Wednesday, 25 November 2015

New Knee. New Life. Part 3 - Hospital.

I suddenly found myself with no fixed abode. My tenants had moved into my London flat and it was pointless renting something in Bath straight away because I was spending the next 8 weeks at my parents’ house post surgery. But the last few months had been so stressful – the sleepless nights, the decorating disasters, the endless lists of things to do – that when it all just stopped, I felt amazingly carefree. The last of my belongings were packed into my car Gigi (aka The Golden Goddess) and I was looking forward to spending time with old friends and having nothing else whatsoever to do. My Kiwi friends had planned a brilliant leaving party, combined with an equally fantastic Rugby World Cup Final (hurrah for the All Blacks!), and so I was not only able to say a huge farewell to them but also see a lot of my other friends. My last three nights were spent with my Godmother and family, a perfect ending to my time in London.

My Godmother also took me into hospital for my 7am check-in a few days later. There were two other people waiting for surgery and just my luck, I was third on the list... 6 hours to wait, nil by mouth! By 1pm I was a bit giddy from lack of food and water but prepped and ready to go, and had been visited by my surgeon, numerous nurses and finally the anaesthesiologist. I asked him if I was eligible for a spinal block and local anaesthetic instead of a full general, which means you are numbed from the waist down and heavily sedated rather than being unconscious, and results in a much speedier recovery and less side effects. The downside is you are only sedated so it is still possible to feel sensation and pressure as they work on you, plus you might be able to hear certain things during surgery. The anaesthesiologist looked at me with horror and said, “Believe me, you do not want to hear this operation, I’m putting you out!”. And when I saw the trays of tools laid out in the operating theatre before I went in, I am definitely glad I didn’t have a choice. There were drills, electric saws, hammers, chisels, honestly it looked more like my father’s workshop than an operating theatre.

There must be a checklist for people training to be anaesthesiologists; easy on the eye, great at small talk and hilariously funny. Maybe it’s because they are the last ones you see before you fall asleep, they want you to be left with nice thoughts and nice images. I’ve been lucky, every single time I have had surgery I’ve gone to sleep laughing, and had the most brilliant dreams. My 3 anaesthesiologists this time did not disappoint either. One blonde and blue-eyed irishman, one dark and blue-eyed englishman and one bearded redheaded green-eyed Welshman. I kid you not, it was the best start to a joke ever! And I swooned. Maybe it was the injection to relax me or the oxygen, but I found myself giggling and twirling my hair as if I was on a blind date or something... ridiculous behaviour. Suddenly one of their beepers went off and he looked at the pager, turned a bit white and ran out of the room. The other two just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, he’s on call for emergencies. He’ll be back in minute, unless they peg it.” Oh joy, gallows humour! He did come back 5 minutes later, apologised and carried on prepping the equipment. The welsh chap told me a joke, while the englishman asked me what my favourite tipple was. I laughed, said Pinot Noir, and that was the last thing I remember.

Just under 4 hours later, I woke up. My surgeon came over, pinched my toe and grinned. He was over the moon because the surgery had been one of his best he said (good to hear), the titanium implants had fit perfectly almost first time round, so there was no lengthy process of cutting and shaping my thigh bone over and over again, the plastic knee cap was also a great fit and he could go home early because it all went rather swimmingly. Spiffing! I was wheeled out of recovery and along to the ward, where I just had time to drowsily look around at my neighbours – who all gave a little wave hello – before I passed out from the effects of the morphine. I woke again a few hours later and was introduced to my fellow patients; Trudy, Irene, Susan, Pat and Nicolette, five wondrous women who made my stay in hospital an absolute joy.

Trudy, Irene and Susan were in their 60’s, Pat was 85, and they all had had full knee replacements. Nicolette was the odd one out, having had some mystery surgery that seemed to have no effect whatsoever on her spirits or mobility. She was about 75, incredibly elegant and was a Chelsea aristocrat. She was the most brilliant name-dropper I’ve ever known and told the most outrageous stories. She had an opinion on everything and everyone, was very demanding of the nurses but also incredibly kind, taking it upon herself to be our legs for the next 5 days. She bustled around the ward in a floor-length purple velvet dressing gown, endlessly asking for cups of tea and biscuits for us, filling ice packs, making sure we did our exercises, filling our water jugs and generally being a good stick! She was also the person responsible for butter-gate!

Zita was in charge of catering. She was a tiny plump Sri Lankan woman with a huge smile and warm hands, always clasping yours in hers, while saying, “Are you all right my darling?” before asking what you would like to eat. The first morning after surgery we were all ravenous and were excitedly talking about scrambled eggs, the possibility of bacon, and lots of tea, toast and marmalade. Zita burst into the room at 7am and asked Irene (who was in the first bed) what she would like to eat? “Bacon and eggs?” Irene ventured. Zita rolled her eyes and said in a very slow, loud and heavily accented voice, “I have the cereal and I have the toast! None of this bacon, none of this eggs... we’re not in the bloody Savoy ladies, and you aren’t being private, so you can have what I bloody well give you. Cereal. Toast. No more!” And she wiped her hands in front of her dramatically. I hooted with laughter and Irene just nodded demurely before a tray was slapped down in front of her, milk slopping over the edge of the cereal bowl. Zita came to my bed next and took my hands in hers, “And you my lovely, what do you want, you hungry?” I couldn’t help myself. “Bacon and eggs please.” Zita threw up her hands and let out a stream of swear words, in both English and Sinhalese, while tugging at her hair net and scowling at me. “I’m only joking Zita,” I said, “I will have whatever you’ve got.’ “Oh you so funny yes?” she said, her smile returning. “Ok what cereal you want?” she asked, bending over her trolley. I then listed all the cereals I could think of, my memory slightly compromised by morphine; Bran Flakes, Corn Flakes, Rice Crispies, All Bran? Zita shouted, “No!”. Finally I shrugged and said, “I can’t think of any others, what have you got?” “Only the Weetabix,” she replied straight-faced.

The same thing happened every single morning. Instead of telling us what she had, she would ask what we wanted and the fiasco would begin again. “What toast you want?” “Brown please.” “No, I have only white!” It happened with the spreads too. “What you want on toast?” “Marmite please?” “No!” “ Marmalade?” “No!” “Well what do you have Zita?” “I have only jam!” and some insipid sugary nonsense would be thrown onto your plate. We rebelled one morning when we had been given this heinous oily sunflower spread. We all groaned at the sight of it but Nicolette went one further. She gasped in horror, threw the packets in her bin and chased Zita down the corridor, shouting, “We cannot be expected to eat this dis-gusting slime! We want butter Zita. The ladies want butter!” It was hilarious. Thank goodness the nurses found Nicolette as amusing as us, rather than a pain in the backside. Even Zita came in the next morning with pockets full of contraband foil-wrapped butter, a cheeky grin on her face, making us promise not to tell anyone. “All the patients will be wanting the bloody butter now. Zita spoil you.” And she did. Any extra biscuits or slices of cake would come our way. She even smuggled marmalade down from the private ward! Bless her.

Meal times with Zita were always fun and broke up the day, as did visiting hours, but I was dreading the rest of it... endless hours of mind-numbing boredom with nothing to do! It was not the case. From 7am until 11pm it did not stop. After breakfast was physio... the most hideous thing I have ever experienced. Telling someone to get out of bed and walk a few steps the day after having all the muscles in their leg completely severed and alien implants embedded into their bones, did not go down well. “You want me to do what?” I asked incredulously. I couldn’t even move my leg let alone get out of bed so they grabbed hold of the toe of my compression sock, supported the back of my knee and my heel, swung my leg out at right angles and lowered it to the floor, all in a matter of seconds. Oh. My. God. When someone hurts you that much you really want to hurt them back. I wiped the tears away and looked at her with such venom that she stared back at me and said, “I know you want to throttle me right now but if I don’t get you up on your feet, you will seize up completely!” Grrr. Safe to say I disliked her visits, especially when she would wake me out of a particularly pleasant morphine dream to torture me, but by the second day I had been taught a genius way to get my leg off the bed with a loop of stretchy bandage (and without screaming), and was also able to stand and walk a few paces with a zimmer frame. Hurrah. What I couldn’t do was go to the loo. I wasn’t able to walk as far as the bathroom (10 metres away), so I had to use a bedpan. And let me tell you, the indignity of perching on a cardboard bedpan in full view of your neighbours is something I will never recover from. During the day the humiliating act was bad enough knowing everyone could hear your ablutions, but at least we could draw the curtains. At night, however, the hospital was so short staffed that they didn’t really have time for protocol or privacy and would leave the curtains open. We were so hydrated from the saline drips that we would have to go at least 4 times a night, so the whole ward resembled a peeing conveyer belt. Once one of us rang the nurse’s call bell, the others would wake up and realise they needed to relieve themselves as well. There was no time for decorum so the nurse would fling back the bedsheets and we would heave ourselves onto these contraptions, one after the other, perched high on the bed like brooding chickens, desperately trying not to make eye contact with each other, and thus laugh. Of course giggling was inevitable but doing so whilst doing the other is not recommended. Seeing the squatting silhouettes of my (usually so dignified) neighbours, whilst all sorts of natural and unnatural noises escaped them, will be ingrained in my memory forever.

The chaos of hospitals means there is never a hope in hell of getting any actual sleep either. If it’s not nurses checking vital signs every 4 hours or doctors and surgeons checking up on you, it’s the peeps and pings of machines, alarms going off, mobile phones ringing, patients shouting, patients snoring, TV’s turned up too loud, the racket of tea trolleys, cleaners, vacuums... enough hubbub to wake even the most exhausted. And if none of that keeps you from sleeping, there is always the pain.After surgery you have two cannulas inserted into you, one in the forearm, one in the hand. The arm cannula is for your morphine while the other is for saline, antibiotics, anti-clotting drugs and anything else you need. The morphine machine is brilliant... a giant glass vial, inside a large glass case (locked), connected to you. You are given a clicker and are allowed to administer the drug yourself whenever the light goes on, and whenever the pain is bad enough. This, on average, is every 7 minutes. It feels like an arcade game... you stare at the clicker until it illuminates, press it frantically and are rewarded with momentary euphoria. You are an absolute slave to the morphine for 48 hours because it works, but as soon as it wears off it feels as if someone has ripped your leg in half. So when my surgeon told me that he was removing the the drip on the night of the second day, I cried. The pain was only just bearable with morphine, but without, my God, it was going to be a real test of endurance. They removed my cannula and said they would return in 4 hours with some oral morphine. By the end of the second hour, around 10pm, I was almost hysterical. The pain was like nothing I have ever experienced, and I honestly have a high pain threshold. No one can really comfort you either. During the day you have family and friends there but at night you rely on other patients and the nurses. The nurses have to be practical and get on with it... to go around hugging every patient in pain would be a waste of resources, and none of my fellow patients could get out of bed. Pat held her arms out to me and mouthed “hug”, while the others looked on helplessly. Nicolette was listening to opera in her headphones and only realised what was going on when Susan threw a sock at her. She immediately got up and sat on the edge of my bed, but being so incredibly old school, the best she could do was give me a quick pat pat on the arm and utter the sympathetic words, “Now come on Juliet, buck up”. Ha.

The only other comfort I had was from my hot water bottle Bruno. Yes I have named my hot water bottle for he has been with me for over 20 years and travels with me everywhere. Morocco, India, and Alaska are just a few of the places he’s visited, as well as most of my friends’ houses, but it took a ward in London’s finest hospital for Bruno to cause the most commotion. Most people know what a hot water bottle is. Even in Morocco, they thought he was just a stuffed toy – and gave me slightly odd looks for sleeping with something like that at my age – until they picked it up and realised it should be filled with water. On my first night in hospital, everything was warm apart from my feet, so remembering I had brought Bruno with me, I took him out of my overnight bag asked one of the night nurses to fill it for me. She was an agency nurse from Nigeria called Patience and she took Bruno from me and held him up by his ears in front of her. “You want me to fill this dog?” she asked frowning. “Yes please. Boiling water if possible,” I said. Patience turned Bruno upside down and back to front and looked at me as if I had a screw loose. “It’s a hot water bottle,” I added helpfully. “A what?” she said. I took Bruno back off her, opened the flap of fur at the back and showed her the bottle inside. I then unscrewed the top. “See?” She peered down into the opening and shrugged. “Ok, I fill it.” She retuned with Bruno, concave. He was the largest I have ever seen him, filled to the brim with boiling water, the rubber straining. Oh shit. She handed it to me and it weighed an absolute ton. I was terrified. It was like an unexploded bomb! “I have never see such a thing, it is most strange,” she said. “Me neither,” I said. Safe to say, I left Bruno in the bin that night, scared that I would roll over, explode the hot water bottle and end up with third degree burns. The next night a similar thing happened with a nurse from the Philippines, except she filled it with ice cold water thinking I was going to drink out of it!! Hilarious!

Once the pain was under control, my last few days in hospital were actually quite fun. I had lots of family and friends visit, bringing cards, flowers, yummy treats, pressies and conversation, so my afternoons went by in a blur. I was on the top floor of the hospital and had the most incredible view of central London, and as my stay was over November 5th, I was also lucky enough to see the numerous spectacular firework displays going on across the city. The ladies and I would chat for hours, asking the nurses to pull back our curtains so we could see each other properly. We offered each other biscuits and chocolates and magazines, or whatever was brought in by relatives and friends and once we were up on our feet, would sit on each others bed for a good old gossip about certain nurses and doctors. The only time we would ever shut up is when a certain resident consultant would enter the ward. His name was Alex. He was an Australian ex-rugby player and had one of the finest posteriors I have ever seen in my life. I don’t mean to objectify him but the sight of his derriere made six women fall silent. That is truly a superpower!Now that I’m home at my parents, the hard work really starts. Physio 6-8 times a day, learning to walk again and keeping my sanity. It will be 2 months before I’m really allowed to do anything on my own, to really get back on my feet, so until then it’s my mother and father (and indeed my sister and family when they visit), that are my nursemaids, my cooks, my cleaners, my drivers, my financial advisers, my laundry service, my postal service, my encouragement, my friends, my loves and my laughter. I’m so lucky to have you both. Thank you. X

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

New Knee. New Life. Part 2.

Choosing to leave London was a very difficult one, because as I said before, I loved everything about London except working there and the soul-destroying commute. When two of my closest friends announced they were also leaving London in November to return home to New Zealand, I realised moving was the only option I had – my London life would simply never be the same without them. The majority of my social life was spent with them, I was very familiar with their spare room, we had the same taste in weird foreign films, thought about food every second of our waking life, drank red wine like it was going out of fashion, partied till dawn, adored traveling and loved loved loved the theatre. So suddenly the decision to leave the city seemed a whole lot easier.

I began picking up on other signs pointing me in the direction of the West Country. Work was better than ever with new studios wanting to get me in for freelance work; some close friends had upped sticks and moved to Wales (only 50 minutes from Bristol); and some other dear friends and my gorgeous goddaughter were moving to Poole (only 50 minutes from Bath). I would be closer to my parents; on the doorstep of my sister and family; and much much closer to the divine beaches of Cornwall and Pembrokeshire. And most importantly, all my London friends were incredibly supportive with most of them saying, “You will wish you had made the move years ago... when can we come and visit?”

Now of course came the painful stuff... no, not the knee, but the sorting out my flat, finding someone to rent my flat, and moving out of my flat. It sounds simple enough but if you have ever tried to find decent and reliable decorators, tenants and removal men in London, you will understand my angst. Tradesmen were referred to me and were busy, other quotes made my eyes water, and on top of everything I soon came to realise from numerous painters and builders sucking their teeth and stroking their chins, that a coat of paint was just not going to cut it... I needed to completely gut my ancient and dated bathroom and put in a new one; strip off all the peeling and cracked wallpaper hidden underneath several coats of paint; replace all the white goods in my kitchen; and only then could I re-decorate. I had to get electrical checks, gas checks, energy checks and landlord certificates, and I needed to find someone to do it all in six weeks. Ugh. Then, when I least expected it, my dreams were answered (or so I thought at the time) in the form of a man, working at my neighbours flat. Let’s call him Ralph, for that is the buggers name and I don’t care who knows it! Ahem.

Knocking and banging noises had roused my curiosity and I had ventured next door to see what was going on. And there he was... in tight shorts and a vest, bent over the bathtub. Promising. I coughed and he straightened up. “Awright?” he said, with a cheeky Essex accent, grinning from ear to ear. I immediately asked if he could come and look at my bathroom and possibly give me a quote. I was in luck... not only could he do my bathroom but he could do everything else in the flat AND he could start the following week! Amazing, a proper one-man-band, or as the workmen that came to fix all his mistakes a month later called him... jack of all trades, master of none, plus some other rather more colourful names that I couldn’t possibly mention here! I really thought I was the luckiest girl in the world finding Ralph. I trusted him to be in my flat on his own all week while I worked in Bristol, his quote had been reasonable, and he could do it all himself. Brilliant! Um, not so brilliant.

My gut instinct is usually spot on but maybe I’d eaten something funny that day because I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes he was a nice guy but he also treated me like an idiot. He was used to decorating empty rental flats, with landlords leaving him to make all the decisions himself, from wall colour to style of taps to the model of fridge. And here I was with very clear views of what I wanted him to do, and a mood-board!!! Yup, a mood-board. I’m not sure he’d actually seen one of those before, because he shook his head at me and said, “Listen luv, forget the fancy victorian style taps and the nice white ceramic kitchen sink... Let me do what I do best. I’ll get something fairly close within your budget. Trust me.” I now realise anyone that says, “Trust me”, don’t. But of course I did. I left him on his own for the first week and then came back at the weekend. Every single thing in my flat was covered in dust, even though he said he would protect it all with plastic sheets; the bathroom tiles were put on vertically rather than horizontally (his response to that was that it makes the room look taller!!!); the bathroom taps, kitchen taps, in fact all of the appliances were nothing like the ones I had chosen; he refused to answer emails so the only time I could go through things with him was on the phone on a monday morning or write a detailed note... AND he didn’t start work till 10:30 because he said the traffic was a “roight mare!” any earlier! Warning bells you ask?? Nope, I was still deaf.

By the second and third weeks I was a complete wreck. I felt bullied and intimidated every time I spoke to Ralph. He sighed, he tutted and he rolled his eyes whenever I questioned anything he’d done, and would just raise his voice and talk over the top of me when he wanted the conversation to end. He wouldn’t admit anything he had done was substandard and refused to redo things that I knew weren’t right. I cried every single time I ended a conversation with him because I felt utterly helpless. Then, on the fourth week, I rang him to talk about painting over all my plug sockets (idiot) and he said he was on holiday. He had decided to take a week off to go sailing because the weather forecast was good and he didn’t think I’d mind. Oh my god. By now everyone was telling me to sack him but I couldn’t. I just wanted everything finished and knew it would be impossible to find anyone else with only 2 weeks to go. He came back from sailing, promising to have everything finished by the end of the week. I felt I had no choice but to let him carry on but I also didn’t trust him, so I came home early from Bristol on the Friday and discovered something he’d done that was unforgivable.

My sitting room had been finished for some weeks. My neighbour had already been kind enough to move all my furniture etc. down to my parents’ summer house, so all that was left were a few lamps, clothes and bedding. These were under a plastic sheet on my sofa with a big sign on it that read, “Ralph, please leave covered and don’t move. Thanks.” As I walked into my flat, early that Friday afternoon, Ralph was nowhere to be seen. I rang his mobile to see where he was and it went to voicemail. I texted him and heard nothing back. I stood in my sitting room and I just knew something was wrong. My sofa had been moved and there was a big dust sheet spread over the floor, taped down, which was odd because there would have been no reason to protect the floor as the room had already been painted. I began pulling up the dust sheet and noticed scraps of my bathroom linoleum also taped to the floor. I lifted these up and gasped in horror (well it was dramatic!). My beautiful wooden floor had an 8 x 2 foot stain right across the middle. It looked as if someone had spilled some sort of solvent on it and then desperately tried to clean it up, without success. I was livid. It was Ralph down to a T… mess up, cover it up and then not tell me. I rang him again and left a very calm, controlled but on the verge of losing it message (always the scariest). I heard nothing back.

By Saturday morning I had already found a wooden floor expert to assess the damage. He was a passionate Bulgarian man that took one look at my floor, fell to his knees, and caressed the stain with his hand saying in a small choked voice, “What have they done to you??” over and over again. I managed to get him off the floor and console him enough – with a few cups of coffee, some chocolate biscuits and some soothing words – for him to tell me the worst. The floor was ruined. The stain had been covered for too long, the attempt to remove the stain was a disaster and the attempt to re-varnish it was even worse. Ralph had done this to my floor and then gone awol. It was beyond cowardly. And it could only be fixed by stripping the whole floor, re-sanding it and re-finishing it. It would cost hundreds and it would take time. But I had no bloody time... my tenants (who I found through a friend of a friend) were due to move some of their things in the following weekend and I had 6 days to fire Ralph, fix the floor, find new decorators, carpenters, electricians and plumbers (for it became very obvious at that point in time that Ralph was nowhere near finished) and clean the place from top to bottom. I burst into tears, put a desperate plea on Facebook for help, and waited.

I love and loathe Facebook in equal measures but when it comes to asking for help from a large group of friends, it really is invaluable. Within minutes I had received a text from a old panto friend who gave me the number of a man who could help, let’s call him Mr Fix. I rang Mr Fix and he said he would come over the next day (Tuesday) and assess the situation. He had a team of workmen and he was sure they would be able to get things done in time. Phew. I had also left another message for Ralph asking him to come and collect all his things because his contract was terminated. Gulp. I then began the laborious task of packing up his equipment... I wanted him in my flat for the least amount of time and knew if I packed his stuff up myself he would have no reason to linger. I was dreading it. Even Mr Fix, a big burly man who would scare most humans, said he would come round if there was trouble because there was nothing he hated more than bullies, cowards and men who took the piss when it came to work! I loved Mr Fix. Meanwhile, my Bulgarian floor man was still almost weeping over the state of my floor but was doing his best to sand out the stain and re-varnish the wood without having to do the whole floor. I knew the stain would remain but I just didn’t have the time or the money to fix it. I would have to tell my new tenants what had happened and hoped they would still want the flat. I also hoped they had a big rug!

Ralph turned up at noon the next day. I had been pacing the flat since 8am waiting for him to arrive, thinking of what to say, how I would work out what money I owed him, terrified of his reaction. I had already paid him half the quote up front and now I was only willing to pay him another £1000 instead of £2000. I was so scared that he was just going to shout at me and deny everything that when he calmly came into my flat, looked at the stain on the floor, sighed and said sorry, I was slightly flummoxed. He had hoped I wouldn’t see it and could fix it himself. He admitted that was na├»ve. I began going through all the other things wrong with the flat and he just held his hand up for me to stop. He just wanted to be paid and leave and I was so unbelievably relieved that he agreed to the £1000 deduction, that it didn’t enter my head that I should have asked for more for the floor, or to check his builders insurance or anything! I know I know, I’m a complete idiot but I can’t begin to explain how knotted my stomach was and how many sleepless nights I’d had. I just wanted him out of my life and £1000 seemed reasonable at that moment in time. We shook hands at my front door and he said, “No hard feelings Juliet.” I wanted to punch him on the nose but I shook his hand anyway. As he wandered down my walkway he laughed and shouted, “I’ll be working down the road for the next few weeks so I’ll see you around!” What? The little shit! And I tell you, it took all the willpower in the world to not scratch his van or puncture his tire every time I saw it outside. Grrrrrrr.

Mr Fix arrived on the Tuesday with a posse of heavies, to assess what needed to be done. They wandered from room to room, swearing, mumbling and grumbling and then Mr Fix said, “So, the asshole didn’t get much done then did he?”, I felt sick. Half the rooms were supposed to be finished according to Ralph, but according to these guys, they were done so badly they would need to start from scratch. Oh God. I said I had 3 days and a small budget and Mr Fix said “fine”. He would give me two of his men for 3 days, cash in hand, purely as a favour to my panto friend who had recommended him (thank you once again JJ). But I was not to mention to anyone who his company was because, “If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s having to fix other shit’s messes!” O-kay.

Kipper and Wayne turned up the next morning at 8am. Kipper was 60, had one eye, one knee and a heart of gold. He was so adorable and kind that I didn’t worry too much that he couldn’t see much and would have to turn sideways to see what he had just painted. I also didn’t worry too much that he had to hop up my ladder on one leg because, “My bloody knee was replaced 5 years ago and they made a total hash of it!” Oh great, just what I need to hear before knee surgery. But Kipper was brilliant and his paintwork was flawless and the only thing he needed to make him happy was Radio 2, chocolate and 40 cups of tea a day. Wayne was Kipper’s sidekick. 25 years old, 6’6” tall, skinny as a rake, hardly any teeth, and never stopped talking. He was hilarious too and had me in fits most of the day. They were a breath of fresh air. They were talkers but amazingly for men (sorry), brilliant at multi-tasking. By the end of the first day they had finished the bathroom and the sitting room, consumed two packets of chocolate digestives and half a box of teabags. Impressive. On day two, a request for fresh cream chocolate eclairs was made and I happily indulged them, and on Friday, I bought a large double chocolate fudge cake to celebrate the end of the job. And everything was finished, apart from a few carpentry jobs that were being done the next morning and about 20 small jobs that I had to do myself. My tenants were coming on the Sunday to sign the lease so I still had time to get everything done and clean the flat.... eek.

The carpenter arrived and I swooned a little. Maybe it was the combination of lack of sleep, weeks of stress and the fact that I’m a bit old fashioned and find a strong man with a tool-belt very alluring, but I went a bit pathetic and a bit helpless and I asked him to look at my list and see if he could help with anything else apart from the shelves he was being paid for. I know, sorry strong women friends, but needs must! And he did. He stayed for 7 hours and did every single job on my list, from fitting the fire alarm to screwing on door handles to putting up my blinds. He even carried my old fridge down 3 flights of stairs... one of the funniest things I have ever seen. I had forgotten to tell him that the fridge had been defrosting overnight but he picked it up with the door angled upwards, so it was fine. It was only when he got to the bottom of the stairs and began losing his grip, that he gave a loud groan and tipped the fridge the other way. The door flew open and a gallon of ice cold water and several frozen peas poured out onto his nether regions and down between his legs. It looked as if his waters had just broken. I collapsed on the stairs and almost wet my own pants I was laughing so much. And did the lovely carpenter ask for any extra payment for all these extra jobs?? Nope... just a date!!! Did I comply? Well that’s another story!

I spent the next 12 hours cleaning the floors and all the paint-splattered woodwork on my hands and knees. I say hands and knees but as I wasn’t allowed to put weight on my left knee, I had to sort of shuffle around my flat on my posterior. FYI, your bottom produces a much better shine than cloths and polishes! My tenants came round, ooh-ed and aah-ed in all the right places, were very sweet and understanding about the floor and the keys were handed over. Hurrah.

The only thing left for me to do was have my knee re-constructed. Something I was actually looking forward to more and more each day, even if it was purely so I could be put to sleep, not think about anything, and lie on a bed for a while!

To be continued…

Friday, 13 November 2015

New Knee. New Life. Part 1.

It’s strange how one little thing can have a knock-on effect and send your life snowballing. My one little thing was knee pain.

I’ve been having problems with my knees since I was about 35. According to the experts – who offered the only logical explanation for their deterioration – being knock-kneed and pigeon-toed as a child with a love of ballet and gymnastics may have been the start... inwardly turning toes being forced into duck-footed turn-outs for 12 years was probably not ideal. Add to that the years of desperately trying to correct the way I walked (teasing was merciless), endless twisty-turny sports like hockey, trampolining, tennis and skiing, plus early onset arthritis, and you have massive wear and tear, displaced kneecaps and no cartilage. I sometimes wonder if I had been forewarned as a teenager – that my knees would be buggered by the time I was 45 if I carried on doing what I was doing – would I have done anything different?? Well, I’m not one to be told what I can and can’t do (family and friends would concur strongly with this!) so I’m not sure it would have made a difference. I suppose everyone does things that might be risky or lead to injury down the line... but would you change your life and lead a safe and sedate one because of what may possibly happen years later? I doubt it.

I do, however, remain incredibly humble and grateful for all the treatment I have had over the years and have never ever taken that for granted. I’ve had several surgeries over the past 12 years but the ‘big one’ was always imminent. They wanted to catch my knees at the perfect time, when the tissue was still healthy, the lower part of my knee could still be used, I was young enough and strong enough for the physio, but when my pain was no longer tolerable. So with the date set for November 4th 2015, I knew I had to put my life in order. I had 6 months to do it.

I was told that I would need to take 2 months off work, post surgery. Then I would be on crutches for up to 6 months and at 12 months I would hopefully be walking and doing everything else normally, well as normally as you can with a titanium lower thigh and a plastic knee. My original idea was to work my bum off until surgery, save enough money to be off work for 2 months and still be able to pay my mortgage and bills. I would stay in my London flat surrounded by flowers, welcoming visitors from my luxuriously adorned bed as I lay in state in a pink silk kimono. I would have my groceries and everything else I needed delivered, and I needn’t leave the flat. My surgeon smiled as I told him my plan and said one word. “No!”. Under no circumstances would he let me return to my third floor London flat alone. I needed to be somewhere that preferably had no stairs and I needed someone to look after me for at least the first 8 weeks. I would have to come up with a plan B.

Plan B was to stay with my mother and father down in Hampshire. I had had a trial run of staying with them post-surgery after a knee operation in September last year, when I was with them for a month. You may remember the blog!! House rules and my parents quirks were quite something, so the thought of doing the same thing for 2 months, and being totally incapacitated this time, filled me with a wee bit of anxiety. Would I go stir crazy in the quiet of the countryside? Would I get used to the volume of their TV, the numerous night-time loo excursions, the early evening meals, the obsession with Australian Masterchef and the unbelievable cheeriness in the mornings? Would I drive them mad asking for ice-packs, painkillers, glasses of water, cups of tea and hot water bottles all day and all night? There was no way of knowing of course, until I was actually there, but they selflessly said they wouldn’t hear of me convalescing anywhere else but with them, and that was that.

So with my recovery sorted out, I then began to organise my work. I needed as much design and copywriting as possible to cover the two months I would be out of action. It was approaching May and my bookings were looking good. I had 3 weeks at one company with the promise of a 3-month booking over the summer period. Brilliant. But the day before I was supposed to start, the project collapsed and I was told I wasn’t needed. Oh. So I phoned and emailed all my contacts and waited. Dribs and drabs came in, a few days here, a week there, but not enough to sustain me. It was weird. Summer is usually my busiest time because of holiday cover but for some reason, studios were keeping their work in-house and freelancers weren't getting the projects. I decided to contact some design studios I knew down in Bath and Bristol and suddenly I had a months work in a gorgeous studio in Bath. My sister said I could stay with her while I worked there, as she only lives 20 minutes from Bath, and so I breathed a sigh of relief. I absolutely loved working there, and I loved being with my family. Long beautiful summer days in Somerset, driving through the Mendip Hills to work, and coming back to lazy evenings and cooked meals courtesy of my sis. It was quite heavenly. I was going back to London at weekends but I wasn’t missing it as much as I thought I would. I then got more work in Bath, followed by a few weeks in Bristol. I was staying in B&B’s and lodging with a family in Bristol while working there, and staying with my sister or a friend of hers, when working in Bath. June and July went by in a whirl... new faces, new studios, new places to stay. I suddenly found myself looking at Somerset property websites during my lunch hour and going on drives with my nephew at weekends, through all the pretty villages around Bath. I began contacting old friends and family in the area and visiting them. I got on the books of more studios in Bath and Bristol and went on numerous interviews... and I suddenly realised that I wanted to live there and not London any longer!! What?? It came as a shock to me too. All my friends were in London, all my passions... so why did I suddenly want to leave? I thought of Samuel Johnson and his famous saying, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life!” But I wasn’t tired of London. I was tired of working in London.

Coming to the conclusion that if I never had to work in London again I would happily stay for the rest of my days, made me sad, because I adore everything about London but working. When I have days off I can potter for England. I can spend hours in bookshops, walk around Soho finding the perfect expresso, pop into the Curzon for a foreign film, see the latest exhibition, grab a bite to eat from any world cuisine, shop until I drop and still have time to see the cream of the acting world on stage. My flat is surrounded by beautiful green parks and the largest open-air freshwater swimming pool in Europe is only minutes from my doorstep. I know all my neighbours and am on first name terms with most of my local shopkeepers. I have great friends and a really really good life in London, I just don’t want to work there any more. Many of the studios have become too big. And as they’ve expanded, their personalties have shrunk... the personal touch diminishes. Freelancers rarely get the thanks they used to or are made to feel part of a team. And more often than not, studio managers think it’s ok to cancel you at a moments notice and seldom give you a reason or a heartfelt apology. It’s stressful and unstable. There are too many designers and not enough work and it suddenly feels like a giant hamster wheel, with everyone chasing the same jobs, nipping at each others ankles. I have also come to despise the tube and the necessary crushed commute every morning, seeing a sea of bland unsmiling faces. I get claustrophobic and clammy, and I wake up with a sense of dread every single morning at having to do that journey into town. It sounds silly but it’s the little things that get you down. Combine all the little things and you suddenly have more reasons than not for making a change.

I love London. But I want to keep on loving London, and I realised the only way I could do this was to leave.

To be continued…