|Tippi Hedren And
The Pointy Tree
© Copyright 2002 by Peter Lamb
2002 General Nonfiction Winner
I don’t wear slippers as a rule. I’m surprised to discover that I actually have a pair, but I’m recovering from a fantastically interesting illness one that actually put me in a Greek hospital for four nights, and illness has a way of spontaneously generating possessions that you never had before. Slippers. A fluffy dressing gown. A handy bag for toothbrush and flannel. I’m sure that my forthcoming voyage of self-discovery an adventurous solo trip through the backwaters of darkest Bulgaria if it ever happens, will have a mysteriously opposite effect on my wardrobe and there won’t be a single rucksack, suitcase or carrier bag in which to pack my non-existent clothes, no matching socks, the dogs will have eaten my passport and anything remotely useful will have disappeared down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
I started my research with a vengeance, using my old friend Google to give me a wealth of articles and web sites dedicated to Bulgaria and all things Bulgarian. I became immediately depressed by what I discovered and decided to make a maiden voyage into the village for refreshments. I walked slowly down the hill. I walked slowly because that’s what people do when they’ve had a fantastically interesting illness. You don’t sprint while there’s still complan in the fridge. Also, despite the lateness of the hour, it was still very hot. This, I feel compelled to explain, is the Greek island of Corfu. It gets hot here. Trust me on this. Even people without a raging fever get hot. I’m English, but I’ve been here three years. I wonder why?
It started with a bite on my leg. I think it was a bite. Possibly it was a jab from the tree down the garden, one of those exotic-looking palm things with needle-sharp leaves that look so impressive in Torquay but are just a nuisance in Corfu. Anyway, it was a little hole that went a bit yellow with a dark spot in the middle. I ignored it. Getting bitten and jabbed in this place is like seeing snow in Siberia. It turns out that ignoring it was a bad thing. It swelled up and I made jocular remarks about having my leg amputated.
I have a policy about getting ill. I don’t do it. I don’t have the time. I can’t remember last time I was ill it. Yes I can, it was a touch of food poisoning. A condition that raised my body temperature to the point where I would have got a standing ovation at the Life-Threatening Fever Association annual lunch. I became delirious, thought that people were entering my body through the small of my back, became convinced that I was Jewish, and at one stage I actually heard cheese on the balcony. I’ve never heard cheese before or since. It lasted one night and then I was better.
Imagine my surprise then, as this little bite/stab on the leg swelled up to the size of an egg and I developed impressive lumps in my groin. Academic interest in these new additions to my physique dissipated when my temperature started to climb and I felt colder and colder. I went to the emergency doctor’s room, where a disinterested Greek wrote me a prescription for antibiotics, betadine, anti-fungal cream and hydrogen peroxide, which I was supposed to inject into the egg-sized lump, presumably whilst biting on a piece of wood.
I have a fan blowing at me despite it being almost midnight. I don’t have a fever anymore it’s just mid July in Corfu and normal healthy people have fans blowing at them. This fan has that distinctive sound of a Bell Huey helicopter, so helpful to American G.Is during the Vietnam War. I can hear Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, made popular in the film Platoon. I can hear the Ride of the Valkaries from Apocalypse Now. Didn’t the Vietnam War do a lot for classical music? It’s all fitting, because my garden grew up into a jungle as soon as the sun came out in May and I’ve described my attempts to cut it back as like trying to flush the Vietcong out of the jungles of Nam. I’m sure there’s a complex tunnel system out there somewhere a wealth of noodles buried beneath the patio. If I ever get past the tree with the pointy leaves I’ll find Martin Sheen talking to himself, or Marlon Brando lording it up over some new-found chums in lamp-shade hats. It was whilst trying to flush out Martin Sheen that I got stabbed in the leg. Or bitten by something.
The antibiotics didn’t work. By the second day of treatment I came out in spots. Spots! Not flashy, raised, look at me type spots, but subtle Jasper Conran muted spots, like an artist who wanted to try pointillism had painted them on but were a bit shy.
I wasn’t worried about the spots. Spectacularly uninformed guesses from local people, so drunk they firmly believed they were experts in tropical medicine, diagnosed the spots as “poisons in the blood showing up as blotches”. I love comments like “poisons in the blood”. It’s so descriptive. It’s like food containing “goodness”.
I was encouraged by a Greek doctor I know, Angela, to dig away at the yellow bit so that the betadine could get right in there and do it’s stuff. By now I was spotty, with a temperature that could only be cooled by having a fire-fighting plane make a low pass over the bed and dump a thousand gallons of sea water on me. And my head hurt. My head hurt when I lay down and would take two hours to stop hurting if I walked around, by which time I was so tired I had to lie down and then the head would start hurting again. I wanted to be dragged away by a tribe of mysterious Himalayan people and healed by mysterious Himalayan means, like Craig and his chums in that wonderful sixties tv show, The Champions. I would wake to discover that I have psychic powers and a curious disinterest in the charms of Alexander Bastedo. I knew the chances of this were slim, so I dug away at the yellow bit, as suggested, which was by now the size of a valuable coin.
For a non-surgeon I think I did a pretty good job, and at last the betadine hurt like hell, so it must have been a good thing.
By the time the course of antibiotics was finished I had a temperature so impressive I could have inflated a hot air balloon, I was sweating so much I looked like a hedgehog’s waterbed, I was dehydrated, mumbling, shuffling and my head hurt.
Then my doctor friend turned up. Angela doesn’t like dogs in any quantity, and I’ve got six. Actually, even people who do like dogs don’t visit me because there’s just so many of them. Individually they’re lovely faithful friendly cuddly household pets, but en-masse it’s like the Hitchcock film ‘The Birds’, but without the primary feathers of course. Somewhere in the garden, vying for space with Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and a cast of subterranean South-East Asians is Tippi Hedren, running away from six dogs who just want to lick her ankles. She’s probably getting nasty gashes from a tree with pointy leaves.
Angela saw how much dog hair had accumulated since I last did a bit of light sweeping and threatened to call an ambulance, the police, the bomb squad and a B52 Flying Fortress loaded with napalm. She got angry. She got angry in a very Greek way. She said she was worried about tetanus, and I did a childish impression of a ventriloquist’s dummy to show her I didn’t have lock-jaw.
I told her that she could not, in any circumstances, call an ambulance. What would become of the dogs? I have a fully functioning Anglo-Saxon gene that prevents me from abandoning furry animals, even though they chase obscure American actresses around the garden.
Angela left with a dramatic Aegean ‘humph’, only to return some time later with a big bag containing samples from the entire Smithkline-Beecham range and four pints of milk. I had new antibiotics to play with, something to gargle, vitamins, and the contents of a fully-grown cow. Also a kidney dialysis machine, and an entry form for a competition to win a week’s free chemotherapy. It was health in a bag.
The next day I felt worse. I had calls of encouragement from the president of the Shuffling Aimlessly Club of Chicago. For most of the day I sat in a chair in the living room. I was beginning to think that Angela’s Ambulance was a good idea, so even the last thin threads of common sense were snapping.
I’d phoned Nikii in England to tell her about my leg of course. Why was Nikii in England, when we’d spent the last 12 years together? I’ll explain that when I’ve been on my voyage of discovery and have worked out the answer, but suffice it to say that she is the most wonderful and caring human being ever to grace the planet, and I had asked her to leave six months ago, in January. After a lot of resistance, she finally went back to the U.K. I love her, but I sent her away. Maybe a voyage of self-discovery through the Balkans will give me some answers. Or maybe Lost Horizon.
I think Monty Berman must have seen Lost Horizon before he came up with the absurdly wonderful idea of The Champions. Our heroes in Lost Horizon crash in the snowy wastes and get taken away by Mysterious Himalayan types. As luck would have it, they get dragged off to Shangri La. Oriental girls and not a snowflake to be seen. Our heroes get better and fall in love with the only Oriental girl with a speaking part. They want to go, and they want to take the Oriental beauty with them. ‘Don’t do it’ warn the old wise men, but young love is blind and they set off toward the exit sign. Outside, all is snow. The young Oriental girl starts to look a bit peaky, as you would when you suddenly discover that you are over a thousand years old and you’ve forgotten to pack your Laboratoise Garnier products with active liposomes. Before their very eyes, she suddenly starts to look her age. Women who’ve lived for over a thousand years do not look good when it finally catches up with them. Ooops, say our heroes, as their girlfriend turns into a smudge on the snow and blows away on the stiffening breeze.
England was Nikii’s Shangri La. She followed me here to Corfu, as she would have followed me anywhere, as the girl in Lost Horizon would have followed the idiot airmen. She would become a shadow of her former glory and blow away on a stiffening breeze. So to tell her about my leg, I had to phone her up. She told me to get to hospital.
I found myself in Angela’s car hurtling with scant regard for the Highway Code toward that most feared of institutions, a Greek hospital. It was a measure of my state of health that I was heading toward a public place wearing carpet slippers.
We had packed hastily. All I could find were a tee shirt with a Wallace and Grommet motif, a pair of clean underpants, some swimming trunks, slippers, fluffy dressing gown and two unpaid electricity bills. Angela gathered together my vast collection of unswallowed pills, ungargled gargle, half a bottle of Fanta and three pints of milk. I made sure the dogs would have access to Tippi Hedren in the garden yet still be able to sleep inside and chew the chairs, and left them to their fate.
It was about seven or eight in the evening when we swept majestically though the hospital entrance, following the road round the back of the building, past rotting cars and piles of scrap metal, back toward the front of the building. Angela parked the car the way most Greeks park their cars, by simply stopping, and I got out, feeling so ill I barely cared that I was wearing slippers and a Wallace & Grommet Tee shirt.
I can’t speak Greek, but if Angela said to the doctors ‘Echi exi skilla’ (he has six dogs) once, then she said it forty times. At one stage she mentioned Tippi Hedren. Ok, I thought. He’s got the message. I have a dog or six. Let’s move on. She must also have said, ‘He needs a sound punching in the kidneys’, because the doctor gave me a sound punching in the kidneys, then invited all his friends to do the same. We established that I didn’t like being thumped on my right side. I don’t think many people do.
Then we came to the question of my spots. They prodded them. They raised the Wallace and Grommet Tee Shirt to reveal a subtle patina of little red blobs. They looked at my feet and were not interested in my slippers. Till now I was quite happy to go with the ‘poisons in the blood causing blotchiness’ hypothesis, as ventured by that renowned institution, the Drunk Ex-Pat Medical Experts Group. Bizarre though it seems, neither this doctor, nor any of his pugilistic chums had hit upon this obvious idea. They seemed to be heading down the more fanciful route of ‘Something rare and unpleasant that we’ve got a name for.’ I didn’t want to have something that had a name. I just wanted to be vaguely ill and to get better after taking more Smithkline-Beecham products.
They suspected Ricketsia. I’ve heard of Ricketsia. I’ve never known anyone who’s had it, nor even known anyone who’s known someone who’s had it, but I didn’t want it. Angela looked at me with a smirk of triumph and said, “You see? The dogs are trying to kill you.”
So that was it. The dogs were trying to kill me. I felt so betrayed. Honestly, at that moment, had a vision of the dogs sitting round the table in the dead of night while I lay sleeping in my bed. I could see a plate with doggie chocs on it, a coffee percolator on the go, a subdued light coming from a desk-lamp. Before each dog was a yellow note-pad and a big blotter mounted in leather-look plastic. The meeting was fraught. Occasionally a paper cup would be screwed up in frustration. They had pencils behind their ears. Gracie would be chairing the meeting and Pansy would be taking minutes.
Gracie: So lets recap. How’s the plan to kill him actually going? Tyson? You were working on the “Eat every utensil he owns” operation. Progress report?
Tyson: Well, as you know, I ate his tin opener around February, but it hasn’t stopped him from opening tins and getting food containing “goodness”.
Gracie: Why not?
Tyson: He just started buying the new kind of tin with ring-pull lids.
Gracie: What else did you eat?
Tyson: I’ve chewed up every wooden spoon I can find but I can’t compete with the cut down prices of the 1 Euro shop and he just replaces them. I’ve eaten 3 colanders and bent most of his forks. He just uses them bent. Pansy’s done a good job on chewing through his chairs but no luck yet on a fatal sitting accident.
Gracie: Twiggy, what about the slow demoralization through destroying his music collection?
Twiggy: He locked everything away after I ate his Walkman and “Chieftains” tape. I don’t see what else I can do. He seemed to cheer up after the Chieftains went.
Gracie: Pansy. Update on the chicken situation.
Pansy: As you know, during the winter I escaped and headed straight for Yanni’s chicken coup. When I saw Yanni waving two dead chickens at him I thought he’d get out his shotgun and blast away, but all he said was ‘Don’t let it happen again.’ It kind of backfired because he fenced off the garden and now walks us on leads. It wasn’t a good plan.
Gracie: Helen, any good news for us?
Helen: Well, Bournevita and I have been working on a plan. It’s a long-shot, and it’s technically a million miles from chewing spoons, but I think it’ll work if our contact at the Institute for Rare Spotty Diseases doesn’t let us down.
Gracie (leaning forward with renewed interest): What is this thing?
Bournvita: It’s a nasty little bug called Ricketsia…
Nah. They wouldn’t try to kill me. This couldn’t be dog related. They’re loveable scruffs who just want love and affection and a chance to chew household objects. Angela was leaping to typical San Stefanos conclusions and assuming that everything that goes wrong in my life is due to the dogs.
Angela left and I found myself clutching all my inappropriate belongings and being wheeled in a wheel-chair by a Greek porter, through a Greek hospital, surrounded by Greeks, in Greece, and I have never felt so lost or alone since I took a reckless detour on my way back from the shops when I was a little kid and stood in the middle of the road crying, no more than a hundred yards from home. I wasn’t going to cry this time, but it sure felt like more than a hundred yards away from home. Where are all those Mysterious Himalayan types when you need them? I don’t think I was very well.
After fighting a fever for a week and getting steadily worse, there is nothing to give that feeling of wind in your hair and the open road before you than finally getting attached to a drip. A drip means that TRAINED PROFESSIONALS have finally got in on the act. “Goodness” being pumped right to the center of the action, bypassing that amateur pill swallowing nonsense. Psychologically I felt better with every drop that fell through the clear plastic chamber.
I was in a ward with eight beds. All of the beds were occupied, but I later worked out that only four people were actually ill. The others were family members or drip groupies. It was by now about 11 at night and I was tired, but I couldn’t sleep because my head hurt. More importantly, I couldn’t sleep because Nurse Evil wouldn’t let me. Nurse Evil was young and blonde – a deeply suspicious hair colouring for a Greek – and I suspected that she took up nursing as a good way to see people in pain. She gave me a thermometer, then left. I had a thermometer in my hand. What was I to do with it? I took the initiative and put it under my tongue in the time-honored tradition of Carry on Nursing. Every scene in Carry on Nursing shows at least one of the principal characters with a thermometer under their tongue. I’m not an expert in hospital etiquette. Hatty Jacques and Kenneth Williams were to be my role models.
When Nurse Evil returned she looked at me as though she had caught me doing something unnatural with a farm animal. ‘Don’t do that.’ she said, and took the thermometer out of my mouth and put it under my armpit. I had, of my own free will, put something in my mouth that had been under countless Greek armpits. I felt like I had just done something unnatural with a farm animal.
Around midnight I was instructed by Nurse Evil to pee-pee. I think she learned English from a three-year old. There are no trains on Corfu, but she probably occasionally goes to the mainland to ride on a chuff-chuff. The soap was to wash myself (presumably she was still worried about my potential interest in farmyard animals), and after a good scrub I had to finally give the whole area a wipe with fiberglass matting that she produced from a plastic bag, then pee-pee into a pot. The amusing test-tube was for the morning pee-pee. ‘Where do I do this?’ I asked, and she gave me another withering look. I just know that she wanted to say ‘On the roof, stupid’, but she begrudgingly indicated the men’s toilet.
I now discovered an interesting thing. The stand that held my bag of life-saving goodness was of the cunning “no-wheels” variety. It was also very heavy and I was very weak. The thing weighed more than me. It would have been more at home in the World’s Strongest Man competition. Day three and it’s the Drip-Stand lift. That idiot from Iceland who always wins would score maximum points by lifting two for thirty seconds, then shout his mouth off about being a Viking. I was trapped. Drip-bound. I would have asked Nurse Evil what to do, but I thought better of it. She would sneer and tell me I was a weakling. She’s probably married to the idiot from Iceland, hence the unnaturally blonde hair.
There was only one thing for it. I had to drag four hundred pounds of cast-iron along a long corridor. And me with a rare tropical disease and seriously lacking in goodness. All this and I had to carry a plastic pot, a bar of soap and something that resembled a kit for mending holes in the underside of a Ford Fiesta.
The floor of the corridor looked like a derailed chuff-chuff had passed through, but I made it to the toilet, which was a human rights violation. The smell gave no hint that it had ever been cleaned, the bowls were broken, there were no seats on them, and the urinals were a crumbling confusion of dangerous ceramic.
I got on with the humiliating task, then dragged my four hundred pounds of scrap metal back to Nurse Evil’s place of Devil Worship. She didn’t say ‘Well done’ or anything. She didn’t call me a brave soldier. She just took the pot and went back to her desk. I made a little coughing noise because I had a question. I had somehow drunk all the milk by now, and I was still desperately thirsty. Dehydration has that effect you know. It’s one of its defining characteristics. So I wanted to know if I could get any water. I had half a bottle of Fanta left, but in the great tradition of lying to Greek people I didn’t want her to know this. Besides, Fanta makes you more thirsty. It’s a recreational drink rather than a life-sustaining requirement for someone with a rare tropical disease. I needed water. ‘You cannot get water at this time of night, the shop is closed.’
Excuse me? Is this some kind of sadistic joke? Have I come to place of healing and am being denied the very stuff of life? The shop is closed? Shop? I don’t want to buy frozen peas or matching curtains and cushion covers. I want water.
It wasn’t a joke. In this hospital, if you want to drink water you have to go to the shop on the other side of the car-park, two flights of stairs away and a long hike in Africa-hot temperatures, dragging a lump of iron weighing more than a B52 Flying Fortress loaded with napalm, buy the stuff in bottles, then make the long hike back. Or, alternatively, have an unencumbered and agile relative on hand to go shopping for all your essentials. That’s why the spare beds were full of relatives. That’s why the other patients weren’t looking like prunes. It was all starting to make some kind of terrifying sense.
I dragged my metal tormentor back to the bed, lay down and got on with developing a set of seriously painful blasts through my skull. I watched the drip drip drip of the drip and got thirstier and thirstier. When the sun came up, the fully functioning non-sick players in this pantomime of pain stirred and went off to buy their loved-ones copious amounts of cool mineral water, frozen peas and matching curtains and cushion covers, while I lay in my bed and continued to shrink. I took an occasional sip of Fanta.
Some time later, breakfast arrived. A woman in pink who was not paid to speak foreign languages went through a list of names, guessed that I wasn’t the one called Spiros and gave me a cup of warm milk and some burnt toast. I didn’t dwell on the possibility that the milk was warm because she had a cow in the corridor; I just drank it. The only way to eat the three pieces of incinerated bread was to do what the others were doing. Dip it in their tea, or in my case, the warm milk. But the warm milk was gone. I had to eat what looked like three religious relics and now there was no way it could be done. The woman had gone and taken her cow with her. I lay back on my bed and started to worry about the dogs.
As luck would have it, Nurse Evil seemed to have disappeared with the coming of daylight (Bram Stoker came to mind), and was replaced by two nurses who actually seemed quite nice. They smiled. They looked happy. They started moving my bed. I was going to another ward, apparently. I was wheeled at a determined pace along the corridor and parked in a ward with only space for 3 beds. Paranoia set in. Why am I in this room? Why are there only 3 beds? What do I have wrong with me that requires this degree of segregation? Is this a ward for people with diseases so rare and dangerous that other people need to be protected? I saw clips from a film involving Dustin Hoffman as an unlikely hero in the battle against dangerous pathogens. There was a monkey in it too. It bit people and there was much frothing at the mouth. Soon Dustin Hoffman would walk past the door in a space suit, holding three pieces of inedible toast, in tongs, at arm’s length, and would put them in a bag with a scary Biohazard sticker on it.
Mid-paranoia, a doctor came in. He looked a bit sheepish. He started to apologize and told me that the man who had been in this room this very space, in fact had gone off for a liver transplant and…
A liver transplant? A liver transplant? Is this a room for people who were going to get new organs? The liver is on the right side. I didn’t like getting punched in my right side. People in white coats were very interested in the fact that I didn’t like being punched on my right side. Is that how they determine liver failure in this country? A smack in the ribs? One smack in the ribs and some gossip about Tippi Hedren and I’m on the list for organ transplant? I want a second opinion!
Hang on. The doctor is still looking sheepish and talking in English, so it’s worth listening to. The man who had gone off for a liver transplant missed the plane and…
He missed the plane. Corfu airport is a hundred yards away. The planes have been clipping the top of the hospital all night and rendering unconscious all those poor devils who took Nurse Evil’s advice and went for a pee-pee on the roof. How the hell did he miss the plane? Was he in the bar? Was he doing a bit of last minute shopping?
And so, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to move you.
So the two nice nurses removed my fluffy dressing gown, Smithkline-Beecham Summer Collection and swimming trunks from the newish wardrobe where they had rested for all of ten minutes and wheeled me off to…the corridor.
Left in a corridor like the woman in pink’s cow or Dustin Hoffman’s discarded space suit.
I tried to sleep. Actually I just hid. I felt foolish, ill and forgotten.
Lunch arrived, served by a man who smiled, or possibly laughed, when he saw me. He consulted a list, gave me warm milk and a meal that consisted of soggy potato wedges in something runny, and some part of a dead chicken. I didn’t want to eat it. I couldn’t eat it. Nothing in the world would persuade me to open my mouth and put any of this stuff inside it. For all I knew it had been under the armpit of a dozen Greeks. I just prodded it with a fork and wondered how life had got this bad.
The nurses changed my drip to one containing saline. Tears in a bag.
By the time the evening meal of warm milk, soggy potato wedges and dead chicken arrived I was even lower than before. I was more ill than I’d ever been in my life, more lost than I’d thought possible. Then as I prodded the food on my tray and looked about me, I had a vision no less wondrous than seeing an angel. Walking along the corridor toward me was Nikii. My Nikii. The other half of me who I hadn’t seen in six months and should, by all that is normal and expected, be somewhere in England. She got to my bed and like that little boy who got lost on his way home from the shops, I had found home again.
I'm 43, male, English and have lived in a small village on the Greek island of Corfu for 3 years. I live with 6 dogs.
I illustrate medical textbooks for a living, working for companies all over the world. I seem to earn very little money, mainly because I'm terrible at business.
I write as a form of relaxation. I've been writing for twenty years and, apart from a short and demoralizing episode twenty years ago where I sent a few things off and got them back again, I keep the stuff mostly to myself. It is, however, the only thing that I really want to do in life, so I recently embarked upon a correspondence writing course. The donkey has only recently delivered it, but the first thing I've realized is that I'll never get published if I keep all my writing a secret. Therefore I'm starting to examine the markets, competitions etc while I'm learning.
I've probably written about 60,000 words about the challenges of living here. I used to write fiction, but since living here I've developed a liking for non-fiction. Every event can be written up and it helps to do so in an amusing way. The realities of dealing with a different culture are too demoralizing otherwise.
I wrote this piece after getting out of hospital. I had a lot of work to do but couldn't face it, so I turned to my old friend writing instead. It started out as a little thing about Corfu hospital and ended up as 22,000 words about how I could become a travel writer, despite my complete lack of credentials. When I saw your competition I simply took the first two chapters (11,000 words) and trimmed them down to 5,000. That was a good exercise in itself.
Editor's note: It's been 18 years since we posted this wonderful story. I wish I could say we knew how his trip to Bulgaria and everything after that came out. But we long ago lost touch with him. So, Peter, if you see this write. And if any of you know how to contact Peter, please let us know.
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