Monday, 31 May 2010

"A Rottweiler not a Poodle."

May 17th this was the day of the driving test, the exam, the speech, the presentation you just don't want to give. As we arrived at the Gynaecological clinic at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital and began looking anxiously for a seat, my mother realised that she had forgotten both her hearing aids – stoically positive as she is, she doesn’t want to hear bad news any more than I do.
We were moved to an alcove, but that was crowded too, mainly with fat middle-aged women from London, Poland and Guyana. There was a skinny Chinese woman, and a couple with a baby in a buggy and a fretful toddler. They had brought nothing along to entertain him so he wailed piercingly. Apart from him and his parents, hardly anyone talked.
I watched a woman, middle-aged but beautiful, fiercely stylish, so probably not English, as she walked past us, wobbling slightly on her high heels. Simone Signoret in French films in the 1960s was an expert at that sexy little movement, which somehow conveyed desperation.
It was a long hot wait. As time went on I wondered if I might break down when I met the doctor, the stress of waiting breaks so suddenly when they start speaking. It is still a thing I dread, yet they must see women in all stages of despair and probably just plough on.
Pray a bit with that intensity that comes from doubt. After two hours we get in to see, not Mr McIndoe my consultant who did the op, but a Dr Chatterjee, I haven’t seen before.
He says that conventionally this cancer would be at stage one, but it has spread to the lymph nodes, and presented itself so oddly in the left inguinal node, that it is a stage four.
They don’t know why it appeared in my groin, they have never seen ovarian cancer do that, so the cells might have originated in the bowel. They might be masquerading as ovarian cancer cells.
He is friendly and relaxed and I feel calm and strong, so the prayer was heard.

“There is still everything to play for, isn’t there?” I insist, and my mother seems to be able to hear everything.
“Yes,” he says, “everything depends on how well you respond to the chemotherapy.”
“You were very brave,” says my mother approvingly, when we were outside in the alcove again.
Next I had to see Professor Gabra, from medical oncology. I told my mother she didn’t need to come in as it would just be technical stuff about my future treatment, the “devil’s brew” he is going to soon start pouring into me. She went off to find some coffee.
Gabra is flamboyant and dramatic, obviously relishing his bactericidal powers. He has a glamorous young woman sitting in and I didn’t feel I could cope with looking at both of them.
“Your cancer is a Rottweiler," he said, "not a poodle.”
I had the op on the day of the General Election and now I wonder if I will outlive the coalition!
A horrible moment and I have to get out my hanky, but it passes quickly. He tells me I will have to have a colonoscopy to trace the cells, a kidney test before the chemo, and another scan to see if anything else is visible after the operation.
I can see the young woman toying with her shoe, waggling it on her toe, obviously bored as he tells me chemotherapy will take eighteen weeks and involve two drugs, carboplatin which has no side effects and Taxol, which comes from the Yew tree, and causes all the nasty side effects like hair loss. He details their effects, making large looping drawings.

It’s like a detailed lecture on chemotheraputics condensed into about five minutes, all the time he has. I might as well be in an episode of the Twighlight Zone for all the sense it makes to me, as I can’t believe that it is really happening.

Yet all this will apparently shape my life from now on. If I do survive, it will be ten years before I can think I am cured, and they check for 14 years.

One thing that interested me was when he asked if I’d had any other symptoms, and I mentioned severe tingling in my thumbs and first two fingers. That started on the 18th of January, when I went with my friend Ella to see The Sacred Made Real exhibition at the National Gallery. It was an extraordinary show, the height of Castilian baroque, displaying Spanish polychromatic wooden sculptures of Christ, usually dead or dying. The critic Tom Lubbock called it, “Sacred visions of godly gore.” The whole gallery was lit like a church and some people in there were sitting with prayer books.
I sat on a stool by a carving of the dead Christ by Gregorio Fernandez and an unknown painter, (1625-30) but while I was trying to draw the pencil kept falling out of my fingers. I tried to carry on but it was hopeless, almost total numbness. Happily one of the attendants told me to move anyway as there were crowds and I was in the way.

I went to the doctor and he suggested carpel tunnel syndrome or RSI. But Gabra says that this numbness in the fingers is a rare early sign of ovarian cancer. He says my doctor can’t be blamed for not picking it up, but a neurologist might have realised.

Out in the corridor I see Jan, looking a bit hippy chic in a smart leather jacket, about to go into her consultant. I put my arms round her shoulders and held her for a few moments, but she had to quickly disappear in to see her man and get her fate.

I met my cancer nurse again, who told me I might be entitled to some state benefits: I might be entitled to an allowance and help at home, someone mentions that they have a free parking permit. It seems almost as if I am getting steered towards a whole new career in disability.

Jan reappears, ebullient, bubbling with relief.
“I am stage one, and A One in everything,” she says. “I can go home, there is no more treatment needed.”
She glanced at some papers on the doctor’s desk before he came in. “So many of those women have such terrible battles to fight,” she says.

Am I with them? I was glad for her, but it was as if we had been looking for our final exam results posted on a wall. She had passed with flying colours but I had flunked.

I didn’t tell my mother about the Rotweiler metaphor. We bought some hot Panini in the small hospital café. She started eating with both her little fingers raised. While I was growing up that was one thing she would never allow. I remember her saying that it was a sure sign of vulgarity. Wondered whether to bring that up again, but decided against it. She wrestled with the floury white roll, her old hands like spiky pink crabs.

At home later there was an e mail from Jan saying she and her husband were sitting on their patio drinking champagne in the sunshine. Also a message from a German friend:

I wish your news will be good!!

Had a surgery beginning of this year because they suspected a "bad" zuyst and thanks god I was lucky.

I wish you the same and by the way: HAPPY Birthday!!

I hate her good luck.

Someone on Radio 4 refers to violence as “the cancer of the dispossessed.” I wonder if my cancer is the violence of the distressed. I spent too many years fretting and worrying about men and my place in the world, now everything has narrowed down to the need to survive.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Still Alone

11th May.

End of 13 years of Labour rule, should be good but on TV all I see is pious, lisping Simon Hughes and pompous, platitudinous Paddy Pantsdown. Nick Clegg, who looks like a cross between a school boy and a Foxton’s estate-agent, makes even David Cameron look rough.

12th May.

Six days after being eviscerated and losing all my female organs of increase, I feel much better. Start to cut down on the painkillers and my appetite returns.
This is helped by a fairly sunny day and the arrival of my friend June from Guildford who brings delicious sandwiches from M & S, and presents for my birthday. These include a strange looking woollen lamb, who makes me feel absurdly optimistic for some reason, and a tiny jig-saw puzzle from her recent holiday in Amalfi, when it rained every day and they closed down the outdoor infinity pool. She had also been hit by the Icelandic dust cloud and had to make her way back to the UK by numerous trains and taxis.

She left at 3pm and I went to bed. I woke up at 5pm feeling freezing and rather sick. I noticed blood and yellowy stuff on the front of my nightdress and it seemed that the wound had opened. I felt scared and all the good spirits of the day vanished as I called my GP. I got through without too much trouble, but then the receptionist went off to talk to someone and left me hanging on the line for ten minutes. I could hear them jabbering away, I called “Helloooo!” feeling hotter and hotter. but got no answer, just the sound of the distant foreign tongues.

When she came back she said the doctor would see me right away, but I had to get there myself. There was no mention of home visits which have gone the way of leeches. Fortunately for me, I can walk to the doctor in ten minutes, so I wrapped up warm, wiped away my tears and set off.
The waiting room seemed to be crammed with Pathan tribesmen. I was offered a chair in another room as there was no where to sit and the doctor was occupied. When I saw my GP she looked rather flustered, as if I had disrupted her schedule. She obviously had masses of people to see.
“Have you got a temperature?” she asked. I wasn’t sure. I was going hot and cold but don’t keep a thermometer handy.
“They didn’t do a very good scar did they,” she said gazing down at me.
“It’s only a superficial opening. You have probably got a reservoir of fluid under the wound that has to come out. Surgeons don’t bother putting proper drains into wounds anymore.”

She wrote a prescription, then I realised that I didn’t have any cash left. I had to walk home to get my credit card, then shamble off to the chemist further up the road in the other direction. Waiting in a queue,my head swimming, I thought I saw my natural mother, someone I haven't seen for about fifteen years. I was given up for adoption at six weeks old and met her several times, but I probably wouldn’t recognise her now. she might even be this almost toothless old crone. Feel myself getting hotter and more anxious. After a long stand I got a seat in a children’s play area. I had to pay £20 for some more anti-sickness pills and some antibiotics.

More pills to add to my huge collection. As I put them down I got a call from British Gas offering to give me a discount on a new boiler, which I don’t need, and another call from the “UK’s biggest sub-prime lender,” offering me a cut-price mortgage.

Sometimes I feel disgust with modern Britain, and no matter what Dr Johnson said, I am tired of London, at least the bit of it that I inhabit. It was brutal out there on the pavements, and despite the huge and increasing press of people there was no one who had any time to help me. How was I going to keep paying for all the drugs I was going to need, and what must it be like for the old and seriously disabled?

I began to feel depressed for the first time – this operation to be followed by a future with cancer. It seemed like a Byzantine punishment, one of those prison sentences in the Middle East where they condemn people to ten years in prison followed by death.

An elderly man phoned to ask if would like to help him do some weeding at the war memorial. I had to decline.


Oozing and seeping everywhere, fumblingly apply my own dressings. Where is Florence when you need her, where are the convalescent homes we used to have – a German friend of mine who had her nose broken by a Turkish youth in a swimming pool got sent to a rest home in the Black Forest for two months. And where are the district nurses?

Continue trying to get an appointment time at Queen Charlotte’s but no luck. My details have not been found.

My mother arrives, aged eighty eight, but flying in like Yarga Barba on her broom stick or a woman warrior in a chariot, and I feel so much better seeing her. She will stay until I get my results on the 17th.

It is a comfort to have someone close by whom I don’t have to entertain. She can watch TV in the late afternoon and as soon as I hear the theme music to Count Down or Egg Heads I can head off to bed with my radio, and for once I don’t have to make any excuses to her for doing this.

I decided to get in touch with my cancer “keyworker,” for the first time. I don’t like to think that I am now in “the cancer community,” and need one of these, but she might help with the wound situation.

To my surprise she told me that I am entitled to the services of a district nurse, or at least a “district support nurse,” and I can get all drugs relating to cancer for free. I wonder, unhappily, why my own doctor didn’t tell me this?

Emerald, the district nurse bustles in, carrying an enormous bag. She doesn’t wear a uniform and shows a lot of bosom, but she has the bearing of someone who knows what she’s doing. Her size and energy sweeps my mother off into the kitchen. In my bedroom she asks me to lie down and has a look at the wound.

“They’ve only allotted me forty five minutes with you,” she says. I wonder why it will take that much time to put a dressing on a wound opening the size of a fifty pence piece.

I quickly realise why as she brings out a pile of forms to fill in before we start. It’s very chilly and tedious lying there like a baby on a changing mat, but I feel for her ploughing through all those questions.

She has had no prior information about my condition so she has brought a vast number of dressings with her, some as big as my back. There is a constant rummaging in her bag. Eventually she gets down to mapping the wound with some squared Perspex, put on a large water-proof dressing.

The whole thing takes an hour. As she left Emerald called goodbye to my mother, thinking she was still in the kitchen. She had in fact moved back into the front room where she was sitting among her newspaper cross-words and Sudoku puzzles.

“I am so sorry for assuming that you were in the kitchen,” says Emerald, imbued with a code of political correctness beyond my wildest dreams. But I feel extremely grateful to her, it’s wonderful to feel looked after at last.

“You should have had that dressing four days ago,” my mother said crossly. “And why didn’t they put a drain in?”

Apparently they gave that up because of the current risk of infection. If you want a drain you get them at private hospitals, and the vets.

Get a visit from a former colleague on the Mail, whose mother recently died of cancer in Cornwall. He says that down there the nurses are excellent, tender and loving, just like they used to be in the olden days, but the doctors and consultants are not so hot, not publishing or cutting edge research types.

He brings with him an apple crumble from a deli in Kensington, and seeing him puts me back into optimistic mood. My begins her incessant cleaning, even behind the lavatory cistern and each time she shows me the dirt on the cleaning cloths I am supposed to feel guilty and inadequate.

She goes off shopping in Hammersmith, Ealing and Acton, fully energised and people who see her can’t believe her age.

Get a letter asking me to take part in a “Physical theatre production on the Isle of Dogs. Have to decline.

My mother steam-rollers over me, or rather steam-cleans and vacuums over me, and I let her but she can’t manage it with Maisie. She sits on Maisie’s end of the sofa, even on her rug, while Maisie sits on the floor, bolt up right, eye-balling her. It has no effect but she doesn’t give up.

My mother was born under Leo and Maisie knows a bigger, tougher cat when she sees one. On one occasion she got her rug back and my mother shifted to another sofa, but I could see her eyeing my mother uneasily.
“You’ve ruined that cat,” my mother says, almost every hour. She hates me putting down new food for her, when she hasn’t finished up everything in her dish. This argument between us is interminable. On Sunday morning, the 16th , she goes off to get the papers, but she says I can’t have the Sunday Times because I haven’t finished reading Saturday’s Telegraph yet.

I get three visitors during the day. One of them is breaking up with his wife. He tells me that he wants to kill her. He wants out, while she is desperately unhappy and hates London. We talk about relationships; stage one is the limerence, where you seem to identify totally with the other person, stage two is when you reassert your individuality, and if you get through that, you reach stage three and settled down to live more or less happily ever after.

“We are definitely stuck at stage two,” he says, and I think about my cancer, which is probably also a stage two, as it has gone into my lymph glands. We are both at stage two, but I am longing to live while he wants something to die.

Life seems sociable, almost normal again, but tomorrow I get the results from the operation. It looms up like a school day. The hours pass as if I am walking, every step taking me closer to Monday morning.

Life has caught up with me at fifty four; I have so far avoided the kind of pain that was familiar to previous generations, no death of main parent, no lost loved ones. I never married largely to avoid the pain of getting a divorce. I have avoided pain, but now its got me, and so indirectly also my old mother.

Dream I am pushing a big wheel uphill, it’s a kind of gun emplacement, I’m drenched in menopausal night sweat but I’ve got to get it to the top of the hill. I have no idea who it will be firing at. Maybe it’s a penis that never came and filled me with sperm and babies, or perhaps it is my own ovary that fired at me, strimming poisoned bullets through my lymphatic system.

Dust burst into the air, oil gushes into the sea off the coast of Louisiana, nature is impervious to us, and I have a strong sense of helplessness.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Home Alone

I woke up at midnight with nagging pain and felt cold, but was too tired to get up and do anything about it, and I wasn’t sure if I should take the pills without food, in the night.

I felt lonely and vulnerable: what if someone broke in while I was this weak, what about my tulips which needed staking up, the romanesco seedlings which had to be watered, worse still what about the rubbish piled up outside my flat?

Three weeks before going into hospital I had paid a local workman, who advertised himself by card in a shop window, to get rid of my old shed and debris from my back garden. He’d carried it all through the flat without bags and told me he’d return the next day with “me mate,” to take it away. Instead he’d stuffed it down the space between the front of my flat and the front garden wall. It was still there and he obviously wasn’t coming back with or without mate. What was I going to do about that, before the wall rotted away? Worries crowded in and for the first time for years, I felt truly helpless, as if there as no one out there to help me.

I drifted off and saw the face of Paul Dacre the editor of the Daily Mail smiling enigmatically as if he wished me well, but more likely his smile was saying, “I’m glad you are going to die soon. I’ll out live the lot of you; despite my triple-heart bypass.” Several people at the Mail had opened a book on his death, and no doubt, all seeing, he knew about it.

I heard a soft but decided knock on my bedroom door, then the sound of skirts rustling as whoever it was moved away. After that I was afraid to go to sleep again as scared as a young child abandoned in a strange dark house.

In the morning I dragged myself up at six. I didn’t want to stay in bed as it seemed like a dark, haunted pit. I stared at a bunch of flowers which I couldn’t hope to sort out as the vase was too heavy for me to get down from its shelf. Maisie had not eaten anything and plaited herself around my legs, restless, pestering and resentful.

I injected myself and tried to work out the pills. They all had to be taken with food, hours apart. I took some of the thick, chalky laxative to feel as if I was doing something positive.

A few hours later friends began texting and ringing, including the vicar from Ealing who had turned up at Victor Bonney to visit me and found no one on reception, and no patients in the ward. Another friend who had struggled there from North London had eventually found a nurse who told her, “She felt much better, so she discharged herself.”

I felt outraged hearing this, but she pointed out that the girl spoke very poor English and obviously had no idea what she was talking about.

Apparently many hospital wards close down at weekends, booting people out suddenly, no matter what age they are, or whether they live alone. Of course it’s about government targets and the constant turnover of hospital beds, but another reason given is that it, “discourages dependency, particularly among the old.”

This is part of the new culture of unkindness which combines political correctness with miserable cheese-paring; children must “own their own learning,” sick people must "own" their own condition, even the criminally insane and the demented must live in “the community” and take responsibility for getting well.
This of course is all conveniently cheap. Old Florrie would recognise it as a re-run from the days of the Work House and the Poor Law; never give the buggers enough, or they’ll want more.

If the new government decides to cut costs further by sending people home even earlier, they will meet themselves going home before they’ve gone in. It will be a false economy too as already 500,000 people are readmitted as emergency cases within thirty days of hospital treatment.

Reluctantly I began to take the stronger painkillers and found that I had diarrhoea rather than the other thing, bad dreams and constant nausea. My GP suggested that I should stop taking the painkillers as they were causing it. He obviously had no idea what having an hysterectomy or perhaps any abdominal surgery was like.

The pain seemed worst in the afternoon, but as I had to take the pills with food I couldn’t take any between lunch and dinner. The only thing to do was to go to bed and stay there, keeping as still as possible, hang Maisie, and the nurses who insisted that you had to walk about to avoid wind. It also meant ignoring my work ethic which has stopped me wasting time all my adult life. Now I could be a teenager again, just lying about, happily half conscious. “tripping” as we used to say.

Rather than soft drugs, I entered the strange, balmy world of BBC 7, the newish drama and comedy network, which is mostly composed of superannuated detectives.

Dozing away I hear that Sherlock Holmes knows exactly who did it, I didn’t catch what it was, but that doesn’t matter, as his serpentine deductions at the end are what it’s really all about. He has caught the beautiful heiress with the missing letter. He demands it from her and she is so taken aback that he knows she has got it, that she immediately hands it over.

Miss the next bit and when I surface again Holmes is involved with another woman, and a different letter. He can’t use his extraordinary talents so easily this time because just as she is about to sign it, her wrist is seized by a blackguard who takes the letter, and kills her. She dies rather quietly, with a slight cough.

Inspector G. Lestrade sounds astonished when Holmes reveals all this, whatever it is. All very interesting but it seems like almost the next moment that I hear the jocular voice of Lord Peter Wimsey, who is worried about a blue-stocking gel who may have killed her lover, although he tells Inspector Parker that she seems topping to him. Parker doesn’t agree and things look bleak, but before i can find out, I am with Hercule Poirot. He goes to have his teeth polished, only to find that his dentist is dead.

Not even relieved about this for one second, he comes over all moralistic and accuses a young woman of being “involved with this whole vile racket.” I will never know whether he was right. When I woke again I switched to BBC Radio 4, where the news was on, or it might have been a mad-cap comedy because it seemed that the Tory government was being forced into bed with the Scots Nats, the Welsh and the Ulster Unionists. There had also been an air-crash in Libya. I heard vaguely; “It is feared that three kittens were on board the plane when it crashed.”

Then we are into the Afternoon Play, a modern, edgy adaptation of an Inspector Maigret mystery by George Simenon. A young man with an Estuary accent is planning to poison his wife and has somehow set up a young servant girl to take the rap for it, but she decides to take the poison to expose him. I think he got away in a sports car, but I fell asleep before the end, as I have done with afternoon plays ever since I was student, but that is no judgement on them.

By tea time I was back in the world of BBC 7 listening to a young woman’s lengthy screams as she fell under a steam train. The voice of Sherlock Homes assured us that, “Fortunately she was so relaxed from the effect of all the opium that falling under the train did her no harm.”

I saved up the strongest pain killer and took it with an anti-sickness pill at 11pm, a long wait from my dinner at 6.30pm, but I had my first good night - up to a point. I dreamed I was floating over a table covered with severed hands, feet, limbs and even eyes with thick lashes. All were still alive, flickering and moving slightly. It was either the pills and hallucinations, or the pain.

Friends brought me generous amounts of food, salads, jellies, cakes, sandwiches, from M & S in Birmingham, Kensington, Ealing and Guildford, but I couldn’t eat.The anti-sickness pills didnt seem strong enough against the pain-killers.

On May 10th I had a look at the Court Circular in The Times. The Royals seemed to be tucking in heartily: On the 8th of May the Prince of Wales and his Duchess had been to a reception at Horse Guards, given by the British Legion. I bet that was fancy. On the same day, the Duke of York, special representative for International Trade, had flown to Saudi Arabia, and been received by King Khalid. In the afternoon he called upon Dr Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Rabeeah (Minister of Health) and “remained to lunch.”

The Earl and Countess of Wessex meanwhile were holding a lunch at Ascot, while Princess Alexandra was attending a reception at Holyrood. The following day, the Duke of York, still in Saudi, visited the British and Irish Food Festival at the Al Khozama Hotel, followed by a Business Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel.

We had a bit of a break through on the food front, as my friend Elaine who looks after Maisie when I’m away, arrived with a bag of frozen Coley, and in case that didn’t work, a chemotherapeutic hit of fresh north sea prawns. It worked a treat and infused with these Maisie turned from being a glinting eyed rat bag, into a nice domestic cat again, who snuggled up to me in bed and purred in my ear.

Worries still crowded my mind as I lay in bed without any real life detective to solve my problems. One morning at 6am I was seized by a violent desire for action, to do something. I found the scrap of paper on which I had written the number of the workman who had wrecked the back of my garden and called him. As usual I got a recorded message.
“If you don’t clear that rubbish from the front of my flat I will take you to the small claims court,” I screamed. “And I will go the shop where I first had the misfortune to see your card and tell them what kind of a useless scoundrel you are.”

At 9am he appeared, with two Polish workers in council uniform he was paying privately.

“My wife was very upset by your message,” he said in an Irish brogue he hadn’t used before. “She got up in a bad temper this morning, and hearing that made her worse.”

I had to hand him £20 to take the stuff away. “I’ll be out of pocket with that,” he said staring at the note ruefully. My spirits perked up no end at the sight of his drooping, red drinker’s face.

They slumped again later when I called Queen Charlotte’s hospital to find out the time of my appointment with the consultant.

“There is nothing on screen here about you at all,” said a nurse cheerfully. “They must have forgotten all about it.”

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Booted off the Bus


The little wind up dolls called nurses began to appear with one strong message – no one goes home until they have "moved their bowels."

I have always thought of that expression as Victorian, something from a sininster nursery where children were persecuted with terrible rules. Like old fashioned nannies talking to small children, the nurses warned us that it was vital for us to “go,” or we would not be going home.

The word "bowel" comes from the Latin, "botellus," or "little sausage." It is one area of the human body that doesn't interest me, although there are those stories that if you took them out they would stretch to the moon and back or something, but now I joined in as it became our main preoccupation.

“I’ve done a poo,” shouted Gail on the third day after our surgery. This kind of nursery language has been widely taken up by adults, it is now common everywhere, particularly in Radio 4 humour, but it makes me cringe.

Gail was cock-a-hoop but Rebecca, Jan and I, felt we were miles away from this goal. With all the painkillers our bowels had bunged up.

Rebecca remained languid, reading her magazines, but I felt glad that I wasn’t going home till Sunday, five days after my op.I felt stupified and exhausted, apart from the pain from the abdominal rip.

On Saturday morning a young South American doctor appeared. He did not examine any of us, but told us with a charming smile that we were all fit to go home straight away. Bowels and the moving of were suddenly forgotten. He told us we all had to be out by lunch time.

A nurse issued us all with an enormous pack of medication, including enough syringes, so we could inject ourselves at home for twenty eight days, a yellow box for the discarded sharps, 100 Paracetamol, 24 Tinzaparin, 56 Diclofenac, a big bottle of Milpar laxative and 30 Tramadol, strong painkillers which cause bad constipation and hallucinations. Suddenly it was goodbye, you are on your own, we don't work weekends.

I quickly cancelled the people due to visit me. Gail’s friends from work arrived, she'd arranged to stay with a friend for a few days. Rebecca’s man, with grey bouffant hair and Pringle sweater appeared and she emerged from the shower room looking dressed in shades, white linen with white espadrilles and Mulberry bag, a bit like Joan Collins getting off a plane. My friend Sally came to get me, bringing some yogurts and fruit, but I felt distinctly unwell and abandoned.

At the desk on the way out I told a nurse I hadn’t seen before that I felt feverish and my mouth was horribly dry. In a Yorkshire accent she said, “Well, you better ask him.” She meant the young Latin doctor who was sitting on the work station a few inches from her. I repeated the information to him, feeling rather like a passenger on an EasyJet ticket, who has turned up to find her flight has been cancelled without warning. He did not move his eyes from the computer screen.
“You feel ill because you have big operation,” he said as if I was an idiot.
“One of the pills I’m taking is making me very dry. I wonder if I can stop taking it, or take something else?” I asked.
“What pills you taking?” He said,looking straight at me. I realised that I didn’t know their names.
“I don’t know,” I said, sounding like a fool.
“You better ask the nurse,” he said, smiling cruelly. I looked at her. She looked at him and said, in her enjoyable accent:
“Aren’t you supposed to be the doctor?”

There was no point in going on with this strange game, no point in arguing, anymore than there is in a busy airport. Sally ushered me off. I felt upset all the way home by the unpleasantness of this exchange.

Sally had kindly brought me some food, my freezer was full but my flat seemed cold and dismal. I laid out all the pills and syringes in the kitchen. When I'd left it, it had seemed like a very comfortable garden flat, but now it felt as welcoming and as safe as a gothic castle, and it had its own monster.
My cat Maisie, who had been looked after by a neighbour, didn't greet me at all, and I gave her some food she wouldn’t eat it. I tried another type, but she wouldn’t eat that either. I just didn’t have the energy to keep going, opening packets and putting down bowls. She seemed to be furious with me and when I tried to stroke her she bit me, something she never usually did.
I know Freud's dog rejected him when he had cancer, but that was because of the smell of his rotting jaw, and that's dogs for you, easily dismayed, but my cat was different. I couldnt understand her sudden cold eyed rejection. Perhaps she thought I'd been off hunting and had come back empty handed. I certainly couldnt focus on her as intently as I had done before.
I slunk off to bed, without putting the heating on as I'd been too hot in hospital, and without taking the strong pain killers, as I still had in mind all those warnings about constipation.
Alone in my cold bedroom, facing the long night, with Maisie sitting bolt upright beside me, staring at me in the dark, forming a green silhouette in the light from the digital radio, I wondered for the first time how I was going to get through all this?

Spayed 2


On Friday, May 7th I awoke to see a line of doctors standing at the foot of my bed, in the middle of them a nurse in a rather traditional Royal Blue uniform, glaring at me as if had just committed some heinous crime. She looked furious. I only ever saw her like that, in the early morning, standing at the end of my bed, enraged with me.

I could have imagined her of course, perhaps the Carry On Films are so deeply embedded in my sub-conscious that I had hallucinated a demonic version of Hattie Jacques. But Rebecca saw her too.

“Perhaps she is tired of glaring at the nurses so she has started on us?” she suggested, sitting up reading The Telegraph.

The general election results were trickling in; I asked the stern strangers at the foot of the bed for some news. I thought they might be tickled to be asked for some political rather than medical results for a change, but they looked unhappy and one said briefly that there was a hung parliament.

This was a birthday to remember, or perhaps bury as fast as possible. It seemed unbelievable to me, but it was Cons 291, Labour 247, 51 Lib Dems, so far. One of them tore off my pressure bandage, taking quite a lot of skin with it. He said that I would get my other results on the 17th, ten days away.

Then I remembered why I was there – cancer. What a downer, I had almost forgotten. Like the imposter that I was, I had started to think I was in hospital for the laugh. Would the cancer be at stage one, two, or already stage three? I felt a creeping dread, flavoured now with the smell of anaesthetic gases.

Without the bandage I looked at myself for the first time. Below my navel where I was once smooth and flat, my abdomin now looked soft and yellow, stubbly, spattered with blood, like the chin of a bald old man. I felt revolted at myself.

None of the other women near me had been filleted, they didn’t have morphine bags, but I was attached to several tubes with those colourful little buttons in the back of my hand that look like candle holders on a birthday cake.

One line was attached to a morphine pump which came with a black bag, a bit like a small Fendi handbag in tooled leather, I’d once bought on Sloane Street for hundreds of pounds, in the days when I did things like that.

We were all encouraged to get up and walk about, as apparently this was particularly good for post-op “wind,” which can cause severe pain. I could only walk very slowly, leaning forwards, as if I was clutching a smashed water-melon in front of me.

When I tried to brush my teeth I realised that there was no cold water on the ward. Our communal sink only gave warm to hot. I also wanted to wash some blood out of the new M & S nightdress, but this was impossible without cold water. Gail seemed to think I was making a fuss about nothing, she didn’t want me to make any complaints and I felt undermined by her, as if we were about to quarrel.

Nurses appeared occasionally, to give out pills, laxatives and injections to thin the blood. Mostly we were left by ourselves.

I trundled into the shower, but I couldn’t get my nightdress off as the morphine bag wouldn’t go down my sleeve. I felt tearful, struggling like a toddler to undress. I pulled the orange cord to summon a nurse. No one came. I peeped round the door to ask Rebecca if she could find one for me. A young girl from the Philippines appeared and began to untwist me, struggling with the sleeve. I was still in tears and she stared at me, looking really scared, as if she’d never seen anyone even mildly distressed before. I wondered how old she was, twelve, perhaps?

Untwisted and naked at last, she left and I put on the shower. The water was scalding hot. Despite another struggle, I could not get it any colder. I asked Rebecca to help me again and another nurse appeared and said that if we wanted to wash we would have to go to another part of Victor Bonney, some distance away.
She led Rebecca and me up the corridor, past the desk where I’d come in. The nurse vanished. Balancing my black bag as best I could I sat in the bath and put on the hot water. It came gushing out, but unfortunately I could not turn on the cold tap at all.
“I just can’t do it,” I wept.

Outside the door I could hear laughter from the desk. They were obviously having a good time on the nursing station, but no one was interested in patients in the bathrooms wrestling with hot water. I gave up made my way back as best I could, wandering about up empty corridors, redirected until I found my way back to my bed.

How times have changed. I remember going to hospital when I was eleven and getting a bed bath when I woke up from the operation. I was very shy, but it was done so efficiently and with such kindness to me that I didn’t mind. In 1981 I had a cyst removed from an ovary and when I awoke again there was the wash, carried out by two nurses, who I remember carefully removed blood from my navel.
Five years ago, when I was working at the Daily Mail, I had a bunion removed at the private Princess Grace hospital. The next day, two sprightly nurses appeared offering to help me to a bath. I told them politely to buzz off as I was quite capable of looking after myself, with only one foot was in plaster. Now I was drenched in sweat, desperate for some help and there was none on offer.

Florence Nightingale once wrote that before her time nurses were there just to dish out medicine. If she came back now she'd think that nothing much had changed. NHS Nurses these days are like automatic dolls, wound up at the start of a shift to perform single tasks, any kind of multi-tasking is beyond them, even if that is only to have a chat, or give a drink of water. I once asked a nurse for some water but she said she didn’t have time to get it, even though she was standing by the sink.

You didn’t get anything without pursuing it. Most requests were met with a dull, dead eyed stare, or even fear as when I’d been upset in the shower room.

Ignoring the nurse's look of pain, I demanded some mesh knickers to hold the sanitary towel that we had to wear. The other two women didn’t get these so they bled into their beds. The beds weren’t changed if you didn’t ask.

The nurses always had something to do, somewhere, that wasn’t concerned with us. During the day no one got much attention. Where did the nurses go for most of the time? No one knew. One thing was certain, you would never ask one of them to make you a cup of tea, any more than you would ask your consultant to do it. Florence would certainly notice a big change there - no one can be offended by the imposition of any hierarchy, so no one gets any tea.

The night staff nurses were more obvious, and they tried to make us all sleep sitting up, pumping up our automatic beds to sitting position. According to Health & Safety sleeping flat puts too much of a strain on the lungs. On top of that there were all the other nocturnal discomforts; I was next to the radiator which was full on, while Rebecca and Gail were nearer the corridor, which was blazing with light and noise. Our pillows were plastic, covered in cotton cases with no turning to keep the pillow in, so you constantly got a face full of plastic.

I found the experience of being in a public ward fascinating but difficult. I was inhibited having to sleep so close to someone I didn’t know. I was full of wind and worried about snoring. I had ear-plugs but the others didn’t.

“Did I make any sounds in the night?” I asked Rebecca.
“No, she said, “only one small grunt.”

She could have been lying to save my feelings. People of my generation, who haven't caught up with the new scatology, worry about things like that. I gave out ear-plugs and they all seemed grateful.

In the morning my mobile started beeping again. After being switched off the settings had gone back to their bad old ways, and now full of morphine I couldn’t think how to change it. I could feel Gail bridling from the other side of the ward.

I sloped off to the TV ward, dragging my morphine, and it seems that almost everyone I have known in the last twenty years had decided to text me. They also all wanted to come and visit but I felt exhausted, woozy, in pain and worse, full of wind.
What if the vicar arrived while I was in that state?

In fact I got a visit from two of them, a young priest from St Michael's in Bedford Park, who looks like an El Greco, who sat quietly by my bed,a perfect hospital visitor, and the hospital chaplain, a hearty middle aged man who was asked to contact me by the vicar in Ealing. They both arrived within ten minutes of each other, making me look like a religious fanatic.

I also received several dramatic text messages from Terry: “My place is at your side. I realise that now. I have spoken to Greta and the children and they all agree. I know you feel the same way. At last we can be together.” Oh Lord.

I began to enjoy the fine art of dozing, helped by morphine of course. I used to doze as a child and a teenager, but lost the art of it somewhere 1980s when I moved to London, joined the Groucho Club and started trying to “be someone,” to “make it." Never a day, or a night went by for years when I didnt think about my career and plan my future.

My little corner of the ward became crammed with cards, ovary shaped tulips on drooping tubes, and clusters of grapes. I read somewhere that grapes are not just a boring hospital cliché, they are an anti-cancer, immune boosting fruit - so I made big inroads into them.

Friends started to appear, some I hadn't seen for years, so I stuck a bright smile on my face. They brought me books, an eye-mask, papers, toiletries. Whole semi-circles of people appeared around the bed and I wanted to please them all, make they realise how much I liked seeing them, I was grateful that they'd come, but at the same time I so wished they would just go away.

Terry appeared unexpectedly, sitting just outside the circle, smiling uneasily. He never did like my friends. One of my girlfriends glared at him hard and eventually dashed off, apparently in a rage as she hates him so much on my behalf.
Later I was received more of his texts, all with his usual elaborate punctuation: “I will arrange time to take you to your results on the 17th, - but, sadly, that may be the last time we ever meet."
"Unfortunate – upon a hundred levels, but Greta says that I, “cannot show concern for another woman:” my heart breaks to tell you such news.”

It reminded me of that old musical song with the line, "Can't get away to marry you today, my wife won't let me."

“Suffice to say," he went on, "she has been an absolute holy cow – oh, really bad. My commitment to you remains undiminished but my patience here has been taxed to the limit. Sorry to mention this at this current time; and so it must be farewell for now, at least.”

I only asked him to give me one lift to the hospital, nothing else but out of that had concocted some major soap opera in which he used me to beat his wife, but luckily I don’t have to watch any of it.

As Goethe said, “all men’s sins I can forgive in an actor, but no actor’s sins can I forgive in men."

Terry has to be forgiven, or at least understood because he was once an actor with the RSC, until he gave it up to become a manager in a bus company, working seven days a week scoring up lethal hours of overtime to support a grabby wife and children he says have drug habits, and hardly notice him.

Getting Spayed


Slippers, new nightdress from M&S, rehydrating water spray found at the back of a drawer along with an old eye mask, souvenirs from the days when we not only got meals on airlines but real leather wallets, stuffed with socks, au de cologne, ear plugs and stickers saying, “Wake me for meals.”
I decided to think of my stay in hospital as a long haul flight, this one lasting one hundred and twenty hours, or five days.
As the doctors needed to explore, they were going to open me up and gut me like a fish, everything had to go, including tumour on the ovary size 3.8 cm and an enlarged lymph gland. They might even take my appendix. Apparently even that useless little thing can pick up ovarian cancer cells.
I arrived with overnight bag at the Victor Bonney Ward, Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, at 11am on May 4th, 2010, as instructed.
Terry decided to take time a few hours off work to give me a lift. He arrived in a new white Saab. We felt comfortable together, almost as if we were going to an airport, setting out on a longed for holiday. We spent two short holidays together not long after we first met, last year. At that time I still believed he was single. When we met at a Speed Dating event in a bar in the West End, he’d told me that he’d been separated from his wife Gretta for five years. In fact he’d become furiously angry five years previously, when she had found herself a younger boyfriend, but he had never left the family home. Taking up with other women was his manly revenge.
On this morning I was glad he was with me. He was ebullient and I was happy to hold his large, square hand as we entered the hospital and took the lift.
In Victor Bonney, they are not expecting me – in fact they have never heard of me. The Caribbean nurse in charge looks annoyed, as if I am was of those people who go around deliberately trying to get a bed for a night or two by pretending to be in need of radical surgery.
Making a noise through her front teeth she skimmed some papers.
“Your operation is tomorrow,” she says. “You shouldn’t be here today. There is no bed for you.”
She sounded as if I had deliberately spoiled her day. But I was not going home, I was geared tight for this and going nowhere. We sat dejectedly in an alcove, by a low coffee table, piled with old copies of celebrity magazines, still holding hands. Terry was as timid as a tortoise, I’d never seen him so subdued.
I had been through this before with Victor Bonney. A week before I’d been sent there for a blood test which I had to have before a scan at the nearby Hammersmith Hospital, due at 7pm. When I turned up none of the nurses knew anything about it, in fact they didn’t seem to believe it. Again I was in the role of impostor.
An odd place the Victor Bonney Ward. Its staff remind me those bus drivers who accelerate when they see passengers, with a pathological hatred of stopping to pick them up.
I sat with the clock ticking towards the time of the scan. Eventually a young doctor appeared, looked on the desk at the nurses’ station – and there was the paper relating to my blood test. He held it up for them, laughed, and they said nothing. It is not politically correct for doctors to trump nurses.
I needed him again now.
After twenty long minutes of this, my heart pounding, I went to find the nurse who had told me there was no bed. Terry was keeping his head tucked in.
“We are making a bed up now,” she said, without looking up at me.
Why didn’t she come and tell me? Not her job to stop my worrying. This was my first in-house taste of today’s NHS nurse.
Terry had to go as his car park ticket was about to run out. We kissed just like a cliché couple, the couple we tried to be on our two short holidays, and at 12 noon a nurse, calling me, “Mrs Kelly,” led me to my bed.
Although it was termed a “ward,” the place looked like an adjunct of an operating theatre, or an airport in the middle of the night, functional, not at all cosy. I got a bed by the window, which seemed lucky.
There was no one in there but a very old, toothless lady who seemed almost dead. She told me in a whisper that she’d been waiting to be taken to the theatre since the early morning, but no one had come for her.
As I sat on my bed, lunch arrived; boil in the bag white fish and white sauce, served with not so much mashed as liquidised white potato. Oh well, at least it was a good portion size. It was followed by a choice of all kinds of English puds and custard, quite a treat really.
At 2pm a young black woman surgeon arrived. She looked tres chic in a tight dress and she seemed optimistic about my chances.
“It could all be local,” she said. “We don’t know yet, so don’t worry.”
I felt transformed and fell back into the kind of soft goo of hope which is always waiting to suck one in. I mentioned to her about the old lady still waiting for her op. Wouldn’t her pre-med have worn off by now? She hurried away and I wondered if she was going to do something about it.
The old lady was not collected until 4pm, when I also got a visit from a Welsh woman who looked very like Glenys Kinnock. She told me she’d once been a surgeon, but her “fingers had gone.” She waggled them at me ruefully. She now does some busy-bodying around with gynaecological cancer patients.
“You are a puzzle,” she said, “very odd. We know it has moved to the lymph glands already.” She began to speak about, “chronic disease,” comparing my possible future condition to someone living with rheumatoid arthritis. I imagined those huge armchairs with moving parts, and stair-lifts. That was not what I wanted to hear at all. My notebook fell under my bed and it was a joy to see her get down and grope for it, her expansive backside raised in the air.
A Lebanese woman was put into the bed right next to me, although the rest of the ward was empty. She sniffled with misery. Her young husband spoke English and apparently she was having an ectopic pregnancy. She was thirty one, with two other children at home. Being so close I had to hear all the details. There was no radio to plug into to avoid it.
Watery macaroni cheese and treacle sponge arrived. I am a lover of traditional canteen food, but I felt tired of the menu already. I would have liked at least a slight savour of cheese, and a sauce made with milk not water, even a bit of greenery on the plate. All the food looked pale as death, if not ectoplasmic, which is not encouraging.
I visited the TV room to see how the election was hotting up. News of fraud in Tower Hamlets before the votes had even been cast. Night came but you hardly knew it in the grey gleaming interior of the ward, where the main lights were kept on till almost midnight. It was quiet where I was, apart from the woman in the next bed sniffing. A nurse switched on a large angle-poise lamp right next to her bed, so they could check her in blinding light all night. It seemed there were no small night lights. Too late I realised that I had forgotten my flight mask.
At 1am I got up, crept into the woman’s tent, and deftly pushed the lamp away in the other direction. The woman was full of anaesthetic and didn’t notice me but a nurse appeared looking furious. I suggested that it was too light to sleep, but she didn’t have enough English to understand what I was saying, however she didn’t move the lamp back.
In the morning the woman awoke and started crying again. Big, round and soft, I could see that she was probably a good mother, all mother, nothing else, the sort that men want for their children. I never felt that men saw me as a potential mother because I had too many ideas in my head, and I seemed too independent. Wonder if those bitter thoughts, which went on in my head for years, had had anything to do with the lesions in me now?
By the day of my op I felt tired out. The ectopic lady went home and two new women arrived. Rebecca, aged sixty three, well spoken, but husky voiced like a smoker. She had a very elegant Kath Kidson nightdress, gown and headband. I could see her on a terrace somewhere sipping Tanqueray gin.
“I’m Jewish,” she told me apros pos of nothing. “I married a millionaire. I had a good life for years but then he took to drink in a big way. I divorced him when I was forty. Not long after that I met my current partner at the golf club. It was just love at first sight. I’m not worried at all about this operation, I’ve had a very good life and I just accept whatever.”
Gail, aged forty five, had a Cockney accent and a rather screwed up little face.
“Your mobile is “well annoyin’,” she said to me. I desperately fiddled with the settings menu to silence it. She was the kind of girl I’d always avoided in school,I felt embarrassed that I didnt like her, and didn’t want to annoy her.
In the TV room I meet a woman lawyer called Jan. She’d had her op, a hysterectomy by key-whole surgery, the day before, and was standing there in a Japanese kimono, looking well but feeling indignant.
“To get to the operating theatre they forced me to walk all the way,” she said, “it was quite a long distance, down several corridors and up to another floor, even though I was sobbing hard all the way. People kept looking at me and turning away. It was like going to the guillotine.”
She was married to a man who works for Tate Britain. They’d been together since they were students.
“We really wanted children so much,” she said. “We were desperate for years. When I got this, possible endometrial cancer, my husband said, “Haven’t we already suffered enough?”
This was overheard by a gently spoken German girl who was in for a fertility problem. She said her husband had very little sperm. I informed her that my father had no sperm at all, which always sounds rather funny, and my brother and I were adopted. She looks quite encouraged by this, and said she wouldn’t mind adopting. Jan said it was something she never wanted to do. She only wanted her husband’s child.
I felt my partner-less state. Never had a nice man to share fertility issues with, the possibility of a baby never came up for me because I was always waiting to find the right man first. Little bat-faced Gail was the only other single woman around.
I asked her to join us in the TV room, instead of lying alone on her bed. She refused. Later, to no one in particular she said, “I’m forty five and I’ve got no man, no children and no job.”
We had things in common but nothing to say to each other.
In the afternoon I must have made the walk to the guillotine, but I don’t remember a thing about it.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Some Results At Last

I have turned into Phileas Fogg - counting each second, battling against time to achieve my goal; survival.

After the biopsy at Charing Cross I was sent for a PET scan, which fills you with reactive stuff which can track tumours. I felt optimistic now. Lymphoma had been suggested, but also a simple infection. People said that lots of people get raised lymph nodes, they can be just an infection. One of my GPs assistants rang up and said her husband often gets them, but never even goes to the doctor about it. It was possible, as I had no other symptoms, that the findings would be clear.

A friend e- mailed to say that he knew about a special pancake, made from a mushroom and boiled like tea, that was known to cure cancer and had done the job for the writer Alexander Solzhentitsyn.

On April 14th at 9.30am I was back in the Catherine Lewis clinic, trying to keep my seat this time, focus on the magazines but I felt that mood of repressed panic and hysteria rising like those bulbs in a Galileo thermometer. I could see all around me that I had joined the ranks of the cut, stitched and bruised patients quietly waiting attention, rattling or was it oozing with nuclear medicine.

Nurses came out at intervals and called out full names as before. At last I was called but to see a different doctor. I’d seen the Indian who had seemed hacked off, an Egyptian woman who had been more encouraging, and now I met Dr Tassos, a rather lugubrious Greek. I could tell immediately by his body language that the results were not good. It was the exact situation I had dreaded so much on the old school road. I shed tears, I had to, it was such a cliché scene and not one I wanted to be in. What the hell, I might as well. He hesitated a moment, someone tried to come in and he waved them away.

“You have an undifferentiated carcinoma of the abdominal cavity,” he said. “Nothing to do with the blood. This is a gynaecological cancer, so I must refer you to another department. They will have to examine the results of the biopsy.”

But what about the prognosis. He didn’t know. What had they seen? “A lesion, several lymph nodes in the tummy,” he said. “Tummy?” Did he mean stomach. I wrangled for more information.

“I think you will need chemotherapy,” he admitted, reluctant to commit himself to a judgement on anything about an area not his own. “Have you got anyone who will look after you, have you got anyone with you?”

These questions were painful and I felt that perhaps he did not understand how we as English people just do not cohere as families. Many of us don’t have families at all. I said there was my mother, but she lived far away.

“She should come down to be with you,” he said. I tried to explain that she has her own life. He looked puzzled. I said she was too old, that obviously sounded more reasonable to him.
“I am strong, I can take care of myself,” I said. I saw a look in his eyes which told me that he knew more about these things than I did, and I was wrong.

So my mother came back, and we began another wait together, this time for the results of the biopsy from the new department. I was also told I had to have a CAT scan and had to wait for an appointment. Nothing arrived on the mat. I rang up and got an appointment for 6pm one evening.

For awhile we were diverted by the effects of a cloud of dust which settled over Europe from a volcano in Iceland. I had a call from a friend of mine trapped in the Holiday Inn, Naples.
“What shall I do here Jane?” she wailed. I suggested Capri, Vesuvius, Sorrento, Pompeii etc. But of course she had already seen them all. Not a bad problem to have I thought, trapped in a hotel overlooking the Bay of Naples. But she said her room overlooked a storehouse at the back and she just wanted to get home. She had a point as we were told the thing could go on erupting for five years. Other people began reporting stories of people trapped in holiday resorts. The French had allowed touts to buy up all bus and air tickets, taxi drivers were making a fortune. I stayed under my duvet trying to feel safe, while my mother set about scouring the shower room, cleaning the kitchen, washing most of my jumpers and castigating the cat for eating too much.
On the 20th we ventured out to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I used to go regularly to draw, to see an exhibition of gifts given by Victoria and Albert to each other. Mum was annoyed, we had begun to annoy each other, with her creeping into the kitchen in the morning asking permission to make tea, or “is it OK for me to have some toast?” This strategy was successfully driving me nuts. I could feel that didn’t really want to be there. She said she had seen enough the exhibition on TV. Then we found it wasn’t at the V & A anyway, it was at the Queen’s own gallery in Buckingham Palace. I feel too feeble to envisage trecking over there and relieved when she says, “I’m not paying to go in there. Not at her prices.
“Some people I know went to see Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove recently, and it was so expensive they didn’t go in. Damn cheek.”
Like many English people she generally likes the Queen, but resents her being so rich. And she thinks Charles is too idle, with too many fancy ways. Perhaps she would prefer some kind of Citizen King. I think this is a hangover from the war, when British people felt so close to the Soviets and the hammer and sickle actually flew over the National Gallery. For some reason I am quite happy to let our royals live in palaces on my behalf.
We had a coffee in the V & A café where there is a copy of a graceful Greek statue who reminds me of Princess Diana. I had often sat there and drawn her from all angles. I used to go regularly to meet friends after I’d been drawing in the sculpture gallery. Seeing the statue again I now had a very clear idea of just how happy I had been in those days, and how I had not realised it at all.

I had just arranged my life so that all I had to do was paint and draw, I was never going to get away with that, was I? The Gods had cursed me. As we sat there I got some angry texts from Terry. He had once been quite a successful actor but given it up years ago to take a management job with a bus company to support his wife and children.

He had left his wife many times since but always went back, always would. We had met at a speed dating event, when he was off on one of his attempted escapes from home. Now he had been doing some acting again and it had gone well, he’d actually got offers of work. He’d sent me a text saying it had been superb and he was “right back on form.” I had replied that in that case, that is what he should be doing. That infuriated him and I got a text saying, “How can I do that when I have to support my wife and my oldest son wants to do a PhD? The wife had a boyfriend but apparently he wasn’t going to support her. At least I was free of those tensions between earning a crust and doing what you really should be doing.
My mother and I decided to call the sight seeing a day and return home. I felt so relieved. I just wanted to get back to my duvet and the warm unchallenging embrace of my cat again. On the way out, through the sculpture gallery I decided to ring an old friend I hadn’t spoken to for awhile and tell him the news. He said, “How are you?” I said: “I have cancer.” It sounded very odd. The first time I’d said it out loud.

Later a friend rang up to say I should try taking lots of Turmeric as there were reports that it cured cancer. I wrote it down on the pad as “Tumoric,” Freudian spelling I suppose. I started putting it into everything. Fortunately Mum likes curry and didn’t seem to notice. I put my tongue into the top of the bottle, spilled it and it made a golden trail across the work top. I licked it up, like a cow licking up sand. If anyone wanted a snapshot of this situation that would be it. It left a stain of bright yellow which Mum scrubbed off with one of her many cleaning fluids.

On April 26th we got a mini-cab, special luxury, to Queen Charlotte’s Hospital gynaecological oncology department to get my final results. A 10am appointment. It would be news that would change my life, or even end it. It would certainly change all my plans and had already made me feel differently about my life and I now knew for certain that I wanted to keep it. I put on a very smart, brightly coloured jacket, aware that I wanted to look good for the consultant, to stick myself into his mind somehow as a person worthy of his best attention.
The waiting room was small and crammed with people, mostly elderly women in saris and headscarves, one white middle class woman with a face once beautiful but now ravaged with anxiety. A very fat young woman was reading a tome entitled: “Surviving Divorce.”
At 11.45 they called out my whole name. “I wish they wouldn’t do that,” I said to Mum. “Why can’t they say, “Miss” or “Mrs.”
“It’s been like that for years,” she said. “You don’t know you’re born, expecting special treatment.”
We were shown in to see Mr Gerald Angus Jame McIndoe. “It’s not good news as it has probably spread from the ovary, but we can’t say anything else as yet. Not until we open you up and have a proper look inside.
“It’s so unusual.”
I tried to get him to say that he could save me; wheedling, probing, questioning. He was impervious. He was the decent Wehmacht officer, the malleable judge, the Devil, and St Peter; he knew what he knew, he knew my fate and nothing could change it.
“Trust you to have something unusual,” said Mum on the way out.

After another long wait, I was shown in to see Pauline, who would be my own personal “cancer nurse.” She gave me white NHS leaflets about pelvic surgery and “support groups for women with gynaecological cancers.”
I didn’t see myself ever hopping along there to join in their cosy chats. I expect she could see my attitude in my face. No doubt she was used to people like me, who hated the sight of her.
She said I would have to organise friends to help me as after my op, a complete hysterectomy, she underlined on a sheet of paper all the bits they would be taking out. I would not be able to Hoover, change the bed or clean properly for four weeks. Four weeks! That often.
I hung the bright woollen jacket in the back of the wardrobe. It was meant for winter and I wondered if I would ever put it on again.

In the afternoon I listened to a very good radio play called Mercy, by Frances Byrnes. It starred Carl Prekopp as a young army officer in the First World War who had committed a terrible act, been injured out and decided to disappear for good. From Prekopp’s gorgeous nuanced voice, you could feel how this damaged youth, so savage and bitter, was fighting to re-find himself, or recognise himself again as a moral being. From my hiding place under the duvet, it was enchanting, the best radio, but all the time there was this voice in my head keeping up its own chorus: “Not me, not me! I shouldn’t even be here, Sarg, not with these people. First chance I’m going AWOL!”

The day after seeing the specialist I said goodbye to my mother, on a train at Euston, in one of those dingy narrow carriages designed like a cheap holiday jet. She’d been with me over a week and we were very tired of each other, and she was exhausted by cleaning.

I felt as though we might be parting for good. Walking back up the concourse I felt sobs tearing at my chest and throat. People rushing down towards the train didn’t notice, and an elderly black man working on the platform looked away. A smart young man, who’d been sitting near us in the station café caught my eye. He was one of those people who have a kind of lit look, they empathise and stick out a mile in London. I hurried past him.

At home, shopping in Tesco’s I felt very alone. Despite all our tensions I wished my mother was just arriving, not leaving.

More texts from Terry, some of them overly anxious to help: “I believe my place is at your side,” said one. “I have spoken to my wife and she and the children agree about this.”

No word about what I think about it. He had probably been drinking and would forget about it by the morning. Then came another one saying: “I am the love of your life aren’t I?” Well no as a matter of fact you aren’t. There were quite a few I loved more; Howard, Robert, Bruce, Krzesimir, Martin, Martin number two, Charles, Dominic and Stefan, there was also my only Tom cat, Stan, who was extremely special, more courtly and dignified than any of them. Can’t think of any reply that won’t send him into another rage. All that belongs to the other world anyway, the one I inhabited before I just had to focus on suvival.
That cliche about the seeing the doctor and getting bad news came true, and there is another one where the doctor stands over your bed, beams down and says, "It's OK, Miss X, I think we have caught it in time." Maybe that one will happen too - but it doesnt seem as likely somehow.

Give myself a new hair colour, facial, pedicure, manicure and wax, trying I suppose to make the outside OK even if the inside can not be mended.

Everything is ready, piles of frozen food in the freezer. My operation date is fixed for sometime on Wednesday 5th, unless of course I have to go on another “overnight leave.”


My Easter, like my Christmas is almost exactly the same as it always has been, the same church services, present our eggs to each other at roughly the same time, my mother and I, eat the same food, salmon on Good Friday and Spring lamb on the Sunday. My brother got married and left home, my father died, vicars have died, but apart from that the festival goes on unchanged.
There is also constant, incessant tension and bickering between us which seems to start from the moment I enter the house, her domain. Once this warfare was mainly focussed on Dad, but now it falls on me. I escape by doing exactly what I did as a teenager; stay in my bedroom most of the time with my books and radio. Last Easter I wrote a radio play about these visits home, the bond between us, how it never seems to change, improve or weaken.
Our semi-detached house, in Codsall village, in Staffordshire, often brings back unhappy memories of childhood. Every school day morning started in the kitchen with my brother and I seated at a small Formica table while she laboured in front of her eye-level grill. We always had to have a full cooked breakfast. Or she’d be bent over the sink, the tendons in the back of her neck flicking the V at us, and Dad.

He’d sit there for hours before trundling off to work at the local council office, which was just up the road. He be seated rather grandly with his Daily Express propped against the milk jug, moustache bristling over his bowl of Kellogs.
He looked vast in his red plaid dressing gown, large, flat bare feet in open leather slippers, but I knew from early on, that despite his size he wasn’t important. He was just a consort. She was the one who reigned over us.

This time going home would be different. I had wanted things to change and now I knew they would, not by my marriage, which should have happened but didn’t, the distraction of grandchildren, financial success, nothing I had done had ever impressed or overthrown her. But I knew that the tectonic plates under our lives would shift, because I had this enlarged lymph node in my groin.

We embraced each other at the door. I held her bony body close for a few moments longer than I usually did, and we did not start our usual highly contentious conversations about where to put the cat’s litter tray, and what we were going to have for lunch. I just put the tray down and poured in the litter, she asked me if I would fancy bacon and egg for lunch and I said yes.

I just felt like sleeping. I had come home and I could really rest there, escape from the whole anxiety of what had happened in far away London. In the afternoon, at the first sound of the Count Down theme tune, the music to Flog It or Egg Heads, I usually headed to my bedroom, but this time I stayed in the living room with her.

This room once known to our more common but more relaxed neighbours as “the lounge,” was a place where lounging had never been encouraged. Instead we used to have our “tea,” the main meal of our day there when I was growing up, sitting round a large drop leaf table. Everything on it, apart from the tea, milk and sugar were home made. But when it was all cleared away, the washing up done and all the cutlery put neatly back the cutlery drawer, this room evolved slowly into Dad’s domain. The ceiling was still tawny with his nicotine although he’d been dead for years.

He’d sit there, in a chair now occupied by Maisie, night after night companioned only by his paper, his fags and his telly. I hardly ever saw him move. Mum did all the decorating, dug the garden, mowed the grass, cleaned the windows, while he just sat.
“I don’t buy a dog and bark myself,” was one of his sayings. It was one of those saying that put me off marriage. The fact that I had never married was one of the many subjects my mother and I never discussed.

The next day, following the usual form, we decided to go to the short service held every Good Friday morning in Codsall Village square, next to a statue of Sir Charles Wheeler, Codsall’s only famous resident. This is followed between 1 and 3pm by a the church service of prayers, hymns and meditations commemorating the three hours that Christ was on the cross. I have always found that service moving and used it to pay my respects to political prisoners who have died over the centuries. I wonder exactly how many there have been?

My mother and I lingered in “Flappers” coffee shop, a place of nick knacks and books of local history and I realised that I didn’t want to join in anything. I certainly didn’t want to go to the service of the cross, I felt far too emotional. I realised I was dangerously close to tears, something my mother would hate. I would probably make it to the Easter Sunday service, if I got a grip on myself.
I hesitated to say I didn’t want to go to the Friday service. “I feel too emotional,” I said, and was relieved that she accepted my excuse, although it did seem like a sign of weakness. I had disappointed her, but she let it go.

Once back at home we were both left waiting for the call from the Haematology clinic, which I was told would come between Thursday and Monday. They had my mobile and my mother’s number.

By Good Friday afternoon there had still been no call so I called them. Bad mistake. The hospital switch board put me through to an African nurse somewhere who said that the whole clinic was closed until Tuesday. There was no one there to make any calls. I told her that the doctor had said they would call, and I was on the list to have an operation on the Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest. She said she had a list but my name was not on it.

As the weekend crept on, with a semblance of our usual rituals, I felt overwhelmed with fear. It was the shock of that clinic, having something that only other people get, and the increasing sense that this was a bad dream which wouldn’t stop.

I took my usual walks around the village, following my favourite muddy paths and wet tracks over fields. I made the usual visit to where a great tree fell down when I was in nursery school and visited it on our nature walks. It is just lumps of rotting bark now. People walking their dogs said, “hello,” and “Morning,” to me. Apart from the “Heritage Homes” springing up in every small space, it’s still a pleasant place to live. The kind of area where men and boys still stand up on buses for women.

It was wet and I roamed about drenched with anguish. When people find out they will despise me or pity me I thought. They will think I deserve this in some way, or that it could never happen to them.

I sat in the church yard at the back of the church, a favourite spot for me, on a bench which looks out over miles of farm land and is supposed to be the highest spot between there and the Ural Mountains.
“Stuff and nonsense,” says my mother about that one.
When I was a teenager I used to drink cider there with a gang of local boys. And sometimes lie down among the graves for some heavy drunken petting. Kids were expected to drink in those days, it wasn’t an issue.
When my oldest friend got married she had her wedding pictures taken around that seat. When I was forty I sat there and wondered if I would ever get married. I also used to sketch there.
My father’s parents have their ashes buried in the small grave-yard just below. I went out of the old gate, green and damp with lichen, and down what used to be called “the old school road.” We used to troop down there as infants in our school crocodile, to look at the pussy-willows and catkins in Spring, and collect holly before Christmas.

Tears came into my eyes. I felt there was no courage in me. According to the Swedish writer, Dag Hammarskjold, one has to “fall back into God,” but he adds that God gives man consolation but only when he has no other consolation left.

What is that about? Why doesn’t God offer consolation more freely, come forward to offer it and is there anyone alive who would turn it down? Apparently it doesn’t work like that. You have to really ask for it, and anyway always being a last resort must be very hurtful. Now all I could think of was getting the call from the clinic, the date of the operation to remove the lymph node. Then the scene where I saw the doctor to get the results. I saw him giving me bad news and my breaking down. That was my main agonising fear – breaking down in front of the doctor. For some reason that idea gave me particular anguish. I reached inside myself again for courage and found that it just wasn’t there.

My mother and I went to the 8am service on Sunday morning. Until only last year she was driving there, giving lifts and opening up the church and acting as a sides-man. Scraping the ice of her car windows at 6am on winter mornings.

The psalm for Easter, 118, which is easy to remember, seemed rather relevant to me.
“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me sorely, but he did not give me over to death.”

But would he give me over to death, was this the beginning or the end? Those lines went on reverberating in my head.

At home peace was maintained. Between us, actually in the same kitchen without fighting, we made something different for Easter Sunday lunch. A vegetarian pie, with a cheese sauce, in choux pastry. I put too much egg into the pastry mixture and it came out leathery like one of her Yorkshire Puds. She didn’t criticise and we both quite enjoyed it anyway.

I had been getting some text messages from Terry, my ex-boyfriend and in my weakened state decided to reply to them.
“Oh, he’s surfaced again has he,” said Mum, who sees men as U-boats. At least my men.

By Sunday night I was worrying about the drive back to London, the struggle to get another appointment, to find out what was going on, why I had been told to go back early when I wasn’t even on a list.

As my mother and I said goodbye, I had the curious thought that I could still probably cope with my own death better than I could with hers. I needed her to be alive for me as much as I ever did.

Back in London on Monday night, I found that a letter had been sent telling me to turn up for the operation at Charing Cross, on the Tuesday morning at 7.30am. Not to eat or drink anything for at least twelve hours.

I was at the hospital, which is like a vast, gleaming city, by 7am, with a pile of newspapers. There were more blood tests, I was taken to the ward, took off my clothes, put on a gown, lay on a bed, read the papers and waited. I drew the curtains round my bed to make a private tent. On the bed opposite a woman made a constant rustling sound, like someone folding plastic sheeting. I had a look and she had dozens of small packages piled up on the bed, which she was constantly wrapping and unwrapping. I asked her what she was doing.
“I find that as one gets older, one’s afflictions increase, so one has to bring more things into hospital,” she said in a gentle but very husky voice. She had a strangely rough face and I thought that perhaps she was homeless.

In the late afternoon a nurse asked the packing woman bluntly when she was leaving. She was vague about it. I heard her say she had been having treatment in the gender clinic upstairs. I had another look and saw from her wrists and throat that she was in fact a man. After she left I lay in my tent listening to someone else making mobile calls, each one with a bleeping noise. When I had a peek at her, she came over and insisted on showing me her breast, or what was left of it, and a line of blue dots across her chest and under her arm, where they had taken out her lymph nodes.

So far, in my experience of NHS hospitals, there is always a nutter in the bed opposite me. Perhaps they of course say the same.

At 5pm a young girl doctor came and told me, very apologetically, that my op had been cancelled and I could stay the night or go off home. What was I going to do there for the night I wondered? A hospital is a city that does not sleep, neither does it have any curtains at the windows, or any bars, restaurants or places of entertainment at night. I went off home but was told to return by 7am the next day.

I was back there at 6am. “Oh, you are the one who went off on night leave,” said a nurse. “Night leave?” that was a new one on me. I took up my position again, lying on the bed. But this time I asked about every hour whether they were going to do the job? No one knew. “You are quite high up on the list,” someone said.
At 11am I had the operation to remove the lymph node. No one was happier than I to lie on my bed turned into a trolley outside those operating theatre doors.

As I woke up, a young nurse congratulated me. “You did really well to secure a bed,” she said, as if it was a real achievement. They just dont have enough beds apparently. I wonder where they have gone and how had I done it exactly, perhaps by just turning up early, lying on it, and of course by pestering.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

This is only supposed to be a scare!

I love swimming. To me, tumble turns feel as good as sex. Somersaulting away from the side, shooting through water is the nearest thing I know to that strange flying one does in dreams.
In my diary 16/2/10 I noted that I had done a whole length free style, without thinking about it, my mind was entirely on an episode of Masterchef, a recipe for creamed leeks, white beans and steak. After some struggle I had finally mastered that thrilling stroke.
As soon as I paid off my mortgage, at the start of November the previous year, I took out a smaller one with the local Virgin health club. I don’t have a good disposable income these days, but paying £65 a month was OK compared to paying nearly £500 a month to Barclays.
In early March I decided to have a go at water-polo and start a diving course at Putney Leisure Centre. But it was just then that I noticed a lump in my left groin and thought it was a hernia. All that energetic kicking and tumbling, or perhaps my enthusiastic gardening had done damage. Was I getting old, spavined, sagging – what next, high blood pressure, piles and fibroids?
In fact I already had some fibroids. “How can I have, there weren’t any there the last time I had an examination,” I said to a young doctor. He asked when that was, and I realised it had been twenty years earlier. For awhile I pictured my uterus as some kind of stone forest, full of fossilised stalactites.
On March 12th I went with a friend to the Courtauld Collection in the Strand, to see an exhibition of drawings by Michelangelo. I was still in my old life; going to galleries, seeing every cultural event on offer, always slightly rushing to keep up, as many Londoners do, with all the new shows, plays and films. Also some romantic aspirations; my diary of that distant time notes something called, “Single Solutions,” and the rather refined Entre Nous club, held at the Queen’s Tennis club, where I’d met some elderly buffers in cravats.
The Courtauld is the epitome of a good place to go on a wet afternoon, its small rooms crammed with treasures. They’ve even got a small version of a Ruben’s Antwerp altar piece; you can see the master’s swirling paint marks on the soles of the apostles’ feet, white paint yellow under the ancient glaze. On that day, surrounded on all sides by superb, muscular angels, I mentioned the hernia to my friend. She made some caustic comments about the menopause.
“I have heard that everything goes wrong for a number of years, then it all settles down again,” she said, reassuringly. Another friend told me that it was probably a lipaphome, or lipoma, a small lump of fat. She said she’d got them coming up all over.
Three days later I saw my GP. “It’s not a hernia,” she said, looking vaguely puzzled in that worrying way that doctors have. “I can feel some mass here,” she said.
“That’s only fibroids,” I said, “or it might be a lipoma,” glad to be able to tell her that there was absolutely nothing to worry about.
Ten days later I went to Hammersmith hospital for a scan on the lump in my groin, and I learned the new word “inguinal.” This is useful because the word “groin,” means something different to men than women. Men think it is something to do with the genitals, the bit that you have to protect in contact sports, for women it means a bit of wood going out to sea, or that line where your leg joins your trunk.
After we established that I was not the person on the forms he had before him, someone born in 1982, and we got hold of the correct papers, the elderly consultant was kindly but brisk. He stared at the dark screen with its snowstorm images.
“A very respectable lump,” he said. Was that good, or bad? He eyed me with something like amusement.
“A blood supply going in there, so it’s not a cyst,” he murmured. “Could be just a reactive change to the lymph gland, an infection.”
That afternoon I roamed up to Turnham Green Terrace, a respectable row of shops near Chiswick. I never buy anything there as the shops are preposterously expensive. It has the kind of butchers where people from Chiswick start queuing at 8am on a Saturday morning, just to be seen, but the lingering elegance of the line of shops usually cheers me up. I passed the chocolate shop which hardly ever has any customers. It had a sign outside saying: “Candid orange’s.” A card in the paper shop offered “Cleaning and Ironig.” I’m not a good speller myself but I felt absurdly annoyed by this. In the French patisserie I sat with a frosted cup cake feeling grumpy and alone, surrounded by yummie mummies and their chariot like pushchairs.
Back at home again I was comforted by the sight of my Dutch tulips appearing, fiery red, and my window boxes full of pink primroses. Anyone looking over the hedge at that bit of urban front garden would think the owner was full of the joys of Spring.
A week later I saw a document about the scan on my doctor’s desk. It said it the swollen lymph gland was not due to an infection. How could he have written that, but said something different to me? I felt confused and disappointed. She wrote a letter to the Haematology department at Hammersmith and I saw one word on its own, only a question but also its own answer: “malignancy?”
I was now in a place of chance, anxiety, fantasy and I suddenly knew the amount of courage you need not just to make something special of your life, the kind of courage I’d had when I was young, but just to live at all.
When I was a small girl I loved the 23rd psalm, Dominus regit me, with its line, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.”
I could recite the whole psalm and of course I had no idea what those beautiful lines meant. No one knows until you miss your way and find yourself there, a place of pursuance, where your only hope is to keep going. Even writing this is a way of trying to put up sign-posts, to make some sense of the journey, even signs facing back the way I’ve been travelling.
I wanted to find a very swift answer to that question, “malignancy?” To push things along, get things going, have a trot or even a run through the valley of the shadow, rather than a quiet stroll.
When no letter arrived I rang the hospital they said they had not heard from my doctor, but to get her to ask for “Irene.” My doctor’s receptionist said that the referral had been sent. I rang the hospital again and they said they had not received it or anything at all because their fax machine was broken. I pictured a mountain of papers building up, burying me. The hospital voice gave me a second fax number for my doctor to try and told me to tell them to send it to “Natalie.” Nothing. When I rang the hospital again, an impatient girl called Lisa said they could not find any documents from that second number. I felt myself getting cross and she put me on to a Kim. She sounded assertive, someone not to be spoken to sharply. I was very polite as after all she had enormous power over me. I rang my doctor again, they rang the hospital again, and after ten days I got my date at the Haematology clinic for another scan.
This is a special unit, called after someone called Catherine Lewis. A comfortable place with a lot of long, low couches, piles of old glossy magazines, like an upmarket estate agents. I quickly noticed that everyone there seemed to be in couples, or with friends, giving the kind of support you read about in NHS information leaflets.
I began moving restlessly around, from seat to seat but everywhere I sat I could see only ugly fat people, women who were bald under baseball caps, and thin, pale men who already looked half dead. Now and then a nurse or doctor carrying a file would appear and call out someone’s name, their whole name, no courtesy titles anymore, like an old social security office. I didn’t want these sick people to know my whole name, I felt a tiny bit of essential privacy had been taken away like that.
A young nurse called me out, I trotted after her thinking I was seeing the doctor at last, but she wanted to take my weight, height and then several blood tests.
“Are you alright?” she asked. I felt like bursting into tears. I didn’t know I would be in a place like this, having medical procedures alongside really sick people. I just wanted to scan and go.
“There is no scan here,” said my doctor when I saw him an hour later. I said that was what I was there for.
“I can ring up your doctor and ask you why she is telling you stories if you want,” he said testily. I felt utterly confused. He looked blank, tired, and didn’t look at me. I suspected he had a hangover. He did a brief examination of the swollen lymph node and suggested that it might be “lymphoma.” I’d heard the word but didn’t know what it meant. I’d never been interested in finding out.
I would have to have the lymph gland removed then return to them for the results, but he wasn’t sure when. He would find out and call me at home.
“Later this afternoon,” he said. I was about to drive up to the Midlands for Easter.
“Don’t go away,” he said. I told him I was going to see my mother.
“How old is she?” he asked. “Eighty eight,” I replied. This information hung in the air between us sounding strangely grotesque.
“Well if you must go we will need your phone numbers, including your mobile to give you the date of the surgery. You should be back by the Monday after,” he said, seeming both indifferent and deadly serious.
I was amazed. This was somehow meant to be a cancer scare, not the real thing. I was not equipped for this at all.
With Maisie in her basket in the back, I bombed up the motorway to Wolverhampton, M40, M6, M54 my head jingling with new words and statistics gleaned from the internet; T-Cell bad, B-Cell good. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma 90 percent cure rate, non Hodgkins, not so good. Only one in 25,000 people get Lymphoma. It equals one percent of cancers worldwide. Why me, why me?