Wounds and scar tissue

This week, wounds and scar tissue. Not one of my usual efforts, though it is a kind of a Stop and a kind of a Story. I want to give some explanation of why I’ve not been enthusiastically blogging the last few weeks. It all starts with my birth…

I was a forceps baby. I was a big baby and my mother is a small woman. To be sure, back in 1958, I was not nearly as big as I have become and my mother was larger then than she is now. Nevertheless I was a difficult child to birth. Back then Caesarean section was not as common as it is today. It was a more risky procedure used only for very serious complications. Instead, forceps were frequently used to help tardy babies come out.

A pair of forceps is like a pair of tongs. It has cupped ends that the doctor or midwife inserts into the mother’s vagina, then opens inside her to cup the head of the child, get a grip and tug. The mother pushes, the forceps wielder pulls and with any luck the baby comes out. Partly as a result of the procedure, forceps babies often have noticeably conical heads.* I did. I also had a cut on the crown of my head – or at least there was dried blood there when my mother saw me after I’d been cleaned up.

Her theory is that the doctor in the heat of the moment cut my head with the forceps. We never found out the truth of it – and I don’t know whether mum ever asked. This was in the long ago, and in England too; there was no question of enquiries over such a small thing. Besides mum was just happy to have me out.
Scar: Little conehead

I grew up with a scar on the crown of my head, a little bald irregularity like an uneven button. Unlike all the other scars I picked up over time – on the ridge of an eyebrow when I fell on stone steps, on the wrist of my left hand when as a student I put it through a window, on my right knee when I came off a bike on a gravel road in Sweden – the scar on my head did not sink into the skin and fade over time. It stood a little proud of my scalp, but I never thought much about it unless I caught it with the teeth of a comb.

I’ve recently learned that head scars like this have a medical name. They are keloid scars, and they are caused by an excess of collagen. According to the website of the British National Health Service (long may it exist!) keloid scars are not really understood. “Experts don’t fully understand why keloid scarring happens.” The site goes onto say keloid scars “are not contagious or cancerous.” Not contagious, obviously, but not cancerous? I’m not so sure.

It all started last summer when Mrs SC and I were visiting Lisbon. I was crouched in the wardrobe of our hotel room trying to get at the little wall safe hidden in there. I stood up rather too quickly and whacked my head on the clothes rail in the wardrobe. Bull’s-eye on the scar. My first reaction was to stumble around the room holding my head and cursing, but that passed quickly enough.

We were in a hurry so I carried on getting ready to go out, but was puzzled suddenly to see my fingers were leaving red smears on everything I touched. Also there was a tickling sensation above my eyebrows. Mrs SC looked at me in horror. “There’s blood all over your forehead!”

Head wounds are notoriously bloody but often not serious. I wasn’t particularly worried. But the blood kept flowing through all our efforts to staunch it with handfuls of tissue paper and cold water. Everything had to stop while we waited for the blood to coagulate. Eventually it did. I cleaned up and all was well. The day was not ruined.

But the scar didn’t really get better. Mrs SC started giving me morning colour reports – how red it was looking when it always used to be off-white. And some mornings I woke to find bloodstains on my pillowcase.

It’s unusual – was unusual – that I ever looked at my scar myself. (How often do you look at the crown of your own head?) It involves too many mirrors and awkward poses in the bathroom. My increasingly poor eyesight doesn’t make it easier. But while I was bent over and trying to get a look at the scar after the latest bleeding incident, it struck me that with modern technology I ought to be able to take a photograph.

Easier said than done. And once I finally managed, I wished I hadn’t. The photo was crisp and clear. Horribly so. The scar looked like a huge crater in the top of my head. There were flecks of dried blood and irregular lumps and pits of sore skin and what looked like a couple of pus-filled spots. It was stomach turning and I have no wish to share it with you. (See the artist’s impression instead.)
The scar on my head

Fast forward to October and back home in Sweden. I was admitted to hospital for an operation to repair a hernia that was making walking increasingly difficult for me. It was a keyhole op that left me with three holes in my abdomen and feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse. As the surgeon pointed out, he’d actually stabbed me three times in the stomach. There was no simile required. The pain after the operation was greater than the pain I’d had before and it dragged on for weeks. And dragged me down. For a longer time it didn’t seem worth the exchange. But there I was, holed below the waistline and stitched up. I had to visit my local doctor here in Brussels after a couple of weeks to get the stitches taken out.

Just that morning, after I showered, the scar on my head started bleeding again. So after the doctor had removed the stitches in my belly, I asked him to look at my scalp. There was a sharp intake of breath. Then he wrote me a referral to “the best dermatologist. I could send you somewhere else, but they would just send you on to him.”

Mid-November I had a consultation with the dermatologist, and he booked me in for a biopsy. Now, in my ignorance I assumed the biopsy would involve someone taking a little bit of my scar and checking it before deciding what to do next. Wrong. Under local anaesthetic the diminutive lady surgeon enthusiastically cut off the entire scar and some clear skin around it. Then she stitched up my scalp. I felt the needle scraping on the bone of my skull as she dragged the skin up left and right, front and back, to close the hole she’d made.
Scar: Post-op-stiches

It wasn’t until the anaesthetic wore off that I really hurt. And then for a couple of days I was walking around with the constant sensation that I had just banged my head hard on a sharp corner. Painkillers didn’t really help. Nor did the fact that the wound was protected by a pad of sterile gauze held in place by an elastic bandage wrapped around my head under my jaw.

Beatrix Potter's sick guinea pigAdding insult to injury this made me look like a particularly disgruntled guinea pig. In fact am sure there is a Beatrix Potter illustration somewhere…

So that’s the story of my wounds and scar tissue. In two weeks time I’ll go in to see the consultant again and learn what the biopsy tells him about the scar. Was it really a tumour or was all the bleeding simply an ongoing protest at the blow I gave it in Lisbon? And if it was a tumour, was it benign or malignant? And if malignant, will it need another operation?

Heigh ho. At least I seem to have stepped back from the depression that for weeks I’ve been teetering on the edge of. And today, today the headache is less intense than yesterday, which was less intense than the day before.

Scar: Bandaged guinea pig

Added January 2017

For anyone who wants to know – the diagnosis was basal cell carcenoma. If you are going to get a cancer, this is one of the better ones. Very unlikely to metastasise and easy to treat – cutting it out is usually enough. An Australian colleague of my wife, who has presumably had several removed over the years, wondered why I was kicking up such a fuss. He has a point, I suppose.


^* Most babies who have spent a longer time being born come out with conical heads because of the pressure in the birth canal, forceps can make this more pronounced.

The Beatrix Potter drawing comes from her late (1929) book The Fairy Caravan. Download a copy from The Faded Page website. All the other illustrations are my own.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Remembrance Day 2016, Brussels

Remembrance Day 2016 as commemorated in Brussels and a meditation (or a rant) on the meaning of the day, plus an apology for the recent break in service.

It’s five weeks since I last posted here, and this post is itself a good week late. I apologise for this, but I’ve been taking an unplanned break from blogging. I’m recovering from an operation (and visiting with Mr Despond and Anxty his dog). I’m hoping to return Stops and Stories to regular service now. We’ll see.

Remembrance Day: Rue Royal just before 11am on 11 Nov 2016This week, some photos from November 11th.  Remembrance Day is observed here in Belgium for good historical reasons, though perhaps with less hysteria than in the UK. Although the day is a national holiday, the crowds turning out to observe the ceremony were conspicuous by their absence.

Remembrance Day: Scouts and CadetsThe whole of the road from the Royal Palace to the Congress Column (where the ceremony took place) was blocked off and empty. Beyond, way off down the road, you could see the dome of the Royal Church of St Mary. It was as if the authorities expected huge crowds, but there was only a small gathering. If you discount the soldiers, the troops of scouts and cadets and what appeared to be an invited audience of schoolchildren, there were perhaps 200 or so of us.

Remembrance Day: Ceremony of silenceIt doesn’t matter. It was a raw, cold day and, honestly, I think it’s understandable that most people chose to stay away and get on with their lives. I wouldn’t want the commemoration of the end of the First World War to be forgotten. At the same time the ostentatious militarism and emotionalism that the British indulge in annually on November 11th I find more than a bit distasteful.

Remembrance Day: LancersThe war was a terrible event, it claimed millions of lives. If we can remember it in the spirit of “never again” then that seems good to me. But what goes on in Britain nowadays doesn’t fall into that category. The bullying that ensures every public figure wears an artificial poppy for weeks before and after the event. The pomp and ritual of the Remembrance itself, the massed bands and uniforms, speeches and cannonades. As the last of the veteran survivors pass away, the event is extended and extended. “Our glorious dead” from World War Two, from Korea, the Falklands, the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan…

Remembrance Day: The trumpeters and their horsesIt all gives the lie to that line about “the war to end all wars”. We – and by “we” I mean the Brits – we don’t seem any longer really to be commemorating the conned and the killed from the world’s deadliest cock-up. (And of course it’s since been surpassed by other, similar events.) Nor do we seem any longer to be empathising with the lost generation or sympathising with the survivors. Instead we seem to be celebrating the on-rolling juggernaut of war. Worshipping the god to whom we’ve sacrificed a quota of every generation – not only of our people but also of theirs. Them, the many enemies of our imperial splendour.

Remembrance Day: TrumpetersWell. Pardon my rant. This Remembrance Day in Brussels had its pomp and uniforms – and a King as a figurehead – but it didn’t seem nearly so triumphalist or popular as Anglophone Remembrance Days I’m used to.

The lancers and trumpeters included women soldiers talking to their bored horses. There was a posse of street cleaners with shovels and wheelbarrows cleaning up after the horses while the ceremony was underway. The King was followed about comically by a fussy group of TV journalists with cameras on their shoulders and boom microphones in socks.

There was a three minutes silence.

Then king got in his limo to cheers of “Vive le Roi!” (I’m not kidding.) And the rest of us broke up made our several ways home.

Edith Cavell in Brussels

History is all around you in Brussels, still I was surprised one day to find myself walking along Rue Edith Cavell… and then I remembered.

Saint Joan and Edith Cavell

When I was at school, in the sixth form, I took part in a play. It was a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. The play is a dramatization of the trial of Joan of Arc. In Bernard Shaw’s play she is neither saint nor sinner, but “a great middle-class reformer.” (To quote TS Eliot, who disliked what Shaw had done with her).

The play was one of our prescribed texts for the final A-level examination in English. In the performance I played Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais (the second best part after Joan herself). It was a great experience and I still remember a couple of incidents associated with the production, but the one thing that has stayed with me from the printed text wasn’t actually in the play, but in Shaw’s Preface.

Edith Cavell Memorial, LondonBernard Shaw was more than a playwright, he was a thinker and an activist. He used his plays as campaign tools. He wrote the play and Preface to Saint Joan while involved in campaigning, in support of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, to get the wording changed on a monument.

The monument in question was the memorial to Edith Cavell.

The Cavell memorial

The memorial, planned during the First World War, was unveiled in 1920 in London. It’s still there. It is at the beginning of Charing Cross Road when you turn up from Trafalgar Square, between the National Gallery and the Church of St Martins in the Fields. Standing in front of a stone monolith, sculpted in a Modernist style, is the larger than life figure of a woman in the uniform of a nurse. This is Edith Cavell. She’s standing on a plinth on which is engraved:

Brussels
Dawn
October 12
1915

– the place and date of her execution by a German firing squad.

The monolith behind her, above her head, is inscribed Humanity. Above that is the conventional contemporary statement: For King and Country. On the back is a symbolic representation of a lion (Britain) crushing a serpent (Germany).

What the National Council of Women and Shaw were protesting was the way in which Edith Cavell had been hijacked. Hijacked by the establishment (King and Country) and used as propaganda to support the war effort. Used also to portray Germans as, well, serpents.

Who was Edith Cavell?

Edith Cavell PortraitEdith Cavell was an Englishwoman in occupied Belgium. As a nurse – in fact the matron of a school training nurses – she followed her calling. She made sure her hospital cared for anyone who came through the doors. At the beginning of the war, that meant local civilians and Belgian and German wounded. Later she cared for wounded soldiers of the Allied armies who found themselves caught behind German lines. She was also involved in the early stages of a network of Belgian resistance that found the men behind the lines of the Western Front, helped them east to Brussels and then, once they were recovered, smuggled them on to the relative safety of the neutral Netherlands.

The network, and her involvement with it, appears to have been a consequence of a domino effect of chance events. Agreeing to take care of one soldier led on to a second. Two soldiers led to ten, to fifteen, to twenty. Once these men were sufficiently recovered she was keen to see them move on and release their places for the next batch coming in. Some sort of system had to be developed for getting them through German occupied Belgium and across the frontier. The network was never centrally organised or carefully designed, growing organically. But once it came to the notice of the occupying power, they set out to expose it, roll it up and arrest everyone involved. In the end around 70 people went on trial. Edith Cavell, as the only Englishwoman involved, was painted by the authorities as the head and inspiration of the group.

Patriotism is not enough

At her trial she never denied helping “enemy soldiers” to escape capture, though she did say it was entirely the soldiers’ choice, once they had escaped, whether they chose to return to the front and fight on. But this – and spying – was what she was found guilty of. Under German law she was sentenced to death for treason and shot. To the Anglican chaplain of Brussels who administered her last Communion, she justified herself saying: Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

These were the words Shaw and the National Council of Women wanted added to her monument. In 1924, the year after Saint Joan was first staged and the same year the play and its Preface were published, King and Country bowed to public pressure. The quote was added to the plinth beneath the date of her execution. (Although there was much loud protest in the media of the time. The National Council of Women and Bernard Shaw were branded as unpatriotic.)

History all around

Cavell tram stopHistory is all around you in Brussels. The city has a history that stretches back at least a couple of thousand years. But much of the ancient history is hidden behind more recent events. In particular, perhaps, the World Wars. There’s a whole district where streets are named for 1914-1918 battles – Paschendale and Ypres, Yser and Dixmude. And houses too. Just around the corner from where I live is Residence Joffre. This place isn’t named for the evil King of Game of Thrones, but for Joseph Joffre, first commander of the French army on the Western Front.

Still, I was surprised after we moved here to find myself one day getting off a tram at Cavell, walking along Rue Edith Cavell and looking up to see the edifice of the hospital – Clinique Edith Cavell… and then I remembered.

In Edith Cavell’s footsteps

Clinique Edith CavellWe are going through a great many centenaries at present, and of course Edith Cavell’s was in October last year. At Brussels’ English bookshop (Waterstones) it was easy to get a copy of Diana Souhami’s biography, the most recent scholarly account of Cavell’s life. (Souhami’s book informs much of this article.) Reading it I was fascinated to discover how much I must have been walking around Brussels in Edith Cavell’s footsteps.

The four town houses knocked together that formed the original training school for nurses on Rue de la Culture are gone. They’ve been replaced by four matching houses built, I guess, in the thirties. The road is now Rue Franz Merjay, but it’s still is less than ten minutes stroll from the hospital on Rue Bruxelles. The hospital that was almost ready for her nurses to move into in the autumn of 1915. Rue Bruxelles is now Rue Edith Cavell and the hospital that bears her name is the same hospital, presumably much expanded.

Tir National - National firing rangeUp the road, on one of my morning promenades, is the Saint-Gilles prison where Edith Cavell spent the last ten weeks of her life, the last two in solitary confinement. Across town, fifteen stops from Cavell on the number 7 tram is the Tir National – the National firing range. Here Edith Cavell was executed that chilly October dawn.

Tir National

As I was preparing to write this article, it seemed appropriate to take myself to the Tir National. It’s the one place that’s a part of Edith Cavell’s story in Brussels that I hadn’t previously visited. Once the centre of an extensive military area – and taken over twice by German occupiers as a convenient place to carry out executions – the Tir National is now a built up suburb of town houses, blocks of flats and hotels. The area is also home to the Belgian national public broadcasters, the French RTBF and the Flemish VRT. A part of the firing range survives, converted into a cemetery for the dead – Enclos des fusillés. (Next door is the Media centre’s crèche.)

Memorial plaque at Enclos des fusillésThe Enclos des fusillés houses 365 graves – including at least some of the graves of the 35 people executed here during the First World War. The rest are for those killed here in 1940-1944. There is also a memorial housing the remains of Belgian victims of the concentration camps. As so many graveyards are, it’s a peaceful place now. At one end, the plaque that lists all the 1914-1918 dead rests against an earthen bank constructed to absorb bullets. Perhaps it is the very one against which Edith Cavell was shot. I sat on a bench and meditated a little on the dead and the vanity of national ambition. But I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

It’s hard to live up to, but worth trying.


My thanks are due to Wikimedia Commons and the original photographers and uploaders for the picture of the Cavell Memorial in London and the portrait of Edith Cavell. Also to Diana Souhami for her excellent biography Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine.

This is the homepage of the modern National Council of Women of Great Britain.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Time travel – the Brussels Atomium

If you’ve ever fancied experiencing time travel, I recommend a visit to the Brussels Atomium.

Supposedly modelled on the crystal structure of an atom of iron, enlarged 165 billion times, the Atomium is partly a building, partly a sculpture. Taken all together, it is a remarkable construction. With nine stainless steel balls 18 meters in diameter, massive connecting tubes and supports, it stands 102 meters to the top of its antenna, which also does duty as a flagstaff.

Time travel - the Atomium time machineIt broods on the horizon north from Brussels city centre, but you can only really see it when you are up high or when looking in the right direction from the trains to and from the International Airport. Until my recent visit, I’d never seen it up close, so I was a little unsure whether I would be able to find it when I exited the metro station at Heysel. I needn’t have worried. It’s very obvious.

Time travel - 1958 World FairIt was originally erected for Expo 58, the Brussels World Fair in 1958. It stands now as a monument to the future. To the future as conceived in the 1950s, that is. A future familiar from the covers of magazines like Popular Mechanics or Galaxy Science Fiction, or SF film posters and stills. A future from when atomic power seemed like an unalloyed Good Thing.

Clockwise from left: The Atomium under construction - a French magazine, front cover of Amazing Stories c. 1960; still from Forbidden Planet, 1956;  front cover Practical Mechanics 1954; still from The Shape of Things to Come 1936; front cover Galaxy Science Fiction 1958
Clockwise from left: The Atomium under construction – a French magazine, front cover of Amazing Stories c. 1960; still from Forbidden Planet, 1956; front cover Practical Mechanics 1954; still from The Shape of Things to Come 1936; front cover Galaxy Science Fiction 1958

Time travel - Atomium SpheresThe Atomium and I are roughly the same age. It opened along with the Expo 58 in April 1958, while I put in an appearance in July of the same year. My childhood was imbued with the same futuristic designs that inspired the Atomium’s creators, design engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak. And in all probability the Atomium also inspired the future art of the 1960s.

Time travel - Atomium sphereWhen I talk about time travel in respect of visiting the Atomium, I’m talking partly about travelling back in time to the futuristic designs that thrilled my childhood and illustrated my earliest experience of science fiction. I got something of the same sensation when I visited the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum in London last year.

Time travel - Atomium interior 2The Cosmonauts exhibition took the story from the fantastic visions of the original space pioneers to the gritty reality of modern space flight. (Hopefully not literally gritty, to be sure.) However the Atomium seems suspended in an alternate time line. Perhaps because the structure simply wasn’t intended to have a real purpose. (It isn’t a spaceship, however much it looks like one.) So visiting is a form of time travel that takes you back (takes me back anyway) to rediscover the future vision of the original creators.

Time travel - Atomium interior 7 escalatorsOn the very slow escalators, the light show – a more recent addition I’m sure – deliberately contributes to this sensation. Apart from making it feel like you are moving a lot faster than you are, they also hark back to cinematographic images of travelling through wormholes in space, along turbo-lift shafts or spacecraft corridors.

Time travel - Atomium interior 9 disco-bridgeThe psychedelic light show with electronic music in one of the spheres could have been a set for any number of low-budget SF films from the 1970s. I felt right at home. (A couple of other, younger visitors attempted Swedish House Mafia style dance steps, but soon gave up. The electronic music was far too slow and laid back.)

Central Brussels from AtomiumUp in the top sphere of the Atomium, the lower half has an observation gallery with great views over Brussels and the countryside around. The upper half is a restaurant. There may be good views there too, but as it’s a restaurant, not a café, I wouldn’t know. The Atomium itself costs €12 entrance fee for one adult, which I thought was OK, but I wasn’t prepared to buy a whole meal just to see the view one flight higher up. There is a café, but it’s at ground level and outside the building. I passed on that.

Atomium interior 3
The lower top deck of the Atomium, less spaceship, more submarine conning tower. The steps lead up to the restaurant.

Atomium interior 15 kids sphereOne of the spheres (off limits to visitors when I was there) was reserved for children. Apparently schools can come to an arrangement with the Atomium and bring a class here to sleep over in specially designed spherical beds. It sounds like a great idea. I grabbed a photo of the beds through the refelections on the door.

TheSupercargo with presumed Atomium with mascotWhat else to add? Oh yes, as I entered the Atomium on the ground floor I had my photo taken with a mascot. I didn’t choose this; it was nothing I could avoid. On the way out I was invited to pay another €7 for a copy of the photo. Well, I paid, but I still can’t work out what this was all about. The mascot doesn’t appear anywhere on the Atomium web site, so I’m guessing it was all in aid of advertising something else – but I have no idea what. I rather think that counts as an advertising failure.

Here’s another time travel photo for you!

Atomium interior 11 escalators

Added later that same day…
It occurs to me I should also say that, escalators aside, the Atomium also has some serious flights of stairs to climb – down as well as up. In the 1950s the future did not include physical disability. Or perhaps anti-gravity suits and jet-packs were going to make walking superfluous. Well, that was that future. In the real world the Atomium is not friendly to anyone with restricted mobility. And even if you don’t find long stairs a challenge, your legs may well feel the Atomium effect the day after. Mine did.



A visit to the Wikipedia page for the Atomium will inform you that the Belgian copyright authorities are keen to screw money on behalf of the Waterkeyn family from anyone who publishes unlicensed images of the Atomium. Consequently it seems necessary for me to point out that the illustrations on this blog post are exempt from rights restrictions as they are “photographs …taken by [a] private individual and shown on [this] website… for no commercial purpose.”

Hmm… Not all the photos of course, the images in the collage are sourced from various places on-line – mostly e-bay.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

18th April – decades of a date

18th April 1986 – I am 27 years old and it is my wedding day…

18th April, 1966
18th April, 1976
18th April, 1986
18th April, 1996
18th April, 2006
18th April, 2016
18th April, 2026


*No, I don’t remember days that were 18th April in all these years, or the dates of Easter in 1966 and 2006. But the Internet has its uses, and one is a plethora of calendars where you can check these things.

*Goding, which works perfectly well as a family name in English, sounds weird to Swedish ears since it’s a slang description for an attractive person – think “sweetie”. Mrs SC assumed the gentleman had taken the name, but I suppose he might have had an English Goding ancestor.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

My Three Scents

These are my three scents – three smells that each conjure up vivid double memories of events widely separated in time and place.

Last week’s entry here about smell maps kept me thinking for days of specific scents and the meaning that they have for me. I started a page in my note-book and soon had a list of fifteen or so. These are not just smells I recognise, they are scents that, when I smell them, have the power to transport me in time and space to a moment, a place, a feeling.

I imagine everyone carries within them a little smell library that will work this same magic. In fact, I’m fairly sure the library is what Kate McLean was tapping into in her Paris exhibition (described last week). Everyone will have a different set of scents, of course, and even if you and I include the same smell in our libraries, the memories it conjures up will be unique to each of us. Scent memories are very personal.

I spent so much time playing around in my scent library, I decided I really had to write this week’s article about some of them.

To try to limit myself (you know how I can ramble on given half a chance) I decided to restrict myself to smells that have two attached memories, and because this blog is about travel, I have chosen three smells that link two completely different times and places.

Green Apple
Chicken shit
Bitter almonds

So, those were my three scents. What are yours?


The original pictures for all the illustrations (including the portait of Jonas Gardell) are Creative Commons licensed from Wikimedia Commons

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Ghana Christmas Ball

The Ghana Christmas ball was the first Christmas present I remember receiving

I have not celebrated Christmas in the UK since 1983. I still get asked from time to time what Christmas is like in England – it happened again just recently – but after all this time it’s not as if I know what goes on nowadays, and how much do I really remember? Still, I have a stock answer. I say: “Christmas is too many people in too small a space for too long, stress, booze and at least one blazing argument.” Which sometimes gets a laugh or a smile. Less now than it used to – my delivery is slipping. (Or too many have heard it already.)

Still my stock answer felt true once upon a time, and it’s certainly the root reason why I’ve not been “home” for Christmas for 32 years.

And yet… thinking back now I wonder if that description – if it was ever completely true – wasn’t true for just a few years, just a few Christmases, when I was in my teens. Perhaps in the run up to the separation and through my parents’ protracted divorce proceedings?

Trying to remember the Christmases of my childhood, I can’t actually bring to mind anything that corresponds to my stock answer.

The first Christmas I remember was in Ghana when I was six. I don’t feel that the concept was new to me, so I must have then had memories of earlier Christmases, but now, looking back, this is the earliest I can recall.

We celebrated Christmas, my Mum and Dad, my sister and I, at the expats’ club. My engineer father was dressed as Father Christmas in a hooded coat and and a large false beard. Sweating like a pig (to use his own expression) he handed out presents to all the children. Although I’d been told it was Dad in the red hood and white whiskers, I wasn’t entirely convinced. He was giving a very jolly performance and seemed to be enjoying himself in the surging sea of reaching kids. Could this really be my father?

I look back now and see my six-year-old self on the edge of the crowd looking on with suspicion. I can’t escape the probability that I’m imposing a later perception of my father and our relationship on the scene, but the true memory I have remains. Father Christmas, large, red and white, seen over the heads and arms of the kids. Up close, I guess, I would have seen his eyes at least and smelled his smell (Old Spice covering sweat, cigarette smoke, whisky), but I have no memory of that.

I do remember my present was a brown football that I was only moderately pleased to get. I suppose that I’d wished for something else, though I can’t remember what.

The football may have been Dad’s choice, but my adult self doubts it. I imagine a job lot of toys, wrapped by the mothers and put in the sack for Father Christmas to pull out. Nothing with a specific child’s name on it. In this scenario, my getting the ball would be chance.

That seems harsh, now I think about it. In fact Dad might have chosen the ball for me in advance, if the opportunity presented itself at a moment when he was feeling generous. He might even, at the moment of picking gifts from the sack in Santa Clause mode, have recognised the ball for what it was in its wrapping paper disguise and taken it to give me. After all, a ball would have been the sort of gift he might choose.

I wonder now if my six-year-old self was already wary of ball games. I was certainly wary of them later on. I’m like my father physically in many ways. I’ve inherited his build, his walk, his hands and his hairline, but one thing he didn’t pass on was his ball sense. Dad was a natural ball player. Football, cricket, tennis, golf – you name the sport, he could play it. But probably because all ball games came so naturally to him, he was also hopeless at teaching others – me – how to play. He tried a little to begin with, but he failed. Catch was about the limit of what I was capable of, and even then I fumbled the ball more often than not. I was both a disappointment to him and a puzzle: How was it possible that a son of his was such a bad ball player?

My abiding memory of the Ghana Christmas ball is its colour. Brown. Like one of the hens that scratched in the dust around the homes of the African houseboys. I’m not sure when the ball went missing, but it was soon after we got home from the club that Christmas Day.

The children’s party was in the afternoon. The club house was decorated with strings of coloured Christmas tree lights and the shutters and curtains were closed against the sun, but I remember how bright the day was when we came outside. I guess there was to be an adult party there in the evening, but our parents took us home for supper and bed.

I may have played with the ball in the garden in the early evening after we got home. That was when it went missing. I lost it at some point, kicked it out of sight, looked for it, failed to find it, just as Mum called me in to supper. Did I worry about losing it and decide not to tell anyone?

Later, as the light was failing, I stood on the veranda, looked down into the shrubbery and saw what I thought was the ball, but I was in my pyjamas and now getting called to bed.

The following morning the ball wasn’t where I thought I’d seen it and I wondered if, in fact, what I’d seen was one of the hens. Or if one of the African kids on the street had found the ball and taken it.

I don’t remember any repercussions for having lost the ball. This supports my belief that Dad never chose it for me himself. If it had been a present he had particularly picked out he would – surely – have been cross with me. And I – surely – would have remembered.

And that’s it – the first Christmas I remember. Me looking from the sidelines, an unwanted gift, a loss, an uncertainty. But no fighting and no recriminations.

Brown hen and football - Ghana Christmas


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.