Here on the West coast of Norway, the unexpected turns up regularly in the shape of distinctly unseasonal weather. Although four distinct seasons seem to have become unfashionable. This past month or so required amphibian clothing, along with the kind of coat that could be at once not too cold and not too hot. Add an umbrella resistant to sudden lift off and dust off the sunglasses for that one day we experienced sun. Ok, two days.
Also unexpected this month was a whole lot more reading time than I had bargained for. I was admitted to hospital for surgery on my back. I may have needed spare clothes and toiletry essentials brought to me, but I was, as ever, well-armed to face idle moments with a book, notebook and pen. Once the butterflies had been herded into at least one corner of my stomach, I decided this would be just another writer’s observational exercise. As usual, the running commentary inside my head kept me amused. Like taking notes without the pen, handy when getting a cannula fitted. Or four. I mused on the potential – or necessity – for trolley driving tests for porters as we rattled down corridors, scraped inelegantly around corners into lifts, accelerated down a ramp – brake, BRAKE! I asked my current porter with only slight irony whether he had to take a similar test to taxi drivers, to find his way around the huge hospital. This seemed to amuse him. Our journey to the MRI suite involved at least three trips in lifts and apparent miles of corridor. I was lost already. I quite enjoyed the novelty of being on a speeding bed. I lay back and reflected that the passing lights and ceiling tiles gave a movie scene feel to the whole thing.
And then there was Brad Pitt. I kid you not. The radiographer was a dead ringer for a Brad Pitt with spiky grey hair. And a huge film star smile to match. The butterflies came out of their corner along with what I presume was a foolish grin. Hopefully the imaging did not extend to seeing my thoughts. I find it hard to fight claustrophobia inside the tunnel so I was impressed to have a mirror rigged onto the scanner to reflect the massive tv screen behind it. I spent the duration of the scan pretty relaxed and watching the downhill ski. Upside down. Well – it was a winter Saturday in Norway. Brad popped his head out to wave goodbye as my new porter propelled me back up to the ward.
Skiing was also on in the Neuro day room. I was back in time to intercept lunch. Saturday in Norway is also rice pudding day. Enjoyed with the enhancement of a knob of butter, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. I tucked in. A different winter sport was now showing. I took a moment to reflect on the irony of watching a fragile human hurtling down the luge track on what looked like a tea tray- from my present surroundings. It looked like a recipe for disaster that could keep both Neuro and Ortho busy for hours.
I was glad that I had been so enthusiastic with the rice pudding when I got the instruction to fast. My inner monologue was kept busy as I got into the distinctly unlovely hospital pyjamas. Clearly not designed with fifty percent of the population in mind, with button gape and absolutely no acknowledgement of hips. But I had some more fun with the bed controls, trying for the best combo of sitting or lying. None of them, at this stage. The surgeon appeared out of nowhere at the foot of my bed. He had arrived on his scooter. Of course he had. He wanted to operate asap because I had both numbness and reduced strength in my leg and foot. I asked him to explain the procedure to me. He whipped out a pen and sketched it out on my bedsheets: view A, and view B from above. Whilst it did indeed resemble a cross person on a bicycle, I felt reassured by his calm manner. I also still felt like a jelly, but I needed the surgery, which would be the next morning.
During the night I became preoccupied by the sounds around me – a persistent snoring duet from the two women on either side, each trying to outdo the other. And the biblical weather front outside, angrily howling and lashing hail against the windows. The arrival on the roof of the emergency helicopter, three times, the clatter and growl of the engines as it squatted there like a giant baked potato. Rattling cups on a passing trolley, the whump of the lift nearby. I fell asleep finally around five only to be awoken before eight to get showered and ready. It felt unreal. Another ride on the bed up to Neurosurgical on the seventh floor and this time a two-bed room. The fierce embrace of surgical stockings and the waiting. No saliva left, fantasizing about a good old cup of tea. Then the alien atmosphere of the operating theatre, trying not to register the metallic roll of instruments or the various machines “Oh we don’t use them all!” Answering questions about my height, my weight – “too much”, reaching for my last bit of humour. The theatre nurse who held my hand tightly and talked to me about music. My feeling that I was on an unstoppable train. A pair of kind blue eyes as I Breathed In.
Waking up shaking, I was wrapped into a heated blanket and resumed observing from within my cocoon of relief. It was a twilight zone of muted light and beeps. I thought of Monty Python (the machine that goes beep) and smiled. Every fifteen minutes, a chorus of blood pressure monitors shattered the peace. I watched my readings upside down behind my head, trying to gauge the passage of time. The surgeon appeared again – minus his scooter – and professed himself pleased with the results. Time passed in my cosy, woozy world.
Back at last on the ward, riding on my euphoric drugged cloud, a nurse brought me that longed for cuppa. That most British answer to everything. I gave fervent thanks for Mr Lipton and said yes to food. I was in time for supper. Pizza Grandiosa is mocked by some as a national dish of Norway, beloved by students and nevertheless as far from proper pizza as you could get. But right now, it tasted like heaven. I could hear bagpipes coming from outside my room. Morphine does strange things, I thought to myself. It turned out to be coming from the day room tv relaying winter sports – yes, apparently nothing else was on tv. I couldn’t quite get my foggy brain to connect bagpipes with skiing but decided it must be a feature of a medal ceremony. More cups rattled by as bagpipes merged with the not so discreet patient phone call next door. “HÆÆ?? KA FOR NOKKE?? KA SA DOKKE???” (What??? What did you sayyyyy????) I subsided amongst the pizza crumbs and drifted off into a strange tartan-flavoured dream.
A few weeks earlier, I attended the LitFest here in Bergen, showcasing writers and poets from all over the world. An evening of poetry brought the medium to life for me in a way I had never previously experienced. Poetry performed by the poets themselves was a revelation. Added to that, how vivid these works were in their original language! We listened to Sami poets, with traditional joiks sung. Poems in Arabic, Russian, Spanish, German, Norwegian, Mandarin and English. Fascinating to me, the music and rhythm of words. I wandered home in the dark, illuminated from within. Inspired.
One of the featured authors was Diana Darke, a Middle East specialist who has written for, amongst others, the BBC. Her book made it to hospital with me, although I’m only now able to sit comfortably enough to concentrate on it. My House in Damascus is a moving and very revealing insight into life within the Syrian crisis. An insight most of us never get from the news reports we are fed. It is a worthy new addition to my book collection and has broadened my latest selection of tv documentaries. Having been in the Middle East, hiking in the occupied Golan, I’m curious about the region. Diana Darke lays bare the humanity, the lives of ordinary people living under impossible challenges. Alongside the crime books and thrillers I enjoy analysing, I also maintain a diet of books that open my mind, give me new insights and understanding.
I suppose you could say I started the month with culture and ended with suture! Plenty of food for thought, along with experience of expertise and kindness – the nursing staff were dedicated and quite wonderful. I have been lucky. And now, rest and recuperation. Hopefully, the Unexpected will take a little break.