Visiting a dear friend in hospital

I went to hospital to visit my very good friend Simon Ricketts today. He’s been in there since January 7. The following day he had a big operation to remove a lot of cancer from his body. It was an operation described as ‘expensive’ in that curious euphemistic surgeon-speak. I’m a bit squeamish about the details but from what I heard while trying not to listen, he lost a bit of pancreas, a kidney and a bit of his stomach but the surgeon was pleased with how the operation went.

There have been complications since and I know he’s had some very bleak days and nights. There have been times when I’ve been braced to receive the worst news but he’s a stubborn old mule and he’s got more fight in him than I could possibly imagine having. Or, as I told him by text last week, he’s got the strength of an ox and the body hair of a monkey, which is certainly better than it being the other way around.

It was very hard to hear him say today that there had been a 48-hour period last weekend when he felt like giving up but, generally, he was in better shape than I had expected.

Simon has written about his terminal diagnosis on his own blog so I am not breaking any confidences here. I also checked he was okay with me writing about him and he said I could as long as I promised to say something nice.

He’s in a hospital an hour and a bit away and today was only the second time I’ve managed to visit him. We had to cancel a visit a couple of weeks ago because my car battery had gone flat, partly through lack of use and partly because of the freezing cold. As it turned out, he took a turn for the worse that day anyway so I would probably have had a wasted trip.

When I first arrived today, he was very tired but he quite quickly chirped up (must have been my sunny disposition and scintillating chat) although he got tired again after an hour or so, possibly because my stories were getting boring.

As much as I could, I tried to keep the conversation to stuff from the outside world because it struck me that he has spent two-and-a-half months in one room. He’s too tired to concentrate on watching television or reading. He’s often too tired to reply to emails or texts, so my approach has been to send him random nonsense on the basis that it’s there for him to read if he wants to.

I also tried not to slip into the trap of asking how long he thinks he’ll be in there. That’s because the concept of time is probably not terribly helpful to him at the moment. It’ll take as long as it takes. All we hope is that he’s over the scary dramas and setbacks and is ready for a steady recovery.

We first met 25 years ago when we both worked at the Watford Observer. He had just returned from the Westminster Press Journalism Training School in St Leonard’s-on-Sea, and I was a couple of months away from following in his footsteps. I could write a book about our friendship but what I’ll say here is that he’s played such a huge role in so many things I’ve done it’s impossible for me to express my gratitude in 700 words. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not have finished Graham Taylor’s autobiography without his help and I was so pleased that we got to work on that together. He’s also taught me some very valuable life lessons, many of which I’ve not been mature enough to actually realise until surprisingly recently.

So I’ll just tell one story that always makes me laugh when I think of it. Shortly after we met, we played for a Watford Observer football team against a team of retired policemen. It was a bit of a mismatch and we were about 4-0 up at half-time and the coppers weren’t taking it too well, especially when one of our players emerged from the dressing room for the start of the second half swigging from a bottle of beer.

When the game restarted, about half our team were still smoking their half-time cigarettes. (Not me, I should say). We kicked off, worked the ball down the wing to our ringer, who’d played a decent non-league standard, I seem to remember. He put the ball into the middle and – as I picture it – Simon took one final drag on his fag, threw it to the ground and rose like a salmon at the far post – one of his many nicknames was Salmon Ricketts because of his talent in the air – to head past the keeper, all in one fluid movement. The rest of the team ran to celebrate with him and those who were still smoking held their cigarettes aloft like little Olympic torches. It’s fair to say the police were not amused.

I’ve realised I promised to say something nice about him. So here goes: It was a very good finish, Simon, although I think you were marginally offside.

A chicken update: I contacted Simon the Photographer's brother-in-law, who is a farmer, about Margo and it seems the problem is broodiness. That explains the aggression, apparently. We managed to get her off the nest long enough today to remove the eggs and although she wasn't happy about it, she's spending longer out of the house and should be back to normal in a few days, which is a relief.