Jul 6, 2015
Edited 16th August 2015
SOMETHING WONDERFUL WILL HAPPEN
For my Mother without whom,
none of it would have been remotely funny.
'no matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four footed'
Clarrisa P Estes
The air pulsed like an echo from a sonic boom and not a single distant shout, or laugh nor clatter of dishes from a neighbour's meal invaded the space as I worked, and reworked and overworked the clay on the table in front of me. The silence was complete. Like snowfall. Even the dog, flat on her back, legs akimbo, seemed dreamless and still. For a few moments I stared into the distance, my eyes hanging in a tunnel of merging colours before I brought them back into focus and sharply surveyed the sculpture I was working on. The slight erection in my big toe wilted in the instant before I had the chance to register defeat. This minute dissipation of tension, a dreaded portent that I had lost the flow of the work and would not regain it.
Sensing the change, my dog rolled over and met my eyes. She got up and stretched, ready to go out. Carefully I manoeuvred myself off the high stool. Rather than get down or get off I inched forward, turning my right foot slowly to bring the right hip into alignment. Shuffling forward on my bum bone which in turn bored itself into my left buttock, I instinctively pulled the muscle in to protect it slightly by the contraction. A warning fire shot up my shin as my foot touched the floor so I slid the sole of my foot an inch to the left, wary of adding weight. My shoulders hunched, held up and in, as though supporting heavy wings shot through with a piercing arrow, pinioned, just behind my neck which, in turn, pushed my head forward, like a duck. Cautiously, waiting for the false move that would punish me, I unfolded. It took ten steps to get from the stool to the kitchen, Steps needed to re-enact homo becoming almost erectus which even on a good day was slow and tortuous. I pulled myself along by the furniture as though walking through a tilting ship, that was sinking.
Putting on a long, battered, in need of a wax coat and stuffing a black trilby onto my closely shaven head I stopped by the back door. A rusty painted milk urn exploded with a crammed collection of walking sticks of which, only one, ever got used. A dark walnut stick with an intricate pattern of nacre and brass thread squared off at the grip which had, over time, moulded into the dips and hollows of my hand. I deftly removed it from the urn, a continual game of Jack Straws which was one of the many skills necessary to traverse the tightly packed house without getting snagged or injured.
Although the mountain range was vast we stuck to the same paths we had walked for over four years. When we first came here we had explored, often finding ourselves at the dead end of a sheep path or needing the streams that ran from waterfalls higher up to mark a route back down again but now every footfall was considered for its ease, every junction taken with thought about the level of walking it would require.
It had been a November afternoon all day although it was late Spring. The thick mist had sat like a fat bottomed woman on the valley floor since early morning, her huge thighs squeezing water into every droplet of air available, creating a suffocating weight. In my small back garden daffodils lay beaten and muddied, their stems bent to breaking point and yellow primroses petal stripped by the relentless rain that Wales did so well. Everything was drowning slowly in the water logged soil. Utterly still after last night's storms, the garden dripped. And smelt. The garden was, at this moment, little more than a litter tray with a path down the middle, the foul weather forcing the three cats that also lived in the house, to forgo their usual enjoyment of crapping and scraping and covering and scratching into a hurried affair that was barely dignified. I stared down at the flower bed. The cat's mess was 5 feet and 9 inches beneath me but the imperative, to make the effort to bend there had to be more than one thing down there needing attention, was met. Quite apart from the smell, this much ammonia would destroy whatever the rain hadn't and even though it felt unlikely the sun was ever going to shine again, my bulbs deserved at least a fighting chance. I resolved to make the effort when we got back and looping the lead around my dog's neck, I walked slowly down the path and into the alley way that bisected the backs of the houses where I lived.
At least five people watched as we walked into the mountain although I didn't see anybody. Five people knew we were out and wouldn't completely relax again until they saw us come back. This community had taken me to their hearts and as I morphed into an overnight invalid they kept a careful eye on me. Beneath the bridge the water coursed with such ferocity it shifted boulders, brown and angry it roared as the mountain haemorrhaged after the deluge. Turning right we disappeared from view.
Up on the mountain my dog was in her element. It had started to rain again and the water slanted into us at a 60 degree angle. Whenever she looked back to check on me her ears danced around her head. Suddenly she started to run, in and out of the unfurling bracken, her step nimble and her brain easily fast enough to work out where her feet were going to land. She pounded around, making a perfect circle, increasing in size until she broke the formation and hurtled towards me. Her chops wide open and grinning, her front legs slightly splayed, showing me play, she dashed directly at me. Skimming past at the last minute I could almost feel the heat of her she came so close but not for a second did I worry that she would misjudge the distance she needed to keep me safe. I laughed out loud as she picked up speed again, biting at the rain as it slammed into her face. After a time she settled and started to read the familiar landscape with her nose. Like a daily newspaper, this information told her who and what shared the mountain with us in a way I could barely imagine. In the distance a chorus of barking spread through the village like a Mexican wave until all was quiet again apart from one, yap, yap, yapping until that too became silent.
It had been three years earlier when I found myself standing in front of a typical, Welsh mining cottage. neat and clean and standing tightly to attention between No 13 and No 15 with their spotless doorsteps and identical blinds. I was 48 years old and this was not where I had expected to end up. My English landlord met me at the house to give me the key and my contract. Pets? Fine. Shelves? Fine. Smoker? Fine. Paint Job? Fine. I didn’t know then of his appeasing lies about renovating the house to move in his family and his fear that my new neighbour was about to rush out of her house to bite his ankles. He welcomed me to the Rhondda and was back in his car and driving away before my signature was dry on the contract. Having just spent six months of winter sitting out quarantine in a French holiday home that was shut for the winter because it was uninhabitable, this was as close to home as I was going to get for another 4 years.
With me was a Turkish Rottweiler, two Turkish cats, a few lifetimes of collected ephemera including a 6 foot skeleton called Boris, a stuffed Buzzard called Leighton and hundreds of books. I no longer owned anything as useful as a pot or a pan, a sofa or a light bulb. My belongings had been in price per square foot storage for five years and the necessary financial cull meant that what was left was cherished with the passion of a ship wreck survivor, finding familiar flotsam washed up on a deserted beach. Every box that came into the house would soon be ripped open with delight as I reacquainted herself with what was left of a life I had deserted.
'She looks foreign' said the Lady of No 15 to the ladies of Numbers 18, 19 and 20 who were jostling for a view out of No 15's window.
'Drugs' said the Lady of No 20 knowingly. 'That hair means drugs'.
Waist length dreadlocks would not survive my first Welsh winter but in the interim, they helped me merge into my new landscape with as much subtlety as a horse's fart.
By the time I had walked through the house and got to the back door, the Lady from Number 15 was out the back, pegging whiter than white shirts onto the line that ran the length of the small garden. The rain drizzled and the other ladies in the kitchen were making tea and peering, whilst trying to be inconspicuous, through the kitchen window.
'If the dog barks, it will only be for a few days, she will stop when we both settle in' I said by way of introduction to a pair of hands pegging out a vest.
'Barking is fine' said a soft Welsh voice, 'but no drugs,' it said, slightly harsher in tone and definitely more Welsh.
I found myself trying to stand a little less haphazardly
'No, no, no, she doesn't do drugs, but I think she may bark for a few days'.
'That's alright then' said the voice as a tiny welcoming face appeared around an XXL vest. 'Now tell me, how on earth do you wash that hair?’
It took about three weeks before all the questionnaires were put together, pulled apart and put away. I couldn't turn a corner without another warm welcome and barrage of searching questions as the they worked out what had moved into their community
The dog forced me out. My shy, almost hermetic existence broken into twice a day by her need to pee, exercise and sniff the local news. If we turned left and walked around the corner, we came to the towering mountain range which, as the crow flies, erupted out of the earth all the way to the Brecon Beacons and beyond to the Cambrian Mountains with little else in between. If we turned right, we could walk down the main street of the village. Five minutes would see us pass The Old School, The Old Post Office, The Old Shop and The Old Public Conveniences of which, only the latter was still open and then, only to the brave or incontinent, and the village ended. A dead end on many levels, rising up towards the Old Pit Head, now covered like a tiny Stonehenge in a circle of stones. These remnants of a once busy mining community were echoed all the way out of the Rhondda, faded signage and converted buildings, sad monuments to closed down amenities that had once beaten as the community's heartbeat.
The dog’s name is Zeytin. In Turkish it means olive and at the time she was named, I thought it an inspired choice for the little black wrinkled puppy. This was part of the wonder of living with a man from a totally different world. Had we come from the same world I would have realised that in Turkey I had just named my dog the imaginative equivalent of Blackie and in English and certainly in Welsh it was going to be impossible to differentiate from Satan, which was to do little to relax my new neighbours about having a Rottweiler on the block.
At the beginning of the dog's life it had been incredibly hot. Born into a heat wave onto an unshaded beaten piece of ground she learnt to hate the sun the moment she was born. In the first three weeks of her life she also learnt to hate men with shovels, dumper trucks, wheels and plastic bags being opened roughly. Her mother was chained to a short rope which allowed her to move up and down between two leafless trees but never away. When she did move it was slowly, her back hips slipping in and out of their deformed sockets with the disease she had inherited from her own mother and passed on to all her puppies. In another life she would have been a fine looking Rottweiler bitch but 4 years breeding had left her pinched, the deep rust markings on her body faded and her natural timidity perverted into unwavering viciousness by cruelty and neglect. Her puppies crept beneath her to find food and shade but she was a poor mother, with too little of her own life left to nurture that of her puppies. They stayed with her for a little under 14 days. Her milk had dried up on her thin diet of bread and water and the pet shop owner couldn't have cared less, the younger the puppy the longer they stayed sweet enough to sell. The four puppies mewed and squeaked like kittens as they were pulled off her and a week later, when I first appeared in her life, the little runt was the only one still alive.
Some people bring a carpet back from Turkey, occasionally a husband and quite often a UTI, but that day, standing in a stinking Turkish pet shop on a day the tarmac melted right off the road, I was about to pick up something that was a lot less simple to get out of the country. The sun pummelled directly into the large glass window behind which 6 tiny puppies, all different breeds, lay inert on soiled newspapers, their water bowel empty. I had only gone in to give them water from my bottle but as I leaned over into their corral, the tiny, pitch black and tan Rottweiler puppy raised its head and nipped at my shirt sleeve button, its barely opened deep brown eyes locking our stares. The complete lack of judgement which would offer a home to a cruelly and neglectfully bred, potentially murderous breed of dog who hadn't been given the chance to learn anything but fear in its short life, and the horror of calling my mother and telling her what I had done, dissolved in the moment the puppy made me lift it out of the excrement where, still holding tightly to the button as though sucking a comforter. she instantly fell asleep in my arms.
Had I been a soft tourist who, feeding the stray outside the hotel balcony every morning, sticks the return journey and six months in quarantine onto her Barclaycard, I could have been seen as fool hardy. But I didn't have a Barclaycard. Nor a job by this time, nor was I a tourist but had spent the previous four years trying to carve out a life and have a relationship within the obsidian hard Muslim rock of Turkish culture.
My mother summed it up during a short, fraught, long distance phone call.
'Are you utterly insane?’
It seemed a silly thing for her to ask.
I was at the zenith of my power as a woman when bronzed and fit from working as a diving instructor around the Mediterranean, I met Ilker, whose name translates as First Son. I assumed this was a way for his mother to remember where, in the pecking order of two older sisters he appeared and he had an energy that, had he been English, would have probably been diagnosed and medicated.
By the time I realised he had lied to me about his age it was unimportant. He also lied about his English. He just said ‘yes’ to everything and I said ‘you know what I mean?’ a lot. I thought we were soul mates! I never imagined we would be together long enough for my 46 to his 28 to feel as though he were never going to reach 30. This was a Summer love with bells on that lasted three summers and four winters and which, although I didn’t know it then, was to be a culminating affair with an intensity that was to sustain me for much longer than we survived as a couple.
Zeytin turned into a 5 month old lanky barrel and I started to fight a one woman battle to stop her from spending the rest of her life either tied up to a chain or left pretty much to her own devices, locked away from all human contact. She was not helping the cause, making a bee line for anybody and everybody that regarded dogs the Turkish way, on par with the plague, leprosy or syphilis and when, after a British ‘Come for Coffee’ invitation to Ilker’s family had turned into a Turkish ‘Stay for the Summer and Bring the Extended Family’ things hit rock bottom.
My moral high ground was cultural, particularly around the dog. ‘Ghandi’ as I kept telling him imperiously ‘said you can judge a country by the way it treats its animals.’ On the surface, our home and lives were ‘European’ but there was a cultural chasm deep and impossible to cross. The very romance of his otherness, which makes the holiday affair so extreme and wonderful, is a life choice requiring drastic reinvention. Right and wrong didn’t come into it, but that fact could not stop the tsunami of arguments that threatened to wipe out every last bit of good between us. We were so fundamentally different and that difference was so deeply a part of our cultural heritage and the stage our lives were at, that I could do nothing to change the way I felt and nor could he. It was stalemate.
On my 46th birthday I softened on a long held, self preserving decision never to get on the back of a motorbike behind Ilker again and we went into town. As we came to the junction, he shouted over his shoulder to ask who had right of way as a one eyed man with no driving license, but who did have right of way, accelerated into the side of us. As Ilker’s head slammed backwards he broke my nose and fractured my cheek bone and together we both tarmaced the hot road with our skin as we slid to a halt, the full weight of the bike resting on my hip and Ilker sitting in my lap.
Much later, discharged from hospital and nursing our injuries, Ilker came in with my birthday cake which had fallen off the back of his bike after a solo and undisclosed accident the day before. Thinking that if he scraped it back into the box I wouldn’t notice it now resembled strawberry and cream road kill we both realised from my reaction I was probably right, it was time for me to go home.
Leaving Ilker was hard. Leaving my dog was not an option. Had I lived anywhere sensible I could have got her chipped, vaccinated and six months later she would have qualified for the PETS passport and entry back into the UK would have been a breeze. Turkey not being a part of the EU, indeed a part of the same planet made things that bit more complex. We bought an air crate and kept it in our tiny sitting room hoping that she might acclimatise herself to being in it before the journey but this was not a brave dog and it didn’t matter how many interesting morsels I threw into the back of it, there was no way she was going to get into it willingly.
Summer was over. Most of the houses had closed down for the winter migration and the crispy red tourists had packed up and flown home. The mass exodus left behind unspeakable amounts of rubbish, the feral dogs and us. Our daily walks through the abandoned village and along the shore would cause huge excitement from the varied piles of dripping fleas and mange as they appeared from nowhere and attempted to surround us. My young dog would stand behind my legs as I yelled and threw stones at the most aggressive, until sensing my determination they would turn away and disappear as fast as they arrived. This was not exactly a perfect Puppy Class and taught Zeytin nothing apart from having the courage to bark, only when something was already retreating, or weak. A trait that later served to tell me unhelpfully that whoever was knocking, had already left and a tendency to attack elderly labradors.
Ilker and I were also on the move. A small flat further inland that was to become his home without me. By then two other immigrants had settled in with us. A feral tabby kitten called Freida and Friday, an explosion of white and apricot candy floss which passed, just, as a Persian.
Freida was a bag of bones on the very edge of dying when she traversed two busy main roads and ignoring plenty of other places, choose the brightly lit market where Ilker worked at night. I thought a rat had run under the freezer and fought for standing space on the chair from my youngest daughter, who had been in Turkey for the summer. An enormous Turk was standing on another chair. screaming like a girl so Ilker, realising this was his moment, jumped straight over the counter and threw himself down to eye level, skidding to halt, eye to eye with a whole ecosystem as the fearsome 2 week old scrap of life spat in his face.
He pulled her out by her tail and held her up in the air with pride. Not a good way to treat kittens in front of Englishwomen. Street cats are regarded about on par with pigeons in Turkey, and about as welcome and along with a hundred other reasons why it would be ridiculous to keep her, we took her home. Lilly called her Freida, after where she was found, it was all the ‘freezer’ she could get around her newly pierced tongue and when, in the morning she was still alive we brokered another deal to get her healthy enough to go back to living on the street. Getting her defleaed, vaccinated and neutered would have been signs to most people that we were getting committed here but Ilker carried on believing my assurances that she would soon be well enough, recovered enough or old enough to go back to a feral life. In return her presence cut down the visitors we had who wanted to stay for the summer and then, when I was running out of excuses and as if she knew who she had to convince, Frieda worked on Ilker like a pro and he fell in love, as I knew he would.
Friday on the other hand arrived on a Friday. With all her Persian hair shaved off to 4 little booties she was the ugliest and most unfriendly kitten I had ever come across. Utterly fed up by whatever had happened in her short 3 months of life she joined us, ungraciously, as payment for a sculpture the vet had bought from me. I then paid him a fortune to try and sort out her bowels which were almost under control by the time we flew.
Friday wouldn’t move without Freida, and Freida thought Zeytin was her mother so, if getting a dog out of the country was hard, I decided to make it nigh on impossible by adding the two cats into the mix. The last thing I did in Turkey was take Zeytin to the Veterinary University in Izmir to have her hip sorted out. Called a Femoral Head Osteotomy (FHO) it requires surgically removing the head and neck of the femur, in effect removing the ‘ball’ part of the ball and socket that makes up the hip joint. Once back in UK I was told by many vets that this is not usually considered a good operation for a dog the size of a Rottweiler but it has been hugely successful in my girl. I think it helped that she has her tail to act as a rudder and reduce some of the Rottie sway that is so noticeable on dogs who have had this well designed part of the spine amputated. She was not a good patient, made most miserable by the Elizabethan collar she had to wear to stop her interfering with the stitches. It also meant she had to be carried up and down stairs for a while and by the time she healed, I was a cripple. My end date in Turkey was planned eight weeks after the operation to give her time to recover before we travelled.
I had a plan of sorts. I found a kennel in France as a stopping off point for the animals whilst I worked out what to do next but the only way I could get on the same flight as her was if I flew via Germany. This would mean a short stop off and I was told I could check on the dog and give the cats a break in the Veterinary border area for animals at the airport. I would then meet a man in Paris who would drive us to a kennel in Normandy. Then, no pressure at all, I was to return to the UK for a couple of weeks find somewhere for us to live in France and touch base with my family, before returning by car for the animals.
I had never looked forward to a journey less.
After a month of living with the air crate, sitting it in to convince her to join me, decking it out like a front room in a St Johns Wood flat, filling it with toys and other interesting objects there was no way in a million years that my dog was going to wander into it, lay down and relax. So I used brute force. The first time she sat with her eyes right up to the bars, her whole body electrified until I let her out 10 minutes later. I gave up after a few days of this torture and realised I was never going to train her into it so instead picked up her up a sedative from the vet and one for myself from the chemist where I also bought Imodium, the only way I could think of stopping Friday from evacuating her bowels every five minutes throughout the journey. Had I known, I could have dealt with the crate better. I was to learn it is all about timing with dogs and patience. They go through a sequence of emotions starting with flight, moving into avoidance and eventually submitting into acceptance. If the process is stopped at any point before acceptance then that is the memory you make for your dog. Giving in when they are staring determinedly in the opposite direction isn’t acceptance. Hanging in there, waiting for the sigh, the yawn or the shake is the moment of that should be instantly rewarded with freedom. It all in the timing and he timing is crucial if you don’t want to reinforce the wrong behaviour. Next time the dog will try and work out how it got out last time and will try everything it did before, including giving up. Soon it will realise that if it just relaxes, then it will all be over and even if it isn’t, the period of time until it is will be far more comfortable and less stressful for all concerned.
The day we were due to fly Zeytin went into her first heat. Big time. She wandered around being quiet and withdrawn and kept staring at her nether regions as if they belonged to somebody else. Obviously she wanted to have a duvet day but this was not going to be the way it panned out. We all lay on the bed together waiting for our lift to the airport and I was painfully aware of how much emptiness I was about to leave behind us. I had no doubts about my need to leave but this man who had so little had given me so much. When we met his most complicated emotion had been loving his shoes and his whole world had fitted into one suitcase. Now I was leaving him with rent to pay, all the incumbent furniture and hassle of a home and a massive space where his woman, his dog and his two cats should have been. I felt devastatingly responsible. I was his first real love and I guess with that comes the responsibility of knowing I was to be the first person to truly break his heart. I didn’t shoulder that burden easily.
I had tickets, cargo passes, vet certificates, government authorities for the animals to leave the country and everything in triplicate. I had notes and stickers with pointless information like ‘this way up’/’please be gentle’ in Turkish and English plastered all over the crate that the dog still wouldn’t go in. I had two angry cats crammed into an Airline Approved Cat Carrier which only enabled one to glare out of the bars at a time and gave Frieda little room to negotiate away from Friday’s explosive bottom and increasingly bad mood. Friday had been Imodiumed and neither cat had been fed by the time Cousin Serdar pulled the van up outside and honked on the horn. The crate went in the back first and we filled it with everything apart from the dog who spent the 2 hour journey on my lap refusing to even look in its direction. My dive bag and clothes would follow me with DHL when I knew where I was going and for now, I had the clothes I stood up in and a ruck sack with a few basic necessities. A really great way to hit 48.
The vet had told me that the sedative would take about an hour to take effect. It didn’t. It took about 5 minutes and she was having a last pee outside the airport at the moment she collapsed. Manhandling 60lbs of inert dog back into the crate at least took our minds off the imminent end to our relationship. For that there was five final minutes after the dog was taken off into the bowels of the airport.
We wept, and if Zeytin hadn’t already gone I may well have changed my mind but as I passed irrevocably through passport control, I didn’t look back.
The take off and landing were endless and must have seemed to Zeytin as though she had been blasted into space. Alone. In the corner of the hold surrounded by fake Versace suitcases it was pitch black and quickly cooled. Engines screamed themselves to full throttle and her whole world shook as the wheels crashed back into the undercarriage and out again a few hours later. Once the plane had taxied to a standstill, I saw the crate being taken from the plane on a small lorry. I couldn’t see her in it and within moments she was out of sight.
The cats had to go in and out of their crate through three security X rays, Each time the people in the queue behind me tuted impatiently as though the fun I was having was a deliberate ploy to slow them down. By the third X ray Friday didn’t want to go back in and as her legs splayed against the opening of the cat crate and she went rigid leaving me trying to pry her into an ever decreasing opening as it filled with the other one trying to get out. At last through, I took them into the Ladies room to give them some water. Big mistake. The water shot through Friday like a dose of salts and before I could cry out in anguish she had filled her boots.
I cleaned both of them up the best I could, stuffing their soiled blanket into the bin and giving them my jacket so they wouldn’t slide around too much. I was momentarily surprised when, asking a passing woman for help, she had refused, until I caught sight of myself in the mirror, my white shirt now streaked with cat shit and a look of something akin to sheer panic on my face. Would I have stopped for a woman covered in cat shit in an airport toilet? Big ask, but I cried when she walked out. There was nothing for it but to stuff them back into the inadequately cleaned crate and start to run up and down the longest airport terminal in the world as time sped by and I still could not find my dog. They were calling my name as I at last found the Customer Services Lady sitting primly behind her very tall desk. The hissing snake of about 40 people also waiting to speak to her blurred out of my vision. I heaved the cats up onto the counter and with a barely suppressed hysteria said I was not boarding my plane until they could prove to me my dog was on it and I had checked she was alright.
I think it was the smell that did it. I was quickly shown out onto the tarmac through a side door and, leaving the cats on the steps of the plane, I climbed into the hold. There, in the darkest corner, two eyes stared at me from the very very back of her crate. I think she thought I had come to release her but all I could do was check she was safe, dose her up a bit more and leave her, knowing she was about to go through it all again. I climbed onto the plane, at the wrong end to my seat, where I was the only passenger who hadn’t boarded.
I walked the length of the plane apologising to every head I hit. Dishevelled and distressed I clumped up the aisle, knocking one side and then the other with swinging crappy cats or my bulging rucksack. Two Germans watched my progression with growing horror as they realised I was heading for the empty window seat next to them. I squeezed past with my best public school ‘Good afternoon’ and as I rested the crate on my knees, Friday let out yet another explosion. All the way down the plane I watched heads dip then turn in disgust filled sniffing as the smell travelled past them, and I wept again.
It was the longest runway in the world and every bump and bang went through my body like a shockwave as I imagined my dog below in the dark and without the benefit of any soundproofing or comprehension. Eventually we were airborne and whilst everybody else was offered coffee I was given a roll of black plastic bags, a large stack of serviettes and I headed for the tiny cramped toilet. Not my most favourite place on a plane at the best of times and even with the door shut, impossible to put the cats down safely as it is filled with nooks and crannies that disappear into the fabric of the plane. I threw away the jacket and attempted to make a carpet out of serviettes, without feline help.
On returning to my seat the German couple had morphed into two happy expectant looking children’s faces who thought that a crazy English woman covered in cat shit was the perfect travelling companion. Freida had decided she wanted no more to do with Friday and was pressed against the bars of the crate staring at me pleadingly. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we had hours to go yet.
Touching down at Charles De Gaulle we clattered once more down a never ending runway and as the plane turned off its engines I braced myself for the next leg of the journey.
Waiting in the luggage department a man from my flight came up to me and asked me how stupid was I to be travelling with the menagerie. It was easy to cry again and when I told him my husband had died and the animals were all I had left of him and I was trying to get home, at least he felt as shitty as I looked. The crowd quickly dispersed and I was left staring in horror at the empty carousel going around and around with no sight of my dog. The place was deserted by the time a man with a limp eventually appeared pushing the crate. He dumped it on the floor and left as I ran over and opened the door. Another big mistake. Zeytin came staggering out and fell into my arms - desperately disorientated from the extra drug I had given in her in the hold, covered in urine and in deep shock I once again had 60lbs of inert dog to somehow get back in the crate.
I grabbed a man cleaning the floors and threatened to smear myself against him if he didn’t put the dog back in the crate, the crate back on the trolley and get me to the man behind the glass barrier and help me get out of this goddam airport. He didn’t understand my tirade but ten francs did it.
God had been kind. The kennel owner said the Turkish documents would have had some problem, hardly a surprise, and we would probably have been turned back, but by the time we staggered through the gates, everybody official had lost interest and gone.
Zeytin puked on and off for the four hours it took from Charles De Gaulle to the kennel I had found for them. Chosen because they said the cats and dog could be kennelled together and they would have Zeytin in the house, I think I rather underestimated the size of France or, having explained my route to the kennel owner, wouldn’t noticed he lied to get the business My French may have been poor but I know what ‘petite distance’ means. Although her stomach was beyond empty by then it didn’t stop the curdling noise and the hawking up of white spit if we went around a corner but there was nothing I could do for her than get her to a still place and that was miles yet. As I stared out at the ever unfolding road, I settled into the moment in relief that, however far out of our way we were going, the airport was behind us. The driver was mostly silent. The windows were mostly open. The cats were in the back of the van in a large crate with a litter tray and soft bedding and, naturally, Zeytin was on my lap. It was dark when we arrived in the wilderness and as the cats were put safely in the cattery I retired to my lodging for the night, showered and crept into bed and wrapt my arms around my traumatised dog. I felt small and distraught that tomorrow I was going to have to leave them behind and they couldn’t understand that I was coming back.
By then I had found a job, or thought I had found a job. Caretaking a house that belonged to a sort of friend sounded absolutely perfect to wait out the six months of quarantine. My new boss turned up at the kennel the next morning to drive me back to the UK. By the time we got to Calais he realised I wasn’t going to be sleeping with him and by the time I got on the ferry, I was jobless again.
C’est la vie, as they say in France.
I returned 2 weeks later having picked up my car and having found where to stay for the next six months but other than that I had to fly on faith, in a Godless sort of way. How we were going to survive was a tricker one to arrange so I shoved it into the back of my mind. The kennel had taken the animals to be revaccinated against rabies and started their passport process so looking on the bright side, 6 months and 2 weeks and we would be back in the UK. I squeezed the cat crate into a tight space behind my right ear and Zeytin rode shotgun. Over the next 8 hours of driving she managed to hit the button for the electric window on an average of 30 times an hour. The rain was torrential but at least the regular soaking I received kept me conscious and awake on the drive. With an almost magnetic regularity, I was drawn off my route down every slip road that led off the dual carriageway and into the convoluted streets of unknown towns along the way with the window going up, and down and up and down. The cats alternated between howling or arguing and at every available service station I stopped, carted the cats, their tray of litter and the dog into public toilets so the cats could wander around the toilets meowing and looking for escape whilst ignoring my enticing shaking of the tray. Unrelieved, I would then have to force them back into the Crate From Hell and we travelled onwards.
It was about midnight when we met the caretakers of the Gite. A tumbledown holiday home where nobody had holidayed for many years, probably due to the fact that it was situated on a tundra. It was late November, and I was not going to see the appeal of France for many months to come. They shouted at me in French, apparently telling me where to shop and how to turn on the heating. When they realised I didn’t understand they shouted at me more angrily and then, leaving a phone number that nobody ever answered, they left us alone. Utterly, completely, deafeningly alone. I choose This because they had a cat flap?????? Maybe I should have had a few other necessities on my list when I picked out somewhere for us to live, but we were here and our quarantine officially started.
There wasn’t much of anything really but an old TV with no arial and a video. The only video to watch was Cesar Milan, The Dog Whisperer. I watched it endlessly and will be endlessly grateful for what he taught me. It was the beginning of a learning that was to change me on a much more fundamental level than understanding how to get a dog to sit.
We all settled into a routine. Woke up, walked, did dog training, walked again, and went to bed. Ilker sent us money when he could and then I could put petrol in the car and take Zeytin to an endless, deserted beach beneath leaden skies so we could walk some more and remember when the sea was my office and the horizon of my life, a tad more discernible and my hip ached less. After month two I managed to get online which opened the world to us again, if very slowly and not very reliably. On the whole the days merged, one into another. I found a vet and a shop and fed the animals well whilst I lived off porridge. I tried to learn French, I tried to sculpt, I tried to imagine what on earth I was going to to next - none of it successful.
The months passed. The pain in my hip worsened. My back gave way completely and many nights would find me trying to sleep slumped over the back of the sofa which seemed to be the only position that eased things. To make things harder, the steps to upstairs were slippery open wooden steps which Zeytin wouldn’t walk up. One night early on I was woken by Freida rushing into my room and hiding behind the curtain. Zeytin was fast asleep on the bed so I wasn’t too worried thinking she would be fussed if there was a real problem. From the bedroom the top of the stairs was just visible and Freida kept creeping out from the curtain to stare intensely at it. I was just about to settle back down when Friday hurtled in yowling. She lept onto the bed beside me and equally concentrated on the gap we could see at the top of the stairs. Zeytin slept on and I mused more than worried about what had scared them. All of a sudden Zeytin woke and standing on the bed started barking wildly at the space at the top of the stairs. The cats fled into the room next door and Zeytin pounded down the small corridor, sliding to a stop at the top of the unbreachable staircase. She ran back barking and stared at me, as if she didn’t understand why I wasn’t doing something and hurtled out of the room again. One of the reasons I wasn’t doing anything is because I was a rigid, frozen, horrified, terrified thing and decided the dog should earn her keep. She hurtled up and down the corridor and I swear at one point I saw disappointment in her eyes as she viewed me childishly sitting with the duvet up round my chin with what must have been the biggest eyes eyes ever. This, the woman who used to threw stones and protect her, she hurtled off realising that I was a pussy. I rather assumed that if somebody was down there they would have run by now but I needed to check so climbed gingerly out of bed and stood listening. It should have been reassuring to be living with a Rottweiler but as I lifted her into my arms and started the extra heavy footed descent down the slippery stairs, all I could think was that I would just have to throw at her anything I found down there.
Downstairs went silent as I heaved myself down the stairs and as I turned the final corner we came face to face with the largest cat in France which had obviously realised all that barking hadn’t got any closer and had returned. It lept in the air, Zeytin lept out of my arms, everything from the surface of the kitchen went flying and the cat shot out of the cat flap and into the dark and endless night that surrounded our tiny existence. I flopped on the chair as Zeytin barked into the night through the cat flap. We make the return hike up the stairs, the dog getting lower and lower in my arms as I crumbled beneath her. The next day I found some old corrugated matting in an old outbuilding and tied it to each step to give her grip. It worked well but made barefoot early rising like walking on coals to get to a cup of tea.
My dog trained into a creature I could turn on a sixpence, with the proviso there was no other distraction within 100 miles radius and the cats flourished. During the deepest part of the winter it snowed and for weeks, the silence was deafening.
Most days entailed a depressing virtual hunt of ever dwindling hope. Whilst I was no stranger to finding my life at a seeming dead end, this was probably the thinnest ledge so far and as I started to look at motorhomes and then caravans and then my car, each time desperately trying to make it seem like a fun thing to do with a dog and two cats, my heart sank deeper. Miraculously my eldest daughter found No 14. She was at university in Wales and whilst the Rhondda Valley isn’t really Wales as most people know it, the house was cheap and the animals were welcome and the deal was done a week before our quarantine lifted. Now all we had to do was get there.
The French Port Official waved the scanner in my face, telling me I needed to produce the animals for their chips to be checked. The piles of our paperwork sat in front of her like a Phd. Zeytin bleeped first, then Frieda but of Friday there was silence. She moved the scanner around the unhelpful little body as sweat trickled down between my breasts.
‘Non’ she proclaimed. ‘Non’ was not an option.
It had taken a while to love her but Friday was not for leaving behind and even had she remained the grumpy hateful kitten of her early months it still would not have been an option.
‘Encore’ I begged, grateful I had spent 6 months learning French.
The French Port Official hated me as I once again offered Friday up like a sacrifice to her scanner. She scanned her again.
‘Non’ was not necessary as the silence that should have been a bleep was the most deafening sound I had ever not heard.
The French Port Official shrugged and the car behind tooted in frustration. I am unsure what moved her eventually, perhaps the deep and certain knowledge that the slightly crazed looking Englishwoman was not for moving and was prepared to rip the whole port apart to find the chip that she had seen being put into this cat. She sighed and started to walk away. The man in the car behind ours was hot and hated his wife only a little more than he hated his children. He kept throwing his hands around as though this was some magic trick that would make me disappear. He was about to learn what immovable meant.
Five minutes later the Charm School reject returned with another scanner. She switched it on and swept my bundle of squirming cat. The chip, having ridden down from Friday’s neck to reside just near her left shoulder blade, bleeped and we were free of France.
They had to stay in the car during the crossing but a little bit more dog sick was as nothing as we rolled off the ferry and onto British territory. Flagged through and out of the Port with indifference by the numerous officials standing around, my animals and I pulled into the nearest service station from the Port and as my trembling, exhausted body sunk onto the wet grass, it was as much as I could do to stop myself falling face down to kiss it in gratitude and exaltation, we had made it home.
Living up the Rhondda was like being part of a huge Beryl Cooke painting. Brightly drawn characters danced through my life with growing intensity at the same time as life was being slowly sucked out of me. By the time I left I was unrecognisable from the woman who had arrived. The last tip of this forgotten, neglected place where the remnants of everything important in a community was hanging on by its nails. gave me its love and made it the most perfect place to be close to death. I was in good company. In an area where unemployment is rife and jobs few and far between, being ill was just about the only way to survive.
The first change was planned. Getting caught up in late 1980’s insanity which convinced me that that two melons with no sensitivity was better than two fried eggs that a butterfly could have aroused saw me happily sitting in front of a plastic surgeon as he told me how much better he could make me look with plastic breasts! They had been fun for a while and it was marvellous not to flap anymore when I ran down stairs but a decade of being manhandled was obviously too much for them and the left side ruptured. My first job on returning to the UK was to get them removed. How many businesses would disappear if women were taught to love themselves is astounding but there I was, keen and eager to be improved upon. The day before the operation a panic set in about how it would all fit together. Being creative I decided to improvise and putting on my brand new, waiting to be filled 34d bra I filled two condoms with water and snuggled them down for a trip to the shops. I bounced, alot, and then started to leak in the homeware department of John Lewis. By lunch I was soaked and lopsided but reassured that I was making another good decision and that my self confidence and life long denial of my femaleness would be healed by these additions. (Please note, the author is groaning).
The second problem was my hip. Even without the motor bike accident there was a problem which surfaced after a particularly acrobatic session of love making ended with me unable to close my legs. (Note to other older women oblivious to the dangers of Toy Boys!) I had private medical insurance and decided to get some value out of it. The surgeon thought the problem was with my spine and indeed a lifetime’s bad back had already been examined and found to be inoperable. Despite my protestations that the problem I needed to deal with was definitely in my hip, it took the surgeon all of five minutes to convince me I didn’t know what I was talking about and with a condescending smile, assure me he was the expert on my body and it was operable.
And it began.
Coming home after the first surgery my daughter and I were so lost in conversation that we missed the turning for the Rhondda. We got home half an hour after the last time anybody saw Frieda. Had we not missed the turning we would have come home just as next door’s son was quoiching her over the fence. It was odd seeing Friday alone and even odder that both cats weren’t waiting on the table as they always were, together and prescient to my return. That night, drowning beneath pain killers I found her lying on the spare room bed. I was so relieved to see her and pulled her towards me burying my face in her fur. With my arms full of her she turned her face to me and I saw the eyeless sockets and the blood running down her nose. I woke screaming with the duvet wrapped in my embrace and as my daughter came running into the bedroom and woke me, I knew my brave little cat was dead.
Ignoring the pain from the surgery I searched for her everywhere. I followed the scent of death for weeks, tentatively sifting through undergrowth for some sign of what had happened. I found a dead badger and half a fox. I put up posters and filled the village with concern as I dragged my beaten up body in and out of anywhere I thought she might have become stuck.
People called with sightings and I would find somebody to drive me, further and further afield. One day I saw a police car parked up on the old factory site just outside the village. A horrible place filled with dumped fridges and mattresses, syringes and broken glass. Carefully I clambered out of the car and approached the two officers who must have been taking a coffee break. The donut stopped half way to the driver’s mouth as he turned and looked at me.
‘Is there any chance you have seen a dead cat on the road or heard of one turning up anywhere? I’ve lost my cat. She’s tortoiseshell with a white bib, quite small’.
The policeman took a steady bite out of his donut and chewed thoughtfully.
‘A small cat you say?’
‘Yes’ I said, a tiny glimmer of hope igniting in my heart.
‘Tortoiseshell?’ He licked sugar from around his mouth.
‘Yes’ I answered, could it possibly be?
‘White bib?’ My heart pounded.
‘Yes’ I gasped, holding my self together in the growing expectation.
He looked at me, thought a bit more and then, smiling through his next bite of donut he said,
‘No, definitely haven’t seen that one’.
The other officer giggled but I felt as though he had punched me.
‘You sadistic fat fucker’ I formed the alliteration like an artillery man loads a gun and fired it both barrels into the car. Then, turning with as much dignity as I could muster I headed back to the car.
Emily, my designated and devoted driver for the day looked at me.
‘Did you just call that policeman a sadistic fat fucker?’
‘I think I did’ I replied as she hit the accelerator and we booted out of there.
By the time I got home I was furious and phoned the local police station to complain. It had been an unnecessary cruelty. Sargent Davies asked me if I could describe the officer.
‘Well, he was sitting down but he looked overweight, he was bald and he had donut sugar all around his mouth.’
‘Mrs Dixon’ he said, his soft Welsh accent ‘you’ve just described most of the of the Welsh police force, including me’.
I then had to confess and tell Sargent Davies I had called the policeman a ‘sadistic fat fucker’ and I apologised.
There was a long silence and he said he would investigate and call me back.
About an hour later he did as he had promised.
‘I was having trouble tracking down exactly who you spoke to earlier. Nobody’s admitting to anything. So I sent a message over the radio and recalled to the Station any officer who had been called a ‘sadistic, fat fucker’ by a member of the public in the last hour. Mrs Dixon, I have to say they all turned up, so I still don’t know who it was.’ He did however promise they would all be reminded that a lost cat, a lost key or a lost child, it was not a policeman’s job to decide which to put his donut down for.
The search became more and more hopeless and at last I gave up. Friday stopped. She didn’t go out and barely ate as though cut adrift from her mother ship she floundered hopelessly in space. She would wander through the house sniffing a trail that must have had an echo of Freida and, once at the end of it, would give heart breaking sigh and lie down, defeated. Getting a kitten straight after fusion surgery was probably not one of my most logical ideas but I couldn’t bear Friday’s aloneness and at least, when the kitten arrived, she had an inside toilet again and something to hate.
Ayler, a Bengal crossed with something ratty, followed her around and slowly Friday realised something was looking up to her. She started to let the kitten get closer, a paw at a time and by the time Grace joined us as a reinsurance that if one went missing, Friday would always have the other, she was in her element teaching her very own brand of Kung Fu which entails a lot of attack posture but results in catching absolutely nothing. The kittens would sit watching her as she went through the motions, pouncing around she was the Great Apricot Hunter. She surprised as all when one day she was sitting proudly with a dead mouse and there was a moment of reevaluation. Noticing the mouse only had three legs her skills were busted when I found the fourth still in the mouse trap she had dragged though the cat flap. Slowly she took over as queen of the heap and began to purr again.
Ayler was poisoned and died of kidney failure when she was nearly a year old and then the people from No 16 moved away. A large trap, baited with Mackerel was all they left behind although they stole the radiators, the doors, the bathroom fixtures and the light fittings. Grace arrived. Aptly named, she was a cat who was going to play a big part in my healing. Once more Friday was aloof but the chubby square grey kitten soon won her over when the inside toilet reappeared, always a winner with Friday who loved the convenience. Grace is uncannily similar to Freida in personality. She had a nurse maid quality, always coming to bed with me she would instantly settle down on the most painful part of my body and start to vibrate. Somehow always knowing what hurt the most she would lay on it and purr deeply as though the very resonance from deep within her body would soothe me. I was to learn this is not as crazy cat woman as it sounds. Scientists have recently discovered the healing powers of a cat’s purr which is a consistent pattern and frequency between 25 and 150 hertz. It is well documented that sound frequencies in this range can improve bone density and promote healing. There is an old saying that says ‘if you put a cat and a bunch of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal’. Researchers have also found that the exposure to this sound frequency proves relief for 82% of those suffering chronic and acute pain, expanding the understanding of why cat’s purr when they are injured or giving birth. Grace would join us on the mountain to walk, vibrating and mewing behind us just as Freida had or, if she stayed home invariably she would be sitting on Freida’s spot on the wall to welcome us back. As she matured, she had a look in her eye and a particular way that ultimately convinced me that Freida’s soul was not going to miss out on being part of this family and had booted out whoever was waiting to be born through Grace to find her way back to us. Wishful thinking perhaps and a way to get over the deep sadness of Freida’s long and dangerous journey from her start under the floorboards of the old cafe in Turkey to find such cruelty and heartlessness in a tiny village in Wales.
Shortly afterwards, my reputation as being a ‘cat lady’ opened the way for Trilby. A smudge of a black and white kitten needing a home, Trilby moved in and the pack realigned. Life moved on.
The pain of the surgery lifted and within six weeks my back was more comfortable than it had been in years. My hip still hurt but I was counting blessings that the ache that had been my daily companion was no longer there. By eight weeks the pain was back. By ten weeks it was back with a vengeance. A year after the first operation in the Summer of 2010 my consultant was optimistic he could fix things and suggested we make it a hat trick and go in through my neck at the same time for a pesky little vertebrae up there that wasn’t standing to attention. My drug regime increased to 8 Solpodol a day, 8 Tramadol a day, 2 Tamazapan a night and Diazapan as often as I wanted it. I rattled. Although I had all the evidence, I was to later learn from one of the Granddaddy of fusion surgery that ‘they know one fusion surgery can be successful. Multi level, multi failure fusions always ends in disaster’. Less than six months later I was back in hospital again, both my neck and my lower back hanging on broken hardware. My consultant no longer looked me in the eye and they added Oxycontin twice a day, Oxynorm 8 times a day, Tamazapan nightly and Paracetamol. They then added a drug called Arcoxia. Probably the only pain killer that worked but certainly not approved by the FDA for long term use, as in over weeks. It is still being prescribed to me 5 years later.
In the midst of this, I was recalled after a routine smear test which showed pre-cancerous cells and underwent a procedure which showed modern medicine at its best as they dissected out the confused cells from my body. I am ashamed to admit I was almost disappointed when I eventually got the all clear, the interminable diagnosis for my life seeming harsher than a terminal diagnosis which at least offered an end date to the suffering.
Close neighbours watched me going in and out of hospital and looked after my house and cats with dedication. Nobody in the village wanted to have to experience my desperate search for Freida again so if they weren’t in for roll call the whole village became involved in the calling and searching until they reappeared. My homecoming was always greeted with rejoicing relief when the cats became, once again, my responsibility.
Hot meals would come over the fence when I didn’t have the energy to cook and if my curtains weren’t open by a reasonable time, I could expect somebody to be beating down the door. The first two operations had seen Zeytin go into kennels but then I met a woman from my village who was going to love my dog almost as much as I did and give me the peace of mind that whatever happened to me, she would be safe and she would have a home. Christine and I were the same age and we bonded over our back surgeries. She lived in a large rambling farmhouse tucked away at the foot of the mountain with her 90 year old father. Most afternoons would find us having tea together in her large over grown garden as Zeytin plodded around burying bottles.
I have never really worked out what it was about Zeytin and the bottles but when she found one that suited. Any old bottle won’t do and and there is a definite hierarchy. A boring water bottle instantly dropped if a sports drink bottle comes into view and more than once I saw her chose a brightly coloured one over a plainer version she had already found. Her whole body language shifts completely once she has one and she will stand over it looking around to make sure she isn’t being watched. Licking her lips it is carefully picked up and she tiptoes off, looking for a place to put it. Once she finds a spot again she will have a good look around and it is imperative, if you ever want to get home again, that you pretend to be looking in the opposite direction otherwise the whole spot search has to begin again. She doesn’t bury them exactly, rather she shoves them over and over again into flat submission and then covers them over by raking up the undergrowth with her nose. They are undetectable once she has finished but if she is interrupted half way through she will start over somewhere else.
I had to put some constraints on how many she could bury per walk as the area was popular with tourists who somehow had the strength to take the whole of Asda up the mountain but once they’d eaten, obviously didn’t have the strength to bring their rubbish back down again and Zeytin just couldn’t walk past one if it was lying there. If the bottle was difficult to reach or covered in brambles she would stand and stare at me until I realised she needed a hand and only once she burrowed them in she would return to me, breathing deeply with a mountain of mud sitting on the top of her nose. Checking in on them was also a serious business and sometimes years later she would dig them out and move them to a new spot or just tidy around, perfecting their cover. One day, out of the blue she picked up a large polystyrene cup. This was a surprise as I had only ever seen her bury bottles and as she crept off into the busheswith this covering her nose like a beak I had a bird’s eye view of all the burial places interconnecting into some kind of message to the gods, or harnassed by an intergalactic dog energy vibrating up out of their hiding places into a canine space ship to take her back to her people. The cup perched atop the geometry of bottles, flashing like the one on the Tardis. When I left, Christine said the bottle count in her garden topped 30, there must have been hundreds over the mountain.
Another of Zeytin’s life long obsession has been Tinkerbell. The bright orb reflected from my watch by the sun is unfailingly a joyous reunion. This deeply loving relationship goes against everything I ever learnt about dog psychology. She is never able to catch it, at best she bumps her nose painfully on the ground so the behaviour is completely unreinforced. Her tail goes around like a windmill, her whole body is expectant and happy as she leaps about, trying to catch the light and she becomes oblivious to everything else for the duration. In the end we had to have ‘Playtime with Tinkerbell’ so that I could bring it to an end with a command because she just never got bored and left it alone.
My dreads were not enjoying Welsh weather and would get soaked in the morning when we walked and would not be dry before we went out again in the evening. I was beginning to smell more than dog and was struggling to lift my arms to either wash or care for them. I was shaving Friday when the idea flickered into existence. Persian cats are a human design and therefore hardly fit for purpose. High maintenance with constantly dripping eyes caused by the overly flattened face interfering with drainage, her long coat would matt, almost overnight causing balls of fur to torture the thin skin of her body. There was no option but to shave it off regularly, leaving this enormous bundle of fluff looking like a little raw chicken and this was one of those moments. I was standing up to my knees in white and apricot fluff in the kitchen when I noticed my own reflection in the glass cabinet. I was due back in hospital and the dreads were heavy on my damaged neck so whilst still wondering if I was really going to do it, I shaved my head down to the scalp.
And then I went to Asda.
The patchwork tarmac of black and grey looked like it had been sewn together with mercurial seams that shimmered and swam in the thin rain. I inched the car forward down the High Street. My plan was to first do some chores in what remained of the mostly shuttered up one street town that clung to the edge of this road. A few miles from No 14 a handful of brave little independent businesses tried hard to stay proud. Mostly, they did their very best to entice the empty pockets and purses with imaginative names and unimaginative wares. ‘The Gift Horse’ whose paintwork was flamenco pink and where every gift was engraved and embossed making absolutely sure that Nana knew the photo frame was hers and Dado never needed to wonder which mug he had drunk from, ‘Fuller Figures’ nestled without irony against the wall of ‘Explosive Physiques‘ where over-sized ladies could buy gargantuan trousers and right next door muscle blown young men could talk protein and steroids. ‘A Fish Called Rhondda’ competed with ‘Wayne’s Plaice’ and further out, ‘Finishing Touches’ which was actually a furnishing shop but for months I had only seen it out of the corner of her eye and mistook the white fire surround that dominated the window for a monument. I had thought it a perfect name for an undertakers. There was the shop where whatever you needed was ‘Coming in tomorrow’ but you could buy a toboggan in the middle of summer and further down the road, a hardware store in which you could find just about everything or, if you couldn’t, one of the two, or it could be three identical ladies that had worked there forever, would find it for you in the Aladdin cave above the shop.
This road from nowhere to nowhere always felt to be the most congested I had ever travelled and as so often happened, the closer I got to the shops, the less important the chores seemed. By the time a parking space opened up I had talked myself out of needing anything on my list. The potential reward for getting things done, a Blueberry Muffin or a large custard slice was wiped out by the jostle of school children queuing out of Gregg’s doorway for their inadequate nutritional lunches and the cheque in my purse not large enough to warrant immediate banking. The thought of getting out of the car filled me with exhaustion so I went straight on to the supermarket.
Once there people gave me wide and compassionate space, warning their children to be careful, even if they were nowhere near me as I lurched down the aisles picking up supplies. Every now and again a burst of nervous laughter, a barely suppressed hysteria, would escape from deep in my chest as I realised that rather than the Sinead O Connor look I had been hoping for, I had made myself look like a chemotherapy survivor. The trolley was designed for straight lines only and every corner became an effort that meant by the time I got to the check out I was too exhausted to reach in to get my shopping. My bubbles of amusement popped and I collapsed into a vortex of despair and self pity, sobbing helplessly at the enormity of the task of the checkout. A young man was called to help and as we walked slowly to the car he gently suggested that next time I use the motorised wheel chair. The dissolution of my ego had begun.
Meeting the same traffic jam in the opposite direction, I edged forward. Half a dozen cars in front carried on through the red light and by the time it turned green once more, the single file of traffic was blocked in both directions. I watched the lights turn red again and waited as a tightly fitting fiesta squeezed itself onto the pavement, its abundant occupants waving delightedly at a man walking an old Jack Russell on the other side of the road. People called and directed and eventually, the traffic light shifted to my favour and I managed a few hundred yards with nothing in front of me. It was almost worth getting out of 2 gear, but barely. Just as I thought about changing up, the car in front slammed on its brakes and I waited politely as, with a wave and a smile at me, a man leant in to the open window of the car in front for a chat. The wave and the smile stopped me from leaning my weight into the horn and screaming obscenities through the windscreen and I used the time to roll a thin cigarette. The wave and the smile stopped all the traffic behind me too but here, that was just another excuse to catch up on news or share gossip with whoever was walking down the street, so I waited, drawing deeply in on a rather bent roll up. Going nowhere
‘Alright?’ mouthed the man as he returned to the pavement, smiling through the windscreen at me with an exaggerated bob in his neck and a slight opening of his eyes, the way people talk to the aged, or the mentally retarded. The faint deference in the posture no doubt some throw back from our ancient forgotten past to stop one ape from knocking ten bales of shit out of another ape. I smiled back using too many teeth and flicked my hand on the steering wheel. A ‘no problem’ sort of flick. A ‘totally understand’ ‘take your time’ gesture that for a moment made me feel included in the conversation, this community, these people who had known each other for ever, grown up together, gone to school together, married each others brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles until the gene pool became so concentrated it was often difficult to tell people apart and whom, for as little as they actually had to say to each other, managed to spend a great deal of time saying it. The conversation had created a clear piece of road and I took the rare opportunity to get the car to hit 36 mph. As I spat the tobacco stuck on my top lip onto the windscreen, the big yellow box at the side of the road flashed and my shopping trip cost me 3 points on my license and £45.00.
I took my very first selfie and sent it to my kids so the shock wouldn’t be too much when they next saw me. There response was predictably horrified but the hair thing was a peculiar liberation. Good hair days, or not. Leave grey or dye. Cut, style, fiddle and scrutinise, a woman’s hair is a constant source of something and to be so without it that I reflected florescent light was a whole new learning curve of myself as a woman who was used to being physically appreciated. The last time I had such a clear view of society’s reaction to a woman was when I suddenly sported a bosom. Men who had always looked at my face ignored it as they became transfixed with the bouncing mounds of man made silicone and I noticed that many more people used diminutives when the spoke to me. I became a ‘love’ and a ‘darling’ whereas before I had induced mainly nervousness. Now I was playing a lead part in ‘Zombie Apocolypse’ I had a whole new persona to experience. Women became soft and gentle towards me which was an extraordinary and lovely experience after a lifetime of being mostly perceived as a threat by them and men no longer seemed to know I existed at all, which took a bit longer to get used to.
Once, a Turkish friend had asked me the best way to get a woman into bed. I told him to tell her he only had a year to live and to save her pain, he would not make love to her. It worked every time. We practised this conversation a few times and then he asked me if it worked the other way around. I sat down next to him and put my hand gently on his knee.
‘I only have a year to live’ I said in a soft and brave voice, ‘it would be unfair to make you fall in love with me’.
There was a long silence and I looked up at him.
‘Well? Did it work for you?’
He sat for a moment thinking and then responded ‘The only thing I can think of is whether you are contagious’ and there it was. The difference in the sexes.
By now I had been celibate long enough to class myself as a born again virgin. Between surgeries and living up the Rhonda, my sexuality, which had ruled my life with an unyielding, overpowering energy sang its last hurrah. A perfect chronometry, my dog’s age minus six month also marked this monumental change in my life. For a woman who used to need sex to get rid of a headache this was a surprising turnaround. Luckily, as it turns out, the last Turkish heatwave I endured masked the menopause as it crept up from nowhere and amputated my libido. I didn’t go quietly into that dark night and raged for about a year, trying anything to resurrect even the smallest glimmer of wanting. In the beginning it felt like an enormous loss and not all of it suffered with dignity but the gains were ultimately immeasurable. Time, first and foremost. I had no idea how much of my life was spent thinking about, planning, doing or recovering from sex. Only now, in the absence that once opened up before me like a frozen wasteland, can I see the fertility, the expansion. Perhaps like so much in my life, I have turned this sow’s ear into a silk purse but, without a doubt, it is a much more peaceful place and I am deeply grateful for peace. I now sleep on the edge of a kingsize bed with a 75lb Rottweiler on one side and three cats down the other. It is like sleeping in a hairy sarcophagus. If any man had made this much mess in my bed, or taken up so much room let alone bought mice in during the night, I would have been livid and although the odd cat flies off in the night by accident, there is rarely a cross word.
Unconditional love rocks!
The last time I saw the surgeon he said the ongoing pain was psychological. Sitting there with my bald head and desperate look it was maybe easy for him to abdicate from the train wreck he had turned me into. He latched on to the fact that I had been diagnosed bi-polar years earlier with an arrogance that took my breath away, presuming that because I had suffered from depression, it was making me feel more pain than I really had. He suggested I go to the pain clinic and hope lit up the horizon. A whole clinic devoted to dealing with pain, they must be able to do something.
The pain specialist added Amitriptyline to my drug supply.
I spent the next year in bed. Between the morphine addictions and cold turkeys, the stomach problems caused by the moving of my bowel during one of the operations when, running out of places to carve through my back they entered from the front, and the untenable misery of constipation, a side effect of morphine, life blurred into an overall miasma of hopelessness. Every day I got a little worse and took a few more pills.
My neighbour, Jeff The Death, was the local undertaker. As I felt myself sliding closer and closer to dying, I did not find this reassuring and started to sleep in pyjamas, terrified that if I died in the night he would find my corpse naked. This seriously bothered me.
I had first realised I lived next door to the undertaker early on when one morning I had pulled back my curtains to find my window full of hearse. The coffin inside it was smothered in yellow and white Chrysanthemums and Lilies and a large red rose tribute told me that somebody’s NANA was parked outside my front door. Moving quickly away from the window I didn’t want to pry and assumed a cortege of mourners would soon be emerging from one of my neighbouring houses. Respectfully I withdrew to the back of the house, thinking my mission to the shop could wait until they left. An hour later nothing had moved, particularly my new nearest neighbour lying dead in the box outside my window. By the time the hearse left the street, the impetus to leave the house had passed and my list of things to do remained on the side until eventually it was lost beneath a pile of other lists of things that never got done.
A few days later the empty alleyway at the back of the house was filled by another corpse. There were no flowers or tributes this time and as we squeezed past the highly polished black paintwork Zeytin decided to pee over the wheel. Forced to stop for this I was level with the head of the coffin. A strange, unguarded moment in this final journey of a stranger. I felt an overwhelming sense of intrusion yet at the same time I was humbled to be so intimately included in this parked up moment at the utter end of a life. I was just thinking that having a dead body in my back passage was a first when Jeff made me jump by appearing suddenly at my side.
‘Jeff’, he said around the cigarette clamped in his mouth and held out his hand. ‘No 13. Lucky for some.’
‘I am so sorry, my dog just peed all over your wheel’ I said before I had the chance to say nothing, or at least to think of something intelligent.
‘Fair play’ he said, by way of a response.
Over the years we lived next door to each he always managed to make me jump, probably having perfected the art of standing inconspicuously at funerals. Dressed traditionally in a long black jacket and pinstriped trousers, this tiny man who would sink from the weight of the gold jewellery if he fell in the river, was always a delight and happy to come in and rescue me when the cats bought in rodents. That first morning we agreed that he had my total support to blast the cats with a large water canon if they tried to shit in his garden. This soon became a sport bringing him an inordinate amount of pleasure. Unfortunately for him, the cats quickly got the message and crapped happily and dryly in their own garden, so he’d load his gun and, for target practise, use No 49’s underwear when it was swinging on the line as an alternative. He was a good shot but in the end his wife confiscated the gun and I never saw it again.
I got used to bodies waiting for their final ride to the chapel or the crematorium. Jeff the Death didn’t actually keep the corpses in No 13, he would just bring them home whilst he waited for the service. Many newly departed loved ones took the detour as they hung around, one final time, waiting for the last appointment they would ever have to keep. The morning I saw the hearse steamed up with condensation, I did knock on his door just to enquire if he’d checked nobody was breathing in there, but on the whole, living life between No 13 and No 15 felt safe and I was deeply grateful for safe.
I knew the only way I could keep Zeytin was if I could exercise her. The very first thing I learnt about training a dog was that a tired dog was a well behaved dog and even when exhausted my girl had issues. The rest of the day she was trapped in a house with a barely conscious owner and I owed her. Every time I thought I couldn’t take one more step, my love of her forced me into movement and without a doubt I would have given up without her. The deluge of drugs I was given to help, didn’t. They made me sick and even more depressed and often by the end of the day I didn’t know if I had taken the prescribed 16, or 36 and was passed caring.
Many days I would lay in the hedgerow weeping with the agony of just breathing. There was nowhere to put myself that eased the pain and even lying down, my neck was in so much trouble it had no way of ever getting into a good enough position to release. They say the brain can’t feel more than one pain at a time. They are lying. I came to know each pain as its own distinct experience and I got to know them as one would a full orchestra, playing badly out of tune whilst being shot at by a sniper, sometimes two. The banging drums, the ripping violins, the clashing tambourines, the see saw of a cello and the shrill scream of the oboe ripped through me with varying levels of intensity. There were the day orchestra and then, when at last I could lay it down, the night orchestra would start.
There was also the small matter of my girl’s life as the village thug. It started early on when, crossing the bridge a small black terrier called Rosie decided to go all Troll and own the place. She came in yapping and snapping as the owners stood by watching with the ‘isn’t she sweet’ resignation of most small dog owners. Zeytin’s lack of socialisation meant she matured into a strong, insecure and quite timid bitch with a huge insecurity complex which she hid beneath an extremely dominant exterior. An explosive mix. They say owners end up looking like their dogs. I have learnt that dogs are the most perfect reflection of their owners on a much deeper level and exactly reflected within the middle of their neurosis, invariably lie our pathology. This early clue though, went straight over my head because I thought I was still training her rather than understood how I needed to train myself.
In the Rhonda, a dog scrap can cause a rift in neighbourly harmony for years but on the whole we saw so few people I wasn’t given any reason to worry. Until the day I was. Realising too late that she had been holding a grudge against Rosie ever since that early stand off, was the day she caught sight of her in the distance and she saw her chance. There is one big difference between a dominant dog and an viscous dog, it is called a bite. but I didn’t know it the time and I don’t think Rosie was too bothered about the splitting of that vital hair as Zeytin buried her in the mud. Zeytin’s reputation was in tatters even though the only real injury was to Rosie’s dignity.
Rosie’s owners were understandably not happy nor were they prepared to wait around until the dogs relaxed. Dogs remember the last emotion they experience and even after a full blown fight, given time will relax. If you walk away on this emotion, rather than humans screaming and swearing and threatening to kill each other, as the dogs are dragged apart and away still snarling and growling, there is less chance of a rematch when they meet again. Rosie’s owners weren’t interested in Ceaser Milan’s opinion and told me to fuck off.
Fair enough really. At the end of the day it was down to me to sort my own dog and I realised that as I had got weaker, I had allowed my bitch to get more and more out front. A nervous dog with a weak owner she was being forced into making decisions she was not capable of making and that first attack gave her a sense of her own power. After that any dog became a target and although it was a big mountain, dog walkers have a Glockenspiel regularity and started to view her as the devil’s spawn. I utterly lost my confidence. I started to study anything and everything I could on dog psychology as getting her back to balance became my life’s work. It was to be some years before I worked out that the only thing I needed to get back into balance was myself and by then, she had taught me more about what it is to be human than any other study I had become obsessed by.
One morning, the three hours of vomiting as I tried to get dressed convinced me this wasn’t a mental health problem and I went for a second opinion. Orthopaedic spinal surgeons are a close knit bunch and the second surgeon I met had, once upon a time, been the boss of my first surgeon. Very quickly it was evident that I was in deep trouble and within two weeks I was once again surrounded by strangers in an operating theatre. This time I was not facing a hopeful, pain free future but a salvage operation to remove broken bits of hardware from my neck and lower back. The surgeon was not confident that he would be able tot find enough space left to re-stabalise my spine, my pelvis was splitting under the pressure and getting out of pain was superseded by the urgency to keep walking. but he was rather excited at the prospect of ‘giving it a go’. It was to be one of the most complicated operations he had ever attempted.
“I told him something was wrong’ hardly seemed like a relevant conversation to be having as the first 7 hours on the operating table began with the cold needle slipping into my hand.
I was filleted through my neck, my stomach and had a large chunk of bone taken off my pelvis and four days later, I was flipped over and the same was done all down the back of me. My surgeon was very proud of himself . Afterwards he told me that when he had finished he could lift me off the operating table by my hardware it was all so strong. Quite why he hadn’t taught his registrar this trick when he had the chance, I never got the chance to ask him.
Like childbirth, there is a blissful amnesia that softens the edges of remembered pain, probably the only way the brain can cope with the enormity of the stress it has been put through. I lay on the narrow bed beneath twisted sheets that didn’t quite fit and prayed for death whilst hideous phantoms tried to pull my bed out of the room and take me somewhere unknowable but terrifying every time I tried to close my eyes. It was not a happy time.
A few months later, irrespective of the two metal rods inserted in my pelvis to stop it happening, the left SI joint collapsed. The sacroiliac joint lies just below the lumber spine and above the coccyx. It is what connects the sacrum, the triangular bone at the bottom of the spine to the pelvis. It predominantly acts as a shock absorbing structure but the shock it was being asked to absorbed was way beyond anything nature intended. In fact the surgery acted like a shock wave throughout my body causing damage in the adjacent discs and then when they ran out, through all the other joints in my body. I became a human example of Le Chatelier’s principle ‘When a system at equilibrium is subjected to change, then the system readjusts itself to counteract the effect of the applied change, and a new equilibrium is established’, or in other words ‘Don’t mess with the status quo if the status quo is what is holding you upright’. 500 million years of evolution designed the spine to move in a deeply intricate dance with the rest of the body. Had I suffered a terrible accident, I am sure the carpentry of orthopaedic surgery would have been a gift I was grateful for but from my vantage point I was struggling with the bit of the Hippocratic Oath that says ‘First do not harm’.
Slowly my girl and I came back down off the mountain and as I walked back up my garden path I looked down again through the distance between me and my sodden garden and was just contemplating the effort when all hell broke out at the front of the house. 2011 was the year of the ice cream van’s war. Teddy Bear’s Picnic had been serving tea time ice cream to my street for ever and like clockwork, drew up right outside my window at about 5pm every day. Then, to everyone’s surprise Nessum Dorma started appearing at 4.45pm. Teddy Bear’s Picnic parked up the following day at 4.14 and by the time Waltzing Matilda arrived on our block it was ice cream carnage by lunchtime with the vans hurtling up and down the tiny back streets with red faced men yelling out of cramped windows at children to hurry up and choose, so they could get to their next patch before the others. Today, all three of them were in the street as Jerusalem putted around the corner. The police were called as the Cornettos flew and the cacophony of horns echoing all the way to Treorchy meant I nearly didn’t hear my phone ringing.
There is always hope, O thou for whom heaven and earth were created…’