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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Light and dark

I glance again at the clock in the maternity unit waiting-room. Is it too early, I wonder, to knock on the locked door of the ward and ask if Marie has come through surgery?

Pre-eclampsia we've been told is common. It strikes without warning and for reasons that are still unclear up to 10% of expectant mums. But that figure covers all forms of the condition, from mild to severe. Marie is at the scary end of the scale. Her blood pressure was 170/110 when they rushed her into hospital on Thursday night. The protein in her urine was over 300 milligrams per decilitre.

That means her baby could be dead in days. Pre-eclampsia and its complications kill five to six hundred babies a year in the UK alone. But it's not just the baby that's in danger. It kills around six expectant mums.

The cure is to deliver the baby. The only cure. But do that too early and the little mite's chance of survival drops drastically, as does its likelihood of good health later. Leave it late and the risk to the mum rises.

To the medics it's a numbers game. To Susan it's her daughter's life and that of her unborn grandchild. 

Officially it's an embryo until eight weeks after conception, then it becomes a foetus till it's born. But these are medical distinctions. To us it's been a baby since the start, though we still don't know if it's a boy or a girl. I'm betting girl. Everyone else says boy. 

"It's so much trouble it has to be," is the sexist consensus among a family not short of females or opinions.

On Monday, Poppy - the name Marie's been using since she learnt the embryo was poppy-seed size - would be 35 weeks. That is classed reassuringly as "mildly preterm". But she is not going to make it to Monday. 

Efforts to reduce Marie's blood pressure on Friday and induce her on Saturday failed. So the doctors told her, late Saturday night, that they were doing a Caesarian section in the morning. That much we got from Marie's texts. What's happening now we have no idea. 

"I can't even think about the baby yet," Susan says. "I'm so scared I'm going to lose Marie." 

I reach over and squeeze her hand. "It wasn't this hard when my boys were being born," I say. "I could see what was happening then." 

I squeeze again and stand up. "I can't sit here any longer. I'm going to walk around. Will you be all right?"

"I'll be great," she says.

Outside it's summer. Blinding sunlight is glinting from glass and parked cars. The air is hot, blue and bright. But there's a darkness in my mind I can't see past. The last time I felt like this my wife was driving from Scotland, with my two young sons, to visit me in Derby, where I'd been sent away to work. 

She was five hours late without a phone call. As time passes the darkness fills your head.

"That's 12 o'clock," Susan says, when I return to the waiting room. "Let's ask what's happening."

We walk along the corridor to the double doors and press the intercom button. There is a short delay then a woman's voice says, "Yes?"

"I'm Marie's mum," Susan says. "Can you tell me how she is please?"

There's another delay, much longer this time. We don't look at each other. We can't. The door rattles then opens. It's Chuck. 

He is smiling. The darkness dissipates and I breathe for the first time in days. He looks straight at me. "We have another female in the family," he says.

Symptoms of pre-eclampsia.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Come the Apocalypse

"So what you up to?" my son asks, once we've got Glastonbury out of the way, the fried egg rolls have been dispatched and we're on to our second cup of coffee.  

"Got a grant from the people who fund particle physics and astronomy research," I say.

"What for?" he says.

"It's this Three Minute Learning," I say. "It's going well. The teachers like it and so do the scientists."

"Getting cutting-edge science into schools is a cool idea," he says.

"But not easy," I say. "Scientists overestimate what kids understand. Often they haven't a scoobie what they're on about, but are too polite to say so."

"Kids too polite?" he says, with a raised eyebrow.

"Sure," I say. "Most of them do their best to please the adults in their lives, most of the time. But we keep moving the goalposts."

"Yeah," he says, clearly unconvinced. "So what makes you good at it?" 

"Dunno," I say. "Maybe it's because I listen with the ear of a scientist one minute and a teenager the next."

"I hate to point out the obvious," he says. "But you don't have the ear of a teenager. Or the eyes or nose. Every bit of you is 90."

"See that's where you're wrong," I tell him. "I got an inner teenager I can tap into anytime. In fact it's not even a teenager. It's an eight-year-old. And when I was eight I was crap at school. Tapping into your inner idiot is handy, when you're helping people learn."

"I never knew you had an inner idiot," he says.  

"There's plenty about me you don't know," I say, but I've lost him momentarily.

"Hi," he says to a slightly-built, effeminate-looking character with long, curly hair, walking along Woodlands Road. "Now he is hard," he says, turning back to me.

So I glance again and he still looks like a powder-puff to me. "That guy couldn't break the skin on a custard tart," I say. "I could take him with one hand."

"You couldn't take him with six hands and a bull terrier," he says. "Your inner idiot has got out. That guy does Tai Chi and cage fighting and he's good."

"Seems to be a lot of your martial arts buddies in these parts," I say. 

"It's where we hang out," he says. "Come the Apocalypse we'll all be milling around Woodlands Road, beating the crap out the zombies."

"Not if there's 40 million of them and three of you. Which reminds me of something my dad used to say."

"Your dad was a smart guy."
"He was. Prone to deep insights into the human condition. So there was this street corner in Cumnock, where people used to hang out, smoking, chatting and watching the girls go by."

"What did he say about it," he asks, as the waitress drops the bill on our table.

"'If everybody in the world stood on Ayr Road Corner, how would the rest of the folk get past?'" I say.

"That is very profound," he says. "Very Zen."

"You're the first person to say that," I tell him. "Everybody else stares at me with blank incomprehension."

"Yeah well, there's something you maybe don't know about me," he says. 

"What's that?"

"I have a bigger inner idiot than you." 

Sunday, 7 July 2013


"Glastonbury was great," my son tells me, as we're sat outside the little Biblocafé on Woodlands Road. "I like sleeping on the ground.

"Strange thing is we saw about three bands the whole time. That always happens though. I have a list and when I come back I go, 'Didn't see that, that or that'."

"You see the Stones then?" I ask.

"Yeah, they were brilliant," he says.

"Not seen them live in a while," I say. "I'd heard Keith Richard has arthritis in his fingers now and forgets the words."

"Yeah well, they were fantastic," he says, as the waitress bends down to deliver our egg rolls and coffee, black for him, cappuccino for me.

"They had this mad sculpture on top of the Pyramid stage, a big phoenixy bird thing, twenty feet across. So Sympathy for the Devil comes on and this thing rises up and starts blasting out red, hellish flames. Fantastic."

"Who else did you see?" I ask.

"Dizzee Rascal," he says. "Chic. They were really good. Coupla other bands." He yawns. "Sorry - still got jet-lag."

"Those English time-zones are tough," I say. "So what you doing with your art now?"

"Got a few ideas percolating," he says. "I'm looking at feedback, closed loops and chaos. Nice possibilities there for generating new stuff. You know anything about them?"

"A bit," I say. "Put food on your table when you were a boy, by designing and analysing closed loop systems in ships and oil-rigs."

"Well, well," he says. "It's a small world."

"No it isn't," I say.

"It is compared to Saturn," he says.

I bite deeply into my egg roll and get yolk all down my fingers. "You were supposed to remind me to tell them I like my eggs hard," I say.

"You were supposed to remind me," he says, licking his own fingers.

"Closed loop control is at the heart of everything nowadays," I say. "From cars and computers to space-travel. Whole thing began with two Scots. James Watt invented the first closed loop controller for his steam engine. And you know who laid the foundations of the theory?"

"Sean Connery," he says.

"James Clerk Maxwell. The electromagnetism guy I've been telling you about. The creativity and intelligence of those two men is responsible for the whole of modern civilisation."

I'm not impressed," he says. "I could pull a better civilisation out my arse."

"Listen," I say. "Even the economy should be analysed using modern control theory. But most economists are too hidebound and dogma-driven to do that."

"You off on a rant again?" he asks, sipping his Americano and leaning back in his metal chair.

"Nah," I say, forcing myself to relax. "It's too sunny. I'd rather watch scantily-clad women walking along Woodlands Road."

"Isn't that dangerous at your age?" he says.

"Doc says it's safe to think about women occasionally," I tell him."What were they like at Glastonbury?"
"Unbelievable," he says. "Gorgeous chicks in every direction."

"And?" I say.

"And what?" he says.

"You do anything nice with them?"

He smiles and takes another sip of coffee. "I can't tell you that," he says. "Your doc wouldn't let me."