Saturday, 29 April 2017


If I were in here much longer,
I think I'd request a paint box
To attempt the shades of blue and green,
And all the seasons in between.

They ultra-sounded my heart, my lungs,
And needled their way in,
And out of scar tissue - old walls,
Built to protect me, crumble.

Traumatised trauma sites -
You could paint me by numbers;
Here vermillion, there magenta,
Everywhere kingfisher blue.

Those were the paints my parents used,
Depleted now. Except where their daughter bruised.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

I was curled up beside the window, on the word 'vermillion', when one of the rheumatology registrars came by with news of the ultrasound of my heart, latest blood test results and the possibility of parole. Much later that night, blackbirds and wisteria welcomed me home. Outside my bedroom, Mum's 'Kingfisher' approves my return...

Artwork: Kim Glass 'Much Better'
Perveen Tayabali 'Kingfisher' 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017


'Put me into one of your books,' orders Laura. We have been neighbours since Tuesday 18th of April. I know her first, middle and last names and she has never once asked for mine. I'm usually 'You. In the corner.' Or 'S'cuse me.' It only takes her a turn of her head and a command and I obey. Mostly. I did not obey her demand to be taken down to the concourse for a walkabout. She hasn't left her bed for weeks. The responsibility! She is keen to be discharged to get back to her little flat and herb garden so yesterday she perked herself up and got out of bed with a jam doughnut in hand and slid round my curtain to prove her improvement. I jumped up and pretended to waltz with her. 'Not strong enough for that,' she chided. Then she disappeared. Next thing there was a commotion outside by the nurses' quarters. Laura had keeled over and bruised her elbow and head. I felt instantly guilty. I ought to have accompanied her. But how could I know she'd attempt a sudden jaunt outside?

She knows she is good material. The other night the new patient and I were told off for chit chatting with our lights on. 'You're both young,' scolded the nurse. 'She's old. And needs her sleep.' Referring to Laura. I, submissive obedient, flicked off my light and plunged myself into a darkness I was not ready for. I was scribbling an email to my beloved friend Mary in the dark when pungent clouds of cigarette smoke wafted across. A smoker! At half past 11! I mentally accused Maria, my new 18 year old rebellious friend... sorry Maria! Didn't it turn out to be Laura?! Maria and I texted across the ward... keeping tabs on proceedings. The nurses seemed only mildly shocked... there's oxygen in hospital, they remonstrated. It's dangerous.
But Laura was unfazed. The nurses had taken long enough for her to drag half a ciggie's worth of much craved tobacco into her lungs and she was satisfied.

Laura often refers to the other nurses as my 'coloured and Oriental friends' because they are from Kerala, the Philippines, Nigeria. I try to explain they are not 'my' friends, but 'our' nurses. Finally I take a piece of paper across to her to show her my name and helpfully pronounce it Shy Star. 'Oh, I don't like that,' she says. 'Sounds too much like a shyster.' Anyone who says this to me is instantly someone I never want to speak to again.
'My name,' I say, with as little heat as possible, 'is Persian. I am not a shyster. You can call me Shy if you prefer.'
I return to my bed. A bit defeated. Eighteen years of casual racism in this very hospital has toughened me up. But I am not invulnerable.
'Persian,' did you say?'
'Yes. Persian.'
'I think I'll call you 'Little Lotus Flower'. 
'Sounds a bit of a mouthful,' I return. 'But if you like.'
'Well. I'm just trying to think of something pretty to call you. Something soft and gentle.'
'I like my name,' I say into the silence. 'Very much.'
'I like mine too,' she replies.
And we leave it at that.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


Four days in a blue box and then suddenly, huge windows overlooking fields of gold, a giant chessboard and the brief sounds of children playing.

I have been admitted again. For the third time this year - and the manyth fever spike. The Mystery of the Origin of Sepsis continues to baffle. Is it Infection or is it The Lupus? The awful perennial question. For the doctors it is a problem that must be solved to avoid over treatment. For me, although I have an equally honed detective instinct, the clues all occur in the same body. The same mind must control the same fears and maintain a ninja like balance.

In the blue box with no windows - let us call it MDU or Medical Decisions Unit - lives Rosie. Rosie's husband Dave was brought into hospital and since he is her carer, Rosie was admitted at the same time. For much of each day and each night, Rosie keeps her coat on and her handbag tucked neatly into the crook of her elbow, ready to leave. Not a word in her strings of sentences makes relevant sense, but must surely make perfect sense in the world she inhabits all by herself. T'was quite alarming having Rosie peer round my curtains like a friendly bat looking for her mate. It was only on the last night when another patient with dementia arrived, one with a particularly nasty tongue, that Rosie's comparative sweetness shone through. A lost little bat, in the entirely wrong cave.

And then I was wheeled away to be transferred here to Hepatology. I waved royally to my fellow inmates as Greg The Porter deftly manoeuvred my bed past them - you lucky duck, said Brenda, turning green, thinking I was heading home (although how I could leave, bed et al...). It was my opposite neighbour's 78th birthday and she was teary hugging me goodbye. We make friends fast in the blue boxes...

Margaret wasn't allowed flowers in MDU, not even birthday roses... but here in Hepatology, my cousin Imran, dressed in an excellently cut suit jacket, brought me Chicky Chocky Speckled Eggs and a delicate bouquet of pink and white posies. They'll have to wrestle the posies away from me...

Thursday, 16 March 2017


If you were to ask me
What my favourite colour is
I would have to say blue;
Even though blue is the colour
Of the plastic curtain my elbow keeps brushing
As I type this poem
Leaning towards the closed hospital window.

They've painted the edges of the buildings outside
The shade of my first bedroom in England -
The Blue Room, I called it, not inventively.

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?
My niece Eva says, 'Chicken.'
And we all marvel.

Which came first, the blue paper curtains,
This long marriage with hospital,
Or my love of blue?

Hard to tell.

The sun is up. The kind of torch light bright
That hurts your eyes but does its job
Matter of factly. Some nurses are like that.
Others make room for hugs and jokes; jokes
That are a nimbus around a heart of compassion;
A beady eyed watchfulness for when things
May suddenly turn serious and need an
Oxygen mask, an ECG, and more of those curtains
Whisked around quickly.

The quietly fainting patient must be revived
At all costs. They save lives in here.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Claude Monet 'Impression: soleil levant'

This week, impressionism is being celebrated over at Dverse Poets - my father's favourite art movement - the one that influenced him the most. And the one that comes closest to describing what anyone with myopia or glaucoma or cataracts sees - brush strokes of colour, if you're lucky. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017


There is a nun in South Korea
Who walked up the side of a mountain
To Baekyangsa temple, when she was
Seventeen, and her mother had just died.

You have come here to live,
Said the nun who opened the door,
Not asking a question. Just telling
A truth that had yet to manifest.

Jeong Kwan unpins her freshly
Laundered robes and whispers them
Around her shoulders. How old is she?
Only the mountain knows.

But the taengja tree outside her window
Is 500 years old. Hardy orange, it still
Bears fruit, and Kwan uses the sour juice
In her cooking.

She pickles lotus root three different ways,
Then checks on jars of kimchi. She never
Uses garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks.
Too distracting for a monk.

But soy?
Soy excites her.

Sometimes I agree with the world
That to be a mother is everything. Is the key
And the lock. Jeong Kwan vowed at seventeen
To not burden her children with the pain of her death.

There is something in that,
For me.

We can't all choose to opt out or the world
Would stop spinning
Around humans. Bees might take over. Or
Rats. Or better still, dust motes of light. Or dark.

Jeong Kwan unfurls petal after petal
Of the lotus flower, soaking the skirt
In water. Later, she will pour the water
Into a pot and you will want to gulp the tea

As though you are parched. You are parched
And this is the tea of enlightenment. The tea
That rings the bell of truth - life can be this
Way. An art. A craft. A discipline. A dance.

Three slices of lotus root, pickled
In an heirloom of soy sauce.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Jeong Kwan is considered one of the finest chefs of this world by the finest chefs of this world, who are almost exclusively male. Life can be this way. Women can be this way. Happy Women's Day today and every day to all my friends and sisters, my mentors and teachers and heroes. We can be anything. We can do everything. Certainly, we can.

(Poem linked to Dverse Poets for Open Link Night) 

Saturday, 28 January 2017


There is a mystery that lies at the heart of Aunty Shai. It baffles and befuddles. Why, oh why, does Aunty Shai of the non-stop games and stories, stay awake at night and sleep for hours in the day? What a waste! What a shame! Think of the lost games! The nonsensical rhymes...

Last December, in Singapore, my niece Bella could be heard puzzling this out, just beyond my bedroom door, 'Why Aunty Shai always sleeping, sleeping?' And this Christmas, my niece Eva: 'Shy-star, why do you wake up in the night and sleep in the day? Why wake up at night and sleep in the morning? Why Granma, Papa, Mummy, Daddy, Ellie and Eva wake up in the morning and sleep in the night but Shy-star doesn't?'

This is what I cannot tell my nieces, but what I hope they will read one day when they pick up their aunt's memoir:

What does it mean, having lupus? It means spending more of your life in bed than out of it, not asleep, or even resting, but engaged in invisible battle with the monster under your bed who slimed up over the covers, ate part of you very quickly and then paused, mid gorge, panting, contemplating where to devour next. His paws are resting on your belly while he uses your ribs to pick his upper incisors clean.
What does it feel like? It feels like fiction.

The only one of the children who doesn't ask these questions is Raf, because he had the mystery solved for him a long time ago. The answer was no less of a head scratcher. Apparently there was a wolf out to get his aunt. A wolf called lupus. Very odd business, but this part he comprehends: Aunty Shai is sick, and he needs to take care of her, watch over her. At four, he was encouraging me up steep hills ('You can do it, Aunty Shai! Just believe you can do it') and holding my hand in the dark, or on steps slippery with swimming pool puddles.

Of course he'd much rather that the lupus would simply take a hike up those steep Portuguese hills and  leave us all alone for good, but so far the only way I truly let him down is by not being ever-present. If only I could reside in a small cosy hut outside his house. We could walk to school together. We could catch Pok√©mon together - he could finally bring my paltry level 11 up to a respectable 22. 

It is January of the new year. I am more wolf-bound than ever. But like Peter Pan or Tinker Bell, determined to believe that something intangibly permanent will persist. Hope, I think we call it, on a good day. Meanwhile, since it is Chinese New Year...
Gong xi fa cai!

And here is a beautiful little tale by artist Jeanne-ming...
'On the Threshold of Something New' by Jeanne-ming Brantingham Hayes

Beautiful Grace sat in the doorway of the Door of Hope Girl's Home waiting for something to happen. She had made a careful list of all the wonderful small blessings that might follow her to this threshold. By night fall, when she was called to come in for dinner, Mei En was convinced that none of her dreams would hatch, at least not tonight. But tomorrow was a new day.