Category Archives: February 2013 Posts

Cinema vigilante

A cold Sunday afternoon in West London.  Snow is lightly falling on Day 10 of my house imprisonment.  My last shower was Tuesday, and only owing to an appointment with my consultant.  Showering while sitting on the tiles with a leg propped up on a stool is not to be undertaken without reason.  My greasy hair is wrapped up in a full headscarf, chemo-style.  I have an inexplicable rash over my forehead – a reaction to the pain killers?  In a seated position I steadily get myself down the stairs, step-by-step.  I place my crutches over my lap and sit in the communal reception area to wait for a taxi to Shepherd’s Bush.  I’m going to see a movie.

Watching films is a source of deep pleasure for me.  For two hours I get to be told a story.  For two hours I’m taken to another world.  I sit in the cinema with twenty others and wait for the modern-day bard to transfix me.

Two teenage girls move from where they’re sitting to the previously empty row behind me.  One of them puts her shoeless feet up on the seat beside mine.  Let it go, Simone.  Pick your battles.  They talk for the entire duration of the trailers.  Again, Simone, let it go; you know there’s a good chance you’ll have a bigger battle with these two.  The movie starts, they keep talking.  I look at my watch.  They have three minutes.

Three minutes pass.

Me: Excuse me, can you stop talking now. (I pause) And take your feet off the seat.

I hear my Australian accent; flat, low and masculine.  It sounds more threatening and aggressive than I intended and the girls get a fright.  My grotesque shopping-trolley-pushing, pigeon-feeding-lady appearance probably helped.  As I turn to look back at the screen I struggle to contain my grin.

Ten minutes pass and two women in their late twenties arrive.  Lateness annoys me.  Lateness for movies really annoys me.  They take their seats on the opposite side of the cinema, one row back.  In a few minutes one of them receives a text message (I see her phone glow).  They start talking.  Twenty minutes later they’re still talking.  Empowered by my success with the teenagers, I rise and hobble over to them; crippled, greasy and rash-ridden.

Me: Excuse me, can you not talk through the movie?  If you don’t want to watch it, you can leave.

They’re horrified and obsequiously apologise.  I return to my seat.

Forty minutes later something goes wrong with the projector and an orange rectangle of light covers a third of the screen.  The audience shuffle about and murmur to each other, expressing their discontent.  The restlessness continues but no one does anything.  My rage at the apathy and cowardice intensifies.  A woman in front of me uses her iPhone to take photos of the faulty screen, presumably as evidence to substantiate her complaint  … when the movie’s over.  After fifteen minutes I’ve reached my tipping point and I stand.

Can someone please go out and say something about the screen?  I’d go, but I have a broken foot.” (I raise a crutch to emphasise my point)

A man jumps up “I’ll go!”  His motivation, I strongly suspect, is to impress his new girlfriend with his sudden can-do, take-control action; action that had been absent for the previous fifteen minutes.

I thank him.  Whatever his motivation, I’m grateful.

A few others speak supportively, including the woman who took the photo “Are you going to complain at the end?  I took photos to show them.

I struggle to not roll my eyes as I smile politely “I haven’t really got the energy.  I mean, it’s too late by then and I’ve already dealt with the talkers.”  I gesture to the teenagers behind me and the women opposite, deriving gratification from their embarrassment.

The screen regains its normal appearance and I sit down.  I’m angry at the rudeness of the talkers; the rudeness of the latecomers; the lack of staff to control the audience, and, in this case, even ensure the movie runs effectively.  But most of all I’m angry at the indifferent and listless attitude of people.  If there’s a problem you can do something about, DO something about it!  Don’t just sit and complain when you can rectify it.  (And if your first instinct is to seek compensation for the fault then there are a host of questions you need to ask yourself).  Take action.  Fix the problems you can fix!  And, above all, don’t get in the way of me and the magic of movies.


My invalid condition is clearly stoking the fire of my fury, but I stand by the fact that “Cloud Atlas” is the worst movie I’ve seen in many years.  And I watch made-for-TV, true-life dramas screened on True Entertainment (when hungover or under the influence of painkillers).  Abysmal.  The only reason I didn’t walk out (aside from the fact that I can’t currently walk without taking too long or looking ridiculous) was that I had made such a scene about watching the movie (I recognise the irony).  I will never get those 172 minutes back.

A sore paw

I don't yet know what my foot looks like under the bandages

I don’t yet know what my foot looks like under the bandages

“Can I go home now?” 

“Not until you’ve been to the toilet.”

Hmm.  I see no reason for the rule, but I agree to go right then and there.  I’ve been at hospital since 7:30am for an operation on my right foot.  I woke up hours ago.  I’ve eaten my biscuit, I’ve drunk my cup of tea.  I want to go home.  The caution and level of supervision seems like overkill.  If going to the toilet gets me home, then to the toilet I shall go.

The middle-aged nurse brings me a wheel-chair and in a hop and a lunge (the open gown exposing me to the rest of the ward), I’m in.  She wheels me to the disabled toilet; a room almost the size of my flat. The door shuts behind us.  I look at her.  She looks at me.

Ah … she’s staying in here with me.

Me (smiling): I’m okay to go on my own.

The nurse: I need to be here with you … just in case you’re unstable.  You’ve only got one working leg and the anaesthetic is still in your system.

Megan and me

Megan and me

Me: I’m fine, honestly.  I’d be much more comfortable on my own.  I promise not to lock the door if you just wait outside.

She reluctantly agrees and leaves the room.  I swiftly lock the door.  I always lock the toilet door; I simply can’t go if there’s the possibility of anyone entering.

Getting from the wheel-chair to the toilet proves difficult.  I don’t know how to activate the brake so it skids away from me during the (inelegant) dismount.  Getting back to the chair after using the toilet is even more challenging as the chair is now on the opposite side of the room.  Bra-less, I hold a freedom loving boob in each hand, hop to the other side of the room and plonk myself in the runaway chair.  My presence irritates the untamed beast and it skittles back, hitting the wall with a solid thud.  For not the first time in my life, I’m grateful toilets don’t have CCTV.

I clumsily manoeuvre the chair to the door and unlock it.  The nurse enters. Neither of us mention my lock-out or the noisy events that took place during it.

From the other end of the ward I hear a familiar Scottish voice at reception and smile.  I look over at Colin and we wave at each other.

Megan (an English Pointer)

Megan (an English Pointer)

As he approaches his face is suddenly grave.  With a worried expression, he squats down to my chair so we’re at the same height.  He seems excessively focused.

Colin (quietly and calmly): Are you alright?

Me (smiling, exasperated): Yes!  I’m absolutely fine. I don’t know why everyone’s so worried! 

Colin (standing up and laughing):  Oh Jesus. Well you look awful then! Truly awful.  Between you and Miss Megan I could set up my own medical recovery centre.  She’s hurt her paw and is being a total drama queen. (Megan is Colin’s dog).

I roll my eyes, smiling.  The nurse wheels me to my bed, draws the curtain and leaves me to get dressed.  I gracelessly struggle through the process of putting on my clothes and re-seating myself in the cantankerous chair.  I poke my head out from the curtain to get the nurse’s attention and she brings Colin over.  He takes the handlebars of the chair and pats me on the head.

Colin and me

Colin and me

Colin: Alright, come on my little Australian pea, time to get you home.  Megan’s in the car and she wants to see you. (He promptly spins the chair around, banging my injured foot against an open door …).

Later that night I wake.  The anaesthetic has worn off and I’m in pain.  I may not have a sore paw but my mutilated pigeon toe is agony.    


I wake and walk calmly to the bathroom.  I kneel on the hard tiles, lean over the toilet bowl and throw up.  I rise, rinse my mouth, brush my teeth and go back to bed.  It’s 2am and I promptly fall asleep.

At 6:30am my alarm sounds and I systematically get ready for work.  I put on my coat, close my front door and head out.  I step forward to cross the road and a cyclist zooms by, almost hitting me.  He screams out abuse.  I’m not startled.  I’m unnervingly calm.  It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d hit me.  It doesn’t matter that he didn’t. 

The work day passes in a trance.  I’m watching everything through thick, soundproof glass.  I hear my colleagues and politely chat, but I can’t connect with them.

I go home, I eat my dinner.  I watch TV, I go to bed.  At approximately 2am I will wake, feel nauseous, go to the bathroom and throw up.

It’s 1998 and this pattern will repeat itself every day for over a year.  The year my heart was ripped through my chest, beaten to a pulp and thrown adrift in the ocean – left to bob up and down, stinging and alone in the dark, cold salt water.  Dramatic?  Yes.  But to simply say it was broken doesn’t do it justice.

Each day I felt cold, contained, impotent rage.  I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t commit any lesser crimes, and I didn’t irreparably destroy my life; all three were a distinct possibility and I’m still astonished one or all three didn’t occur.

But each night the anger left and pain spewed forth, literally.

Weekdays I worked, weekends I did jigsaws.  Countless jigsaws.  The quantity of mental focus required was perfect; my empty mind robotically scanned for “The blue piece, the blue piece, the blue piece ….”.   My jigsawing (breakdown) obsession was inflicted on my friends who were obligated to partake when they visited.  (Thanks Simon for hours of dedicated and silent jigsaw work.  I do laugh about it now).

I sleepwalked through a year.  In April I sent my sister a birthday card, in May I went to a wedding, in June I sent my mother a birthday card.  I followed social processes; doing what was required with dispassionate inertia.

This is the aftermath of love.  This is love when it’s ended for one, but not the other.  It’s excruciating.  It’s agony.  It’s worse than any physical pain I’ve ever experienced.

People tell you you’ll get over it, that you’ll be fine in time.  Fifteen years on I conclude that they’re the lucky people who have escaped true, crippling heartache.  What they should be saying is that you’ll feel happiness again; your emotions won’t be forever restricted to only despair and fury.  Most importantly, an interest in things will come again. (You also might lose the desire to kill every human you encounter … but that’s an individual thing and I still frequently yearn for the power to make peoples’ heads explode simply by looking at them).

Love at the start of the cycle is bliss; the days are bright, there’s a spring in your step and nothing can bring you down.  On the rare occasions I’ve experienced this stage I’ve entered it without giving thought to the death stage.  It’s always possible the grim reaper will never arrive and I genuinely hope (and even believe) that I won’t see him again; I definitely wish his head would explode.

So if you’re at the start of the love cycle this Valentine’s Day, enjoy it.  If you’re in the middle, comfortable and undramatic stage, appreciate it.  And if you’re nursing a skewered heart, survive it – you’ll feel happiness again.  Or maybe you won’t.  What do I know?


If you’ve recently had your heart obliterated and someone tells you “there are plenty more fish in the sea” … punch them in the face.  Hard.  If you manage to break their nose (fingers crossed), don’t apologise.  I regret not doing that.  And perhaps remind them that all the world’s fisheries are due to be depleted by 2048, so the expression is both infuriating and grossly inaccurate.

The beating bag

28th January 2013.  Flight VS026 from JFK to Heathrow.  We sit silently, buckled and ready to take-off.  It’s taking too long.  Something’s delaying us.  Brett, a well-groomed male air steward, approaches the man seated in front of me.

Brett:  Excuse me, Mr O’Brien?

Mr O’Brien (presumably):  Yes?

Brett:  There’s a slight problem with your luggage.  Would you mind coming with me?

He rises and his face is anxious; a natural response when questioned by airline staff.  I make a comment to the man next to me about how nerve wracking it is to have your luggage searched – even though you know you’re innocent.

He nods and I hear his clear New Zealand accent “Oh yeah, it’s awful.  I had it happen to me in Peru years ago”.   I adopt an expression encouraging him to continue.

A half-smile flickers across his face as he shakes his head “Nah, I won’t bore you with it.”

Oh go on” I persist.  “It’ll kill a few minutes of the hours ahead”.

He looks directly at me, sizing me up.  Some inexplicable deliberation takes place before he speaks “Alright … as you’re a fellow antipodean, albeit Australian”.

I smile and turn my body towards him to give him my full attention.  Here is his story.

“The beating bag”

It was 2006 and I was returning from my honeymoon with my now ex-wife.  We’re checked-in and ready to board our return flight to the US.  A security man approaches the boarding queue and taps three of us – myself and two other men – indicating for us to follow him.  I leave my wife in the queue.

In silence, we’re led through security doors and down stairs, then down further stairs and through a maze of passages.  After what seems like ages, we enter a highly industrial area.  We’re surrounded by conveyor belts of luggage and humming machinery.  The South American heat is stifling and the smell of body odour overwhelming.   We’re in the underbelly of the airport.

In the centre of the room are three heavily armed and uniformed military men, each pointing a massive gun at three individual pieces of luggage; one of them mine.  I was already nervous, but I’m now shitting myself.   Has someone put drugs in my bag?!  My wife’s migraine medication is in that bag, and I’m not sure that it’s legal in countries outside the US.  Am I about to be imprisoned?!

Nobody speaks English.  One of the intensely solemn armed men has the palm of his hand on my bag and says something to me in Spanish.  One of the other two passengers speaks a little English and tries to help me.

Fellow passenger (pointing to my bag):  Is beating.


Fellow passengerSi, beating.

They want me to feel my “beating” bag, so I do – with a gun aimed at me.  With sudden heart-sinking horror, my emotions shift from fear to embarrassment.  The bag isn’t beating, it’s vibrating.  My face glows red, drawing more suspicion to me as I realise that the buzzing item is my wife’s vibrator [at this point in the man’s story I blurt out a loud laugh, drawing unwanted attention from our fellow passengers].

In desperation and zero Spanish I try to suggest that we open our bags in separate rooms so I don’t have to do this in front of such a big audience.

I tell my semi-English-speaking-fellow-traveller what’s in the bag and he instantly smiles, containing a laugh.  I can’t believe this is happening.

They refuse my request to open the bag in a more private environment and, with the giant gun pointed at me, I kneel to the floor and open my bag.  Everyone is quietly watching as I rummage around.  The vibrator is a plug-in one and I’m hoping to locate the main power source so I can switch it off.  Yes! I did it!  I triumphantly, but slowly, pull out the power supply – NOT the vibrator and say “This is it.  It’s switched off – nothing harmful”.   I’m so relieved to not have to pull out the actual vibrator.

With disaster averted, I’m allowed to return to the departure gates.  My wife’s furious and shouts out “What took you so long?! ” I shout back across the crowded departure lounge “IT WAS YOUR BLOODY VIBRATOR!  IT WENT OFF IN THE LUGGAGE!!

She’s mortified.

Mr New Zealand’s finished his story. “So that’s it.  I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me and all I can say is if you’ve got any ‘personal’ devices in your luggage, I hope you’ve removed the batteries!”

I laugh (non-committedly ….) and move on to the next obvious conversation; how and why did Mrs New Zealand become Mrs Ex-New Zealand.  The next seven hours pass quickly – for me at least.


I’m beginning to realise that I’m a “flight-talker”.  When you’re seated next to me on a long-haul flight there might be an awful moment when you realise you won’t be watching any movies …