So... I’ve been diagnosed with gallbladder ‘problems’ – a traffic sign that, in my mind, points squarely into the part of town known as Middle Age.
Actually, not necessarily so – they tell me you can have gall-worries at almost any age... At any rate, the beginning of such an ailment would appear to lead inevitably towards some kind of surgery.
The Pain – when it comes – is truly a thing of majesty, of which more later. It’s big enough to bring a sidekick with it, a second, more insidious pain: the agony of looking at menus and knowing The Consequences, which come as side orders to each choice. It occasionally turns me into one of these pains in the arse who winces through menus and tells dining companions what he really shouldn't have...
So... steak & fries, mayonnaise, blue cheeses and ice cream sundaes are starting to slip out of my life, like sexy old girlfriends who come round to your house occasionally, but always leave you doubled over in pain in the middle of the night, bathed in cold sweat and hot regret.
I visited my doctor, who was done with me in less than ten minutes, referring me for an ultra-sound examination at the Ulster Hospital. ‘When the pain hits,’ I asked, ‘is there anything I can take to ease it?’
‘No,’ he said, helpfully. ‘Just take really strong pain medication and wait for it to pass.’
He prescribes Co-Dydramol, which I’m told is the Sherman Tank of pain relief. A week later, as if to test its armour, The Pain comes to visit. Earlier that evening, I had been dragged (against my will) into a Mexican food outlet in south Belfast. I (reluctantly) purchased a burrito, then retired to a sunlit bench in the Botanic Gardens and (under duress) ate the whole thing in less than twelve minutes.
I was awoken at two in the morning by a large discomfort across the base of my ribcage, and immediately got up and swallowed two of the painkillers with a glass of water. Getting up and moving around seemed to make it start in earnest. It’s an almost impossible pain to describe. It doesn’t burn, it doesn’t gnaw or bite. It simply IS, enormously. It’s a cinemascope, widescreen pain, non-specific to any particular part of the midriff, but just deep and relentless. No amount of rubbing or writhing, standing up or sitting down, rolling over, applied pressure, hot water bottles, lying this way or that, will make it stop. It’s a four-foot-wide pain that feels like it has forced its way inside your sixteen-inch-wide torso like a fencepost you swallowed without remembering. You lie in bed reading short stories at three in the morning waiting for the tablets to start working.
At the Ulster Hospital, a trained operator slathers my belly with conductor fluid (and yes, in case you're wondering it IS just as unsexy as it sounds) and begins to roll a sensor across my embarrassed bulges. I keep expecting to hear a beep, like it has discovered a bar code on my liver. Unrecognised item in bagging area.
I’m not sure how to behave – she’s pretty businesslike and says nothing more than ‘breathe in’ and ‘relax’ every now and then. She pauses here and there for long and worrying spells where nothing moves but my tremulous little palpitating heart – what is she LOOKING AT for so long? God... for all I know my internal cavities could be a bristling cave of carcinogenic stalagmites.
And what am I supposed to do? Am I allowed to look at the screen? I steal a glance- it’s as you’d expect, a shadowy grey world of white blobs and dark crevices. Things loom out of the shadows and disappear again, like featureless marine mammals.
I try to break the ice. ‘Well,’ I say after a while. ‘I hope it’s not twins.’
She smiles. She’s heard this a million times, I reckon. And has a stock reply: ‘You could make a lot of money if it was.’
She tells me nothing that I didn’t already suspect: ‘Your gallbladder is giving you some problems.’
But I’m surprisingly wobbly-kneed with gratitude when she tells me that there’s ‘nothing else sinister’ that she can see. The sun shining on the dual carriageway at Dundonald never looked so lovely as it did after hearing that. (The world, of course, has a way of handing perspective to you, just when you need it most)
The next stage is to hear from the doctor about an appointment for surgery. They tell me – the people who Know About These Things, and have Been Through It – that it will be 'keyhole' surgery, which I suppose is something else to be grateful for. Better than the alternative means of surgery, I imagine – ‘Cat Flap Surgery’ for example, or ‘Trap Door’. ‘Velux Window Surgery’.
There are other methods of treatment – a friend of Andrea’s (Andrea has started to refer to me as ‘Asterix The Gallstones’, by the way) has suggested a ‘gallbladder flush’ recipe. Listen to this: This involves fasting for three days, drinking nothing but raw fresh apple juice. Then at 3pm on the third day, drink a quarter of a litre of cold pressed olive oil. Then drink a quarter of a litre of STRAIGHT LEMON JUICE. This apparently flushes the stones and gravel right out of the system. Along with, I imagine, your will to live.
If there are any future developments, I will of course get my people to call your people. In the meantime, I’m preparing to join the massed ranks of brothers and sisters on one of those quaint old things called an NHS waiting list.