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Sep. 25th, 2003

Friday 5 September

Cracking start to the holiday. At Heathrow they now have TV screens for passengers to gaze at in the individual gate lounges, showing BBC News 24. All the time we were sat waiting for our British Airways flight it was showing an extended report on the measures British Airways is taking to counter the potential threat of terrorist missiles. "BA PLANES MISSILE THREAT" read the caption. There seemed to be less talking than usual.

Wednesday 10 September

Today I found my way to the shopping centre slightly outside the centre of town by working on the same basic principles I formulated exploring the area where my sister lives:

1. Keep heading downhill. Do this and it's literally impossible to get lost. If your knees start feeling damp you are in Lake Mjøsa and you have gone too far.

2. If it looks like you're walking down a dead-end path straight into someone's garden and there couldn't possibly be a road at the end of it, there's a road at the end of it.

3. If there's a sheer vertiginous 90º drop next to the road you're travelling on, that worn patch of grass up ahead that looks like a goat's been having a crafty nibble is the start of a short cut straight down it. Apparently gravity isn't taught in Norwegian schools. They're certainly not afraid of it.

Afterwards I explored the centre of picturesque Lillehammer. This really doesn't take long. In fact it took longer to wash my shirts this morning before I set off.

A little while later I was sitting reading in the park when I felt something fall inside my collar and down my back. Suspecting this wasn't a positive development, I started trying to lift the bottom of my shirt to allow for an easy exit. The sudden movement must have panicked the (as it turned out) wasp, which let me have it right between the shoulder blades. I walked stiffly to a chemist to get some anti-allergy cream, as foreign insects can do odd things to the bloodstream. Then I had to find somewhere I could apply it in private. It may be perfectly acceptable in Norway to hew logs with your bits to the breeze, but still I felt that standing in the pedestrian precinct, flinging my shirt to the ground, smearing cream on my back and swearing would probably reflect badly on my sister. Lillehammer's a small town.

So I wandered down to the station and the privacy of one of its toilet cubicles, and emerged refreshed and with a renewed sense of purpose regarding insects. For too long have they failed to evolve to match their changing environment. Moths head unflinchingly towards lamps and flames like devout little suicide bombers. Flies sit and yawn while you hold the window open for them, then buzz and fret around your room in the darkness because they can't find the way out. Wasps flail and panic like my old boss the moment they fall down the back of your shirt. What the insect world needs is some kind of genetics programme to produce a new breed of hyper-intelligent super-insects. It may not exactly be my field, but I'm prepared to have a decent stab at it.

Monday 15 September

My eyes flew open like twin parachutes: I knew I was going to have my appendix out.

I was so convinced of this that I wasn't even bothered by it. It was simple logic—it was first thing Friday morning, and the pain in my right side I had attributed to gas or something non-specific the night before hadn't shifted a millimetre. Therefore, probably by the end of the day, I would be having my appendix removed in a foreign country. This was unsettling but, after a quick run-through of potential other countries to find yourself unexpectedly needing surgery in, I found I wasn't too concerned. (For rough comparison purposes: the Norwegians are the Swiss, but more fun.)

I did some looking-up on the Net to confirm my amateur diagnosis. Famously perilous though this is as a form of home doctoring, it gave me enough information to say with certainty that my appendix was inflamed but hadn't burst, because if it had I would have collapsed before I had even finished dialling up. It also stated the most common reason for the appendix to go boom:
1. a fragment from the torrent of excrement sluicing past in the large intestine gets lodged in the opening of the appendix, blocking it and leaving it unable to function;

2. the bacteria produced by the appendix, now with nowhere to go, turn on the appendix itself and start attacking it, leading to inflammation;

3. the body's defences sense the inflammation, mistakenly deduce an attack from an outside source, and start attacking the appendix as if it were a foreign body.
The above is a kit containing all the parts needed for some convoluted savage satirical metaphor for the media, or maybe the more venal side of politics, but I'm honestly in no condition to set about it.

I like to think my time wasn't entirely wasted: I spent most of Friday conducting research into my own reactions to pain. I was intrigued to discover, for example, that there's a level of pain at which you stop swearing and groaning, even mentally, and start concentrating on internalising and surviving it. Then, further on, there is another breaking point where your vocal reaction kicks in again, and then remains constant no matter how much more intense the pain becomes, as illustrated in the following graph:

My sister whisked me to the hospital and in the wince of an eye I was being prodded and injected and asked things like "Okay, then how much does THIS hurt?". There's no etiquette I know of to cover the moment when a pleasant female doctor tells you that "I want to palpate in your rectum". What can you say? "Likewise"? So she snapped on her gloves and got rummaging, and I can't deny that it was strangely refreshing. "Does that hurt?" she said at one point. "No more than you'd expect," I replied, distractedly.

I told the surgeon about my immediate travel plans—family shindig next day in Oslo, home to London, then off to Chicago and across the States—and asked if there were any feasible way to avoid the operation. "Well," he said—he looked eerily like Andrew Morton, but an Andrew Morton you could trust—"there has been some research into whether appendicitis can be treated just with antibiotics..." I gather I looked hopeful at this point. "... but it's been inconclusive. We're going to have to operate." I must have looked crestfallen, because he added something which was clearly intended to give me some comfort: "But, of course, not without your consent." The alternative hadn't even crossed my mind. Now I was concerned.

They don't need you to sign consent forms for operations in Norway. All they need is your verbal approval. I maintain that this has impressive potential for misunderstandings, like bidding at auctions, but I'll let it lie as I don't intend for this to be my problem ever again. When the surgeon came back to see me that night my appendicitis had grown acute twenty minutes before, and my consent simply consisted of the words "Just take it out".

At around 10pm I was wheeled into theatre and straight under the enormous light in the middle. On the two previous occasions when I had gone under general anaesthetic I was 11 then 14, and at that kind of age they put you under out of sight of the equipment. So for the first time in my life I was lying and staring at the "don't-go-into-the" light, when suddenly one of the anaesthetists dropped something close by with a shattering crash. Closing my eyes, I said "Please tell me this doesn't mean I have to go back to the ward." The anaesthetist, bending to retrieve what she'd dropped, replied "Nope. It means I have to go back to medical school." The thing on the floor was a metal armrest which was meant to screw on to the side of my operating table, but refused to do so despite the efforts of several of the staff ("See? It's not just me," said the anaesthetist, to general laughter). Once they'd fetched a new armrest they then had difficulty locating a vein in my arm; despite them being clearly visible, the staff were having trouble getting any of them to rise. "Found one yet?" I asked, as another anaesthetist tapped away furiously. "God, I'd make a terrible junkie." More laughter. All in all, the atmosphere in the operating theatre was pretty convivial.

(The next day I told my sister's partner about this jovial pre-op banter. He grinned and said "Ahh, the clink of glasses..." This so utterly transformed my memories of the operation the previous night, depositing me and the staff in the middle of perhaps a Tiki-themed cocktail party, that I laughed loud and hard, the last thing you should do if someone has sliced through your stomach muscles within the last twelve hours. Measured purely by how close I came to actually having to shout "Nurse! The stitches!", this is demonstrably the funniest thing that anyone has ever said to me.)

No matter how routine the op, though, there's always a faint morbid undercurrent—after all, someone's about to inject you with sleep and wrestle with your innards—and all the while I found I kept dimly picturing an indistinct newspaper cutting with only one legible sentence: "'He was laughing and joking with staff until the end,' said a hospital spokesman."

So then an anaesthetist said "You will go to sleep now", and he was right, and then there's a gap, and then I was scratchily alive in post-op with a sore throat where the tubes had been, entirely aware of where I was but unable to move or speak, like being at work first thing on a Monday. I was in pain in several places at once but none of them meant that I was about to die, which my brain took to be good enough and shut down for a while.

Later, back on the ward, I tried to get up for the first time since my stomach had been cut open and discovered, with a whomp of pain, the fun that lay in store. I just about made it the couple of metres to the toilet, but on the way back I was overtaken by massive nausea and my vision began to slurp. I staggered back to the bed and indicated my distress to the night nurse, a dark, caramel-skinned work of art in standard-issue night-shift pyjamas, which lent the scene an odd air of intimacy. "Do you feel sick?" she said in gentle, concerned Norwegian. "Would you like some morphine?" Even through the wooze I sensed that replying "I love you" would probably be inappropriate, and settled for "Yes please". And so she initiated me into the exquisite and murky world of opiates.

Morphine is amazing. They get the dose right, it kills the pain but not your senses, leaving you feeling mildly drunk and absurdly happy. If they even slightly misjudge it and give you a hair's-breadth too much, as one nurse did, then you go on a three-hour morphine holiday. I don't know where I went, but it was lovely.

I had meant to ask if I could keep my appendix—I wanted to label it "A Present From Norway"—but for some reason that Friday evening it skipped my mind. Turned out I couldn't have kept it anyway—they send the removed bits of people off to the local pathologist, to confirm the diagnosis that led to the bits being removed in the first place. I'd never heard of this procedure before. I wondered if it wasn't just this pathologist. "Yes, yes, well done, Dr Bergsen, the intestine really was damaged beyond repair, you had no choice. (Aside) Ha! The fools! Soon I shall have enough parts to construct a whole person of my own!" And then, you know, probably a maniacal laugh, or something. Oh, stop looking at me like that. (And it turns out that this is actually standard practice, damn it. In fact a less confident writer might have scrapped this entire paragraph by now, instead of letting it endlessly stagger on and on like this one shows every sign of being in danger of continuing to do.)

For the first 24 hours after the operation I didn't eat anything. I began to regret this, as I hadn't eaten anything for 24 hours before it, either. So I started again on meagre rations: the odd slice of bread, a bit of cheese. I didn't want to down too much, though, as I was dreading the end result. Any movement involving the abdominal muscles had so far proved punishing, and I feared that the resumption of bowel activity would be particularly unforgiving. I've since been reliably, indeed quite forcibly, assured that this was the closest I'll ever get to knowing what it's like to have just given birth: still reeling from the drugs and terrified to go for a shit.

So since then I've been recuperating: moving around like a feeble old man, unable—till today—to get myself vertical without groaning inadvertently, needing large doses of morphine to manage slightly more complex tasks like showering, and learning Zen-sounding lessons like "it is more painful to descend a step than to ascend it". The bed opposite me actually contains a feeble old man, so I can confirm that the comparison is accurate. Although his gallstones mean that he easily eclipses me in the full-body belch event, we make our way around the ward at roughly the same speed, which is pretty sobering. Jesus, old men and their grey flesh. One foot in. It's too sad.

Monday 22 September

As soon as she heard that I was about to be operated on, my mother flew out to Norway to be with me and help me home (she told me later she'd been visualising newspaper cuttings of her own, involving the words "MERCY DASH") and I was grateful beyond words—the return journey would have been impossible without her. In fact at one point the return journey looked as if it would be impossible anyway: I was booked to fly home just under four days after the 'ectomy, and airlines refuse to allow you on board if you've been operated on within the previous five. By a dazzling stroke of luck we discovered this over the phone and not by turning up wide-eyed and hopeful at the airport after a two-hour train ride. My sister immediately said that she would put us up, patiently ignoring my cries of "Whimpering Christ, we're trapped!"

By this point any vestigial thoughts I may have been harbouring about the US trip had long since been rooted out. When I had tentatively mentioned that I still wanted to go ahead with it the doctors had got quite animated and started using words like "foolish" and "no".

So I had to abandon altogether the trip of a lifetime and concentrate instead on surviving the soul-crushing rigours of Norwegian daytime TV. The bulk of it was dependable American drama-by-the-yard I could have stayed and watched at home—your Quincies and your Diagnoses Murder—but a few home-grown shows still skulked alongside them in the schedules. My favourite was a cheapo game show with a picture obscured by squares; one by one as simple questions were answered correctly, the squares would disappear to reveal, etc. After one square disappeared it was clear that the picture was of a bunch of carrots. "I've no idea," said the contestant. They gamely trudged on with some more questions. More squares. It was still, even more obviously, a bunch of carrots. "You've got me there," said the contestant. Finally, with just three squares remaining, and pretty much every part of the carrots exposed from root to tip, inspiration struck. "Is it some carrots?" he ventured. Music, applause, prizes. My sister's partner sat beside me with his head in his hands. "I'm so embarrassed," he said. "We have to put up with this all the time."

Two days later we figured I was safe to travel and headed to the station. Waiting on the platform I was repeatedly harassed by a wasp. There was no doubt in my mind as to which particular wasp this was. Cheap gloating is frankly no better than I'd expect from wasps, and I refused to rise to the bait.

We had to buy two single tickets on the day we travelled, which was as much of a shock to the system as the operation itself. No discounts apply; if you're buying the day you fly you must really need the tickets, and bloody good luck to you. My mother bought them on her card, and looked as dazed as I had spent the weekend feeling when she was handed her receipt for just shy of a thousand pounds. (My insurance people promise me we're covered. My insurance people are in for an interesting time of it if it turns out we're not.)

Rather than Standard Class we travelled Club Europe—the only option if you buy your tickets on the day—and the benefits were immediately obvious:
1. Pre-flight drinks in peace and quiet in the BA Terrace Lounge. Wooden screens, hefty pot plants, a huge bar, a gently bubbling water feature, the only sound the gentle rustling of newspapers. The chunky primary-coloured corporate furniture is garish and out of place; it's as if the art director working on a Graham Greene Havana hotel scene is having a nervous breakdown and no-one's noticed yet.

2. Leather seats on the plane.

3. Curtain drawn behind you once you reach 30,000ft so those in Pleb Class can't see the aching luxury you're about to be lavished with.

4. Complimentary spicy tomato flavour mini breadsticks.

5. "In a short while our Club Europe passengers will be given a choice of hot meals, while customers in Standard Class will be served from our 'All-Day Deli'."

6. "Prawn bruschette, sir?"

7. Did I mention the mini breadsticks?
As we neared Heathrow and the plane did that appalling thing of SLOWING DOWN IN MID-AIR to begin its descent, I started to feel almost tearful and began muttering incoherently about "Blighty". This intensified once we broke through the cloud cover and we could see Heathrow spread out around us: grimy and overcrowded on a miserable grey drizzly day. To my surprise I found I was as choked up as a Welsh ex-pat seeing the valleys again after a lifetime in Saudi Arabia. London sucks, but it's home.

And that's—barring my mother's hard work that day lugging our stuff off the baggage carousel, hefting it all onto a trolley and pushing it around as I couldn't lift anything, leaving me feeling (and, presumably, looking) like the world's biggest bastard—it. I'm not moving another inch until the damn thing has healed.

EDIT: The insurers paid up three months later, showing themselves, as I always suspected, to be fine and venerable human beings pursuing the noblest of professions.


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