Sunday, 1 November 2009


Nick can barely contain his excitement. He has booked tickets to see Dr John. All dressed up we drive to Soho, miraculously find a parking space straight away and stroll along Brewer Street. Nick stops to look into the window of a shop selling tacky undies. I steer him away. “There’s a really good shop around the corner,” I inform him, “It’s where I got my fabulous PVC skirt.” “But it doesn’t fit me anymore,” I add, ruefully. However, further disappointment awaits in Old Compton Street. Beneath the Paradiso Boudoir sign is a blank window bearing an estate agent’s notice ‘Shop to Rent’. I’m really starting to despise bankers and government ministers. The greed of the former and the bovine stupidity of the latter have conspired to spoil everybody’s fun.

We arrive at Ronnie Scott’s. It is always a treat to see live music at this intimate little jewel of a venue. Inside it’s all cosy with velvet seats, black polished tables and shiny brass railings. The warm-up act is an eccentrically dressed singer accompanied by two acoustic guitarists. Her voice is technically good but she just doesn’t have the elusive quality of emotion that grabs one’s heart. I guess it’s what some call the X factor. Apart from that she cannot resist mentioning in as many ways as possible that she would not normally deign to be a support act but regularly headlines there. Average singing, tedious songs and vanity make an irritating combination. My attention wanders to other members of the audience.

Sitting right in front of me is an old acquaintance of mine, Toby. After a while the annoying singer asks the sound-man in a faux-kooky fashion how much time is allotted to warm-up acts. She has no idea, she says, because she is so unfamiliar with being a warm-up act. The sound-man blandly replies that she is already out of time. She abruptly leaves the stage and we all applaud. I don’t know about everybody else but I’m applauding the sound-man.

In the short interval I tap Toby on the shoulder. He beams at me. “Lily, how are you?” Now, as I’ve mentioned before, “How are you?” is a tricky question. The standard response is “fine,” or “I’m well.” It is generally accepted that the question is asked merely as a matter of courtesy. Most people understand that the questioner is not really hoping for an honest and detailed reply, telling them of our marital problems or describing our bouts of pre-menstrual tension. But I also recognise that to reply “I’m fine,” when one is in fact in the midst of treatment for a life-threatening illness might be taken as blasé to the point of rudeness. “I’m well,” I reply. Then I add, “I’ve had...” and here I find myself mouthing the word “cancer” “but I’m well," I add, "I’m having all the treatment and I’m going to be fine.” Toby nods and squeezes my hand.

Why, I wonder, despite all my blogging and writing articles in the Times, do I still spontaneously feel the need to mouth the word ‘cancer’? Instinctively, I don’t want the people at the neighbouring tables to hear it. But why not? I don’t know them. I will never see them again. I certainly don’t care what they think about me. I suspect that it is because many still respond to even the mention of the word with irrational fear and shying away.

I only have a short time to ponder that question. Nick howls with delight. Dr John appears with his ju-ju stick, his dark glasses and his necklace of fangs. The band kicks into some fabulous funky music and I’m so absorbed that for the next hour that I don’t even once think about c-a-n-c-e-r.