Chemotherapy is starting to fry my brains. Yesterday I lost my car and had to report it missing, only to find it parked in a nearby street. I wandered up the wrong street looking for it, got to the end of the road and wondered where I was. I keep dropping things, forgetting small tasks, but the worst aspect of the chemical on-rush is sudden dips into depression.
Although the cause is new, the routes back into depression are old; roots might be a better word for them.
These twisted old membranes are made out of failure, non-achievement and worse, things beyond my control which seem to have wrecked my efforts.
I picked up a magazine this week, 19/7/10, and saw a columnist whom I used to know when she was a mere secretary. She described how she had never worked hard at school, got lousy A levels and didn’t bother about university.
“People think I went to Oxford because I’ve got a posh voice,” she brayed like a parvenu pal of Bertie Wooster. Worse, she went on: “to get on in journalism all you need is nepotism, charm, and a bit of talent and determination.”
How would someone in another profession, say a doctor or a lawyer feel reading those words, although they are probably true to a certain extent of other professions too. I remember those rich girls coming in to national journalism somewhere in the mid 90s. When I first got there, in the 1980s, there was a window open for people like me – from comprehensives, with no rich uncles and too desperate to have much charm.
That Thatcherite window has closed now, and to read this girl wallowing and gloating in nepotism made me feel quite low.
Set off for the Ealing Greek Taverna, where beleaguered Father Bill now has a coffee morning which the diocese want to call an “alternative church.”
He was looking a bit ragged, the usual C of E vicar’s outfit; unkempt hair, battered old sandals, torn cotton trousers and charity shop jacket.
The London diocese is the second worst paid the country. Vicars live on less than £22,000 which means there are few happy, well adjusted family men doing the job. The idea of this poverty is to employ more vicars at a lower rate, “to increase evangelism.”
I told him about my agony over the new growth of English snobbery, a cancer that never seems to be cured.
He wasn’t interested as he is planning his November Guy Fawkes night.
“I have already had one parent offer to be burned on the bonfire,” he said.
“He said he would do it in exchange for getting his child into a good C of E primary school.”
Satire is not dead, even if Alan Bennett can no longer do it. His words summoned up for me an England where the struggle for preference now starts before you even go to school, long before you get to fee-paying, Oxbridge and discovering impenetrable dinner party circuits.
I sat there enjoying the easy company, in the cosy, safe interior of the Taverna. My hair was falling out rapidly and I kept having to flick it off my fingers onto the floor.
After “church,” my Japanese friend and I rooted round in the Cancer Research charity shop finding a rather attractive summer handbag going for £4, and a Lonely Planet guide to Egypt.
I turned over a label on a shirt saying, “Together we can beat cancer.” I felt cheered by this, surely a good omen, back to the magical thinking that lies like icing on a poisoned cake.
There was also a leaflet on ovarian cancer – the usual symptoms listed; bloating, indigestion, pain going to the loo.
I'd never had any of them, but I have recently started having them. I began to worry. Perhaps “it” had come back, now lurking in my bowels? There is a scan coming up in two weeks time. I pictured myself getting the bad news, again. I had that dragging feeling of being hopelessly unlucky.
We made our way to M & S, which normally soothes all ills, to look for that elusive thing, a bra made of cotton rather than elastic and nylon and some summer things for my future fantasy holiday in Sharm el Sheik. I bought sandals and a red top thingy to wear over a wet swim suit on the beach.
We got cool in the food hall, but I began to get twitchy, hunting up and down the rows for things I couldn’t see. Kayoko handed me a raspberry lolly on a stick which I didn’t have a hand free to hold. I didn’t want it but she insisted.
We had an argument about frozen pasty as she said she “never” uses it, as if it was a vice, and that they didn’t have any. There was no one to ask and perhaps following codes of Japanese politeness she didn’t want me to find anyone. I eventually found it and felt cross, with her and the shop. At the check-out some lolly dripped onto the conveyor belt and she began to flap at it with her handkerchief, blaming me. I blamed her. The Polish check-out girl looked distant. I could have throttled someone and she probably wouldn’t have noticed.
On the way to a café we passed two Muslim boys preaching in the street. One was standing up tall yelling that we would all face “hell fire,” if we didn’t start reading the Koran. The other gave out leaflets.
“Oh bollocks!” I shouted at him. Then I saw how young an innocent they were and my heart melted. I amended my words to, “I think you are mistaken, sweetheart.”
I smiled and he smiled back, as if we were all having some kind of laugh.
Over lunch I felt restless and anxious, longing to get home. Kayoko seemed to eat terribly slowly in small lady-like mouthfuls, even cutting up her rice.
She insisted on accompanying me home, carrying my heavy bags. I wished she would go away as fear had returned, like a reptile lashing its tail inside me and I needed to hide away alone.
As I unpacked the M & S bag, and looked at the holiday things it seemed unlikely that I would ever get to wear them. They looked like things left behind after a fatal accident.
All evening and much of the night I had the dark thoughts about failure, visited by the complacent faces of the lucky ones with uncles in high places, and images of my friends who all seemed to be heading off on holiday with their dear spouses. I was there in a pit of my own making, that particular cycle of hell reserved for people who come down from the Midlands without the where-withal to please powerful capricious men.
In the morning, in the shower handfuls of hair floated through my fingers into the plughole, lying there like a very scruffy tarantula. I wept hard hoping the tenant upstairs couldn’t hear.
It was an outburst of anxiety, some of it was for my hair, sentimental tears, like saying goodbye to a close relation whom you will see again in a few months time.
I heard the bell and went to the door in a thin nightdress with my remaining hair plastered to my head.
It was a lad from some provider or other wanting to read the meters. He breezed in. “Are you well?” He asked disappearing into the dark damp place under my stairs.
“Do I look well?” I replied. “I am having chemotherapy and my hair is falling out.”
“My mate had that,” he said perkily. “Bowel cancer. He was twenty three. That was two years ago. He’s right as rain now.”
This brought my tears back.
“You’ll be OK!” he said as he left. “Don’t worry, you’ll be OK!”
If unexpected guests are angels in disguise perhaps he was one. Anyway, I decided to believe him as he knows at least as much as anyone else.