Next Thursday as the polling booths open, at last, and people rush to vote, I will be going under the knife. I have cancer and despite CAT scan, PET scan, X-ray, biopsy and endless blood tests doctors still don’t know what sort it is. It is termed “an undifferentiated carcinoma of the pelvic area.” My surgeon Mr McIndoe and my local doctor both said they had never come across it before.
Getting rid of it involves a full hysterectomy. I don’t care about that, after all I am fifty three, fifty four the day after the election – I just want them to scrape out, blitz and destroy the cancer. Yet even as I write this I cannot really believe what I am saying. At some point I am going to wake up from this nagging nightmare. After a month of investigation and anxiety I still cannot take it in that I, me, Jane, have become one of those people who gets cancer – the sort you talk about briefly, sometimes sadly and quickly put out of mind.
How did this happen? Can’t think, can’t remember it all, the last month has become a blur of faulty fax machines, lost papers, muddled names, doctors’ messages not sent, referrals not made, false starts, waiting in crowded rooms, cancelled surgery, confusion, and a profusion of different doctors.
Too much to do today to think steadily about anything. Not since I was a student and just left home have I been in such a whirl, so bombarded by unfamiliar stimulation. Today I have to apply for an emergency proxy vote, cancel gym membership before I get another month’s charge, cancel my Bank Holiday weekend in Dublin. Cancel my birthday party Sunday lunch and make a list of all the things I need to buy in as apparently having a hysterectomy involves going into something like the siege of Mafeking. I won’t be able to touch anything heavy so I will have to stock up on vast amounts of amounts of Felix, frozen coley fillets and wood based cat litter for Maisie. Frozen broad beans, ready meals, milk, wine and cider for me. Surely I will be able to potter to the shops, surely people will visit? But I have been told by Paula, my newly appointed “cancer nurse,” that I will need to fill my freezer.
I also have the garden to worry about. For the last month it had been looking splendid. I brought parrot tulip bulbs back from Amsterdam in October, and they are ravishing. My seedlings, romanesco and cauliflower are also doing surprisingly well. I have had a lot of disasters with seedlings in the past, but these little bastards are thriving. They have to be carried in and out every night, so they harden off, and will have to be planted out before I go into hospital.
There is also the election coming up. I have always loved sitting up all night watching the results come in, this time I will be unconscious throughout the whole thing. Some people might welcome this but not me.
When I returned from Queen Charlotte’s hospital last Monday, I’d been there expecting a final diagnosis but didn’t get one, only a date for my operation, I set about trying to get a postal vote. My mother who was still staying with me, waiting for the dreaded diagnosis, said I would be too late for a postal vote.
“No I won’t,” I snapped at her, but as usual she was right. As soon as we got home I rang the town hall about a proxy vote. I spoke to a really disobliging young man. He had the voice of a rapper – dull, thudding and not in the least interested in whether I voted or not. I had to drag information out of him. How is it that people like him always seem to get front line jobs with local councils?
He said, incorrectly as it turned out, that I would have download the document, copy and sign it, then scan it and send it back to the council before 7pm. While my mother was in the kitchen, doing yet more scrubbing and polishing, I chatted was put through a series of long phone numbers until I finally arrived at someone who could give me some on line support. He seemed to be in south Africa, and droned on quietly while I struggled to disconnect my printer and read the serial number which is underneath the thing. He delivered his instructions in a voice that sounds both strangled and faint, as if he had a tight peg on his nose.
My brother who hasn’t contacted me for two years chose that moment to send a text but I could not lose the on-line support, so missed my chance to speak to him.
“What are you doing?” my mother asked, totally mystified. I couldn’t break off from the on-going agonising scanning process to answer her properly. I heard her crashing about with the crockery and pans very angry. She would probably be in a huff for the rest of the day, if not for the rest of her stay.
I discovered that they hadn’t put their e mail address into their poxy proxy document so I had to go back into their web site to find it. But eventually it went off and I received an e mail of confirmation.
This morning, Wednesday, I rang the town hall and they said that they had not received it. I insisted on talking to a supervisor, the dull voiced boy was very reluctant to put me through, and she told me that they had received my application at “three minutes to midnight last night,” and so it was therefore invalid. I could not find their confirming e mail among the 3,000 other messages swimming up and down my screen, and heard myself shouting and my blood pressure rising. Happily they put me through to a middle aged northern Irish woman, someone with a minimum of education, who said she might possibly be able to get me an emergency form. I had to get this signed by my volunteer neighbour who will do the voting, and my GP, then return it to the town hall in person. “You didn’t need to do anything on line, you could have come in,” she said.
Because of being under such stress I suppose, I feel tired and upset very easily. I kept getting frantic texts and voice messages from my Japanese friend Yoko. On the mobile I can hardly understand her English, but a distant but frantic quacking sound suggested she was upset. We were supposed to be attending a party in Ealing for Crispin, the young curate at her church. She said that Bill, the vicar, had forgotten all about it so there was no food and no cake, unless we did something about it.
In my former life I would have made a super sponge cake, iced it thickly, added hundreds and thousands and candles, now I am one of those women who buy packet mixes, or worse, “bought cake.” The sort of thing my mother brought me up to despise. In Acton Vale, the dismal strip of west London along the Uxbridge Road where I live, there is no cake, at least not as we know it. On the way to the more civilised climes of Ealing I found a Tesco garage shop where I grabbed a cheese cake, banoffi pie, and some profiteroles, without noticing they were all frozen.
Arrived at the vicarage to find the old house surrounded by Polish workmen, covering the front with scaffolding. In winter it’s a freezing place with only one small room heated. This is drab, almost bare apart from a photo of the vicar and his ancient late mother, and a framed stitched sampler over an old gas fire, saying: “God Is Love.” Today it was crammed with middle aged and elderly ladies on rickety chairs.
Meena from Singapore flashed about in a red sari, her large brown stomach protruding in a blue vest. She seemed to take up too much space and mostly hovered between the kitchen and the hallway. Two African women looked smart in neat, professional looking suits, but most of the ladies looked slightly dusty and lumpy in woollens and skirts from Oxfam and SCOPE, probably not even the local charity shops which are known to be expensive with their own commercial lines. These worthy English women usually dress in this way. I even saw that kind of clothing when I travelled on the Orient Express from Venice to London. In the pastiche Edwardian dining car with its velvet curtains and filigree lamps, they stuck to their M & S outfits and looked rather askance at my red Chinese sheath and a French woman in burnt orange silk.
Somehow all these globalised gentlewomen knew about me. They gazed at me with something like X-ray vision, commenting on how well I was looking, whilst obviously thinking about my festering gizzards. They chatted encouragingly about friends and relations, living and dead, mostly dead, sisters with amputated breasts and husbands with ravaged knackers. I felt my energy draining away.
As I sat down I felt like a visitor from the front line; from the battlefront in the war against disease and death, that conflict going on out there beyond view, but widely reported in the papers. They knew all about it and didn’t want to listen to anything I had to say. This was tiring but also a relief as I didn’t want to talk to them about it. Gladys, from Nigeria, who runs her own charity for destitute African girls, took my hands and for a moment I felt reassured. Then I remembered that I had been planning to help her with the charity, before this thing happened and took me out of the normal world. She had a forgiving look, but I felt guilty.
Crispin, who hales from Cape Town, recently let slip that the vicar has a girlfriend. This was a shock as he was once elected Bishop of an impoverished African state, but was roundly rejected by his new episcopate as they didn’t like the sound of a single man with a male lodger. No white wooftas in Bongo land, thank you! It had been a scandal at the time.
I wondered which one she was among the seated ladies. There was an attractive younger woman dressed in khaki coloured linen. She started talking about her children, so it wasn’t her. She was new in the parish, a stay at home mother hoping to make new friends.
I immediately felt that slight recoil I get from the sight of happy mothers. I don't mind about the hysterectomy next week, I just want to get rid of the cancer. On the other hand I do feel I am part of a generation of women who forgot to have children, and now have cancer instead.
“She isn’t here,” said Crispin sotto voce. “She is hardly ever here. They are terribly discreet.”
“Discretion doesn’t go with sex,” I told him wisely.
What I think I meant was that if a person really wants you, they will be with you in person for most of the time. Terry came into my mind, the last man to almost enter my life. We parted in October but he’d been in touch again when he heard I was ill. This meant a flourish of text messages from him, I hadn’t actually seen him.
Apart from Fr. Crispin and Fr.Bill there was only one man present, one of those strange blokes in early middle age who often turn up at church things, get busy with the dish cloth but seem to belong to no one.
There was no sherry anywhere to be seen sadly, only tea and coffee, perhaps because so many of the West Indian and Asian Christians disapprove of alcohol, believing quite wrongly that it is somewhere forbidden in the Bible. Or it could be just that most modern vicars are very hard up.
Yoko was in the kitchen wrapping two dozen asparagus tips in ham and stabbing cheese and pineapple chunks with cocktail sticks. She seemed too busy to acknowledge my cakes.
“Did you bring the candles and the holders?” She called over her shoulder. I felt very cross and didn’t answer. “I’ve got some,” said Fr. Bill appearing at the right moment from his office. He looked tired and shaggy, his beard getting straggly again. “She’s gone over the top this time,” he whispered to me, I think referring to Yoko, who can be terribly bossy.
A boy of about ten wearing an hearing aid asked the vicar if he had a Bible.
“Why would he have a Bible?” I asked him. He ignored me, determined to get hold of the good book for some reason. The vicar went back into his office to find one.
Yoko bought in the food, it was handed round, but it seems they were all going off to an Indian restaurant nearby for lunch, so this was just a snack. There had been no need for the frantic rush. Then my cakes were produced, still so frozen that we had a hard job bashing in the candle holders. Crispin said he was a diabetic and couldn’t eat them anyway. Yoko produced a camera. “Smile Jane,” said Bill.
“I’ll be buggered,” I replied, glaring. I saw the boy going into the kitchen with his battered copy of the Bible. This time I investigated. Apparently it was something to do with the Simpsons. Homer had been struggling with some difficult workmen or builders and he’d waved a Bible at them and made them disappear. He was going to do the same with the Polish workmen in the garden. Perhaps he was a youthful member of UKIP.
I was too tired to join them for the Indian lunch. Just psychological fatigue or could it be the cancer giving me some real symptoms at last? No idea. “I’ll pray for you!” Fr. Bill called as I left.
“Please do,” I replied cheerfully. “And pray that the Tories get in.”
That sounded odd, as I’m not really a Tory, but everything in this new life of mine is strange. I am becoming unknown to myself.
Got the bus to the Virgin Health Club, for my next task, cancelling my membership as I won’t be swimming again for some time, if at all. Entering its plastic grey and red portico there was a wobbly moment. Last time I was there I felt fit as a flea.
Until March 4th I was there every week day between 8.30am and 9am to swim. My aim was to get really fit, swim 1km a day. I was about to go to a water-polo class in Ealing and start a diving class at the leisure centre in Putney. Next year I planned to go to Heatherley’s school of art in Chelsea, starting in September. They offer a two year portrait painting diploma. I planned to do that for one year, fork out my savings, up my skills and try to set myself up as a professional painter.
Man proposes, God disposes. Don’t bother making plans, or rather if you do, don’t take them too seriously.
Like most modern buildings the place looks like an airport. It is one of those mysteries, like the employment of illiterate people by councils, why architects think that the public loves being inside airports so much that they want every building, even places such as the British Film Institute and Sadler’s Wells theatre to look like them.
Under a row of flashing screens I waited by a half circular reception desk. Through a glass wall I could see happy swimmers a few yards away – women with wet, sharply defined shoulder blades. Women coming in through the turn-stile holding struggling toddlers.
I had to produce documents from the hospital to prove that I was leaving the club because of medical reasons, without those they would have taken another full month’s fee. I felt slightly embarrassed, but the girl on the desk and her young male companion dressed in red track-suits said nothing. She briskly took them away, photocopied and returned them without a word. She gave me a breezy “goodbye,” and that was that.
Got home to hear that Gordon Brown, chatting to “normal people” in Rochdale had committed a terrible boo boo, the most embarrassing incident for the town since their favourite daughter, “Our Gracie” broadcast for the Italians during the war.
In the evening, before the last election debate, got down to some painting, mixing up a glaze with pure turps, Damar varnish and stand oil. Looking down at my glass palette I suddenly felt broken hearted as if a cherished relationship was ending.