Photo I took in our local graveyard


A Marked Man

18th June 2018

 

Come on a journey with me. In the 1700’s, the arch criminal Captain James Cook made several trips to the South Pacific, often returning with stolen art and artifacts for the curious Londoners. On one occasion, he returned with a heavily tattooed Polynesian man called Ma’i, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Omai. Ma’i was a sensation, although I very much doubt he enjoyed all the trappings of fame. I suspect he mostly got just the trappings. He was lauded, declared a Prince and paraded in front of the hoi polloi like a prize horse. He was given an audience with George III, had tea with Dr. Johnson and even sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds. The first black celebrity, he was revered as The Noble Savage. His intricate body art was celebrated in the polite tearooms and salons of the aristocracy and soon the fashionable middle classes were adorning themselves with tattoos in discreet places. Tattoos became a thing, at least for a time. I have tattoos, but I am not fashionable. Tats are boringly commonplace now. I am commonplace.  I do not fly above the crowds; I’m in the crowd. I have always belonged to the crowd, the betas, the nerds, the easily pushed around dweebs. Of course, nerds are popular now, but it wasn’t always so.

 

One night, maybe when I was about 11, a school friend came to my door. Other anxious faces waited in the street. They had something to show me, something that had to be kept secret. Grab your coat, you have to see this. Their faces were flushed with fear, not happiness. There was something about the urgency and seriousness of them that suggested that it was not a few pages of a jazz mag they had found stuck to a bush in the woods this time. No, the naked body they had found was going to be a whole lot less titillating, judging by the solemn expressions. It was all getting a bit Stand By Me. Against all my best instincts I headed out with them into the dimming night. A fog had descended of a thickness I don’t think I’ve experienced since. Nothing was visible beyond your own hand. We entered the beyond.

 

We traipsed from Shawlands to Pollokshaws and the church that stands across from the entrance to Pollok Park just down from Hagg’s Road. The gates were closed but not locked and we squeezed through with a grating screech of metal. We stood in a circle the courtyard, a stone circle. We were barely visible to each other, faces hidden inside parkers, shrouded in mist, hooded figures with heads bowed in mass. A voice spoke. This circle was the site of last witch burning in Scotland, I was told. No epitaph marked the site, no inscription for the condemned, just a stone circle that marked the unhallowed ground. Was someone else to die here? Was this what we came to see? No, this was old news. This was to set the context. The hag may have met her end here, but this was not where her blackened bones rest. That was somewhere else. That was where we were going next.

 

The next part of the tour took us past the now disintegrating but still imposing nearby Victorian swimming pool, round towards Merrylee. There’s a stretch of road there that is no-man’s land. No shops, no houses. Just a road connecting the suburbs. I’d walked it many times, but I’d never seen that what was there. Hidden in plain view, an old Graveyard manifested in the mist, a sight so unremarkable that despite having passed it’s walls hundreds of times before I had never noticed it until now. In that soupy gloam, the last place I wanted to go was a graveyard, but we were all going in, like it or not. It was an ancient place, forbidding, ruinous. Bending to inspect a few memorials I could see that the sandstone was weathered to the point that inscriptions had long since been whittled away by the harsh winds. Yellow and black lichen flowered like a cancer over the remnants. No church here remained. No names, no memories. An overgrown park of the faceless, unknown, long forgotten dead. Halfway in, a few of the group hung back. They’d seen what lay ahead. They would wait behind. A few steps on and they were completely hidden in the fog. Their voices were carried off by the wind, which had picked now. They might as well not be there. Then, my last companion stopped too. I would need to take the last steps myself, commune with the discovery alone. He waved me on towards a headstone in front on us, then stepped back, disappearing into the murk. I was alone.

 

I pressed my hands blindly ahead of me into the gloom and found the headstone. It was worn but something protruded from it. Not words, a shape. I ran a finger around its contours. Something. I drew my face in closer. What was it? And then I felt it. Eye sockets, a gaping jaw, a skull, and an ancient skull, with bat wings. The wind screamed. I would have run but I couldn’t see two steps in front of me. I fell backwards into the turf, caught in the weeds that were suddenly tangling around my feet. I pulled free and felt my way through the headstones, every touch calling out for the dead to rise; every memorial transfigured into a witch waiting to catch my hand, the howling wind now a wolf. Somehow I managed to find my way out through a collapsed wall, and trudged my way home. I wasn’t alone. The dead walked every step with me.

 

Years later, still haunted by the trauma of that night, I used a relatively new and exciting development called ‘the internet’ to try and find out some more about that dreadful witch’s grave. What I learnt was that it was not a witches grave at all. It wasn’t even all that sinister. A skull and bat wings were in fact a once popular and somewhat mundane pictorial inscription to say that the deceased’s adventure was not yet over. Their soul had taken flight to another realm to continue their work. Death was just a milestone on their journey. It was an important milestone for me too. It was when I realised friends could sometimes be a bit shit.  I know I’ve been a shitty friend on more than one occasion, but just hopefully less ...dark. Shitty friends, we all have them at some point. It’s a life lesson we all learn, and it stands us in good stead for the future. (Pssst, If you’re reading the contemporaneously, I’m totally talking about Trump at the G7 and his unilateral detonation of the post-war consensus.) Sometimes we just need to strap on some bat wings and fly away and continue our work somewhere else on our own. I like to think that if we look after our friends, they will look after us. I’ve been steeped in my own calamities for a while now, but the end is in sight. I’m going to want to buy you a drink sometime soon. Let me.

 

Another life lesson is realising that the milestones we think are going to be significant often tend not to be. Turning a particular age, 30, 40, is no real biggie after all. It’s no different than the day before. But it’s always nice to see good friends, even shitty ones. No, the real milestones are the things that happen to us that we probably weren’t so prepared for. A stroke, heart operation, internal hemorrhaging, bowel surgery, chemotherapy, these things are stand out for me. Saying that, they all blur into one big milestone. Perhaps millstone is more appropriate as I am still tied to it all. It all still hangs around my neck like a dead weight. I’m still drowning.

 

Milestones. The first time I kissed a girl, the first album I bought, the first album shoplifted, first time drunk, first gig, first holiday with friends. I finally finished Lanark – a milestone for me, the book itself a milestone for all Glasgow’s artists. How about the first video ever rented? My Uncle and Aunt had a video player back in the day, still very much a luxury item back then. Individual movies cost ninety pounds to buy them. Accounting for inflation, that’s probably half a million quid in today’s money.

 

One weekend, circa 1982 or so, as we were heading across town to visit them, I was granted permission to rent a movie to watch on their machine whilst the adults talked. At the time, I was hypnotised by the poster for An American Werewolf In London. I had seen a bit of the London Underground scene on Pebblemill At One. Phwoar. I’d been denied the chance to see the full movie  at the cinema and had to cop ‘Octopussy’ instead, which will forever be a disappointment to me due its lack of werewolves. The poster in the cinema called out to me all the way through Bond’s camp silliness. That howling transformation headshot against a stark black was oh so serious, oh so delicious. I was peeing my pants to see this movie, and finally my chance had come. Nobody was worried about the X rating even though I was just seven years old. It probably just meant ‘X-tra good’ we all decided. We went to the local Azad Video, handed over our ID and became members. We’d get a proper membership card in a few weeks, but for now, a brown paper ticket would suffice. Now, all that remained was to pick VHS or Betamax. Crap. It’s a 50-50 toss-up. 

 

I’d been to the video shop hundreds of times before, even though we had no VCR. The video shop was a big deal back then. The deal was that if I helped my mum with the messages, we could stop in on the way home through the arcade and I could have five minutes to run through the aisles ogling the video boxes on the shelves. I had no expectation of ever seeing any of these movies; the excitement of the packaging was enough. The titles of those days remain canonised forever in my subconscious – the bony withered faces on the covers of Shock Waves, Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Evil Dead – I would gorge myself on their graphics, their promise of dread horrors unknown. A Warner Home Video box still makes me weak at the knees. I had never even considered the possibility that I could open those Pandora’s boxes. Now, I’ve never considered myself an Alpha Male, I have no interest in being a jock. I’m comfortable as a wordy, artsy, geeky unfashionable Beta. But you know, even us Beta’s are ambitious. I still want to be Beta Max. I made my choice. American Werewolf In London, Betamax. I took my selection to the counter, assured of my choice and myself.

 

 This is the man who put a million on red, and it came up black. Should have gone for the VHS! It would be years yet before I finally saw the movie. The disappointment still hangs heavy in my heart. Many of our milestones are marred by errors and regrettable mistakes, but they are also the things that make us who we are. We learn through all the pain and the hurt, and the wrong video formats. I watch my kids carve their own painful millstones to hang about their necks and I wish I could rescue them. I could see our oldest boy recently coming to the sudden, gut-wrenching discovery that he, and everyone he knows, is mortal. I remember this time from my own childhood. It’s one of the most harrowing moments in your life, and there is nothing you can do to protect them from it, they have to go through it even though it breaks your heart. Not to worry, he will spend the rest of his life now in denial of that truth, and like the rest of us, will likely refuse to give it any further serious consideration having realised how traumatic it is. Put that one back on the shelf. Fortunately, this particular milestone co-incided with another significant occasion, that being his first award for writing. The first time you get little recognition for a talent stays with you forever. Never be shy in telling someone you like what they’re doing.

 

I have commemorated some of my milestones by having them etched into my flesh. Getting a tattoo is in itself a milestone. Even cringe-worthy, embarrassing tattoos are important. They were important to you then. Maybe it’s worth remembering who you used to be. Don’t ever regret a tattoo. Unless you’re that guy I used to see at the Tech who had a ‘cut along the dotted line’ tat on his neck. He disappeared, not surprisingly. My biggest regret is that I don’t have a really embarrassing crappy teenage tat. I didn’t get my first inking until I was in my mid-thirties and both of mine are well-considered sober thoughtful pieces. On my tricep I have two letter B’s facing each other. Again, I chose red. Two B’s, the initials of both my wife and myself, an exact replica of the design we had on our wedding cupcakes. Rock and roll eh? The tattooist who inked it asked me if  the bees were to be buzzing around a flower – it took me a moment before I worked out what he was on about. This tat is partially obscured by a T-shirt’s sleeve so gives an impression of something more tribal. It’s a permanent declaration to my wife, the wedding band is the declaration to everyone else.

 

My other tat is a lattice of red and yellow threads on my forearm. It’s my tartan, but keeping only the colours of the flag of the First Australians, dispensing with the blues and greens of the Macmillan Tartan (Hunting, Modern). This is their country and I acknowledge that, even as I bring my own country with me. The black of the flag is represented on my arm by the initials of my children that hang off a thread like a family tree timeline. Finally, the red, yellow and black are also the colours of Partick Thistle Football Club, and in turn a personal political statement against the vile sectarianism that continues to plague my homeland. It’s a tat that raises two fingers to the bigots on either side of the world. Old home, new home, family, sport, politics. It’s got everything. Its boringly well thought out and rationalised. Where’s my shitty unicorn? Where’s my dolphin wrapped in a rainbow?

 

This is my rainbow. Cycle nine is a milestone that I have been secretly holding close in anticipation. We’ve now reached the minimum requirement for chemo. This is when it is acceptable to end the treatment if the patient is unable to sustain it anymore. Anything less is considered pointless, anything more – well it’s academic. All the hard work has been done by now, the remaining weeks are best described as adjunct therapy. My chemo has been described as such from the start, so really, if we haven’t killed off any remaining cancer cells by the end of this, we’ve got problems. I will find out on Tuesday if we are going to change my drug cocktail, but I’ve been assured that I can reasonably expect a halt to the most toxic of drugs and with it the neuropathy.

 

A few weeks back, one of my many interchangeable consultants listened attentively as I described the symptoms of my neuropathy. I could no longer get things from the fridge. I have to waste tons of water waiting for the boiler to kick in before I wash my hands. I have to place slippers all over the house in strategic positions because I can’t walk on cold floors. I have to wear gloves inside and outside. I have disco gloves for special occasions, thermals for outside, fleece ones for driving, cotton ones for daily use and knitted touchscreen friendly ones for work. I have a nose warmer to wear outside because, without it, it feels like I am constantly walking through cobwebs. My muscles lock. Most often in my hands, sometimes in my feet. I’ll have to prise my fingers and toes open with my other hand, but the strain in the muscle will remain for days after, always threatening to pull the tendons tight again. Nothing can relax it. And then recently it spread to my face. One morning, whilst exercising on the bike in the garage, I pushed the last few minutes particularly hard, wanting to get my blood pumping the poison around my body as much as possible, get it through the system and on its way. I roared through the pain in my legs, my face contorted like the werewolf visiting London. But the 5 am air was cold, and as I grimaced through the pain, my face suddenly froze. I dismounted and massaged my cheeks, but the muscles would not release. My face was locked in a permanent strained grimace.

 

It took a few minutes but gradually the lock released and the tightness subsided. I managed it to work a bit late that day and decided to cancel some meetings as a precaution. I could still feel the pull, and really, it was going to freak the shit out of anyone who witnessed another lock. There are many faces of chemo. The vacancy of the initial diagnosis, the angry rage that comes with the dawning realisation, the despondency of treatment, the heartbreak as you look at your children’s faces. No-one expects the frozen grimace.

 

It would happen again. The pain in my hands and feet crept down past the tips and engulfed them entirely. It’s stopped being restricted to certain times in the cycle, it’s now with me all the time. Broken hands means a T-shirt instead of buttoned shirts, Velcro instead of shoelaces. This consultant showed me a chart, with the milestones of neuropathy. There were fives stages. I was on stage one, maybe stage two. We could take things comfortably to stage three in his opinion, which according to the accompanying text would essentially see me rendered disabled. Stage four was ‘irreversible nerve damage’. Stage five had only one word on his list of symptoms. Death.

 

This is the fundamental difference between Cancer treatment and traditional medicine. We expect that the drugs we take are generally working with our bodies to eliminate whatever bacterial infection or virus has taken root. Not so with chemo. It’s not working with us. It’s working at killing us. I’ve heard people say it’s good to have a positive attitude, ‘give me that good chemo, get it in me and fix me up!’ Maybe I would think like that if my cancer had spread to internal organs and I had been given a sentence of weeks or months. But my prognosis is good. I don’t welcome the poison, because that’s what it its, it’s poison, poison that if not managed carefully, will result in death. It’s killing all of me, not just the cancer. Cancer killing is just a neat by-product of the internal incineration. Cancer cells caught in the wavefront will be killed off, just as healthy cells will be as well. This shit is so toxic it kills cancer. Think about that.

 

I‘m stage three with the neuropathy now. Getting a bit too close to stage five for my liking. That’s not a milestone we want to get to. But we’re not going there, at least not today. We’re pulling back now, and over time, my nervous system will hopefully repair. There will likely be some twinges that will never go, but I’m ok with that. I’ve got residuals from everything I’ve been through and I’m learning to embrace my own unique quirks. This was the milestone I’ve been yearning for. This last cycle has been pretty brutal. The intensity seems to have taken a significant step up. There’s a gurgle in my throat like popping candy. The neuropathy has been lingering around my left eye for days. I can only feel hardness in my body now. All soft tissue feels stripped away. My legs are but bony overheating shins, my face only the withered, bony hard skull of a video nasty. It’s time for this to end. Mary Whitehouse would be aghast at this horror show and would have stopped it long before. At the beginning of all this, I noted that had I been having my treatment in Scotland, it would only been three months to endure, whilst Australia was still stuck on a six month timeline. There is at least some acknowledgement in Australia now that there is little benefit from the additional treatment beyond three months. I’ll take a reduced package as a compromise.

 

We’re turning a corner. When this is all over, if I am approved for further skin work I’d like to mark the journey, literally. I’d like to add to my limited, po-faced serious tattoos. Perhaps two bands, one of red and one of white to affirm my affinity with the western suburbs. That’s for the other arm. I also have five scars across my abdomen from my Anterior Bowel Resection. I could join them up, a lopsided disfigured five-pointed star perhaps? Then, whenever I went to the beach I would live in hope of a conversation that recreated the dialogue from An American Werewolf In London. “Is that a five-pointed star…”. Someone, somewhere just missed the dartboard.

 

And perhaps somewhere, hidden from a view, the awful, embarrassing teenage tat I never got at the time. A bat-winged skull, trying to take off but tethered to the lopsided star. You’re going nowhere, mate. This journey isn’t over yet. Stay down.

 

Another journey remains unfinished. Ma’i, the island commoner now crowned a Prince if only in name, continued his tour of the establishment. He was next ushered overseas, to be introduced to his royal counterpart, Louis XV at Versailles. The French, however, were less entranced by his charms or his decorations. Observers found his absence of interest and enquiry a disappointment. He was soon ignored and abandoned to a life of solitude in Paris. His celebrity diminished, a fad now passed over, Ma’i sought a return to his homeland and eventually secured passage on a ship heading that way. On the voyage home, he died of smallpox. Small, forgotten and unknown. Disease does not discriminate. It cares not for rank or class, for the fashionable or the beta, the lord or the lonely. Cancer doesn’t care who you are. It is more savage than even the middle classes.

 

It can only be beaten by being even more savage than it. Chemo brutalizes you. It ravages you to the bare bones. It’s sanctioned torture. Permitted slow murder. It makes savages of all of us; the Doctors, the nurses and most of all the patients. They, the medical establishment must savagely poison me, authorise my restrained euthanasia. I, the commoner, must in turn submit, even welcome their assaults on my body, and be the author of my own quietus. Savages, all of us. Wretched savages. None of us walk away from this treatment with our heads held high.  It holds a mirror to us. Look at yourself it says. Look at the savage.

 

I am savage. I am Ma’i. Mark these words.

Nose warmers are an essential winter accessory

Portrait of Ma'i by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Up Next: A Still Life