Canary in a Coal Mine

(Forgive me – just one more detour before we resolve the cliffhanger…)

A week after we arrived back in Spain, I woke up at 1am in the morning and couldn’t work out what was happening. My head seemed to be on fire. The pain was like Dr Frankenstein had sawn around from the nape of my neck to my crown and tried to wrench off the back of my skull. I crawled off the bed on to the toilet and had to concentrate quite hard not to throw up. Was it a migraine? I couldn’t stand and I couldn’t think. I had to wake Sampson. When I told him it felt like my burning brain was pressing up against the back of my head he figured it out and threw the door open: it was the glue fumes.

Early the previous day, we had gone to the garage to get the worn down accelerator pedal fixed. Genius Fernando of Fali Molina e Hijos had popped round the corner to buy a giant hinge, sawn the sides off, screwed it to the floor and refixed the pedal to that. Sampson dropped Zola and me at my folks’ flat so we could finish school while he re-glued the soundproofing he’d cut out of the floor around the pedal. We both know that fumes affect me badly at the best of times –I once started choking in my office, upstairs on the other side of the house from the kitchen where he’d just sprayed oven cleaner – but in my weakened post-relapse state it needed to air off for a couple of hours at least before I ventured to return.

By 6pm you could hardly smell glue at all and I thought no more about it while cooking. After supper, we closed the door and snuggled down to watch an episode of Modern Family on our laptop truck cinema system. I dismissed the little headache that had come on by bedtime as due to the golden European evening light beaming in the back window at a low angle.

Four hours later I woke to find that the toxins in the air had clobbered me good and proper. I forced down a dry ricecake to line my stomach, swallowed an Ibuprofen and began to breathe more easily as it reduced the inflamation of my brainstem. We left the door open till dawn. Zola – lying directly above the gluey area of the cab – slept solidly through it all like the true teenager he was about to become.

The next day I wrote: “Sometimes even I wonder whether all this M.E. stuff is real, whether it’s all in my head, whether I’m not really any more sensitive than anyone else and I’m just being weedy and should really pull myself together. So strangely maybe it’s good to have days like today when the facts stand up and whack you soundly up side yer head…”

A month later I had a frighteningly similar reaction when, having been steadily moved along down the Côte Bleue by various municipal officials during the first week of Ruby’s holiday, we spent the night at the only police-approved camping spot: a patch of waste land between the power station and the refinery outside Martigues, the centre of France’s petrochemical industry.

Camping at Martigues

next to the power station and petrochemical factories at Lavera

I woke at 2am feeling very unwell and unable to breathe. The bitumen smell in the air was overpowering. I staggered to the window desperate for some fresh air but when the wind gusted through it was warm and muggy with no oxygen in it. Fighting for breath, I had that feeling of carbon monoxide poisioning: a thick head, muzzyness, the lethal throb of fingers and toes. The others slept peacefully on, oblivious.

Killing me softly

I am the canary in the coal mine. I am slowly dying of these fumes and you will too, only later. You may not believe me but when I’m long gone and you start to choke, you’ll realise I wasn’t such a dippy hippy after all.

Thankfully the worst emissions stopped by 4am and I was able to breathe again, sleep and recover a little before it was time to rise. We worked out the factory towers tended to eject the worst waste in the middle of the night so it would mostly clear by morning.

N.B. If you don’t believe in M.E., or want to understand more about it, I beg you to see the film Unrest, originally called Canary in a Coalmine – which I wrote about during my relapse in UK in 2015 – coming to cinemas in the US and UK this October. I’m hoping it’s going to do for invisible illness what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change. Here’s the trailer.

We spent the next few weeks shifting around Sausset les Pins trying to avoid both the gaze of the police and being caught downwind of the fumes. The day Ruby went back to school, I woke just before dawn in Sainte-Croix, the safest place we’d found so far, feeling sick again. The way I get when I’m trapped in a room with a gas fire and no ventilation: headache, painful nape of neck, druggy doze – the feeling of slowly suffocating. That warm fuggy smell was once again on the breeze through my window.

Sainte-Croix: It seemed cruel that anywhere so beautiful could be so lethal

I couldn’t believe that beachgoers round the corner at the Anse de Bonnieu…

weren’t bothered by the smog coming from the refinery…

and weren’t as oppressed as me by the black cloud on the horizon

My tried and tested means to get back off to sleep in the early hours is to set some podcasts murmuring in my ear. Unfortunately the back-to-back TED talks didn’t soothe me into slumber like they usually do. The overlap between the messages of Sisonke Msimang‘s If a story moves you, act on it and Emily Parsons-Lord‘s Art made of the air we breathe seemed so startling, I had to get up and write it down while it was still clear to me:

Emily creates samples of past air and future air which allow people to vicerally experience environmental degradation. She underlines the insidious quality of air, which is invisible but intimately present, around us, within us, penetrating. Her art proves that, while theoretical pollution might be easy to ignore, the very real heavy effects are not – show your kids what happens when she breathes it in, it’s both horrific and hilarious.

Sisonke speaks entertainingly, acknowledging the power of a story to light the way, but also the pressing need for us to seize that beacon and run with it (#MeToo). She applauds the internet for amplifying a multitude of previously silenced voices, but simultaneously bemoans the ballooning amount of fake news. The present generation don’t trust the media, she says, with good reason.

I reflected how I have changed since we started out on this journey. How I no longer trust the priorities of the headlines on the BBC World Service (never mind CNN or Fox News) or mourn the lack of being able to hear it here in Europe because the bias is so much more obvious to me now I have travelled across the half of the world invisible to it.

The poison of prejudiced news, like the increasingly polluted air, is everywhere around us, invading us, inflaming us, but most of us are oblivious to it (manipulated by propaganda in US, UK, South Africa). Will we not realise until we are on the point of choking to death on it?

Written in August in response to Charlottesville.

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