An insomiac writes...

4:42, Tuesday morning and I am wide awake.

Morning is starting to break; the birds have already begun their morning chorus; the day grows steadily brighter, it’s pale light shining through the window, not to mention the really fucking annoying mosquito that has been buzzing about my naked, exposed body all night long.

In the darkness, I take flailing swipes at the wee bastard and every time I think I’ve got it, almost immediately my eyes flash open as I hear the incessant drone of its wings as it circles around me, planning its next attack.

It’s warm - very warm. Has been for the past couple of days and will continue to be so for another few.

But none of this is reason for the sudden bout of insomnia that finds me in front of my laptop - chasing the blinking cursor across the screen whilst sharing these thoughts with you.

Lord knows my body would be much better served in The Land of Nod, dreaming of impossible foursomes with Britney, Christina and Madonna, or scoring Champions League winning goals (this dream having replaced the dream of watching them winning it just a few short weeks ago).

For you see – I am in pain.

And I don’t mean the pain of inner turmoil; the pain of unrequited love; or even the pain of abdominal cramps after a late night curry – I am suffering physical pain.

To explain it all better to you I have to go back in time; a time before all The Millennium Hype, a time when Brit Pop ruled the world, a time when getting rid of my mullet hair and beard actually became a reality, finally realising that it didn’t make me look like George Best – pre-liver failure of course.

It was my final year at university – a strange period in anyone’s life. A time where the pressure of studies peaking at its frenetic climax clashes with the sudden realisation that This Is It - The End of an Era.

The end of arsing about, the end of parties, the end of Sensible Soccer competitions on the computer, the end of Wednesday night sessions on the poor mans snakebite – Thunderbird fortified wine mixed with LCL extra strength lager. We later found out that the LCL stood for “Low Calorie Lager” which, come to think of it, meant that we were getting our alcoholic kicks on a beer called Low Calorie Lager Lager. That would explain why it was so cheap.

As our final exams approached, our need to Succeed in Order to Make It was at loggerheads with our need to ensure that We Enjoyed Ourselves.

This was more difficult than it sounds.

During final year, the house I lived in was called Whitehaven. Legendary throughout the university, this place was the party house. A huge sprawling place, it looked like fuck all squared from the outside – from the faded gold lettering above the double front doors announcing its name to the passing world to the faded paintwork, only it’s size had any ability to impress.

Inside was a different matter all together.

Seven bedrooms and equipped with dance floor, fireman’s pole, sauna, huge stained glass window, perspex dome complete with spiralling coloured lights and a hallway big enough to drive a small family car through or play three-a-side football (the latter we did on a regular basis) this house provided no end of distractions.

Not that we needed much encouragement.

But I’m not going to bore you with tales of drunken debauchery, excess and wild parties – perhaps that’s something for the future – instead I want to tell you about the rather impressive staircase that Whitehaven boasted.

Or more specifically, the impact it had on me.

Going through the front door of the house the staircase was instantly visible at the far end of the house. A grand affair, the wide, varnished, wooden staircase swept up to a small landing where the stained glass window presided over proceedings, before branching off into two sets of stairs that doubled back on themselves to a balcony on the upstairs floor.

Stood on this balcony and looking over, you looked down at the bottom of the staircase a good 20 feet (6.5 metres) below.

This alone should have been thrill enough for me but for some reason that I am still trying to fathom after all these years it wasn’t.

Obviously possessed with the spirit of a long dead acrobat (no doubt one who died during a performance) or at the very least the indestructibility of youth but more likely a need to show off and do something that little bit crazier than the rest of my housemates, I would regularly take a run up to the banister, where I would place both my hands and then leap up into a handstand position, balancing precariously before deftly flicking back onto the solidity of the floor behind.

Typing these words now, I’m filled with a mixture of utter disbelief and dismay not to mention incredible embarrassment, at just how incredibly stupid I was to even consider doing such a thing.

Needless to say this story does not have a happy ending.

One “Thursday morning after the Wednesday Student Night before” and my hangover was worse than usual as, ironically enough, considering the title of this part of cyberspace, I had spent the previous evening celebrating the fact that I had already gained employment in the big, bad world, working in Belgium for a Belgian software company.

To say my head was a little bit fuzzy would be an understatement.

Awaking from my slumber and possessed with the invincibility of the fully employed, I walked out onto the landing from my bedroom and made a run for the banister as I had done on several prior occasions, before flipping onto my hands and placing my body into the upright handstand position.

I knew immediately that things were not right.

Having given myself a more-than-enthusiastic run-up I hit the banister with a little more speed than was required for the task in hand.

There was nothing I could do.

My legs, carried by the unnecessary momentum that my run-up had provided, moved beyond the normal vertical position that my stunt required and the next thing I knew I was falling headfirst to the bottom of the exposed stairs below.

Frantically, I grabbed at one of the balustrades on the balcony, which succeeded in changing my fall from a reckless head first affair into a much more acceptable perpendicular-to-the-ground affair.

Just at that point, Mark, one of my housemates came out of his bedroom brushing his teeth (did I mention that all the bedrooms had sinks? Apart from mine – which was the only en suite in the place – it was only fair – I had been the one fortunate enough to get us the house).

For the briefest of moments, our eyes locked together – Mark’s wild with something resembling shock and horror, mine something entirely more ‘emotional’.

Mark stopped in his tracks, the toothbrush suspended from his mouth like a colourful thermometer that some forgetful nurse had misplaced.

I continued to fall to my (by now) certain death.

After what seemed like an eternity, I hit the bottom stair, the impact knocking the air out of me. I doubled up in pain fighting to find the breath that my lungs craved.

In another world, I heard Mark scream “Holy fuck lads!! Jonny’s fallen down the stairs!!”

Even then I remember thinking – “that’s not what happened – I didn’t touch any of the stairs! The only one I hit was this bottom one!!” Falling, after all, implied something completely different. A rather unnerving detail to be so adamant about considering my situation, but one that seemed strangely important at the time.

Choosing the more tried and tested method, but the oh so much boring technique, Mark came running down the stairs to my crumpled heap of a body at the bottom.

“Jesus Jonny – are you ok??!”

Fighting for breath, I brought out a reassuring hand from my abdomen and proceeded to tell him that everything was ok and that I just needed to catch my breath.

Everything was pretty fucking far from all right.

“Shit Jonny – look at your hand!!”

I turned to look at the right hand that I had raised to calm Mark down.

The sight that greeted me will live long in the memory and is not something for the squeamish amongst you to read, but I’m sure you will anyway…

My middle finger, like that of any normal person, was usually the longest in my hand.

On this particular occasion it was the shortest, reduced to an abnormal, crumpled, awkward mess. The reason for the deformed appendage I saw before me was blatantly obvious, one of the finger’s bones having decided that it had spent far too long cooped up inside my body and had pierced through my skin for all to see, glistening in the light coming through the stained glass window.

I freaked out.

I ran up one staircase, along the balcony and down the other and repeated the circuit several times whilst screaming “Shit Oh Shit Oh Shit – I’M DEFORMED!!!” I was followed by Mark, who was trying his best to placate me.

It wasn’t working.

Awoken by the commotion, two of my housemates came to see what was happening and within a few minutes, 4 hairy arsed hung-over students were rushing to a nearby hospital in one of the guy’s modest Citroen car, with me apologising as I bled all over the upholstery.

I was a mess.

We all arrived at the reception of the Accident and Emergency ward where we were asked who the patient was.

I raised my hand up in the air, the damaged appendage in full view with blood continuing to drip down my arm.

The receptionist gulped, eyes transfixed on my hand. “We’ll get somebody to have a look at that right away”.

Four hours, a lot of pulling, pushing and a helluva lot of drugs later and my hand, described by the doctor as “the worst dislocation I have ever seen”, was repaired. I returned to full health, never to repeat the handstand stunt ever again.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Despite the fact that I am lucky to be in a position to recount this tale and not in a wheelchair, or worse; fate has managed to deal me just a little bit of a bum deal.

Over the intervening years, I’ve noticed a problem developing on my hand, the index finger becoming more and more contracted, gradually getting closer to my palm, with the other fingers following suit, until my hand was becoming quite claw-like.

Awkward, rather than painful, the situation was manageable but taking advantage of the wonderful health service that we have here in Belgium and looking for some recompense for the incredible amount of money I have been paying through the years in Belgian taxes and social security, I thought I’d get it looked at, taking myself off to Middelheim hospital one afternoon a couple of years ago.

“This is the worst was of Dupuytren’s contracture that I have ever seen in one so young” came the rather unsettling observation from the doctor.

This did not sound good.

“Dupuytren’s contracture?” I enquired.

“Are you Scottish?” was the Monty Python-esque response to my question. Things were getting a bit surreal.

“Err, well no – but I’m Scotch-Irish”, I offered hopefully, not wanting to disappoint.

“It’s a genetic disease, present only in Northern Europeans. Members of your family will no doubt have suffered from the same ailment.”

“Not that I am aware of”

Ignoring me, he continued:
“But it normally only occurs in a person’s 50’s or 60’s. I’ve never seen it in somebody so young.”

I explained my handstand ‘incident’ to him. He didn’t look too impressed.

“That might explain it – the disease has been accelerated by that trauma – still I wouldn’t want to operate on it, unless it becomes worse, say to a position of 45°”

So a couple of years passed and the situation became somewhat unbearable for me and now in a situation where I am in between projects, and with a contracture of more than 45° I now find myself recovering from an operation which took place Friday afternoon.

Hence the pain that has me up in the small hours even contemplating sharing this tale with you.

The time is now 07:19 and it is broad daylight. In the outside world people are getting up to go about their daily business – indeed some of you might already be up and about at the start of another Tuesday in Belgium.

As I already mentioned, the past few days have been hot, I believe yesterday was a scorching, 34°C, with today expected to be a slightly cooler 30°C. With more of the same to follow over the next few days, I have to admit I am not totally adverse to the idea of two weeks enforced absence from work but I’d certainly appreciate a better night’s sleep.

Time to get more drugs into me and to take myself off to bed, although not for too long – I’ve a sun tan to work on.

Except, of course, where the bandage covers.

June 2005

For those of you interested or just plain nosey, you can check out the disease and the operation I went through (with lots of gory photos included) at:


Anonymous said…
We're not so boring as you think, just give us a chance.

G and G
Anonymous said…
We've promised to enter a comment
and we keep our promises

G-man and wife.
Anonymous said…

I've just been diagnosed with Dupuytren too... wish you all the best with your hand

a girl from Brussels
Anonymous said…

Talk about a perfect articulation of the event. I remember it EXACTLY as you told it. To be honest, you had successfully completed the staircase acrobatics on so many occasions that we'd all developped a blasé attitude to it. "Oh, there's Jonny performing that highly difficult, very dangerous banister somersault thing. Anyone for a cup of tea?" Sorry to hear it's still giving you jip, old boy.

Your Derry Comrade.

PS It was a King's Acre and LCL snakebite. Lethal chemistry with excellent results - guaranteed.