Hazel McHaffie

Different kinds of busy

I’m feeling very fortunate. I’ve recently been talking – well, no, actually I’ve been listening – to people who’ve either given or received organs. It’s all part of research for my current novel, which has a working title at the moment of Over my Not-quite-dead Body.

The emotions are still powerful years after the actual transplant, and some of the donors as well as the recipients weep as they talk. I feel immensely privileged to be trusted with their stories. But I’m also awed by their generosity. Every single one of them so far has been a busy person, involved in all sorts of activities and campaigns, and yet they find space for someone like me.

But they (as in inventors of aphorisms) do say, if you want a job done, give it to a busy person, don’t they? And that’s certainly my experience. Every time I write a book I send it out to various experts to check its accuracy and authenticity; and ‘household-names’ provide endorsements. It’s rare for anyone I approach to refuse no matter how famous and busy they are. Best-selling authors, celebrities and peers of the realm, as well as full time policemen, journalists and medical consultants – they’ve all been incredibly generous with their time. I salute them all.

Speaking of busy … Edinburgh is absolutely heaving with folk at the moment. It’s Festival time. Buses take ages to creep along Princes Street, tourists crowd the pavements blocking routes, thespians and artists of every hue vie for one’s attention. Ordinary life is hampered at every turn.

But metamorphose into a festival-goer, and everything changes! It’s an exciting place to be. I’m slotting in events here and there in between doubling as a waiter/cook in a charity café run by our church this week. (Will my feet ever be the same again?) We’re collecting for Village Water Zambia this time. The very idea of relying on scoop holes in the ground for all your water, the disease, the infection … makes you shudder just thinking about it.

The monologue: An Evening with Dementia, I told you about was superb. Poignant as well as humorous. So much truth conveyed so artistically. It certainly rang true for me.
– Yes, people do use unspecific phrases and words to cover holes in their memory. (My mother can still dredge up an occasional bright smile and ‘Hello, dear’. Chance visitors tell us encouragingly, ‘Oh, she knew me instantly.’ But we, the family, know better than to confuse a reflex cover-all reaction with genuine understanding.)
– Yes, there is a fine dividing line between reality and imagination. (The actor peered at us and debated with himself whether we were actually a real audience, or he was inside the virtual theatre of his mind. And I see this doubt sometimes in the eyes of a friend I spend time with.)
– Yes, we all need to be more aware of how we react and speak; people with dementia can be aware at all sorts of levels. (He summed up humbug and obfuscation from relatives and staff perfectly.)
Well worth a visit if you’re in the capital.

And I’m just back from the Book Festival listening to Candia McWilliam. She’s a novelist (she describes herself as ‘intensely Scots’) with a colourful past who’s won several awards herself and judged the Man Booker Prize. The process of judging involves reading about 120 contenders for the title at a rate of about a book a day. No wonder, you might think, that after a while she had to force her eyelids to stay open with her fingers. But this was no normal fatigue. She had developed a condition called blepharospasm, where the brain instructs the eyes to close, though the eyes themselves are working perfectly normally. By the time of the Booker Prize evening she was ‘functionally blind’. After conservative treatments failed she had surgery to insert tendons from her leg to peg her eyelids to her eyebrows. Her book, What to Look for in Winter'What to Look for in Winter' cover is both a literal and metaphorical journey through not only physical blindness but also the experiences of alcoholism and betrayal of her second husband.

I didn’t dare ask a question, though I was wanting to. It was stressful enough watching others silenced by a quelling one-liner! Unusual in the Book Festival where authors tend to bend over backwards to make what they can out of any question that comes their way – even the ones about inspiration and technical process and why-did-you-write-this-book that they’ve answered a thousand times before. Not this lady!

But that aside, tonight it was a particular treat to just sit still with nothing more demanding to do than listen. My joints and legs have unilaterally decided that the sedentary life of a writer is a doddle compared to the life of a waiter. Well, it’s a different kind of busy. And I’m certainly not complaining. What’s a measly week on my feet all day compared with a lifetime of feeding your children contaminated water from a scoophole?

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