Remember Storm Ciara? It may seem a distant memory as days have blown into weeks and soon months under lockdown. But back in February, half a million people were without power, weather warnings clouded the UK forecasts and 13 fatalities were to be recorded. Boris hastily packed his bags to dash to Kent (a quaint 115-room Grade II-listed mansion getaway) before Ciara’s nasty brother Dennis arrived. Cobra meetings, flood warnings, health warnings… talk about a storm in a teacup, but this was the burden of being born to rule and such nonsense would plague him unless he lay low for a few days.
Somehow, amidst the wintry gusts and violent downpours, my first competitive tennis match since life-changing surgery was still going ahead. Before ‘life-changing surgery’ goes setting any wild imaginations into motion, no, I didn’t have anything enlarged or reduced, or a sex change, or anything at all glamorous. I’d had my large intestine removed, because I was ill with Ulcerative Colitis and, frankly, it was killing me. But now I was better and raring to compete.
Wind roared and rain poured and I was soaked just running from my car to the dome-bubble under which the match was to be played. I’d heard of these winter domes collapsing and blowing away, but Google told me they were resistant to 150mph winds and Ciara was a benign sneeze (when sneezes could be benign pre-coronavirus) in comparison with that.
Mid-way through the first set, my small intestine started falling out of my stomach. If this conjures images of the legendary Alien chestburster scene, you’re not too far from the truth. In fact, that scene was inspired by the screenwriter’s experience of Crohn’s disease, a similarly debilitating digestive disorder. Let me explain. With no remaining large intestine, I have a stoma bag. Put simply, the end of my small intestine pokes out of an opening in my abdominal muscles and a bag collects what it needs to collect. The surgery split my stomach in two places and I have to take care to protect it.
Naively, I wasn’t wearing a hernia belt for the match. Tennis players twist and turn as often as Storm Ciara’s tornado cousins, and a hernia belt fits as restrictively as a corset. So, I chose not to wear it. However, without the belt, there was nothing to hold everything in place.
After conceding the first set, I informed my doubles partner and our opponents of my predicament. I went to the toilet and waited for my small intestine to recede. This had happened once before, in a rather more intimate moment where a hernia belt was also absent. That time it had quickly returned to it’s usual strawberry-sized protrusion from my stomach surface. This time, I had no such luck. I uneasily strapped the belt around my bag and my outside-insides and got on with the match.
Free from any performance expectation, my tennis strokes started swinging as loosely as my intestines in the second set and we soon found ourselves racing into a lead. The only game we couldn’t win was when the burly bloke in the opposite pair was serving. It didn’t help that he foot-faulted every time, taking a whole step over the line before repeatedly throwing down aces.
Foot-faulting is tennis’ equivalent of what diving is to football: cheating that culprits deny is cheating. I decided to ask burly if he’d mind serving from behind the line. Unfortunately, no-one had warned me that burly also had a reputation for being explosively aggressive and I soon realised everything preceding this fateful moment had taken place in eye of the storm.
In the blurred cyclone of the next hour I was called every obscenity under the faraway sun and had smashes rocketed at me from point-blank range (only one was accurate and he missed my stoma, luckily). If it wasn’t for one of my teammates jumping in when burly stormed to my side of the night, spitting with fury centimetres from my face, I might have been lamped a right-hook as burly channelled his inner Tyson. With pathetic fallacy befitting the drama, Ciara intensified and the bubble stretched and strained at the hinges, bending to extreme angles. And the noise! The water beat so vociferously you couldn’t hear the ball make contact with the strings.
I was shaken. I’d experienced confrontations calmly before, but the stoma took away my teenage sense of invincibility. We served for the match and I double faulted. Burly served a point for the match and I came up with a return. We won, 13-11 in the third set tie-break. My stoma returned from alien to strawberry and Ciara even calmed for the drive home. If every competitive match post-surgery (and now post-coronavirus) turns out as heart-stoppingly bonkers as the first, I think I might end up back in hospital.
By J. E. Turley
J E Turley is a novelist, science teacher, and freelance writer. To read more about living with Crohn’s and Colitis, head to jeturleywriting.co.uk/sht-happens/.