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Of Frida Kahlo, Diego (and Dylan)

25 Apr

Frida self portrait

 

I have always been slightly worried by Frida Kahlo, perhaps it taps into some source of generalised male guilt, not for things that I have done myself – at least not intentionally, but that might be the very point – but for all the wrongs perpetrated by the men of the world against the women of the world since time began. And yet for all that, Frida does not come across as a victim: she made decisions, and tried to stick with them in spite of the disasters that overtook her (she said once that her life had been defined for her by two disasters: the first was being involved in an horrendous traffic accident when she was 18, the second was meeting Diego Rivera). She was also – and the two things, suffering and greatness, do not always go together – a great artist, independently of Diego, and the passage of time has probably elevated her to a higher position than him in the hierarchy, if not of ‘greatness’, at least of fame, since being adopted as a feminist icon (what a horrible term, I apologise for using it, but this collocation is always employed in reference to Frida, and a blog, for me, is a place of first drafts, which may or may not be developed and refined for publication elsewhere and at a later date).

So yesterday I tried to immerse myself in Frida’s life; took a trip to the twin houses/studios where she lived in San Angél – in separate buildings, connected by a footbridge – with and without Diego, and where I watched a film about her life; and then down to Coyoacán and the blue house that was her parental home, and where she eventually settled (Leon Trotsky was famously one of the houseguests).

I am not going to write in any depth about Frida’s work here: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable, and besides, there is plenty of stuff out there, but I was profoundly moved – almost to tears – by visiting her house, by seeing her instantly recognisable paintings, the extraordinary collection of Mexican votive miniatures she collected, and the clothes she designed (including the painful-looking contraptions she was forced to wear as a result of her deforming accident). There was a queue outside and it had clouded over when I arrived, a straggle of beggars and street people selling wooden toys added to a growing sense of misery. Inside I didn’t feel like taking photos, certainly not of paintings that can be seen in any catalogue of her work, although this didn’t seem to bother the large man with the ipad who barged his way to prime spot in each room, holding his device before him like a weapon, an irony if there there was one. I did however take a picture of a poster designed by Frida of the inter-uterine development of a human child, as this seemed highly appropriate to her personal story (she suffered numerous miscarriages). As I left the house I walked into a brief downpour. It seemed to fit. I was impressed by Frida’s resilience but ultimately saddened by the story of her life, and while I am not all encouraged by much that Mexico is doing for its women (the Ciudad Juarez femicides still stand out as one of the greatest unresolved crimes of recent history), it is good that there are places like this to reflect on the way that one individual can translate her own suffering into such a universal and powerful creative statement.

On a lighter note, I was struck in passing, while visiting the studios of Diego and Frida (his is still intact, hers is used a gallery for the work of contemporary artists) by the resemblance between Diego Rivera and Dylan Thomas. There is that whole 1940s things about their style and appearance, and something about the lips. That and the fact that both artists are widely known by their first names only. The similarity can only be glanced from certain perspectives, but for me at least, it is noteworthy.

Diego

Diego Rivera

Dylan

Dylan Thomas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And with their respective long-suffering spouses:

Diego and Frida

Diego and Frida

 

Dylan and Caitlin

Dylan and Caitlin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skeletons in Diego Rivera's studio, San Angél

Skeletons in Diego Rivera’s studio, San Angél

 

Diego Rivera's studio

Diego Rivera’s studio

Diego's house from veranda of Frida's house, San Angél.

Diego’s house from veranda of Frida’s house, San Angél.

Frida's house, showing connecting bridge to Diego's house

Frida’s house, showing connecting bridge to Diego’s house

San Angél

San Angél.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

frida_kahlo_frente

Frida Kahlo Museo, Coyoacan.

 

 

Frida Kahlo's design tracking interuterine life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing in bed

7 Oct

Mark Twain writing in bed

 

I suppose it’s inevitable that we return to the same themes again and again in the course of a writing career, particularly – as is inevitably the case – the same damn things keep cropping up.

Take illness, for example. From an early age, I linked illness with storytelling. My father was a GP, my mother had been a nurse throughout World War Two, both in London during the Blitz and in what was then called ‘The East’. I grew up listening to medical stories. In the village I would hear people talking about their illnesses. Sometimes I would hear their views (when they didn’t notice I was there) on my father, of what a fine gentleman and doctor he undoubtedly was, but of how they ‘wished sometimes he would take a firmer hand with people and tell them what was what’. I, as his son, had evolved a somewhat contrary impression, but that, of course, is to be expected.

Walter Benjamin speculates somewhere about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illness. I know what he means, and have been circling around it, on and off, all my life, much of the second half of which, thus far, I have spend as a chronic, or recidivist patient.

Many, or most of my favourite writers, have been consistently and wretchedly ill, or bed-ridden, or rather, have spent long tracts of time in bed. Coleridge, De Quincey, Stevenson, Proust . . . I am well aware that, like myself, this list (which could be greatly extended) includes those who are termed to have ‘self-inflicted’ illnesses brought on by their vices or addictions. But until last week I had never read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful little essay ‘On Being Ill’. If indeed it can be called an essay, rather than a series of digressions on a theme. I found a very attractive edition, published on nice paper, by The Paris Press in 2002, with an Introduction by Hermione Lee, which I can recommend.

The essay was first published by TS Eliot in his New Criterion magazine in January 1926, despite his unenthusiastic response to it. The essay was, we learn from Woolf’s later correspondence, written in bed, never a bad place to write, I find personally. But Woolf was concerned: “I was afraid that, writing in bed, and forced to write quickly by the inexorable Tom Eliot I had used too many words.”

“Writing in bed” continues Hermione Lee in her Intro, “has produced an idiosyncratic, prolix, recumbent literature – the opposite of “inexorable” – at once romantic and modern, with a point of view derived from gazing up at the clouds and looking sideways on to the world” – and here I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s memory of Cavafy, as of a man ‘standing [or lying] absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe.’ “Illness and writing are netted together from the very start of the essay.”

But is writing in bed for everyone? How about novelists, the novelists of Big Books? Can you imagine Balzac, for instance, writing in bed? Certainly not: he would rather be charging apoplectic up and down the drawing room, tearing down the curtains and writhing on the floor chewing the carpet.

No, Virginia, has strong views on the ill-wisdom of composing entire novels in bed:

“Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose extracts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure – arches, towers, and battlements – stands firm on its foundation.”

Monsieur Proust, however, might have been inclined to disagree.

If you google ‘writing in bed’ a surprising number of articles appear, including one from a blog by Chris Bell (from whom I borrowed the image of Mark Twain) and by Robert McCrum, about whom I have many reservations, but am open-minded enough to leave this link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horses

4 Apr

 

Blanco is somewhat anaemic these days, as a consequence of drug therapy whose other side effects are listed as lethargy, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and . . . rage. That’s right, Le rage. So, to save the venting of my swollen spleen, allow me to regale you instead with a quite uncharacteristically mellow poem from the collection I am currently translating by Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, an Argentinian poet of wonderfully dark and understated talents, which will be published in the autumn by CB Editions.

 

 

HORSES  

 

Horses put up with

the weight of history

until the invention of

the internal combustion engine.

Now, whenever they are born

they stumble and tarry before the light

believing they have burst in

on the wrong world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

1 Jan

 

Having gone out at the beginning of Christmas week and bought a box of a dozen (yes, 12) Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eaten seven (7) of them myself, I feel some changes are overdue.

Blanco actually has several New Year’s resolutions for a change but isn’t telling because clearly if you tell then you can be found lacking, whereas if you don’t tell no one is the wiser and you can still breathe the rarefied air that comes with being good. In any case, Blanco is fleeing the grey skies of Cardiff early tomorrow morning in order to spend ten days in a place far distant from the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground and although it will not be warm, there is a good chance of blueness in the heavenly vaults. And blue skies help Blanco to think, whereas the endless grey and drizzle of the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground only gives rise to a kind of anti-thought, a condition exacerbated by a constant need for potatoes and doughnuts and dumplings and chocolate and cake and biscuits and other stuff to feed the gap where thought might seep in if given half a chance or a modicum of sunlight.

Ah sunlight! I know we don’t have much to complain about compared with those poor bastards who live up near the North Pole, the Siberians and Norwegians and Finns and the Elfenfolk and so forth, but this isn’t a competition, I just need sunlight otherwise I start going bonkers and am liable to bite people, or even bite dogs, a habit I try to curb, but which flares up in an instant whenever my supply of potatoes/dumplings/doughnuts/chocolate dwindles and I feel the mordant urge creeping over me.  But neither do I wish to complain, it is always better to NOT complain.

So, on the brink of this new year I should announce that if there are no posts forthcoming in the next ten days or so it is because I am immersed in my work and because the house where I am going has no legal internet access, and neither is there mobile phone coverage. Which, all things considered, makes it a perfect place to go and write, or to read – or even to sleep. Or simply to disengage from the tweeting, gibbering world of nonstop noise for just a while and recuperate the forces that lie within.

And, to celebrate the wonderful Xmas gift I received from Mrs Blanco, the Mariachi El Bronx CD, here is a clip of the boys singing ‘Cell Mates’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vagabond’s Breakfast: a perfect stocking filler (wash thoroughly after use)

18 Dec

 

Thanks to Scott Pack for his mention of The Vagabond’s Breakfast and selecting it as runner-up in his top ten ‘Books of the Year.’

Scott says:

The fact that it (The Vagabond’s Breakfast) has been totally ignored by the mainstream literary press – it managed one review in the Morning Star – is bloody annoying but not all that surprising. I don’t think literary editors go looking for great books any more, they are content to wait for them to fall into their laps. Although they still miss them when that happens.

The VB also made it into the hallowed pages of Times Literary Supplement, featuring in its ‘Books of the Year’, as one of the choices of Patrick McGuinness, so perhaps I’d better quote that too:

Richard Gwyn began The Vagabond’s Breakfast while recovering from a liver transplant. A memoir of the nine years of drink, drugs and vagrancy that did for his first liver, it’s a jagged tale gracefully told. Full of humane surreality, there’s something whole, even holistic, about the brokenness of the life it pieces (back) together. Like many books about illness, it’s also about health: Gwyn is a citizen of both realms, describing life with “two passports.”

It is still not too late for you to buy a copy of The Vagabond’s Breakfast as a yuletide gift for your beloved or for a friend or deserving relative, through The Book Depository (£7.23 plus free worldwide delivery), Abebooks (various prices) or even Amazon (£6.99 plus free UK delivery).

Such shameless self-promotion would be scandalous were this not being written at arm’s length for me by my amigo, accomplice, intermediary and sometime translator, Señor Ricardo Blanco.

 

 

 

 

Thinking aloud about Borges

20 Oct

A comment on yesterday’s blog gets things churning as I walk the dog this morning along the sunlit banks of the glorious Taf (how lucky we are to have something resembling countryside within walking distance of the centre here in Cardiff: may the gods protect us from ‘developers’ and their lapdog councillors hell bent on destroying the city’s twin lungs).

Charles comments that Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Borges and I’ argues with the Borges piece I posted yesterday: (‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being, survival meant ceasing to be what its being was’) and in which there’s at least one mirror (‘Secretly he [in this case Frank] was glad it was dirty and cracked’). So I look it up, as I am a diligent fellow.

Bidart’s prose poem, if that is what I am going to call it, as it appears in his poetry collection Desire and is written in prose, is a curious offering. Speaking of himself in the third person, and in the past tense, Frank first questions the veracity of Borges’ stance on his private and public selves:

The voice of this “I” asserts a disparity between its essential self and its worldly second self, the self who seeks embodiment through making things, through work, who in making takes on something false, inessential, inauthentic.

The voice of this “I” tells us that Spinoza understood that everything wishes to continue in its own being, a stone wishes to be a stone eternally, that all “I” wishes is to remain unchanged, itself.

But, argues Frank, who is really fooled by this? Most certainly Borges wasn’t, whatever he wishes us to believe:

When Borges’ “I” confesses that Borges falsifies and exaggerates it seems to do so to cast aside falsity and exaggeration, to attain an entire candor unobtainable by Borges.

This “I” therefore allows us to enter an inaccessible magic space, a hitherto inarticulate space of intimacy and honesty earlier denied us, where voice, for the first time, has replaced silence.

– Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

The illusion of an integral, perceptive ‘self’ which stands in isolate and unsullied contrast to the public face of the writer (in his case ‘Borges’) is therefore a conceit; even, very neatly, a literary conceit, one in fact I use on my students – as another of the commentators on yesterday’s post, ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ reminds me – to illustrate . . . something (what exactly?) about the other, the double, the doppelganger, the ‘secret sharer’.

Borges wrote two short stories about meetings with himself, one set in Cambridge, Massachusets in the 1970s, and a late one, set in 1983, both of them highly self-conscious and rather arch creations, the first better than the second. But they deal with a rather different notion, that of meeting an older or younger version of oneself.

I am concerned about the contemporaneous double, the secret sharer, as he is familiar to me. I came into close contact with him during the illness I describe in The Vagabond’s Breakfast. This is the one you get used to talking to in the delirium of illness, or the one that is conjured for you by the opiate deities. He is the absent other of the encephalopathic brain, and my first realisation that he was infringing on my sanity took place at a book launch in February 2007, when my mobile phone went off while I was speaking to the assembled public and my thoughts were if I answer, it will be myself at the other end, wandering the streets, asking where the event is taking place.

The second time that I was made aware of this concretisation of the other self was after a prolonged bout of insomnia, when I miraculously managed a full eight hours’ sleep one night, and woke with “a sense of panic, as though by sleeping for so long I had missed something essential; what precisely, I could not have said, but the closest I can get to an explanation for my panic, or guilt, would be this: that I had slept while the other me, the insomniac me, had suffered the night in terrible solitude, and that I (who had been asleep) should have been keeping him (i.e. myself) company.”

I believe, as I say in the book, that this is called the disintegration of the self. And I know that it was caused by a state of disorder brought about by illness and the effect of ammonia on the brain and so on, but I am equally certain that the potential for this kind of double-act (or hell, multiple division of the self) is only a step away from the apparent safety of the stable self, with its illusions of a fixed identity. As psychologists like RD Laing were saying decades ago.

Borges’ piece, with its leanings (some might say pretensions) towards a Tao whereby stones are stones and tigers tigers, alerts the reader to the doubleness of life for the famous writer Borges and his private, unassuming ‘I’ (who likes hourglasses and Stevenson’s prose for what they are rather than the affections they become in the words of ‘Borges’). But is this just too twee and self-congratulatory for its own good?

It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard if you have recently emerged from the gaseous belly of the many-headed beast, or crawled, wailing, through the dark, sticky entrails of the labyrinth, although, to be fair, this cannot be a reasonable judgement to level against a piece of creative writing: charging it for what it is not.

But am I, are we, in danger, in fact, of sanctifying Borges just a bit? After all, it has been argued, quite convincingly, that apart from some poems, not much of what he wrote after the 1950s was really much good. In his essay on Borges, Coetzee has written of some of the later works that “there is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature” and: “The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, ‘baroque’ pieces. Though he lived until 1986 he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.”

Anyhow, it gave me something to think about, along the muddy riverbank, as the dog wrestled with a big fish, which, on closer inspection, became a log.

 

 

 

 

Drinking mate

30 Sep

I began drinking mate six years ago, on my first trip to Argentina, and liked it immediately, even though many find it rather bitter. The picture, Mate, in which the woman drinks from the gourd while two gauchos look on admiringly, is by Juan Manuel Blanes, taken with a flash (unfortunately visible in the centre of the picture) from a book of prints of his works in the library of the National Museum of Visual Arts (Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales) in Montevideo, where last Thursday I spent a couple of hours researching Blanes’ work, with the kind assistance of two librarians, after hearing about him from Diego Vidart during a lunch of pizza and warm chickpea bread.

Blanes is the most influential Uruguayan painter, and to a large extent, the creator of the myth of Uruguayan national identity. In fact he deserves a post of his own, and one day he may get one. He did many paintings of rather glamourized gauchos, frequently drinking their national beverage, lassoing horses et cetera (the word lasso is from the Spanish ‘lazo’, a knot, bow or loop). In Uruguay everyone drinks mate, all of the time. In Argentina and Brazil it is also popular, but the Uruguayans are nuts about it. Everywhere they go they carry a flask and a gourd, and a mobile phone. They wear dark glasses too, when the sun is out, which is most of the time. This site tells you all you need to know about drinking mate, especially its many health benefits (it is, among other things, a powerful antioxidant) but the site is, I would venture, somewhat partisan.

All I know is that it tastes like supercharged green tea, delivers a healthy-feeling kick, keeps me alert, and takes the edge off my appetite, so must be good for dieting, and might eventually relieve some of the circumference of the Blanco belly. Plus it is somehow very comforting, sucking on a silver straw.

Joaquín O. Giannuzzi

8 Sep

Illustration of Giannuzzi by Soledad Calés

 

Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).

 

For Some Reason

I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.

I smoked, I drank

and faithful to my personal rhetoric

put my feet on the table.

Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.

Like almost everyone I messed up

without making too much noise;

yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,

and spat on my shadow before going to bed.

This was all the response that I could offer to a world

that claimed from me a character that possibly

didn’t suit me.

Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps

there was a different plan for me

in some potential lottery

and my number was lost.

Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.

Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.

This much remains to me:

a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,

a poem paralyzed halfway towards

an unknown resolution;

dregs of coffee in the cup

that for some reason

I never dared drain to the last drop.

 

On the Other Side

Someone has died on the other side of the wall.

At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.

I am the nearest neighbour and I feel

slightly responsible: blame

always finds an outlet.

In the rest of the building

no one seems to have noticed. They talk,

they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour

every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew

what had happened so close by, the thought

of death wouldn’t be sufficient

to alter the cardiac rhythm of the

building’s occupants.

They would push the deceased into the future

and their indifference would have its logic:

after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.

 

Intensive Care

In the bed opposite

the man woke up snoring

his open mouth set

in desperate conviction.

The serum was dripping

into his veins. From my belly

sprouted two plastic tubes

in which a pink foam bubbled

as if it were the definitive language

of my entrails. To one side

someone coughed up

the last of his viscera.

A springtime branch swayed

behind the window’s glass

flaunting the life owed us

in exchange for the disorders

that laid waste to our pale bones.

Everything seemed suspended

between universal infirmity

and the opportunities offered to death.

In the corridor a nurse fluttered by

and we followed her with eyes intent on

laying bare the fermented secret

of our clinical notes:

but we didn’t manage to reach

her distant and weary heart.

 

 

 

The Liver Transplant

14 Jul

The Blanco torso, two weeks after transplant, with 51 metal clips. What surgeons refer to admiringly as 'a beautiful scar'.

When I told people I was going to write about my experiences of liver disease and the transplant that followed my terminal diagnosis, it should not have come as a surprise that many readers were interested to hear about the process of the operation itself. So – with apologies to those of you who have already read ‘The Vagabond’s Breakfast’ – I am reproducing part of the section when I have been summoned to the hospital for the transplant.

Incidentally, I was recently asked to write a magazine article on the question of ‘presumed consent’ – whereby citizens are required to ‘opt out’ of the organ donor scheme, rather than the current system, where they ‘opt in’, by acquiring a donor card, thereby making known their availability as a potential donor. This is a fascinating and complex matter, with far-reaching ethical ramifications, and one that I will be addressing in this blog at a later date.

At this point in the narrative, I have been introduced to the anaesthetist and the surgeon who is to carry out the eight-hour operation, and I am being wheeled towards the theatre on a trolley bed:

Being manoeuvred down hospital corridors on a trolley bed has little to recommend it: you are now indisputably cast in the role of subject – you have become the one to whom things are done. This sense of utter helplessness is a challenge both to dignity and identity: you are simply the poor sod on the trolley whom passers-by will avoid looking at too closely. In the lift the other passengers stare at the ceiling, and I think of Hannibal Lecter. And then, the thought occurs to me that I spent ten years studying and writing about the subjectivity of the patient, that I have a PhD in the narrative construction of illness experience, have published in learned journals and even written a couple of books on the subject. None of this can help me now. I am in a post-discursive zone. I have reached the End of Theory.

Once inside the operating rooms, the situation becomes increasingly non-negotiable: the anaesthetist greets me by name but I have difficulty recognising him, transformed as he is by mask and surgical overalls. The surgeon too pops up with a consoling reminder: “I realise this is a big thing for you, but just remember that for us here, this is what we do every day.” He smiles. I do not panic. I am calm. I reason that if something does go wrong, I probably won’t know about it. Then the anaesthetist approaches once more, gives me an injection, and as he pulls away, the world goes with him.

I thought I had woken from a dream of the sea, but the waking was a part of the dream and instead I found myself upon a makeshift raft, the ocean swelling placidly around me, sharing tuna sandwiches with my dog. We rock unsteadily on the raft. I scour the horizon for any hint of land. Night is falling. I can hear nothing, and the gravity of silence makes me turn: a massive liner is bearing down, a million lights ablaze along the bows, lights that flicker into knowledge of something vast, unstoppable.

Coming to in Intensive Care, I nudge close to the surface several times before breaking through the last waves of sleep and opening my eyes. It is the afternoon of the next day. I am parched and my throat hurts, but I am evidently alive. I ask for water from the patient and fastidious Filipino male nurse who hovers at my bedside. My intake is restricted to occasional sips, which I swill around my mouth before swallowing for maximum lubrication, but I am impatient to drink, and inevitably take in more water than I am permitted. My nurse chides me gently, tells me again to take small sips.

I have often wondered, prior to the operation, how it would feel to be in a hospital bed immediately post-op, knowing that another person’s liver lies inside my body. At this same hospital, in February, I met successful, long-term transplant patients, and in spite of their apparent normality and good health, in spite of what I had been told about the advances made in transplant surgery, I could not help but regard these survivors as freakish cyborgs; insubstantial beings held together by pins and tape – and now I was one of them. Awkwardly, I pull back the bedclothes to look at my torso. Below the gauze bandage I follow the contours of a ridge that snakes across my stomach where the metal clips are planted (later, when the bandage is removed, I count fifty-one). Even more than during recent weeks, I feel at a remove from my own physical person, this immovable object to which I am attached and which now contains a large element of the not-me. The singularity of this sensation is perhaps due to the fact that nothing in my experience has been remotely similar: I have nothing to gauge it by. This lump inside my body is almost palpable otherness, and yet, if I did not know that I had received another man’s liver, would I feel any different? Would I know? Because of the drugs I am being fed, the only area of real discomfort in my body centres on my sore throat and the intolerable dryness of my mouth. Otherwise, it is too early for me to register any emotion other than relief that I have come through and am being told the operation has been a grand success.

I endure my thirst with a martial, dogged humour. Rose sits by my side, a warm and subtle presence, and I enjoy the visit of the surgeon, Professor W, and ask him when the monstrous battery of farts that issues forth from me might ease up. He tells me – and this is a little alarming – that the new liver was uncommonly large, coming in at 1.2 kilogrammes (the average liver weighs 0.7 kg). He says that with time it will shrink to accommodate to my body size, just as, if I had received a smaller organ – or half an organ, which is commonly the case – it would grow to fill the designated space. I have a sudden desire to mourn my old liver. It served me well, I think, sentimentally, before it finally gave up the ghost. Professor W says he had a hell of a job getting it out, which, quite apart from serving as a metaphor for the extinction of a past life, evokes some horrible imagery. I like the Prof – he has a nice sense of the macabre which he can’t quite keep in check, like his smile when discussing my prolific flatulence, marking him out as someone I might get along with well in civilian life.

At night, my temperature rises suddenly and I feel the onset of fear for the first time since entering the hospital; a dense fear, cloudy and dull, loitering, it seems, just to the back and to the left of me, like the devil. I am feverish. I fear I might have contracted some iatrogenic infection such as MRSA; I fear my body might be rejecting the new liver. I do not manage to sleep much that night, in spite of the medication, anxious in case my temperature continues to rise, putting me at threat of I know not what. There is a remote possibility of having to undergo more surgery if things go wrong, even a chance that I might require another new liver, for which an emergency, Europe-wide call would have to be sent out; but when my temperature is taken the next morning, it has fallen. I am off the critical list. That evening I am transferred to the Special Care unit, a half-way house between Intensive Care and the general ward. The following afternoon I manage to get out of bed and into an armchair. My father and sister visit, and they bring my daughters, Sioned and Rhiannon, who never take their eyes off me. I am tired and in considerable discomfort, but am overjoyed to see them.

Only a day later I am in a two-bed room on the liver ward and learning to walk with a Zimmer frame. That first night on the ward, I sleep a full eight hours, wake the next morning with a sense of levity and grace, and walk to the bathroom without assistance. A week to the day after surgery, I leave the hospital. The consultant who signs me out tells me this equals the record for turnaround on a liver transplant. I am irrepressible and quite barking: mad as a hatter, says the ward sister, Julie, approvingly. On leaving, I thank all the staff who have tended me. I vow to myself that I will never again complain about the National Health Service. As a parting gift they give me a blue plastic container for all my pills, with sections designating the days of the week. I take my pills four times a day. I swallow them down with water, tea or apple juice. They make me whole again. No, that’s a lie; they suppress my immune system in order to prevent me from rejecting the new liver. Before long I will have forgotten life without pills, but that is a small price to pay.

From ‘The Vagabond’s Breakfast’ (Alcemi, 2011)

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