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.

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