“There is nowt so queer as folk!” And nowt so good at illustrating them as Quentin Blake.
The trouble is, I never really saw myself as an interesting or queer character. Au contraire. Coming as I did from a rather eccentric family, (I was middle child and eldest girl of seven, yes, SEVEN children) whose father was considerably shorter than her mother (and therefore the source of their own cartoons!) as a child I studiously avoided anything that could be interpreted as weird or queer. I was only too keen to either fit in with my present company, or make them laugh; preferably both. Well, in my cancer treatment, the whole bald, pallid and puffy thing definitely made the former a lot harder work. Fitting in involved more than usual amounts of time and energy and necessarily included weird things like eyebrow make-up, kindly bought me by my thoughtful sister-in-law. (I am not sure that I knew that such a thing existed – what would I have done instead, I wonder? Drawn them on, like a clown?!) Of course, the comic aspect came and went but what is most strange is that, even after five whole bald months later, I never ceased to be shocked by what I saw in the mirror; if one doesn’t look too often, one forgets what one looks like!
However, as I have already admitted, I was definitely in my stride in some ways, playing my rôle and being on a mission to “get through the treatment” (see previous chapter “F is for Fish”). Part of that mission was making sure that I looked as “normal” as possible, and I always assumed my best “I am fine” facial expression and body language, especially at the school gate. So much so, that on my first day back at the school gate after we had sent out the initial shocking round-robin email, I practically assaulted one dear friend with loud waves of gushing sympathy over her prolonged chesty cough! She just stared open-mouthed, poor thing! But what is the best way to greet someone the first time you meet after they have heard your news?…
I didn’t want long expressions of sympathy, and certainly didn’t want to make my friends feel awkward. For someone who has spent a lifetime trying to please people and win their approval, this was another cruel hurdle: my unavoidable health status made everyone around me distinctly uncomfortable and because it went everywhere I went, there was no getting away from it! It took all my strength to blow my cover. If it wasn’t for my sister who wisely counselled us to tell everyone as “we were going to need all the support we could get,” my own knee-jerk response was to keep quiet and carry on! That would have been much more my way of handling it. This way, by telling them, I was actually giving my nearest and dearest and small local community something unpleasant to face and then I had to handle their responses… all my nightmares rolled in to one! Fortunately, I had my old, faithful friend Denial, to fall back on. He came in very handy. I see now how profound were his effects on me; at the time, I mentally labelled and carried the whole sorry business as if it were nothing more than a most irritating but unavoidable dentist appointment. I was able to refer to it quite calmly and obtusely and always took great care to lessen the blow to others with phrases like, “Well, it is a bummer, but they say if you are going to get it, it is the one to get.” (Jamie noticed that I studiously avoided the word cancer and lightheartedly referred to “lumps” instead). The whole thing is even more bizarre when you realise that at the time, I actually felt fine and healthy. I was not in pain, I had not lost anything and I was charging around like a mad woman keeping a lot of balls up in the air. So, contrary to all that evidence, it was genuinely surreal to contemplate, let alone share, the looming horror.
Thankfully, by the time the chemicals had started to make their presence felt and visible, the mission to keep looking normal was helped because it was deepest winter. A big beanie pulled down hard to where your eyebrows may, or may not be, does not look out of place. Who is to know if you are bald or not, under a scarf or two and a huge, thick, floppy hat? As far as I was concerned, and this has never happened before or since, winter came in very good time and I was grateful for the opportunities for disguise. But for all my enjoyment of rôle play and dressing up, I was not queen of floppy hats. Oh no. That title went to another: allow me to introduce one of the great characters I was lucky enough to meet on this journey…
To enter the arsenic green (this is absolutely true, you couldn’t make it up, could you?) chemotherapy treatment room, part of the Oncology Department at The Horton Hospital, Banbury, was to literally step into the weird and wonderful world of Quentin Blake. Every form of head shape, colour and texture was represented, along with a whole theatrical wardrobe of attempts to disguise, hide or frankly draw attention to, said problem. Ranged around the room, in that awful backs-to-the-wall, doctors’ waiting-room manner, were the most colourful, varied and unlikely samples of humanity variously stuffed, propped and pinned into position. Here age, gender, colour, class, dress sense, size and hair status had no meaning what so ever. It was the most comprehensive, democratic and level playing field I have ever had the privilege of witnessing, before or since. But my favourite character de chemo, who never failed to cheer me up, was Lady de Bougainvillea, (obviously not her real name, but she did have a title, invited the entire oncology department to her “Hall” for Christmas drinks, and always conveyed a glorious blast of colour and vitality in her wake). Anyway, she faithfully sported a large, linen floppy “het,” whatever the weather (and this being the winter of 2012/13 it did involve plenty of snow), large of brim but small of crown and she always had a cheerful, if loud, word for her co-travellers. Her clothes too, were made of linen but had slightly less structure, so the impression was slightly nautical when she whooshed by. This sense was only increased when she had to snugly “dock” in one of those fit-for-purpose (not sure what that purpose is) plastic upright armchairs and “stow away” on board her latest consignment of almost lethal toxins. She did not suit being pinned down in harbour; she looked like she could do with a bright tail wind, a full complement of sail and plenty of sea to “go at”. However, she had that good, old, indomitable, Churchillian spirit; she had seen plenty of action but still made light of adversity. Rather wonderfully, she even had pet names for some of the more unpleasant treatments. This had a subtle, disarming effect, transforming these pathogens into something more akin to fondly tolerated, if doubly incontinent, old family dogs.
The first cocktail we imbibed was called FEC (no prizes for guessing the vernacular for that little baby), but though it took me down, it only did so properly for 2 or 3 days. In fact, after my first chemo session I was back at work a week later. Anyway, I was administered FEC three times; each dose followed by a three week interval. The second cocktail, Docetaxel, administered at the 4th, 5th and 6th chemotherapy sessions, was in another category all together. My first dose took me down for over a week. I could still feel it trickling down my veins like cold, heavy mercury, eight days later, making me have to kick my legs under the duvet to distract from the pain. It was the only time in the whole journey that it felt like I genuinely stared death in the face and I was so broken by then that I honestly welcomed it as an end to the suffering. Of course, I eventually recovered and wondered at the huge difference between my feelings on one day from the next and why I had had such morbid thoughts. However, it was bad enough that in the cold light of day, contemplating going through that same ghastly process two more times, that I asked Jamie to take pictures of the kids, getting them dressed up in the clothes of who they thought they were going to be when they were grown up – just to get me through it! (As it turned out, there was no need, my glorious oncologist lowered my dose by 20% and it was a complete breeze – and more importantly, we didn’t get to traumatise the children with the morbid request!) All this is a long way of saying that Docetaxel was my nemesis. But for the inimitable Lady de Bougainvillea, for someone of her metal and spirit, this particular medication was merely her “Dodgy Taxi,” possibly because it transported her to slightly less pleasant places! In short, my floppy-hatted hero strode ever so purposefully (just the way my old headmistress used to urge us school girls to walk) straight off the pages of Mr Magnolia: no doubt had she had two lovely sisters who played on the flute, some very fat owls who were learning to hoot and green parakeets who picked holes in her suit!
Somewhat less theatrically, Helen, my kind sister, (who rather wonderfully, does happen to play the flute) made me two cotton jersey beanies, in my top colours (tomato red and coral pink). However, these were not mere fashion accessories, nor indeed baldness disguises. In fact they were of paramount thermal value, because, when one is bald, one’s cotton pillowcase feels so cold it actually hurts! (Does this explain the mystery behind Wee Willie Winkie’s head gear and strange awol behaviour: was he, in fact, going through chemo?) Any way, I did enjoy the comic effect of waking up puffy and pink (thanks to the steroids), with jester-red beanie sitting jauntily off at an angle atop my shiny bald pâte… Jamie, my only audience at that time of day, did not find the look quite so amusing! Fortunately, Helen did have a jolly good cackle when she caught sight of me in such a state – one of the upsides of having a close sibling on hand at such times. For daywear, my lovely in-laws treated me (strange concept but true) to a very smart look-a-like wig which did not look as creepy as the cheaper ones do, and meant that I could brave work, the supermarket, high street or school gate and hope to blend in. (Which mostly worked, apart from just one occasion, when a sweet natured boy with “refreshing” honesty came up and enquired whether I was wearing a wig.) Heretofore, I had always enjoyed wearing a wig for comic or entertainment value, but sadly the daily necessity soon ground this aspect out of me. The posh wig was itchy and not well fitting despite its price tag, and definitely felt like some sort of imposed uniform; it had to be discarded as soon as I entered the sanctuary of our front door.
There was one time, however, that sticks out in all of our memories, when I shamelessly used the fact I was bald. It was during another chemo week, I forget which, but I was definitely rallying at last and therefore not completely comatose and horizontal. It had snowed again and while waiting for their bus, the children were having brilliant fun on the drive. It was the perfect place to scoop up clean, loose snow to make compact snowballs to launch at the odd car as it wheezed along the road at the end of the drive, at a snail’s pace. This was all jolly good fun, as it should be, with obliging drivers slowing down even more so that they could get one or two direct hits. Jolly good fun, that is, until Highway Maintenance Man crawls by in his van. One resounding, satisfying crack as a snowball hits his side panel and the three young Bells – plus friend – cheer from the drive. White Van Man literally stops his van in his tracks. Kids see him burst forth from his cab, slam the door, and start to storm over towards them, head down, kicking the deep snow out of his way. They stay just long enough to notice his shaved head, tight t-shirt and arm long tattoos. Never before or since, has Cressida, Tatiana or Zac managed to run the 50 yards to the back door of the house in under three seconds (I am assuming Emily also managed to keep up). I am upstairs in only my dressing gown and bright red beanie and I hear Zac shouting from the boot room about a scary man… simultaneously Scary Man reaches the front door and pounds on it like he is trying to smash it off its hinges. My heart leaps from the shock of the noisy assault on the door, the violent sound literally filling the house, and I take in what has happened. I blunder quickly down the stairs and head to the front door wondering where on earth this is heading… And then I remember my appearance and my unfortunate condition, and a small half-smile plays over my lips… I whip off the beanie, stuff it in my pocket and slowly, blinkingly, pink, puffy and baldly, ever so frailly, open the front door…
“Hello? Can I help you?” I whimper…
Scary Man visibly deflates as he takes in what emerges from behind the front door. He might even take a step back. Certainly, in all my years of performing, I don’t think I have ever made such a satisfying dramatic entry and am secretly thrilled with the effect I produce on the big muscle-building bully.
I gently de-fuse the bomb with lots of apologies and promises to keep my reckless children from repeating such life-threatening and unreasonable pastimes. He eventually turns tail and trudges off back to his van through the snow, at least partially mollified and perhaps I hope, even a little chastened.
(Not chastened at all, as it turned out; he vengefully and pathetically dumped all 4 children’s school bags in the ditch. My only regret is that I did not give him a jolly good flash of my finest, but as yet, still purply-blue and definitely on the car-wreck spectrum, oncoplasty chest work… With a bit of luck, it might have scarred him for life!)
But all this talk of snowballs, beanies and generally fun frolics reminds me of one more wig-related thing. And hopefully with this I’ll leave you with a better image than the one of me puffy-pink and simpering on the doorstep in just a brown dressing gown… In our house, we always have the Christmas tree in the hall. And very lovely it is to come home to; resplendent and glowing with warm golden fairy lights, beautiful decorations, and filling the air with festive pine fragrance. And so it was late one afternoon, coming home in the dark, itchy and tired after a day out, I opened the door to the glowing glorious welcome of a Victorian Christmas card – picture perfect – Christmas tree, and with happy relief stumbled across an unlikely but extremely handy use for the angel on top of the tree… (“It is of great importance,” so Gary the brilliant wig hairdresser at Selfridges had gravely told me, “that you hang your wig over something which holds its shape, rather than lie it down to crush or crease.”)