The Only Way to Fly
Once Billy was back in his hospital ward, Daley and I stayed with him as much as the preparations for his operation would allow and, during the time we sat by his bed, I held his hand and didn't care who saw us, and I could only think of the night before when we had cuddled together, with Billy gazing at me, at my body, whispering that he wanted to memorise every part of me, how I looked, the feel of my skin, the way I breathed, but most of all my face. Finally, he turned over so that I could pull him into my chest and wrap my arms round him until he slept with his head in the crook of my arm. Now he was the calmest of the three of us, enduring the ministrations of the nursing staff without fuss. It was only when they came to wheel him into the theatre that a sense of panic overwhelmed him. Even in his sedated state he grabbed for my hand and wouldn't let go until we were at the theatre door and we could go no further. If he were capable of speech, I think he would have screamed my name, and it took all of Daley's strength to stop me crashing through those doors and dragging Billy off that gurney. He eventually got me back to the hospitality suite where we waited with several other people in the same predicament as us. None of us spoke as we waited, and waited, and…
"Mr Roberts, Dr Brent would like to see you now." The nurse held the door open for us, her young face giving nothing away. She led us into Brent's office and we found him sitting at his desk, still in green cap and gown, his face mask dangling round his neck.
Once we were seated he told us quickly what he had found. "I'm afraid there is a problem. When we went in we found not one but two tumours, the second a smaller one hidden behind the first one we saw on the screen. The first one is a grade two Astrocytoma; a star-shaped tumour, hence its name, with a medium growth rate and not known to be too invasive in its early stage of development. But the second one is more serious and is a grade four glioma. Its growth rate is usually fast and it is very invasive, which means it can spread to other parts of the brain and also the body. That's the one I need to deal with and immediately and I'm afraid surgery is the only option, and as soon as possible."
"Oh, My God!" I buried my face in my hands and felt my stomach churn.
Daley placed a comforting hand on my shoulder and said in a choked voice, "Do what you have to do, doctor. Better blind than dead." Did he have to be so blunt? I felt like hitting him but his hand squeezed my shoulder hard. "How long will it take?"
"I can't say, Mr Roberts. As we already have your consent to operate, my team are already setting things up so we can proceed straight away. It is four o'clock now, and I expect to be in theatre for the next five hours at least. You are welcome to stay but it would be pointless. Billy will remain in Recovery then ICU for some time, and will be fully sedated. I suggest you go home and get some rest, and come back in the morning." On the way to the main entrance I spotted a gents. I dived in there and threw up.
I didn't remember the journey home or what was said when we got there. I only knew there was a lot of love coming my way in the ensuing hours. They weren't just mates in a band, they were my brothers, and they let me know it. They talked with me, sat with me, brought me food and drink even though I was in no mood to eat. They held me close, and refused to leave me on my own. Like Rob said, "Billy's not just your wee lover, laddie, he's our little brother too. We feel just as cut up aboot him as you and Daley do. We love the wee laddie as much as you do. So, just relax and accept our comfort tonight, because, that way y'll be giving us a wee bit o' comfort too." We were sitting on one of the settees in the lounge and he had his arm draped round my shoulders. As he spoke he slowly tightened his embrace until I was wrapped in a bear hug with a pair of warm, strong arms round me. "Let it go, laddie, let it all out." I vowed I wouldn't cry, but what can even a grown man do when someone hugs you, another pushes tissues in your hand, another brings a blanket to cover you over. They were all there, some of them crying themselves. I vaguely remembered falling asleep, and rousing as bodies propelled me upstairs, not to Billy's room but across the landing, and I woke up in the middle of the night to find Daley and Trilby holding me in a loose embrace. Trilby woke with me and shushed me, and stroked my head as if I was a child, and told me to go back to sleep. I woke up next morning, lying in their bed on my own, and sure that nothing had happened. They had acted with utmost decorum the whole time I was with them. Indian came in with a breakfast tray and said Daley was already up and ready to leave for the hospital, and I realized I was ravenous. I wolfed down the food, and was out of the door at the same time as Daley, with the guys shouting their messages for Billy, to more or less "get his lazy backside out of that bed soon, 'cos we need a drummer."
At the hospital, we found Billy still in ICU. There were no separate wards, the beds just separated by curtains so that several patients could be monitored at the same time from a central desk. Billy lay in a narrow bed cranked high, and looked like a little child with a white ski cap on. Could this be the lover who had shown such passion and commitment the during the last few days? He had the usual equipment attached to various parts of his body, and I was careful not to disturb any of the wires as I took hold of his right hand. Daley stood at the other side and held his other hand, and we stared at Billy then at each other. A nurse brought two chairs for us, and performed the half hourly checks, seemed satisfied and informed us that Billy had woken up early that morning but they had sedated him again because of the pain, and he would wake up again in his own time. Then she went away to check another patient and left us to stare silently at Billy. Half an hour later, Daley went outside to phone the band and it was while he was out of the ward that Billy woke up, slowly at first, just a flickering of the eyelids then a few deep breaths. I tightened my grip on his hand and put my mouth close to his right ear. "Hi. Babe, it's Mags."
His only response was to lick his lips. I had watched a nurse use a little spatula to smear his lips with some stuff from a small jar. I was doing the same when Daley came back. We both expected Billy to wake up properly from then on, but he passed from deep slumber to drowsy wakefulness, throughout the day. Even when Brent came and pronounced him over the worst, and had arranged for him to be moved back to the normal Oncology ward, he slumbered on. Better that, a nurse remarked, than wake up now with a raging headache. It took another twenty-four hours before Billy finally opened his eyes and noticed someone was holding his hands. I leaned over and spoke quietly into his ear, "Hi Babe, it's Mags." He turned sightless eyes towards me, searching. Then he remembered and he stiffened; a look of panic on his face. I gripped his hand tight and Daley did the same with his other hand. "It's okay, Babe, you're safe. Daley's here as well; you'll be all right now." Hell! What was I saying? After a bit he calmed down and struggled to free the hand that Daley held. Daley let it go and Billy reached up to feel my face. I knew what he was going through, and I kissed the palm of his hand.
When I was about nine years old, some of my friends and I used to have great fun playing cops and robbers, in the woods near my home. On one particularly hot summer day it was my turn to be the kidnap victim. I was trussed up like a chicken and somebody put an old cloth shoe bag over my head, tied the drawstring round my neck, and left me there in the woods. The others were supposed to act like detectives and find me. That was how the game was supposed to be played out. It was hours before my mother's desperate efforts to find me reminded my so-called friends that I was still there in the woods. During that time I suffered a lot, not being able to see or free myself. It was terrifying and ever since then, I have suffered from, and have been treated for, claustrophobia. Billy had gone to sleep in one world and had woken up in my bag world. He couldn't see, he couldn't speak, and he was frightened. Despite a nearby nurse frowning her disapproval, I carefully lifted him in my arms, just a few inches off the pillows, and let him feel a familiar body close to him. When the nurse came back a few minutes later, she looked at the monitor and commented that his vital signs were almost normal and that he seemed quite relaxed. Sensing he had fallen back to sleep, I laid him back against the pillows and allowed the nurse to fuss over him for a bit, straightening the covers and adjusting this and that. When she turned to leave, the look she gave me was one of guarded approval. Daley winked at me from across the bed.
Ten days later, we brought Billy home, his head shaved and wearing a ski cap, and everyone was aware of the change in him. Apart from having to get used to moving around the place when he wasn't holding someone's hand, he showed no interest in anything except Jake who refused to believe he was any different, and couldn't understand why Billy wouldn't go outside for walks or ball games. I put all this down to the Chemotherapy, which had begun at Crimptons and would continue at the local hospital. He never expressed a yearning to get back on the drums or even to listen to music, and he certainly didn't see the point in sitting in the lounge to watch a TV he couldn't see. Often he would disappear and we would find him sitting in a dark corner somewhere with his arms wrapped round Jake, his face buried in the dog's fur. Our approach would be heralded by Jake's stumpy tail wagging a greeting, and announcing he was quite content to be used as an oversized teddy bear. Daley and I realised this was going to be one long haul, and knew we were completely out of our depth, even though we had an excellent counselling service at our disposal. We took their advice and put their ideas into action but Billy wasn't playing; he was stuck in his own little world, except when we were in bed. There he came out of his shell and into my arms. I would dearly have loved to spend twenty-four hours a day in bed with him, but that wouldn't help Billy get over the trauma he had experienced. Daley taught me to use the computer and I researched the problem as much as I could, and I started to plan ahead of him. Life is so fickle, and while Daley and the boys helped me start a program of gentle persuasion to get Billy back behind his beloved drum kit, good and bad news arrived to send us into a financial spin.
The bad news was that Billy would not get any state help except for his own child benefit, because he was not technically living on his own, and he had no National Insurance number. We called the band together for a meeting and once they heard about it, we agreed, unanimously, that the band ought to move out to other lodgings or take on the financial burden. That meant we had to start looking for work that paid instead of offering our free services at concerts and festivals. Failing that, it would mean us all applying for job seekers allowance and whatever other benefits we could get. At least we had a fixed address to use. But this idea was only valid until we started touring. Billy argued that he didn't want charity but Trilby told him not to be so stupid. It was time we started paying for our board and lodging just like we would do wherever we went. Then the good news arrived which set us spinning in the opposite direction. Bill's life insurance pay-out arrived. Daley shook his head in disbelief as he read the letter from the insurance company. "Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds! Bill must have had this policy going for a long time for it to pay out that much. You're problems are solved, kid; at least for a good while. There is still twenty thousand to pay on the mortgage. Pay that off, stick the rest in your bank account and budget wisely, but this doesn't mean we don't have to pay our keep. You don't want charity and neither do we. Isn't that right, guys?"
It didn't take us long to scour the music based papers for suitable gigs, even if some of them were for small groups of two or three performers; Manchester, Liverpool and Chester being good places to get our toes in the door. The band refused to let me work further away than our local town, and only for a couple of hours a day so I could look after Billy. Quite by chance, I heard that Mr Stevens was looking for a peripatetic music teacher for the school, two and a half days a week. I applied and got the job, and Stevens arranged for me to teach in the mornings only, while Billy attended the hospital for his medication. He had Jake with him, who proved to be almost as good as a properly trained dog for the blind. There was a café a quarter of a mile down the street from the hospital that Billy and his dad used to frequent when in town. Jake would steer him there and sit outside while Billy was made a fuss of by the owners. It wasn't much of a jaunt for him but at least it got him used to mingling with the public again, while he waited for me to take him home. I bought him a couple of pairs of dark glasses and some fancy ski caps, and I must say he looked a pretty cool dude in them. On my two free days I managed to acquire three private pupils who came up to the house. One of them was a school buddy of Billy's and that made Billy come out of his shell a bit more; as John gave him all the gen about what was going on in school. That had a good effect on Billy as it got him thinking about his exams, and he told me he missed going to school.
We had a talk with Mr Stevens and he agreed that Billy should try a morning session in school, after his surgery visit. Jake was allowed to go with him but had to sit outside the classroom, being too much of a distraction for the other pupils. It seemed to work okay, especially when Daley installed a speech program on Billy's computer. This way, Billy took part in lessons as much as he could, then came home and dictated what he remembered from his class work, along with his homework, while Daley or I typed everything onto the computer. I printed the work out and Billy took the hard copy to school for his teachers to mark. One of the teachers went even further and presented Billy with a small tape cassette, which he used to record all the lectures and bring them home with him. And when the rest of his class went out to play sports or go to the gym, Mr Stevens took him into his office and gave him some one-to-one tutoring to fill in any gaps in his schoolwork. Slowly, we saw the emergence of the Billy we once knew, which made all of us feel pretty pleased with ourselves.
Towards the end of Billy's chemotherapy treatment, the band invited Billy to go with them to a gig they were doing in Manchester. He sat at one of the front tables with Jake at his feet, drinking coke and enjoying the show. The next morning I woke up to find him gone. Concerned, I put on a tracksuit and went to find him. My ears soon told me where he was. The rhythm was full of faults, but at least he was back where he needed to be. I crept into the barn and watched him stop drumming long enough to adjust the position of one of the drums. Being blind, he had to know exactly where they were without him having to think about where his drumsticks would strike. I was so captivated at the sight of him working, I would have stood and watched him all day, un-noticed, but Jake gave the game away with a welcoming bark. I went to stand behind Billy and put my arms round him. He leaned back against me, laying his sticks down and lifting his hands to touch my face. He smiled and scratched my chin indicating I needed a shave. Then he touched his own chin and shrugged his shoulders.
"You, shave? You're only a puppy yet. Don't wish your life away. Enjoy being a kid while you can. Scraping your chin raw is just one big hassle if you don't like beards." I leaned down to kiss him. "Don't you ever grow one; I'll disown you if you do"
Billy pulled my hands down to front of his jeans and signed, "Yo u like hairless boys?"
"Come back to bed and find out."
He spread his legs and hooked his arms round the back of my neck. My hands explored the lump I found through his jeans and we were about to go further when we heard Daley shout for us to get going, or we'd be late for Billy's appointment. We parted with a promise of fun to come later, and went in to breakfast.
While we were eating, the post arrived including a letter from someone answering an advert Daley had put in the MEN. The band was wanted for a large festival near Rochdale on the 17th of February. That left us five days to rehearse and draw up the final program. "But we don't have a drummer." I said.
"Well we'll just have to find one," Daley replied. "We've been rather lazy on that score, taking it for granted Billy would be with us." At this, Billy signed frantically that he was okay, but Daley said, "No, Billy; you're still under doctor's orders for a few more weeks. I can't risk you getting overtired." Billy slumped in his seat and pushed the rest of his breakfast away.
It was a good thing Billy couldn't see the looks Daley and I exchanged. Both of us were sorry we couldn't take him with us but Daley was right. Billy's health was more important. The rest of the week was a rather subdued one for all of us as we worked on the program and I kept Billy occupied with school and his computer, the speech program working well once the computer recognised my speech patterns; I could use a mouse but I couldn't type for toffee. I transferred all the recorded lectures easily enough. Todd queried why I used this method rather than just type everything in. I wasn't about to tell him my typing was still in a state between atrocious and painfully slow, and Billy was still finding touch-typing difficult, making too many time consuming typos to make it worth the trouble.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]