Damaged Goods But Not Lost Property By Stephen Page

We take a lot for granted as we live our busy lives. In my 40th year, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and I think it took two full years for me to escape denial. Yet, if I am honest there was a part of me that embraced my changing capacities. Extraordinarily quickly. I have been fortunate in that to date I have not suffered problems with my speech, beyond the fact that my lungs do not have as much exercise as they once did. And talking, I now realise, is quite an exhausting activity. I laugh sometimes because the more I talk the less I see. My optic nerve has been affected, and I am registered blind, although this doesn't mean that I can't see things. Simply that my ability to interpret signals from the eye has been degraded. The amount I see, for example the speed with which I can recognize faces, varies over time, and even sometimes improves if I am rested. I was never too fond of physical activities, and so I don't mourn this aspect of my losses as much as many would. I have always lived a cerebral life, and although my thinking might have slowed, it hasn't stopped. I might be damaged goods, but I'm not lost property. A lot of my time is devoted to ensuring that the important things are somehow made possible: the things I used to take for granted, like going shopping, visiting friends and family, and going to theatre and concert performances, which I have always enjoyed attending. Even the little detailed things like just finding stuff, which is hard enough when you're able-bodied, requires time, good organisation and in my case often the help of a carer.

Perhaps the single most important activity I can still pursue is creative writing. I used to be able to type very fast, but these days I would be a one-finger typist, if it wasn't for voice-activated software. It is amazing how accurately the software recognizes my voice, and Vicki the speech circuit in the computer, reads back to me with an amazing Californian accent. I don't go out anything like as much as I used to, and I don't meet people outside of my social circle very often, so when I do, I probably talk too much. Which is exactly the way I behaved when I met Dame Vera Lynn recently, just across the road from where I live in Worthing. The Queen Alexandra Hospital, home for soldiers aged between 23 and 99 years, is just a few hundred yards from my flat in the West End of Worthing. A Summer Fete was advertised on a notice board at the entrance to the car park. It was the end of August, and the band of the Coldstream Guards would be in town to greet the return of some of 'our boys' from Afghanistan. It was natural, somehow, that after the formal business of the day they should turn up at the hospital, especially as Dame Vera was there to open the fete and sign autographs for a pound a time. There was no shortage of takers. The weather brightened up just as things began to get going, and Pauline, my carer, wandered off with her sister whilst I treated myself to a beefburger with onions. Fabulous. A local farmer was providing the goods, and like many people these days, I like to know where my meat has come from. When the girls found me, thoroughly enjoying my lunch, I was informed there were soon to be tours of the building. We signed up at once, and in no time were being given a briefing from our guide. The doors to many of the rooms would be open, she said, but we should respect the fact that this was their home. And what a fabulous place it was. It was definitely a hospital, but the quality of everything was quite extraordinary. About 20 of us in our party made up a ragbag of

visitors, greeted throughout the tour by friendly faces peering from the rooms. I couldn't help thinking that I could quite happily live there, and a small part of me wondered whether my service in the Combined Cadet Force at my grammar school would make me eligible. Just as we finished the tour, via a lift with the sexiest voice imaginable, I could hear the sound of the band beginning to play outside. The crowds of people filling the downstairs had begun to drift out to hear them, and before I even noticed she had gone anywhere, Pauline suddenly appeared and said, "come over here". I dutifully followed without question, suddenly to find myself face to face across a small square table from Dame Vera Lynn. Dame Vera had been the only other woman my father ever admitted feelings for, and she had sustained him through the time when he had served with the Royal Engineers between 1940 and 1948. Suddenly my hand was in hers, not in a handshake but just held as if we were long lost friends meeting. I found myself explaining to Dame Vera how much she had meant to my father, and to the men that he served with, through the long years of fighting. Dame Vera listened, and for her entire tea break she gave me her full attention. I was under her spell. I talked too much. The time to leave came too quickly. I began to move backwards in my electric wheelchair, only for both of us to be astonished to see the teacup and saucer immediately in front of her moving slowly, as if by some unseen hand, towards the edge of the table. In the nick of time I heard Pauline's voice ordering me to stop. Somehow I had caught the table cloth. The look on Dame Vera's face will stay with me for a very long time. My magical moment ended with us all chortling. I didn't want to wash my hands for a week after that. The first thing I wanted to do when I got home was to ring my mum, to tell her what I had been up to.

I was amazed when mum told me that my father had once met Dame Vera. It must have been some years after the war, but this everpresent Angel had one day just dropped in to the pigeon club in West Ham where my father spent the greater part of his adult life. As a young boy I was always taken there on a Friday, when the birds were ringed and transported to every corner of the British Isles. I think I understand more keenly now my father's quiet vigil, every Saturday awaiting the return of his precious birds. He never spoke much about his war experiences, and all I know is that he fought at El Alamein, and was in Palestine in 1948 when he was demobilised. Married in 1938, signed up in 1940 with his band of brothers from inside the safety of the dock gates, and for eight of the next ten years absent from the nest, but with the homing instinct of one of his pigeons. I fantasise that some strange connection links the recent release of Dame Vera Lynn's greatest hits, surging straight to the top of the charts, with the conversation we had across that surreal table. Loquacious as ever, I just went on about the impact of her music on men fighting for right against terrible odds. She has always been loyal to the men for whom she became so important. Amongst that generation for whom she has always represented so much. Now I have realized that, for decades, she has continued to inspire even the young, and she surely always will. She continues to represent that inexpressible instinct for home, to which all soldiers, whatever battles they fight, are inexorably drawn. 1331 words

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