I Never Saw That Coming

I was always a solitary individual. My nature ultimately served me well working in Borneo and Sulawesi in Indonesia. A team of engineers would install a radar, then one of the team stayed for a period, usually four months, to help train and offer advice on the maintenance and operation. This would be the Resident Maintenance Engineer. Being the only westerner for hundreds of miles around was a strange experience. When I went for a walk, everyone stared at me, quite often shouting “Hello, mister.” I would normally respond with a “Hello”, and they would all continue on their way, giggling with the occasional backwards glance. Television was in Malay or Indonesian. Every so often the local hotel where I stayed found me an old copy of The Straits Times from Singapore, I read every page – even the adverts – about what was happening in Singapore. I would turn on my small HF radio every night and wait for the music that proceeded the announcer saying, “This is the BBC World Service.” The radio reception was terrible, but for ten minutes I felt was back at home. I spent over two years commuting to and from Indonesia. Four months on site, travel home to the office, two- or three-weeks’ holiday, return to the office, pick up my ticket, then back to Jakarta and onwards.

There were some very enjoyable benefits. Half way through every four-month trip I got to fly to Bali for a long weekend. There I could sit in the restaurant of a 5-star western-style hotel and have a burger and chips along with a cold beer, just absorbing the atmosphere as the tourists around me talked away in English. The food where I stayed near the radar was all local, typically nasi goreng (fried rice), with everything. There was the occasional mistake as I attempted to translate the menu in the shack that passed as my local restaurant. One evening I had ordered a particularly spicy meal, but it soon became obvious it was far hotter in spice terms than I thought. Seeing the expression on my face, one of the staff brought out a bowl of sugar and teaspoon, indicating that I should eat a spoonful of sugar. It did the trick and soothed my mouth. I never tried that dish again, but there was always a bowl of sugar on my table after that night.

I spent time in some wonderful places, spending six months on Crete, trips to Cyprus, Accra, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Majorca and many more. In just over 13 years I had flown nearly half a million miles. Many of my tasks were carried out by myself, sometimes as part of a team. Occasionally, the customer was responsible for the problems they were experiencing, not connecting a unit correctly or not checking that a circuit board was configured correctly. At times like these I found myself having to be very diplomatic, particularly in the Middle or Far AR3D radar, Ecuador 1986. Indonesia 1992 – 1994, with air force maintenance technicians. Age 34 – 36 21 East, where “loss of face” was a big problem. In 1998 I was told by my manager that I was going back to Saudi Arabia for another two years. I resigned and walked straight into a job with the Civil Aviation Authority looking after the radars at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports. Ultimately I managed my own radar stations at Claxby, just outside Market Rasen, and Great Dun Fell, just outside Penrith.

In 2012 just as the world was watching the Olympic Games, I accepted redundancy, the old radar was replaced with a newer reliable system. I decided to move to the Midlands. Nothing scientific about the selection, just somewhere someone was building new houses, I settled in Evesham. Here I continued by myself. Walking down into the town centre, enjoying a coffee and muffin, walking home and just keeping to myself. I started volunteering for the National Trust at Hanbury Hall and the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway, but every day I got home and locked the front door behind me. Twice a year I flew to the States.

Then in 2019 everything changed, I received my diagnosis of metastatic PC. For three months I was on basic hormone therapy, then chemotherapy was offered, I didn’t even talk to anyone about it. Dr Capaldi offered the treatment, I accepted. It started the gradual change in my approach to life. I found that I needed to talk to people and tell them how I was doing. Some friends were very supportive, others turned and walked away, “too much information.” I contacted the local community health trust and, after assessment, was told that I would benefit from some talking therapy. There was, however, a 3- to 4-month waiting list. I mentioned this to my CNS, who then referred me to the Oncology Psychology Service. Two weeks later I was chatting to someone. During the first session was when the floodgates opened. It was the first time I had cried or shown anyone else my true feelings. As we entered the first lockdown in March 2020, I Knew that I needed to do something. Being placed in the extremely vulnerable group due to the chemo and radiotherapy, I was advised to stay at home and not venture out.

Previously I would speak to my brothers 3 or 4 times a year. Once a year we would all meet somewhere, but after that it was an exchange of Christmas and birthday cards. After my diagnosis we set up a system where one brother would ring me every day at eight o’clock in the evening, check that I was okay and have a chat. One brother listened to me tell him about how I was doing and interacted with the gruesome medical details. Another would always divert the conversation away from my medical problems. “Let’s talk about something cheerful,” he would say. My younger brother spent 30 minutes telling me about his problems. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to the daily chats with my brothers. As I learnt what my nephews and niece were up to, I realised we had become a family again. I joined their WhatsApp group – something I had resisted for a long time – exchanging messages every morning.

– Mark Howard