Author: Roshan Firouz
[The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own.]
By June I always feel a longing to return to Iran. London’s immensity, the overwhelming greyness of the city, its motley architecture, the vast obscurity and indifference of the people that you pass can be supremely oppressive. Sitting at the computer sipping white wine, buying airline tickets for our return home to Kordan, our village in Iran, I was happy. The only sound was Classic FM, Sibelius. A few hours earlier, my six year old son Milo had cheerfully gone off to the park with a group of Peruvian street artists.
Milo was born in Buenos Aires. He could have been called Carlos Saul, a proposal that came directly from the then Argentine president Carlos Saul Menem. “If you call him after me I will be his godfather” – I found it quite easy to turn down that offer. Like all babies, Milo went from helpless blob to drunken sailor and I marvelled at how toddlers are so hilariously bad at walking. In fact you wonder at the sheer folly and madness of a species that is born without the inherent knowledge that, if you tumble forward, you should put your hands out to protect you. How we humans survived in the face of this senselessness is a genuine mystery, most unDarwinian. Anyway, with Milo causing total havoc to his own wellbeing, my nerves and the furniture I was a bit desperate. A stroke of pure luck brought us a lovely Peruvian girl who managed to turn Milo’s wobbly energy in a completely different direction: dancing the salsa on the kitchen counter in his nappies. In the process she got us all hooked on the lovely Cumbia music of Colombia. Her nickname was Manna, absolutely perfect because for me she really was exactly that, Manna from heaven.
Following a four year posting in Argentina we returned to London – a shock to the system. Having thought about life without Manna I realised that I could not face it. Not entirely surprisingly, when I suggested that she come back to London with us, it took her all of 2 seconds to decide. In London she had no trouble finding and befriending the diaspora of Peruvians, most of whom seemed to make a living busking on the streets. Their favourite and most lucrative spot was the Portobello Road area. The sound of their music floated down streets and like a musical Pied Piper, the haunting tunes pulled all to their source. Atmospheric and evocative, the melodies seemed so out of place in busy London. In my mind they should have been heard in the high Andes, with the mountains as a backdrop and the wind as accompaniment.
My mind snapped back to the present as the front door was violently flung open and a screaming Milo was carried in by Manna and handsome, long haired Inca-looking Paco. “What happened?” “We don’t know, he was climbing in the playground at Hyde Park and suddenly started screaming”, Manna had tears in her eyes. Milo was hysterical, his eyes glazed over with pain and I got no response when I tried to speak with him. Looking at his legs, I saw a small bump on his left shin and a feeling of total dread came over me: surely this funny bump could not be … please please NO Milo very clearly had to be taken to the hospital. Manna and Paco helped me get him into the car and we raced to the Chelsea and Westminster hospital on the Fulham Road. Weren’t we so very lucky to have this flagship NHS hospital so close by. Manna and Paco were holding Milo and doing their best to try and soothe him but the screams continued and we all felt helpless.
The emergency ward looked more like a tube station at rush hour than a hospital. There was complete mayhem, a chaotic throng of people pushing or being pushed in all directions. Bloody noses, smashed teeth, a slashed arm – with too few places to sit, prostrate bodies littered the floors of the emergency unit. It was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, the lowest levels of despair. A very earnest missionary looking type of man in a dark, ill fitting suit and dirty white shirt was telling everyone that they would be taken care of, if not by the doctors and nurses, then by a higher power. Not at all reassured, I went in search of a more down to earth authority. A Rastafarian man with his arm in a blood staled homemade sling seemed the most compos mentis of all and directed me towards the source of most of the noise, the reception desk – one look at Milo and a nurse was dispatched to take us to a bed at the edge of the hall. “Please wait here, I will get a doctor” the nurse said in strongly accented English. Milo had screamed so much that his voice was hoarse, and it was torture to listen to him. Grabbing her arm I begged her to hurry, showing her the bump on Milo’s shin. This did the trick and she hurried off, returning with an injection of Codeine. Within seconds Milo had calmed – after two minutes he relaxed, even managing to focus on me. I asked him what had happened: “I jumped off a log Mum” The mayhem in the waiting area got progressively worse and I began to despair. Finally, after an hour, a distracted and harassed young doctor came over and had a look at Milo’s leg, “Nurse I need an X-ray of this leg”. The result: “This is just short of an open fracture as the broken tibia has not actually pierced the skin.” Thank goodness for small mercies. “However, there is some displacement” No kidding I thought to myself. “I won’t have time to treat it properly tonight, I will put a temporary plaster cast on it and we will treat it tomorrow”. I could hardly believe my ears, “But doctor surely…..” I felt an aggressive nudge from the right and turned round to see that my husband David had arrived. “I am sure the Doctor knows best”.
With Milo high and happy on painkillers, the lovely Ethiopian nurse and I chatted as she piled ridiculous amounts of plaster on Milo’s leg. I watched the uneven section of the shin disappear underneath the plaster and felt a pang of worry. “Enku I think I need medication for stress, surely you have something for frantically worried mothers”. Enku sympathised and we joked about meeting up sometime for a glass of wine. “Make mine a bottle”
Early the next morning the doctor came in and had a look at the block of plaster on Milo’s leg. “Not really worth putting your son through the pain and discomfort of changing the cast, I recommend we let the leg heal itself. He is young, should be fine ” I thought my hearing must have been affected by all of the screaming I had heard the day before “But the bone was very obviously out of alignment, how can you leave it?” “Madam, a young body will sort itself out”. My husband who had dropped in on his way to work gave me the look, the one reserved for when I am getting upset and trying to make a point. Never one to ruffle feathers, he told me again that the doctors knew more about such things than I did. But that nagging feeling was grinding away at the bottom of my stomach.
Back at home, less than two days later, I answered the phone to hear my normally calm brother Caren, calling from Kordan, but in a right state, “You won’t believe this… actually you will. Mum has had a nasty accident, came off a horse it seems.” No details, she was at the other end of Iran, worlds away from any form of modern communication. Word had trickled down to my brother via a Turkoman labourer who had come south on the overnight bus from Gonbade-d-Kavous looking for work in relatively nearby Tehran. After a further stressful 24 hours, Kheder, the foreman on the farm in the north, called Caren and on a crackly line, explained: while taking a group of French anthropologists and botanists riding in the remote mountains of northeastern Iran, Mum’s horse had slipped on loose scree at the edge of a steep hill and fallen over, on Mum’s leg. Her natural reaction of putting her arm out to stop the fall, had sliced the skin off her elbow, right down to the bone. I am pretty sure that very soon after it happened, she would have been given a hefty dose of the most basic kind of codeine: organic, raw, pretty much straight from the poppy. Poor Milo should have been so lucky. Any one of the Turkomans who worked for my Mum and helped on the treks could have fished it out of their pockets, they all carried it. What is more, there were no worries about running out as it is produced locally and readily available. It could also be delivered, by a particularly obliging Afghan who rode around the area on his motorcycle bringing relief and oblivion to all who needed it.
It took the Turkomans four hours on horseback to get Mum to a car and a further three hours to get to a doctor in Kalaleh, the closest town. There, the only doctor’s only X-ray machine was broken so he did the same thing as the doctor in London, he put a plaster cast on Mum’s leg, conveniently concealing the damage. This obvious incompetence was pure ammunition for Mum’s assertions that doctors are thieves and more often than not, plain clueless and inept. The effects of her artisanal pain killer would not yet have worn off, and there was a plentiful supply of it to keep the pain away – I’d say she was probably pretty cool about the whole thing. Mum loved the role of martyr, she thrived on the attention. It gave her the perfect chance to air her ideas, to get a proper grip on some of her more outrageous theories. On this occasion, no sooner had she gotten back to the farm than she summoned the village elder who was very happy to pop right over to see his favourite and most loyal customer. Verses of various holy books together with pagan incantations were chanted over the affected areas. But he lamented strongly that with the casts and bandages on the injuries, he was unable to administer his usual miracle concoctions of egg yolk and herbs to the affected areas.
Insisting that she was fine and did not need the attention of the thieving doctors of Tehran, Mum insisted that I come up to see her at the farm in GTS (the name of the village nearest to our farm in the Turkoman Steppe area is Ghara Tappeh Sheikh. This was too much of a mouthful for young Caren and he abbreviated it to what has now become its universal appellation, GTS). GTS is a 9 to 10 hour drive from our family home in Kordan. The journey crosses the Alborz mountain range at about 3000 metres, continues east through the lush forested hills south of the Caspian Sea and finally, northeast into the more arid steppe area of Golestan province. The final two hours are on dirt tracks with two river crossings located at the bottom of canyons which are very prone to flash floods. I was not too keen, given the state of Milo’s leg and the unwieldiness of the wretched cast. Just as Caren and I were deliberating about the logistics of traveling north, there was a sudden change of plan: in unbearable pain despite her happy pills, Kheder, the foreman in GTS, had convinced Mum that she should return to Tehran. Our long-suffering Armenian family GP, Dr Hovanessian was immediately contacted and he fixed for her to be operated on at a reputable Tehran hospital.
During visiting hours, after the operation, we were shown the X-rays of Mum’s leg, the before and after. Caren and I stared in horrible fascination – the tibia had broken in multiple places but the surgeons had reassembled the bits, clamped a metal rod to her shin, with nine pins anchoring the shin bone to the metal rod, like scaffolding. “The next time I hurt myself, you can just send me to a mechanic” drawled Mum, still dopey after the operation.
I decided that I would take Milo to see Dr. Hovanessian as I had more faith in him than the English doctors. In his surgery Dr H studied the X-rays I had brought from London: “Roshan, come here. Tell me what you see” he said angrily. “A broken bone” I replied lamely. Armenians have a reputation for being quite serious and severe and Dr. H was not in the mood for glib remarks. “Do your eyes not work? Can you not see that the bone is not aligned” . I felt ten years old and my eyes strayed sheepishly to my feet. With the ire of Dr Hovanessian directed at me, excuses and explanations seemed pointless. “It would have taken five seconds, after administering the Codeine injection, to set the leg and put on a normal cast. What is this concrete block that they have attached to this poor child’s leg, were they planning to drown him?” It was too late to reset the leg, Milo would always have a slight bump and a thicker section on his tibia. But the blessed Dr. H changed the plaster cast, putting on a much lighter one, all the while muttering about incompetent English doctors….
My Mum, whose name was Louise, was known to her grandchildren as Weezie. Louise had become Weezie and this was then embellished: Weezie Peasy, Japanesy, Lemon Squeezy, Take it Easy. Back home in Kordan, Milo and Weezie became wheelchair buddies and loved having all of us at their beck and call. They were referred to as the Royal Couple, sitting on their thrones, not-so-benign dictators, who issued unreasonable orders with no hesitation or sympathy. This was going to end badly, scores were being kept and the post wheelchair era was going to be hard for them. But they took advantage of their disabilities and lapped up the attention. We took turns wheeling them around the orchards and paddocks and Milo convinced Weezie to read the whole of The Hobbit to him.
Mum was the ice cream maker extraordinaire, La Regina del Gelato. She had collected ducks from the Caspian Sea area and her flock had multiplied, many times over. Nobody liked duck egg omelettes but they made a sublime gelato. With her being somewhat incapacitated, Mum decided that, under her tutelage, I might just be able to make a passable ice cream. Sensing that I was on to a loser, I expected that my efforts, no matter how closely monitored, would never pass muster. Starting a project when you know you are doomed to failure is disheartening at the best of times. With the Royal Couple judging my every move the pressure was terrible. And according to them, so was my ice cream. I blamed the ducks…
In the end young bones do heal. Milo now takes part in some of the world’s toughest endurance races and has run 110 kilometres in one go, carrying 15 kilos on his back. He has suffered from blisters, sunstroke, dehydration and nose bleeds but so far, his shin has done him proud. My fingers are crossed and I salute his young bones.
Mum went on to blaze a trail across the planet setting off every single airport scanner she passed through. It provided every excuse she needed to have chats with airport security guards and give them the gory details about the inner workings of her damaged leg. May her spirit be happy, wherever she is.