It is almost a month since someone in the hospital showed me a headline in a newspaper reporting that I was dying of cancer. I knew then it must be true. I had avoided the actual word in my 'farewell editorial' because I couldn't face typing it, but there was no dodging it now. This is not a second farewell editorial – I'd rather not have the usual jokes about Frank Sinatra's touring schedule – but a coda.
When the headline crossed my radar, I was staring at a wall in a ward on the top floor of Ayr Hospital. I'd been taken there after a few days in the hospital's assessment centre, where I had received intensive care in a single room. The transfer to the ward took place in the late afternoon and was both abrupt – I got about half an hour's notice – and shocking. From holistic peace and privacy, I found myself in a maelstrom, night and day, and I couldn't cope. Many do cope. I couldn't.
My visitors tried everything, bringing me favourite films that I couldn't watch because of their painful associations, favourite music from which I derived no consolation, favourite books on which I couldn't concentrate – my hope of spending my final days reading some of the world's greatest literature came to nothing – and heavy-duty ear muffs that did little to block out the suffering around me.
None of it worked. I was sleep-deprived and desperate. But I also vowed to thank, if I still had time, Scotland's first minister for her resolute decision, against the advice of many in the medical profession, to provide single rooms for most of the patients in the new hospital in Glasgow. I now knew, from my own traumatic experience, that if Nicola Sturgeon had taken only one decision in politics – that one – her life of public service would have been justified.
When the situation from my point of view finally felt unendurable, a colleague more or less begged a senior nurse – I now know her as Hazel – to have me transferred to a side room. I was moved almost immediately and I've been here ever since, in a room of my own at the end of a long corridor on what is called station 9.
But what I've told you is only part of the story; I haven't come to the most remarkable part. Having rejected the films, the music and the literature, and lost all interest in current events, and without access to Wifi so unable to deal with an avalanche of email, I was left with nothing to distract me from the inevitable.
I had just one thing – except in my panic I'd temporarily forgotten what it was. I had been born with an ability to write. I wondered if I might still be able to write. I opened a blank page on my laptop and wrote a sentence and found that the sentence consisted of the date. It was a start. Within a few hours it seemed I was keeping a diary. I hadn't the faintest idea where I was going with it, for this was no ordinary diary. I imagined it might make a longish magazine piece, one I'd never have to account for.
During the day, I absorbed myself in recording the minutiae of hospital life, mixed with reflections on terminal illness that I thought might be helpful to others. By the evening, when the main corridor lights had gone out and the last of the day's pills had been administered, I was still writing – but the diary had turned more deeply personal and, at the risk of sounding pompous, more philosophical. It was concerned partly with issues from the distant past that I'd never had the courage to articulate. It was also attempting, slowly and painfully, to explore my own feelings about mortality and to confront, finally confront, what I believed, if I truly believed anything.
The piece was building in length. It no longer felt like a posthumous essay for the Scottish Review. It was beginning to feel like something more ambitious. Was I writing a book? Could I, in extremis, actually be writing a book? If I was, it was an odd sort of book. I had to be careful to end each day's extended diary entry with a sentence that would still look okay if the author was dead by the morning.
My consultant, Dr Chris Gillen, expressed a growing interest in what I was up to, and as we got to know each other I found him a source of encouragement, even inspiration. He couldn't offer me a cure. His palliative options were limited. He was candid about the outlook. But I had a book to finish, and he was going to help me to finish it. An intriguing question arose: could writing help to prolong my life?
I felt physically wretched a lot of the time. I was no longer eating much and there were days when I managed no more than a couple of self-pitying paragraphs. The book was now going nowhere, stalled.
But Dr Gillen was persistent. He advised me to take a little dry sherry in the early evening, reckoning this might stimulate my appetite. It did – for the soft blue French cheese I'd always loved. My room became known as one-man party central, the sherry sipped from a glass that had belonged to Hazel's granny, the cheese nibbled from saucers or paper tissues while I went on typing against an unknown deadline. One of my nurses, Anne, introduced me to a delicacy of charcoal cheddar, which was meltingly delicious.
The book currently runs to 43,000 words, written and roughly subbed in just over three weeks. It is emotionally honest, I hope it's even funny in places, and it is publishable as it stands. It only lacks a conclusion, and I don't have one, I'm still working on it in my head. I have to be open to the possibility that I'll never get that far. I take no hour for granted.
But I do have a title. It is called 'In case of any news.' The easy bit – the only easy bit – is the dedication. It will acknowledge the overwhelming gratitude I feel for the people on station 9 who have made it possible. To my consultant, to my nurses, to the unsung and the tireless who protect me, I owe nothing less.
Early morning, Sunday 28 October, the day of the extra hour