Wednesday, 16 July 2014

No Sleep!

Sleepless night for me, I am afraid.  Usually this was the time of day I wrote my best stuff but back then my creative juices were fortified with Scottish whisky and not the Ceylon tea I am drinking now.  Alex has a chest cold, a pretty miserable affliction at the best of times but awful in the tropics.  Marcia is desperately tired so I am doing the night shift as duty nurse so that she can sleep and I can keep Alex propped up on his pillows to help him breathe.

The internet connection has been pretty much useless since I returned from England.  While I was there I bought myself a wireless router, a device marketed as a ‘MiFi’ which promised to improve my connection and also allow me to set up a personal hot spot.  The hot spot would allow Marcia to connect as well.  Sounded wonderful except that the local internet service provider refused to configure it (or give me the configuration settings) as they had not sold it to me.  It took me a while to work out but I am now linked to you and the rest of the world through the device, as is Marcia, so up yours Movinet.  Much to my dismay though, as I have to pay for the gigabytes used, I notice that the connection has improved so markedly that Marcia was able to watch her favourite soap channel as a streaming video this afternoon.  Having extolled both the virtues of the device and my own technical prowess, I can now hardly complain if she enjoys its benefits to the full.  Alex is only five but he has already worked out how to stream Ben 10 cartoons onto his Samsung Tablet.  Until the novelty wears off (or the monthly quota of internet wiggly amps is exceeded) the TV appears largely redundant.

For want of tools, I was unable to finish off the installation of the FrankenPump, the working water pump I created out of the dead bodies of two other pumps, so with spit running backwards have had to accept the need to call in a local plumber.  Naturally, he did not turn up so we passed another day of lugging water in buckets from the well to the cottage.

The Jeep is looking years younger now that I have bent my finger joints backwards giving the coachwork a good going over with cutting polish.  Sadly, I can see through its makeover and know that beneath its buffed skin lies a heap of trouble.  It is about time I replaced it with a new car.  Marcia sportingly suggested I buy something small such as a little Corolla.  I put my foot down.  There was no way I was going to allow her and little Alex to travel backwards and forwards to town in a car notable only for its origami like qualities when involved in a collision and I told her this.  So she asked for a Range Rover instead.  I hate Range Rovers.  Sure, they are good looking and very capable 4x4’s but they are so bloody unreliable and outrageously expensive to repair.  I suggested a Volvo XC90.  They’re brilliant.  Comfortable, reliable and understated, everything I could wish for in a car.  No dice, she might stoop to a VW Touareg.

It is hard to buy a decent car here at a decent price.  I generally do not buy cars new, people who do lose a quarter of the value of their investment as soon as they drive it out of the showroom.  I prefer to let someone else take the hit and buy a low mileage year or two old example.  Finding such a car here is, as I have said, tough.  It will either be knackered or overpriced so the only course left is to import.  I have imported a few cars, all of them bought unseen, the decision to buy having been based on photos and the declarations of sellers, a highly risky strategy you will undoubtedly agree but I have been lucky.  I do try to mitigate the risk.  For a start, I will only import used cars from Germany.  Of all the nations in the world, they, along with perhaps the Swiss, have draconian roadworthiness directives and, with a genetically programmed need to keep things neat and tidy, tend to look after their cars. 

Import duties for vehicles are not simple.  They are anything from 2% to 50% and depend on the use to which the vehicle will be put (making it cheapest to ride around in an ambulance), the age of the vehicle (the older it is the more expensive the duty), the type of fuel and the cubic capacity of the engine.  A low mileage Range Rover is cheaper to buy in Dubai than in Germany.  But all Dubai RR’s have hot snot turbo charged large capacity V8 petrol engines so attract 50% duty whereas the smaller capacity diesel engined version in Germany may cost more but only attracts 20% duty if it is less than three years old.

I am too tired to think about cars tonight, it will have to remain a niggling anxiety until I work something out.

Well, it is six in the morning, Alex and Marcia are sleeping peacefully and my laptop battery is about dead so I shall try and snatch a few myself.  Germany won the world cup as we all know and I am sure you picked up on the fact that it is the first world cup a united Germany has won.  Well, with the ex DDR mob involved, it isn’t so hard to believe that Germany cheated.  This new, brash young team were bred from birth to win…

7 Up - They don't like 7 Up in Brazil.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Cock and Bull Stories

A big cock

The internet is more down than up.  Things keep breaking (the well pump has just burnt out so I am busy stripping it and an old pump to try and get one good pump going) and my blasted swollen leg will not give up annoying me.  I used to find the time to write my posts in the wee small hours, usually tanked up to the eyeballs.  Now I am generally busy during the day and go to bed knackered and early.  This, I am informed on good authority, is a healthy lifestyle.

Early this morning Marcia asked me why African football teams never did so well in international competition.  I was just being handed the keys to my fully restored Triumph Stag, on the hand stitched leather passenger seat of which Kylie Minogue was working out how best to arrange her legs for maximum effect, and now suddenly I was being dragged back to reality.  It was a bastard of a way to wake up.

Since my return I have been ever so slightly, just a teensy weeny bit guilty of reminding Marcia what a shithole this place is, how useless everyone who lives here is and how bloody corrupt everything is so thought, just for a change, I might try a softer approach to filling this awful gap in her knowledge and lie.

‘African countries do not have the population or infrastructure to support the large number of well-populated leagues they have in Europe,’ I said.  ‘African teams really do not have the local competition or get the practice they need to compete at an international level,’ I continued, ‘the only quality players they have are those who play in European or South American club football.’  This utter codswallop seemed to satisfy Marcia so I sloped off to the kitchen to satisfy myself with a cup of tea.  Political interference and corruption along with a huge dose of selfish arrogance rather than team spirit, I thought, that’s why African football teams are crap. Mind you, the selfish arrogance bit applies just as well to England.

We turned on BBC news in time to hear a breathless reporter quote a Cameroon Football Association representative: "Recent allegations of fraud around Cameroon 2014 Fifa World Cup three preliminary games, especially Cameroon vs. Croatia, as well of the existence of seven bad apples in our national team do not reflect the values and principles promoted by our administration.” 

It begs the question, what’s left that does?  But I did not say anything to Marcia.

Last night I briefed the new building crew chief.  I have kept my original Filipino carpenter but I have now sacked all of the old crew bar him.  I know I had their issues sorted the day I arrived after hurrying back from UK but I lied to them as well.  I thought it best to get them back to work and not stick them full of leaky holes but I could not allow them to get away with trying it on with Marcia while I was away.  It has taken me only a few weeks to find another crew and this time I was not lying to the original team members at all when I told them if they were still on my land by nightfall I would stick them full of leaky holes.

Marcia’s car was overheating more than when I left so it is not purely down to the engine running lean.  I still cannot forgive Marcia for the artisan repair she allowed the Pork and Cheese mechanic to effect, though, as the problem is a leaky radiator.  It will cost me 400 bucks for a new one (quite reasonable for Angola) so while I am at it, I might as well cut the old fan off and replace all the bits damaged by the ‘repair’.  My life would be much easier if I could find a wrecked Jeep and pillage the parts from that.  It is a hell of sight easier to swap out an assembly rather than strip and fix one.  In UK (or anywhere else civilized for that matter), you’d just by an exchange reconditioned part.

My one week’s freedom in UK has spoiled me rather.  In Milton Keynes I was in a Sainsbury’s store bigger than the largest (and only) shopping centre in Angola.  It didn’t just sell food, it sold everything.  I had gone in there not to buy food, oddly enough, but to buy an Amazon gift voucher because that’s where said I could buy some.  Since the Visa debit card on my Angolan Bank was being laughed at in UK, Amazon gift vouchers were the only way, apart from asking a friend to use his card and me refunding him in cash, I could make on line purchases.  The shop was so large and I was so precarious on my pins, I asked an assistant for help locating them to save unnecessary walking.  In other words, like all good explorers I procured for myself the services of a native guide.  On the way we passed a rank of fantastically futuristic looking devices lined up on display.  I gave up trying to work out what they were (I considered water filtration devices or pumps but remained unconvinced) so asked my guide.

‘They’re vacuum cleaners,’ he said, his voice as flat as his expression.


In Angola, the fastest I travel is about 80 Kph.  That’s a maximum.  Usually it is about walking pace in traffic.  Any faster than that and I start to get very nervous.  Now this might surprise some people, especially those who tried to keep up with me in Germany when I was stuffing sports cars or motorcycles through the scenery as fast as I could.  If I were the only person on an autobahn, I could still make it a race; I would have to beat my fastest time between two locations and if I had never been there before, I would still want to set a benchmark.  I can still remember some of those benchmarks today:  Three hours and fourteen minutes from Venlo to Baden-Baden; fourteen hours and twenty minutes from Split in Yugoslavia to Bielefeld in Germany (both in Golf GTI’s if you are interested, proving that nippiness beats brute power).  The fastest I have travelled while still in contact, however tenuous, with the Earth’s surface was not on a race track, but on the A33 from Bielefeld to Paderborn riding a motorcycle, 170 mph.  What at normal speeds were virtually unnoticeable curves, now required me to lean the ‘bike over far enough to get my knee down.  Being passed by a large capacity motorcycle at full chat doing a hundred miles an hour faster than you were must have been heart stopping for a dear old lady in a VW Polo.

When I left hospital, I did not have far to walk.  Trains to Milton Keynes leave London from Euston and the hospital was only across the road.  Walking was bad enough but standing still was misery so when I saw the queue to buy tickets from the counters, I decided to use a Virgin Train as they had half the station devoted to machines from which passengers could buy tickets without having to queue.  Sadly, of the fifty or so identical machines, not one took good old cash so I had to ask a rather hyped individual dressed in red trousers and waistcoat who I correctly assumed was a Virgin employee.  It says everything about a modern cashless society (and rubs in the difficulties I was experiencing sans plastic) that there were only three, dusty and forlorn looking machines tucked away in a corner that accepted cash.

My old friend Paul was waiting for me when I arrived at MK Central.  Paul had tried hard to convince me that he should pick me up from the hospital.  I supposed he imagined me being wheeled out in a chair and deposited at the road side.  This, as I explained to him, was madness.  It would take him hours to fight his way into Central London, would cost in petrol and congestion charges and, since I would not know exactly when I would be released, would involve one of us hanging around waiting for the other.  Much better for me to walk a few hundred yards, pay fourteen quid, and be in MK thirty minutes later.  Besides, he had a wedding to arrange, his, so hardly had the time. 

I must pause here to consider his fiancée Karen who I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting.  As far as she was concerned, I was just some oik who her husband-to-be had met years ago (I was his armed bodyguard in Angola back in the mid Nineties), I had been rushed into an infectious diseases ward of a London hospital after arriving suddenly from darkest, Ebola infested Africa where, despite best efforts, the beasty causing this awful flesh eating affliction had not been identified and now, just two weeks before their wedding, Paul wanted to put me up in their house.  The fact that she obviously allowed this is testament to the true love I hope they enjoy for the rest of their lives for I wouldn’t have gone within a mile of myself had I the choice.  Karen, as I expected, was completely laid back, allowed me to use my e cig in the house and fed me everything my heart and stomach craved which really came down to anything with salad and horseradish sauce.  Paul seemed a bit tired of salad (the fridge was full of it) but I couldn’t get enough, salad is a luxury in Angola.

Paul had come to collect me in his toy.  I have been so long in Angola I had never seen a Porsche Boxster in its tin flesh.  It looks miles better in real life.  Paul is a geologist and does mathematics as a hobby.  His brain is about the size of a small planet but he is by no means a geeky intellectual.  For a start, he is a big bloke and I often wondered who would be protecting whom if the shit had hit the fan in Angola.  I suppose he felt comfortable knowing I had a gun and was licenced to use it.  One of the most interesting walks I had was with him along a Cape Town beach listening him explain just when and how all the rock formations surrounding us were formed.  He is also mad keen on motor sport, especially Formula One.  I am sure it is no coincidence that his lovely house is set in the North Buckinghamshire countryside within sight of Silverstone Circuit. 

After admiring the Porsche from the outside, I then had to get into it.  This was easier said than done for me as one has to slot oneself down into it, not an easy feat with a gammy leg but worth the effort, the Germans do make exceedingly good cars and when Paul started it, it was an aural delight as well, especially as the hood was down. 

We purred menacingly out of the station car park and I was just wriggling myself into a comfortable position in the soft leather upholstery when all hell broke loose.  One second I was feeling all soft and fuzzy, next something punched me hard in the kidneys and I was wondering why I was staring at the sky with my head welded to the headrest.  My stomach, I suspected, was lying as surprised as its ex owner in a moist and slithery heap in the car park.  Bloody hell the car was fast.  Did you know that a cricket ball making its rapid progress down the wicket actually gains weight?  It’s something to do with relativity.  I too felt as if I had gained weight, a lot of weight but I think that had more to do with inertia as, when we arrived suddenly at a junction I lost all sensation of weight before regaining it again when I hit the limit of the seatbelt.  The car must have brake disks the size of dustbin lids. 

If someone had driven me that fast in Angola, I would have ordered them to stop the car before shooting them by the roadside.  It was different with Paul, though.  Not only is he a very competent driver, he knew both his car and the road we were travelling along like the back of his hand so I was really enjoying myself, terrified but having fun as people do, for example, on maniac roller coaster rides.  As he slotted the car through another roundabout, expertly hitting every apex I marvelled at the car’s grip.

‘This car has a hell of a lot of grip,’ I said but then stopped myself from concluding with, ‘I haven’t heard the tyres squeal once.’  That really would have been a bit of an invitation.  Well, maybe not, Paul is very sensible but I didn’t feel like putting his maturity to the test, there’s an eighteen year old lurking dangerously in all of us.  I was in a spinning mid-engined sports car once, it was a Ferrari and I had just lost control of it.  Let me tell you, mid-engined sports cars spin like a top and once they’re spinning, there’s bugger all you can do about it until they either stop of their own accord or, more usually in such a circumstance, wrap themselves and their about-to-be-deceased passengers around something unforgiving.

It wasn’t for that reason, however, that I was relieved to be travelling to Wales in Paul’s Saab.  Going there in the Porsche would have been miles more fun but there was no way I would have been able to cope with my legs stretched out horizontally in a cramped cockpit unless Paul took along an engine hoist to get me out again.  Besides, I like Saabs.  I know that towards the end they lost some of their quirkiness and have now finally gone bust but their cars were always interesting and driven by a ‘certain’ type of person.  You were more likely to see one driven by an architect (or a geologist) than a rep.  Naturally Paul’s Saab had the bigger engine with twin turbos so it was no slouch either.  I have never, ever been in an estate car that could corner so fast and was so comfortable.  They are rare cars, I only saw one other on the journey which, by amazing coincidence, was the same model and colour as Paul’s and parked in the car park of the same restaurant at which we had stopped to have breakfast.  The affinity amongst dying breeds, such as Saab owners, must be strong for Paul and the owner of the other Saab exchanged waves to acknowledge their shared automotive and gastronomic taste.

The fact that I was travelling to Wales at all was by pure happy chance.  I had been fortunate enough to meet two fellow bloggers while I was in hospital.  Both Pete, better known as the Idiot Gardener and Sten, aka the Suburban Bushwacker had come to see me on several occasions cheering me up immensely and both of them couldn’t have been more helpful.  I was disappointed I could not take them up on their offers for get togethers once I was out but I really was in no position to be doing any travelling more involved than climbing onto a train at Euston and getting off again half an hour later.  I was hoping to meet JayGray in London on my way out but it transpired that I would be flying the day before he arrived in the city.  Paul had obviously picked up on this for he asked me whereabouts in Wales John Gray lived.  Paul was to travel to Wales to meet up with his son in Llandudno.  After checking on the map, we realized he would pass within a couple of miles of the Ukrainian Village and its small suburb, Trelawnyd.  I would get to visit John and Paul would have company on the journey.

Paul wanted an early start.  As I was still on hospital time (for over four weeks I had been woken at five every morning by the temperature and pressures nurse) this was no problem so even though Paul intended to stop for breakfast on the way, I had plenty of time for a cup of tea and a few slices of toast.  Coming into the village of Stony Stratford soon after setting off, Paul drew in on the High Street saying he needed the cash point.  Almost as an aside he told me that the hotel opposite us, the Cock, was one half of the Cock and Bull legend.  The other half, the Bull was only a few yards further along.  I was fascinated.  I had never given the origin of a ‘Cock and Bull’ story much thought.  I thought it meant a load of rubbish.  Now that Paul was explaining it to me, I realised it didn’t necessarily mean that.  It was really a case of how stories got better in the telling; which did you believe, the story you heard in the Cock while sinking a pint or the Bull version you heard over another pint only a few paces down the road?  Staring at the Cock and Bull set in this typically English town made me aware of England’s rich heritage.  Even the place names have meaning, revealing their ancient Briton, Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman roots.  I attended school in Ashby-de-la-Zouch and had a girlfriend living in Thorpe Constantine.

Americans love this sort of thing, direct links all the way back to their ancestral origins.  That’s why once a year on the 17th of March a good proportion of Americans paint everything including themselves green and drink so much green stout that the resultant sewage turns the Chicago River the same colour.  Or that in late January every year grown American men of pale complexion and red hair pull on skirts and spend the evening getting rip roaring drunk on whisky, head butting each other and the ground eventually throwing up the frankly awful substitute for Haggis they have there.  Bizarrely, imports of Haggis to the United States were banned in 1971 as one of its principal ingredients is sheep’s lung, which evidently posed a severe threat to the health of citizens.  Such concern (even though ludicrous) could, I suppose, be considered heart-warming until you note that America only got round to banning the use of lead in paint 44 years after the Europeans did and American canners were still using lead solder in the manufacture of food containers until as recently as 1993.  No wonder their Generals are all crazy, they’ve gone mad on a diet of tinned army rations. 

Once on the M1, I saw my first wind turbine.  God they’re a shocking eyesore, a real blot on the landscape.  I told Paul this.  He told me to wait a while, I hadn’t seen anything yet apparently.  With his cruise control set to just a tadge under 100mph, a while was not long at all.  The national speed limit on the UK’s motorways is seventy miles per hour (112 Kph) by the way but it is speeds of or above 100 that really cause the Federales to lose their composure.  Quite a few years ago I hired a hot snot Mercedes at the airport because I was in a hurry to get to the Midlands and was dismayed to find it had been limited to 100mph.  I might as well have rented a weedy compact.

Occupying the whole of the vista in front of us were bloody great white windmills, hundreds of them.  That was bad enough but I realized just how ludicrous all this was when Paul pointed out that only a third were actually running.  Wind turbines, another Millennium bug style scam.  They are only economically viable to their owners because of tax payer subsidies.  You can’t get away from them.  As soon as one lot faded into the distance, another lot hove into view.  What I was witnessing was the tip of the ice berg.

There were none of the problems I expected crossing the border from England into Wales, not even the sight of a startled farmer caught with the hind legs of a sheep stuffed into his wellies.  The sun was shining, something I thought hardly ever happened that side of the rain shadow, and Liverpool could be observed from the safety of the Flintshire side of the Mersey.  My finger was now tracing our course across the one inch to four mile road map accurately at a speed commensurate with our progress (it had lagged behind til now, so deceptively fast was the smooth riding Saab) and I knew we would be at John’s in less than fifteen or so minutes.  We were running late, I had said to John that we would arrive mid-morning, it was now lunchtime.  Where we had lost time I wasn’t sure.  Traffic had been reasonably light, I suppose we had dawdled over breakfast but I was sure John wouldn’t mind.  I had a clear image of John in my mind, an image developed over several years of reading his blog and our occasional email exchange.  What if he was nothing like this image?  What did I really know of him?  He was a nurse who lived with his partner in Wales.  He kept animals, liked scotch eggs and zombie films and was very community spirited.  Whilst I would risk asking him to care for one of my animals, I would never entrust him with the care of my car.

First cottage after the Church he had told me.  We couldn’t miss it, not because it was a huge country pile, but because it was exactly as I imagined, only nicer.  The lane was narrow, bounded by high stone wall capped verges.  Just down the hill the road curved to the right in front of a gate towards which was walking the unmistakable figure of John.  Through my open window I called out in my best BBC voice,

‘I say, old boy, I’m looking for a rather affable gay Welsh raconteur!’

And so, twixt cottage and field in the middle of Flintshire, the Hippo met Mr. Gently.

A load of Bull

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

There's No Place Like Home...

Well, I am back in Angola and, after UK, I was stunned into introspective silence.  God, it’s a shithole.

The flight on BA was every bit as bad as I feared.  I made the mistake of slipping my shoes off.  On arrival, my left leg and foot were so badly swollen, I had to hobble down the steps to the waiting bus and through immigration and customs shoeless as well as a little clueless; it was the first time I had entered Angola through the rebuilt terminal so long has it been since I travelled. 

Sensibly, I had taken my friend Paul’s advice and booked a minicab to take me from his beautiful house where I had been staying since leaving hospital, to Heathrow.  There, in Terminal Five, the agony started.  Despite being assured by BA customer services that I was entitled to two check in bags, the BA computer at the airport said ‘No’ so I was forced to lug everything across to another desk and pay the £65 they demanded for Alex’s boxed ‘bike.  The reason given was that although half the size of a maximum standard suitcase in two dimensions and weighing only one third of the maximum weight, it exceeded the maximum length allowed by three centimetres and required, therefore, ‘special’ handling.  I rejoined the check in queue and if I wasn’t already annoyed, became incandescent while witnessing a guy in front of me checking in a suitcase and a full size golf bag with no problems.  Wisely, I bit down hard on my tongue when told I could not check Alex’s ‘bike at the check in desk at which I had twice queued but had to take it instead all the way to the other end of the terminal to check it in at the oversize baggage desk.  I had already decided that BA’s flagship terminal was crap when I hit security.

I had two rucksacks.  A large one, marketed as the maximum size allowed as hand luggage, and a smaller one in which I had my laptop, two Samsung Tablets, an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy smart phone and all my e-cigarette kit.  Now I am not sure if you are familiar with e-cigarettes but they consist of a USB rechargeable battery the size of a chunky fountain pen, an atomizer which comprises a dual heating coil contained within a clear glass tank (for the e-liquid) into which the battery screws.  Assembled, it looks uncannily like the time pencils wartime SOE agents used to blow up things behind enemy lines and does, in fact, contain two of the essential components of a viable bomb, a power source and an initiator.  I also had with me several 100 ml bottles of tobacco flavoured 24mg nicotine strength e-liquid (marked with the international symbol for poison, a skull and crossed bones) and one 150 ml bottle of Buttercup Syrup.  The rest of the bag was filled with enough medical dressings and ointments to stock a small pharmacy.

Buttercup Syrup, as every child in England knows, is the finest tasting medicine in the world and so free of noxious active ingredients it is licensed for children as young as two.  Like any child, Alex occasionally suffers from a chesty cough.  In Angola, the doctors prescribe antibiotics.  The Doctors in Angola prescribe antibiotics for pretty much everything and, as we have seen, this nearly had dire consequences for me so I wanted Marcia to rely on something other than the advice of men who apart from dressing in white coats, really know no more about medicine than an actor in Casualty.

The bag containing all this was maneuvered off the conveyor returning scanned bags to their owners and into the ‘special attention’ pile where a sullen young lady proceeded to examine every item in detail, even ignoring my advice to be careful with the contents of one particular plastic bag which, she discovered for herself, contained unwashed and wound contaminated grundies.  Yes, I know, why would anyone pack soiled laundry in their hand luggage?  Well, I had already packed everything (a feat of engineering in itself) when I realized I had forgotten to take these becoming surplus after showering and changing into account.  The box containing the ‘bike was well sealed with duct tap and releasing the catches of my suitcase would have caused a minor seismic event so into one of the rucksacks they went.

Although she was curious enough about the quantity and variety of dressings to ask me if I was a doctor, she ignored everything to do with e smoking and turned her attention to the bottle of Buttercup Syrup.

‘I shall have to confiscate this’, she told me.


‘Because it is more than 100 mls.’

‘OK, I’ll drink a third of it,’ I suggested.

She gave me a wintry smile.

‘I am serious,’ I assured her, ‘I’ll drink the top third now.’

‘The bottle will still be too big,’ she finally said.

‘So if I drank the lot, or poured it away, I still would not be allowed to carry the empty bottle?’

All the time we were having this rather bizarre conversation, other passengers were drinking the tops off their bottled water and soft drinks and, lying in amongst my now scattered possessions but clearly visible, were ten 100 ml plastic bottles of something largely made up of propylene glycol and marked as poison.  Clearly, it wasn’t quantity that mattered to this young lady, it was size.

I knew she was trying to piss me off and she knew she had succeeded.

‘Can I have a receipt?’ I asked, ‘that way I can go to Boot’s in the terminal and buy it back again.’

There was nowhere set aside for passengers to repack their bags.  I dragged everything across to a customer services counter, spilling much on the way and, much to its owner’s annoyance, proceeded to carefully repack everything.  As every experienced traveler knows, once unpacked again, a bag will never repack anywhere near as efficiently as it did the first time.  An official minced over and demanded, in a way suggestive of me having committed a crime, to know if I had been offered help to repack my bags. 

‘No,’ I told him somewhat relieved I wasn’t about to be arrested, ‘but I am missing a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.’ 

‘I had two but now I only have one,’ I added helpfully after deciding his vacant expression was a sign of incomprehension. 

Missing Terry’s Chocolate Oranges being evidently beyond his brief, he hurried away.

I went to Boot’s the Chemists but they did not stock Buttercup Syrup.  I thought it ironic that the two things that would either be confiscated or nicked would be items for a five year old boy while what, to all intents and purposes, could have been the components of a spectacularly effective improvised explosive device passed muster.  With regards to current methods of airport security and its effectiveness, I haven’t seen such a blatant money making scam since the Millennium Bug but it does serve as an uncomfortable reminder to those living in the West that events in the Levant and further east do affect their national security and are worth the billions spent and lives lost providing a robust response. (For those readers somewhat vague about irony, the needles on your Irony Detection Devices should be at full deflection now.  If they aren’t, they’re not working so go and get your money back)

After shuffling in unaccustomed heat for two hours in the Angolan immigration queue, I finally made it to baggage reclaim to discover that having had special handling in UK, Alex’s bike was receiving special handling in Angola.  Instead of being delivered to the baggage hall, it had been delivered direct to Angolan Customs.  This was annoying.  The reason I was so hot and sweaty, apart from the physical effort involved in lugging along a leg twice its normal size and, presumably, twice as heavy was that I was wearing a large raincoat.  The reason I was wearing a large raincoat inside a building in a hot country where the likelihood of rain, even outside, was nil,  was because its voluminous pockets now contained the two Samsung tablets, Marcia’s new Galaxy smartphone and Dominic’s new iPhone 5S Gold that had until very recently resided in my rucksack, the contents of which would now be innocuous to cursory examination by curious customs officials. 

It was one thing walking past customs officials while hidden amongst a load of tired and impatient passengers, quite another to be standing isolated in their midst hours later when, having examined four plane loads of tired and impatient passengers they had the time, tired and impatient and probably not a little vindictive themselves, to deal with me.  A limping, sweaty white man in a bloody great raincoat standing in his socks would arouse the special interest of even the most retarded bureaucrat.  And, of course, the box didn’t just contain a bicycle.  I had stuffed the free spaces with car parts, items that for some reason known only to the ministries of finance of countries in which cars or their parts are not made, attract ludicrously high levels of import duty.

Also in one of the pockets was a bottle of perfume I bought for Marcia on the ‘plane.  I don’t normally avail myself of the duty free offerings on airlines but finding myself with a bunch of surplus and in Angola largely useless UK pounds, and realizing that in amongst all the computers, telephones and car spares I had bought, there wasn’t a single ‘personal’ present from me for Marcia, I decided to lash out on a nice bottle of Dior.  There were two types on offer, both seemingly identical yet one cost eighty quid and the other sixty.  Marcia, I knew, would be able to tell the difference so I asked for the more expensive kind.  The cheaper kind had a subscript below the Dior pour Femme blazoned across the front of both cartons but it was too small for me to read off a glossy magazine page under a dim overhead light in a darkened cabin.  I made and paid for my order.  At two o’clock in the morning (in spite of my increasing discomfort I had just managed to doze off) a stewardess brought me my perfume sealed up in a natty little carrier bag.  I opened it.  Accuse me of lacking trust but I do like to see and hold what I buy.  This carton had the unreadable subscript and should have only cost sixty quid, not eighty.  I pointed this out to the stewardess.  Into her hand held machine, she punched in the item number from the in-flight duty free magazine for the more expensive bottle and it came up with the cheaper item but at a price of eighty quid.  I asked the stewardess to punch in the item number for the cheaper bottle and it came up with the same item but at sixty quid.

‘Hmmn,’ I said.

‘Hmmn,’ said the stewardess.

‘Is this a popular item?’ I asked her pointing to the more expensive item.

‘Oh, it’s our bestseller,’ she said proudly.  Normally an item being popular turns me off.  Shell suits are popular but I still wouldn’t wear one.

‘But everyone who orders the eighty quid item advertised in the brochure gets, in fact, the sixty quid item from the brochure?’

‘Perish the thought,’ I continued in order to cover the embarrassed silence, ‘ but one could almost draw the conclusion that British Airways were ripping off their tired and inattentive passengers.’

‘You owe me twenty quid,’ I said taking the perfume.

‘I’d rather not sell it,’ she said.

‘And I’d rather not write to Sky News,’ I said, ‘so can I please have my perfume and twenty quid change?’

I have no idea whether I got a good deal or not but it is gratifying to get something, however small, over on British Airways.

By the time the Customs warehouse opened I had been joined by Marcia, who was happily playing with her smartphone, and Alex who was happily playing with his tablet computer.  Also waiting was a fellow expat (for a bicycle, what a coincidence) and an Angolan lady.  Compared to our boxes, that of the Angolan lady was massive, every inch of it coated with adhesive tape to a depth only a seismologist would be able to determine.

‘Sign and print your names next to your box numbers,’ said the Customs official handing us expats a clipboard, his eyes locked on the box belonging to the unfortunate Angolan lady.  We signed and buggered off sharpish.

I had now been on the go for 24 hours, my dressing had come loose and slipped down my trouser leg and I was in agony.  Still, we fought our way through Luandan traffic so that I could stop by my ex house (‘ex’ not in the sense of the house of my ex-wife but in the sense of the house that used to belong to me) and gave a delighted Dominic his iPhone 5S Gold.  Yes it does have gold trim but is actually quite tasteful, not at all Liberace.  Once out of town and cantering south to the Barra de Kwanza I noticed the Jeep was making worrying noises.

‘How long has it been doing that?’ I asked Marcia.

‘A few weeks now but the Portuguese mechanic sprayed some oil underneath and said it was OK.’

We arrived home and the first thing I did was go for my tool box.  I knew that once I lay down, I would be down for days so wanted to put Alex’s bike together.  All my tools had gone.

This was a homecoming, a time of joy so I shrugged and suggested we went down to Rico’s place where they had tools.  There Alex got his bike, a decent bike, one made not in China but crafted in Birmingham, England.  Against his mother’s wishes, I let Alex ride it home, me following in the Jeep and by now very worried about the aural evidence of mechanical pain the car was going through.  I said nothing at the sight of my dead garden, in a way it was no more than I expected (apparently my Italian Grape Tomatoes had done well but all but one plant had been pinched) but I was concerned at all the oil around the generator.  A gentle enquiry revealed that the Portuguese mechanic, while servicing it, had been unaware of the sump pump so instead of using it to drain the old oil into a suitable container had merely undone the sump plug and allowed the waste oil to drain into the canopy from where it was now leaking out across my yard.  I added servicing the generator and an Exxon Valdiz cleanup to my ‘to do urgently’ list.

The list grew as alarmingly large as my leg.  The problem with the car was a failed front differential bearing so I had to drop the front propshaft while I order the parts.  While mucking about with the car, I noticed the dip stick was missing.  I asked Marcia about that and she told me the handle had broken off.  I asked her where the dip stick was so I could make a new handle, after all, we still needed it to dip the oil.  She told me that it was in the engine but that the Portuguese mechanic had said it was OK to run like that.  Even the most mechanically inept, I would imagine, could conceive of the catastrophic consequences of the engagement of loose metal strips and spinning crankshafts.  I added the retrieval of the errant dip stick to the list.  While doing that I noticed that someone had crudely welded the car’s cooling fan to its clutch housing.  The only way to get it off now would be to strip the front of the car down and cut it off with a blow torch.  The spares required to rectify the resulting damage will cost a fortune.  The Portuguese mechanic had suggested this artisan repair as a cure for overheating.  I had brought my cure for the car’s slight tendency to overheat in very heavy traffic (something I was aware of) in the form of an ignition overhaul kit: new plugs, new leads, new distributor cap and rotor arm, a new fuel filter.  The car was overheating slightly because the engine with ancient plugs and ropey leads was running lean on the crap fuel here, not because the fan wasn’t spinning fast enough.

Of course, the car would no longer start on the button, it had to be jump started using homemade jump leads and a slave battery which Marcia carried around with her in the back of the car.  The Portuguese mechanic had sold her two new batteries, Marcia told me, and they still did not work.  I looked at the batteries and could see neither was new but they still should have worked and was a bit bemused until I saw one of the lads start to jump the car by connecting the slave battery, amid a shower of sparks, with opposite polarity.  A quick check of the car’s alternator revealed that its rectifier had been blown, presumably through just such an inept opposite polarity connection.

Things were no better in the house.  The microwave was stuffed because someone had tried to heat up their lunch in an aluminium cooking pot.  There was no water in the loo so the solenoid controlling the influx of water into the washing machine, which had been left on in the vain hope water would magically appear, had burnt out.  I had been welcomed home enthusiastically by an ecstatic Charlie but of my other dog, Eddie, there was no sign.  He had crawled under the shop and died, I was told.  The ice cream machine has been unplugged and pushed into a corner.  I daren't go there just yet, not until I have sorted out the damage caused to the fuse box when someone messed with the shop wiring.

Compared to the foregoing, the rest of the stuff on my list is just petty and not worthy of mention but I am still bewildered that so much could go wrong in just six weeks.  And none of this had anything to do with the urgency with which I returned home.  Faced with losing the Filipino carpenter and my building crew, I had to come back if ever there was to be an end to this incessant build.  Ironically, all the labour issues were sorted out in less time than it took the boys to sink the cold beer each I had given them.

No one could blame any of this on Marcia.  I shouldn’t say because ‘she is just a girl’ but the fact remains, she is just a girl and it takes the special kind of girl I would hesitate to marry to wade in amongst and intimidate a bunch of recalcitrant labourers.  Few men, let alone women can fault diagnose something as mechanically complex as a car or, under stress, realize the solution to a lack of water is as simple as replacing a filter.  Yes, I was sick but I was receiving the best medical attention available in the world, I could trust the people advising me.  She, on the other hand, was left holding every single baby except the one she really wanted to hold.  With all the stress she miscarried and had no one she could rely on.

I have been back two weeks.  Happily, the car is nearly finished (all bar replacing the front diff bearing but that will have to await the arrival of new parts; it’ll run as a 2wd in the meantime), we can take a shower and wash our clothes, even the microwave works again.  The evidence of Alex having been left unattended in the cottage with his village children friends has been scrubbed from the walls, Charlie is putting on weight and work progresses down at the site.  My leg remains tender but not an issue that unduly concerns me.  Although the part of the wound where the graft failed is still raw, I was taught by the best nurses how to tend to it and for once I am religiously following their advice.

One good thing that has come from my time in hospital, in addition to giving up the smokes, is that I no longer watch TV.  I have paid only a passing interest in the World Cup.  I felt it appropriate that Brazil, as hosts, scored the first goal of the tournament and commiserated with them that it was into their own net.  I was looking forward to the Germany matches and was enjoying the drubbing they were giving Portugal but missed most of the second half when the new shop boy stuck his head in and confessed to emptying a 20 litre container of petrol into the diesel tank of the running generator.  Naturally I limped across the garden pretty damn sharpish to switch the generator off before we all witnessed the effect of high octane fuel in a compression ignition engine.  A few months ago, I would have killed him but instead heard a strange man (who turned out to be me) congratulating him for having the courage to admit his mistake early enough for me to prevent disaster.  Together we spent the rest of the evening draining and swabbing out the tank and flushing the fuel system.  While we were at it, we swabbed the waste oil swilling about the bottom of the canopy as well.  To be truthful, he did all the swabbing while I held the torch and puffed on my e-cig giving him the benefit of avuncular advice.

I get tired early in the evening and recognize the value of putting my leg up (rather than over) so retire to my room to read a book, Winnie the Pooh.  Together Alex and I make hot chocolate, ensure we have an adequate supply of choccy biscuits and lay together propped up in bed while we read all about Pooh’s adventures.  I can think of many fine ways to end a productive day and this ranks high among them.

I realize I haven’t written of the unexpected trip to Dubai I mentioned in my last post or of that other, far more mysterious place twixt England and the Irish Sea I ventured into or properly thanked the good friends who stepped in and helped me while I was in England but I think the glue must have set by now on Marcia’s car and I really should finish off the installation of her new headlights before sunset.  Araldite was perhaps the most useful purchase I made in England, by the way.  The presents went down well but a surprising hit were the bags of Pork Scratchings I used as shock absorbing packing around the more fragile purchases.

For supper tonight I have prepared a mild chicken curry with a peanut and coconut cream sauce.  First time I have cooked in months so things are definitely looking up although I notice that along with my tools, some bastard has nicked all my chef’s knives…
Alex with a fine example of British engineering and some children
who would be unlucky to learn engineering.from the Portuguese. 
Dawes made weapons and supplied bikes to the British Army during the world wars
and we won, twice, so their bikes must be good.


Monday, 9 June 2014

Going Home

I am sorry I have not posted any updates but things have been pretty hectic since I left hospital a week ago.  There is much to tell, including of a trip to Dubai, of immaculately kept houses being redecorated, villagers so orderly they wash their rubbish before disposing of it in aseptic bins but I shall save all that until I am back in the bosom of my much missed family.

This morning I had an appointment at the Royal Free where I was given a qualified OK To Travel.  Qualified in the sense that I told them I would not be able to make the next appointment they wished me to attend at the London School of Tropical Medicine on the 9th of July as it was my intention to be on the 'plane back to Angola tomorrow night.  I hate letting people down so abruptly but after looking after me for so many weeks, they really should have known I would, like the swallow in autumn, be flying south as soon as they left the cage door open.

And my first port of call on leaving the hospital was not a tobacconist; I have given up smoking as well.  What is left of me shall return home to Marcia a new man.

Normal service will resume shortly....

Friday, 30 May 2014

Of Communists, Fascists and Others Born Out Of Wedlock

My skin graft operation did not go exactly according to plan Saturday last.  I knew I would not be in theatre before 1800 hrs because the Rather Attractive Lady Surgeon Registrar had programmed me for the last op of the day allowing me to have breakfast that morning and spend most of my waiting time in the comfort of my room rather than in excruciating agony on a hard chair in a waiting room desperately clamping my cheeks together to contain the potentially catastrophic effects of the sudden release of wind I suffer when a) unable to move and b) am in a public space.  I only went over to the Royal Free at lunchtime.

(The nurse has just come in to take my temperatures and pressures.  Yesterday the machine went berserk and tried to crush my arm, even the nurse was alarmed as I yelped with surprise and lost contact with everything below my elbow.  Apparently it needed recalibrating.  Anyway, I have just asked this nurse what setting she had on the machine today; bone crushing or merely flesh bruising).

While waiting I was seen, as usual before going into theatre (I am an old hand at this now) by a nurse consumed with a desire to know all about me; my habits, my foibles, my general state of health and whether I indulge in recreational drugs and anal intercourse.  I shan’t bore you with all the subtle variations I managed to weave into my replies on three separate occasions but they generally ran along the lines of not knocking anything until one has tried it and that sex with girls is OK but you can’t beat the real thing (I always left my definition of the ‘real thing’ vague).  We did discuss British Airways cabin crew being whacked out on drugs (it is the only reasonable explanation of their behaviour) and whether such use, as they were on duty, could be considered recreational.

The nurse wanted to take a swab from my wound.  This solved a problem for me.  The vac dressing had failed so the vac pump was alarming all the time, thus alarming those suffering alongside me in the waiting area.  So, out of consideration, I had switched the pump off.  Now that the dressing had officially been peeled back compromising the seal, I had a fairly rock solid excuse for switching the machine off and, while subsequently being seen by the Rather Attractive Lady Surgeon Registrar not long afterwards, I suggested I might be allowed to unhook myself from the machine altogether and stuff it into my rucksack.

When my time came, I was not afforded the usual luxury of changing into a hospital gown in my room before being wheeled in my bed down to theatre but had to walk to a changing room where I was instructed to place all my possessions into a plastic bag which would be secured in a locker, the key to which would be pinned to my gown so that no one would have access to my kit.  I accepted there was an element of trust expected from me as we both knew I would be unconscious for the better part of the time my clothes were secured.  I asked the nurse about the vac machine.  It was my understanding, I told her, that I would be fitted with a vac dressing after the skin graft.  Nothing unsterilized, she informed me, would be allowed into theatre.  I presumed that surgical patients were granted an exemption to this rule along with medical staff who wished to procreate in the future.  I did not give a toss about the vac machine to be honest but I was very disappointed I could not take my camera along.

Having walked the distance from the waiting area to the changing room (the hospital looks smaller than it is from the outside) I now had to walk to the theatre.  Happily, the nurse was from Madeira so we chatted away in Portuguese and I really did not mind too much when we found that the lifts had broken.  I suggested that having come this far I could probably manage a few flights of stairs but this too, apparently, was against regulations.  Clearly she felt I deserved an amplification of the reasoning behind such an edict so explained that if I fell on the stairs or was otherwise injured, she would get into trouble.  I no longer saw the irony of anything that happened to me in the Royal Free accepting as I had that it was staffed by communists.

I was just about to be anaesthetized when the Rather Attractive Lady Surgeon Registrar popped in to chat to me.

‘Where’s the vac machine?’ she asked me.

No sense blaming the nurse, it’s not her fault she has been indoctrinated into the art of sustained chaos, so I told the surgeon I had forgotten it in my locker and that since, according to the regulations no one else was allowed into my locker, I would nip back and get it.  Just to really twist the knife home I added, ‘All the money I have, that I brought with me from Angola, is in my rucksack.’  There was shocked silence as they all stared at each other in a desperate bid for inspiration.

‘It’s alright,’ I said unpinning the locker key from my gown and handing it to the nurse, ‘I was only joking.  When you unzip the rucksack,‘ I told the nurse, ‘the vac machine is on top.’ 

As she made to leave, I called out after her, ‘and don’t forget the power cable, that’s right at the bottom, underneath the big envelope full of money!’

When I woke up, the Rather Attractive Lady Surgeon Registrar was there.

‘I did not do the skin graft,’ she told me while I tried to figure out where I was and where all these white people had come from. ‘When we took the dressing down, the wound was infected so there was no point trying for a graft, it would only have failed and then we would have to find some other part of your body from which to harvest more skin.’

I could see the sense in that but I was still bloody disappointed.  A successful skin graft was the only tick in the box left the parole board needed prior to releasing me.  I briefly considered being depressed but then decided I much preferred a cup of tea and a packet of Jammy Dodgers.

‘We debrided some more tissue and gave the wound a good scrub before putting a vac dressing on,’ she finished.  Later, as the anaesthetic wore off I realized she had not been joking about giving it a good scrub, she must have used a bloody Brillo pad.

I was wheeled off into what is ambitiously referred to by the leaders of the People’s Republic of Free London as a recovery lounge.  I found myself jammed into this broom cupboard between an Iranian who really was having a bad time with the anaesthetics if his projectile vomiting was anything to go by and a man who I assumed could only have been a diamond buyer labouring under the very misplaced confidence that no one around him knew what he meant as he babbled on down his mobile phone about ‘juice in’ and ‘Smarties out’ of Libreville.

A nurse came in with my tea and biscuits and asked me how I was getting home.

‘I’m an inmate at UCLH out on surgical day release,’ I told her, ‘I need to go back there.’

‘We’ll have to order transport then,’ she said, ‘there’s no mention in your file about a return journey.’

Bleeding Hell!  They weren’t exactly overcome with confidence about the outcome of this operation, were they?

‘Order it from G4S,’ I said.  (That way I could get out of the vehicle at the first set of traffic lights, get a MacDonald’s and a ride back to UCLH in a taxi before they noticed).

Two hours later, me still lying there naked but for a hospital gown having passed the time persuading the poor Iranian (who was on his second bucket) that a mixture of yoghurt and Jammy Dodgers washed down with sweet tea really did cure nausea, two guys in fluorescent jackets turned up with an electrically adjustable stretcher.

‘You can go now,’ said the nurse.

‘What about my things?’ I asked.

The nurse pointed at the rucksack that had come down with me from theatre.  So the nurse from Madeira had wanted witnesses before delving into my bag, I thought.  Clever girl.

‘What about clothes?’ I asked.

‘We do not give clothes out, you must go in your gown.’

‘Hang on a sec,’ I said, ‘I was fully dressed when I came in here so where are my clothes?’

‘Where did you put them?’

‘In a locker in the changing room.’

‘Where’s the key?’

It took them an hour to find it and then it wasn’t me who emptied the locker, they did.

The two stretcher bearers insisted I lay on the stretcher.  They had a smart electric stretcher so they were damn well going to use it.  It came with restraining straps so they could hurtle around London without dumping patients onto the floor of their van so they were going to damn well use those too.

Although not as bad as on some previous occasions, I had not eaten since breakfast so had a go at persuading the guys to stop briefly at the MacDonald’s just next to UCLH.  They ignored me, deep in loud conversation as they were, so I spoke up a bit.

‘It’s alright, Sir,’ snapped the driver testily, ‘I know my way,’ and he continued yabbling.  Socialist swine.

I briefly considered kinking the vac pump tube thereby forcing it to alarm so I could claim it had detected dangerously low blood sugar and only a Big Mac with large fries and a chocolate milkshake could save me from terminal coma but realized that this would only give them an excuse to flick on the blues and twos and drive like maniacs to A&E instead of In-patients where no doubt I would have an awful lot of explaining to do.

(I have paused for lunch now but earlier today some doctors took my dressing down in order to inspect the wound and I am still sitting here with no dressing covering a gaping hole while scoffing my way through a plate of beef stew and dumplings.  The nurses were told to dress the wound again but I can understand them taking a stand.  They cannot be expected to alter their busy routines at the drop of a hat merely to rectify the results of the idle curiosity of a bunch of doctors)

That treacle pud and custard was nice.

So, as I was saying, the graft did not happen and I was back in UCLH and on intravenous antibiotics again.  I am a bit hazy on the days because the Ward Sister has confiscated the bent nail I kept hidden under my mattress which I used to scratch the passing days on the wall but about three days later I was back in theatre at the Royal Free and this time they did the graft.  It wasn’t the Rather Attractive Lady Surgeon Registrar doing the job, it was some bloke who I briefly noted when he stuck his head round the door and told the anaesthetist to hurry up.  First impressions were deceiving for he turned to be very kind.  Evidently noticing that I had an obvious limp as a result of a wound on the left side, he harvested the skin from my right thigh thereby balancing me up a bit.

Back at UCLH, the team got together in my room to assess the latest.  There wasn’t really much to see.  The wound on my right thigh was obscured by what looked like a massive white Elastoplast.  The original wound on the left was covered by a new vac dressing but it was this dressing that had us all enthralled.  Never in my now considerable experience of vac dressings have I seen shoddier workmanship.  I have been unfortunate enough to have sat through a few TV medical dramas so I know it is normal for the surgeon to do the tricky stuff he is paid so much for before tossing his spanners over to some junior with an instruction to finish up but this job looked as if it had been concluded by a one armed janitor in serious need of psychiatric intervention.  The sponge had been cut too small for the hole so they had stuffed cut offs into the wound to fill the gaps.  Even that effort was half hearted and portions of the wound were covered merely by adhesive film. The adhesive film barely stretched onto the flesh surrounding the dressing and the vac tube had been fitted so it ran down my leg and not up underneath my underwear and out over my waistband almost guaranteeing that sooner or later I would tread on it and rip the tube out of the wound.

(Someone has just stuck their head around my door saying they were looking for my nurse.  ‘I’ve eaten her,’ I said, ‘she was delicious’)

The idea was to give it a couple of days then bowl up to the Royal Free, get confirmation that the graft was infection free and had taken and everything was tickety-boo, get the vac off, get my release forms signed and push off.

With a vac dressing sucking air and some of the wound exposed, it was hardly surprising that it got infected again. The nurses here did their best to plug the leaks with sheets of adhesive film but they might has well have been trying to patch the Titanic.  Naturally, no one wanted to pull the vac dressing off and change it lest all the new graft skin came with it.  So I festered until the day before yesterday when, after a further eight hours of confusion over at the Royal Free (‘Nurse, I’ve been waiting to see the plastics registrar since eight this morning, it is now four in the afternoon.  Are you sure they know I am here?’) an admission was finally made that no one knew I was there and that besides, I had been told to come to the wrong place (making it all my fault, I suppose).  I rang the Tropical Diseases guy at UCLH and within minutes I was being ushered to the right place and was seen by a doctor who bore an uncanny resemblance to Timothy Spall.  I cheered up instantly.

Of course he had never seen me before, was wholly ignorant of my recent medical history and was only seeing me because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time when someone in authority at the Royal Free suddenly realized they needed a plastics specialist.  Never mind, it was worth the wait just to meet him.  Come on, you all must have met at least once that kind of person who cheers you up just by being in the same room.

‘You’re on a vac pump I see,’ he said.

‘Don’t buy one’, I said, ‘it’s fucking hopeless for cleaning rugs’.

‘We get them from Amazon,’ he said, quick as a flash.

Amazon’s bloody rubbish,’ I replied, ‘I bought a painting from them once.  It looked great on their website but the one they sent me was upside down.  The wife cried for a week.’

He decided not to put me back on the Vac.  The two socialist nurses argued with him.

‘But I’ve been to the stores and have a new dressing and reservoir!’ one of them protested.

‘Still…’ Dr, Spall ventured.

‘The patient can’t go back without a vac dressing!  Look at the wound, it’s disgusting!’ said the other.

‘Yes but…’

‘I quite like the idea of not being on a vac pump,’ I interjected.

‘You have no say in the matter, you’re just a patient!’ chorused the nurses.

And a disgusting one at that, I thought.

The last time I saw such a marked contrast between two institutions in the same city was when checking out of a hotel in West Berlin and into another on the other side of Checkpoint Charlie.

‘You should ask for a transfer to UCLH,’ I advised Dr. Spall, ‘you’ll shrivel up and die here.’

Dr Spall, as he managed to squeeze an opinion in edgeways every now and then, told me there was no need for a vac pump, that 80% of the graft had taken so it looked good to go and, after talking to UCLH, it was felt that a couple more nights in UCLH under observation and frequent dressing changes should see me OK for discharge on Friday (today).  I would have to come back to the Royal Free on Monday where the graft would be checked and I would then be handed over to the care of my local district nurse.  Cool.

Yesterday I went for a walk.  I was desperate to get a haircut.  My hair was already long (for me) when I left Angola.  A month later my head was skidding around on the pillow at night.  First I had to change some money.  The nearest place I could find on Google Maps that wasn’t a street corner tourist rip off was the Post Office up by Russell Park, a gentle half mile walk away.  Just short of the post office on the corner of Woburn Place and Corum Street there was a seedy looking currency exchange shop with a handwritten cardboard sign in the window which read, ‘We give £56 net for $100 notes!’  1.78 US to the pound I calculated, robbing bastards.

I arrived at the post office to see a bloody great queue of American tourists all wanting to change money.  I needed to know whether it was worth joining the queue (my legs were aching in stereo) or walk further to a branch of my bank where I knew I would get the best deal.

‘Excuse me,’ I said to the Americans, ‘I just want to ask the teller a simple question.’

They all very politely let me limp through to the front.

‘How much will I get net if I change a hundred US?’ I asked the young man behind the counter.

’49 and change’, he said.

Blimey, one block down the road I’m nearly seven quid better off!

The Americans had been nice to me so I felt it only fair to return the favour, after all, I was an Englishman in London and one of the things colonials want to experience in the Smoke is a bit of civility.

I gently drew one of the Americans to the door and pointed diagonally across the A4200 and said, ‘You see that place there?  They’ll give you 56 quid net for your hundred bucks so long as it is in cash.’

I limped painfully out of the door and started to make my way back towards the seedy money exchange.  Seconds later I was overtaken by the 7th Cavalry as they hurtled off towards my destination.  When I got there, the queue was a mile long.

‘Jeez!’ shouted one Yank, ‘it’s the old guy who sent us here!’

They let me straight to the front of the queue so I forgave the young punk for calling me old.

I changed fifteen hundred bucks and came away a hundred quid better off than I would have done had I used the post office.  That’s the trouble when you privatize essential government services, the Fascists take over and rip everyone off.

There was one thing I had to do.  I was going to leave it until I got out but since it was still early afternoon, I decided that there was no time like the present.  All through this blog you will find references to what was top of my priority list if ever I got back to London.  Rather like a wistful prisoner of war I dreamt of sitting in a real pub drinking a pint of London Pride.  I am teetotal now but I had to know if I could stare temptation in the eye.  Having now given up smoking, it was a case of double jeopardy.  Could I sit in the smoking area (out on the sidewalk) of a London pub serving London Pride and be content with a coffee and a bar snack while all around me were choking the weed and pouring booze down their necks?  Would the stale smell of second hand smoke, the o so familiar, friendly aroma of whisky and the hoppy smell of real ale get to me?

The good thing about pubs in London is you don’t have to shuffle far to find one but I knew where I wanted to go because it seemed so appropriate and I was willing to hobble an extra mile to get there.  Twenty minutes or so later I was in front of the Old Explorer just off Regent Street near Oxford Circus tube station, a traditional pub the sign over the door claimed and exactly what I wanted.  The atmosphere and the smells inside were intoxicating.  Hunched like some old pirate I made my way to the bar and got myself a tonic water with lemon and a packet of pork scratchings. The smoking area outside was packed but there was a chair free at a table for four so I asked if I could join the three gents who were happily quaffing their ale and smoking cigars.  Even better!  There was nothing I liked more than a damn fine cigar.  Sitting down wind, the scented breeze caressed me like an old lover,  I sat there quite contented for half an hour, nursing my tonic water and munching happily on my scratchings.  And I was happy.  Not once did I feel the urge for a drink nor the desire to a smoke.  What is left of me will return to Marcia as a new man.

While looking on Google maps I had noted the location of a traditional ‘Bob a Cut’ barber up the Tottenham Court Road so I headed slowly over there.  Nowadays a Bob a cut is ten quid but I didn’t mind, I was still ninety quid and a free haircut up on the post office.

By the time I returned to my room in the hospital, I knew something was wrong.  My leg was on fire and, I realized as I took my raincoat off, my trousers were soaked around the dressing.  Sure enough, when I dropped my strides, I could see the dressing hanging off and the wound oozing.  The nurse called the doctor.  He said he would come with the specialist today.  I was supposed to be released today. 

This morning they came and had a conflab.  In principle, most of the graft, enough of the graft was OK if runny.  They decided that for the sake of a couple of days until the appointment at the Royal Free it would be foolish to risk it all going awry by sending me home; best to stay until Monday.  Much as I want to get out of here, I was relieved.  I’ve done just over a month inside, it would be a shame to balls it up at the last hurdle.

So that is basically where I am with this now.  I know I have said ‘two days to go’ before and been wildly off the mark but this time I think it’s for real.  Still, two days will give me enough time to hand wash and dry all my kit.  I am due to run out of clean skids by Sunday so I had best get scrubbing…

I really miss Marcia and the boys.  I’ve had my fun in London, can I I go home now, please?