So, Gillian Mears is dead. Mears was an award-winning Australian writer of novels and short stories, and last year released a children’s book. She lived on her property near Grafton, NSW, with a horse she wasn’t able to ride and a cat. She had MS.
Neuralgia again. Or is it? I’ve written about neuralgia—nerve pain—before, but this time it’s different. In the past it has started slowly—the occasional subtle ping, gaining in intensity and frequency, rising to a crescendo of penetrating stabs, seconds apart, with little relief between. Then subsiding again over hours, or a few days at most.
But this one has a different personality altogether. It strikes at random, speeds up and slows down at will. It can disappear for minutes on end, but as soon as I dare hope it’s gone, it’s back—tricked you! Conversely, it can cease just when I place attention on it. It can feel like a perverse, extended game of hide-and-seek with a toddler.
We’re on the ferry from Puttgarden, Germany, to Copenhagen. Bleak skies, choppy, grey water, the mournful cries of gulls. Grim Scandinavians frown into their shot glasses around me while I sit in the bar, reading. Then, from somewhere unseen, Wallander’s ringtone. I know it’s not Sweden—not quite—but my stomach drops. It always portends some alarming development when Wallander’s phone rings.
Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman … And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.
Dylan Thomas could have written the opening of Under Milkwood for me, prowling around the house at two, three, four o’clock in the morning, while the gentlefolk—and stock, and pets—of Quaama village slumber on. Or maybe not the cats. I hear them prowling too, and yowling their territorial warnings.
I often think of Nelson Mandela as I wait, door ajar, for my shower to warm up. I have done so for years, ever since I read his autobiography. Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island, had to endure cold showers for 30 years. It gets pretty icy on Robben Island. And I whinge about waiting 15 seconds for the water to run warm.
Of course, cold water isn’t my problem; hot water is. I used to wonder why I felt like a ragdoll after my shower, weak and unbalanced for half an hour or more. Now I know to keep the temperature moderate. No hot water on my head or back.
And don’t start me on hot baths! These days they’re a rare luxury for when I know I don’t have anything else to do that night – and when the Mechanic’s there to help me climb out. Or for severe neuralgia episodes, when a brief bout of lower limb paralysis is a small price to pay to make the pain go away.
If I do end up in a wheelchair, at least I’ll be able to wear nice shoes again.
Are you shocked? I was, when I realised I’d had that thought. But I was having fond memories of working in Amsterdam in my mid-twenties, and how surprised and delighted I was to be able to walk into any shoe shop and find smart Italian shoes in my size (41) on the shelf – no special order required. Of course, this was the Netherlands, where my 5’10” frame was suddenly average, so of course my shoe size was nothing so unusual either.
Since I was 28 I have worn a ring on my right hand, a cabochon star ruby set in a gold band. Also known as corundum ruby, this complex, plum-coloured stone is the bedrock that nurtures ruby crystals – the bright, red, glassy stones more common in jewellery. In sunlight the hexagonal crystal structure shines a six-pointed star.
Similarly, my recent regime – the probiotics, the supplements, the gym routine, the three symptomatic treatments I was on – was feeling like a bedrock of stability. Not a cure, but a rich, strong foundation from which stars sometimes shine, from which crystals can grow.
One hot summer’s day, years ago, I’d been out in the veggie garden doing some harvesting. Picture me, the flower-child – long floral skirt, tatty straw hat, basket filled with zucchinis, tomatoes, zucchinis, beans… more zucchinis… Anyway, I came inside and flopped down on the sofa, overheated and pooped, to give myself time to cool down and recover before flicking through 101 Zesty Ways with Zucchinis or something. That’s when I felt a strange new sensation along my left leg. It was kind of tingly, kind of prickly.