Tuesday, 17 August 2010


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.


  1. Ha, nice. The Past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. I love the way you bring things back with your writing.

  2. The culture I grew up in seems to be nearly extinct!

  3. Thank you Peter Palladas. Just had a look at your blog - what an amazing world you live in.
    I will try to focus on it a little more when I have had my tea