Saturday, 28 August 2010

Chemo 4

A hundred and one days since I went under the knife and found myself part of the "cancer community."

Arrive at the chemo clinic early as usual, wanting to get it over. Grab a chair near the outside edge of the narrow room, hoping that if my friends come they will have enough space to sit down.

Nurse Eileen was diligently ordering drugs. She gave me a brief smile and came over to start filling in forms. Because of what she’d told me about her work with the sick in Lourdes, I mentioned that I’d been thinking of going on a pilgrimage, perhaps to Saint Winefride’s holy well, in Flintshire. She just went on silently staring at her sheaf of notes. I shut up and let her get on with it, but wondered later whether she is careful not to talk about her Christian faith in a place where she can easily be overheard. She had brought it up previously when we were almost alone on one side of the big waiting room. I will probably never get a chance to ask her.

An elderly lady called Dorothy sat next to me, in a tea-cosy hat, long grey hair hanging straight down, and no teeth. I last saw her chatting amiably to mad Mrs Norton, who reported Pam for making a cup of tea.

Oh dear, was this going to be another tricky session? I broached the subject of Mrs Norton, testing the water.

“She was absolutely parched,” she said indignantly. “She just couldn’t get anywhere near the kettle.” That is not how I remember it.

She said she had advanced cervical cancer, with a tumour in the vagina, but she only wound up with the doctor after her next door neighbour knocked her flat on the pavement after accusing her of threatening him with a garden rake.

She used to work for the Soil Association, so perhaps she is good with rakes.

She didn’t bother the doctor about her cancer for philosophical reasons.

“There are many births and many deaths every day,” she said gnomically.

“The big question is - do you attract stress?”

I expect that I do, and her words made it feel like a crime, and the illness resulting absolutely my fault in the great scheme of things.

She told me about her Buddhist group called the, “Soka Gakai International (SGI) their watch words are: Nam (to devote one’s life) Myoho (The mystic law) Renge (Lotus flower) and Kyo ( The voice of the teaching Buddha, which connects everything in the universe).

She had a surprisingly practical approach too her own illness. “It’s probably my own fault,” she said. “It’s to do with the 1960s," she made some wide, scooping gestures with her arms.

"I spent so many years dropping acid in India and California. Everyone was doing it."

She seemed to think this might have caused her illness, or perhaps she blamed her behaviour when she was stoned. She said the drugs were still affecting her, at least I think that’s what she meant.

“When I get a bit tired now I get very spaced out. I lose my small self and go off into the universe,” she said. “I see the thread between all peoples and looking at the lotus flower brings up all the dirt from the bottom of the pond.”

We seemed to be entering into a kind of Gardener’s Question Time of the soul and while she was explaining all this to me, a young Asian assistant, in a blue trouser suit but no badge to say who or what she was, was staring in amazement.

“You actually used to drink acid?” she said. I tried to explain the term, but when I said LSD that didn’t mean a thing to her either, why would it, it was not her time, her history or her culture. She listened glassy eyed, uncomprehending, a stranger to the Beach Boys, Jackie Kennedy, hash brownies, the Summer of Love and Charlie Manson.

We were joined by Betty, a middle aged teacher in large sweat-pant bottoms.

“I have just got to get away for a few minutes,” she said, in a loud plummy voice. She had escaped from the other side of the room where her sister was reading The Times. She had moved in with her sister for the duration of her treatment, they were obviously devoted but seemed to get on each others nerves.

“PE teachers are everywhere, that is the problem,” she said, perhaps carrying on a conversation she’d been having earlier.

Like Dorothy, she wanted to talk about the past. She’d been an English teacher all her life but in 2007 walked out of her job at a secondary school in Ruislip, west London.

“PE teachers are getting all the promotions now,” she said, desperately, as if she was still going into the staff room and seeing the blighters sitting there in their power trainers.

“It’s because they have so much free time. They don’t do any marking and that allows them time do other things.”

She could have meant weeding the headmaster’s garden or administration on behalf of the school but she was probably thinking about their fiendish plotting to vault themselves into positions of power.

While she was expostulating about English education, and no one ever talks about it in any other way, Dorothy was led off to her session with the radiotherapy lamp.

I said that I had lost my job too, partly because I couldn’t get on with the editor anymore after I was sued by an ageing, liver-spotted actress.

“I was OK until we had a new head in 1990,” she said confidingly. “If a child complained about a teacher she would take you both into a room and hear both sides and then say who she believed, in front of the child. Frequently she backed the child against you, while you were standing there like a lemon.

“She also abolished the use of the play-ground whistle, as she said it was “authoritarian. That meant that the children didn’t calm down before they came back into the class. And the Ofsted inspectors were just as bad. If the children were swinging from the light fittings they’d say it was, “interesting.” ”

Education is an endlessly fascinating topic, at least for those not involved in it, as it always provides news about professional lives so much worse than your own.

After a good grouse she galumphed back to the other side of the clinic, to resume her Sudoku and her sister.

Dorothy returned. “Some nurses have been sorting out my fanny,” she said, “they’ve made it feel much better.” This could have been the American usage of the word left over from her adventures in California, I wasn’t sure but either way it wasn't an image I wanted to hold in my head for the next five hours.

Good news and bad, and goodish


Report to Garry’s for the usual pre-chemo blood tests and spotted a bit of good news on my way in; the giant fish tank which takes up so much room in the chemo clinic is going to be removed.

It was supported by “charitable funds,” given to Imperial College Health Care, but the charity has “run out of money” so it’s goodbye piranha and whatever else was hiding in the murky waters, no doubt they will soon be heading for the hospital canteen and next appear fried.

I'm looking out for some good news about my mid-way scan. Because the scans at the start of all this turned out so badly I feel pessimistic, nervous and agitated.

As usual I have to stand about for a seat before I can slip in between the other ladies patiently waiting. Some have been there for hours. There ought to be a sign on the wall saying, “No fuming.”

To my dismay that the young Singaporean phlebotomist who is so slow and calls everyone “luv,” is back.

Before I can settle into this grumpy morass of fretting females, I have to get a urine sample. Standing astride the specimen jar in the loo I drop the top which rolls into the next stall.

“Please could you send that back again?” I ask. No reply, no sound apart from some rustling. I ask again. A bit of grunting but it doesn’t reappear. I am suspended with the warm liquid in my left hand.

Ask again, feeling exasperated, realising that the person in the next loo probably can’t understand English.

“Don’t get stroppy with me Mum! She can’t understand yer,” calls an Asian-estuary voice from the third cubicle along. I wonder if I am about to get into a fight, but when I emerge, bald and clutching phial of amber nectar, the two women look slightly abashed. Looking like this can get you out of trouble, and I get my top back.

They call me out of the line to see a doctor. Young, beautiful and composed like all the English girl doctors, she gives me the news; good and bad, and goodish.

My scan was completely clear. I am reacting well to the chemo and things are as good as the doctors could possibly hope, no problems at all really.

“But because your cancer was aggressive it’s more likely to come back than one which was ordinary and clearly differentiated,” she says, killing any chance of elation.

“I know that’s tough psychologically,” she says.

It is a real bummer. I sat there with that feeling of unreality again, as if we couldn’t really be having that conversation.

But, some good news again, she didn't think the cancer would come back in my diaphragm because the disease was well contained in the ovary and they got everything out from there. It was all “debulked,” as they put it so beautifully.

The bad cells went along the bloodstream to the lymph node in my groin and if it arrives back there again, it's quite a good place to get it.

"If I was you I’d check your groins," she said ominously.

I have always been a fidgeting, hitching, itching, elastic twanging sort of person, discontented in my own skin, and I can see this taking on a new dimension possibly leading to arrest.

Back in the queue for bloods I met Ann again, the university teacher. I told her that I still couldn’t believe the doctor was talking to me about all this. What was I doing here?

She said she didn’t have that feeling at all. She is at least sixty five so perhaps she doesn’t mind so much, but she also appears to be what I would call an “whole” person, self-contained, content and accepting. Nothing can really ruffle or scare her. A state we could all aspire to.

Left the clinic with that old Roy Orbison ballad baying in my head:

“It’s too soon to know,

Times passes slow,

My hearts been broken in too many pieces,

And it’s too soon to know.”

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Half Way Scan

Monday 16th August. Arrive at the Hammersmith Hospital imaging department at 7.45am for my midway scan at 8.45am.

Sit and sip water, hoping to take in a litre over the next hour. At 8am a doctor arrives, opens up the reception office, takes my details and then ushers me in for the scan. By 8.20 it’s over.

It pays to arrive early for scans as many people do not show up for their appointments, and so far I have always got in without a wait.

On the hopper bus back it feels good that the rest of the day is mine to play with, but reaching home feel sudden sadness, a kind of clutching grief, when I remember that the scan will be followed by a letter marked NHS, and a trip to a hot, crowded clinic for an appointment with the consultant who will deliver the results. The results if the near past is anything to go by, will be bad.

Those moments waiting for the consultant to pronounce, are like standing in the well of a court where they dispense capital punishment, staring at the disinterested faces of the jurors, waiting to hear whether you are guilty or not guilty. You suspect gloomily that it's a foregone conclusion.

Cancer patients have to do that again and again, for years.


At the top of the drive my mother is busy examining her bountiful hanging basket, forcing her late petunias. We greet each other warmly but quickly fall into our old patterns of conflict and irritation.

Mum: Don’t give her anything else. Let her finish what she’s got.

Me: Why can’t I give her something she likes?

Mum: You’ll ruin that cat.

Me: She doesn’t seem to like that hake and sardine flavour

Mum: She’ll eat when she’s hungry. Hunger is the best sauce.

Me: I’ll try her on this. (Putting down more food)

She seems to like this sort better (Cat sniffs food but doesn’t eat )

Mum: What a waste! Don’t give her anything else till she finishes that.

Me: You don’t have to break the will of the cat.

Mum: Yes I do.

Me: It’s not a child. (Silence or the sound of the front door banging as I stamp out.)

Out in the village I can hardly remember what it felt like on my previous visit at Easter, when I had just got the news about the cancer. All I knew was that there were enlarged lymph glands in my diaphragm, and it was not good. The doctor in the Lymphoma clinic already predicted that I would have to have chemotherapy. He used the word “lesions,” which I had never heard before in that context.

Shrinking and cringing in my skin I was reduced to creeping around the churchyard at St Nick’s, and the back roads behind the church, trying to find some comfort and reassurance in old walls, hawthorn bushes and birds rising over familiar fields. I was terrified of showing anyone human how distressed I was.

A month later I had a major operation, got a full diagnosis and now I am half way through treatment. Only the prognosis remains unknown.

Roaming round the village looking at familiar places, I had chance to assess how much I have changed since my last visit. I certainly look different – no hair and I now wear make up to go out to try and make myself look a bit less frightening.

I now belong to a different “community.” When I was in the village before I had just been to the Lymphoma clinic at the Hammersmith Hospital and seen bald headed people sitting quietly waiting for their appointments. They seemed to rather huddle together, vulnerable, sad, and I hated the sight of them; there was no way I was going to ever join them. Now I walk about looking just like them, and test things out by sometimes travelling on the bus without covering my head just to see how people react, slightly defensive on behalf of the chemo community.

I now see old age as a huge privilege when before I thought it was almost automatic and living to at least ninety was almost a birthright. I now know that the trip through life is a bit more tricky than that. “A bitch,” as an old school friend with prostate cancer recently put it.

He also led to me making another change in my life – the discovery of beer, or rather lager. I went to visit him in Codsall and he was sitting out in his gazebo with a row of bottles lined up. I tried it and realised that it cuts right through the horrible chemo taste in my mouth, replacing it with another odd taste which isn’t bad.

I have got more desperately into the habit of playing with omens and portents, toying with chance and fate, anything can be included from magpies to BBC programmes and the name on perfume bottles I walk past in shops.

On Desert Island Discs I hear a middle aged comedian saying that he once had throat cancer but recovered. I instantly take his news as good news for me. When I mention it to my mother I realise that she has latched on to it too, quietly playing a similar game.

A more positive change perhaps is that after a rocky beginning I now feel that I am being well looked after by the NHS. Like breaking into a strict membership club, once they finally get your name on their books you can feel fairly safe – at least in a major city where the best doctors tend to live.

In Codsall I spend a lot of time in my bedroom, lying on my bed, just as I did as a teenager. I read the same old books and listen to the radio. We do the things that have always been done in this house for almost fifty years.

On Sunday 8th August, my mother’s birthday, we go to the 8am Communion service, where you can still hear words from the Prayer Book, although sadly the old blue books have gone, replaced by printed sheets.

It’s a very quiet service. As the priests assemble in their white albs, chasubles and surplices, I hear wood pigeons outside and the distant ticking of a clock. The services later in the day are directed towards children, with a lot of noise and clapping.

This church and the remaining old parts of the village are precious to me, so layered in memory that I fear losing them when my mother dies and I have no reason to return. But that is the old paradigm. She is eighty eight today but it’s possible now that I will die before her.

Stand in the pew looking at the familiar Victorian glass, dedicated to remarkable people I never knew, for instance one man called Harley who was born in 1791, when Louis XVI was still king of France, and died in 1881, the year that Picasso was born. Wonder if I could come back and live here again – I have now been in London for just over half my life, but this is where I still feel at home.

The second reading, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16 has something salutary to say about this:

“They confessed that they were stranger and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had the opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

My faith in an after-life, a fulfilling home above the clouds is very low at the moment.

After the service and picking up the newspapers, I drove us to Maybury Close, to see our very first home in Codsall, a former council house which is now up for sale at £152,000.

I lived there aged eighteen months to six years, when my father got a job as a Health Inspector with the then “rural district council,” and the house came with the job.

I can clearly remember every room, the garden with its bean canes and lupins, the back fence where I used to hang, spread-eagled talking to the mysterious children who lived in the large modern house at the back.

The last time I had a look, about ten years ago, it was still lined with small brick houses, red, square and stoical as John Bull, ornamented only by neatly clipped privet hedges. These short streets formed a T shape with some similar looking flats.

There were lots of children about when we arrived in the 1950s, and we clustered on the kerbs our feet in the gutter, eating Spangles. The pavements were chalked with the hieroglyphics of hop-scotch.

As my mother and I drove down the close we could recognise nothing. She couldn’t even be sure of the house. The pavement and most of the front gardens had been cut away into narrow wave shapes. The rectangular windows in narrow metal frames had been replaced by “Tudor” leaded lights held in wide, white plastic frames.

The stout old painted wooden doors in their porches were now tiny, narrow “neo-Georgian,” style PVC, with all the charm of white plastic stilettos.

The flats at the end of the cul de sac had been replaced by detached houses with the newly fashionable shit coloured window frames. I could imagine the furnishings inside; ornate rococo fireplaces, billowing curtains, gold framed mirrors and chandeliers.

I wonder when did English people lose their taste for plain things, good quality, and strict economy? I suppose when they gained money without education.

I backed the car out, feeling like a trespasser, past some flats on the corner which used to be out of bounds to me as they were so dingy and menacing, rather like the flats I lived in twenty years later in Poland.

As a small child I used to observe some rather exotic looking teenagers emerging from their grey stone stairwells; youths with oily quiffs and winkle-pickers.

There was one boy called Gerald Link. My parents suspected that he was “a hooligan,” although he had never been in any trouble.

I was fascinated by his hair, slicked up in greasy fibres. It reminded me so much of the stewing steak we used to have once a week, every day earmarked for one type of meat or other.

The flats now have lost their menace, unless you are scared at the sight of basic, urban council property disguising itself as medieval cottages.

On Monday my mother and I took the bus to Wolverhampton for our usual shopping expedition. When I was a child we went on Saturday afternoon, as long as Wolves football club weren’t playing which was considered rather dangerous. It cost 6d on the bus, we never went upstairs where we might meet riff-raff and my mother always wore a hat and gloves.

In the small M & S coffee bar I saw one of the girls I used to know in Maybury Close. I remember her, aged about three, standing in our kitchen doorway, nose running looking miserable. We children used to like examining her for wet knickers or even more exciting, no knickers at all. My mother gave out orange squash and I always handed her the green glass which no one wanted, keeping the most popular red one for myself. I also remember that she was one of six children and her mother sometimes used to beat them with a stick outside the front door. No one thought anything of it.

She looks just the same to me; round face, snub nose and doleful heavy lidded eyes not changed at all. I felt guilty about the way I’d treated her and wondered whether I should apologise, but happily she didn’t seem to recognise me.

My mother said approvingly that she had worked in Marks since she left school, forty years ago, and her older sister had been there even longer.

“All those staff reductions on food, it must have been a Godsend to their mother,” she said.

I spent the rest of the week beating the bounds of the Parish, crossing stiles, looking in shop windows in the village, marvelling, the way people from London do, that you can get a whole head of highlights in Codsall for under sixty pounds, and looking in the panoply of estate agents windows with dread at the on-rush of “executive dwellings,” mostly girded with wrought iron spikes tipped with gold paint.

We seem to be entering an age of domestic fortifications even in villages like this where there is hardly any crime, and I wonder who the enemy is? The new poor perhaps, the failures, the hoards of other English people we do not wish to see.

Listening to the radio on Sunday, 8/8/10, my mother’s birthday, I heard this quote from The Wings of a Dove, by Henry James: “There is no safety now, its gone, all its lightness, its day after day.

“I am lost but it’s not as dangerous as I thought it would be.”

Almost half a year has gone since I crashed into Planet Cancer, while I was on my way somewhere else, can’t remember where that was.

Since I arrived here in this somewhat barren land I have heard many stories from the locals, tales of great sadness, fear and courage, and some hopeful ones too.

It is an adventure and part of that is meeting new people and listening to the stories they tell. I’ve also been reunited with old friends, and met my brother again after three years of silence.

I have changed my appearance and some of my old attitudes and obsessions have lessened their grip – as adventures go, I think I can say that in the main it has been good.

The last time I was in the village I felt that I had been betrayed by life, this time I have found some balance again. When I return at Christmas, cancer could be a fading memory, just something that happened to me in the Spring and Summer of 2010. I can’t yet really imagine that will happen.

Friday, 13 August 2010

On the Road

It was a challenge but I decided to risk taking the chemo brain on a run up the centre of England; M40/42/M6/M54 to see my mother in Staffordshire, for her 88th birthday.

I have always suspected that our motorways represent the inner landscape of some chilling male brain; made by men for men they are in some ways inexplicable to women.

I still sometimes forget that in order to turn right off a motorway you have to turn left first onto a slip road and roundabout, forgetting this I have gone miles in the wrong direction getting absolutely desperate. Then there are those signs over the highway, showing three destinations, and you wonder uneasily if you have to be under one to get there, what if you are trapped in the left hand lane which has no destination name on it, where does that lead?

On August 5th I set out, at 7.15am, hoping and utterly failing to miss heavy traffic. After an hour’s drive, around High Wickham, I saw electronic signs giving a message of doom – “M42 closed J2-5.”

Now what does that involve and what was I supposed to do about it ? My normal brain would not have been any wiser than the one I’ve got now.

As it was still such a long way to the M42 perhaps they would have opened the junction by the time I got there. I think I knew this was a false hope and there was no information about any kind of diversion, so I drove on wondering how was anyone going to make their way north if the motorway was closed. I was puzzled. At Warwick there was another sign saying, “M42 J 2-5 closed. For the north- west take the M42/M5.

What did that mean? It seemed to be still suggesting the M42 and I do not know the M5 so I wouldn’t venture on it without stopping somewhere to look at a map. The complications involved in doing that made the idea impossible. Was I even going to pass that junction? I wasn't sure, I might leave the motorway before it, but somehow I doubted that too.

Despite all this I felt strangely relaxed, one hand on the wheel, doing between 70 and 80mph, I’d have rolled a cigarette between my knees if I had one. I really enjoyed the long drive, the first since April when I got the bad news. It was also my day of chemo recovery, the transformation, and I was elated to be at the wheel with the scenery spinning past beyond the concrete moraine.

When I got to the dreaded junction we were in a traffic jam. That was the only consequence and I felt too happy to care about that. I smiled at the other drivers around me and began texting my mother and friends. Texting furtively and creeping along in small jolts.

Before I got the bad news about my health I was turning into a nervous driver. I’d almost given up driving in London due to all the restrictions. My car sat abandoned outside my flat, or as near as I could get, its battery going steadily flat.

Now I felt invulnerable as a teenager – it must be a matter of relative threats. I once tried to learn to ride a horse, spent a year in the saddle, getting steadily worse at it and gradually more fearful. I remember the sheer relief of climbing down off one nag and into my Mini Cooper. Four legs bad, four wheels good. Now suddenly driving felt safe again, its dangers very distant compared to other threat against my life.

After two hours I reached the mysterious sign post on the left hand side, showing a giant rabbit’s head, ears strangely crossed, pointing west and east towards Solihull, Birmingham (E & C) M42 and most oddly, north to London.

No matter how much of the ears you manage to catch as you shoot past, it is impossible to work out what exactly they mean, as they twist about divided by a dotted line up the middle of the head. All I do is remember that I go somewhat to the left at that point, and it is usually a good moment as it means I am drawing nearer to the M6 that most sexy and friendly of motorways, or so it seems to me.

As I reached my home village I saw a skein of geese flying over a field, three at the front forming a glorious “V” which I took to mean victory.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The bald truth at last

I saw a beautiful catalogue of wigs at Maggie’s. They looked most inviting in a women’s magaziny, American TV show sort of way; pretty tip tilted noses peering out from teased golden haystacks, wispy fringes and highlights that look as if they cost a city banker’s bonus. I was tempted to buy one but received an NHS referral to get one for free.

I was directed to a little specialist shop near Paddington station. I stepped into a gloomy old place that smelled of mice and was quietly ushered into the far back. It was a real wig makers, since 1899 it said over the door, with hunks of nylon hair hanging over polystyrene skulls on stands.

I was seated in a small side room and attended by an elderly cockney woman, of the sort you might expect to see assisting Sweeney Todd.

Her face was immobile under its make-up, her own hair very yellow like a farm girl in a musical. She didn’t look at me, smile or show any sign of interest as she plonked a large black wig in front of me. I put it on and from what I could espy from under it, it was the Cathy McGowan, dressing up for a 60s party wig.

I asked to see something else. She sighed and slowly went out and got another. This one was long, thin and streaky, and made my head very tall and pointed.

“You’ll need to get it cut,” she said hopefully.

I asked for something shorter. Where were all those snappy, chic things I had seen in the catalogues?

“You want it flicky do you?” she said and went out again.

She came back with a bushy bunch of acrylic that seemed to have been chewed. I shoved it on, feeling that I had to make a decision quickly as I was obviously being a nuisance.

We had advanced to the 1980s with this one and I now looked like Sheila Easton.

“It’s a bit rough at the back,” I said. “That’s because it’s flicky.” She said.

I said OK, desperate to end this unpleasant situation and she brought out its black box, marked “Rene of Paris.” What kind of shyster was he?

I asked if someone in the salon might trim it, and trim me, as I had decided to get rid of the rest of my hair.

“He’ll charge you,” she said, “and you’ll have to wait.” Obviously the answer was no.

“You’ll need products to clean it,” she said. “You can buy them here for £16.50 a bottle. You’ll have to clean it every ten days when it gets heady with your sweat.”

She used that odd pun several times.

Well I’d seen worse. I’ve seen some black women in wigs that look as if they have died of drought. As wigs go it was OK, glossy with some red lights, just not perhaps the right one for me.

I put it on and left hastily. The whole undignified process had taken about seven minutes. If she had a nice range of glamorous wigs out there, she wasn’t going to let me see them.

Outside I felt sad and deflated. In shop windows I seemed to be leaning forwards under a small bear skin, the men who used to wear the full bottomed type in the old days must have been tough, and the thing felt as if it was lifting off, like an over tight egg cosy.

I decided to get a grip and go to a proper hairdresser to get it sorted out.

In Kensington, where I worked and played for nearly twenty years, I trundled up Old Church Street, towards Tony & Guy’s, my hairdresser in the last century.

I was surprised to see that most of the shops and restaurants I once enjoyed have now gone, not just upped sticks but boarded up. The salon was still there, but almost empty.

I was relieved to be able to hide away quietly, taking my wig off to show my horrible patchy pate to a young man called Josh. I asked him to trim the wig and take off the rest of my hair.

“I’ve never done this before,” he said and began to snip tentatively at the thick dark fringe on the wig. His scissors seemed to blunt to manage the thick fibres. I wanted him to hack at it, turn it into a Liza Minelli, but all he managed was to shorten the fringe a little so that I could peer out.

He then very gently applied an electric razor to my head. It wasn’t traumatic, I didn’t feel as if I was going to the gas chamber, it was very gentle and I was amazed at the result – we both stared as my white skull appeared and it looked really good! My ears are perhaps my best feature, like little pink shells, and there they were in all their glory. I looked ten years younger.

Leaving the salon a girl on the front desk said that her mother had been issued with a wig four years before, when she had breast cancer. “She never wore it, as she couldn’t get on with it,” she said.

Would I come to terms with mine, wigs are somehow very defining things, forming a large part of your visual identity. Would this one say something nice about me, or just sit there like an unhappy stranger. Giving it a sporting chance, I stuck it back on and went to meet a friend for lunch.

Waiting for her in the sunshine with a glass of rose, the waitress glanced at me sympathetically, the way you do at any woman forced to wear a Busby, as you know she must be odd, bald, or Joan Collins. It wasn’t doing very well, at least not if it was supposed to look like authentic hair.

My friend liked it. “Very glamorous,” she said, “I hardly recognised you.”

This gave me a boost and picturing those women in the catalogues I felt transformed into a very forthright, powerfully maned go-getter, someone not to be trifled with. We argued about politics for awhile, I heard myself putting my case strongly like one of those well coiffed women on Question Time.

Several old colleagues turned up and lunch became very jolly. I felt Busby start to slide sideways, took it off and placed it on my knee like a lap-dog where it gradually filled up with bits of roquette, stray frites and biscuit crumbs.

I went home in my head-scarf. The wig is still in its box. It will come in very useful if any more good omens turn up in the coal-hole.

In the evening, to the National Theatre to see Danton’s Death, starring Toby Stephens. (How does he manage it to looks so youthful when he’s been around for years?)

A tortuous, teenage rant from Georg Buchner, written when he was twenty one, against the inevitability of death and the pains and disappointments of staying alive. Of course I now know which I would recommend now but at his age I felt the same, and young Georg is a Germanic Adrian Mole.

The play is also stuffed with wigs, at least the baddies all have them. Robespierre, played in the predictable constipated way, wears something like a white split tin loaf on his head, while the goodies all espouse natural, free flowing romantic locks.

The Age of Reason led to the death of wigs powdered and au natural, and for some reason they have never been taken seriously since.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Chemo Sunday


Sunday following chemo is my worst day. Four days after chemo seems to be the worst day for slumping down.

Nothing much is expected of you on a Sunday, but it has always been my special day, which I liked to fill with fine food and high activity, and of course it is a notoriously long day, so oddly elasticated that I’m surprised Einstein never commented on it.

I forced myself out of bed to attend St Michael’s Church at 10am. I felt a kind of jittery nervousness, something about being among people, being part of a group, having to show myself.

It was a “Family Mass,” even though most families seemed to be on holiday and it swept swiftly along, enlivened by a witty sermon from Sarah Lenton, one of our ministers who is also author of a book called, Backstage at the Opera.

Then at the Mass something went wrong and I didn’t get any bread. The woman holding the chalice forced me to take it even though I was indicating with my hands that I was waiting for the bread. She gave me a tiny sip of wine and moved on. I felt devastated. Back in the pew I whispered to the woman next to me, “I didn’t get any bread. That’s terrible, a terrible omen isn’t it?”

“Not at all,” she said sensibly. “It doesn’t mean anything. There was a problem with the servers today.”

She had tuned in instinctively to the omens game and was reassuring, but I went home feeling disgruntled.

I longed for company at home but at the same time didn’t want to see anyone. By 1pm my head felt like my foot, sore and throbbing. The tingling in the soles and fingers had shifted to my scalp. Then came the aching joints and fingers and a horrid taste in my mouth like cheap, burnt coffee.

I started on the annual tax returns, not a very good idea as the tax year, running from April to April always befuddles me at the best of times. Maisie wouldn’t eat her food and kept disturbing me, and I felt myself becoming exasperated.

I did not risk trying to phone the Virgin Broadband people to try to establish what I actually pay, having long ago lost track – any contact with them and their endless number options and musical sound tracks would definitely lead to tears and screams. Then came short sharp fizzing flushes up my arms, stabbing pains around my ribs and my energy drained away.

Too tired for lunch and unable to taste anything anyway, I lay on my bed, bored but weak. What I needed was a cool bed and a perpetually cool, crisp pillow.

But feeling comfortable even for a few moments immediately leads to sleep, and I can’t listen to anything or read anything for more than a few moments. Started re-reading an old novel, so old that it is heavily stained, its been through two floods in my flat and is falling to pieces in my hands and should have a public health notice put on it. Read about a page, fell asleep and immediately saw a man in a Fedora holding a gun pointing towards me. I wasn’t too scared just a bit dismayed, wondering how to respond but I am getting used to these unpleasant people appearing, threatening, or offering me something slyly erotic which I can’t bear to see.

Awake again I tried to focus on the old book but drifted off into another dingy, dirty sleep.

I am a stranger to myself, hot, sweating, full of bitter thoughts, full of Paclitaxel, derived from the bitter bark of the Pacific yew tree. The names and faces of people who have let me down, not supported me, disappeared from my life because of this illness, flicker back and forth, all the kind, unexpectedly generous people forgotten. By 5pm a beautiful Sunday has been soaked in acid and chucked away.

On these chemo-Sundays the torpor drifts into evening where there is a brief attempt to rally to do something, then nightfall, which is worse. Waiting for the murderous, sexy phantoms to descend I lie in bed listened to music, a new support I have recently discovered.

I never used to bother much about music, I couldn’t get a purchase on what it was saying, but now I realise how it can wrench the spirit up where words are useless. In fact when you feel ill, words can seem like bullets or stinging insects, they can drive you crazy, but on chemo-Sunday you can lie there listening to Mahler and be saved as you float away down stream.

Having a rest.

Like most people I got back from chemo drained but fizzed up and almost elated because of the steroids.

Pamela uploaded some images onto my blog. I couldn’t follow what she was doing as I was too far gone and chemo has aged my brain by about ninety years.

With a last bit of energy I accompanied her to the tube. On the way out I saw a black and white cat on my front garden. She had round staring eyes and looked a bit stringy and frantic. When I got home the cat was crouched inside my old coal hole. I gave her some food and water, she seemed to be very thirsty, and put a blanket and some newspaper in for her.

In the morning I took her out some breakfast and saw a tiny head beside her own in the gloom – one grimy black and white kitten about eight days old looking quite content. I started to run about, the way they used to do in The Lucy Show, when a baby was going to be born, when they’d all shout, “boil some water!”

At about 11am, redoubtable Roz, from Hounslow Animal Rescue arrived with an old wooden trap and started perching on the steps outside my door attached to the end of a thin blue chord, hoping to lure the mother in. At the sight of all this activity she did a bunk over the wall.

By 4pm when there was still no sign of her Roz decided to take the kitten to the local vet and returned with an automatic trap.

I sat by the trap for two hours until I had to rest before the arrival of one of my private English students.

A friend messaged me to say that a cat being born on your premises is good luck. A very good omen.

Mira arrived at 7pm, also with round, staring eyes and looking a bit frantic – this is because she is starting a course of post-graduate teacher training in Further Education (FE). This used to be a PGCE certificate with world renown, but has recently been renamed CELTA, an acronym not known to anyone at all.

As I know from when I took a qualification and did some college teaching, FE is the last bastion of radical education – mixed ability, all inclusive, more an ideology than a method of education.

Coming from Poland the beauteous Mira is used to certain standards, even some formality. Poland is changing fast but still not a place where priests are pelted with wet sponges or teachers addressed by their first names. She finds the course bewildering.

“We are not allowed to do any dictation,” she told me, “as it is considered old fashioned.”

We reminisced about old dictation tests in school, which were always deadly difficult and often quite a laugh. “They are not allowed to read round the class,” She said. “No reading of their own work in case they mispronounce things and feel embarrassed, and you must only use words that they know already.”

We reminisced again about the time when many children and students treasured big words like gob-stoppers, and embarrassment was an essential part of education, always a hovering threat.

She has been given a chair with five wheels and says she just has to “float” around the class room on this, because on no account must she rise above the students.

“Because looking down on them from above is patronising,” she says doubtfully. “I just have to float.”

Handing out sheets to the students she is not allowed to say, “next, we will do this.”

“I must not give any orders,” she says in her gentle very un-authoritarian voice.

“To explain, you don’t say, “now were are going to listen to a tape,” you just play it and avoid all instructions – it seems to me, how shall I put it, un-natural?”

During my time learning to be an FE provider, I won’t say teacher, in 2007 we had lessons on what we could and could not say. “Brain-storm” was banned in case if offended epileptics. We had to watch out for the dreaded stereo-typing which one hand-out said had directly caused The Holocaust, and remember to use correct body language at all times.

From what Mira said things seem to have progressed even further, with teachers are finally being turned into voiceless “facilitators.” I ponder again the painful paradox that in the headlong pursuit of “education” as a kind of essential product, like fridges and washing machines, we seem to have become less educated.

It reminded me of a Polish friend of mine who came here with a school age child and said to me, “Jane, what age do children here start to learn?”

“We are not allowed to use capital letters when writing on the white board,” she went on unhappily, “in case they offend certain nationalities.”

Anti-capitalistic nations presumably, but there aren’t many of those left, except in the minds of FE educationalists of course, who permanently live in a combination of Berkeley University and Paris c 1968. That is putting it kindly of course. I suspect that some of them yearn for a kind of intellectual year zero.

In the middle of this I heard the automatic trap door drop down. Mother cat had returned, nearly ten hours after leaving her kitten.

The next day, Friday, I felt my energy level go down. Roz reappeared to take mother off to join her son at the vet’s. I received messages from my Japanese friend Kayoko saying she wanted to come round. I texted her not to come, as I needed to sleep. An hour later she arrived with her smiling friend Itchiko, from the mysterious, tropical island of Okinawa.

As I opened the door I heard a high fluting note like a bird, but ignored it as my heart sank, I really didn’t want to see anyone. I just wanted to sleep. They came in bringing me a flourish of pink lilies, roses, carnations and a water-melon. I felt apologetic for my reticence and we sat in the garden chomping through the melon, discussing the different ways they eat it in Japan, while I longed to be alone in bed.

Itchiko said she wanted to learn how to draw as she’d never done it. I gave her a notebook and a couple of soft pencils. She began sketching me. This was a good cop out as it meant I could sit glumly silent. I didn’t expect much but when I saw it I was astonished at how good it was, a likeness and sensitive lines.

As ever, the Japanese are full of surprises, such strangely talented people. I remember seeing a documentary about some old people from Nagasaki who were encouraged to draw their memories of the day the great bomb fell on them. They produced wonderful works of art. I was puzzled at how so many of them could do it, so effortlessly.

Kayoko said, “But why is it that English people can’t draw?”

I don’t know. I love questions from foreigners about the English as they are so startling and I can never answer them. Even without chemo I am like a ninety year old in the confusion and bewilderment with which I view my country now.

The next day I decided to go to Maggie’s for a party. I had planned this for some time bought some biscuits and kept the invite on my desk. While I was writing I heard a high piping sound, like a bird, and dashed out of the flat. There were still three kittens in the coal hole, buried under the newspapers.

I began to tear about again, looking for something to put them in. I had nothing but an vast old wine box. I put them in on top of a dirty old fleece that had been hanging in the hall for years. Maisie appeared and looked bemused. She is not herself either at the moment and will soon have to go to the dreaded vet's, dreaded because of the extraordinary cost.

After calling Roz, who was busy as ever saving strays, I decided to drive to the Hounslow Animal Rescue centre, park and walk with the box, up the Chiswick High Road to the vet’s where the mother was.

The vet nurse said they were up towards Hammersmith so I began walking that way, on and on. Then realised that I must have gone too far and turned around. I asked people, some directed me, but the box got very heavy and I felt sweat pouring down under my headscarf.

Eventually I met a young couple who offered to carry the box and we arrived at the vet’s just as it closed. I saw the kittens re-established with their mother who licked them happily, unaware that they’d been lost for two days. No sign of the first kitten who would have to get used to no longer being an only child.

Leaving the vet’s I could not tell which way to go – where was my car? No idea. The Chemo-brain strikes again, and I now know what it must be like to be demented.

I phoned Roz and she gave me directions back to my own flat, thinking I was in the car. “No, no I’m on foot!” I heard myself screaming. It's a horrible sensation, a feeling of being completely lost. When I spotted a bit of the Chiswick High Road which I could identify I felt the relief of a swimmer who has nearly drowned in a gulley and suddenly finds a bit of beach to crawl up.

Safely back in my car bathed in a clammy film of sweat I gave up the idea of going to Maggie’s, or anywhere. At home I checked the coal hole again, silence, and switched the phone off. Four cats born on the premises – now that can’t be bad.