Former Scotsman journalist Kenneth Roy on his final project while terminally ill

Former Scotsman journalist Kenneth Roy
Former Scotsman journalist Kenneth Roy
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Former Scotsman journalist Kenneth Roy was terminally ill in hospital when he started working on his final project. In the three weeks before he died in November last year, he had written 49,000 words. This extract from the resulting book is from Friday 26 October 2018

Today I’m going to write the story of my life,’ sings Pat wistfully as she cleans the room. ‘And it’s going to be a best-seller.’ Adding: ‘How I wish this shift was over.

‘What are you writing today?’ she asks.

‘Oh, just getting on with the book.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘Life and death, mostly the latter.’

‘Can I have an autographed copy?’

‘Sadly, I won’t be alive when it’s published.’

‘Don’t say that, Kenneth,’ she replies with feeling.

Rather than pursue this exchange, she retreats into the bathroom, and I can hear her humming and sighing. Count the number of pills Lisa has given me. Four including one or two teeny ones. What on earth are they all for? I don’t ask. Best not. Pat returns, informing me that she lives in the hills above Patna (ex-Ayrshire mining village, despite its exotic name) with her husband, a former commercial fisherman, now unfit for work. Sometimes in winter they’re cut off by snow and Pat has to embark on the first part of her early morning journey on foot before she can pick up a bus to the hospital.

A friend who died a couple of years ago, a very devout Catholic convert this man, had a specific take on Heaven. He said that God would grant to each of us a permanent view – by means of a sort of celestial satnav as I understood it – of our favourite place, so that we might observe not only the bigger picture – the changing of the seasons and the vagaries of the weather and so on – but the tiniest detail – the momentary shadow cast by a tree, for example, or the contours and fragrance (I think we’re to be allowed the sense of smell) of a flower. There would be no feature, however subtle and transient, of this scene that we would miss: all of it, in its infinite variety and interest, would be ours to access and marvel at forever. The more I thought about my friend’s vision the more it appealed to me, and one supposed that there would be a facility for switching on and off, resting and returning as one pleased.

This set me wondering which scene I’d choose. A difficult call. I’m not a city man as you know, so that rules out urban Scotland. Perhaps the coast of South Ayrshire, so often serene in summer and elemental in winter, a scene intimately familiar to me, with such landmarks as Turnberry lighthouse and Ailsa Craig and Adam’s majestic Culzean Castle to appreciate, and allowing me glimpses of the many delightful inlets and harbours, and the pleasure of seeing the old fishing boat at Girvan that I half thought of buying, for I’d insist on it as part of my eternity – all that felt fairly heavenly. I’d never tire of watching the movement of the tides and I’d be able to recall dawn May Day walks along the prom at Prestwick with M, the rain and bitter wind lashing our faces, the only people idiotic enough to be out in it. Yes, if I could prevail on God to arrange a wide enough vista that I could somehow take in all of this, and being greedy about it, more, for I was always thrilled by the first glimpse of the estuary from the high road above Loans on a sparkling spring morning, I’d probably settle for my adopted home, Ayrshire.

But I’d have to consider other places on my short list: the walk from the station down into Plockton; the incomparable trek across the top of Scotland from Durness to Wick, a rather wintry heaven that one; the hidden gems of Galloway, but maybe not enough there to sustain one’s interest indefinitely; and for sentimental reasons, Nethy Bridge, with its memories of holidays long ago, smoke in summer from chimneys on corrugated iron roofs, bright flags fluttering on the tiny nine-hole golf course, close to good walking in wild country. And I mustn’t forget England at its most enduring and seductive, the view from the dining room of the Tebay Hotel in Cumbria: I could feast on that forever.

Audrey calls about the mattress. I say frankly that I’m tired and don’t feel up to the exertion of getting in and out of bed until I have the first of the blood transfusions later today. Lisa got a low BP reading when she checked earlier this morning. Audrey is sympathetic. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow. I decide to put work aside. Which means that, having put work aside for 10 minutes, I decide not to put work aside at all.

I’ve asked Islay to order a copy of Maugham’s The Summing Up. Not an attractive personality, Maugham, but a book packed with a lifetime’s wisdom and observation, much of it influenced by his early years as a hospital doctor in London. When I first read the book years ago, I was enthralled by it, but when I looked for it in my study a few months ago it was nowhere to be seen. Odd how vacuous stocking fillers (Private Eye Annual 1981, could there be a more depressing title?) hang around unopened for years, occupying valuable shelf space, while cherished ones push off without so much as a by your leave. I once had two copies of Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, both gone.

Barbara arrives with a fresh supply of watermelon from Waitrose, bless her, but our conversation is interrupted by some problem over the first of the three blood transfusions, can’t really follow what it’s about, much coming and going of junior medics, but we’re still hoping for tonight. Inevitably start to feel stressed. Barbara knows how much I like Edward Thomas’s poem, Adlestrop, which evokes a rural railway station in England in 1914, its deep peace about to be shattered by mass bloodshed, its enchanting birdsong silenced for years, all of this unarticulated but implied in the poem’s few haunting lines, heavy with presentiment. She reads it so gently that I cry. It doesn’t take much. We are so close to the Armistice centenary now, and she and her husband Alan intend to be at Ypres on the day.

Fiona joins us for a while. She and Barbara break some delectable cheese for me and serve it on a tissue; I nibble away contentedly, occasionally taking a sip of dry sherry, while the medics struggle to launch the long-delayed blood transfusion. In the end it is left to poor Lisa, half an hour beyond the end of a 12-hour shift, to achieve switch-on. ‘Why aren’t junior docs properly trained in simple procedures?’ I ask as she finally goes. She is a loyal girl, merely shakes her head in silent exasperation. Her parting thought is to wish that her little daughter is still awake by the time she gets home.

Fiona and Barbara are looking forward to a takeaway pizza at Fiona’s place and for a split second I wonder why I’m not joining them and then the familiar stabbing pain of knowledge. The simple pleasures. I didn’t enjoy them enough when I had the chance. Banal sentiment, but there is a lot to be said for banal sentiment because it is so often true as well as banal.

As well as The Scotsman, Kenneth Roy also worked for titles including the Falkirk Mail, Falkirk Herald and Scotland on Sunday. He also worked for the BBC and founded Scottish Review magazine in 1995

Extracted from In Case of Any News, A Diary of Living and Dying by Kenneth Roy with a foreword by Sally Magnusson and an introduction by Magnus Linklater. The book is out now in hardback at £14.99, published by ICS Books (the publishing arm of the Scottish Review, www.scottishreview.net)