I don’t do fancy dress, not on any account. The closest I ever came to embracing the idea was a fancy dress party at a stag and hen weekend a couple of years ago. Kelly went as a pirate – she had the headscarf, the boots, the frilly shirt and a plastic flintlock she bought from the pound shop. When you pulled the trigger, it emitted a synthetic “bang” (I know that, because I pulled the trigger a lot). She looked magnificent; I on the other hand wore a check shirt with a sheriff’s badge – also from the pound shop – pinned to the breast pocket. Nish, the bride-to-be, tapped Kelly on the shoulder at one stage. “Thanks for persuading him to make some effort.” she said (some effort, not so much effort), because she knew how much of a gesture it was. A one pound badge and my only check shirt, those were all the concessions I was willing to make. I don’t do fancy dress, because there is nothing fancy about me.
All of that makes my twenty-four spell as a crap robot particularly ironic.
Kelly and I arrive at the hospital and the nurse explains to me what they are going to do this morning. There’s a bit of me that always wishes they would skip this bit and just get on with it, but that never happens. She tells me she is going to pass what she describes as a “small tube” into my nostril and down the back of my throat. It will descend to different depths and they will measure the pressure on my oesophagus to work out whether the acid that is the bane of my life is rising up because the valve isn’t tight enough. A monitor – blocky green writing on a black screen – will tell them everything they need to know about my innards.
I wish I had a screen which could tell me what was going on inside me, because I never really understand that.
“Do you feel okay about it?” the nurse says.
She is friendly and efficient; I imagine she used to be quite a looker. That said, looking at her I’m also struck by how cheap and unerotic nurses’ uniforms always look. Another to add to the long and regrettable list of things that are better in theory than they are in practice, like family holidays, fast food after ten o’clock at night, and getting off with your friends. I hope that having a tube down your throat doesn’t fall into that category too, because it sounds horrendous even in theory.
“I can’t honestly say it’s going to be a highlight of my day.”
Kelly, perched on the chair at the end of the bed, gives me a small supportive smile. The nurse’s assistant – surly, swarthy and hairy – does not talk or react. The radio is on in the corner, blaring out vacuous chat and forgettable tunes; the nurse put it on, telling me that it might take my mind off things.
I wish I had a mind like that.
She reaches over to a nearby trolley and retrieves the ‘small tube’. I nearly pass out; it looks like a garden hose from where I’m sitting. The assistant stands to my left and holds a cup of water up to my face until my lips manage to catch the straw poking out at an awkward angle. I am instructed to take a few sips and then, once I am suitably lubricated, the nurse starts to feed the tube down, threading my throat like the eye of a needle. The next ten minutes are an unpleasant blur. The assistant keeps telling me to take a sip and then I have the awful creeping feeling of the tube descending a mere matter of millimetres. The nurse calls out a number: “forty”, “forty-one” referring, I assume, to depth measurements. Either that or they are all playing a game of bingo and I’m the only one not in on the joke. Then they take a reading, confer, tell me to take another sip and the process repeats itself.
My right eye, which started watering when I first saw the tube, can no longer open and my left eye keeps looking at Kelly. She gives me a series of reassuring half-smiles. At one point, the especially difficult stage when my gag reflex is being most tested, her hand reaches out and grasps the tip of the boot on my left foot, squeezing, desperately trying to feel my toes. She can’t make contact with any part of me, but I am touched none the less. Take it from me though, I am doing a magnificent job; I am a miserable coward in anticipation, but like anybody else I am a brave soldier there in the moment.
They reach the halfway stage, just before the tube begins its ascent. At this point I am urged to take bigger mouthfuls and swallow hard so they can take different measurements. Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now comes on the radio.
“I just want you to know that this has ruined this song for me forever.” I tell the nurse, between sips and readings. Nobody cracks a smile except Kelly, visible through the teary blur of my left eye. Finally, it is complete and everyone is telling me how well I’ve done, which is something I already know.
That’s only half of what I’ve turned up for today, because the second half involves them passing a narrower tube down my throat and leaving it there for twenty four hours to measure just how bad the acid gets. This tube isn’t quite so intimidating, although I’m still not looking forward to having it inside me for a whole day. I opt for the same nostril, and the process begins again but this time it takes nowhere near as long and involves nowhere near so many sips of water. Once it is in place, the nurse runs the wire coming out of my nose along my cheek and tucks it behind my ear before passing it down my chest, under my t-shirt. The whole thing is kept in place by huge slashes of white tape on my face and neck. The other end of the wire is attached to a plastic box which I wear on a belt around my waist. It looks as if it ought to bleep constantly, and I’m disappointed to discover that it doesn’t. The overall effect on my appearance is more than a little ghoulish.
The nurse explains to me that there are three buttons I need to know about on the device. I am to press the first one every time I start eating and every time I stop eating, and I have to record the start and end times, along with everything I eat, in the photocopied handout she gives me marked “Food diary”. The second one, the big button in the middle with the jagged lightning bolt symbol, is to be pressed whenever I experience any symptoms, and again these have to be recorded on the handout. Finally, a crude depiction of a horizontal figure is underneath the third button, which I have to press when I go to sleep and when I wake up. Simple, really. The other button has an exclamation mark next to it and is pressed when you require attention, but since I will be walking round with a wire coming out of my nose and taped to the side of my face, I have a feeling I won’t be needing that one much.
The nurse also gives me some guidelines. To make sure we get representative results, I am not to eat or drink anything which will produce too much acid. I am advised to avoid alcohol, although I can have a solitary drink with dinner if I really want (the tone of voice this permission is delivered in is strangely reminiscent of my mother). Fruit juice and squash are also discouraged, and if I do insist on drinking something like this I should do so quickly so that it doesn’t distort the results over a long period of time. But apart from that, I should carry on doing whatever I would normally do if I didn‘t have a wire coming out of my face and attached to a non-bleeping box tied to my waist on a cheap nylon belt. She does however advise me against driving. If she knew me at all, she’d realise that this particular piece of advice is unnecessary, but then if she knew me that well she would probably also give me a list of proscribed reading material.
In the spirit of trying to live as normally as possible, Kelly and I decide to go into town for lunch.
“I’m making a unilateral decision that any woman looking at me today is just using this wire as an excuse to check me out.” I say to Kelly as we head for the centre.
She grins indulgently, I think she’s just relieved that I’m being so constructive for a change.
My food diary records that I have a cheese sandwich while sitting outside Picnic, my favourite café. The process of eating the sandwich takes approximately eight minutes. What my food diary doesn’t record is that eating food when you have a tiny wire dangling down your throat is not an enjoyable experience. However much you chew, every mouthful you swallow jerks the wire, as if it has snagged an energetic fish. First you bite, then it bites. It’s not a sensation I would ever want to get used to, I tell myself at the start of lunch.
By the end of lunch I find myself wishing I could get used to it.
Towards the end of my lunch, my stepfather wanders past us with a work colleague. We haven’t spoken in well over a year and it would be bad enough to see him even if I didn’t look so freakish. So Kelly looks down and I look off to my right, hiding the side of my face with the wires, a ridiculous tableau of awkwardness until we can see his slim frame and the back of his bony, close-cropped head in the distance. I finish my coffee and write Coffee, 13:45 in my food diary. I am gratified to hear that it does make a beeping noise when you press the button on the device.
The rest of the afternoon I try to get on with my work as if everything was normal, which of course it isn’t. Keeping a food diary is an intriguing experience, something I’ve never tried before which tells me things about myself which I'd probably rather not know. For instance, on average I take twenty-five minutes to finish a hot drink, the majority of which time is spent waiting for it to cool down between the first and the second sips. Seeing that figure there in black and white on a page, it seems silly even to me. What will the nurses think?
It also acts as a powerful moderating force. When I write Cornetto, 15:45 to 15:51 it seems bad enough, but only the fact that I am keeping a diary and somebody will read it further down the line stops me running to the freezer and demolishing another one. I think of all the things I’m not writing in the food diary: I fought the urge to have a second Cornetto, or I just put “risotto” in the diary, but actually it had dressed crab and a dollop of mascarpone and it was bloody gorgeous. And then all the stuff I could write in there that has nothing to do with food at all: I’m scared this won’t work or I really don’t want to have an operation.
Obviously I play up my discomfort, because if you can’t feel sorry for yourself when you have a tube down your throat I don’t know when you can. At one point, I catch Kelly looking at me with what I like to think is fondness.
“What is it? Am I cute?”
“Well, sort of. You’re… kind of pathetic.”
My face falls. If it fell any further it might have tugged the wire out.
“No! In a good way!”
I decide not to make her explain, as she's clearly suffered enough, so instead I plan an assault on my stash of chocolate. It takes place, according to my food diary, at approximately 21:40 and lasts for ten minutes. What I don’t write in the diary is what I had, or that it was probably more chocolate than a person should consume that close to bedtime. I decide they don't need to know that.
Here’s another thing I don’t write in the diary: I’m dreading trying to get off to sleep. Actually, it’s not so bad once I unclip the belt and rest the box on the bedside table next to me, though it feels strange to lie on my back and not be able to turn round and curl myself around the figure next to me. The real challenge is getting undressed in the first place, juggling boxes and belts and wires and clothes. I probably make it much more difficult than it should be, but part of the slow awkwardness is hating that feeling of infirmity. The diary I didn’t write that day is far longer, and a far sadder read, than the diary I did. All the nurse will know from the diary I kept is that I take a long time to drink hot drinks and I eat lots of soft food. She might also get at least an inkling of how middle class I am; that word, risotto, screams bourgeois to me.
I wake up once in the night to press the symptom button. I scribble in the food diary by my bedside, squinting without glasses, hoping the light doesn’t wake Kelly up.
The next day I have breakfast in a last ditch attempt to fool the nurses into thinking I’m a better person than I really am. They told me to head back to the hospital and they would remove the device for me to save me yanking it out myself, but oddly by this point I’m quite comfortable with it and happily institutionalised into filling out the time I finished my Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or tackled a cup of tea. Bang on the twenty-four hour mark there is another bleep and the display says Recording complete, minutes before an unpleasant bout of acid. I have been off my medication for a week so they can observe me under “normal” circumstances, and of course my insides have been lying in wait for the recording to finish so they can go back to making my life uncomfortable. It’s much the same as the incredible effect a doctor’s waiting room has; sit in one for twenty minutes before your appointment, and your symptoms go away. If you’re there over half an hour, you can forget why you turned up in the first place.
I stroll to the hospital feeling grubby; you aren’t allowed to get the device wet, so I haven’t been able to shower. I take great pride in taking the busiest roads, hoping to scare some small children, but my luck isn’t in. With my outsized headphones on too, I look like a bad parody of a Cyberman.
My twenty-four hour spell with the wire inside me ends not with a bang or a whimper. The nurse sits me down, tells me to take a deep breath and… nothing. I didn’t even feel her pull, didn’t feel anything but the wire is in her hand and the tape has been pulled away from my face with only a slight feeling of tackiness to remind me it was there at all. She connects the box up to the black and green screen and we sit there looking at charts of my insides. There are lots of jagged lines, a lot of which correspond with moments when I pressed the button with the lightning bolt on it. I feel like it ought to have a profundity that is somehow missing, but I'm not the only one. She doesn’t know what it all means either, or what will happen next, but tells me the consultant will be in touch.
Leaving the hospital, I perversely feel like I will miss the attention. One thing I’ve learned over the last twenty-four hours is that it’s interesting watching people try to avoid staring at you when you are so worthy of being stared at. They tend to adopt one of two approaches; either they take a very quick but intense peek and then act as if they cannot see you or, if they’re braver, they properly stare but adopt a facial expression which suggests they mean nothing by it. But what it really makes me think about is how I must have looked in the past few weeks every time I’ve walked past the young girl in town with the bizarre swelling that seems to distort the whole of her jawline, as if she’s being seen through a funfair mirror. I assume it’s something like cancer, and I never know whether to avert my gaze or act naturally. When you see someone like that, it’s hard to decide what “naturally” even means. Or the old woman who’s always there when I stroll down Smelly Alley, sitting outside the internet café, wheezing away on a cigarette. The huge growth on her eyelid is so big she can barely open that eye at all.
I want to stop them both, next time, and say I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to stare. I know how it feels, but simultaneously I know that’s not really true, and I know I never will. So instead I make my way home unencumbered, enjoying the sunshine, dying for a shower, with only the phantom trace of the tube pressing against the back of my throat.
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