Sunday, 13 March 2011


9th March. Ash Wednesday.

My brain still seems to be affected by the chemo; chunks of memory gone and frequent confusion. Yesterday on my way to Luton to interview little Tommy Knocker of the EDL, I thought I was at St Pancras when I’d only got as far as Paddington. It’s the second time recently that I’ve been bewildered on that station. The last time I went looking for all the shops in the new international part.

Today I set out for the Ash Wednesday service at St Michael’s in Turnham Green an hour early. When I arrived and found an empty church I was perplexed. A lady giving out hymn books to no one said “not to worry,” she had done the same thing herself.

I had to kill a bit of time. I have started using charity shops mainly because I am going on the Queen Mary to New York in June and have to sit down to six formal dinners needing evening frocks.

In the Oxfam shop in Chiswick I found a bawling baby and her mother dashing about in a frenzy as she had just had her wallet stolen. She had used the purse in the previous shop and it contained quite a lot of money and all her cards. No one seemed to be trying to help her in any way and she’d forgotten her mobile.

“It was my fault I was too careless,” she wailed, white in the face. I thought I would try to help by calming the baby. It was screaming horribly. I have no experience with them at all and when they cry it sounds to me as if they are in real agony or completely broken hearted. Stooping over her pram, or what every you call them thes days, I could see the roof of her mouth like an open pearly shell, and right down her pink throat. I tried stroking her stomach as if she was a cat and talking to her soothingly. It worked. I got her almost hypnotised. She shut up and gave me a smile. Her mother thanked me before she dashed away home to ring her bank.

When she’d gone the American who runs the shop returned. He asked the Japanese girl assistant if all was well. She said it was, then she hesitatingly said, “something went missing.” He thought she meant something she owned, but after a lot of humming and hawing she said, “A customer lost something.”

I piped up, “her purse was stolen.” “Maybe,” said the girl reluctantly.

I felt really annoyed with her, that she couldn’t just admit what had happened.

I got to church bridling and wishing I could like foreigners more, or at least not be so perturbed by them.

The vicar began his address with quite a good joke then drew our attention to the fact that Ash Wednesday is about dust and ashes, beginning Lent which is about dying and death.

I felt a bit scared, not sure how I was going to cope with this. I avoid thinking about death – thinking about it now is not the same as it once was, when death was a depressing but remote prospect, the way it was this time last year.

I didn’t go to ashing services then or give much thought to the mind and personality of God, or my relationship with him, but I did have a tumour growing in my groin.

“A very respectable lump,” said one doctor when I first had a scan last March. That afternoon I went to the cinema and sitting in the dark convinced myself that the thing was shrinking. It was the start of living in jeopardy and of my magical thinking, reaching out to the supernatural for help.

After his amusing words the vicar brought us sharp by unexpectedly making a personal confession of his sins. He spoke gravely and quietly. It was very moving and showed what trust he must have in the people gathered there. He made us think about Lent as a time for serious reflection, study, and conversion of the heart.

I had made the usual Lent promises, giving up things that I really like; alcohol, chocolate and toast. That all seemed far too trivial, although abjuring drink will be much tougher this year as having a glass of red wine with my dinner often calms me down when I am in on my own and fearful. The Bible might give the promise of eternal salvation, reading Acts might be nourishing to the soul but liquor is quicker. I suppose I can try Eccles cakes instead, usually a good antidote to depression.

I left the church feeling that I had to make a real change in my own life and perhaps cancer can make me a better person than I really am.

There was a meeting at Maggie’s at Charing Cross about how to publicise their third birthday in London. The London centre is the busiest in Britain. They were planning to do something the day before the Royal Wedding but I didn’t like that idea – cancer and royal nuptials don’t mix, certainly not in the press that I know.

Around the big kitchen table the women were mostly foreign, from Asia and Latin America, and in the middle was a box of Maltesers. I hadn’t seen any for years. I used to love eating them in the theatre. I tried to distract myself by reading a paper until one of the English speakers suggested that they are not chocolates at all, but bits of malt that have been accidentally dropped into a vat of chocolate.

Once you’ve slipped your hand in the box it’s almost impossible not to take more. While I was crunching and sucking relishing the way they slowly implode into a tiny crystal of sweetness, a woman asked me what the headline on a newspaper meant. “What is this, “dab hand?”” she asked. Then she asked me to translate more. She seemed interested in news from Italy but said she was Bulgarian.

We chatted about refugees pouring onto the island of Lampedusa from Libya and the Maghreb. “They will never stop it. You will never stop it here,” she said, “because the English are too scared. If anyone says the word “racist” to you English you are so scared you run out the door.”

She spoke with a cold but teasing malevolence. There I was half an hour after Mass eating chocs and wanting to throttle a foreigner.

When I got home Maisie licked the remaining mark of ash off my forehead with a deft swipe of her tongue.

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