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Episode 3: Justin Case takes off…

Justin Case takes off...

Despite birthing Justin Case in Christmas 2016, it took me until Christmas 2018 before I planned the bare bones of the Justin Case Farewell World Tour. 

Radiation treatment does funny things to you. There is something quite daunting about having microwaves aimed at a space far too close to your testicles for any degree of comfort. It’s also quite distressing when your mouth is watering and you suddenly realise that it is yourself that’s cooking. Maybe my overbred, inbred and crossbred poodle-oodle isn’t the only cannibal in the family. The oncology outpatients ward is an amazing place. I walked past beds and La-Z-Boy chairs not really aware of what was going on. 

There is something about walking towards a human microwave oven that steals your attention. After my third visit and a realisation that the microwave wasn’t going to kill me or fry my testicles, I began to start to see the humour in it. I posted to Facebook that the only side-effect I was feeling was that I glowed in the dark. The plus was that during a recent power outage, I was a wonderful night light. And as that wasn’t enough light, my wife tried screwing a bulb into my arse. Anyway, after the laughter wore off, I realised that people on the wards in the beds and in the La-Z-Boy chairs were all rigged up to chemotherapy drips. It’s easy to get maudlin and feel sorry for people that are going through that kind of stuff. I don’t wish to minimise it because it is a bloody awful process. But my dealings with the people in the waiting rooms were always awesome. 

One teenager I met had on a tee shirt that read “Real superheroes wear chemo drips”. One lady had me alternating between tears of sadness and straight pee-yourself laughter within a matter of minutes. She told me that this was her third and final trip on the chemo coaster. She was half my age and 10 times more courageous and 100 times funnier. She came into reception one day and told the very condescending receptionist that she was there for her “Jenny Craig infusion”. She said that while she was enjoying the weight loss, she was mighty pissed that half the 10 kilos she had lost were body hair. Also that her beautician was furious because Greek girls like her were usually in daily to have some hair lasered off. Now she was walking around with private parts smoother than a Barbie doll. 

I have met heroes before but she was definitely in my superhero category. I was there for the last day of her treatment and stayed an hour after my zapping was done just to watch her ring the bell. When you finish a course of chemo you get to ring the bell. It’s a very emotional time as you may have been on a full year of chemo treatment so you have developed a whole new family in the ward. They know what you have gone through and some have shared your journey and walked step-by-step with you down the road. Shared bandanas and wore them with pride. To my shame, I don’t know what happened to my hero. I really didn’t think I could take knowing what happened… this is a horrible disease. 

Like any tremendous danger, the more often it visits the more often it becomes DIES-EASE. Before I had cancer and got to meet other travellers along Cancer Avenue, I didn’t really appreciate the blanket statement “Fuck You Cancer”! I do now. It is a blanket statement that covers everything regardless of the outcome. Along our journey, we lose some friends and fellow travellers. And yes, some long-term survivors go on to have healthy and productive lives. But everyone, once they have met cancer, will carry a psychological burden and membership of a horrible club. And in defiance and anger born out of pain, we chant the club motto till we die, “Fuck You Cancer”.     

When I started planning the Justin Case Farewell World Tour it was originally just a fishing trip in Kentucky and maybe a game of golf in California. But England, Scotland and Wales have a bigger hold on my heart than the US did. Well, bigger than the lofty aspirations to drive through some of the US in a Cadillac with a fishing rod, a seven iron and a three-wood. The trouble was that I had a raft of family that had been born in the 30 years since I had left Britain. 

Travelling halfway around the world and not meeting them would mean I would likely end up very short of a family at my funeral. Plus, I would miss out on football, fishing and British pubs. These were some things I wanted to experience at least one last time before I died. I am not being melodramatic here, but I don’t have any plans, and even less desire, to spend copious amounts of my time uncomfortably jammed into a sardine can of an aeroplane getting back home again. 

So the Justin Case Farewell World Tour was going to have to be thought about long and hard. I decided after some thought, and an earnest view of our bank account, that despite the word “World” in the title, I was going to have to make this just the bits of my world. My world was the UK, mainland USA, Hawaii, New Zealand and home. I have been to other places and have had significant things happen in those places, but I had a five-stop airfare and not very much money. Nepal, Kenya, Jerusalem, Rome, Barcelona, Rio and everywhere else that I really wanted to go would get me on a mafia hit list sponsored by my bank manager. Five stops it would be. Despite trimming costs, my bucket list was still quickly becoming a fuckit list.

My original plan was to go everywhere I wanted and do it in a style I had only ever dreamt of. My US road trip itinerary was originally going to be East Coast Florida to the Canadian border then down to Niagara to stay with my friend Dave. Drive south to Atlanta to watch Tiger play and then up to Indianapolis to stay with my friend Pete. Then to Chicago and stay there till I saw the Cubs win a game. 

Then Route 66 via Monument Valley and on to Las Vegas. Then drive up through the desert to Utah and across to Seattle. Then the final fling was the West Coast Pacific Coast Hwy to San Francisco to stay with my friend Deb and watch the Oakland Raiders. Then drive the rest of PCH1 to Hollywood and the Santa Monica Pier at the end of Route 66. All of this done in a Cadillac; the first hit to the budget was the Cadillac. Along the way, the fuckit list became even more of a FUCKIT LIST. More about that later.   

By Christmas 2016, I was in full recovery. No sign of cancer. My wound had healed nicely. I had a lovely 12-inch scar from my upper thigh to the middle of my now more-than-ample waist. I also had a deep dimple-shaped scar in my left thigh that looked remarkably like a bullet hole. It was there because of the Bagatha drain from the operation site. That dimple was to become a surprising source of great joy and entertainment for me. That came about because I was getting pissed off with people that I hardly knew stopping me and asking me how the cancer treatment was going. They usually just stood there ghoulishly, licking their lips like hungry dogs awaiting long-winded tales of woe and weariness.

If someone I disliked stopped me at the shops or in the pub and annoyed me with questions about how my cancer treatment was going, they would become part of my “Trusted Few”. I would take them aside, lean in towards them and whisper conspiratorially, “Can you keep a secret?” Then, again conspiratorially, I would whisper, “I can only Trust a Few”, all the time glancing nervously over their shoulders and around the room/shop/park. I then would make up a bizarre story about not having cancer but really being shot in the thigh. 

To prove this I would hitch up the leg of my shorts, and show them the faux bullet hole. The stories I made up got increasingly funnier and more bizarre. I started off with a police officer accidentally shooting me at a breathalyser stop. I also told people about a jealous husband who tried to shoot my balls off. 

Another story I made up was that I had stolen and eventually torched a biker gang’s marijuana crop and consequently shot for revenge. I even said an insane fan-boy had mistaken me for Johnny Depp and had shot me when I refused him an autograph. My favourite though, was that I had been working undercover, James Bond-style for MI5, and the Russians had caught and shot me. I had a lot of fun. Once in the local bar, I overheard someone sitting on a nearby bench telling someone a police officer had accidentally shot me during a drug raid. 

A story that I had not made up, the guy said it was true and he could prove it, pulling out his phone and showing the other guy a supposed picture of my bullet hole. I cannot remember if I ever posed for a selfie with my trousers down. But there is every chance, after a couple of beers mixed with my painkillers, that I would have posed. Modesty has never been a quality of mine. I am also not admitting, or in fact denying, that on one drunken night after a selfie, I may have bent over and told everyone that my arsehole was the exit wound!

From this, I quickly worked out that most people won’t keep a secret. Many times, people came and asked me, even while I was in the street, if being shot had hurt me? I noticed that people who would not normally give me the time of day gave me grudging respect and, best of all, some of the worst people I knew would stay away from me. This suited me just fine. I don’t really like people who spread, or even worse, listen to rumours. Yes, I know ironic, given that I had started most of the rumours and that I have a nasty penchant for bending over and flashing my exit wound. What I am saying is that the benefit was that my fake bullet wound siphoned the gossipers from my life. It also meant that when I walked up to the bar, people moved over and I got a space and also got served quickly by very nervous bar staff.

My health, including my fictional gunshot wound, was good except for peripheral neuropathy. Put concisely, peripheral neuropathy is the dying off of the peripheral nerve endings, principally in your feet and hands. I probably got it when I stopped breathing, but no one in the hospital will admit that. The fact that I didn’t have it when I came out of surgery, but after waking from the coma I did have it, points pretty keenly to the “stop-breathing incident” as the cause. I still find it funny that dying for a while is called a stop-breathing incident. Anyway, peripheral neuropathy means I am at the 25 per cent pain level all the time. Best described as the pain you feel at the bottom of a ski slope when you realise that your ski boots are on too tight and are probably a size too small. The trouble is that I can’t get the ski boots off and that means an annoying pain level of 25 per cent but with an occasional 70 per cent pain burst. 

The pain burst from peripheral neuropathy usually occurs inconveniently, maybe in a waiting room, in the shops or on a bus. It happens when my brain suddenly panics and realises that it hasn’t heard from my feet all day and pretends that my feet have just been amputated at the ankle. Nerve pain is a sudden stab like getting a blunt pin jabbed into an area that shows no sign of wound or damage. Worse still is that when it is gone, it disappears without leaving behind any evidence that it has ever been there. Not so much as a vivid reddening of your skin. So, my jumping around in agony is usually met with disbelief. If you are someone with blood leaking from a paper cut, you will get a plaster, sympathy, a lift to ER and mouth-to-mouth from a pretty student nurse. People presume a peripheral neuropathy sufferer to be on drink, drugs or just mentally unstable.

By January 2018, I decided I was going to do the Justin Case Farewell World Tour before anything else happened, fell off, fell apart, or broke down. To make sure I couldn’t back out, I announced it on Facebook and said that I would be in England in August; that I would be in the US from September to early November, Hawaii in mid-November and end up in NZ in late November. This surprised a few people, and loads of worries and concerns surfaced from family and friends. I took all such advice as I usually do. I saw them as a personal attack on my manhood and my ability to pull off the tour. It wasn’t like I was planning a walk to the South Pole carrying two Pekinese and some ice-cream. Being the man I am, I met people’s concerns in one of three ways;

By totally ignoring them.

Even worse, denouncing their concerns as personal doubt or straight-out jealousy.

Being very sarcastic.

The truth is that they filled me to the brim with self-doubt. There were many days when just getting out of bed was a struggle. I was on a raft of drugs that artificially kept me afloat while also stealing my slim grasp on reality. Here I was, a man sleeping 16 hours a day, who couldn’t make it to the end of the street, and I was about to go around the world pretty much totally alone. I only had a few planned stops with friends along the way. 

Foolishly, I could not see any flaws in my plan. Scott of the Antarctic went to the South Pole with warm-blooded pit ponies. They, like me, were woefully inadequate for the job and most of them died before even setting foot in Antarctica. From this side of my journey, I had a pit pony in the Antarctic’s chance of pulling this off. Oates was with Scott at the South Pole but was aware that he was slowing down the party and affecting badly their chances of getting home. So one night he stepped out of the tent saying the fatal words, “I am going outside and I shall be some time”.

Despite and probably in total spite of this, by February 22, 2018, my 56th birthday, I had paid for my flights. I also bought some very costly travel/life/medical insurance. Basically, to persuade my wife that any medical collapse in Jock Strap, West Virginia,  would not cost us the house. Given my state of health, it was odds on I would need to use the medical insurance, at least twice along the way. I then got on eBay and bought vast maps of the US and UK to plan workable routes. Making and remaking the plan took weeks. 

The plan was to travel a few hours each day, criss-crossing the UK and the US. Originally, I reckoned I was going to clock up about 7000 miles in the US alone. I meticulously copied the planned route into my diary and all that took me through to the end of April. Then May, June and July seemed to stretch out before me like a huge, unbridgeable wasteland. The maps on the wall and the diary by my bed openly mocked me. For the first time, the enormity of what I was going to do with a body that wouldn’t let me get out of bed played on my mind. I was plagued with self-doubt, and failure mocked me. My dreams were filled with all the people I knew taunting me and calling me gunner. Gunner do this, gunner do that they screamed at me laughing.

So, I did the only reasonable thing I could think of; I attempted suicide. There are an awful lot of things in life that are very embarrassing if you are unsuccessful at them. Waking up alive after a suicide attempt is one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to you. There is a lot to say about the mindset you reach before attempting suicide. My experience was extraordinary in several ways. I will come back to that later. Having been spectacularly and embarrassingly unsuccessful at suicide, I got to speak to the hospital’s psychiatrist. Well, half a psychiatrist. Like court-appointed lawyers, my hospital-appointed psychiatrist wasn’t very experienced or very good. He quickly concluded that my suicide attempt was a scream for help. He said that the scream was so that I didn’t have to go, do, and of course, inevitably fail to complete the Justin Case Farewell World Tour. He strongly advised that I not go through with an endeavour as foolish as travelling alone across a vast tract of the world. He also advised my wife to hide my passport and to beg me not to go. Well, that sealed it for me. 

No early 20-something  sparsely bearded, (I swear he had a Two O’clock shadow) failed hipster was going to pass judgment on my physical and mental ability to spend four months, almost alone, struggling around the world. In his final gambit to persuade me of my inability, he pointed out that I couldn’t stay awake long enough to get home from the hospital. At the time, I was taking enough opiates each week to denude a field of poppies. But deep down I was still sure that I could do it. At least that’s what I told myself, and now I had a trainee psychiatrist to prove wrong.

I have several bad virtues, and one of them took over. I became immensely stubborn. First, I stopped taking the drugs that very day. Second, I walked, staggered and pushed myself a couple of miles every day. Please remember that walking for me was like stepping out with a handful of gravel and cactus needles in each shoe. Every single step was at its very best uncomfortable. And because of the nerve damage, I never knew which step or which part of my foot was going to hurt when it landed on the path. Every time I took a step, I looked like a newborn fawn full of tequila.

 Crazily, the final four weeks slid by with me increasingly determined to prove all the bastards wrong. Through gritted teeth, the chanted mantra became non-illegitimis et carborundum. Yes, no jealous, snotty-nosed, doubting little fake hipster bastard was going to grind me down. In hindsight, he was right, but if he hadn’t told me I couldn’t do it, then I probably wouldn’t have gone and done it.

Before I knew it, my case was packed, and I was off to the airport. As I walked through the departure gate, I repeated Oates’ last words, for drama’s sake, but under my breath for sanity’s sake. “I am off and I shall be some time”.

For the first time in over 30 years, I was totally alone and on my own walking down the sky tube gantry onto the plane; the flight attendant asked me where I was going and I answered “everywhere”. I paused for a second and looked back behind me and then back at her and I said, “yes… well for me, pretty much everywhere”.

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