I am sick of myself. What am I doing with my life? Nothing. After my failure to get a single painting into a single public competition, apart from the Bedford Park Arts Festival, where I didn’t sell anything, I have stopped painting.
I didn’t even manage to get a third prize in the festival marmalade contest. That has put me off marmalade. As this long summer of chemotherapy gets under way I am as creative and resourceful as a rice pudding.
When you are left to your own devices, through unemployment, illness or perhaps locked up for the safety of the public, time itself is the task that has to be met.
That was probably why when I got an unexpected call from softly spoken “Lorraine” offering me a free massage, I agreed to have it.
When you enter the new career and lifestyle that is cancer, you get offered all kind of unexpected things.
She also suggested I should try Maggie’s, the cancer support centre in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital. I said I’d do that as well. I also accepted a free “counselling” session while I was at it.
In the oncology waiting room at Charing Cross, the girl on the desk gestured to some seats; the same high backed ones in pastel shades they’ve got at Garry. The same type of people in them too; fat men in shorts and women in bad wigs attached to baseball caps.
That whole floor though is light and spacious. Apparently their chemo clinic is similarly comfortable. I wonder if I can put in for a transfer.
The therapy room was like a large air-conditioned office. The counsellor very young and kindly. We chatted for an hour; I gave out details of my tortuous past but didn’t feel I had anything to say about the present.
“I am not worried about losing my hair,” I told him, but perhaps I am. I won’t know how I really feel until my locks make a sudden dash from my pate to the pillow or shower tray.
I did admit that I am afraid about the future – the long walk through the Valley of the Shadow which may go on for years, with the possibility that “it” might come back. I am afraid of having to live with that.
He said roughly what everyone says to this – that no one knows the hour of his death, or as a cancer support nurse put it a few weeks back, “I haven’t got a crystal ball Miss Kelly.”
He cheered me up when he told me he was a former social worker in an hospice. The work he does now is easier because some of his clients survive. “Survive,” is the word I need to hear more than any other.
I liked him, offering gentleness and humility against the doctors' hard brilliance and often tub-thumping, eye-watering honesty.
I went slowly and tentatively to Maggie’s, a large orange coloured structure by Richard Rogers, to the side of the hospital, with smooth Zen looking stone seats outside.
In side it reminded me of a children’s library I joined in the early 60s, all bright spot colours and Swedish style shelving. There was a kitchen island with a glass top in the middle of the main room where people could make tea and prepare food. Beyond that rooms full of greenery, sofas and low seats. It offers an “expressive art group,” Tai Chi, stress management classes, a “young women’s group,” Yoga, gardening, interspersed with the more ominous, such as the “Prostate Networking Group.”
Attractive middle class women in light floral skirts descended offering information and showing me round all the little alcoves and bowers among the wood shelving.
The place is chiefly about information, the walls lined with recycled paper booklets decorated with photos of mixed race couples gardening and washing dishes. This a world where everyone has cancer.
The booklets covered almost every one of the two hundred kinds of known cancer and related problems, including Urostomy, “Breathlessness and Sex,” and the “Molar Pregnancy support group.”
I settled down for a while with “A laryngectomee’s travel guide to the British Isles,” before dipping nervously into “Coping with Hair Loss.”
Like the others this was a cheery little pamphlet full of basic common sense and useful tips, suggesting one should draw attention away from one’s head by wearing brightly coloured sweaters and interesting jewellery.
But many of them slip into what I call, “modern information.” The booklet on mouth ulcers for instance suggested, “If you get ulcers do not eat hot, spicy food as this will hurt your mouth.”
The one on self-employment and cancer suggested it was a “good idea to avoid people with sore throats, flu, diarrhoea and vomiting, or other kinds of infection such as chicken pox.”
I can’t help remembering doing that when I still lived in the other world of the well.
The leaflets sometimes slipped into the equivalent of putting a label on a bag of peanuts saying that the product contains nuts and putting up notices showing people how to wash their hands. I enjoy collecting these and got a good one recently when the Royal Mail failed to deliver a package through my door. I rang their re-delivery number and a recorded message advised, “The quickest way to get your mail re-delivered is to collect it yourself.”
This official habit of stating the bleedin’ obvious is about an infantilised culture where people are assumed to have poor English. But these pamphlets were so friendly and nice to look at and hold that you had to like them. They make you feel better, like the good women at the Maggie’s Centre themselves.
I took part in a relaxation group with a young woman called Maria. She lay on one couch while I sat on a chair with my feet on another. The woman in charge put on a loop of ambient music and we drifted away in never ending circles to the sound of a whale trying to locate itself in a vast ocean.
It was a pleasant thirty minutes and afterwards I told Maria, from Puglia in Italy, that I liked her cropped hair style. She looked young and sexy, very like Sinead O' Connor, thirty at the most, with a round cheerful face. I had my hair like that when I was a student in the 1970s, trying to resemble a member of the Baader Meinhoff gang.
Strangers turning up at our door would draw back in fear when they saw me and I liked that in those days.
“I bet I will lose it all again now,” she said, “Just like I lost it all before.”
She had been free of breast cancer for five years, now it had come back with a vengeance. She had suffered a collapsed bowel involving an emergency operation, had a colostomy, and I could see she was wearing an intravenous line into her chest. She was having chemotherapy every day.
I left the relaxation room with a kind of dead, stunned feeling and a question drowning out the whale music, why do people have to suffer like that? Why a second crucifixion for this girl?
Maggie’s is a place for story telling, exchanges and mutual support. It insists that we can help each other, but it is not a cosy fire-side. You have to be prepared to listen to horror stories and tragic tales. Many of the women sitting round the table look like sad little birds. They stare dismally at any food presented and I wonder if they have always done that, even when they were well.
There was salad and taboule on the main table. A middle aged man looked at me with mild interest. He seemed to be with an elderly working class woman who talked a lot in a worldly wise voice. No one said anything about their circumstances, while a very thin, bronzed woman with hair like a cross between Sarah Jessica Parker and a Yorkshire terrier hovered about in the background with a colourful catalogue of wigs.
Marie reappeared smiling at me, her black eyes glistening with warmth. Perhaps she was glad that I had listened to her story. There was nothing else I could do for her.
I ate my salad leaves feeling the separation between what you say and what you feel – the almost metallic taste of fear in my mouth. Everyone looks cheerful but that is often the real feeling that you take away with you secretly and try to bury at home.
Later I spent an hour with Lorraine the masseur in another darkened room with more ambient music, while she massaged the back of my neck, putting her hands underneath and pulling the muscles in my neck upwards. I felt some of my hair tangled around her fingers, could hear it crackling as she moved and knew with a kind of shame that it was coming out.