MarySmith’sPlace ~ Cancer Diary #13

Monday, November 30: It’s now ten days since my last chemo and the side effects this time have lingered. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. If I knew I was facing another two cycles I’d be in despair. At one point this time I said, “If this is as bad as it gets – and it lifts, then I can cope. If this is as good as it gets – and it doesn’t lift, then it’s enough.”

Yes, I know some people go through many more cycles of chemo. I’m in awe of them. I don’t know how they do it. I really don’t think I could. I know some people have far worse side effects than I’ve had – but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the days I spend feeling like death warmed up. I can’t find a better way of describing what it feels like. It is certainly not living.

It’s not like after the chemo and the anti-nausea pills and steroids, I can just let the drugs do their thing and gradually leave my system. Oh, no, there’s the joy of five days of Filgrastim injections. These are to decrease the chance of infection in people having chemotherapy that decreases the number of neutrophils required to fight infection. They also help increase the number of white blood cells. They cause terrible back pain, right across my lower back. The first time I had the pain, I put it down to bad posture and lack of exercise – but when it disappeared only to return when taking the next course of the injections I’m pretty sure it’s the Filgrastim causing it.

Then, just before the course of injections is finished, it’s on to a fortnight of prophylactic antibiotics called Ciprofloxacin. Having looked up the side effects I’m a bit alarmed to see they shouldn’t be taken with blood thinners, which I’ve been on since those blood clots were found dancing about in my lungs. I take them based on the fact the doctor who prescribes them also prescribes the blood thinners. The antibiotics cause diarrhoea, which makes a change from constipation, but I do wonder if the oral medication is actually in my system long enough to be absorbed.

I’m sort of feeling OK today. I’m not as tired. The sore mouth has gone and there’s seems to be saliva enough. Out walking yesterday, the DH commented on how well I was doing. I didn’t slap him. But, I was not ‘doing well’. I had to pause to catch my breath on a walk which normally would be thought of as a wee stroll. Is this really as good as it gets?

Brambles in November – not that you could eat them as the Devil spits on them after September.
Castle Point, near Rockcliffe
The beach below Castle Point

I have my scan booked on Wednesday, December 02. The cancer specialist nurse rang on Thursday to say I’ll see the oncologist on Monday, December 07 though she didn’t know what time I’ve to meet the doctor. And, an appointment has been made in in Edinburgh the following day for the radiotherapy ‘planning meeting.’ No idea what time that appointment is either. It’s a two hour drive from here so it would be handy to know when we have to be there as if it’s an early morning appointment we’ll need to go up the night before. We are very fortunate that we can do this – what happens if it’s someone without a partner to drive them? Cancer patients have broken down immune systems so public transport isn’t an option. What about those who can’t afford overnight accommodation?

Of course, I suppose if the scan results aren’t what the oncologist is hoping for (a shrinking tumour), the appointment in Edinburgh won’t be necessary. Instead, there will be a whole different discussion on Monday. I’m getting my list of questions ready.

To end on something exciting – I’ve changed my car. My poor Toyota Corolla has done sterling service for 18 years but would never get through its next MOT. I’ve been dithering for ages about getting another car – how could I justify the expense when I don’t know for how long I will be around to drive it? Then, I decided, that was irrelevant. I’m still here and I need a trustworthy car so I’m now the proud owner of a new-to-me Clio.

Isn’t she lovely?

The day I’d to pick up the Clio and take the Corolla to the garage, it refused to start. That car never refused to start! I’m convinced its heart was broken.

MarySmith’sPlace – Pregnant in Pakistan#02

I’m sorry I left you for so long wondering if Jon got out of his Afghan jail before our baby arrived in the world.

It was the shock when reading my diary at how very miserable I was stuck in Quetta waiting for news. Over the years I’ve succeeded in turning the story of Jon’s kidnap while I was pregnant into an amusing dinner party anecdote. If anyone had asked me how I felt being pregnant in Pakistan I’d have said it was absolutely fine – sailed through it.

In fact, I was an emotional, blubbering wreck who cried a lot and raged in my diary. I suspect it was writing my thoughts and fears every day which saved my sanity – and allowed me to put on a brave face in front of other people.

This was earlier in the year – loading supplies for the clinics in Afghanistan

I spent a lot of time in discussions with other aid agencies as the most powerful negotiating tool we had was if they let it be known they would stop supplies going in unless Jon was freed. I also had to carry on with my work although it wasn’t easy to focus on preparing budget applications when I was worrying about Jon.

One entry read: “His mother has sent his birthday card. Will he be back on time? I’m not going to tell her yet – she’d be worried sick and can do nothing. I just can’t imagine in what conditions he is living, how he is coping, how he is feeling – you’d think we’d be emotionally close enough for telepathy to work. Finding it too difficult now. I’m afraid I can’t cope for much longer and I’m becoming more and more afraid he will not come back.”

On November 22, I wrote: “Just heard on the BBC Thatcher has resigned. That stopped me thinking about Jon for all of 30 seconds.”

In competition to see who could carry the heaviest load

It was the day I received further news Jon was still in jail. I write: “Everyone is depressed.  Moosa [the office chowkidar] was so happy because he received a letter from his brother – first time he’s had news from home for ages. I wish I’d taken a photo of his happiness – such a smile. The family sent him almonds, which he brought to share with me. Lovely he wanted to share his gift and his joy but because we are all miserable because of Jon’s situation Moosa’s happiness is dimmed.”  

I was not alone – lots of people were around me providing support: Hamid Shah who was in charge of the Quetta leprosy programme would visit, sometimes sweeping me up to take me home for meals with him and his wife, Shanaz. Evelin, a German midwife who was working here was a good friend, frequent visitor and huge support and Linda, a health visitor who worked for a different NGO was always there at the end of the phone (when the damn things were working) keeping me calm. Nick and Debbie visited or invited me to their home. “It is good to know,” I wrote, “we have such good friends who really care. The only problem is – they weaken me – my stiff upper lip trembles at their kindness and I risk dissolving into tears.”

Office manager, Inayatullah hands a smiling Arif the key to his vehicle. Moosa third from the left.

And the baby? It seemed to be doing fine. I attended the ante-natal clinic regularly seeing Dr Shahnaz who assured me the baby was growing well. Although, one time she was concerned about my blood pressure being exceptionally high – at which point I burst into tears and explained the situation. She told me not to worry. “If your husband does not come back, I will be there for you. You will not be alone. I will even get into bed beside you when you are in labour.” I thought this a slightly over the top – as was the prescription she gave me for phenabarbitone. I threw it away. Usually used in the treatment of epilepsy, I knew it would cross the placental barrier. I played a lot of Eric Clapton instead.

Rahimy on the left and Jawad – on a picnic somewhere near Quetta.

One evening I received a message to go immediately to the French Bakery, a Hazara run bakery which was a bit of a Quetta institution. When I arrived the boss put a chair in the middle of the shop and handed me a sealed letter. I read it about three times before bursting into tears – of joy. Jon was free. I rushed round to Hamid Shah’s to tell him and Evelin so more hugs and tears all round.

My 2 am diary entry was full of waffle about the note, Jon’s possible arrival date and my gratitude for always having someone to keep me going through the nightmare. “Now, I feel really guilty about how little work I’ve achieved – I should get busy immediately.” Maybe not at two in the morning!

Jon arrived back on December 01 – fit and healthy and looking in much better condition than I felt. He’d been reasonably well treated, had patients brought to him and was allowed out to play football every day. The worst part had been when they’d originally arrested/kidnapped him and accused him of spying. Unfortunately, Jon didn’t recognise the word for spy so had no idea of what he was being accused. They were hauling him into position to hang upside down to be beaten when someone higher up came into the room and told them to cut him down. It soon transpired it was money they were after, not a conviction in court.

And that’s when my euphoria at having him back safely rather evaporated. “How did you manage to get free?” I asked.

“I paid the ransom. I sent a note to Hussain asking him to bring whatever he had left in his budget.”

I was furious! All the running about, the meetings with WHO and other NGOs to apply pressure by warning no further supplies would be sent to the area, had been for nothing. They would think this was a very nice little earner – no one would be safe if they thought the ransom demand would always be met.

Jon was unrepentant. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get back before our baby was born.”  

I calmed down – not good for the baby to get so worked up. And now, Dr Shahnaz wouldn’t have to get into bed with me when I went into labour and I could look relax and enjoy the last few months of my pregnancy.

I should have known better.

Jawad and Rahimy on a picnic at Hanna Lake, Quetta.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Cancer Diary 12

Monday, November 23: Last week was what I think of as my ‘medical’ week, starting with the pre-chemo blood check, followed by the pre-chemo assessment and, finally, the chemotherapy session itself on Friday. It’s a sleepless week of worrying about something going wrong to prevent me from allowing them to drip toxins into my body.

This was the last of my prescribed four cycles of chemo. I was asked if I wanted to ‘ring the bell’ but declined. I’m not tempting fate. I did have a happy, school’s out feeling when I came home – which lasted all the way through to Sunday. I should have written my second blog post about being pregnant in Pakistan when the DH was arrested in Afghanistan but couldn’t concentrate.

This is the first time the ‘meh-ness’ has hit so soon, and so hard, after the chemo. Maybe having my flu vaccine this morning hasn’t helped. I don’t think I’ve felt this level of tiredness before. I apologise for not being able to keep up with the blogs I follow at the moment, and not being able to reply to letters and emails. I’ll be back on form before long. I will respond to comments here, though maybe not quite as speedily as usual.

It’s not all doom and gloom and feeling crap. I did manage a couple of walks last week – just as well because since starting treatment I have gained about a stone in weight and feel disgustingly fat and frumpy. With and undiminished appetite, lack of exercise is definitely to blame – and maybe a few more treats than usual. And, today, I’m too tired for Pilates class – when I really need it!

Sandy Hills, Dumfries & Galloway

I have the date for my next scan – Wednesday, December 02 – though as yet have no idea when the results will come through and when I’ll next meet the oncologist to discuss what’s next.  

Some of you may remember back at the start of this, when I was in my ‘I’m-not-going-to-see-Christmas phase, I started blitzing the house, sorting and clearing out photos, letters, books. I’ve calmed down a bit since then. I sold some of my Scottish books to Andrew Wilson at Beltie Books (great coffee and fabulous home-baking as well as books) in Wigtown. Last week he sent me a poem he’s written about me and my books. It’s lovely and made me cry – I still can’t read it aloud all the way through without my voice breaking. I feel so touched by his friendship and his words, which I will treasure, and the knowledge my books will be cherished.

Sadness of second hand books
we had never seen their like before
these books,
they were so wonderful.
she said she could tell us a story
about each book
these ones she was selling;

but each book was itself
a story, of Scotland
no dates and battles, kings and queens
but the story of our people
Blind Harry, Irvine Welsh, Wendy Wood
McDiarmaid, McIlvannie, McCaig

Neil Gunn, every author
that should be known and loved,
and grace the shelves
of every writer on Scotland,
it was a Bard’s collection
yet they filled me with sadness.

they were from a writer
one who penned verses
on Galloway’s Gaelic places
*inflexible tongues could not say them
and memory forgot their meaning
but the Bard remembered

the Bard told their story
and now she was handing the baton
on to me, with her books;
her own battle with cancer
ahead of her, but her books…
her books would carry our story forward.
                                                                        Andrew Wilson

* words from Mary Smith’s poem “Lost in Translation”

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Cancer Diary 11 – Uncertainties

Monday, November 16: I had a wonderful week in the hut although on the Tuesday I was more tired than I’ve been for a while. I suppose the rushing around on Monday, packing and sorting out food supplies, writing the blog – and the sudden exposure to sea air – did for me. And, maybe I was tired because of cancer and having chemo, though I tend to look for other causes first for some reason.

Tuesday, then was a day of doing not very much – that is what holidays are about, isn’t it? I rallied when the weather brightened in the afternoon and went out for a walk. In fact, there was only one day I didn’t get out. I also spent vast amounts of time sitting in the veranda, supposedly reading, but simply gazing out and the endlessly changing vista, watching the waves.

I’m back at home – no more sounds of the sea to send me to sleep. And it’s chemo week. Well, I hope it is chemo week – there’s always the uncertainty something might be wrong with the bloods and the treatment be postponed.

The uncertainty of it all is starting to get to me. If the bloods are all right, then I’ll have my fourth chemo cycle on Friday. After that I have no idea what’s happening. I should have a CT scan to see what effect the chemo has had on the tumour and lymph nodes and to check it hasn’t spread to other organs. I haven’t yet received an appointment for the scan, nor for a consultation with the oncologist.

Before radiotherapy – five days a week for four weeks – can be started – if it’s going ahead, another uncertainty – I have to have a 4d scan to have the places marked where the radiotherapy will be focussed. I have no idea when this will happen, nor how long after it the process can start.

I’m feeling totally in limbo right now. I have no idea what is going on with the tumour – is it shrinking, staying the same or growing? Spreading? Is my case being discussed at the weekly meeting? I won’t say am I being discussed because I realised to the oncology medics we are not really people, we are cases. Why does no one feel any need to let me know what they are planning next and when?

I am so very glad I had such a good break at the hut last week because if I’d been here – checking the post for appointment letters which don’t arrive – I’d have been in a far more worried state than I am now.

The last scan showed the tumour was stable – hadn’t grown and hadn’t spread. The prospect of the possibility of extra time was still being talked about. But, I don’t know of there will be extra time, nor how long it will be – neither, it seems does the oncologist so the uncertainty is all encompassing.

I have things to do, places to go and people to see. If my time is going to be very limited I’ll break all the Covid rules to which I’ve so steadfastly adhered and go ahead and get on with things I want to do while I’m still able.

I hope I will have had the toxic drugs and know a bit more about that’s next when I next write.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Pregnant in Pakistan

I’ll have to do this story over a couple of instalments.

Despite my delight at returning to Quetta, it didn’t long for me to miss being in Afghanistan.

By Beluchistan – Baluchistan, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I wrote in my diary a week after our return: ‘I wish I was back in Afghanistan. I have mixed emotions about my role there and I remember my despair and desperation in Lal (though by the end I did feel I was beginning to be able to do something).

Unlike in Afghanistan, we have electricity here – which goes off frequently for hours at a time. Here, we have flush loos – which get blocked and stop working. Telephones – usually out of order. The bazaars are full of consumer goods which make me feel an urge to buy stuff I don’t need for the sake of spending money. The traffic, which is nightmarish, with noise assaulting my eardrums, induces fear and diminishes dignity as I scuttle across roads. I feel frustrated and irritated at having to bargain in shops for everything, knowing prices are increased because foreigners have more money and can afford to line the pockets of already rich businessmen. Despite the problems in Afghanistan, I felt alive there.’

Quetta was never my favourite place in Pakistan. It is the provincial capital and largest city of the Province of Baluchistan. In 1935 it was largely destroyed in an earthquake, which killed around 40,000 people. When we lived there frequent tremors gave new meaning to ‘Did the earth move for you, too, darling?’ It’s a frontier town, not particularly pretty although it has lots of orchards around it which we visited sometimes to see the blossom.

I had work to do – reports to write, statistics to compile, funding applications to prepare and submit and endless meetings with other agencies. We moved into a house next door to the office, which gave us some privacy. I settled down for the winter.

The following spring (1990) we returned to Afghanistan for a two-month tour of the clinics. I may write something about the difficulties of travelling when snowmelt flooded the roads as I have found some photos of the Toyota having to be loaded onto a truck to be taken across the flood.

Later, that year Jon and I went home on leave – the first for two years. We returned to Pakistan married and pregnant.

One event which really took the shine from our time visiting family and friends and getting married was receiving the news of the murder of Moh’d Ali, the office cook. He was a lovely guy and he and our dog, George, were very fond of each other. He took on responsibility for feeding the dog and at night took him back to our house to stay with him. We never found out what exactly happened but in the morning, he was found dead with George lying guard over him. The most likely thing was that it was a robbery, which went wrong. The only things missing were two ashtrays; a little onyx one from Sr. Jeanine and a pottery one with a Pendle witch on the bottom, a gift from the Clitheroe Oxfam group. The dog would certainly have tried to defend his friend and territory and apparently wouldn’t eat for five days afterwards.

The police decided to arrest poor Abdul Hamid as being, being a stranger, the most likely suspect but had to let him go. First he was caught in a bombing raid, then found cockroaches in his dinner and then was wrongfully arrested.

We were by now preparing for the tour in Afghanistan. Medicines and medical supplies had to be purchased and packed and the budget for the winter months prepared. I was just under three months pregnant, tired and crabby much of the time, and desperate to be back across the border to the fresh clean air of Afghanistan.

It was not to be – various ex-pat medical workers started making worried faces about the trip – the road conditions, my age (36 – considered old in those days to be having a first baby), the lack of medical facilities if anything went wrong. Finally, Dr Pfau advised against the trip. “Plenty of work for you to be doing in Quetta,” she said. And so, Jon went off without me on October 22.

The beached whale – look at that double chin! This was later in the pregnancy. George trying to hide under the desk

On November 08 I received a long, newsy letter from him, which he’d written on October 28, telling me everything was going well. A postal service didn’t exist – letters were handed to someone, hopefully trustworthy, travelling to Pakistan.

On November 15, I heard he had been arrested/kidnapped by Nasre, the day after he had written to me.

Diary entry November 17: ‘I’m exhausted. Easily become tearful, especially if someone is kind. I feel so superstitious. I had planned to make Jon a picture collage to welcome him back but now feel I shouldn’t – it would be tempting fate, like writing Christmas cards from us both.

So stupid. Unfortunately the crazy Party which has him in jail is even more stupid. We know the only sensible thing is to release him but these people don’t use reason. OK, what can they do? They can shoot him, they can hold him for months or years – as they did with the Egyptian doctors – or they can release him.’

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Writing under lockdown

I’m excited to be a contributor in a new anthology which provides a unique record of life in my Galloway, my own wee part of Scotland, during the first 12 weeks of lockdown.

Writedown: Lockdown in the Galloway Glens at the Time of Covid brings together the work of 22 writers, each with a Galloway connection. It is a collection of prose and poetry, hopefulness, hopelessness, anger, humour and quiet endurance in which the writers tell the story of a community dealing with life in unprecedented times.

The idea behind the project came from author Margaret Elphinstone, when her writing classes could no longer meet. Inspired by the Mass Observation project which encouraged ordinary people to keep wartime diaries, she invited anyone interested to contribute – 22 of us did.

Margaret said: “In times of trouble people want to be together but with lockdown people had to isolate, sometimes living alone. Writing met their need to communicate. Through our writing we entertained and supported each other, sharing fears and unexpected joys and daring to hope for a better future.

“None of our writers was on the ‘front line’ and most were aware life in Galloway was better than in many places. But there was mounting anxiety for absent friends and family, and for what would happen to our communities.”

Now, with the book in my hands, looking back to my early contributions, I’m astonished at how hopeful I felt. Not only would this lockdown bring the virus under control, stopping the cases – and the deaths – from rising – it would surely lead to a fundamental shift in how politicians worldwide treated the environment. There was a feeling of all of us pulling together, accepting the restrictions for the good of everyone. Dominic Cummings put paid to that, didn’t he?

At the beginning of lockdown, I thought I would use this huge bonus of ‘me’ time to tackle my own outstanding writing projects – starting tomorrow. Always starting tomorrow! I am so pleased I signed up to take part in Writedown because it was almost the only writing I did do over those 12 weeks.

The writers never – and still haven’t – met as a group. They come from diverse backgrounds and many were strangers to each other at the start of the project, but they shared their writing week-by-week and bonds and friendships were forged. It was to the group I turned late one night when an Afghan friend messaged me about a brutal terrorist attack on the Kabul maternity hospital in which her sister worked.

Even the editorial team met on Zoom, both as a group and in pairs as we worked on our allotted chapters. It was an interesting experience as we discovered each other’s pet hates and particular foibles. I hate the word ‘that’, others don’t mind, some even really like it. Some love commas, others don’t. Exclamation works made some shudder while others didn’t notice them. Everyone, however, was working towards the collective aim of making the book as good as it could be.

The paperback edition came out first and is available locally in many outlets. Readers from further afield will be pleased to know the ebook is now available on Amazon. Here is the universal link for anyone outside the UK :

Writedown is available for members of Rosie Amber’s fabulous review team. If you are a reader who would be interested in becoming part of Rosie’s team and sharing your reviews, all the details are here.

And here is the flyer for the paperback (I think UK sales only) if you would like the paperback:

I’ll finish with thoughts from some of the other contributors to Writedown. Cath Monk remembers how positive we all felt in the beginning, something which changed over the weeks. “All the sad stories started coming out. It’s not easy to stay upbeat. We were all missing the contacts and the hugs. At least we knew, ‘it’s not just me.'”

Leonie Ewing said: “We were united by the project – it gave us focus. We brought different life experiences and points of view. It gave us a finger on the pulse of Galloway as the pandemic took hold so we could encourage each other and uplifted.”

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Cancer Diary #10

Monday, November 09: Each round of chemotherapy seems to bring a new addition to the range of side effects. There’s always tiredness and feeling generally horrible. Constipation. Heartburn. Not sleeping well is a regular side-effect – whether from the chemo or just because when you have a stonking great tumour in your lung you tend to be a bit anxious about what’s going to happen.

I’ve been lucky in not developing peripheral neuropathy as a side-effect and hope it stays that way – the tingling and pain in the fingers and feet sound very unpleasant. And, I haven’t lost my hair, though it has become thinner. In fact, since my last haircut I don’t think it has grown at all – may even be shrinking. At least it takes no time to dry nowadays and from what I’ve heard from others it will thicken up again once the chemo is over.

Last time I had a sore mouth. When the nurse phoned to do the pre-chemo assessment and ran through her list of possible problems, I told her. “Oh, did you use the mouthwash, we gave you? It really does help.” I admitted it hadn’t used the tub of sodium bicarbonate they’d given me to make up a mouthwash – I didn’t admit I’d used it make Irish soda bread. It’s a big tub so there’s plenty left to use as a mouthwash.

Of course, this time, I didn’t have the sore mouth – instead I had a really dry mouth with very little saliva. Fortunately, my lovely dentist had already supplied me with artificial saliva in the form of pastilles, gel and spray.  

I know I had a bit of a whinge last week but looking back, the week after round two of chemo was far worse emotionally, if not physically, than round three. I’ve been thinking about this and why it might be so. I wonder if after the first chemo cycle, we’re so glad treatment has finally started and are feeling positive about its effect on the tumour. The side effects are not as bad as we feared and we feel we can cope.

By the time we go through it a second time, we’re perhaps not quite so positive. More side- effects appear which are harder to deal with and we have absolutely no idea if this toxic mix we allow to be dripped into our bodies is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. We feel crap and begin to wonder why we are putting ourselves through this hell. For me, one of the worst aspects of cancer and its treatment is the never really knowing what’s going on. The endless waiting to find out is also pretty tough. No wonder we get so bad-tempered and don’t sleep well.

I am astonished, when the side-effects wear off to find I feel perfectly well. How can this be when a malignant tumour is inside my lung, hell bent on killing me?

I think this time round – third – I kept reminding myself I would feel better after a few days. It took a bit longer this time – but I don’t think I was as bad-tempered as before – though you might have to ask the DH for his opinion on that statement.

Realising I can’t influence the action of the chemo I’m trying to block thoughts about whether the tumour is shrinking, growing or remaining stable. It’s pointless worrying about it. I said to my friends Sue and Lynn, “You can remind me of this, when I’m suffering from ‘scanxiety’ after the final dose and am waiting for the next scan results.”

We’ve had a few dry, bright days so I’ve been able to get out for walks – both along a beach and in the countryside. That’s when it feels the healing is happening.

The coast walk – dry but chilly
Near Rockcliffe
The countryside walk
These placid cows, met on the walk, are specially for Beetley Pete
I love this walk – we have moorland, woodland and the loch
And who lives here?

And with only one medical appointment this week – a Vitamin B12 injection this morning – I threw clothes into black plastic bags and am now installed in a hut on Carrick shore for the rest of this week. This is why I’m so late putting up this post. I arrived here mid-afternoon full of good intentions to get cracking on the blog after a quick wander along the shore, but then was seduced by watching and listening to the tide come in, sea birds calling, the sun setting, the light fading and the stars appearing. It may not shrink the tumour, but it makes me glad to be alive and still able to savour such times.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Afghanistan Adventures#60 final journey

Afghanistan, December 1989 Jaghoray to Quetta

Suddenly, it was time to leave. The last few days were hectic, full of frantic packing and emotional farewells.

Dinner party

So many people were joining us on the journey to Pakistan that we needed two vehicles. The night before departure the clinic was overflowing with people and, desperate to escape the noise and confusion, for a few minutes, I persuaded Hussain to take a last walk on the mountain with me. Now I was leaving, he was full of remorse for all the times he had acted badly. 

‘Really, Mum, I never mean any of the bad things I say when I am angry. I know you are right when you try to teach me how to behave, and I don’t want to fight with you. It just happens. You will find a different Hussain when you come back next year, I promise.’ I didn’t hold out much hope the growing up process would take place within five months – five years, perhaps – but I accepted his promises in the spirit in which they were made. We returned to the clinic to find some floor space on which to sleep for the last few hours left of the night.

Jon, Engineer, Malim Ashraf

We left before light. I travelled with Jawad and Hussain in the clinic jeep as they accompanied us as far as the checkpoint on the far side of Angoori where, if all went according to plan, we would pick up a hired vehicle for the journey to Badani. As the sun rose, chasing the early morning mists from the mountains, the sky changed colour from pearly grey through pink to blue, and Jaghoray had never looked more beautiful. The politics of a small minority of people may cause us more trouble than in any other place we worked, but it was the place in Hazaristan I loved best. Well, I silently amended, maybe second best; after Waras.  

We were allowed through the checkpoint with no problems. In the Toyota, which Jon was driving, Rosanna was comfortably ensconced in the front seat. Malim Ashraf, the headmaster of one of the Jaghoray schools, one of his students and Sharif sat in the back.

Friends I still miss

I shared the hired jeep with Rahimy, Zahir and the driver’s mate. Saying goodbye was painful and for the first few miles I was miserable – but it’s impossible to maintain such a high level of emotional intensity when total concentration has to be given to hanging grimly onto one’s seat. As we bumped and jolted viciously over rocks and holes, I thought my battered body would be hurled through the open roof.

Gul Agha and Ismail in the summer days when first arrived

By the time we stopped for a break every muscle in my body was aching and stiff. Jon asked if I wanted to change vehicles but I said I’d carry on until we reached Tang-i-Chaddar, where we planned to stop for lunch. I regretted that decision when our jeep broke down, several times, before we at last limped into Tang-i-Chaddar.  Almost too tired to eat, I managed to swallow an egg and some nan before stretching full length on the floor, falling asleep almost before I had time to cover myself with my chaddar. I awoke to find the room full of thick smoke, coming from a fire in the next room. Rahimy was shaking me urgently, yelling in my ear that I should get out. Coughing and spluttering, we ran outside to gulp fresh air into our lungs.   

Typical road

I changed vehicles, to sit in the back of the Toyota with Zahir and Malim Ashraf.  As Jon is tall he needs the driving seat pushed back as far as it will go so, sitting immediately behind him I had no room to stretch my legs. Hour after hour we drove while I fidgeted, trying to find a comfortable position. Once, Zahir demanded in a loud voice why I did not change places with Rosanna, who’d claimed the front seat for her own. I shushed him, but if she heard his suggestion she ignored it. Darkness fell and still we drove on, Jon keeping close to the jeep in front. Eventually the driver stopped to admit that he had no idea where we were.

We only knew we were somewhere in the desert. Jon and the driver wandered around with torches, trying to find the track. The others set fire to the shrubs to try to keep warm as it was, by then, bitterly cold. We huddled round each bush as it blazed into life, holding our hands to the heat then, as the fire died down, someone would light another. The road had disappeared.  There was nothing for it but to stay put until morning. I persuaded Jon to pull his seat forward to allow me a little leg room, feeling extremely envious of Rosanna’s short legs and ability to ignore the discomfort of others. Surprisingly, I was soon asleep.

In the morning, we gazed at the desolate desert, dotted with fire blackened shrubbery. The ground was a maze of tyre tracks, one of which, we hoped, would prove to be the one for Badani. For a while we drove in circles, as we had presumably done the night before, judging from the number of tracks going nowhere, but at last the driver of the hired jeep drove off with a sudden burst of confident speed.  

We still had several hours ahead of us before we reached Badani and, after a loo stop, Jon suggested that some of us might like to change places. ‘I don’t think so,’ replied Rosanna. ‘I’m quite comfortable.’ 

‘I was thinking of the others,’ Jon said, but Rosanna nimbly leapt back into her place in the front passenger seat. Wimps that we were, none of us in the back, dared confront our formidable travelling companion and so condemned ourselves to suffering in silence all the way to Badani.  

We said goodbye to the driver, who could not continue any further into Pakistan in his Russian jeep, and looked about finding alternative transport for the rest of the journey to Quetta. Badani was one of those places which, before the Soviet invasion, barely existed, but had expanded rapidly when it became one of the main, unofficial, border crossing points.  Now there was a large bazaar, where money changers were trading openly and an International Red Cross Hospital. Trucks, buses and jeeps were travelling in both directions.

After breakfast, we hired a Toyota and Rahimy, Sharif, Zahir and I travelled together. Our driver knew everyone at the checkpoints and I noticed money exchange hands occasionally, once even a mysterious package.

At our lunch stop, Malim Ashraf kindly stopped me from taking a mouthful of meat to which still clung a large tuft of the goat’s hair. After lunch we discovered our driver had been arrested.  One of the people we’d driven past hitching a lift had been an out of uniform, off duty police officer returning to his post. He seemed to think the driver should have recognised his authority even dressed in civvies, and was incensed he’d not stopped.  Catching a lift in another vehicle, he had arrived at the bazaar, just in time to have him arrested.  

Jon rushed off to the police station to secure his release by apologising profusely for any unintentional injury to the policeman’s feelings. The driver, on his own behalf, slipped a little baksheesh into the outstretched palm of the police officer.  

At the last checkpoint at Pishin no guards were on duty and our driver didn’t stop but when, sometime later, we checked behind us, there was no sign of Jon’s Toyota. We turned back to look for them. The driver was reluctant to go all the way back to the checkpoint. If they had been stopped there, our arrival would only cause more trouble.  It was dark, when we pulled up in a small bazaar to wait, but our presence aroused the interest of the local constabulary and we were told to move on. Further down the road we stopped again. The road behind us remained ominously deserted and, finally, we decided to continue to Quetta to enlist help.

As the driver started the engine we caught the gleam of headlights behind us and, a few moments later, the Toyota pulled up behind us. Rosanna leapt out, eager to tell the story.  They had reached the Pishin checkpoint only minutes after us, by which time the duty guards were again at their post. They were waved through without a problem until one of the guards pointed out that Jon had a flat tyre. Realising it would look suspicious if he drove off without checking condition of the tyre Jon stopped and realised he’d have to change the tyre. The guards kindly lent a hand but, just as Jon was thanking them for their help, one of them, peering in the back of the vehicle noticed, for the first time, the Afghans.  

Their manner changed from friendly to officious and they started questioning Jon. The policemen insisted they stay the night until the D.C. arrived in the morning to decide what to do with two foreigners driving around with a group of Afghans, all emphatically denying that they had ever set foot on Afghan soil. Jon tried to convince them that they were all working for the Pakistan leprosy programme. Whether his story was believed, or the guards just couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork keeping them until morning would entail, and they were allowed to go.

We were nearly at journey’s end. As we rounded a curve in the road and saw the lights of Quetta twinkling in the valley below us I heard a collective breath drawn by my companions in the back who had never seen anything like it in their lives. Even Sharif who, as a small child had seen Kabul, and thought he had seen the world, was impressed. Zahir truly thought it was magic.     

After six months of pressure lamps and torchlight, and dark, dark nights in Afghanistan, I also thought it was a pretty magical sight.

MarySmith’sPlace #Giant pylons will ruin iconic landscape

From time to time on this blog I have shared some of the glorious countryside we have here in Dumfries & Galloway in South West Scotland.

Unfortunately, a huge area of this is now at risk of being ruined by Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN) which has put a planning application in to the Scottish Government to erect 118 giant pylons (up to 39 metres tall) from Glenlee, near New Galloway to Tongland in the south near Kirkcudbright.

Stroan Loch, courtesy PhilMcMenemy

The route goes over or close to iconic Galloway countryside including, the Queens Way (the road from New Galloway to Newton Stewart), Raiders Road, Stroan Loch and the Otter Pool. Laurieston Forest and the Kenick Burn will also be impacted, along with an avenue of beech trees by the burn’s picnic area. The route also goes over the C13 road from Laurieston to Gatehouse of Fleet, a road beloved by everyone – locals and visitors alike.

The amount of traffic on the roads over the five years of construction work will be horrendous. Our narrow roads will become dangerous, noisy and all pleasure in driving will be destroyed – not to mention the huge inconvenience and health issues for the people living in the villages affected.

Photographer and owner of The Gallery in Laurieston, Phil McMenemy has been working flat out to raise awareness of this issue in time for people to put in their objections to the pylon scheme. He says: “This is our patch – this is my inspiration. I have to fight this – and I hope you can help.

“I would be very grateful if you could help us in our quest to get the project undergrounded, as occurs in many tourist-sensitive areas. It is going to be difficult but the more objections that are sent in the more chance we have. Objections from tourists would be a massive help because the Galloway economy is so reliant on tourism and the construction project will last a minimum of five years, probably commencing in 2023. Representations have to be sent to the Energy Consents Unit by the 13th November 2020.”

The pylons will endanger raptors in the area such as eagle, red kite and goshawk as well as endangered species such woodcock, cuckoo, willow tit, wood warbler, grasshopper warbler, song thrush, mistle thrush, spotted flycatcher, pied flycatcher, whinchat, grey wagtail, tree pipit, linnet, lesser redpoll. Lesser endangered species are red grouse, stock dove, tawny owl, house martin, willow warbler, dipper, meadow pipit, bullfinch, reed bunting. All of these species are at risk in Galloway and they all occur in the area of the proposed overhead line project. Laurieston Forest is the major stronghold for nightjars in Scotland.

Imagine a line of 39-metres tall pylons marching over this. Courtesy Phil McMenemy

Breeding grounds for otter, red squirrel, pine martin and great crested newt will be damaged.

It doesn’t have to be this way. An Underground Cable Study has already been carried out SPEN’s conclusion was that: “It is acknowledged by SPEN that the underground option is, in each case, technically feasible and, on balance, environmentally preferable having regard to landscape and visual as well as forestry impacts.”

Nevertheless, SPEN, who costed the underground route, have decided to go overground.

If you know this wonderful part of Scotland (even if only through my blog) and would like to object to the pylons being erected over ground you can send objections – by November 13, 2020 to the Scottish Government. By e-mail: or by post: Scottish Government, Energy Consents Unit, 4th Floor, 5 Atlantic Quay, 150 Broomielaw, Glasgow, G2 8LU. Whether by email or post Quote Application Ref. ECU00002128. Glenlee to Tongland 132kV Reinforcement Project. Including your name (block capitals) and your address.

Phil says: “I would be so grateful if you could help us. This is about all the villages here and all the businesses reliant on tourism – and about protecting something special and speaking up for the ecological diversity we possess and the beautiful landscape that simply cannot speak up for itself.”

These trees could face being destroyed if the pylons go overground instead of under. Courtesy Phil McMenemy

Useful site for more information here.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Cancer Diary #09 A bit of a whinge

Monday, November 02: I had my third chemo cycle on Friday and am now in the “meh” stage of feeling pretty rubbish. The constipation returned, worse than six weeks ago, despite prescribed laxatives. Oddly, I had no constipation after the last chemo dose when I upped the fibre content of my diet. I thought I was eating much the same this time – body thinks otherwise.

Movement was finally achieved around 5.30am today. I went back to bed feeling decidedly lighter.

I felt really healthy throughout the week leading to the third chemo round. The only blip was a sleepless night on the Wednesday after I’d had my pre-chemo bloods taken. Having the bloods taken isn’t a problem. In fact it’s one of the highlights of my social life – meeting a masked nurse in the health centre. Mostly, I cope with my hermit-like, self-isolation existence but when I heard myself gabbling away at the nurse I realised I do miss people.

No, the anxiety was about the chemo having to be postponed because of something not right with my blood. While having my body pumped full of toxic drugs is not something I relish, having decided to go for it, I dread anything which might slow down the process. And as the first two rounds of chemo halted the growth of the tumour, but didn’t shrink it, I don’t want a longer gap between cycles in case it starts growing again.

On top of that particular anxiety, the more I thought about Cancer Specialist Nurse (CSN) and how dishonest she’d been with me made me angry. I had seen some research on medicinal mushrooms, particularly Coriolus versicolor, and the results of various trials which seemed to indicate its use increased immunity in patients taking chemotherapy. I asked if I could send it to her to pass on to the oncologist for her thoughts. She said she would and I printed out the version for health professionals and put it in the post to CSN. At the meeting last Monday, it became clear the oncologist hadn’t seen or heard of the research papers. CSN said she’d asked the pharmacist who had said I shouldn’t use it.

Why? ‘He doesn’t know how it would react with the chemo drugs.’ The point of sending it to the oncologist was to see if she could find out more about the trials. It’s too late for me now, with only one more chemo ahead of me, but I will still try to learn more about it. It may seem a trivial thing to lose sleep over but to have queries dismissed out of hand as not being worth any kind of follow up does not build trust – neither does knowing the CSN didn’t do what she said she’d do. And she didn’t call me on Thursday with the blood results as she said she would.  

When I told a friend I’d be sitting in the chair at 11am on Friday she asked what I meant. It made me realise not everyone reading this may know what is involved in a chemo session.

I give my name at reception, remove my mask, use hand sanitiser, put on a new mask and take a seat until called. I’m weighed, have my temperature checked and am told to wash my hands before being led into the room where the chairs are socially distanced. The first time, it felt like being led to the electric chair – not so bad now but there’s still something deeply unpleasant about giving up all control over what’s going to happen.

They check pulse rate, BP, oxygen stats – then bring warm pads from a microwave to put on the back of my hand to bring the veins up before inserting the cannula and hooking up the drip bags. There’s usually a delay waiting for the pharmacy to send the drugs down. They start with a saline flush, then the first of the chemo drugs, another flush before the second drug – and there I sit for around two, three or more hours. I take my Kindle in and spend the time reading. Having to keep the hand with the cannula in completely still for so long isn’t easy – especially when they bring you lunch. A wee wiggle of the fingers is enough to block the drip and make it bleep.

Usually nurses look at my veins like happy vampires so it was surprising to be told by the one on Friday that my veins are very thin. ‘I bet everyone tells you that,’ she said.

‘No, you are the first.’ And, astonishingly, the first vein she tried was completely empty! The second attempt was successful and all went well until she came to remove the cannula. The fountain of, by now toxic, blood missed me and went all over her. She asked me to put my finger on the gauze pad while cleaning up then told me the haematoma swelling before our eyes was because I’d moved my finger. Last time, there wasn’t a mark on my hand so I kind of hope she gets some practice in before I go back, or has the day off.

I hope by my next diary entry I’ll have shaken off ‘meh-ness’ and bad temper and be back to my usual self. And, please let it stop raining so I can get out for the occasional walk.