Author Archives: Tim Lenton

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Pulled by the pain of wind and tide
and racked by rain
your body moves from side to side

You toss and touch the shallows 
gather in the sheets
tumble face down, indiscreet

Naked to sand and stone, so close
to land: pillow fair head
stranded on some quite unexpected bed

Hours tumble past
the fast hours of the fairy moon
that drew you in

Your damp skin sinks in sightless sleep
no rise and fall outside the deep

Curtains

Here I am again
thinking about sleeping
never quite letting go
never quite coming back

In this bed-strewn fantasy world
where curtains are drawn and redrawn
never quite taking shape
I look for an anchor and find sinking sands
pieces of scaffolding
half-buried

scenery almost remembered
shifting across time

I pick my way through
looking for open doors
then shuffle back again
feeling for a hole in the sheets

No time passes:
the sky is out of sight,
the bay is starless

I reach out for whoever may be passing
but I am invisible
except to you

Impossibly out of sync with reality

Twelve years ago, when I was in hospital recovering from a radical prostatectomy (removal of prostate and accompanying cancer), I had a peculiar experience. More than one, actually – but one in particular.

I woke in the night, and I could see the clock clearly. Everything was wrong. For some reason, I was no longer in Norwich but in King’s Lynn, and this was quite frightening, because there was no reason for it. I tried to get back to where I knew I should be, but I couldn’t, because I was not connected. It was as if I had been shifted very slightly out of sync with reality.

A long sequence of bizarre events ensued, during which I seemed to wander round the ward, looking for a way back. The two nurses ignored me. At last, exhausted, I sank back into my Norwich bed, closed my eyes for a while and then opened them again. According to the clock, the whole tortuous episode had lasted no more than a minute – and that in itself was terrifying, because it was impossible.

I was reminded of this when I was in hospital again last week, on antibiotics for a problem with my gall bladder, and a stone stuck somewhere near my pancreas. Again, I woke in the night – one of many, many times – and had trouble recognising where I was. The curtains seemed familiar (or did they?), people moved backwards and forwards, and so did the room. I was struggling to connect. Was it real?

Eventually my brain slid into sync and I walked hesitantly to the toilet. But the impression I retain is one of confusion: was I slightly out of sync with reality again? What was going on?

The only other time I have felt anything like this was in the weeks following a serious car accident in which I broke my arm – less than a year ago. On at least one or two occasions while walking by the river afterwards I felt I was in some other reality. Had I died in the crash, or was I really here? Was the real me walking just behind me, catching me up?

OK – all this is weird. Most of the time, I think I have a fairly good grip on reality, as most people do. It is hard to express how frightening it is when this is called into question.

In hospital time itself distorts. Most of the time nothing happens, and happens very slowly. Without meaningful contact (especially in these coronavirus times) none of it seems to make much sense.

I’ve been here all day. How can it be 10am?

All I can say is that my wife’s daily visits just about kept me sane. Or did they? I’ll let you be the judge.

Brancaster

This is a poem I wrote 12 years ago after an earlier spell in hospital, for an operation to remove my prostate and its accompanying cancer. Not long afterwards my wife and I headed for the North Norfolk coast...

Knowing all of the night –
the dry, dry paths and piercing pain,
where the spirit is mysteriously absent
and strange breath is forced into sleeping mouths –
I find your big blue sky hard, like horses galloping

Yes, darkness fades, but fear remains
however bright the sun:
shafts of love splatter randomly
across artificial rocks
while kites run across the scorching sky
cutting the future into slices
too hot to hold

On the beach, stumps of ancient trees
criss-crossed with nails
carved by the soldier sea

And now the spirit spins down unexpected channels
surrounding me:
I am staked out, exposed
up to my neck and out of my depth

The tide slithers in: send no boat
or helicopter

This is where I belong:
the sweet salt waves washing bitter black desert away

I close my eyes,
but fail to dream

Pain, waiting and other personal problems

First of all, I’d like to make it clear that I’m very aware that there are many people who are in more pain than I was over the last couple of weeks, and even more of them are in pain for longer. The thing with pain is that it’s very personal. If you’re in pain, it doesn’t help that someone else is hurting more.

I woke up with a pain in my abdomen. At first it was sort of tight and gripping, and spread out quite a bit. It nibbled at my ribs. It kept me awake most of the night; eventually I took a Paracetamol and after a few hours got to sleep. The next day it was much better.

A couple of days later it came back again, only more precisely located. It was quite a different kind of pain, really, but they had one thing in common: they were strong and frightening, because I didn’t know what was causing them, and it all seemed to be getting worse.

Eventually, I rang 111. They told me to go to the walk-in centre, and the walk-in centre took it pretty seriously. They were quick, too. They said I should go to A&E if it got any worse. It did, and I did.

I do not like A&E. I know many people love it and seem to spend half their lives up there, but to me it’s just a massive waste of time, with no-one seeming to be in a hurry or connecting with each other. I’m sure that’s an illusion. Or it may be the IT system. I have been known to say I’d rather die than go to A&E, but that’s not strictly true. Obviously.

It was tortuous. Morphine didn’t affect the pain, but they eventually found something that did – about three hours after I arrived. I was moved here and there, had an x-ray and an ultrasound and eventually was taken to a ward by a nurse who thought I’d come from there in the first place. She was very nice. All nurses are nice. When I clap the NHS, I’m clapping the nurses and not the organisation.

The surgeon I saw a few hours later wasn’t sure what was wrong. To do him credit, he didn’t ask me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I would have had no idea of the answer to this. I never do. It seemed pretty painful to me, but if someone was cutting my leg off without anaesthetic, I’m sure that would have been worse. I usually say 7 or 8. If someone were to try out the full range of pain on me and then ask, I would know, but I don’t really want that to happen.

The surgeon wanted me to have a CT scan urgently, but of course that wasn’t possible. It was Sunday, and there were lots of people who needed CT scans. He asked if it would be all right if he discharged me, and I came and had the CT scan as an urgent out-patient in a day or two. Foolishly, I said yes.

Still in quite a lot of pain, I waited patiently at home for a day or two. Then my wife rang the CT people. Yes, I was scheduled. Yes, I was marked urgent. It would be ten days or so.

This did not thrill me, but I buckled down, because the painkillers seemed to be working. I rang my GP, who couldn’t take my call but would ring me back. When he did, it was on a different number, and I didn’t answer it within 10 seconds. I rang back and was told I had to ring the following morning. I persisted, complaining about my pain and eventually got to speak to him. Rather reluctantly, I thought, he prescribed some more painkillers. It wasn’t my usual GP, of course. It wasn’t anyone I had ever spoken to before.

Anyway, with the help of the painkillers the pain eased, and when I went to get my scan, it had departed – for a while, at least. I should mention that during all this post-hospital time I had been eating a fat-free diet on the instruction of the surgeon. It would have been easier if I didn’t love fat so much: butter, cheese, steak… Now I had naked bread, bits of fruit and salad, boiled eggs and some jam or honey. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

I asked how long I would have to wait for my scan results, and it turned out to be two weeks or so. Probably. As it was urgent. I did not get upset with the radiographer, who was very pleasant, or with anyone else, because I suspect they’re all trapped within the system and don’t know how to get out of it.

The radiographer wasn’t sure why I was not eating any fat. But I have lost half a stone, which can’t be bad. Or can it? I don’t know. There’s no-one to ask.

Out in the wild

Out in the wild
where there is blood
I find traces of dragons
and gates to false gods

I should not be here
but the way was open
I came too far

I know the towers will fall
stones will crash to earth
heaven will fall apart

I fight the dragons
and sometimes I win
but I forget to shut the gates

I clean up the blood
and no-one notices:
the sky is dark

Tunnel of contradictions

I am coming out of lockdown. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but at the moment I can’t quite make out how long the tunnel is. Nor how wide, come to that: in many respects it is a tunnel of contradictions, with rough walls and large patches of damp.

And as the tunnel progresses, I have a growing suspicion that many of the other people in it with me are from a completely different species. I mean, would you queue up for four hours in the blazing sun to buy a flatpack from IKEA? Four hours? Really?

And would you go to a world-famous beach and jostle together with like-minded enlightened gentry, while encouraging people to jump from a nearby cliff and stand a good chance of killing themselves? 

Would you gather in small groups and shout at each other from a foot or two away as though you were a character in EastEnders or Coronation Street?

Would you discard assorted unsavoury litter by the side of footpaths in as yet unspoiled countryside? 

Admittedly the litter-sprinklers have been encouraged by the interesting decision to keep public lavatories closed in many areas. There seems to be an opinion rife in some management areas that people go to the loo as a way of passing the time. So in schools “bubbles” of pupils are being allocated a specific time to go to the toilet. This ignores the basic human biological fact about going to the loo, which is that you go when you need to, and there are times when you need to go.

This was brought home to me a while ago on an EasyJet plane back from Israel, already poorly provided for on the toilet front, where whenever we hit a bit of minor turbulence, we were told that the toilets could not be used for the next half hour. So what were we supposed to do? Play video games instead?

I am also a bit nervous about that light I can see. What kind of a light is it? The nearer we get to it, the more it seems like a world designed for young and fit people – the sort who have been joggling and cycling their way vigorously through the pandemic. 

I am over 70. I may have mentioned this before. Although I walk a lot (and many of my age simply can’t), using a car makes life much easier in many respects. It’s also safer, when roads are uncluttered by distracting features like road bumps and contraflows. So why do post-pandemic plans centre on more cycle lanes and wider pavements, especially when we are being discouraged from using public transport in case we breathe on each other.

Interesting thing, breathing. Apparently gasping joggers and cyclists are no risk, but allowing people to get in a church and sing could be disastrous. I can only assume that people putting this view forward have not been in a church for a few years. 

Praying of course, is even more risky. I hope I don’t have to explain to you why that is.

Aiming to keep safe may not be the ideal way to live

It’s beginning to look as if coming out of lockdown will be more stressful than lockdown itself. Well, you know what Kafka said: “It’s often safer to be in chains than to be free.”

And we do tend to worry an awful lot about safety nowadays. Even before the dreaded coronavirus, most of what we did in life seemed to be directed into ensuring our safety: insurance for everything, ridiculously low speed limits, plenty of exercise, the “right” food, contorted health and safety regulations, dubious dbs checks, cameras everywhere and much, much more.

Now it’s face masks and protective clothing, social distancing and quarantine.

I am not one to criticise politicians for making radical decisions in the face of a threat none of us has ever experienced before – a threat that is unpredictable in who it affects, the way it affects them, the way it spreads and the possible ways of stopping it. It is a no-win situation, and if anyone makes the right decisions, it is likely to be down to luck or prayer.

But what about the science? That might work if there were such a thing as “science”. What we actually have is scientists, and to no-one’s surprise, they disagree with each other. Why wouldn’t they? That is how “science” makes progress. When politicians say “the science” they mean “what our own scientists say”. They try to pick the top scientists, but history shows the top scientists are not always right.

A week or so ago I had a COVID-19 test. This was a bit of a miracle in itself, because the nearest test centre they could offer me was not even in my own county, but more than 30 miles away. I am not sure how I would have got there if I had some of the more striking symptoms of the virus. As it happens, I wasn’t feeling too bad, which wasn’t surprising, because I turned out to be negative. A lot of people have always regarded me as negative; so that was no surprise.

The test itself, which took place in an empty leisure centre car park, was Kafka-esque. A group of young soldiers were supervising, but I had to do the test myself. This involved making a phone call to someone standing just outside my car, a pack being thrown through the side window furthest from me, together with a formidable set of instructions. I had to manipulate a swab of my throat and nose, then pop the swab into a tube, on which I had to stick a bar code. There were lots of bar codes. I then had to put it into a bag, and the bag into another bag, find my way out of the car park and throw the bag(s) out of the car window into a kind of sack. Then drive home.

I may have missed out a couple of stages. On the plus side, I did not turn into a giant insect. At least, I haven’t yet. As far as I know.

Obviously I understand that everyone wanted to be safe. I want to be safe. We all do. But we tend to forget that there are large parts of the world where no-one feels safe, and with good reason. Their lives tend to have different priorities. They look for a high quality of life, taking risks and offering hospitality and love, sacrificing themselves for others. They do not fear death, because we all die. They are likely to look beyond that.

Some of these people live among us.

That, in the end, is surely a life more worth living than one bound up in the chains of safety? Helen Keller said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.” 

And Helen Keller was deaf and blind; so she knew what she was talking about.

The brain’s a balloon

The brain’s a balloon
filled with gas:
it’s on a mission
swinging through the atmosphere

The telescope is broken
and people have been killed,
but still they know everything

They know everything
because it is the thing everyone knows,
and 50 million people
cannot be wrong

The brain’s a balloon:
it has an inflated sense
of its own importance

It is getting warmer:
it has almost found
the answer

White wolf

Do you hear the white wolf?
We hear him howling.

Do you see the snow fall?
We see it tumble.

Do you see the night approaching?
We feel the touch of the stars.

Do you see smoke in the distance?
We smell a fire crying.

Do you see the mountain nearby?
We can taste the wilderness.

Do you see the wolf in the snow,
through the smoke at night, below the mountain?
We know the wolf is there.

Will you reach for him?
He is in our hearts.