Sometimes, Mum would wrap my freshly-washed hair around bits of toilet paper and tie them up at bedtime. She’d complete the effort with kiss curls; coiled strands just in front of either ear, pinned in place by two crossed Kirby grips. The photo is from my cousin Sarah, on the left here, showing the two of us in 1964 aged three, on the beach at Bude. See my ringlets! Mum used to say: we all must suffer in the cause of beauty. I can remember her in the same era backcombing her hair, layering it in spray, adding hair pieces and grips and big doughnuts like roadkill moles, the constructions needed to achieve the Dusty look. Sometimes I got the Audrey Hepburn topknot (hair covering the mole that was as big as my head, and wrapped beneath, skewered with curved pins into my scalp), or the dreaded ringlets, which meant a night with knots hurting my head, unable to get comfortable, and the tussle between those and the pulling of individual strands of hair was some kind of torture. And tonight, my first night home, l’m back there in that powerless state with my new dressing catching now dry hairs all over and irking the Hunt scar in a way it hasn’t been irked before. So I grab the dressmaking shears and cut through one side of my hair, releasing it as Mum shrieks. Finally, a rebellion. Relief, but the dressing’s fallen off from the top. Mum manages to re stick it using one of the new dressings, but when I press the feeling is horrible, a kind of squidge and bubble. I decide to ignore it, and get the dressing redone properly at the Minor Injuries Unit in the morning.
I sleep till 4.30 which is some kind of miracle, then wake and write. As an active resister of routine, at the moment it’s quite comforting to know that I have one. Meal times aren’t usually a feature of my life – I eat when I feel like it. But here at my parents’ home meals are eaten at the dining room table, and they’re planned. I have extras thanks to the steroids which give me a gut-gnawing hunger, and so I start with my first breakfast of oatcakes and cheese – at the moment I have a passion for cambozola – somewhere between 3 and 4am, with a mug of ginger tea. When Mum gets up to make tea somewhere between 6.30 and 7.30 I have my second breakfast of toast with marmite or peanut butter and a mug of builder’s tea with steroids on the side. Then at 9 ish I eat oats with chopped nuts, dates, live yogurt and banana, with a cafetiere of coffee and a glass of apple juice. A whole day’s food by 10. Then there’s the pre-lunch snack with steroids on the side again, the lunch, the pre-dinner snack, dinner and late night snack, and the other meds I take, two of which are tailing off at different rates. It’s hard to keep track. I’m going to be an elephant, anyway, but one with a routine.
Mum and I are sat in the tiny MIU waiting area in Tavistock. We hear the shuffle, a clop clop clop. He appears in the doorway, sheepskin coat, tween cap, walking stick and pointy-toed gait. We smile and say hello.
They don’t tell you about old age, maids, tis a bugger! I used to be able to leap a five bar gate, now I couldn’t jump a straw! He gesticulates low down. These legs is dreadful…
I reckon he could leap higher than I could today, the life force is strong in him.
What happened to your cap then? There’s a triangular singe mark across the peak.
Got im damp and dried him by the fire, and he caught a bit. People’s always mentioning it, telling me I should get a new cap; well I got two spares but this bugger’s got plenty of wear left in im, he’ll outlive me! 88 I am!
He’s a regular, in need of social contact and dressings.The thing I miss most about my job is the contacts like this one; chatting and laughing with people who’ve lived incredible lives often, lives that have seen so many changes and upheavals. He shuffles off with the nurse to get his legs dressed, waving and smiling, muttering Tis a bugger.
A few minutes later and the MIU HCA is looking at my scar which is excellent, and in a flash she’s replaced the dressing with one that I barely notice. I have been worrying, because of the head bog. I’m not minor injuries trained, although a number of paramedics now are. It’s a specialised area, assessing wounds and how best to treat them. My approach is the classic ambulance one – clean, cover with something sterile and big to prevent infection that ensures nobody thinks you’re a Johnner (St John Ambulance are known for their most beautiful bandaging) and send them off for a professional assessment. When it comes to more significant injuries, and in particular head trauma, there’s one sign that we all look for; bogginess. It took me some time to work out what that meant when I started in the ambulance service, but once you’ve encountered it you know. We all talk about head injuries, but bogginess hints at the real concern which is compromise to the skull and thus an underlying brain injury. A boggy head wound goes to the ED, no questions. Now I’m feeling boggy myself and it’s most strange.
One of our favourite wild swims is down the river Aune or Avon from Aveton Gifford to Bantham. We go on the high spring from towards the top of the tidal reach, and swim down the ria three and a bit miles with the ebb. The top stretch is silted mud, and the water is opaqe, greeny orange and brackish. Here when you swim you feel the silt, press with your hands and mould it, release bubbles from dwellers in river mud. I know there’s a world under that brown gloop, a deeper, chthonian world I’m brushing with my hands as I pass. Lower down as the salt water sinks beneath the less dense and cooler river, there’s an area where methane from rotting vegetation is trapped beneath sand layered lightly by currents. As you tread you feel your feet are on clouds and streams of bubbles rise as you move, tickling your legs as you sink back into the water. My head contains a mix of those sensations, and perhaps some Dartmoor mire; one of the places I used to take my nephews bog-trotting, where you run and the ground wibbles and undulates as you pass.
It started with a need to blow my nose. I did so gently, and was surprised by bubbles blipping up from the left nostril beyond my eye. Air in the sinuses. Then when I touched the top of my dressing, the bog in my head began to bubble and squish. Reading the information on craniotomy, the piece of skull is replaced with srews, but is prone to lifting and moving till the bone heals and I guess that’s what I’m feeling, along with the swelling from the op (although I’m happy there’s not much of that as I have no major symptoms). The brain and spinal cord are encased by meninges or membranes, which have beautiful names: the dura mater is the tough mother, the outer protection; the arachnoid mater (spidered with blood vessels) sits beneath; and then the pia mater is the soft mother, the membrane covering the brain itself. Between the latter two is the subarachnoid space, filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that acts as a protective buffer. Those membranes have been cut, and I hope restored. Something I’ll ask about later, how do they repair such fine entities? To notice fluid moving from within is most strange. The potential presence of CSF in the form of watery bleeding from the nose or ears particularly is one of the signs we paramedics look for in our trauma survey and I’ve seen it on a number of occasions. So it’s especially odd to be feeling it, although in such a controlled way. Still, as Mr Fewings says, yes it’s brain surgery but if it goes well it’s fine. I think it’s fine. It just feels odd.