S is for Summer

Froth, Tails and TS Eliot

(The holy grail: searching for a remedy for Post Cow Parsley Syndrome)

I woke late on Friday (or should I truthfully say, even later) and when I pulled back my curtains, what should I discover hovering only a few feet away, but the most beautiful, handsome and magnificent barn owl? Having given me a long, greedy and admiring spectacle of him in graceful suspended flight, he then further obliged and dramatically plunged 20 feet down into the long flowering grass. Seconds later he re-emerged and perched (he must have been unsuccessful as his claws were empty), as if for photo opportunities, on one of the temporary sheep fence posts.

The long grass has now been cut (Mr B did a Ross Poldark on Saturday afternoon – fully clothed, I hasten to add, as well as wearing ear defenders and using a Stihl power tool! Mind you, having just folded up the washing, I now see why the original took off his shirt and used baby oil… clearly Ross knew only too well that once those damn hairy grass seeds get stuck in your shirt, it takes a heck of a lot of scratching and poking to waggle them out). So now the barn owl doesn’t need to hurl himself into the unknown, neither does Bramble need to walk on hind legs to catch a glimpse of us as we play hide and seek in the long grass. All of which is rather a shame, and which bring me to my theme…

The worst thing about June is that it is now proper summer – and if it is a damp – or in this case, a damp and hurricanous squib, then that…  is …  it, if you know what I mean. The great thing about April and May is that you know that it is all just starting; everywhere there is life and new growth, buds and birds, green of every hue and you know that the best is yet to come… In my mind, the floral emblem for this leap of nature, the very apotheosis of this is Anthriscus sylvestris: cow parsley to you and me. When you look out over the fields and see the margins laced with white froth, aaahhh! Oh to be in England in deed! I get this enormous Chekhovian surge of post-winter hope as I know that the glorious summer lies literally just round the corner, in fact, like the swallow, it has already arrived! Perhaps truthfully, the Chekhovian bit is just plain relief. Relief that you have made it through another long winter. A winter which we try to convince ourselves turns the corner after Christmas, but in reality trudges out through January, February and all of March. (Snowdrops are gorgeous but they are winter flowers and crocuses in my opinion are just a cruel tease). Here’s the thing: T S Eliot was wrong, April is not the cruellest month… a bad June is!

So, what to do now that the cow parsley – my absolute favourite wildflower by a country mile and also the very emblem of the English summer – is well and truly over?

I wonder if one can CBT oneself out of mourning and try to find a favourite wildflower for every month? That way you can roll with the seasons and celebrate with joy in every stage of the journey. That is the answer: find a flower with such impact and significance that one can look out on the wettest, windiest, greyest and coldest of even June days and still be cheered at its prospect, in the way that I was literally transported with delight by our neighbourly barn owl.

So I set out this morning, with Bramble, on a holy grail; searching for the answer to my Post Cow Parsley Syndrome. Like our well-thumbed copy of Search for Spot, I set out determined to find flower of the month…

Was it in the grass meadow? No!

Was it in the farmer’s field of beans? No!

Was in along the disused railway line? No!

Was it along the stream by the old mill? No!

Was it in the specially grown wild flower meadow? Well…

I did walk past an inordinate number of beautiful, delicate dog roses. Arching up through the flowering elder and other trees lurking in the hedgerows, it flowered from hip height all the way up to the top of the canopy. As I followed the river the different roses ranged from deepest pink to purest white. All fresh, delicate and pretty, like the softest, daintiest bunting, swagging its way along…

Nah!

It doesn’t work!

They don’t have presence. It’s the same with cranesbill, the wild geranium – such a beautiful find among the meadow grasses – it does make you say “wow!’ out loud, but it is not enough to make you stop in your tracks and drink in the scene, speechless and full of wonder. Not enough to make you long for it all year long…

One of my favourite writers, John Lewis-Stempel*, claims to have made peace with the seasons. It is probably a little drastic, but here is how he did it. He decided to only eat and drink what he found or grew on his farm or in the surrounding countryside. Here smugly, is where his journey led him:

Usually I find midsummer, to borrow Vita Sackville-West’s phrase, a “small despair,” because from this day forth the darkness begins to grow more lengthy each and every day. But not this year. If one has fed oneself by the seasons – admittedly with a little help from one’s relatives, from careless drivers and from one visit to Waitrose – then one knows the rhythm of natural life, and that the truth of natural life is both mundane and joyous.

The darkness comes.

It goes.

And that is it.

Well, bully for him! Not sure how that helps me, nor indeed if I really believe him. Perhaps the nearest I have got to that is feeling a whiff of relief last year that the days were getting slightly shorter, or rather that dawn didn’t happen quite so alarmingly early. We had old curtains up at our bedroom windows which were so old that the lining had rotted through and they were letting in the light – the dawn light – which came blasting in at whatever scary time before 5. This, plus tamoxifen insomnia, combined with an overwhelming sense of not-keeping-up-with-the-garden nor indeed the rest of life, left me completely wiped out by the time we got to July. And so, for the first time ever, I was not altogether alarmed at the prospect of slightly later mornings. BUT, hey! This year I am prepared: I have belts and braces; thicker new blackout curtains, eye shades and an SOS text to a local gardener; so bring on the sunshine, the long days, the flowers, and especially the sunshine!

No, John Lewis-Stempel can eat his wildlife heart out. I know that in all honestly, I am not going to take up hedgerow cuisine, (while youngest child would love to shoot and catch for the table, indeed, by way of boosting finances and reducing vermin and pests, he is already on that particular mission, but after the fun of skin-a-rabbit, the barbecued cadaver was not up to snuff and the only other mouth it fed was Bramble’s), anyway, this part of Oxfordshire only does rabbits, deer and pheasant – with a bit of badger road kill – and you can’t dollop those on your pasta penne, can you? No, even given my love of hedgerow floral scrumping, with all its glorious seasonal variety, I have yet to find a genuine solution for my PCPS.

My sister, often a good source of diverting anecdotes, is equally, if not more, seasonally affected, and she has done not a little R & D around the subject. Most notable of which was her curious behaviour / survival tactics on returning to her then home in south-east London after her 2 weeks’ holiday in the south of France. She was so undone by hitting the end of summer, that she went out, bought a tray of bright pink cyclamen, filled a bowl with them for each room, brought in the log basket, lit the fire, drew the curtains and holed-up to wait for Christmas.

“Embrace the winter!” was her clarion call. “You can’t fight it, you have to go with it!” she yelled down the phone with evangelical zeal.

“OK girl!” I replied feebly. “That’s brave – hitting it head on! But aren’t you a tad premature? It’s only the first week of September!”

 

More recently, probably due to the fact that her son is no longer a toddler and can therefore open the curtains, said sister purchased a special S.A.D. lamp from John Lewis (no relation to my author) and while it definitely helped her get out of bed in February and March I am not sure it sorts out the PCPS! Still, I am not sure that she is as bothered by hay cutting, nor the passing of cow parsley as I am. She is too busy hoeing weeds on her cut flower patch. She shares her allotment with some classic neighbours who themselves are a rich vein waiting to be tapped. Cock-fight-John has a diverse collection of lean-to’s, huts and sheds, in at least one of which are some chickens which look like they have just heard someone ring the bell. On the other side, OCD-Reg (more kindly known as Reg the Veg) has such immaculate rows of veg, so tall and utterly weed free, that you wonder if there are other powers at work on his plot. But Reg does serve up a very welcome and down-to-earth cup of tea and digestive biscuit. While his patch is intimidating, his words are encouraging and few, “Never give up!” he calls from the depth of his very tidy lines.

My smug and indulgent SOS text to a local gardener has not been replied to, so I am heading out into the buffeting cold winds, armed with secateurs, loppers, ladder and twine, to take on my herculean task: subduing 2 particularly “vigorous” roses. A word of wisdom: do not grow “Rosa A Generous Gardener” (real name) on anything smaller than a church tower. Our nice polite pergola is so dwarfed by the roses that it looks about as useful as the 18 inch stonehenge in Spinal Tap. In our 40 mile-an-hour winds, my artful tying up and green twine have been rendered completely pointless and the 12-15 feet triffid rose bracts are flapping and swaying about violently; randomly seeking to flail anyone or anything stupid enough to walk in striking distance. So far, the gentle clematis, the gorgeous luminous delphiniums (record height this year) and the trusty beech hedge have been mercilessly attacked. I am going out now. I may be some time.

 

*Lewis-Stempel, John, The Wild Life – A year of living on wild food

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J is for January / S is for Skylark!

It is the last day of January and I haven’t written since before C is for Christmas!

B is for Bother! Oh dear – what to do?

It is no coincidence that a new year has brought changes. I have to fess up. The truth is, that I found myself writing almost “to order” (I know: I had barely got out of the starter’s blocks) and when I caught myself bashing out this rather tidy, trite piece, I threw down my pen in disgust. What I had so enjoyed in rediscovering my voice, I then began to lose because I was spending so long in polishing and packaging it for the reader. I lost sight of the reason for writing in the first place. In a sense, the important healing work was done long before I posted anything. I had enjoyed about 6 weeks of bashing out text from the heart – it was like unstopping a spring and I was literally euphoric. Friends couldn’t believe the change in me. But once it was mostly out on the page, the catharsis drew to a close and I had a sense that it was time to move on.

I want to keep this real and honest, I do not want to keep writing around a subject that currently does not still grip me. It might have changed me and the way I see things, but my soul is not full of the cancer journey; I would rather write from the heart, than keep plodding on to complete all 26 letters of the alphabet from duty. (Needless to say, if any literary agent out there comes up with an agreeable package, I might be persuaded to finish it)! Instead, in the meantime, I find myself reading, watching and thinking about the stuff that I have always been captivated by; nature and sometimes, a little bit of design.

I woke up the other day and realised that all the books on my bedside are to do with either gardens, garden design or nature or lives steeped in any or all of the above. And I thought back to conversations in my childhood and youth and realised that it was always thus. I have clear memories of talking to friends while I marvelled at what the clouds were doing, or how a particular tree could lift my spirits and being surprised to find out that these had no effect on them whatsoever! Anyway, it so happened that the very same day my dear sister popped round (not an amazing act of divine intervention, I hasten to add, she lives 10 minutes away and is always popping in) and asked me if I had written anything yet. I told her that I would rather write about “B is for Bringing in the Bulbs” (to replace the Christmas decs)! than carry on with the “C if for Cancer”, but that I also felt duty bound to plod on with it. Largely this due to an overweening sense of duty, a weird, obsessive need to finish something I have started. Also, tragically, it is partly predicated on the basis that I have mentioned here before: namely that my CV looks like a bad day in the old BHS pick ‘n’ mix and I am terrified of talking about and starting yet another idea and not bringing it through to fruition. I am embarrassed and mortified at the thought that I might be, as it turns out, one of those of our species whom I find particularly hard to respect: that is, a “chat merchant”. And as I had mentioned to friends that in my head was this book, “A is for Apple” made up of 26 chapters of inspiring, surprising and funny things that no one told you about cancer, in a desperate need to justify myself I felt I ought to plough on and finish the bally thing… Anyway, I am sure you get the point. I am now repeating myself. Sorry.

What is interesting was that Helen then said that only that morning she wished someone wrote a collection of seasonal nature sketches or reflections, as she was much more likely to read that at the moment than she was anything else! A bit more chat ensued and she confessed that my writing had become a bit more, well, formulaic and frankly, dull. It was too tidy and not from the gut. “Sorry,” she said, “you probably need feedback like a hole in the head!”

Then last week we met up with some dear friends, and likewise, when I fessed up to not having written yet this year and my perceived dilemma, Nicola then piped up (and I love her for this – she is more concerned with being truthful than liked) and agreed rather promptly with Helen!

Right, well if my sister and a dear, loyal friend think that, then who am I to hesitate?

And so now I shall tell you what little gems were strewn on my path today to give me the final kick up the rear to do this thing…

The first is a frankly cheesy little nugget that my eldest daughter had written on a piece of kitchen towel in her lovely calligraphy – here goes:

There is freedom for you, waiting in the breezes of the sky;

You say, “What if I fall?”

I say, “What if you fly?”

Well, I did warn you.

Then the other thing that happened was on my walk with our dog, Bramble. Having waiting as long as I could, trying to avoid the persistent rain, we ventured out into the field and squelched our way round the meadow. The pregnant ewes were tidily gathered at one end eating the nuts that Farmer Fred had drizzled out for them. This gave us, and particularly Bramble, most of the space to stretch her legs… And what was took me completely by surprise on such a day, and at such a time of year, was to be loudly greeted by the song of more than one skylark. Oh my word! How can they, on such a day, lift up from their soggy “nest” and ascend in this thick low cloud, all the while pouring out song as if their hearts and lungs would burst? I was shocked, then moved (hearing skylarks always moves me), and then I saw by way of contrast, my own fear and poverty of spirit.

Well if they can do it then it is about time I gave it another bash… time for another attempt at lift off… and so here we are.

I have just looked up George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. It is the poem that inspired Vaughan Williams’ piece of the same name. It is glorious, but it is also too long to quote here… having said that, I cannot refrain from quoting a few corkers from it:

For singing till his heaven fills,

“’T is love of earth that he instils,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup,

And he the wine which overflows

To lift us with him as he goes”…

…”He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;

The wedding song of sun and rains

He is, the dance of children, thanks

Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,

And eye of violets while they breathe;

All these the circling song will wreathe” …

Somehow, he captures the heady exhilaration of the song – to hear skylarks is to drink pure sunlight. You can’t tell what senses are being stirred: is it your heart, your memory, your spirit, all three? Well that’s what it does for me… And I don’t think I have ever heard them in the rain before. We have always had them here but I only recall hearing them when the skies are clear and also only from early spring to end of autumn. What a treat!

Rather wonderfully, if you track down the poem to the same website as me, you will also be thrilled to find a link to help you with your dodgy knees. I didn’t know that surfing the web or reading poetry was such a physically demanding activity, but there you have it.

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If you are not lucky enough to have skylarks singing outside your back door, the thing to do in January is to pot up bulbs: some to give away and some to keep. I have to say that even after many years of doing this (always after my post-Christmas clear out), I still have mixed results: sometimes the bulbs grow tall and leggy as if reaching for the sun, sometimes they barely have any stem and poke their heads out of the soil, with no neck!

But it doesn’t matter.

The best bit is seeing the buds appear, however high or low, full of promise of scent and colour and life, surrounded by the freshest pulled moss – all frothy and green and spring-like. I also poke in pretty winter stems between the bulbs – to give a framework to support them if they have a leggy tendency, but also to have something to look at while they emerge.

Just because of what I can scrump around here I tend to use the pretty pussy willow sticks with fluffy white buds, or hazel twigs with promising dangly flowers – these look fab when you cut them in the young pale stage and then really annoyingly, they elongate and drop clouds of yellow pollen. Every year I tell myself not to use them but every year I succumb… and then a week later regret it! Doh!

Finally, and I should have said this at the beginning, I always cheat.

Obviously. Who has success with bags of bulbs in dark cupboards? In the dim and distant past I was naive enough to try this, but was sabotaged by three very persistent enemies: woolly memory (I either forgot where I had put them or indeed that I had put them anywhere), mice and shrews (favourite winter snack is a stash of flower bulbs kept in mint condition in a brown paper bag in a handy, dark, undisturbed but accessible corner) and finally, mould, which quite often you find you have thrown in for free by the vendor! So now I buy my bulbs in the green – with clear and present shoots already up and at it – almost always from Steve our local market florist. On a good day, Steve will sell me 2 pots with 3 hyacinth bulbs in each for £5.00. I then either divide them up and put them in individual cups or glasses for the bedrooms or gifts, or stash them together in one large, indulgent bowl for the kitchen table. I buy loads of different bulbs: narcissi, hyacinth or mascari and store them outside in a sheltered spot by the back door. I then pot them up and bring them in as I have “need” or fancy!

Also, while I am on my January riff, finding alternative bulb containers is a whole new source of excitement, innovation and joy. Raiding charity shops at this time of year is always a good hobby, even if the irony of bringing stuff back into the house, from the very location where you have smugly deposited three full bin liners, completely eludes you! My recent such acquisition is a copper whisking bowl, which is looking glorious with its frothy family of white hyacinth. And, if I am letting you have ALL my family secrets, then muscari – those pretty little blue grape hyacinth bulbs – look absolutely delicate and charming in the pale blue glasses that we bought in IKEA just over a year ago. What is so pleasing is that these glasses have a low “waist” just where you can, and must, tie round a pretty ribbon – January bliss!

Tips on how to pot up bulbs:

If you are putting them in glass, wash the soil from the roots and stand them over clean washed gravel in the base of the glass. If you are putting them in a ceramic or metal planter of some kind, still put a layer of gravel in the base then shake the potting compost from them over the top to re-sit the roots in. Whatever the nature of your container, pull up moss from the soggy shady corners of your garden and push around the bulbs. Spritz with water from an old window cleaner bottle that you have thoroughly washed and re-washed. This keeps the moss looking lush and fresh. Occasionally you might need to run under a v gentle tap then carefully tip out excess water.

NB: Bulbs, just like cut flowers, will last a lot longer if your room is cool. (This is not a positive attribute in our house. Now that Mr B has found a local and relentless supply of firewood, the wood-burning stove is always lit, and so roughly from November to April, we find ourselves by the end of the evening, not too infrequently, walking around in our undies)!

And on that note, may I wish you a very Happy New Year!

PS I can promise that the next post will NOT be this long. I was going to leave this one at the Lark, but felt I ought to include the bulbs!

R is for Radiotherapy

The NHS is truly weird and wonderful. I often came away from consultations genuinely moved. Yes, they were going to, in their words, “throw everything – including the kitchen sink” at me, but how uncompromising, professional and determined they were while throwing it! How amazing that these complete strangers were so committed to keeping me, just another woman on their list, alive and well, and in my surgeon’s case, looking good too! They held extra long multi-disciplinary meetings in my honour, to check and cross check that they were doing the best for me they could. The surgeon wanted me to be spared radiotherapy as she knew it would adversely affect my reconstruction. The radiologists wanted to fry me within an inch of my life. I never heard what the chemotherapy lot said, but they clearly recommended the “full English breakfast”. Round and round they went. In the end, the radiologists won. But I am getting ahead of myself. What I find so extraordinary is that one day you can come away from the NHS feeling like a princess – so concerned are they with your welfare and long term existence, but on other days you can come away feeling, as my friend Ant Wilson puts it in his book Love for Now, “more like a pork chop”.

The oncology team at Banbury were amazing. Part of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, they provide all of its expertise and some of its treatment more locally to those of us nearer Banbury. The parking is easier, waiting times shorter and sense of belonging and being known, exponentially superior. It was one of life’s oxymorons; you came away from a half day’s chemo feeling privileged and cared for! I can heartily recommend the welcome and treatment, even the tea and coffee is superior there – it is bought by the medical team and they share it with the patients. The little fridge has home made cakes, brownies and biscuits in it, brought in by thankful patients. It should come top of the TripAdvisor list of Top 10 things to do in Banbury. How is that possible when you are sitting in an arsenic green room, on plastic, fit-for-purpose armchairs, being pumped full of poisons so toxic and corrosive even the cloths used to catch the drips have to be carefully disposed of in special hazardous waste containers? In fact, did you know, that the chemicals are so dangerous that they cannot administer them orally or into a blood vessel; oh no, they have to administer them to where the pressure and flow of blood is greatest so as to immediately dilute and distribute them – just outside your heart. If they were to put them into your arm, for instance, the blood vessels there would be destroyed. And that is why they put in a PICC line – a peripherally inserted central catheter. That little procedure gave me my chance to savour the ambience at a large city teaching hospital…

My post-op recovery had taken place at the civilised “Laura Ashley” ward as we called it. It was partly paid for by a very grateful member of the Ashley family, with the express purpose of giving women a more womanly environment in which to recover or be consulted in. It was part of the spanking new Churchill Hospital, which even had a grand piano in the foyer. On reflection, this seems an unlikely place for a piano, grand or otherwise, but clearly the designer was thinking shopping mall meets hotel foyer and plonked a grand piano down to fill an awkward empty corner. Amazingly, it was actually played while I was an incumbent and my sister is a witness, because together we had shuffled down there for the sheer excitement of getting me off the ward and possibly even finding an almost proper coffee… I say “played,” but that might be stretching the term a bit far. The overall effect was almost comic – you couldn’t have picked something more old people’s home-y if you had tried. But it was at least causing something of a frisson among the inmates and for that we were as grateful as any promenader at the proms! The pianist built up gently through his repertoire, and by the time Helen and I had bought our coffees and found two free seats he had reached his undeniable climax: “Heaven! … I’m in heaven!” crooned the man.

“What?” I said loudly. “I do hope not! If this is heaven, I want my money back!”

But I digress. Playlists aside, the ambience at the Churchill is definitely upbeat, can-do and positive. Up on the Laura Ashley ward the black cherry yoghurt walls with pink accent melamine trims were definitely aiming at womanly recovery mode. (Rumour was it was being taken over by the urology department, which slightly makes the mind boggle, let’s not go there!) However, in The John Radcliffe (known to locals as The JR – nothing to do with Dallas or oil rigs), the oncology department, poor thing, had no time for such fripperies as black cherry walls, pink trims and certainly not pianos. Ambience was a luxury it could not afford. My memory may be playing tricks with me but ironically, I do recall playing musical chairs – without the music, of course – sitting in gloomy corridors, shuffling up the line, to where we assumed was our final destiny. We had no idea what or whom we were waiting for: a bell, a summons, a nurse? A lunch trolley would have been nice, a specialist who knew our name would have been ideal. But no, we – I say we, Jamie was there and lots of other people, but the gloom was so all pervasive I don’t recall actually being able to speak – we sat there merely hoping that this was the right queue for the right treatment. In fact, it reminded me of Dickens’ descriptions of being lost interminably in Chancery. There was an illusion of progress as I seem to remember that we actually moved chairs in one direction up a corridor. But then, as it turned a corner and seemed to go back down another one, we began to wonder if we had erred in our ways like lost sheep… Perhaps we had slipped through a transatlantic portal, and had ended up waiting with other canon fodder in the queue to get through customs at JFK airport – which is the closest match in terms of welcome or ambience. Anyway, there we were, for all we knew waiting for Godot, when all was revealed and we were finally summoned to enter The Final Portal, the end of our journey and the great chamber itself… Along one wall was a bank of windows, but it must have been raining or foggy, because still the gloom persisted. All around the room, (for which you must imagine old school sports hall), through the half light I saw slumped, half-conscious, half naked bodies, plugged into contraptions at the crook of the arm and painfully avoiding eye contact with anyone else. I can’t remember if they were on beds or on plastic armchairs, that level of detail was lost on me. It felt like we had stumbled into an East German prison circa 1970, and there was not even a fire exit sign to illumine the gloom.

Fortunately, things picked up from there because a brilliant nurse appeared in a flash of light and waved her wand and the colour flooded back to my vision. Her task, was to get two and a half feet of fine plastic tube (about the diameter of an old-fashioned shoe lace) into and then up my arm, over my shoulder and back down my main artery to just outside my heart. If it took a wrong turn at my neck it would go up and poke my brain, something thankfully she was keen to avoid at this stage. The only way she could tell if she had taken a left turn and not a right turn was by sending me off on yet another surreal paper chase up gloomy corridors, round dark bends and through yet more portals to be X-rayed and hence get an actual image of the bally tube and where it had ended up.

But I get ahead of myself. Do you know how difficult it is to get a shoe lace into my skinny arm? One of the ironies of this whole journey was how much worse it is for you if you are slim. Had I been large, so would have my blood vessels been and the PICC line would have sailed up no problem. Instead, I was literally bruised from my shoulder down to my wrist and black and sore for a week. In the same way, my surgeon informed me that my surgery would have been a lot more straightforward had I had a decent pair of baps and a proper flabby tummy to pinch at least a handful of transferable flesh. Well, had my nurse not been an expert and indeed, trainer of other nurses in this procedure, I do not know what would have happened. It took her 3 concerted efforts to get it in and up. I think in extremis, they put a line into the chest. Anyway, she was finally successful and the Xray showed a line down by my heart and not tickling my brain. She told me on no account to let any one touch the port unless they had fully scrubbed and gloved. Common sense, really, but more than once a member of the medical profession tried to give it a go! My other top tip, should you dear reader ever have a plastic line dangling from just above the inside of your elbow, is to cut the toes off a cheerful new pair of socks, pull it up over the elbow of your punctured limb, and tuck the flapping plastic line in to your new arm warmer. Somehow, a bright stripy band is preferable to tape and a coiled plastic tube sticking out. It also feels like one more layer of defence. Hey ho! But for all the drama and stygian gloom, that particular sojourn at the JR was not the pork chop experience I referred to earlier; that was merely a kebab kind of skewering. The trouble is that on my journey, Radiotherapy came after Chemotherapy. And as I have already described, the chemotherapy team treat your time with them like a half day spa experience…

You are made to feel welcome with a drink of your choice, and so is your partner, or whoever came with you. Nothing is hurried. You are called by your name. Somehow, all members of the small team seem to know you without you having to run through your grim particulars. You choose a chair – do you want to look at blank wall, other patients going through the same thing or out of the window? Two nurses run through your prescription with you to make sure that they have got the right one (yes, wrong chemo has been administered in the past – with deadly consequences). You have been discreetly weighed so that you receive the correct amount of substance… and then, once you are sitting comfortably, with pillows for back and arm all plumped around you, only then do they hook you up to your cocktail of choice. This is no wham bam thank you ma’am encounter; it can take anything up to 3 hours to coax that lurid stuff slowly and lovingly in to your system. In short, apart from the fact that they are gently squeezing poison up your arm and that you are not wearing a white towelling dressing gown, you really could be at a spa.

Not so with Radiotherapy. The waiting room was small but very full. The ante chamber was large and spaceship like. The experience was brief, to the point, and distinctly functional. I was shown, rather bizarrely a discreet curtained corner to undress, but then had to walk at least 10 paces across the large theatre, topless, to the waiting grill / trolley. From nowhere, a small army of technicians appeared, like the back row of the local rugby team, to strap me down into position. Men and women, young and old, I couldn’t think why there were so many of them. Were they expecting me to make trouble? Had I walked up the wrong corridor and found myself in an illegal and experimental department, normally the preserve of lab rats and society’s undesirables?! But this was clearly not the space to crack any sort of joke. In fact, it was better not to make any attempt at communication at all. They were highly efficient and it was all very serious. It seemed to take 4 or 5 of them to get me horizontal and lying exactly where and how they wanted me to. They were utterly focussed on where my right boob had been, in the sort of way you would be if you were wanting to open a window but for the life of you could not see a handle where there should have been one. Slight adjustments, minute pulls and pushes, all millimetre perfect thank goodness, but utterly unaware that there was a person attached to the fry zone. In any case, eye contact was not something they included in the service, nor was small talk. They all left the room without a word, apart from one warmer-hearted soul, who told me not to move, nay, preferably don’t even breathe. A short click and they all returned to move me into a second position, click, repeat, then a third click. I was then unstrapped and silently escorted over to my changing corner. It was all over very quickly and then I drove for an hour back home – half an hour quicker than the journey in… only to come back for the same time, same place the next day, and the next and the next, for 5 weeks. Did you know, that this is such a precise art that they literally beg you not to change your eating habits. In the one or two conversations that eventually broke the silence, this was repeatedly urged upon me. Also, and this came as a bonus ball, you might go in for cancer treatment and come out minus one boob but you also get given three tattoos! Like a piece of packaging that needs a digital tag, I had my left side, my right side and my middle marked with a spot. Possibly to help the team determine which side was up, or which side could be spoken to under extraneous circumstances.

Very occasionally, a member of the team did fire off into the air a random question. It was so rare, out of context, and frankly by now unexpected that I didn’t know it was aimed at me. “Planning anything fun for the weekend?” Or, “Did you struggle to find a parking space?” I even had “Your hair is growing back quickly!” I can only imagine that one of the younger members of the team had been put through a client-centred awareness course – or something of that nature. Perhaps word had got back to the department from one of the many performance questionnaires I had to fill in, that somehow it’s people skills were not up to EU directives and they needed to start treating the patient as a whole person… but they were still figuring out how to do it. I did eventually have one or two actually quite normal encounters with members of the radiology department and at the end they were at great pains to equip me to cope with the burns that ensued. I was lucky. My skin healed quickly and didn’t burn too much. I used a French burns cream given me by a friend plus ice cooling patches for a week or two after the treatment had finished – especially when I got hot at night, but other than that, I don’t remember having any really serious discomfort. I seem to remember I didn’t take hot showers for a while and seat belts were not great either, but that is all I recall.

Is it unfair of me to criticise the department when they were all so focussed on saving my life? Perhaps, but I do think they could learn a few lessons about humanity. They were a very finely tuned apparatus – brilliantly and efficiently working like a well-oiled machine to fry us to within an inch of well, more cancer (a side effect of radiotherapy!) But for all the precision and precaution to nuke any cancerous cells while keeping the rest not too unhealthy, in their mission and focus, they had lost sight of the person they were trying to protect. The person was totally obscured by the programme. There really was something profoundly de-humanizing in that repetative, daily practice, of turning up at a certain time, queueing, stripping off and being man-handled onto the bed, shuffled around and then unceremoniously dismissed, often without any attempt at appropriate human contact. I think they should all spend a week in any half decent hairdresser’s, where the skill of human contact, while also doing a tricky focussed task, is polished to perfection.

Mind you, to be fair to radiology, now I think about it, I often put programme before person – my kids will bear witness to that – probably on a daily basis! So even something as simple as cooking: while on task to feed them, I often ignore them. And when it comes to doing chores they never want to do them with me, and would always rather do them with Jamie – oops! I think when I am doing a chore I do it as if I am on a mission until it is done. Jamie is always much more cheerful and relaxed while he is busy, so not surprisingly, he is more fun to do the job with! Hmmmmm! Sounds like I could do with a week of work experience down at the local hairdresser’s…

I read somewhere that in the liberation of (I think it was) Dachau, Western allies were asked to send provisions for the prisoners. According to some survivors, probably the most rehabilitating and life-affirming item that arrived was, wait for it…  lipstick! Surreal, surprising, bonkers and totally superfluous, and all the more powerful for it. It seems that if only your most basic animal needs are met, an animal is exactly what you end up feeling like. (Please don’t misunderstand me here: I am not comparing radiotherapy or distracted parenting to the concentration camps, but they do have something in common – in varying degrees  and for different reasons – they dishonour and diminish the whole person). A bit of an extreme example, but I think there’s a lesson for us all there!

Finally, to end on a chirpy, Advent note: a friend runs the local CAP office and they are putting together Christmas hampers for their clients (anybody who is trapped in poverty, debt and their causes). “I think we will leave out the baked beans this time,” she said, with a grin while addressing a whole group of us, “and aim for something a bit luxurious and special!” Exactly!

In fact, what they are doing and how they are going about it, seems to me the very embodiment of the true Christmas spirit.

P is for Perspective

I see that tonight on BBC1 at 8.30, is the film Damilola, Our Loved Boy. Playwright Levi David Addai has written this TV drama to show the truth behind the sensational headlines that shocked the nation 16 years ago; the bright, 10 year old boy coming home from computer club who was stabbed and died alone in a dirty stairwell in South London. When asked in the interview what he hopes to achieve with the drama, Addai responded: “I hope it does the family justice, because when everyone else moves on, they are the ones who are left.”

Similarly, this coming Sunday is Remembrance Sunday. In the act of honouring those who gave their lives in either of the world wars or conflicts since then, we rightly say, “We will remember them.” Well, let us also remember and honour those who were closest to them, who lost them and who were or are still left, and who have to go on shouldering the loss…

Which brings me to the subject of the week – Perspective. They are my new perspective: friends and neighbours “who are left”. I hope they do not mind me mentioning them in this context. I hope that, because they are living, breathing, flesh and blood, they do not feel reduced in any way by playing this rôle in my life. But it is true; in addition to everything else that they are and do, they do provide me with my ultimate perspective.

I have done a lot of mulling on this notion of perspective, believe me. And where I have got to is this: much, if not all, of perspective derives from comparison. “But comparison is the thief of joy!” my 13 year old son enjoys warning me, “beware the chasm of comparison!” And rightly so – often unfavourable comparison does steal what joy one could have. But, what if the comparison renders one enormously grateful? Could there be occasions when comparison becomes if not the giver of joy, then at least the protector of it?

For example, I am genuinely grateful that there were 3 other beds in my post-op ward, because the inhabitants of those beds, even if they never moved or spoke to me, were an endless source of very positive (from where I was lying, obviously) perspective. One dear woman’s predicament nearly broke my heart. She had no one to be there for her when she “came round” because her father was in another hospital having suffered a stroke, her mother was no longer alive, and her “partner” of 10 years or more had buggered off when she got her diagnosis. She had to endure a full hysterectomy and there was no one there to cheer her on as she recovered. The rest of us all did our best from our prone and plugged-in positions to spread the love and share our little hoards of goodies with her – via the no-nonsense nurse, who did at least have the use of legs and limbs if not vast wells of sympathy or compassion – it was quite moving actually. In that instant, I was struck how my normal – having a husband who cared for me and actually wanted to be there during and after the operation – was such a privilege, and clearly not one that I should be taking for granted.

On another occasion, the woman in the opposite corner bed, was a little hard of hearing, so in a scene which even the writers of Carry on Doctor would have been hard pushed to write, the senior registrar took the brilliant precaution of drawing the paper curtains… Only then did she proceed to enquire, at the top of her voice, about the particulars of the patient’s sex life, and more specifically, whether she would miss her vagina, as coincidentally, they had had to take most of that out too, while they were in there removing all her other tackle. Well, let me not embarrass us all by drawing out the implications, but let’s just say, I found a whole new source of appreciation which had heretofore been taken for granted!

At this point I am just itching to share my favourite quote on the subject, which is nothing if not flippant, but nonetheless has come in very handy in our family, even in the most tragic and pressing circumstances… It is one of many great moments in the “rockumentary” film, Spinal Tap (a firm favourite) and occurs when the band is visiting Graceland. They are all standing around Elvis’ tomb, trying to harmonise, with devastating effect, (one of them quips,“in the same key, I think!”). Then they give up and get all philosophical and one of them says, pointing at the headstone, “That’s a bit of perspective.” They all nod in agreement and then pause for thought until another pipes up and says, “Well, yeah! Too much ****ing perspective!” It has now become a family catch phrase, amazingly (given my colourful language – the deterioration of which is itself worthy of a whole chapter) and fortunately (given the frequency with which it is quoted and the genteel nature of many of the hearers), without the fruity adjective. In fact, “Too Much Perspective” might be a better title for this blog.

Anyway, I digress. Back to my perspective on the post-op ward… More recently, recovering from my second mastectomy and while still floating around somewhere just below the ceiling (two tramadol as it turns out, is at least one too many, in addition to my intravenous opiate!), I heard a certain gentleman, masquerading as a member of the surgical team, telling the woman hiding behind the curtains in the bed next to mine, that they had just removed both her ovaries and her womb. When she gasped in surprise and horror, he just said, “Well, we had to. It is something you will come to terms with. There’s no point in getting worked up about it. OK. One of the team will see you tomorrow.” Or words and sentiments to that effect. And with that he turned tail and marched off. Even in my otherworldly state, I knew that this was not an adequate surgery de-brief. Had I not had the mental capacity of a goldfish, I would have thought to call after him, and see that he at least faced disciplinary proceedings. As it was, all I could do was to literally pull myself together/down from the ceiling and with great concentration of effort call for the nurse and ask her to look in on the woman in the next bed, who I thought might be a bit upset.

By way of contrast, a good friend happened to be in hospital at the same time as me, and being a private patient was therefore very much alone in her room… but far from this being a privilege or beneficial, in her case, I actually think she was deprived of these strange encouragements and therefore had all day to contemplate only her own misfortune!

And so you see, I think there is a case to be made for perspective, or favourable comparison, if one is left feeling sincerely grateful!

But these are historic examples of perspective and with time I have come to see the comedy amongst the tragedy, and they are not the full breadth of my vision. I must also include a more contemporary perspective; the friends and neighbours I see on a regular basis, “who are left” or are having a much longer, harder and more painful journey than me.

One such is Norman*, who runs a shop locally and has 2 daughters. His gentle, kind, and wise wife underwent cancer treatment for over 5 years. Hers started well before mine and continued long after mine had finished. But Polly* is no longer with us, or rather, more to the point, with Norman and their daughters. They are the ones who are left. When I see him as I drive through the town I always come to a sort of full stop. I feel gagged all over again. I feel as if I have no right to say anything on any subject (least of all this one) to anyone. And therein lies the tension. In some ways I feel compelled to write about the stuff that this journey has thrown up.  Especially, I hope that in some small way it will be a help or a comfort for others going through it; even just a flicker of recognition for a reader so that they do not feel so alone on such a tough journey, would make me happy. I want people to know that you can live life while facing cruel uncertainty, that you can laugh as well as cry; love and be loved…  and that life doesn’t necessarily stop when it comes into much sharper focus. I am at pains to show that there are even good, precious things to be found on this journey that are so much harder to find if you are on an easier path. But then, in the face of someone who has actually lost someone, I sort of screech to a halt and all my recollections, memories, laughs and tears seem to literally pale into insignificance. I feel guilty even, of trivialising and belittling a deadly (literally) serious subject, the final chapter of which I have not yet had to face. And I feel guilty for surviving. I have no business going into their shop, turning up like a bad penny, buying presents, being cheerful, frankly, just being, when Polly cannot even be here at all. In my head I become a symbol of unfairness; a physical representation of what Norman has lost but others have not. And then I see the elder daughter coming home from school, growing into a young woman now, and more of the consequences of her loss begin to dawn on me and gnaw away at me: I want her to be going home to a mum who asks after her day, who tells her how pretty she is looking and who helps her choose clothes or make-up on a Saturday morning. But I am absolutely powerless to help her in her journey. My story is of no use to her, in fact, my story might even make things worse for her. I want to reach out and fill some of that maternal gap, but I keep my distance, knowing the offence I might cause or be. I can only hope and pray that one or two really good mother figures come into her life and fill some of those holes…

I have another equally regular and local source of perspective – as well as inspiration: our conscientious, cheerful and humble Archie*. Archie’s wife, Milly*, has and is being treated for benign but growing brain tumours, (they suspect that they are the direct result of the radiotherapy treatment she received when she was a child). The latest offender is a growing tumour that is wrapped around her optic nerve. As I write, they are waiting to hear the surgical team’s proposal; her recently scheduled operation was cancelled for the second time, as the surgeon was not happy with the risk to benefit ratio. And yet, Archie and Milly have found a way to live in the face of this. What I have had to do only on the odd occasion, they do on an hourly, certainly daily basis. In Archie’s words, they live and savour each day, as if it is their last. They celebrate all the good things in life and they know who loves them. He keeps saying, “What else can you do?”, which is typical of his humility, grace and amazing attitude. I really do not think that is has occurred to him that he could respond very differently getting bitter and resentful, or wasting the precious good times by feeling sorry for himself and by being an absolute bugger to live or work with…

Well, I am no philosopher, and I know that comparison can be very unhelpful (so for example, I do tend to steer clear of Facebook: all those glamorous holidays and brilliant careers have a detrimental effect on my sense of self-worth and well-being – pathetic hey? But sadly true!) However, I have noticed that hanging out with people who have a harder time than me, makes me more appreciative of who and what I do have. I feel enriched and empowered as I discover afresh the good things that I can enjoy or share. Equally, I have noticed that sometimes, socialising with those way “better off” than me (financially, that is) can be a bit less feel-good; I find I can come away feeling perhaps a little hard-done-by, sometimes even ashamed (haven’t worked that one out yet) but certainly somewhat disenfranchised. And so, there we will leave the matter:

“At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.”

And let us also remember those who are left; who have loved and lost. Not because our compassion does them any good, but because it benefits us: because we live happier, more content lives, celebrating and savouring what we have, rather than mourning and missing what we don’t have.

*names changed for obvious reasons

POST SCRIPT

I think it worth noting that this is not all pure speculation and I have actually experienced the boot being on the other foot. I found myself very firmly “on the other side of the fence” as it were, a few months into my treatment, where, for once, it was my pain that was the source of another’s perspective, helping someone else get through their “stuff”. As it turns out, it didn’t make me feel smaller or used in any way, it just made me laugh. In fact, a bit like “too much perspective” it became the source of another family catch phrase.

My unique and wonderful Australian sister-in-law, who singlehandedly filled the top half of the freezer with cooked food for us all, should be on the stage. If only someone would do us all a favour and write down most of what comes out of her mouth – Victoria Wood could have only dreamed of this kind of material. Some of my longest and deepest laughs – invariably ending in tears so hard and extreme was the mirth – have been with “V” as we call her. Legend has it (well, that is, her daughter Becky is a most gifted story teller) that she even retracted a texted party invitation by blaming the initial invite on a slip of the paw by the family dog! Let us just say that Veronica has the great gift of making people laugh: and most of the time, it is intentional. One of her best gifts to me (freezer food aside) throughout this gruelling journey came in a phone call that went something like this, (please read in your best Aussie accent):

“Oh hi Rachael! How you doin’? You ok? How’s the hair? Oh, still bald! Oh dear! How many more chemos to go? What, five? Heck! Then radiotherapy for how long? Five weeks! Oh heck! Right! Yeah, well, you just need to know that whenever I think of you and what you are going through, it cheers me right up!”

F is for Fish

I think most of us as individuals feel a mixture of sorrow amid huge respect for those who suffer in sickness or are robbed of their faculties in some way. Don’t we? But there is also a faint but perceptible feeling “on the street” if you will, that is very different. Certainly, I became more aware of it as I wrestled with my own cancer treatment. It can only be described as a kind of shame. Now given our remarkably laissez faire culture, why is that?

When I was going through my cancer treatment, there were 3 other mothers in the same small primary school who were also going through it.  It was such a shocking statistic that clever, educated people were asking if there was something dodgy in our water supply. Well, maybe they should ask, but my point is that it highlights that there are all sorts of unspoken rules and consequences to the prevailing statistics around cancer. One rule is that there is an “acceptable” level of cancerous activity in one’s community – by which I think we mean “the odd one or two” – every so often – perhaps years apart. But for four young women – all slim, fit, with healthy lifestyles etc – all at the same time, at the same small school, well, that is “unacceptable”. Of course, for those involved, these rules are meaningless – it is equally crap whether there are four of you or whether it is just you. At no point, did I think, “Well, at least I am not alone” because, believe me, being “one of them” was never a source of strength or encouragement! (Having said that, I do realise that the fact that it was not “just me” and that countless hundreds of thousands of other women have had breast cancer before me, does mean that the medical profession has had plenty of opportunity to practise its art and the improving rates of recovery are a testament to that. So in that sense, I am, as it turns out, grateful that I am not the only one.) No, if anything, being one of several heightened my sense of alienation because I really didn’t want to be a member of that club. I was still me; I did not want to be defined by my rather inconvenient circumstances (and certainly not by theirs) and then despatched to a corner of society to be held at arm’s length and treated differently. So there was that kind of “belonging to the wrong sort of club” shame. But there was more…

Our search for meaning and cause and pattern-finding has this other unfortunate by-product: because statistically there are higher rates of cancer among those who smoke, are overweight, drink to excess etc. it has become implicit that somehow you are responsible for your cancer. You “have done those things which you ought not to have done, or have left undone those things which you ought to have done,” as the Prayer Book puts it. Consequently, when you are diagnosed with cancer, a whole new crown of shame crashes down upon your head at the same time as a great big yoke of more obvious physical challenges is thrust upon your shoulders. Somehow it is your fault. Or your dodgy family’s fault. Or your dodgy genes are to blame. Or some form of divine retribution is at play and you must have done something very bad, somewhere along the way.

I myself was so shocked by the diagnosis, that just like Lady Macbeth, I said, “What? In our house?” well, words to that effect. Of course I was keen to find an answer to the why question… but it soon became clear that there wasn’t one, or if there was, I would not be able to find it. Anyway, during the immediate fall-out of diagnosis and the shock waves of treatment I was too busy responding to a plethora of baffling questions, physical demands and practical dilemmas. I needed to answer questions like: “Did I want both breasts off? … Or just the one? … Or maybe none, but we could just put a pinch pleat in the bottom corner of the offending one?” … that kind of thing. There were endless appointments to attend, one of which was in the middle of our bucket and spade holiday in Wales. There were other strange questions to wrestle with but which never got a satisfactory answer. Questions like: “How do you eat, sleep and live in a way that is not going to increase the growth rate of your tumour, or perhaps increase its tendency to spread around the body while you are waiting for surgery to remove it (over 2 months in my case)?”… But later, after the radiotherapy, when finally the myriad questions about how to put out the fire were answered, and the myriad treatments to put it out were over, I was finally in a place where I could begin to ponder it all. And so it was that I came up with “blame the pill”. Pure, original genius, it was a theory that lasted for oooh, all of 2 months… It went something like this: I had gone on the mini pill aged 19 because my periods were catastrophically painful, heavy and long. (I was also heading out to Africa for 4 or 5 months and the best science had to offer me in those days was a brick for my knicks, 2 paracetamol and one hot water bottle.) And oh my word, what joy: light periods and clear skin – hurrah! Naturally, I stayed on the mini pill for about 4 years and then went on a subtly different pill when I got married, and was on that for 4 more years… Then, given my elaborately healthy upbringing and current lifestyle, outlined above in the opening chapter, free from all known carcinogens, and my shocking diagnosis, QED the pill gives you breast cancer! Tick! Sadly, my brilliant, and profoundly well-researched theory came crashing down at a chance encounter on a BreastCancerCare course not long after my treatment had finished: a fellow breast cancer pilgrim; she was my age, my build, with similar lifestyle choices, and she had never, ever, been on the pill.

I think the “feeling on the street” is also just partly plain old awkwardness; partly being in a hurry and partly fear. For my own part, when I have awkward encounters with people on the street I experience fear not usually of the other people, but of my own response to their need: not knowing what the right response is, what should I do? How much should I give? How can I help? Would they rather I treated them as if everything was ok? As a way of avoiding those awkward questions, we go to great lengths to avoid the person who provokes them. It is a very British thing to walk around something difficult or unusual as if it were not there. For example, when I dressed up on holiday in djellaba, beach towel turban and sunglasses, for the amusement of friends and family, and “busked” through a seaside town blowing empty beer bottles and shaking a cereal packet, with small, similarly dressed and talented children in tow, no one even batted an eyelid! The trouble with this calm, bland avoidance, when you are not doing it for a laugh, is the only possible conclusion you can infer is that they are ashamed of you. I often read that people who do not have a home feel the same way; it is the lack of eye to eye contact and proper connection with people that makes them feel invisible and ashamed.

Or perhaps there is shame but some of it was in my own head. Perhaps I put it there, imagining how awkward it was going to be for everyone else who met me. Certainly it was a constant struggle to resist the waves of shame, the temptation to hide away from everybody, and I had to steel myself to “go out” and to walk around with my bald head covered, but held high. Come to think of it, I am very blessed in that I can only recall one or two instances of brazen avoidance and I was not even vaguely undone by it. For a thorough-going people pleaser, that was a first! Here is a cancer gem of not inconsiderable worth: the great thing about having cancer is that you have much bigger fish to fry. Things or people that seemed scary in normal life, suddenly became quite harmless and benign. It is a trump card that ironically you can actually use to your own advantage! And it has a brilliantly clarifying effect on life; suddenly the fog of issues, challenges and stresses lifts and life becomes gloriously simple and straightforward. All one’s existential questions and qualms are answered and life narrows tidily and understandably into obvious and sharp focus: just hunker down and get through this long dark tunnel of treatment. In some respects, I have never been so in my stride; I am actually not too bad at being on a mission. I was cheerful, positive, clear headed, focussed and determined. It seems that the things that typically trip me up were swept aside and I found a new kind of stark, hard freedom in getting through, one day at a time. I was on a mission; to take those I loved with me; protecting them as much as possible from the pain of it; taking it on the chin in a brave and up-beat sort of way, and getting through it without being taken down. As I write, I see that the truth will out; the more I think about it, I realise that it was a kind of all-consuming performance – and typically I have always enjoyed those. (In the sixth form at my rather high-brow, all girls’ school, I tried to persuade my brilliant drama and English teacher to let me play King Lear! Oh dear, how arrogant that sounds! But it was not arrogance; I just really relished the juicy, fat performance to get my teeth – and absolutely everything else – into!) I am aware that this apparently shows scant regard for so much good in my life and also demonstrates a sort of need-for-purpose that I am rather ashamed of, especially given how much purpose and value I have been given by those who love me. But there we are, it is true. True enough anyway, for my disgusting rat-like scratchings of oozing and crusty eczema to clear up a treat. And believe me, you can’t fake that! (I don’t suppose it will catch on as a treatment, but it is the best one I have come across by a country mile! Didn’t someone say, “The best remedy for worry is a disaster?” Working on a similar principle, I wonder if there is a similar treatment for cancer itself? Something like, “We have some bad news and some good news: the bad news is you have cancer, but the good news is you can go to North Korea, where they have discovered a very effective treatment in their gulag?” Actually, there were a few surreal conversations that were not too dissimilar to that.) Then, along with the clarity of being on a mission, comes an ability to kick into the long grass absolutely everything else that causes complications or upset. So for example, the whole “what is my response to awful world news / grim local news?” or whatever takes up so much emotion and energy, all get gloriously kicked in to touch as ‘not my problem at the moment,’ and there is a wonderful freedom in letting all that go. Anyway, the eczema cleared up, what else can I say?

A is for Apple

“An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away”

Funny that.

I have had one of the healthiest upbringings and lifestyles I know. An apple a day is the least of it…

How about: daughter of the war generation, (the healthiest generation, so far) whose idea of sweet luxury was one slice of home-made Victoria sandwich cake, per week; whose choice of carbs was wholemeal bread (shape and texture not dissimilar to those old London bricks called Stocks) OR boiled potatoes; whose fanciest dish was Roast This, and occasionally, Roast That; and who, when it finally appeared on their radar, thought pasta was a slimy, slovenly, modern gimmick? How about my own lifestyle: not smoking, (bar one crafty drag aged about 14 round the corner from school); never drinking to excess and no dalliances with drugs; a healthy, varied, low sugar diet of unrefined, home-cooked, often home-grown food? Weight wise, I have always been on the “slight” side and I have always taken regular exercise, usually outdoors. I could go on…

OK, I will go on: my husband, Jamie, bakes our bread almost daily, using Cotswold Crunch Dark – flour grown in the local area and milled at our famous local mill; we keep chickens; we plant trees; we eat the tomatoes and basil my husband grows in the greenhouse and the salad and veg he grows in the garden; we live in a house we built that takes its warmth from the earth and we use e cloths and non bio washing powder…

For goodness’ sake, the harshest ingredients we come across are Balsamic Vinegar and whatever it is they put in toothpaste.

And yet, and yet…

There I was, aged just 43: harbouring a 22 mm grade 3 tumour AND a 17 mm grade 2 tumour in my very small (AA if you must know), right breast.