Marking Time

MARKING TIME was performed at EdFringe 2017 with theSPACE venue 53.  Review by Broadway Baby here and Lancet Oncology here.

Marking Time is a brand new one-woman show tackling life-changing news and takes place inside a broken down hospital lift.  Tom has cancer and is about to meet the consultant.  Wife Ruth, is in too much of a hurry to notice the lift is out of order.  She is trapped until an NHS engineer arrives who is currently on the other side of a Fringe fuelled Edinburgh.  Ruth is forced to take a breath away from the world.  She unravels their journey from disbelief at diagnosis, radiotherapy, to the new results the consultant is about to deliver. Has the treatment bought them some more time? What about the people they have met on the way?  “Yes Tom has cancer, but this is not a gloomy story” says Edinburgh based writer Rachel McKenzie, “far from it.  It’s about enjoying life and it’s about love.  Where else but stuck in a lift shaft to make you wake up to that!”

The show is inspired by the approaching 70th anniversary of the NHS.  Pioneering in healthcare has led to life-saving treatments and longevity unimaginable in post war Britain.  “Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital” says Rachel McKenzie,  who worked as a nurse in oncology there, “deserves their world class reputation.  Many people have a story to tell about loss, particularly from cancer, and the importance of hope and available treatment is incalculable”.  Marking Time spans the generations and reflects on those who returned home in 1945.  Bringing with them the freedom to cultivate opportunities in healthcare.  Raising some questions about how they might see the choices we are making today, for the future.

Experienced in spoken word, Rachel McKenzie brought plays to PBH’s free fringe in 2009 and 2010 and has served as a director on the Fringe board.   Since then she has trained in Law at Edinburgh university and combines that with her Nursing experience in new venture RMEMME.  “I’ve worn a lot of hats since my first job in wool fashion.  I use these experiences to write about the multiple dimensions in everyday life.  That is the huge contribution the Arts makes to life, to draw it away from black and white, negative, stereotyped argument.  It’s what the fighting spirit that started the Fringe achieved, also 70 years ago, and we are still reaping the rewards today.”

SCENE ONE [Ruth enters – rushed with headphones on playing ONE REPUBLIC COUNTING STARS

[Ruth steps into mirrored lift. Closes imaginary door. Presses button. Stares ahead. MUSIC STOPS puts headphones down round neck]
[Turns to audience] “This lift isn’t moving. Oh no the door is jammed”
[R starts to press buttons, pulls at doors, calls for assistance. Telephone instrument in lift] “The lift is stuck and I cant open the door”
Repeats Lift Voice: “No. I didn’t see any out of order sign. I’m sorry. My husband’s got cancer and…(gets cut off) Okay so the engineer has been called. Inquiry number… let me get a pen. 35745987676878766. No I don’t want to contact the ombudsman, or make a complaint, or fill in a survey about your service today.
Have you any idea how long this might take? It‘s just… (gets cut off again) What? Don’t call us the engineer will call you.
[Rose’s mobile rings]
Tom!!! I am here Tom. Stuck in the lift. Yes, I have been told there was a sign on this lift. Some electrical fault. The door won’t open. I am not making excuses I just did NOT SEE IT right? Look Tom you go in and speak to the consultant and I will join you. I don’t know when. Whenever the engineer gets here. I just didn’t see the sign okay. Well You would know all about missed signs. Sorry I didn’t mean that. Of course it’s not your fault. No, I know there were no symptoms. I am not blaming anyone. It’s just not a great time that’s all. Right bye.”
[Slowly] Not a great time. Never a great time. Never a good conversation starter!
Just like that vet at the swimming club. She would come into the mixed sauna and start talking loudly about prostrate cancer. She would have the place cleared of all the men in minutes!
How could I not have noticed? I don’t seem to notice anything. I did know Tom was spending longer in the bathroom – longer even than me. He’d fall asleep early then almost an hour later.. he would be bolt upright awake and back to the toilet.
Truly? I thought Tom was being a hypochondriac. Even when they found his blood tests were off, I thought what a remarkable coincidence. When they suggested a biopsy I thought crikey are they that scared of potential medical negligence claims.
Even the day we went to get Tom’s biopsy we had a laugh. In the patient’s area there was a silence hanging as thick as a fog in a Sherlock Holmes movie. No-one sat together. None of the men talked.
We nearly ended ourselves at one of the questions on their form; ‘how does your pattern of urination make you feel?’
‘Fantastic!’ I whispered in Tom’s ear and he was still laughing when he joined his group to go downstairs for the biopsy. I watched Tom led away, the tallest, slimmest,healthiest looking in that group. I thought one of those other poor guys is going to get bad news here.
I had no idea they could SEE cancer. Up on the screen as they guide the biopsy. Tom came home hours later from us laughing in the hospital, with an x-ray like thing for a baby. I had to phone the hospital that evening there was no way I believed what Tom was saying.
This guy Tony answered
Tony: “Hi yeah I am the nurse consultant who took the biopsy. You are quite right the normal procedure is to wait three weeks for definite biopsy results. No you probably weren’t expecting any news today. We the hospital we like to, well not like, we prefer now to tell it as it is. This is really a heads up. It will make it easier in three weeks. That X-ray Tom would have taken home – well it clearly shows a white cluster. It doesn’t look good, does not look good“
Ruth: “Finally about midnight with the light blacked out and that weightless feeling lying motionless on a hard mattress affords, I could cry. Numbness of the previous eight or so hours now ablaze as if a comet hit earth. Everything starts to look very different.
The days become such that you are more tired when you wake up than when you go to bed. One day Tom was really animated. He was sitting on the bed looking out the window as I woke up and said those three little words:
“Sword of Damocles!
At that moment I saw death was hanging over him like a sword swinging on a single horse hair. It was time for me to grow up. Long before he had wondered what it might mean for him, he had just worried about me, and I had allowed that.
“Tony, the nurse consultant, met me and Tom together when the biopsy results came through. “You will find the hospital staff are more than happy to help you. He was right. The Western General Hospital in Edinburgh.. well everyone has a story about them. Internationally renowned, saved so many lives and their standard of care is so good.
Tony was so matter of fact but it gave you confidence.
“We told you three weeks ago the biopsy will be bad news, It is. Actually it’s in all ten biopsy samples. You’ve could say you’ve got a full house.

We need to scan now to see if it’s spread. Prostrate cancer usually makes for the bones. Good news? -it is slow y. You’ve a Gleason of seven. Eight is quite bad and nine and ten can be curtains. A six would have been better,but you’ve got your seven. Life expectancy can be good. We have some excellent treatments now. Maybe five to ten years. Maybe less. Maybe more. Then that’s up to you too.

Ruth: “Tony was great actually – don’t shoot the messenger. And what He didn’t know about Viagra was not worth knowing! I began to wonder if he would draw down a remote controlled mirror ball and whip out a mail order catalogue for sexual stimulants. Heaven forbid a cancer diagnosis be a libido killer!

[Ruth settles into lift. Takes off coat, sits reading newspaper (up to date news and on Fringe)]
Still it’s not about being morbid though you start to see it everywhere. No, not Viagra but cancer. Rattling tins in the supermarket and pages and pages on the Internet. I will never eat a walnut again. That’s the size they say of a healthy adult prostrate. But this is not death appearing, it’s life actually. Like, like Doctor Who – they step into that navy police box but really it’s a Tardus. Just as the police box turns into a huge Tardus, this unwanted `box’ in our lives can turn into something else. Space for us to grow in.
Of course it was a shock. Tom swims most mornings, disgustingly fit. He’s twenty years older than me but he is the fitness fanatic. Knows you have to look after yourself. Never wanted to depend on anyone. Not pride with Tom, just street-wise. He delivered milk when he was eleven. Those monster sky rise flats down Muirhouse. Huge post war housing scheme. Lifts were mostly broken then too. Milk boys managing metal crates with two dozen thick glassed bottles up steps. Tom’s frame not stretched by nature but post war dreams men were drinking to forget.
I heard someone on the radio going on about the older generation, the baby boomers, `to make way for the young‘ …spare society the burden of their hospital and nursing needs. Made me shudder…I could think of a few people I know who have worked their fingers to the bone all their lives. Always given away all they had to kids, neighbours. Like a lot of those milk boys who never took more than their share and they had to work terribly hard for that share. Not to mention all the taxes and national insurance they paid.
Why shouldn’t they also get all the wonderful advances in medicine and palliative care. They say ‘Sixty’s the new forty’ so why can’t eighty be the new sixty. For everyone.
Tom saw more than milkrounds. He saw life before the welfare state had really taken off, as it is now. His parents were bankrupt. A child didn’t fare any better then than an adult nor spared any of the repercussions. Like the inevitable drift into working in the black economy. No a child was handy and not just for delivering milk. They could be sent to deliver brown envelopes to councilors to secure contracts without any need to tender.
Tom and I though we have laughed! And so much easier now to shake off the unimportant things in life. Yeah it’s easier to let go. Who does get to control the horsehair dangling the sword of Damocles anyway?
The Law with its rhetoric and ill defined terms? Or radio hosts inciting controversy desperate for an audience!
All Tom says these days is do you not want to know what happens next? It’s not an exact science. It’s life.
Didn’t feel like that the night of the heads up.
But then all the people we met. I can’t imagine not having met these people. I feel better somehow for meeting them.


Olaf was about 4. Not one hair on his head. Left. He almost glided through the radiation unit. Always polite, always smiling, he had a real presence. Grown ups waiting for their treatment, their eyes moistened, their conversations changed after Olaf passed through with his parents or a nurse. I would sit there with Tom. I would think if Olaf can do this so can we. I like to think Olaf has just started school this august with thick curly hair and strong enough to fight in the playground. But there were no guarantees for Olaf going by the look in his parents eyes.

Tom’s slot for radiation was 7.30 in the morning. Monday to Friday for five weeks. We walked down through a city half asleep reluctantly waking up. Rubbish strewn and stale alcohol in corners of the city. Elsewhere glistening in the winter rain, lights going on in shops hoping for a good trading day. And every morning the staff were cheerful and knew Tom’s name and mine. And every morning there was hope in the very scent of the radiation suite and on the surface anyway, more interest in the latest thank you box of chocolates that had arrived than death or dying. No one I remember seemed to wish for the end. There was collective unspoken desire for all of us to see the next big thing in our lives. The cruise, the new grandchild, the graduation.

Tom became a hero when they heard he was heading for a swim and the gym after his radiation treatment as I went off for work. Friendships form fast in these situations and there were two other guys who got the 7.30 slot. Kenny, had worked as an engineer. He knew a lot about the cyclotron unit that was built in the Western which brought the transformation in radiation. Radiation could be targeted to cancer cells and not kill the whole person. Kenny worked with metals for medical treatment. But they had to get them from Scapa Flow, Orkney, to find some that weren’t contaminated. Apparently finding clean steel isn’t easy. So much of the world’s metals destroyed by atomic bombs and Chernobyl disaster. But thanks to World War 1 a German fleet at Scapa Flow sank their 51 ships so the British didn’t get them. Nine German men died but the metal of those ships was clean and has been used in medical treatments. Thanks also to the victims of radiation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima scientists found out the health effects of radiation.

War… health benefits… more war. We are like a dog chasing its tail.

Dave just made it in for the 7.30 slot. He really struggled through. But he admitted himself he just thought it was unfair he needed to give up the alcohol and cigarettes to give the treatment a chance. He wasn’t exercising either.

The NHS cuts are so obvious but a lot of the staff still trying hard to create a nice environment. And they really think nurse robots can do that?
Hello are you the engineer, Arthur hello I am Ruth. Where are you? At the Royal Infirmary hospital I am at the Western General. Sorry I know you have all the hospital sites to cover. I know gone are the days you were just based at one hospital. How long will you be? I know festival time the city is crazy. Okay, I will ‘hang in there’ … can’t do much else.
Ruth despondent again
Then there’s times you don’t want to know what happens next. You want to hide.
Tom asked me why don’t you leave me? Get on with life.
Ruth: This IS life stupid I told him. I did leave once. Long before the cancer diagnosis. Wanted to stop the clock. I was turning 40 and still hadn’t saved the world. Took six months to weather the mid-life crisis. To realise it wasn’t really a storm at all. Just a whistle blowing on the kettles of time – all the corporate pressure to fulfil their commercial goals. So full of self, pondering was I at the beginning or the end or a mediocre half-way through? Was I really who I wanted to be? Then one day water gathered in the bathroom ceiling in my little artist pad and poured through the light.

I began to learn that some oranges grow in winter and good fruit dissolves a bad harvest. Plants bloom all year and real life is just too short to have a midlife crisis in. Send society’s speaking clock into orbit – I realised you just have to find out what happens next. And that meant phoning the plumber not writing a poem about it. It meant accepting the gift of desperation not inventing it. What was the desperation anyway? Just life on life’s terms. Commitment came easier then.
We chose this lovely poem for our wedding. It started with “Love is not breathlessness” despite what Tony the Viagra nurse thinks! “Love is not excitement … that is only falling in love and anyone can fall in love. “No, Love is when all the pretty blossom has gone, you look down and where there were two separate roots, there is now… only one.[Pauses, reflects, quiet]
I always wish Tom had met my father. Dad was feisty too, especially when it came to fighting illness. Dad was fifty when I was born. Just at the end they diagnosed Dad with dementia. Dad would grumble `I don’t have dementia, I’m just demented by what they have done in the parliament. You wonder what you fought for’ He needed help to eat during his last months and in between spoonfuls he would tell me – It was worse when we came home from war than the war itself.
He stayed with his sister Edna when he first came home. She worked as a welder’s mate. Their two older brothers were dead. Everywhere, men were dead. Uncles, cousins, fathers, sons. Women were left with broods of children to bring up alone. Rationing still and poverty raging as war debts replaced war effort. War was over but there were no instant solutions to all that destruction. Many were too frustrated to wait for employment. War takes you further. They came home with their weapons, had learnt to use revolvers and continued to so. Armed robberies and crime – why not?
Dad would say ‘victor’s justice? War is still raging, it’s just elsewhere. But the scars are here, gaping. You think you got it all so right with the freedom we bought? Why then the drugs everywhere, suicides, violent crime, anorexia, divorce and the rest”
When he talked like this I would just go and do the dishes. Funny though I would love to talk to him now… and not about women’s rights, which I used to bombard him with. To which he would spread the newspaper and then say, are you finished? I agree, he’d say, women need a fairer deal.
BUT what about the right not to get asbestosis, not to work in filthy dusty sites without masks or eye guards? To have no hygiene facilities? It’s not fun doing 14 hour shifts, only to be the breadwinner stranger in your own home. To know your children are thinking `why can’t my dad talk about his feelings‘, `why does he go on and on about politics when he knows nothing about modern day politics.’
[Kick imaginary dog]
“Why you kick my dog and call it fuck off” that was one of his favourite stories. It was how he met his best mate Helmut Schmidt. Helmut was just one of the many prisoners of war who stayed in Scotland. Made it their home. Helmut and Dad worked together and Helmut’s dog.
Yes they’d fought on different sides. Probably they knew more than anyone the pointlessness of war and believing anything from the mouths of those sitting in comfortable armchairs spewing propaganda. Rationalisations dressing up hard hearts and workers become trained to kill.
Dad, Helmut and others like them they had freedom though, the freedom from seeing what they had seen and now appreciating each day just being alive.
The NHS started to grow and the health of the nation visibly improved. Security from Cradle to Grave! Buds of hope springing up all over the place. Proper use of a fighting spirit. They had just defeated Hitler. They must have believed they could make it better for everyone. Culturally with the Fringe starting out in 1947, the NHS in 1948. Human rights declarations were being written into Law all the place at this time.
Things got much, much better during the rebuild in the 1960’s. Jobs grew on trees. Trick was Dad said was to get folk to leave their tools over the weekend on the construction site or they might get themselves another job over the weekend.
Imagine that? Jobs on trees? This old Lift if it could speak what would it say? Would it remember loud excited voices “we have found clean steel” men and women building the cyclotron unit in this hospital. The NHS growing, people feeling -“We can do this”
Would it have noticed the change. Hushed voices, huddling in lifts so no one can overhear. Analysing, rationalising, “it’s regrettable but we all know some people are just simply more equal than others. Cradle to the grave? Well surely that’s a question of perspective.[Pause]
This lift is tired, creaking. I hope it’s not broken.
Dad died in the spring. I grew to understand he would have wanted that. To leave us with blossoming everywhere to comfort us in our grief. Silver birches in their maternal gowns pregnant with new life.
We cleared out his possessions. I never knew he wrote poetry.

(In Memoriam)
Conceived Our Span measured
In a few rotations
As our earth-home turns.
Our mortal remains
Consigned to earth or urns.
Our way going
As little understood as our beginning.
But in that brief
Being To have been the centre of a
Universe -Or that small part of it.
We were…we’ve known.
An understanding So intense
So real.…That makes Not Being! Incomprehensible?
Tracing our pedigree To first parents Leaves us with But a stem.
For “How took they root?”
“Who begot them?”
And this boundless place
We cannot measure.
This limitless space of infinite treasure.
Why spend so little Conscious time therein?
One life
A mere momentary light and gone –
Not to be rekindled Else by the first
(JRMcCluskey © All Souls Day 1990)

[looks up] You were right Dad – grab life eh! We can’t just keep chopping off the bits we don‘t like. Who makes anyone the pruner? The great and the monied lolling in the sun, complaining of the state of the nation –whilst secretly still at the carve up.
Hi Arthur. Great, so you are here, on the top floor above me in the motor room. You can fix the electrics from there. Look I am sorry you didn’t need this interruption. It must be a nightmare with all the cuts and having go from hospital to hospital. I am always in such a hurry, I couldn’t see where I was going.
Thanks that’s kind of you yeah his name is Tom. Yeah I think that’s my husband phoning now. Bye.
[Ruth mobile rings]
Ruth:” Hi Tom. Yeah I’m still here, in the lift. The full results are through. Well what are they? [pause relief] The radiation has worked and the bones are still definitely clear. So we have got a good chance? How long? What did the consultant say? How many years Tom? What? She didn’t really answer that? She said ‘be positive – travel with hope’ No, that‘s true life isn’t an exact science.
Hey Tom that is the lift door clicking open now.

Tom, I have had a lot of time to think in this lift.  Let’s just make the most of all of it. Yeah and I will meet you on the stairs.  Let’s start with you taking me out for dinner!”
[Gets outer garments back on – and leaves lift.  Still on phone to Tom and laughs when realises there was an out of order sign after all…)


Venue 53 EdFringe 2017
EdFRinge 2017 Venue 53 RMEMME Premiere Marking Time

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