The weather forecast was rain, torrential, all day, so I took my anorak. In the hospital car park it was spitting, nothing much, so I left it in the car.
My appointment was scheduled for 1.30. Before my name was called, I had time to browse the waiting-room bookshelf (paperbacks 50p, hardbacks £1). There, in the red livery of the Wordsworth Military Library, was Rorke’s Drift: A Victorian Epic by Michael Glover. I bore it back to my high-backed chair and started to read. When a nurse came in and called my name, I had to come all the way back from South Africa in 1879 to answer it.
This appointment was to receive the results of a scan. I was shown to an examination room and a minute later in she sailed, my lovely oncologist. As I’d guessed — the appointment had been hastily brought forward — this time I hadn’t got away with it. The scan had shown up suspicious anomalies in two ribs, two lymph nodes and a kidney. I would therefore have to go back on the tablets and in the very near future have a camera threaded up via my knob to investigate. Perhaps because my life is in her hands, my mental image of my oncologist is of a shining goddess. On this occasion I ventured to tell her so. ‘Nonsense,’ she said. Nevertheless, my pleasure at seeing her again easily outweighed the disappointment of the scan results.
After that I went down to level 2. On level 2 is the eye clinic. Last week I received my new glasses from the local optician. She also flogged me a detailed photo of the back of my eye for 25 quid. When the optician glanced at the photo later, she noticed a dark patch on the periphery and rang me up to tell me that I really ought to have it investigated. To this end she wrote a referral letter to the hospital. The hospital is a long way away. This eye clinic appointment, on the back of the oncology appointment, was the result of a rare and adroit bit of forward thinking on my part to save a trip.
In the eye-clinic waiting room, I returned with excitement to the Buffalo River and Zululand in 1879. But only half a page later my name was called. After a battery of eye tests, I was shown into a doctor’s office. She was gorgeous. She suspected that the pigmented area on the back of my eye might well be a metastasised outpost of my cancer. Bloody hell. But my goodness she was lovely. I thought I recognised the accent. ‘Are you French?’ I said. ‘Belgian,’ she said. I’ve to see her again in six weeks’ time for more tests, which I’m quite looking forward to.
After the eye clinic I went back up to level 3. The oncology department had organised a hasty appointment for me to have a ‘pre-op’ examination at the day-surgery unit as soon as everyone had finished looking at my eye. In the waiting area up here, I managed to get as far as Private Hitch, perched on the hospital roof, shouting: ‘Here they come! Black as Hell and thick as grass!’, when my name was called. ‘My name’s April,’ said the nurse as she led me along a corridor. ‘What a lovely name,’ I said. She was a cockney and a West Ham fan and while she weighed and measured me we waxed nostalgic about the Happy Hammers as they were when they played at Upton Park. She’d been crying today, she confided. Even after 30 years she missed the East End enough to cry. I knew what she meant, I said.
On the drive back the black sky had an emerald tinge, but still the rain held off. I’d left my brother in charge of my mother. ‘How did you get on?’ he said when I arrived back. ‘I’m riddled with it,’ I said and he laughed. ‘Mum hasn’t been well this afternoon,’ he said, serious again.
Later I was back beside the Buffalo River when my brother put his head round the door and reported that Mum was in dreadful pain all of a sudden. I went to look. ‘Help! Help!’ she was saying quietly to herself. The time had finally come to have a look in the emergency pain-relief pack and see what was in there. The diamorphine was in 10mg ampoules. We needed a nurse to come and administer it. When we got hold of one on the phone, she promised to come ‘within an hour’. My brother I and took it in turns to hold her hand and comfort her. Every distressing minute seemed like an hour. After 90 of these, the nurse still hadn’t arrived. So we called an ambulance. This arrived after a further 150 minutes.
What a day. But at least the rain held off.
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