Monday, 31 August 2009

The Carnival is Over

That will do. I’ve had enough of the Notting Hill Carnival. Yesterday was fun, hanging out on Golborne Road with cousin Ben, his gorgeous daughter Amazon-Rainforest and another twenty thousand of my closest friends. We ate goat curry with rice, had a little dance and blew our whistle. We watched some floats from my balcony. And that just about exhausts the entertainment menu of this international, multicultural extravaganza.

Now all there is to look forward to is another long day of drunken hooligans honking their horns, incomprehensible MCs shouting off about goodness knows what, tourists pissing in one’s courtyard and so many bodies thronging the streets that it becomes almost impossible to go anywhere that is more than fifty yards from one’s front door. Isn’t it about time they moved the whole thing to Chiswick?

So this morning I’m up early to get out of dodge before it all kicks off again. I pack my micro-wheelie suitcase and trundle off along Golborne Road, pausing to scoff down one final curried vegetable pattie before I vacate the area. I politely offer assistance to a gaggle of confused looking police officers, all dressed in ill-fitting trousers and clutching maps.

Then it’s off to East London to stay with my fabulous friend Rosa. The trip on the tube, followed by climbing three flights of stairs to Rosa’s warehouse pad has done me in. I crash out on the couch. When I awake it is to find that Rosa has whipped up a mouth-watering roast chicken lunch. I want to hug her. If you are lucky enough to have someone in your life that cooks for you on a regular basis, may I suggest that you take the trouble to chalk it up in the ‘blessings’ column on your life ledger. It’s a rare treat for me.

We settle in for an afternoon watching ‘Four Weddings’, a reality show where four women attend each other’s weddings and then slag one another off in the hope of winning a ‘five star luxury honeymoon’. Rosa turns to me and asks, “What would your ideal wedding be like?” We’re both in our late forties. I love her optimism.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Party Tresses

The morning of the Notting Hill Carnival is deceptively low-key. The roads are closed. There’s no traffic. Traders quietly get on with the business of building tents for chicken stands, stoking up oil-drum barbecues and slicing small hills of plantains. The set-up is my favourite part of the carnival. There's an air of excited anticipation. Neighbours of a mercenary bent hurriedly scrawl 'toilet £1' on pieces of paper and sellotape them to their front doors. Beneath my bedroom window a crew of young men are industriously fitting together the components of a 10,000 watt megabass sound system that, come midday, will be vibrating my kidneys and shaking all the pictures and mirrors off my walls.

Don’t they know how tired I am?

Still, there’s no point in staying at home and then moaning because you live in Notting Hill and, surprise, surprise, they hold something called the Notting Hill Carnival every year. I’ve never understood why those people who don’t like it don't just go and live in Chiswick. The only way to deal with the carnival is to go with the flow. Either be in it or be out of it (many choose both options, I know).

If you’re going to be in it, select your most brightly coloured dress. And if you’re fortunate enough to be in a position to choose which hair to wear with your outfit, definitely go for the red.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Peas Please

So far, so good with the new chemo regime. I don’t feel sick at all. Just rather tired.

As a precaution I’ve removed all the flourescent pink varnish from my fingers and toes. A minute examination reveals lots of tiny ridges running the length of my fingernails. Could this be the beginning of manky nail syndrome?

I’ve been on the internet, of course, and read up on all the horror stories: nails turning black; spooning; cracking; peeling; falling off and just plain disappearing. I’ve also read up on prevention. It seems that the best thing to do is ice one’s hands and feet whilst having the chemo. That makes sense. I guess it works in the same way as the ice hat, that is to say, by restricting blood circulation to the extremities thereby reducing the amount of chemicals to reach those parts.

Except the ice hat didn’t work - but maybe that’s because I’m such a natural hothead.

I will go out tomorrow and get one of those insulated freezer bags and several packets of frozen peas to create my DIY nail preserver.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Wigs on Parade

The red wig, I’ve decided, is quite wrong in the parting and crown area. It’s got no roots. There’s no scalp showing through, just a thick mat of multicoloured nylon. But it looks great worn with a beanie.

Sheldon and Rosa drop round for tea. I open the door in my auburn tresses and watch their faces like a hawk. I hope that I am able to tell when friends are being too kind or too squeamish to give one their unvarnished assessment. They will often hold back from saying something like “For god’s sake, if you go outside in that ridiculous wig we will be obliged to walk five paces behind you, for your own good you understand. Someone will have to fight a rearguard action against the hordes of children who will follow, jeering in your wake.” So it pays to be able to read people’s faces.

I think that they genuinely like it. Feeling more confident I rip off the red hair and model the bob. This meets with more approval and they agree to go out to the coffee shop with me.
Downstairs, my elderly neighbour Irene is sitting in the sun on her front step. “Oh, don’t you look well?” she pipes up, “And your hair looks lovely.” I lean towards her in a conspiratorial way. “It’s a wig.” I confide.

Further on down Portobello Road, Helen is standing in the doorway of her alternative therapy shop. She calls out “Hey Lily, have you had your hair cut? It looks great.” “It’s a wig” I yell back.

Rosa pulls me to one side. “It kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise," she kindly informs me "if you tell everybody it’s a wig.”

Thursday, 27 August 2009

A Big Day - Part 3

7.00 p.m. I’m back at Kell Skott’s salon on Golborne Road. His lovely wife Jacqueline is there. They both give me a welcoming hug. I’m popping in and out so often lately, they’re starting to feel like family.

I don’t think Kell is aware that he’s running a special ‘three for the price of one’ promotion this evening. First, I ask him to get the clippers out and give me a number one crop. There really isn’t all that much else to be done now. I could shave my head completely but I still hang back from that.

Kell starts at the back of my neck with the clippers, then puts them aside and opts to do the whole thing with the scissors. Making things as difficult as possible for themselves is a matter of pride with hairdressers.

Next I don the dark bob. Kell chops into the fringe and thins out the sides, giving it a delightfully messy-chic look. Then comes the red mop. I’m still dubious but Kell thinks it perfect just as it is. He thins some of the front sections, just for the hell of it, and then runs some hair wax through it. Who would ever have thought of waxing a wig? Suddenly it looks rock and roll. Suddenly I like it.

A Big Day - Part 2

It’s the first day of my new chemo regime. From now on I will be having Taxol every week for the next eight weeks. "Taxol" – sounds like a weed killer, doesn’t it?

Iris and I decide to get the bus to the hospital. In Oxford Street the traffic is properly gridlocked. After a long time of being stuck we go downstairs and ask the driver if he will let us off. I explain that I have a hospital appointment and that I am not feeling very well. “I’m not allowed to open the doors” is his flat reply. He doesn’t look at us.

Another 15 minutes passes, only now we’re standing up. It’s hot. Iris assesses the situation: “I simply don’t know what’s going to happen about the traffic in London. Every scheme they come up with just raises loads of revenue and does nothing to ease the congestion.” That seems pretty spot-on. I start to feel faint. What has been an inconvenience is spiralling into a crisis. I’m about to push the emergency door-opening button when the traffic breaks and we chug into the bus stop. I’m still not convinced that the driver wants to let us off but by now he is on the receiving end of so much customer-generated flak that he reluctantly releases his hostages.

At the hospital I collapse into one of the lazy boy recliners. Nurse Karen begins to insert the needle into my arm. Suddenly I begin to sob. “Hey darling, what’s the matter?” asks Karen. “I’ve had enough of this.”


After my mini-breakdown blows over I cheer myself up by eating a block of Green & Black's Organic Dark Mint Chocolate and modelling my new wigs for the nurses on the chemo unit. Then it’s downstairs for an appointment with my Consultant Oncologist, Suzy Cleator. Bad news. She explains the possible side effects of the Taxol: aches and pains; fatigue; nausea; mouth ulcers; anaemia; hair loss; diarrhoea; liver damage; numb hands and feet... But there's good news too: she also explains that the weekly regime that she is recommending for me is a new method from America, whereby one receives a lower dose, but more frequently. Apparently it means that the chemo is ‘better tolerated’. Well hallelujah to that!

Then some more good news: she will be recommending three weeks of radiotherapy rather than the five weeks that was originally discussed. It seems that there have been some studies done that conclude that three weeks is just as beneficial as five. Suzy will not be overseeing my radiotherapy. Her baby is due in November. But she will refer me to another consultant. “Someone very good” she says, reassuringly. I’ve no doubt about that but I’m sorry to hear it all the same. I feel safe with the understanding that develops with continuity in a relationship. I’ve started to feel at ease with Suzy and I trust her.

Then, as I get up to leave, she shoots me a parting morsel of bad news: another side effect of the Taxol is that it can make one’s nails go “manky”. Oh hell.

A Big Day - Part 1

Up early in great excitement. Today is wig day.
I miss the bus. Oh no!

Text to Iris:
Just missed bus. Phone about to die. Please go in and tell them if you get there before me.

Text from Iris:
The bakerloo line is down and the traffic is gridlocked I have been trying to get bus for 30 still on regent st.

Oh no, oh no!!
I feel there is a wig curse upon me.

But that’s just unnecessary pessimism. As I’ve learned, it’s likely to give one cancer or shorten one’s life in a dozen of other ways so I shrug off the thought and, sure enough, another bus comes along.

Raoul’s turns out to be a funny, old-fashioned place with hairdressing stations in the front and a wig-fitting establishment in the back. They do all the wigs for patients at St Mary’s. I’m ushered into a curtained cubicle decorated with textured wallpaper and a blue painted dado rail.

A nice enough but not very interested blonde lady comes in. She does not ask me my name or bother to introduce herself. I guess she fits wigs on cancer patients all day every day and has heard all the stories. I imagine it could be quite a depressing job if you let it get to you. She asks me what my hair used to be like. “Rita Haworth in Gilda” I reply, hopefully. “I don’t think we have any wigs like that” she states. “Well what have you got?” I ask. The look on her face says: “this is going to be a long session...”

First up is a short, spiky number. It is brown with reddish highlights. I have never imagined myself as the head of the Human Resources Department or Admin Manager but now I see that, with the right hairstyle, anything is possible. I hand it back with a shudder.
I realise that wig choosing might be more tricky that I’d thought, especially since I have no idea what I want. Luckily for me, at this point Iris arrives.

The next wig is a winner. It’s a dark brunette, ‘cappucino’, with no highlights, cut in a stylish bob with a blunt fringe, shorter at the back and then angled down to curl into one’s jawline. It’s by René of Paris, Van Nuys, California, made in Thailand.

Next is a long black coiffe – too Morticia Addams. Then a layered short ash-blonde look – too Lady Di. Then a long, yellow blonde style – Iris suggests adding a pair of sunglasses and a kaftan and going out dressed as Cousin It. Finally a copper red wig with highlights in about ten different colours. It’s very long and multi-layered with a flicky fringe. To me it looks like a cross between Suzi Quattro and Farah Fawcett. Iris insists it’s got potential. I try the dark bob again. It’s very French and sexy. Then the red mop. “I don’t think so.” “Wait,” says Iris “look at it from the back.” “Hmmm” say I. Iris enrols the support of the wig lady who holds up the mirror so that I can see it from every angle. “It looks lovely” says the wig lady. “It’s better that your own hair ever was” says Iris. “Hmmm” I say again but not in nearly such a definite way. “I’ll take them both.”

As the voucher-exchange transaction gets under way, I study the care instructions. How to wash your wig (cold water only, use wig shampoo and conditioner). How to dry it (shake and hang upside down overnight). And then WARNING: Avoid exposure to heat such as; blow dryers, curling irons, hot rollers, ovens, barbecue grills... Well I understand that heated styling tools may cause the nylon hair to frizz in an undesirable manner and I am often in need of a reminder not to stick my head in the oven but under what dreadful circumstances, I wonder, would I be desperate enough to barbecue my wig?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Rocket, Goat's Cheese and Membrillo Salad

I had something similar in a café in Barcelona. This is my version:

A bowlful of organic rocket (or mixed salad leaves of your choice)

About 50gr of organic soft goat’s cheese

About 50gr of quince paste (it’s called membrillo in Spanish and is available from any Spanish food shop and also some big supermarkets. I couldn’t find an organic version)

Organic pine nuts

Organic flaked almonds

Pomegranate seeds (Sainsbury’s and M&S both sell them. Again, I couldn’t find organic. If they’re too difficult to get just leave them out)

Organic brown rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar

Organic olive oil


I always rinse and spin the salad, even if it’s organic. I’m just not sure what they wash it in.

Dress the salad with vinegar and salt

Cut up the quince paste and goat’s cheese into small cubes

Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan over a low flame. When they’re nearly all browned add the flaked almonds, they will toast much more quickly.

Pile the quince paste, goat’s cheese, pine nuts, almonds and pomegranate seeds on top of the salad. Add olive oil and toss.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Barcelona - Day 2

In the last 48 hours we have done quite a lot of hanging around in the alley outside Jean-Claude’s apartment. At about ten p.m. Miranda went down there and came across two English girls in their bikinis. They had been robbed. Apart from a police report, they had nothing. They couldn’t find their hotel nor remember the name of it. Miranda says, “there is always somebody worse off...”

We are finally in the flat. The third locksmith that came was a proper craftsman with proper lock-picking tools. He picked the lock on the street door then drilled out the lock on the apartment door.

Eloise sits down on a cushion on the floor and begins drawing intently. Ten minutes later she approaches me. “Aunty Lily, the card I made you was in our bag that got stolen so I’ve made you another one” On the front of the card is a multi coloured heart. I open it. Inside there is a drawing of three flower stems, one growing a purple tulip, one growing a heart that says I Love You and one growing a pink star. There is also the following inscription: “dere Leeley I do not wont you to be sike and I Love you so I am sending you this card Love EloisE to Leely.” Tears are running down my face. “What’s wrong Aunty Lily?” asks Eloise. “Eloise, this is the nicest card I’ve ever had.”

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Barcelona - Keys to the City

It’s 4 a.m. and someone is sounding an alarm. Probably the same person who has put my head in a vice and is turning the screw.

I’ve woken up with a headache and temperature, again. I can’t bear it. My first thought is that I probably should not go to Barcelona. But the ramifications of cancelling now are ghastly. My travel insurance probably will not pay out. My mum will be heartbroken and will probably insist on flying to London to see me. That will be exhausting for Mum, who has already flown from Tasmania to Moscow and then via Prague to Barcelona. And it will be expensive not to mention very inconvenient for my sister Miranda, who not only will have to pay for Mum’s trip but will also be deprived of free babysitting services.

A bath and a cup of tea lift my spirits a little. But not much. I don’t know how to make this decision on my own. Anxiety takes hold. What if it’s Swine Flu? What if I give it to everyone on the plane and then to Eloise? What if I have to be hospitalised? It will ruin my friends’ holiday. I haven’t got the European Health Card.

I’ve been through all this a couple of weeks ago so I know that it probably isn’t Swine Flu. It’s just a cold. My immune system is depressed. One minute it has the cold on the run. Then the cold turns around and fights. They skirmish back and forth. This morning the cold has the upper hand. I reach for the thermometer. 38º. The nurses told me to report if my temperature goes above 38º. Well it’s not above. It’s exactly 38º.

The taxi arrives. It’s make your mind up time. I’ve looked forward to this for so long. If I don’t go I feel that I might just fall down the dank plughole of depression. I’m going. I’m in the minicab. “Where to?” asks the driver. “Paddington” I reply. “I’ll take you to Heathrow for £30” he offers. “Heathrow then.” Off we go.


Forget going in business class and all that malarky. I have discovered the secret of luxury travel. Special Assistance. A kindly old lady bundles me into a wheelchair. I feel that this is all wrong. I should be pushing her. With surprising vigour she spins me to the front of every queue. Bag drop. Security. Priority boarding at the gate. It’s the same in Barcelona. A very energetic young man wheels me along miles of concourse. Then we reach the tail of the passport queue. “Excuse me,” he says. And then “excuse me,” again, and again, and again. We swiftly work our way to the front of this monster queue and straight through. I resist the urge to give my fellow travellers a little wave as we waft by. The young man collects my bag and takes me all the way to a taxi. He wishes me a cheery goodbye but does not hesitate in expectation of a tip.


The taxi pulls up at Estacio de França right where Mum and Eloise are standing, waiting for me. Eloise rushes up to the window. “Guess what aunty Lily?” she says excitedly. “What!?” I reply with indulgent expectation. “Somebody stole our bag!” I look at Mum with incomprehension and notice that she is limp. She looks like a deflated balloon, if a deflated balloon could stand on the steps of a Spanish railway station. I also notice that she has put on her best dress and shoes to meet me. My heart just breaks. After I’ve decanted from the taxi Mum apprises me of the situation. She was sitting at a café, waiting for me to arrive. She put her handbag by her foot. Eloise dropped an ice-cream in her lap and started to carry on. Mum leaned over to wipe up the ice cream and in that moment the bag was whipped. What kind of verminous, scumbag lowlifes would steal from an old lady and a child? Not only were Mum’s money, phone and camera in the bag but also the keys to my sister’s husband’s apartment along with the address of the apartment. Eloise pulls a pink wallet out of her pink rucksack. “I’ve got five Euros” she exclaims.

Miranda and Jean-Claude left yesterday for a holiday north of Barcelona, up near the French border. The spare set of keys is in the apartment. The neighbours are all away. “The first thing we should do,” I say, “is have a cup of tea.”

We sit down at a café (not the bag snitcher’s place) and shortly Mum’s face turns grey and she breaks into a sweat. It seems that she is so distressed that she is about to lose consciousness. Mum puts her head on the table whilst I consider the situation. There’s my elderly mother, six-year-old Eloise, who will not stop talking, me and a suitcase. It’s 35º. None of us speak Spanish. I’m starting to feel decidedly ill.

I don’t even want to record the details of the day. It’s too tedious. There are numerous calls to Miranda on my mobile phone from Spain via Moscow and London back to Spain. The thought of the bill makes me dizzy. The apartment is rented. The landlord is on holiday. The cleaning lady has a key. They don’t have her phone number. She’s not coming again until next week.

We visit three different police stations. The last one is like a zoo but we finally get to talk to someone who speaks English. Yes, we want to make a report. Yes, there was money in the bag and a camera but please, please can he help us with our most pressing concern? That is that we are locked out. We are desperately worried that the thieves will rob the apartment. “Oh, they hardly ever do that. They’re too stupid” he states breezily and hands us three cards with locksmith’s phone numbers on them. But we don’t speak Spanish. Back at the café I beg the owner to call the locksmith on our behalf. He seems dubious. How does he know that it’s our apartment? Good point. I try to convince him of our upstanding nature by ordering lunch for three. Finally he agrees.

The locksmith arrives. He is very kind but he cannot get through the street door. We ring all the bells. As feared, there is no reply. We go to the Hotel Banys Orientals where I am booked to stay from Thursday. They are incredibly kind but they do not have a room. They offer us chairs and put my suitcase in their storeroom. They ring around and book us a room at a nearby hotel.

At least at last we have a home to go. Eloise puts the telly on full blast and demands to play Rag Doll Blaster on my iPhone. I find this irritating because I can't get past level 4 and Eloise has cracked it. She is six years old. I crash on the bed. Mum insists on returning to loiter outside the apartment in case anyone comes in or out. She feels responsible for the whole mess. “Mum, you didn’t steal the handbag. It was the bastards. It’s not your fault.” I try to reassure her but she is inconsolable and won’t be dissuaded from going. Very soon, however, Mum is back – with Miranda.

It seems that Miranda has returned from her holiday. It seems that Jean-Claude is not with her. One could surmise that there have been words. Miranda is keeping schtum on that point.

Crisis management is Miranda’s stock in trade. She immediately swings in to action, operating on two mobile phones, one Russian, one French. She manages to rent an apartment in the building directly opposite Jean-Claude’s.

I opt to stay in the hotel. It’s a dump but it’s my dump and it’s nice and quiet.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Eagles and Shamans

What I like about writing a blog is that suddenly it is everybody’s property.

May comes to visit with her friend Renée. “You can’t call your boyfriend Simon” May proclaims. “Hmm you’re right. I’m not very happy with it.” I reply thoughtfully. “But what shall we call him? I find it very difficult to think of him as anyone but who he is with his own name.” “Well, that’s it!” cries May, “Call him by his own name and then say you’ve changed the name. That’ll fox ‘em.” I give that idea a few seconds gestation. “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.” “Well how about Marcel?” “I don’t think so.”

“George?”, “No”, “Pete?”, “No”, “Kenny?”, “NO”, “Well what about, what about, Nick!?”... “That’s IT.” I change the name immediately*.

May and Renée did not come here to re-christen my boyfriend. They came to practise their Shamanic healing. It’s very much the latest thing in West London. And they haven’t really come to see me but rather are drawn here by the fact that I am the custodian of a rare and coveted eagle’s feather that just dropped on me out of the sky.

It was back before breast cancer, in Australia on holiday with Nick. We were lying on a remote beach looking idly into the vast sky above where a distant eagle hovered, then juddered and flapped its wings. It dropped a feather that gently fluttered down and down towards a spot just a few yards from us. As we realised what was happening, Nick and I both sprang to our feet and ran towards the spinning feather. Nick scooped it up before it even touched the sand and presented it to me.

Even though I am not Shamanic by nature or religion, I took that to be a very good omen.
So I lie on the floor whilst May and Renée shake maracas and pepper pots over me, clear my energy blockages with a pendulum and comb my aura with the eagle’s feather. For comfort I’ve removed my bright yellow crocheted snood and replaced it with my white terry-towelling sleeping beanie. Suddenly I have gone from vibrant eye-catcher to looking, and feeling, like a giant baby. But it feels good to have people take care of me.

My philosophy is this: everything is beautiful, in it’s own way. Having been seriously ill in my youth, I’m aware that miracles happen that defy medical explanation. If I allow it, they happen on a daily basis. So bring on the prayers and the chanting and the chakra clearing, the crystals, reflexology, shiatsu and laying-on of hands. All well intentioned, freely given spiritual aid is gratefully accepted by me. Just don’t bring me anything that tries to play on my fear. I’ve no tolerance for that kind of manipulative Svengali-ism and if you care to try it on with me you’ll soon find yourself out the metaphorical door with a real live flea in your ear.

*For those who have just joined this blog, Nick was formerly called Simon. I have now changed every reference to Simon - to Nick. For those who have been reading up to today, I apologise for this blog's confusing and arbitrary renaming policy.

Wigs, at Last!

From: Canalily

Subject: Wigs, at last!

The wig voucher has arrived!

It has been to three different postcodes. Someone kindly opened it and sent it on to me.

Shall we try to go today or on Monday?

From: Iris

Subject: Re: Wigs, at last!

We can go this afternoon if you like call and see if they are open and I'll meet you in a few hours - I just got up, I have a sleep disorder haha

From: Canalily

Subject: Re: Wigs, at last!

Oh bugger. The wig makers are only in on Monday so I have to call then to make an appointment.

Before I can press send on this last one the phone rings... “Well, are we going to get the wig?”

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Everything I Know About Marketing and Distribution

Chemotherapy session number four. I came back from the hospital about two hours ago and I’m racing to get this piece done before I feel too ill to write.

Jamie picked me up from Harley Street with instructions to drive at top speed to Ottolenghi for rose and vanilla cupcake supplies. Then we drove straight home and ate them before I started gagging.

The nausea started mildly in the car but now it is becoming gross. I've already taken three different anti-sickness medications. I’m hungry but I can’t bear to eat anything more substantial than a grape. I feel dizzy. I have a headache. I’m only telling you all this so that you’ll know what a committed person I am, battling against adversity to bring you my blog.

Actually, writing helps to take my mind off how revolting I feel.

I made a radical decision today – not to wear the ice hat. My appointment with Suzy Cleator wasn’t until the end of the day so I couldn’t discuss it with her beforehand. I talked it over with the nurses, trying to weigh up the pros and cons:- It is so painful. It makes the chemotherapy session three hours longer than it would otherwise be. It looks ridiculous. And most of my hair has fallen out anyway.

On the other hand there is some hair clinging to my cranium. Maybe that is worth trying to save? And I still have most of my eyebrows and eyelashes, I definitely want to keep those.

The nurses tell me that, in order to administer the ice hat, they will have to apply barriers of wadding to the most moth-eaten-baldy patches on my head. This is done to avoid scalp burns. They also explain that the ice hat will do nothing to save my brows and lashes. Well that’s the clincher. Feeling comfortable with my decision, I settle into my Lazyboy recliner for a cosy session of hideously toxic but life-saving chemicals and chats with the lovely nurses.

I’m most cheered by the way that, every time I go into the chemotherapy unit, one or other of the nurses compliments me on my appearance. Then nurse Bess usually shouts out “She always looks great”. It is simply the ultimate cherry of flattery on my cake of vanity.

You occasionally read about psychotic-serial-killer nurses but I’ve yet to come across one who was not some sort of reincarnated angel. No matter how grim the personal circumstances of their day might be they invariably manage to put on a bright smile and find the generosity to put me first. They seldom bitch about rude and demanding patients who don’t even bother to remember their names. You hardly ever hear them moan about the shift work, having lunch breaks at four-o’clock in the afternoon, dealing with hazardous, toxic and just plain disgusting substances, commuting vast distances or working obscenely long hours for scant cash. The first inkling anyone gets that the situation is intolerable is when the nurses suddenly leave the profession that they’ve spent years training for.

Bess settles down at my side with her raspberry red syringes and tells me about her plans to start a fashion website when she goes home to Australia. “Eh, what about nursing?” “Oh I don’t want to do it anymore” she replies breezily. I am torn between wanting to encourage her in her venture yet wanting to discourage her from abandoning her vocation. I have to admit that, for a fashion-loving girl like Bess, the uniforms are a nightmare. But what about the rewarding sense of self-fulfilment?

On reflection, I realise that the whole of society relies on that sense of self-fulfilment – we don’t reward them in any tangible way. I pause for a minute. Would I be a nurse? No, I would not. I am just grateful that there enough young women, and some men, who are altruistic enough to pursue nursing whilst they are still resilient enough to enjoy life with nothing more than an oyster card, pot noodles and beer. And that a few of them have the tenacity to stick it out into the ancient reaches of 30-plus, going on to become ward sisters and whatnot.

“So, that sounds like a good idea. It’s quite ambitious. Have you thought about marketing and distribution. “ I say, hedging my bets. Luckily for me, Bess does not reply: “No, please tell me everything you know about marketing and distribution.” I quietly let the topic slide.

Later on Suzy Cleator looks at me across her high-end specialist’s desk in a kind yet pained sort of a way. She is, after all, my consultant. I’m aware that I’ve just changed my treatment plan without consulting her. “Oh well, I can always start the ice hat again next time” I blurt. “You will probably lose your remaining hair this week.” I do admire her matter-of-factness. This is not a situation where soft-soaping is required.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Let's Hope There is Smoke Without Fire

A well-meaning friend sends me a chain email. “Subject: Fwd: Passing the purple hat on to you.” After scrolling through a gazillion other people's email addresses I learn that this imparts the dying pearls of wisdom of a somewhat schmaltzy American woman, listing all the things she would or wouldn’t do if she had her life to live over again. For example: “I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage” and “I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.” Well I would never own a candle or a hairdo like either of those.

I was born contemptuous by nature and I generally despise chain emails. Yet at the same time I’m touched by the thoughtfulness of the person who sent it. It would seem churlish not to send it on to five other women, as requested. Let the hard-hearted amongst them admonish me if they will.

Within minutes I receive a reply.

From: Iris

Subject: Re: Fwd: Passing the purple hat on to you.

Oh Christ!

May calls. “I’m sitting in my car and there’s a man parked next to me. I think his car is on fire. There’s lots of black smoke coming out from under the front wheels. Do you think I should tell him?”

“Hmm, yes I do.”

“He’s so good looking. I don’t want to ruin his day. I don’t think I’ll tell him.”

“Don’t you think it will ruin his day when he drives off and his car bursts into flames?”

“Yes but it won’t be my fault.”

An attitude of gratitude is not my normal style. But I’m so grateful that May is not a doctor. I’m so grateful for so many things these days. If I allow it, this cancer ordeal is really showing me what there is to love in my life. Today I am free of nausea. The sky is blue and it’s a glorious 26º. Everyone is out, lounging on the corners, sauntering without purpose. I don’t have to work. I don’t have to do anything. I am totally free to enjoy living right now in this moment.

“Where are you? I’ll come and meet you.”

The weather is so warm and lovely. I want to feel the sun on my skin. I consider wearing a halter-neck dress for the first time since my surgery. The scars would be almost totally covered by the dress, yet I still feel too exposed. Maybe next week.

As I saunter without purpose I nod to the street-sweeper. The flower-shop man pops out to say hello. A crowd of jolly Moroccan idlers spill out from the café, drinking mint tea, smoking and laughing loudly. Teenagers happily obstruct the footpath with their bicycles as they snack on chips and kebabs outside George’s Fish Bar and throw the polystyrene boxes about with gay abandon. Everything is as it should be.

On Golborne Road I find May sitting in her car. She is wearing a pair of fluorescent yellow sandals. “Do you think these are tacky” she asks. “No May. I think they’re the most fabulous sandals I’ve ever seen.”

It seems that, despite my worst intentions, I have passed along the purple hat.

p.s. If you would like your own copy of the chain email "Passing the purple hat on to you" please email me and I will happily forward it.