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?