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Written on November 14, 2005, and categorized as Autobiography, Secret and Invisible.
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At age seventeen, I was disconsolate, all washed up. I had split up with my girlfriend, who had absconded with God. Educational progress went down the pan. After gathering a decent crop of O levels, I had been studying four A levels – French, Latin, English and Art. I had fought to keep studying Art, against school advice, and in the end, it was the only exam I took. I got grade E – one above F for Fail.

I was shattered, demoralised, and laid low with glandular fever. I lived several miles from school, and travelling on a bus or a train became a dangerous mission – several times I awoke cold, sweaty and shivering on a deserted bus, or in an empty carriage at the end of the line. The Deputy Head lectured me in private in that final year, telling me he knew I was fooling them, that I was just being lazy. I was sick, he was wrong, but since he was so certain about me, I told him straightfaced that I would definitely be back next year to take the other three exams, so that I would be entered for the art exam. I took it, promptly left, and took a no-hope clerical job in the Department of Employment at the local dole office.

I gave up alcohol, a necessary measure in order to recover. I discovered the joys of marijuana, and made new friends who liked music as much as I did, with whom I could laugh uproariously and act crazy as much as I liked. We would pile out of our parental homes in the suburban fringe we inhabited, travelling either into the countryside, where we could romp and roam and caterwaul loudly with stoned freedom, or else, head into the city where we could do the same in the comfort of hippy squats and flats. Suburbia was our starting point, nirvana our destination.

At work, queues were long, flexitime accomodated my slow starts, the money was nice, and I bought clothes and records and more dope. Within two months, I was cautioned for “being too cheerful”. This was a sensitive time in people’s lives, I was told, they may misinterpret my kind greetings and good cheer as mockery. I stared incredulously at the man opposite me, who clearly had no concept of working class manners, as he issued me with a written warning. I left his pale gloss office, went upstairs onto the roof for a smoke, and considered my options. I determined to get out of this place as soon as possible.

Most of my friends were in a band, Orpheus Rocker, which was by no means unusual at the time; but this band was so rock and roll that they already had a huge tragedy to cope with. The lead singer, a few years older than everyone else, had committed suicide in sick but spectacular fashion, by jumping off the bridge over the underpass in central Croydon, which really fucked a lot of people up, including his fiancée and the seventy year old driver of the car that hit him. The band reformed around his younger brother, and trundled on for a while, overshadowed by ghosts and screwed up expectations. I was supposed to be managing them, but this really meant attending rehearsals and helping at the very occasional actual gig. I wore a trilby, a long trenchcoat, and cowboy boots, and Spinal Tap had nothing on us.

Slightly disturbingly, my sister started dating the dead singer’s brother, but it worked out alright. She was trustworthy as far as not ratting on my occasional debauched antics, and her boyfriend was friendly enough, and had a car. When the interior was filled with band and guitars and sister, it was in the boot of his green hatchback Nissan that I travelled from Brixton to Croydon curled up in foetal position like a gangster’s kidnap victim.

As the dole office became less bearable, and my glandular fever diminished, I was in limbo. Sometimes I would lie awake in bed and look down at my torso, imagining all sorts of appalling internal confusion, nervously examining myself. My stomach in particular would sometimes swell and bulge at the place I knew my appendix to be, but aside from the occasional discomfort from eating late-night kitchen constructions of anything in the cupboard, I felt no pain. I was always unsure about my health, since early childhood asthma made me the focus of maternal fears. It was never a problem to fake an illness to buy a day off school, but I liked school in general, so I rarely pulled a sicky. Nothing wrong with me, I would joke, just a touch of hypochondria.

One late September Monday, I awoke tired and drained from an extensive weekend of pleasure, and I decided not to go to work. My mother was supply teaching part-time, and was the last to leave the house. She called up to me several times to alert me to the arrival of the working week, and I did my best to ignore her. She came in to my bedroom and asked me pointedly if I was going to work, or if I was sick.

“Sick,” I said, hoping she would go away and leave me to deal with it.

“Then you had better go to the doctor,” she said. “You do look pale.”

I might have replied, “That’s a weekend of marijuana smoking for you,” but I kept quiet.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. She was being much stricter than when I was at school. Bloody work ethic, I muttered under my breath.

“Stomach hurts,” I invented.

She returned five minutes later. “Right. I can give you a lift and the doctor will see you in half an hour.”

I moaned and said it wasn’t really necessary, but I pulled on some clothes anyway. We set off up the hill, and in that five minutes I made a decision that changed my life. The week before I had watched a TV program which included some medical diagnoses, and I knew about rebound pain. When you press the swollen appendix either from outside the stomach or from inside the bowel, the pain is much worse a moment after the pressure is released. Armed with this knowledge, I decided to fake appendicitis.

So, at the doctor’s surgery I went through the motions, even suffering the indignity of the finger inserted into the rectum. Oh, ouch, ah! In fact, I did so well, that the doctor decided I was in immediate need of an operation. I went straight to Redhill Hospital. On the way, as my mother cheerfully cancelled her own day’s work on the basis that her child was in need of care, I was waking up to the fact that I was about to have a major surgery. It will buy me some time off work, I mused, and anyway, it’s a part of the body I can afford to lose. I checked in, got undressed, a male nurse came and shaved my pubic hair, another came and administered a pre-med, in which opiate haze I was wheeled into the operating theatre. I was joking with the surgeon as I went under.

* * * * * * * * * *

When I came round, I was in agony. I instantly regretted the stupid stunt I had pulled. I was sitting up in bed, and a nurse came over and asked me if I was OK.

“Pain..” I said weakly. “It really fucking hurts…”

“OK well we’ll take you back to the ward shortly, and I can give you some more painkiller there.”

It felt like hours but was probably ten minutes before I was wheeled back to the male surgical ward, curtains pulled around me, and I got a shot of Pethedine. As the pain dissolved and the opiate washed over me and rescued my sanity, the head nurse, dark haired, blue eyed and attractive, came up to me. Even though I was in severe pain, and on drugs, I will never forget what she said.

“How are you feeling?”

“Thanks,” I said, “That helps a lot…”

“Normally,” she said, “we do keyhole surgery even on an appendix, and leave a small scar, but your appendix was quite difficult to remove, and we had to make a bigger cut than usual… your appendix had been bleeding and it was stuck to the intestine. If we hadn’t have operated today, you would have been far worse off. Peritonitis, perhaps. So, you are very lucky we caught you in time.”

She smiled, relaying the good news of my escape. As the Pethedine took me further out of caring, I realised with a muffled shock that I had just saved my own life by faking a life-threatening condition.

* * * * * * * * * *

I recovered. In the weeks of recouperation that followed, I had time to think. I never went back to the dole office. IG’s Mum and sister both encouraged me to apply to study for an Art Foundation qualification. Croydon College still had places. I applied late, taking my art along in a black plastic bin liner, and I was accepted.

Sensing that a way out of dreary employment and Croydon lay before me, I worked hard. It was a fabulous time of discovery. By May the following year, I had a place to study for a Fine Art degree in a London college, which was the making of me, the basis for my adult life.

I still cannot explain what happened, so I will not try to do so now. It was years before I confessed to anybody that I had faked appendicitis only to find it was real, and when I did, I wasn’t believed.

Neither have I faked illness at any time since then, being extraordinarily wary of the potential consequences.

If there is a moral to this absolutely true story, it could be, be careful what you invent, for it might turn out to be more real than you think. Or it might be, your intuition will tell you what you need to do to survive. Or it might be, fake it until you make it.

Here endeth the story of The Boy Who Didn’t Cry Wolf.

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This thing has 7 Comments

  1. RuKsaK
    Posted 15 November, 2005 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    What a truly incredible story – I love the backdrop you give to it all as well, such familiar scenes.

  2. Lagowski
    Posted 15 November, 2005 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I wonder what would have happened if you’d said to your mother on that fateful morning “I’m a woman in a man’s body”.

  3. Laurie
    Posted 15 November, 2005 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Oh my, that’s funny, Lagowski.

    Deek, to prove I read the whole fabulous, as usual, post and because I’m a bit confused should “dead” be “lead” in the first sentence of paragraph six?

  4. Lagowski
    Posted 16 November, 2005 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    LKRA – I think he was referring to the dead lead singer who’d killed himself :-/

  5. Tara
    Posted 16 November, 2005 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Wow, sounds to me like you were damn lucky!

  6. Blog ho
    Posted 17 November, 2005 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    the joys of marijuana are no longer joyous

  7. dave bones
    Posted 20 November, 2005 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    We have too much in common.

    My girlfriend left me for Krishna at 19.

    It sounds like you are writing about my sixth form arrangements (the relaxed uniform and mixed common room, not the sex part)

    I did an art foundation too. (What good it did me.)

    I didn’t manage a band or fake apendicitis though…

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