Illo by the wonderful Simon Letch
“WELL, it’s just that once you get to your age, Mr Abercrombie, things just start to wear out.”
The surgeon shrugged, and smiled. He was talking about the bilateral hernia operation that he’d just outlined. And he had made it sound so simple, too, thought Konrad; but it was like someone showing a child how to tie shoelaces for the first time – that’s easy enough for you, sunshine.
The doctor was looking in his appointment book, throwing the A4-sized pages back and forth. He stopped and with a large, clean forefinger pointed at a date less than a week away.
“How does next Monday sound?”
Konrad found himself taken aback. The man used an appointment book, rather than a computer program. He wanted to operate in six days, just before Christmas. And he had big, pink, pudgy fingers.
“Too soon? We can do it in the New Year if you like.”
“No, the sooner the better. Will I be up and about before Christmas?”
Konrad didn’t listen to the answer; couldn’t listen to the answer. He kept looking at those hands – not at all what you would have expected in a surgeon – and wincing at the thought of them rummaging around in his groin. Groins.
“… and there’ll be a bit of swelling but if you keep taking the painkillers you should be OK. Of course, it takes different people in different ways and …”
SIX days later; 5.30am and the urge to urinate became too much. He’d put it off as long as he could. Konrad reached for the remote-control device that brought the back of the bed up to a sitting position and then lowered the whole thing so that he could more easily step out of bed.
Slowly, centimetre by centimetre, he pushed and pulled himself to the edge of the bed and stopped for a rest. He’d had his last painkillers at 4am, when a young nurse had woken him and whisperingly taken his blood pressure, pulse and temperature, but any sudden move still sent shockwaves of pain through his lower regions.
Never again, he told himself, would he take for granted the simple pleasures of getting out of bed for a pee. Bent double like an old man – an older man – he made his way, bow-legged, to the large bathroom he shared with the other occupant of the room, a grey-haired chap who’d had something done to his arm, the lucky bastard.
Inside, after the agony of lowering himself to the toilet seat he washed his hands and gingerly pulled the hospital gown up to survey the damage. The wounds themselves, low down in his groin, were covered in white bandages and gauze but the collateral damage was shocking.
There were a few colourful bruises around the upper groin but between his legs, in an area looking very vulnerable without its protective pelt of pubic hair, was what looked like a couple of blackened mangoes hanging on a low-lying branch.
Dear god in heaven; had the doctor warned him of this when he wasn’t listening?
There came a knock on the door.
“Are you alright, Mr Abercrombie?”
He hobbled over, opened the door. Outside was a nurse in a blue uniform. Behind her in the early morning penumbra stood a young trainee with a strained smile on her face and a stainless steel cart by her side.
“We need to change your dressings,” said the older of the two. “And I’ve got a patient who needs a drain taken out.”
Konrad grimaced weakly and began shuffling back towards the bed, mangoes bumping softly against tops of his legs as he went. The tension vibrating off the lead nurse reminded of his mother, a Londoner born and bred who had at her disposal a lifetime’s worth of colourful phrases. These included ‘It shouldn’t matter whether he’s sky-blue pink shot with shit’ (her response to any hint of racism) and ‘Her arse was making buttons to get away’.
The etymology of the last one always escaped him but it described perfectly the feeling he was getting from the nurse, who obviously would rather have been removing drains than supervising a trainee in the replacement of wound dressings.
Konrad sat slowly, gingerly, on the edge of the bed. Less than 24 hours ago a surgeon with bunches of bananas for hands had been rummaging through his nether regions and he’d been stitched up with what felt like razor wire; the ‘drainee’ could wait.
Well, not for Nurse Ratched (for it was she, he suspected), who seemed to take it as a personal affront that he was trying to slide back into bed a millimetre at a time. To expedite matters, she grabbed his ankles and swung them skywards. “One! Two! THREE!”
Scalpel pains shot through Konrad’s body. He screamed.
“Fuck! Oh, fuck, that hurts! Stop! Stop!”
Only one leg had made it into the bed; the other was being held by the trainee, who had jumped in to help. Konrad felt faint; wondered how a cold sweat could break out over a whole body so quickly. He opened his watering eyes to find the nurse looking daggers at him – possibly the same daggers she’d used to disembowel him.
“I’m not going to carry on if you use language like that,” she hissed.
“What?” Had the surgeon fixed his groin but buggered up his ears?
“If you’re going to swear I’m not going on with this.”
She was saying this from a position between his legs, which were now pointing east. And west. This, he thought, must be what a wishbone feels like. Konrad felt a little delirious; the pain was lessening but disbelief was taking its place.
He wanted to say ‘so the use of a fairly innocuous Anglo-Saxon profanity is, in this private hospital, enough to get treatment withdrawn?’
What he said instead was: “I’m not swearing at you, I’m swearing because that hurt, a lot, but I’m really sorry I’m getting in your way this morning.”
“You’re not in my way,” she said with what seemed like the first signs of a waver in her voice. The trainee kept quiet and Konrad hoped that she didn’t think this was the usual way you changed dressings after a hernia op or God help everyone who came in after him.
“Well, it doesn’t seem like it,” growled Konrad. He felt a pang of pity for the poor patient with the drain that needed taking out. He imagined Nurse Carol (she was sporting a name badge) marching in to the room with a plunger and a bottle of Drano.
Afterwards, old dressings removed, wound cleaned, new dressings applied, Konrad settled back down and wondered; had he crossed a line by swearing? When it feels like someone’s pulling your bowels out with a crochet hook and your swollen sweetmeats are banging around like Christmas tree baubles in a tornado what do you say?
Is it, he wondered, a private hospital thing? Do the public wards echo to bollocks, bastards, shit and fuckety-fuck-fuck while private patients make do with ‘Oh gosh’ or ‘jeepers’ or that perennial classic ‘ouch’?
THREE days later, back at home, and Konrad is sitting on the loo contemplating his two-night hospital stay. He had minded his Ps and Qs after the incident with Nurse Carol and was politeness itself, even when the trainee nurse on the final morning had looked at his chart at least 10 times without doing anything – and had then asked him four times if he had moved his bowels. Trying to be charitable he had decided it was because she was practicing her English.
He hadn’t moved his bowels that morning. Nor any morning since; he was packed tighter than a One Direction concert thanks to the constipatory effect of the super-strength painkillers he was taking.
Just that morning his wife had suggested a mild laxative rather than end up back in hospital. “They’ll have some sort of device, you know … to get it all out.”
A poo spoon, he thought. They’ll call it something else but that’s essentially what it will be. They’ll turn me over and Nurse Carol will go at me like someone unpacking stuffing from a turkey.
And for some reason, that image – so alarmingly festive in its way – made Konrad laugh. And it hurt when he laughed. Which made him laugh even more.
Ho! Ho! Ho! he thought. And a merry fucking Christmas to one and all.
Further to the story on the Anantara Resort in Yunnan in last weekend’s Traveller, here’s some of the stuff they left out because of space (and taste) restraints.
FIVE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN XISHUANGBANNA
- Take time out to walk into the local town, Menglun, where most nights the main drag turns into a fairy light-strung, buzzy eat street where you can sit out on the pavement scoffing from hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food stalls. The locals are incredibly friendly, and even if their English only extends to “Welcome to China!” and your Chinese comprises nihao (hello) or xie-xie (thank you), you will end up taking part in some kind of drinking game with a glass of baijiu, the local firewater. As for the food, just point and smile. You’ll find pork, beef, chicken, all manner of unrecognizable offal, fiery sauces, dips – and lots of very cheap beer.
- Take the Dai cooking class at the Anantara resort. The WildChina blog calls Dai cuisine China’s best-kept secret, and it may well be right. Spicy, sour, with lots of chilli, lime and lemongrass it also gains from the freshness of the local ingredients. The class is great fun and will give you a whole new appreciation for the eggplant which, until then, I had believed was inherently useless and only good for inserting into people you didn’t like. The Dai grilled eggplant is heavenly.
- Visit the local market in the morning. We went with hotel chef Andy Yuan but a wander around on your own wouldn’t be out of the question. This is a market where everything is visceral, raw and fresh, from the veggies to the spice stalls – though some of the hygiene in the meat section is a little questionable. And if it’s not food you’re after then maybe stock up on some James Bond viagra from the aphrodisiac stall.
- Go across the Luosuo River and check out the amazing Botanical Gardens, opened in 1959 and visited by 500,000 people a year. Here you will find plants that close when touched (the shy little mimosa pudica) and others that respond to singing by dancing (although a chorus of Chinese folk song by our guide failed to move the little leaves on the codariocalyx motorius a subsequent blast of Mozart on an iPhone really got it jiggling).
- Eat everything. From Chinese-made jamon to deep-fried bamboo worms, river snails, pig ball skewers and fried wild bees, this is a place to experiment, a place where local restaurants will pluck a chicken off the floor, cut its throat and have it on your plate in 20 minutes. You will not be disappointed.
“Keith Austin deserves to take his place, up there with Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.”
Well, that’s the sort of review you would kill for … not that I did! From The Guardian overnight!
READ the MAN v MEALS story in the Sydney Morning Herald and on the http://www.goodfood.com.au website!
on goodfood.com.au or in this weekend’s Good Weekend magazine … Modern French cooking – how hard can it be?
From the Opinion Pages of the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan 24)