaches I find myself in hospital being prepped for day-surgery.  I walk into the operating theatre and suddenly I’m nervous.  Is it the stark metallic table, the bright clinical lights, or the smell?   This is not territory with which I’m familiar.  The head surgeon who I have met and agreed parameters, instructs me to get up on the table – which frankly feels far too helpful, when even a pig will do her best to avoid being cut and spliced.  No sooner have I wriggled uncomfortably into position, my clenched and naked back exposed, she bids me good afternoon and makes to leave the room.  “Where are you going?” I call in alarm.  “Oh, I’m not doing it” she says with a grin “I’m leaving you in the capable hands of my colleagues”.  And she’s gone.  Well, if that isn’t pay-back for insisting on the best I don’t know what is.  Damn. 

I nervously introduce myself to the other doctors: one an apparently experienced surgeon, the other a beginner.  OMG he looks twelve and the cocky nurse is bullying him.  God help me!  I start praying to my father and can hear him saying: “Lie still and be quiet, Julie, if I hadn’t trained lots of junior doctors we wouldn’t have the next generation of good surgeons”.  This silent dialogue continues: “I know, I know, Dad… but this is my back…my previously unscarred back…”. 

The older doctor is on one side doing two excisions.  The youngster is on the other side handling just one.  He’s being instructed every step of the way: “no, not like that… like this… watch the angle… ok, now cut through the something-or-other layer of skin… yes, straight in, that’s right…”.  Jesus Mary and Joseph, do I need to be hearing this?  What happened to old-fashioned pethidine, the fun drug which knocks you out in blissful ignorance? 

The tall young doctor with huge hands and big eyes is mercifully being very careful, but the digging goes on and on and he’s still going when the other doctor has finished double the work.  On one side I’m being sewed up.  I can feel the push and pull of the thread; also an occasional sense of metal on flesh.  It’s weird. 

I can be silent no longer, and break the tension by commenting on the doctor’s talent with a needle.  “I reckon you’d be handy at home darning your socks” I say with an attempt at humour, distraction, or anything other than visions of gaping holes in my torso.  “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to over-use my skills” he replies.  “Huh, I bet your wife isn’t very impressed with that excuse” I jostle.  “You know” he replies, after a rather meaningful pause, “you aren’t really in such a good position to be teasing me…”.  You’ve got to pay that.   And we both laugh. 

This is followed by a chat about how many weeks I have to abstain from exercise including lifting and jogging.  “Don’t you be showing up here with torn stitches” he warns.  “I can see you’re one of those exercise fanatic types… and you’re cheeky… probably can’t sit still….. so when I say no exercise for at least three weeks I mean no exercise.”  “But it’s Christmas, I’ll get fat...” I start.  However he cuts me off: “if you think these wounds will scar… it’ll be a whole lot worse if you tear them”.   He knows vanity will get me.   

At this point the youngster has finally finished his excision.  Phew.  Now he is trying to sew me up.  Yet the senior doctor is not convinced so instructions begin again: “don’t start at that end… why are you going from that side… come around here etc…” until I suspect my flesh is the first piece of human meat this doctor has had the privilege to practise on.  Just my luck. 

When finally he’s done and I can argue no more with the other doctor about the merits of exercise… I ask “so, how did he do?”  Well, it’s no secret this was a lesson.  “What would you give him out of ten?” I add.  And the more experienced doctor answers quickly “nine out of ten. He did well”.   I know this may be a lie but I turn to the youngster who is looking relieved and smiling I say “Congratulations, I’m very happy for you.  For me too”. 

And for the first time that afternoon the rookie speaks: “Well thank you Madam.  I’m going to go home now and practise on some socks.” 

Funny.  He may have a lot to learn about excisions and sewing, but dedication and a dry wit will take him far.  As for the wounds: thank you doctors, they are healing nicely.  Thank God!