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.”