+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Dear Diary : Page 1

Equal and returning

In which we pass a turning point

Autumn is almost here, although this year feels as if it didn’t really happen. I have been working away at a little desk in an eyrie of Symbolic Towers since March. At the start, I could see trains passing the end of the street; before long, they were hidden by the leaves on the trees, and soon, I will be able to see them again. In all that time, no time seems to have passed. At work staff have come and gone on my project, staff have come and gone in the wider company, we have rolled out major pieces of work into the real world, and in all that time, no time seems to have passed. The children have flipped back and forth between holidays, home-school, part-time school, and back at school again, and in all that time, no time seems to have passed. And tomorrow, the autumnal equinox is upon us.

Whether time will seem to start passing normally, of course, is another matter entirely. Right now, it seems like that won’t start happening for a long time on the human scale. On the scale of the stars, though, the world keeps turning, and the moon and the planets are still moving in the skies.

Maybe I will still be sitting at my desk in Symbolic Towers when the leaves start falling so I can see the passing trains again; and then when they start growing to conceal them next spring. We will see. I shall try to be optimistic, that the ever-turning world and the ever-turning skies show that life will endure, and that though some things will inevitably change, others will circle and return to their starting point.

Trains and levers

Or, a brief pause for relaxation

To the Severn Valley yesterday to play with trains, possibly for the last time in a while. I’m not on the roster for next month, and as the pandemic appears to be getting worse again, who knows what will happen after that point. The pandemic timetable makes it a quiet day, just four trains in each direction, and only one crossing move. Here it is, with one train waiting in the station and all the signals pulled off for the other to have a clear run through.

Signals off

In-between trains I sat and read a book of Victorian history, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-75 by Geoffrey Body, and almost melted in the heat. It was windy outside, but hardly any of it came through the signalbox door. I watched a buzzard (I think) circling overhead, soaring slowly and sending the crows into a panic; heard pheasants and partridges squawking in the undergrowth, and listened to the frequent sound of semi-distant shotgun fire. It has been much in the news this week that shooting parties are allowed to be larger than other groups of people,* and all of the Very Online naturally have been joking about getting the guns in for their family parties; but yesterday in Shropshire and Worcestershire it felt as if people were genuinely doing just that, so frequent were the hunters’ gun-blasts.

And in small victories, at the end of the day I was proud. For I had filled in the Train Register for the day and not needed to cross any bits out. It may have been a quiet day with few trains and no unusual incidents to record; but, as I said, small victories.

Train register

When I was going through and reviewing all of the previous posts on here as part of the big rewrite, I realised the utter pointlessness of writing about some rubbish that’s on TV purely to say that I’m not going to watch it because it’s probably going to be rubbish. So, I’m not going to do that even though “some rubbish will be on TV in a few months” is all over the internet today. If you like watching rubbish then go and watch it, I’m not going to stop you. Me telling you I’m not is really just exclusionary boasting. So that’s that.

* Obviously, if you’re reading this now, just after I wrote it, you know this already. If it’s now five years in the future, you’ll have completely forgotten.

Relaunch!

It's a new day, and so on

Well, hello there! Time to start all this up again.

This blog has been dormant, for, what, the best part of a decade I think. I started a second blog all about gardening in the hope it would get me to write more in general, but this site stayed quiet. I started a Tumblr, and even managed to post things semi-occasionally, but that faded away much as the whole Tumblr community has faded too. I thought, though, midway through a rather unusual year, that it might be time to get this site going again.

My biggest motive this time, really, is that I don’t like the way the internet has been going over the past ten years ago. The old, open Web has been closing down, drifting instead toward megacorporation-owned walled gardens where you are trapped inside a corporate app that discourages you from leaving. When those walled gardens start to shrivel up and wither, what happens? Look at Facebook; look at Twitter; look at Tumblr and its steady decline. The days of the independent blogger are gone; most people now who do want to do some form of blogging will go to Wordpress.com, or Medium, or to a site like Dev.to if they’re technically minded. So me, being contrarian, decided to become an independent blogger once again.

A few things have changed. I’ve redone the design to hopefully look reasonable on a phone, because that’s what most people use for their casual reading nowadays. I’ve taken away comments, for a few reasons: it saves me the effort of worrying when people leave controversial ones, and it saves me the sadness when they inevitably don’t leave any at all. On the technical side, I’ve ported everything over to a static site generator, so everything loads in a flash. At some point I’ll write…

The Plain People Of The Internet: My lords! Will they eversomuch be bothered about all that technical gubbins? Or is it all so much tumty-tumty verbiage, like?

Me: I wondered if you lads were still around, you know. I’m sure some people might be interested.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Lads? Lads? Now there’s not very inclusive of you, is it.

Me: Fair point, Plain People.

As I was saying, I’m sure some people out there will be interested in long technical posts about how the site is now built and structured, and although most of my technically-minded blog posts end up on my employer’s website nowadays, it may well be that some technical topics are more suited to this place. In general I suspect there will end up being more of the longer, more considered essay-type posts on here, and fewer of the one-liner posts about how I don’t have anything to say. And, as you’ve already seen, I’m sure that if my meanderings start to become too diffuse and unfocused, they will be interrupted by the Plain People Of The Internet, who at some point in the distant past escaped from a Flann O’Brien newspaper column and now seem to live somewhere in the collective hive-mind of the global internetwork.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Now there’s a word you don’t hear very often. Fair rolls off the tongue.

A whole load of the aforementioned one-liner posts have already been culled from the archives. This isn’t exactly the British Library or some great tome of record, so I’ve removed things from back in the mists of time where I was only posting to meet some arbitrary and self-imposed target of posting on a certain schedule. I’ve also gone through and cleared out a whole heap of dead links, and spotted a host of spelling mistakes that have been sitting there out in the open for everyone to see for years. There are probably many more dead links I missed checking, and many more spelling mistakes I’m still to notice, but I’m reasonably happy with the state of things as they stand. As well as deleting a pile of stuff that was here previously, I’ve also added stuff that I’d previously posted to Tumblr, such as my thoughts on what Amsterdam is like, or the experience of watching my father die. Hopefully, some people other than me will think these things were worth saving.

I’m aware that previously I’ve posted things that say: “Well, hello there! Time to start all this up again,” and then have stuttered slowly to a stop within a few days or weeks. Let’s see how it goes this time.

The Plain People Of The Internet: By sure, we will.

Entrousered

In which I visit my tailor

Today was: funeral outfit shopping day. I don’t have anything suitable for funeral-wearing at all in the wardrobe; the only time I ever wear suits is for job interviews, and my job interview suit isn’t exactly funereal enough for the occasion. So, down to Debenhams on my lunchbreak to find something that vaguely fits me.

I found a pair of trousers of the right length, after trying what seemed like an excessive number of pairs. I found a few pairs of trousers of the right waist. Of course, the ones that were the right length weren’t among them: the ones that fitted my waist were either just that bit too long or just that bit too short to really suit. “Don’t bother ordering the right ones,” said the shop assistant, “they won’t get here in time if you need them for next week. Buy the long ones with the right waist and go to the tailor’s round the corner.” So I bought the trousers, and headed round a corner and down an alleyway to find that squeezed between a decent unisex hairdresser and a sex shop is: a tailor’s shop. Either I’ve never noticed it before, or it’s one of those shops that just appears by magic at just the right time to aid the protagonist in their quest. It’s a traditional sort of place, with no concessions to show, to ornament, to tidyness, just a big workbench, a cash register, and racks and racks of clothes being worked on. I go in, put the trousers on, the tailor pins them to the right length and says “when are you coming in to collect them?” He didn’t take my name, my number, my email address, just gave me a card with a number on it and a promise they would be done in plenty of time.

A death

So, it’s never a good sign when a hospital phones you at 2am, is it.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer a little bit over three years ago. No doubt it was growing inside him for a year or two before that, but three years ago was when it suddenly became symptomatic, when he woke up one morning to discover he was randomly bleeding from his nose and his mouth, because his blood had given up on the concept of clotting. Prostate cancer had already spread from his prostate through most of his skeleton, to the point that it was Definitely Not Curable. Manageable, though, so much so that he may well, they said, die of something else first.

At first when the phone rang, I thought it was my alarm. Then realised it was a landline number, from my old home town, some sort of switchboard number. I didn’t catch it before the phone stopped. Then, whoever it was immediately rang back a second time.

I’d last spoken to him a couple of weeks earlier, after he phoned to tell me that he’d been to his consultant again. That was that. Not worth taking any more chemotherapy. He was going to be keeping him on one of his current treatments: it might, if he was lucky, keep him alive until the end of the year. If it didn’t work, he probably had a few weeks left.

I answered the phone rather blearily, to a random woman with my old home town’s accent asking if it was me. I found I couldn’t really speak, because I had already guessed where she was calling from and why she was calling. “He’s very confused and very tachycardic. We think you should come to the hospital.”

My mum had phoned a few days earlier to tell me he’d been admitted. He was having trouble breathing, so they had rushed him in in an ambulance, on oxygen. His spleen was failing. “They said his spleen is dead,” in my mother’s words. Now, I know you can happily live without any spleen at all, if you have to have it pulled out for some reason, but when a cancer patient suddenly starts to have unconnected organs turn into big and entirely non-functional lumps of meat, you know it’s not going to be long before phrases like “multiple organ failure” make the rounds.

The hospital was four hours’ drive away. I sat down and had a cup of tea.

Driving through the night, I wondered quite how I was going to react. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad show any sort of emotion of any sort. The day of his mother’s funeral, or any of the days leading up to it that I was home for, he didn’t cry a single tear. After the funeral we went home for lunch, then went out to buy a new camera. I tell a lie: he could get angry, he could shout, he could withdraw into a fuming silent rage. I’ve never seen him be sad, though, or show any kind of tender emotion. The roads were quiet, at first, and I had plenty of time to think about it. By 6am I was overtaking long lines of trucks heading to the North Sea ports, all of us still over half an hour away from our destinations, and I was driving towards a faint smear of dirty orange dawn light. By the time I reached the hospital, worked out where to park, it was just about dawn.

Of course, being half asleep when I’d answered the phone, I hadn’t actually thought to ask where in the hospital he was. It’s a big place, although strangely smaller than it felt when I had to go there to have my teeth sorted as a child, but the oncology ward was a very, very long walk from the entrance. When I reached the doors I had to ring a few times before a nurse came to the door to let me in; and then they hadn’t heard of him.

“Is he in A&E?”

“No, he’s an Oncology patient, and he was admitted on Sunday.”

She kindly led me to the nurses’ station and sat down at the computer, working down the list of wards until I spotted his name. And then another long walk, almost all the way back to the entrance and round another long set of stairs and corridors. I glided through the ward doors behind a nurse coming onto shift (hospitals are generally terrible at security) and found the nurses’ station. “Someone phoned about my father; he’s dangerously ill,” I said; they didn’t really need to ask who I was. “Oh!” they said instead, “you drove all that way straight here!”

He was in an isolation room at the far end of the ward. Not covered in tubes and probes as you might expect, other than an oxygen tube to his nose. He was almost naked, seemed to have thrown all the covers off the bed. Pale, almost hairless save a whiskery patch on each side of his chin, as if hairs had poured down from the corners of his mouth. He laid awkwardly, but he was awake, mumbling. My mother was there, and one of my uncles. I have a pair of uncles who are identical twins, and now I only see them occasionally every few years, it can be hard to work out which is which. I mentally started thinking to myself to avoid saying anything which might imply I thought I knew which uncle it was.

Dad’s eyes were dull, but he looked at me, and said something to me. “See, I said he would come to see you,” said my mother. He mumbled. Even unintelligible, he still had the same patterns of speech. He fumbled, moving his legs, trying to slip one out of the bed.

“Lie down and rest,” I said, like dealing with a sick child.

Mumbling: something about getting up. His breathing was forced, gasping, but strong and regular.

“No, you need to rest. You’re better here.” His skin was speckled with strange, fresh moles, some of them gory red lumps, like overactive birthmarks, standing proud from the skin by a quarter-inch or so. He was covered in bruises, including a large one roughly where, I suspected, the “dead” spleen would be, although I found out later that was just where all his medication had been injected. He started to pull at a sticky pad on his leg: it wasn’t actually being used, but looked as if it might have been for fastening a catheter tube down. “You can’t pull that off,” I said, “it says the glue is too strong. You need a special solvent.” It did indeed say “only remove with alcohol,” and I don’t think it meant “take shots so you don’t feel it.”

Mumbling: thirsty, maybe?

“Here’s your tea,” said my mother, passing him some very milky tea in a lidded plastic beaker. I knew when he had been admitted he had been nil-by-mouth; had that passed because it wasn’t necessary, or had that passed because he was on the way out anyway?

It felt like a long time, at the time, but writing this a few days later, my memory has compressed hours into a few flashes. My mother phoned the friend who gives her a lift to church every Thursday. “I’m in hospital,” she said, as if there wasn’t anyone else in the room. “They called me at 1am.” I wondered to what degree I was the second resort - how long had they waited between phoning each of us? I don’t trust my mother’s memory for facts.

He drifted away to sleep a little, but the nurses came to wash him and change his sheets, as they did at that time every morning. They asked us to leave the room, so we headed down to the deserted hospital restaurant, another very long walk away, down the same corridor that led towards the mortuary. I didn’t really want to eat, even though I had been starving whilst driving, so from the breakfast selection I asked for just a coffee, a sausage and a slice of black pudding. “Just that?” said the server, with a very puzzled look.

We sat by the window looking at the morning sky, and having relatively normal conversation. I tried not to wonder whether he would die whilst we were having breakfast, and instead wondered as to whether he would actually die today at all. This might be a false alarm; just a turn he had in the night.

He was still alive when we came up to the ward, in clean sheets, covered up now, still slumped sideways and vaguely half-awake. The nurses tried to rearrange his pillows, sit him upright, and he slowly drifted off to sleep. His breathing still the same: harsh, gasping, mouth open despite the oxygen tube by his nose. He slumped sideways again, and the nurses decided to leave him be. In his sleep, he dozily tried to pull the oxygen tube from his shoulder, but didn’t have the energy or the coordination.

The consultant and the doctors arrived on their morning round: a garrulous Scottish chap in a red shirt, Mr McAdam. “I’m sorry we have to meet like this,” he said, and complimented me on my facial hair. “We had a very lucid conversation the other day,” he said, “and we agreed it would be wrong to take any further serious interventions. Just too much suffering. He was happy with that decision.” And he ran through the list of problems my dad was facing. A burst stomach, leading to a thrombus. An infarcted spleen. Liver failure due to an additional liver disease. He didn’t actually say “multiple organ failure,” but he didn’t need to.

I realised, which I don’t think the doctors did, that Dad’s breathing was getting noticeably weaker as the doctors were stood around him. He was still breathing, though, even though it was definitely more shallow, definitely longer between breaths. The doctors filed out, trying to strike a balance between the bustle of rounds and the sombre tone needed around the families of the dying.

We watched him breathing, slower, slower and weaker, because there was not much else to do or think about. “I thought he’d gone there,” said my mum, “but then he started again.” She leaned in to see more closely, and held his hand.

There were a few seconds between breaths. The breaths themselves were shallow, hard to hear, very different from the gasping of a few hours earlier. And then: I didn’t think I could hear or see any movement any more. Nothing, and more nothing. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and took a photo of him: the phone made his skintone much healthier than reality did. “I think he’s gone,” I said. It was five to eleven in the morning.

A nurse passed the door, so I waved and beckoned her in. “We think he’s gone.”

She looked down at him, carefully. “I’ll call the doctors,” she said, “so they can pronounce. Do you want a cup of tea?” She went out, closing the door this time, and came back with tea, in the big mugs of the nurses, not the small mugs that visitors get; and some biscuits. We sat, dipping ginger nuts, the almost-certainly-dead corpse of my father in front of us. “I keep expecting him to jump up and say it’s all a joke,” said my mother.

It took over half an hour for the doctors to arrive; their job is to care for the living, after all. We stood outside the closed door of the room whilst they ran through whatever it is they do, working in a pair, I assume in case a lone doctor might be tempted to Shipmanise a still-living patient. “Do you want to go back and see him after they have done?” said a nurse. We went back inside the room; they didn’t appear to have moved him at all. Still slumped against the siderails of the bed, mouth still open, eyes still shut. His skin, getting on for an hour now after death, was white-pale and waxy-looking. I took another photo; the camera still tried to give him a normal human skintone.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” said my mother, but we walked out of the room and closed the door behind us.

“The doctors will write up their notes,” said a nurse, “and you have to go to…ooh, I don’t know!” She shouted to another nurse: “Where do they get the certificate? Is it the cashier?”

“It used to be the cashier,” said the other nurse, “now it’s the bereavement office.” Well that should be obvious, I thought. “I’d go in the morning, it probably won’t be ready today. Give us a call first to check. I’ll give you a booklet.”

We walked back down the long, long corridor, holding our fresh copy of “Help for the bereaved: a practical guide for family and friends” Where the corridor joined the next, we had to squeeze past a folding screen which hadn’t been in our way before, and a sign that said “For Ward 3 Enquiries, ask at Ward 4″; and I realised, it was a death screen, to make sure that no random strangers saw my father being wheeled in his bed, slumped against the siderails, over to the lifts and down the long corridor down towards the restaurant and the mortuary. We walked out down the corridor, and I wondered what would happen next.

Late arrival

Or, missing the train

I keep meaning to tell the tale of one of the most optimistic heritage railway passengers I’ve ever seen.

I took the kids to Totnes Rare Breeds Farm last week. If you don’t know Totnes: the town is on the west bank of the River Dart. The railway running past the town, coming from Plymouth, crosses the river, and on the east bank of the river forks in two. The right-hand fork is the main line, running eastwards to the head of the Teign estuary and thence along the coast to Exeter. The left-hand fork is a steam railway which runs up the valley of the Dart as far as Buckfastleigh, famous for its abbey and its tonic wine very popular in Scotland. Just to confuse you, both railway lines were originally built by the South Devon Railway, but nowadays the steam railway is reusing that name and the main line is just, well, the main line into Cornwall. Anyway, in the V where the railway forks, just on the east bank of the river, is Totnes Rare Breeds Farm, and it has no road access, indeed, no public access at all other than via the railway. If you want to arrive on foot, you must walk to the steam railway station (they have a footbridge over the river), through the station, across a little level crossing and into the farm. The level crossing has gates, just like a full-sized one, which the railway’s signalling staff lock shut when trains are arriving and departing.

We were sat feeding boiled eggs to a 93-year-old tortoise,* even older than The Mother Grandma, with another family, when I heard a sound from the station: the sound of the vacuum ejector on the train waiting to depart. In other words, the driver had just started to release the brakes ready to go. I checked the time: just coming up to Right Time for the next train. Looks like it will be a perfect-time departure.

“We’d better get going,” said the dad of the other family, “we need to catch that train.” And they got up and left. I thought it might be a bit cruel to tell them they’d almost certainly already missed it. The gates would already be locked, and even by the time they reached them, the train would probably be moving.

* one volunteer told us it was 94 and another 92 so I’m splitting the difference

End of the year

Or, another year starts

The last blue skies of 2017 are outside my window; dusk will come shortly.

In line with the idea of starting 2018 off right, I’m volunteering on the railway tomorrow. Hurrah!

Fun

Well that can't be good news

I don’t know on what basis Google Ads is categorising me, but it’s started showing me frequent ads for funeral directors.

Feet

In more ways than one

Tonight, we watched Simon Armitage’s documentary on Gawain And The Green Knight, and it gave me the irrational urge to go trekking up into the Marches until I find a cottage in a small valley with thick woods. It reminded me that, a while ago, I was sorely tempted to walk the Severn Way, the long-distance path that starts in the centre of Bristol, running through the back of dodgy estates, past the chemical plants of Hallen and the nuclear power station at Oldbury, and follows the river north and west right up to its source on the flanks of Plynlimon. It’s 224 miles long with a net climb of about 600 metres, just under 2000 feet, which sounds like a relatively gentle 1:600 slope on average. Somehow though I doubt it would be a sensible idea for me to just set off walking until I get up into the mountains; I would barely get past Lawrence Weston before I started complaining of blisters or something.

Local news: today, incidentally, was the day that somebody found a severed human foot in a park in Bath. We are waiting on tenterhooks to find out where it came from.