Today is chemo day. Before I hit the hospital I pop into the wonderful Providores on Marylebone High Street. It’s just as well to get some really good food on board in case I feel sick later on.
The downstairs café is ram-jammed as usual. I sit at the high bench. There is a blonde woman sitting diagonally opposite. As I read the menu she picks up her coffee and her cutlery and moves to sit directly opposite me. “I’ll move here,” she says “and leave that seat for someone else.” I shoot her a hostile glance. But it turns out she’s not a nutter, just a Kiwi. I soon find out that Martine is an Osteopath in Harley Street. As she observes, one of the nice things about The Providores, apart from the delicious food, is that it’s full of friendly Antipodeans. Martine and I have a lot in common. Well, not that much really. We’re both from the southern hemisphere and we’ve both lived in London for decades. Apart from that, she’s a medical professional and I’m a patient, she’s divorced with three kids and I’m single with no kids, she’s blonde and I’m brunette - today. Anyway, I enjoy chatting with her. When she leaves I tell her that I hope to see her there again. And mean it.
“Your haemoglobin is quite low,” says nurse Bess. “What does that mean?” I ask. “It means you’d better eat a lot of red meat and green leafy vegetables, things with iron in them to get your levels up. It might work.” “And what if it doesn’t?” “If your haemoglobin gets any lower you will have to have a blood transfusion.” “Oh.” That shut me up. The possibility of serious chemo side effects suddenly seems real. I tell her that the vein in my forearm, where they regularly put the cannulas, has gone hard and is hurting. “That’s called sclerosis,” she says “it will get better eventually. Meanwhile, we’ll have to find another one.”
It isn’t easy. Nurse Karen seems almost as distressed as I as she taps my arm here and there. At last she coaxes up a vein and inserts the needle. The various drugs start to flow.
I’ve come to Harley Street alone this week. Jamie is on holiday and I think that Iris and Antony have done their fair share of chemo-sitting. The trouble is I’m not very good at asking people to accompany me. Fear of rejection makes it difficult for me to invite friends to dinner or the movies. I can’t imagine anyone gladly volunteering to sit around all afternoon reading OK! and watching Taxol drip into my arm. Just then, May calls on the phone. We make a date for her to come with me to chemo next week. “Oh, that will be fun,” exclaims May. “It depends on your idea of fun” I muse.
Another sobering side-effects moment: as I doze off I overhear Nurse Bess talking with a neighbouring patient. “The doctor is concerned about your liver and kidney functions. We’re going to keep you in for a day or two.” It’s obviously Bess’s day to deliver the bad news to everybody. Next thing a porter appears with a wheelchair and whisks the neighbouring patient away.
I’ve had the anti-sickness drugs and the anti-allergy drugs and the various flushes. It’s time for the main event: the Taxol. Nurse Karen returns with the frozen peas that I’d prepared earlier. “Now, how are we going to do this?” she ponders. Then she ingeniously devises an impromptu pea administering system by binding the bags to my feet with surgical tape. “Did you used to be a model?” asks Karen. “Ah, erm, no” I reply. Karen shouts across to Bess: “She said no but she hesitated” I tell them the truth: that I did give it a go in my youth but I was hopeless, both at modelling and at being treated like a farm animal by vile hairdressers and narcissistic fashion designers. Once, in the past, I expressed regret to my cousin Ben “If only I’d done modelling, I’d be rich” I sighed. “Lily, you’d be dead.” he observed. I love the people who know me better than I know myself.
“I want to get a wig like yours” Karen enthuses “I’ll wear it on Hallowe’en with my catsuit, whip and gloves.” Now there’s a back handed compliment if ever I heard one but Karen doesn’t mean it that way at all. She chats blithely on: “I tried one on the other day. It is such a sexy look...” “I’m proud to be such a fashion icon for you.” I reply, glancing down at my pea-clad toes.