Some weeks later, he’s back in hospital, to get the arrangements in order.
The consultant’s quite subdued this time. She lists things that could go wrong, and likely side effects.
‘Tiredness will be the main thing, what with the travel and hotel stays. Nausea, probably. A hangovery feeling. Your emotions will be all over the place, no matter how tough you think you are. You won’t feel anything during treatment, but over time the rays will burn your skin and make it pink. It will probably weep.’
‘Skin will break. Fluid will flow. You’ll lose your armpit hair, and some chest hair, not that you have much. We can’t avoid lung damage; you may be breathless. The rays may crack some ribs – hope not, because that’s quite painful.’
He nods, thinking she’s finished. But the consultant has more to say.
‘I must tell you that there’s a one in 250 that treatment itself could cause another tumour in fifteen, twenty years. And as you know, we won’t be able to give you radiotherapy again. On the positive side, you won’t lose your hair and you can drink within reason.’ The consultant coughs.’Right. If you’re still willing, will you sign this?’
He has a fit of laughter. He’s unsure why – and so, judging from the look on her face, is the consultant.
He pulls himself together. Nods. She writes a sentence on the form, and asks him to sign his consent. He signs: what else can he do?
As he signs, he notices the number that follows his name every time it appears on the form: 24609-3740. His hospital number. That’s who he’ll be for the six weeks of treatment.
They take him to the preparation room. A student nurse tells him to remove his shirt, and that someone will be with him shortly.
They soon come: three to start – two radiographers in maroon scrubs and one girl in a dress, probably a doctor.
‘Will you ignore us?’ asks the blonde radiographer with a flash of a smile and a broad accent.’We’ll be tossing and turning you to find the best position; we’ll probably talk about you as if you’re not here, so sorry about that.’
He complies. They grab his arm, move it up and down his side to judge how much he can move. The doctor presses her hand on the tumour, and moves her hand around, to understand the nature of the target. He is laid down on a narrow, cold bed in front of a donut scanner, and is asked whether he can hold his hands above his head like they had to do in primary school to show they’d finished their dinner.
‘Um, no,’ he says. ‘I can’t lift my arm. . .’
‘Don’t worry,’ says the quieter radiographer, and they push and shift him into a different position.
He peers up at them. They don’t need to say much: they’ve positioned thousands of patients on this bed, and know exactly how he needs to lie so the rays can be beamed into his body from the machine.
‘How about like this?’ the doctor asks as they hold his hands above him again, but with his elbows towards the roof. ‘Could you hold that position for twenty minutes?’
He’s about to say yes, even though the tumour is pinching like hell – he doesn’t want to be any trouble – but the blonde with the accent and nose-ring interrupts.
‘No, I can tell from his face he’s suffering. We’ll try something else.’
He smiles a small thanks. She winks. They proceed to move and mould him as if he were an Action Man belonging to their brother.
He happens to look at the doctor’s hands. He looks back at the roof. He then turns again to look at her hands. Some of the fingers are missing. Others are just knotty stubs. She has a thumb and one or two whole fingers on both hands, but the other fingers vary. Did she have an accident, or were they like that from birth? She plays completely confidently with her biro, spinning it between thumb and half a finger; she can move 24609-3740 just as deftly as the other two.
Despite himself – in spite of trying to kill the feeling – he can’t avoid a small surge of pity for her. He has no right to pity her. She needs no pity. But he swallows his spit as he thinks, as sentimentally as an insufferable man doing the thank-yous at a coffee morning, about her using imperfect hands perfectly ably to cure the deficient bodies of others: about her, who’s been through her own predicament, preparing people for their own depression and embarrassment. He chides himself for thinking such patronising rubbish. He notices her folding her arms in such a way as to hide both hands, and realises he’s doing exactly what she’d probably wish people didn’t: noticing, pitying, trying to use her deformed hands to imagine her whole character.
By now, they’ve decided to place him on the left edge of the cold bed, with his right arm – the tumour arm – lying by his side. He is comfortable, provided he has something under his wrist. All three smile at each other, content at last with his position.
Nurses come in. A perspex sheet is placed under his body. Someone brings a small gel cushion, warms it, and positions it under his elbow. He feels the gel hardening, holding his arm where it should be; the gel cushion is glued to the perspex. Another nurse brings a permanent marker to the bed, and traces the shape of his body on the perspex just as he and his brother and sister used to do, drawing the outline of their hands with colouring pencils in Nain’s house. His wrist pads are also stuck to the perspex. A sticker with his name, number and address goes in the bottom corner. Someone brings a camera and – flash! – records his exact position.
The bed is raised to the level of the donut scanner. It glides into the hole in the middle. Everyone leaves the room. He is left there with the silent groans of the machine – this is a CT scanner, and so lacks the violent industrial banging of the usual MRI – and green beams search the room.
24609-3740 knows the drill with Welsh poetry nights. He’s a poet, and is well used to reading his stuff in these loud, drunken cricket club contests: twelve or more strapping young poets assaulting the mic with stinging satire, a tear-jerking elegy (looking for a sympathy shag) or a laugh a minute comic piece about copulation or excretion to have the audience rolling around laughing. Everyone there – poet and punter – will enjoy the pints more than the poetry, but a sesh feels more excusable when culture is involved. He’s a dab hand at those nights – and at solemn church hall readings too. They are the bread and butter of a Welsh poet. But what are English poetry nights like?
He’s been searching the web for open-mic poetry nights, where he could turn up with a translation of his poems and have a go. Some were on Friday nights, when he’d be home. Some were fully booked. But at last, he found one in a cafe not far from the hospital. He e-mailed ahead and was promised a one-poem slot.
He arrives fifteen minutes early, intending to have a chat or two. Because, as things stand, in a city supposedly full of artists and cultured people and scholars, he only ever speaks to hospital staff. With a pint or two inside him, 24609 can hold a good conversation. He is a shy guy, shrinking into a pitiful embarrassment in a lot of social situations, but in the right circumstances he’s good company. He should be able to find amiable companions at a poetry event, surely? Won’t there be geeks and people as shy as him, all ready to discuss poetry and culture?
After arriving at the cafe, he immediately sweats because he’s walked there in the cold, he loses hope. The old stammer attacks his tongue and makes him too afraid to speak to anyone. Everyone is sitting in groups or couples already, and they’re deep in conversation. 24609 realises he can’t talk authoritatively about contemporary poetry in England, even, and these are all probably discussing the postmodernist movement in eastern Japan.
He goes to the counter at the back of the cafe. In the glass cupboard, beer bottles are cooling under pearls of condensation. Ahead of him in the queue are people in baggy coats, ironic tracksuit tops, and glasses even heavier-rimmed than 24609’s. Many are putting their hands in a row of teacups on the counter. Looking more closely, 24609 realises the teacups contain tealeaves, and that the people are fingering and smelling them before choosing a brew. 24609 orders a beer without asking to fondle hops and barley.
The evening starts. 24609 finds a place to sit on a bench corner. His eye catches the cake cupboard; he hasn’t had supper, but doesn’t get up to order one. The MC compere explains, in a Radio 4 voice, that tonight is a special evening in the history of these gatherings. They’d get to hear poetry from eastern Europe in the original language and in translation.
’Ooh,’ says the crowd.
Poets take to the stage. They are very tall people. One sulky looking woman from Latvia; a long-haired man from Poland in a purple smoking jacket eyeing the room for skin as he takes a seat on the stage; a man from Ukraine with a special forces aura.
It’s the woman’s turn first. She holds her lengthy body askew, her book near her face. With her head bent, she reads out her words like a school pupil reading out ecumenical platitudes at morning service. Her monotone, moaning tone suggests a deep boredom with her own poetry. A very beautiful woman comes to the mic and reads the English translation – with some expression, fair play. 24609 gathers that the poetry is about poetry, with some references to punctuation. This is repeated three times with the same bored poet and the same beautiful translator – the second time with a poem about calendars, and thirdly with a ditty concerning concrete.
He expects a more energetic performance from the dog in the smoking jacket and pony-tail, but his reading is similarly monotonous. His poems, 24609 understands thanks to the gorgeous translator – who turns her nose a little, he thinks, when reading – discuss sex, his manhood, and breasts.
The bald, ominous poet’s poems are just as boring, as he stares unyieldingly at the back of the room, not bothering to place his cold eyes on his paper.
During the break, 24609 goes for a piss. He’s just opened his buttons and got it out when the tall long-haired poet joins him at the urinal. Jakov takes out his own penis, and 24609 gets an accidental glimpse. The man’s height and size mean, for some reason, that 24609 fails to piss. He stands there pretending. After a decent while, he shakes and puts it back, and washes his hands, and exits the gents knowing full well that Jakov knows full well that he didn’t piss.
As he gets his second beer (despite a burning desire to wee), the second half is about to start, so 24609 doesn’t have to torture himself to find the courage to speak to anyone.
It’s now open mic time.
An avant-garde poet with troubling eyes and braces removes various items of unique clothing at strategic points in a poem which involves, among many other more intellectual things, wanking but failing to come. A septuagenarian reads rhyming couplets about her lawnmower. A gay man reads a poem about being gay. A young student makes people exchange worried glances with her suicidal vers libre. A middle aged man reads, without socks, a poem about Peruvian hillwalking.
24609’s name is called – and desperately mispronounced, of course (which probably wasn’t the case for the eastern Europeans, but hey ho). He goes on stage, which is surprisingly dark. He hasn’t prepared any preamble; he realises at the same time that these people have no idea about him or his background. He has to explain the very basics.
‘Thanks,’ he says. ‘Um. I’m a Welsh language poet, usually. I’m from a Welsh-speaking area. But Welsh culture is dying. Well, not dying, it’s still… But. Many factors mean Welsh communities are under pressure. We’re next door to the world’s most powerful culture, and England’s full of people who have plenty of money to buy up our homes for summer fun. Other things as well. Um. This poem is about that.’
He knows how he sounds: like a closed-minded nashie, with only one string to his harp. His message doesn’t fit with the evening’s open liberalism. It doesn’t belong in this world of English diversity. His translation is awkward on his tongue. He isn’t comfortable speaking English, let alone trying to read poetry in English. The internal rhymes and alliterations have vanished; the intertextual references remain, but no-one here will get them.
He goes, shaking and blushing, down to his seat. The applause seems cool.
At the end of the night, after he’s taken a slash and is trying to escape, the pretty translator comes to tell him that his poem touched her. She says it was nice to see someone believe in his words. 24609 thanks her. She asks about his poetry and background: an invitation to chat, and question her, and offer to buy her a drink, perhaps. Whispering, she takes the piss out of the European poets, and says the pony-tailed one creeps her out. She says she has to go for dinner with them, hinting she’d rather not. 24609 wants to speak to this beauty in front of him, but his tongue is dry and his brain drained of any idea of how to talk to another person.
He makes his excuses and leaves.
Winner of the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize
When a young man from a small town in rural north-west Wales has to spend six weeks in Manchester undergoing radiotherapy to treat a tumour, his hospital treatment is only one of the challenges he faces. For all his fluent English, smart-phone and savvy use of social media, he finds the gap between the two worlds overwhelming. Brutally exiled from a familiar, Welsh-speaking community to a vast English city, from home with his wife and baby to lonely, cheap hotel rooms, he must learn to navigate his strange new environment geographically, socially and linguistically. His very identity is destabilised, and as he begins to define himself by his anonymising hospital number, concealing his Welsh name which nobody can pronounce, he finds himself behaving in surprising, transgressive ways and becomes involved with an increasingly menacing group of rough-sleeping anarchists. When he finally returns home at the end of his treatment this episode in his life is not concluded: the continuing effects of radiotherapy are not the only legacy and the city retains a threatening hold on him.
Winner of the fiction prize at the 2016 National Eisteddfod, Ymbelydredd is Guto Dafydd’s second, ground-breaking novel. Inspired by the author’s own experiences, it explores with great sensitivity concepts of identity and self-perception, of normality and disfigurement. Winner of Golwg360 People Choice Award at the Welsh Book of the Year Awards 2017.
‘This is an excellent novel, and the author is to be praised for avoiding all trace of sentimentality where less able authors might well have succumbed. And the last sentence is surprisingly shocking.’
Gareth F Williams
‘An extremely sophisticated novel which is full of ideas and gives great pleasure on nearly every page. Here is an author of unmistakable talent in terms of language and imagination; this powerful intellectual work reminds one of authors such as Ivan Klíma, Elias Canetti and Italo Calvino.’