Monday, 31 October 2011


As you get older living in London gets to be more of a trial, this is of course unless you have made the shed loads of money you intended to make when you first came here.

Services are cracking, even the post is bad and the neighbours, well. On my right there was a young couple. I used to chat to them outside but I heard yesterday that they’d left. I felt a slight shock – why didn’t they say goodbye? Am I mad. Would anyone in London bother to do that?

It’s not just London mind-you. The English are not a very neighbourly lot. My mother’s next door neighbours recently left after 25 years. They’d been very good to her and when they said they were going she was upset, privately, and became slightly depressed. Then one day they were gone, without a word. She was more upset, but felt slightly better when she discovered that the people on the other side of her house were very angry about this silent exit. In fact the whole lane was annoyed. It was considered at least very rude. But in London we don’t have delicate feelings like that anymore.

The English are not a friendly people, and the northern races are not known for their hospitality. But England is probably the only place where even invited guests feel they should apologise for turning up.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Coffee Morning


Week promises to get gloomier as I now have to pay my car tax. I started to get worked up about this several months ago because I mistook the date, and tried to pay on line. As I haven’t got to have an MOT it seemed more complicated, then they wanted information about the CC. Not just a bit but which category it came into. I wasn’t in a good state of mind at the time and nearly blew a gasket, as old motorists used to say. I went out and looked at the disc and saw I had two months to go and nearly died of relief.

Now it was the time to try again, this time by taking all my documents in a large folder to the Post Office. This was the big one in Acton. Although it has large premises only two tellers were open. As we queued up I had a feeling of doom. Quite a long way behind me an old man in an anorak who must have had sharp eyes, suddenly started up a great peroration against people like me:

“They come in here to pay their car tax. I ask you. Last time the bloke didn’t have any of the right forms and we all had to wait while he went off to get them. I ask you, it’s not right, it shouldn’t be allowed. ”

Acton is full of mad old buffoons like this. If they’ve got sticks they are dangerous. I gave him what I can only describe as a cool look.

At the counter I had all the right forms already filled in. The Asian lad behind the counter seemed quite sympathetic to see the nervous wreck in front of him and as I tried to jab the wilting papers under all the bars he tried to help by plying his fingers under the grill to drag them through. We both struggled but I had everything needed, paid the £100 and left as quickly as I could.

The next thing will be forgetting to put it on the car in time and getting a fine. That happened with my parking permit. I can’t understand it as I am a methodical person, making lists of everything I have to do each day. I must have some kind of brain moth, nibbling out tiny holes for comic effect.

I was on my way to the church coffee morning at St. Martin’s in Ealing. I bought two cream and jam sponges to celebrate getting through this tax ordeal.

At the vicarage Fr Bill was fussing about his quince jam which is too runny. He offered me a jar; he doesn’t usually so I think he was pleased to see the cakes.

He was also worrying about Christmas. St Martin’s is having its “Christmas Bazaar” bizarrely with font with snow on it and images of the Three Wise Men very soon in early November.

He says Advent, previously a time of austerity, is now the new Christmas and the “Kingdom Season,” in November, the new Advent.

“In 25 years time we will be having Christmas in August,” he said glumly. “But that might be better as August is so quiet.”

If that happened of course preparations would begin in May, and in time that would become the new Xmas, which would then begin in winter again.

He is planning to write an academic paper on the forces that have produced this situation. But he says that the church has always accommodated itself to fashion.

Maybe in the past that was a deliberate thing, absorbing pagan rituals and art work, but I wonder if they are even conscious of all this, and not just being carried blindly along. The church hardly opposes fashion these days.

I suggest that Bill should write a letter to the Church Times rather than an academic paper, as there are far too many of those around.

A friend of mine who has recently begun a flower arranging course tells me she is going to have to write essays about it. She has to write a thesis on which woman has inspired her most in life and then make her arrangements relate to that. I think she better choose Winnie Mandela or one of the women involved in the Arab Spring if she wants to get through. Are there any flowers shaped like grenades?

But Fr. Bill is determined to write a paper. He asks me to front the bric-a-brac stall. That is what my life has come down to and I don’t have anything better or more useful to do.

In the evening my friend rings again. She is feeling much better, and I feel a horrible uncertainty rolling away again, just out of sight. She is so kind and brave that she is worried that she has scared me.

I re-boiled the quince jam and that worked, it gelled much better. But it's too sweet for my taste. Quince as a savoury with that strange, flat, indeterminate taste is much better.

Autumn Chill


A friend I met in the chemo clinic called. Her voice sounded different, calm but very cold. She said she had some symptoms; bloating, constipation, those dreaded early signs of ovarian cancer. Feel my heart go bang and then a bit sick.

The next day walking into Chiswick in the beautiful Autumn light, consider that it is unlikely statistically that both of us can survive for the next five years.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Bad nights

I am working on a small painting called “Insomnia,” showing my arm reaching out in the dark for the buttons on my digital radio, as it does several times a night. It contains my glass of water and my tissue, essential items on the long journey into night. It sums up a large part of my life at the moment, I am sad to say. Voices from the ether broken up by short bouts of sleep.

Evenings and the early hours are difficult. It’s then that I start to feel odd symptoms, and at the moment I wonder if the cancer has come back (as predicted so strongly by doctors) but I can’t tell because symptoms are hidden behind these problems I’m having with the botched hernia op.

I am still bleeding and praying, literally, that the anti-biotics will work so I don’t have to go under the knife again. It is a real game of chance. I resent that my life has gone like this, so full of darkness and shadows.

There is a special problem for a single, childless person who gets a diagnosis of cancer because there is not enough to distract them and turn them back towards LIFE.

I meet other people with cancer, I hear stories all the time, my life is full of it, but if I had children their needs would come first and I would be preoccupied with getting them ready to face the world, to use their talents. It would be the start of their lives with everything ahead.

The nearest I got to parenthood was writing about Dada. I invested in myself, maybe it was a poor investment.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Good News

Shortly after saying I needed some good news I got a call from Roz at Hounslow Animal Rescue. She told me that a cat I rescued from a house where he had no name, no toys, no litter tray, has now been successfully re-homed and now answers to the name of Sidney.

She also sent me some lovely photos of him in his new abode. After spending a year living in a smelly darkened room under a bed, hiding from a violent, deranged boy, he seems to have gone to a completely cat-friendly home, with heated cat seats, toys, feline igloos, cat flaps a warm office to patrol, and lots of attention. One extreme to t’other, although he does have to negotiate his space with Alf, another young male cat.

I have written a piece about rescuing this cat which will be in the December issue of the Salisbury Review.

So I have achieved something recently, but I am spending most of my time, at least this week, in mid October, living very like a cat; seeking out warm spots, curling up and lapsing into sleep.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Not a Lucky Day

Yesterday, Oct 17th wasn’t exactly my best.

Apart from hearing that I might have to be reopened like an old tin, it says on the new anti-biotics that I can’t drink, for seven days. I have just bought a case of wine from Virgin Wines, who seem quite good, very friendly and offer a lot of discounts. I am craving a glass of Cavallino Brachetto d’Acqui II Cascinone 2009 but it just has to sit there unopened.

Also spoke to the people at National Insurance, HM Customs & Revenue, which they of course call Revenue and Customs, and learned that I won’t get my state pension until I am 65. Boy I could have done with that money sooner than that – not that I know what it will be. If you want a forecast to find out that bit of bad news you have to ring another number.
I know a lot of women who got their pension at 60. They must be about £50k up on the rest of us who were born a bit later. I also know many women who say they will now have to work till they drop. This pension change has been particularly hard on women. What a mistake to ever say we were exactly the same as men!

What I need now is some GOOD NEWS, not connected with the Bible. You only get that sort of thing when you have done something practical to bring it about. I missed the art exhibition entry due to the haematoma, I have entered a travel writing competition – but mostly my days are empty, lacking structure and purpose.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Running Battle

I’ve had a reply to the complaint I made about the strange man who attended me when I went into A & E in Hammersmith in early September.

“O’s” colleagues apparently describe him as "unassuming and quiet." No, that does not reflect my experience when I was with him. He came across to me as extremely cocky but also chaotic. He gave the impression by what he said, or did not say, and his manner of being dangerously unprofessional. He never introduced himself or gave his job title, which is why I tried to see his name on his ID card and made a note of it. He had me worried from the start. There was no "breakdown in communication," as the letter of reply says, his communication skills were nil.

According to the letter he discussed with me what he was doing and what the bags of fluid were for, and found out what I had been prescribed. I pointed out to him the pills I'd bought back in with me, some anti-biotics and Tramadol. He looked at them for a few seconds and threw them back into my bag without a word.

He has apparently told them that he offered to “clean and dress” my wound. “He noticed that the dressing was oozing.” There was NO dressing. That came off when I had a haemorrhage at home. He did not offer to clean the wound. He said there was "vaginal bleeding,” which there wasn't. He’s told them that when I refused to let him get into my knickers he asked a female nurse to clean the wound and change the dressing - who was that nurse? The letter doesn’t say. It does mention a nurse Tan.
She was the nurse in blue I to spoke to, telling her I was afraid of O.
She stared at me blankly, laughed and went out. Apparently she doesn’t remember that at all, but strangely despite not knowing what I said, she came back regularly and kept checking on me.

The letter doesn’t mention why O offered to keep my blouse and my bag and "bring them up later."

He’s not got off Scott free mind you. Apparently he has been reminded of the Trust’s “conversation at work policy,” because he spoke Arabic and ignored me completely when another man appeared and they took me up to the ward.

Running Sore


My CA125 which detects cancer in the blood has gone from 5 to 7 this is not
really bad as normal is 0 to 35 but I am sorry it has gone up at all. I have
had readings of 75 before the op to remove the ovaries, then 9, 7, two 5s
and now 7 again.

But I am not surprised really with all this going on with the hernia. I had the op on August 31st and the wound is still bleeding. Today, as I was in the clinic, the surgeon who did the op had a look at the wound. He says the mesh he put in is probably infected. They have given me more anti-biotics and an appointment at Charing Cross hospital to see an expert. I might have to have the whole thing again, or at least be opened up to take out the mesh. I am really fed up with this!

Trot around Tescos buying healthy (ie life saving foods) thinking, “this is not really working. I can’t live like this," – I mean the cancer check ups, the fluctuations between numbers, not all the other extra stuff.

Three months trial


My three monthly visit to get the results of the blood test is looming. It doesn’t get any easier; it’s like going on trial for your life every few weeks. I feel OK but who knows, no one until the doctor looks at her screen.

Why did this have to happen to me? I am still saying that. The title of this blog is wrong; I am still surprised.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

That England

Lying in bed recovering from the op, then the complications and now the keloid, a growth of bleeding mushrooms up my middle, bits of bad news drift towards me. Some stand out like sudden cramp; the plan to put 2,000 new homes on the hallowed village of East Coker, the number of African children arriving at Heathrow where they are then sold into slavery or given to “witchdoctors” who for some reason live in the UK but make a living selling human blood.
I grew up in a small country whose saints were Enid Blyton, Johnny Morris and Sir Kenneth Clark. Where has all that smallness and distinct cosiness gone?
Perhaps I have just turned into a little Englander. As people get older they always think their country has gone to the dogs and a feeling of nostalgia is deep in Anglo-Saxon culture.
Wouldn’t I be feeling the same sense of threat and despondency about the country if I was living in 1939? I don’t think so because in the past we were allowed to name an evil when we saw it. We could name it and get up and at ‘em. This new culture of equivocation and cultural relativism has castrated us more successfully than a Turk with a scimitar.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011



Back to Garry Weston Centre at Hammersmith for my three monthly blood test.
While I was in there I asked dear Dr. Blagdon to have a butchers at my butchered belly, with its still bleeding wound.
She looked at it and immediately said, “Oh, you’ve got a keloid. Most unusual, you only normally see them on Africans.”
When I got home I naturally looked it up on line – “Keloid or Crabclaw,” a benign tumour forming on a wound through infection and the over production of collagen.
It was first written up in medical notes in Egypt in 1700BC and named in Europe in 1806.
The lurid photos on line with people with things like purple potatoes hanging from their ear lobes, slaves who’d been flogged and the whip marks had formed intaglio patterns, and necks with swollen lesions were much worse than mine, some small comfort.
Hearing this was all a bit much. What strange thing is my body doing now?! Instead of going to a reading of the Tempest I slipped home and hid myself away.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Recovery or nearly


Steve Jobs the founder of Apple and rich as Croesus died last night. Another one who has made it through the hated veil. In a speech some time ago he talked about death. “No one wants to die,” he said with feeling. “Even people who think they are going to go to Heaven don’t want to die to get there.”

My operation wound is still bleeding. I have to keep applying dressings but I made it to Piccadilly today, 34 days late, for the Degas exhibition. I'll go again soon to do some sketching. It was bigger than I expected. I can’t stand up for long and get pulling pains if I try to lift anything, but one day soon I will be able to remain upright at parties again, with a drink, or two in my hand.


The moral of all this is - if you have an hernia wear a truss, or an “appliance” like your old Dad or uncle used to do, when they didn’t expect any surgery.
I got home six days later, thanks to a lift from the ladies of the church again.
At home I could get some darkness, quiet and good food, at least the seedy, nutty rolls and butter provided by a friend.

The feeling of loneliness I’d picked up like an infection on my second visit to hospital lingered and I felt annoyed and frustrated. I made a complaint about the lack of chaplains. They got back to me and said, in modern parlance, “We got it wrong.” They are apparently over-stretched, being cut back, and phased out. I am not sure who pays for them, the NHS or the C of E.
Putting my money where my mouth is, I have decided to do some hospital visiting myself. There is a course to learn how to do it starting in the Spring at Hammersmith. Hospitals are so bleak now that this is obviously a badly needed service. I am not sure the doctors at Victor Bonney will be pleased to see me turning up again, and it might be a problem that I only speak English and hardly anyone else does, but I will give it a try.

I also made a complaint about that strange man who frayed my nerves when I spent those hours lying on a bed in A & E.
At first I was told, “More training is possibly needed.” You can say that again. But what I’d like to know is HOW someone like that got the job in the first place? Is the NHS using some agency to recruit people from abroad on the cheap – like Tesco’s and Morrison’s?
Later I heard he had been ticked off for speaking to the wheel-chair pusher in a foreign language in front of me. Apparently that is “unacceptable.” But as the NHS at least in London, is chiefly an employer of foreign workers, how can they expect anything else?


My next visitor was the surgeon in charge of the department. He arrived with two young doctors and was obviously worried. I soon realised why.
He sent one doctor out and the other stood by looking nervous. “My genitals have swelled up,” I said cheerfully. The young doctor looked shy.
“Well they will,” snapped the surgeon. “I didn’t know it was you,” he said.
What could he mean?
“You are the person who wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph about us last year,” he said angrily, his large smooth round jaw thrusting down at me, as I lay there like a smashed turnip. I had to admit that what he said was true.
“What you said was all wrong,” he said. “But we didn’t feel we could reply.”
I asked what had been wrong. I wrote that we were sent home too early. I still believe that. My wound opened when I was at home and I had to rely on community nursing which was pitifully poor.
He said that going home early was all part of a new project to get patients mobile more quickly after an operation. Because of my article, he said, the doctor in charge of that new scheme had decided not to go ahead with it. Well that was news to me, as I certainly landed home very quickly.
I tried to sooth him by saying that the ward certainly seemed much nicer now; the nurses were much more polite.
“This ward has always been good,” he boomed. “Nothing you wrote changed anything. We have won awards.”
Then he said, “The nurses tell me you are tweeting. There is something like that going on.”
It was a great final shot as I lay there feeling beaten and scared. All the staff thought I was up to something, when I wasn’t. My old phone doesn’t know how to tweet.
If he was worried because I, as a journalist had just been readmitted as an emergency, his way of dealing with it was certainly pugnacious. No quiet apology or suggestion of a private room, just jaw out, surgical gloves off. Well I could take it. I have known too many newspaper editors to be surprised by that sort of male behaviour.
When the next nurse came to my bed I asked her if she thought I was tweeting. She stepped back looking surprised then blank. She couldn’t understand enough English to know the word “tweet.” I asked other nurses and got the same result. Later two young English student nurses appeared, real jolly hockey sticks types, very incongruous, like a sudden switch back to 1980 or earlier. When I asked them they laughed and said they knew nothing about it.


A young Afro-Caribbean girl in the opposite bed was disgusted by the Rumanian woman and after one of her blasts from mouth or backside, would use an air-freshener all around her own bed.
She went home and I was left with the gypsy woman, who added to her repertoire of noises with a mobile phone on full blast. There would be a burst of rustic music, singing, then she would scream into the phone, at all hours of day and night. The little nurses were powerless to stop her. I don’t think she knew what silence was. I asked the nurses, with difficulty as they didn’t understand me much either, to ask her translator to tell her to put the mobile on silent. It didn’t happen so I asked to be moved and they obliged me.
I was back in a larger ward. Opposite me was an Australian girl was crying because she said she couldn’t have children. I asked her about her partner. She said he was in Australia but he was “unreliable,” and they were breaking up anyway. My Polish friend told me in a text, to tell the girl to pray to John Paul II as apparently he is very good at getting women pregnant, or go to the shrine or Our Lady at Guadeloupe in Mexico. I didn’t bother.
Doctors came to scrutinise my abdomen, which looked like a smashed up turnip, with bands of blue and yellow. They looked worried and some murmured apology or at least regret that this had happened. They set up a drip with antibiotics.
I noticed with some fascination that my genitals had swelled up. There was something like a rubber band over the top and they hung below like rough pieces of MDF. There was a granular feel about the skin, perhaps like cardboard rather than anything harder. I could tell all this might take some time to put right.
Next to me was an elderly Afro-Caribbean woman who seemed well educated. She had visitors during the day, unlike me, and I enjoyed listening to their conversations.
One morning as we were having breakfast a young black nurse came in the ward and shouted at us: “Good morning Ladies! Don’t you want to see each other?” She tore back all our bed curtains and tried introducing me to the lady in the next bed who was eating her breakfast. We both ignored her.
She tried this again one night, bursting in and shouting, “We are supposed to be able to see you!” and tore back all our curtains. I put mine back immediately but in the night when I had to make my treks to the loo, I saw that some women had put their curtains only half way back, as if a little afraid of disobeying orders.
Curtains were the only thing we had to keep out the permanent light, and to give us some privacy. In bed I could see the days stretching out in their barren, antiseptic way. Some of the ceiling tiles are lights and while you wait for the final drugs round that signals the end of the day, you have to lie on your back looking up at them until they finally put the lights out at about midnight. There is no real darkness and no quiet, no where to hide, except being your curtains.

I was woken one morning by a trudging elderly black nurse with a face like a pot-bellied pig. She came at me with the thermometer thing they put into your ear, banging it so hard on the side of my head that I groaned. She tried again but failed to get it in to the hole and trudged off without a word. Another case, I thought, like Omar for wondering, how on earth did someone like that get the job? Later I heard some of the doctors joking that the nurses couldn’t even take a temperature properly.
In the day time I was back with my hedgehog brain, feeling humiliated about my lack of visitors. Now our hospitals have moved to Sparta, when visitors did come they could have a hard time. Alec, the handsome young editor, visited me on his way to and from work and one evening went off to get some coffee. The nurses are not allowed to make any drinks for visitors. Instead of telling him that there was a small vending machine in the kitchen, they directed him downstairs again to the Costa Coffee shop. That was closed so he went off looking for somewhere else. He was nearly half an hour away. I pottered off to the nursing station to ask if they knew where he’d gone. There was a young east European woman doctor sitting there.
“You must love him very much if you are so worried when he goes to buy coffee,” she said with an unpleasant sneer.
I was taken aback and retreated to my bed to wait. He eventually came back with his oversize polystyrene cup. He was cheerful as he’d got the gist of the place – a functioning, grinding machine as utilitarian and hard as an old mill or work-house. He gave me a couple of pounds to give the nurse for a paper the next day and I was extremely grateful as in the rush to get into the ambulance I hadn’t put any cash into my bag. How can you keep cash in a modern hospital anyway?
How I longed for the old WRVS trolley ladies, my mother’s friends now long dead, or the kindly husband I have never found.

The vicar from Ealing had contacted the chaplaincy at Hammersmith, there was a photograph of three beaming chaplains on the wall, asking them to visit me, but they never came. I was also and worrying about asking anyone to give me a lift home for a second time, worried about my cat, and realised uneasily that all that food I’d bought for when I couldn’t shop was slowly mouldering away in the fridge. Would I be able to get anyone to shop for me?

Oh dear, oh dear!

I entered A & E at Hammersmith Hospital at about 5.30pm as an emergency re-admission. I was put on a bed in a side room and felt very glad to be there. A young woman doctor who might have been Greek, or from the Middle East perhaps, took blood from me and I didn’t see her again. An elderly man with short cropped grey hair then came in. By his swaggering, ebullient manner I thought he might be another doctor but he never introduced himself or told me who or what he was. When his ID card turned over I saw that he was called Omar or Omer X. I suppose I better not write his name. The photo didn’t look anything like him, showing a round faced youth with bushy black hair.
He told me a doctor had ordered him to give me “a prescription for medication,” this worried me as the doctor hadn’t mentioned it. He set up a transfusion stand and I think gave me fluid to re-hydrate me. As he did this he said, “Did the doctor flash or flush, flash or flush?” I couldn’t understand his English and he seemed to get angry. His loose flapping lips, like wet grey mushrooms went into a thin line and he said mockingly, “You don’t remember what the doctor told you?” I didn’t know what he was talking about.
He said he had to examine me and looked between my legs. He said he could see “vaginal bleeding” and would need to take my knickers off. There was a very large bleeding operation scar clearly leading down from my navel, nothing to do with the vagina and I told him he could not remove my clothes. He said he had to or they would be angry with him on the ward when we went up. I still didn’t know who he was and didn’t feel I could trust him at all.
He flung out of the room, then came back suddenly and began talking about giving me a prescription again, as if he was a chemist. I showed him the drugs I’d stuffed into my bag before I got in the ambulance. He examined the label then tossed them over his shoulder back into my bag. He asked me if I had “moved my bowels?” made a crude gesture of defaecation and left again.
I could hear voices nearby from a room on my left, so I got up and went to see if I could find someone to help me. My mobile had no signal so I made a call from the hospital phone to Fr. Bill at St Martin’s in Ealing to tell someone where I was. He was about to leave for Scotland but contacted the hospital chaplains to ask them to find me. I also asked to see a woman nurse. While I was doing this Omar appeared again, sitting at a computer on the nearby desk. A white Englishman was clearly irritated with him, asked him what he was doing and kept calling him “Squire.”
Back in the side room a woman nurse who might have been Japanese, wearing a dark blue uniform appeared. I told her that I was scared of this strange man who kept coming in. She laughed and appeared to dismiss my fears but she kept coming back into the room to check on me.
I asked him several times how long I would have to wait to get up to the Victor Bonney ward. He was always vague and I didn’t think he was doing anything about it. I felt trapped and had no confidence in him at all. He was the most laughable person in a medical coat I have ever met.
At about 9pm a large black man like a Nubian warrior arrived with a wheel chair to take me up to Victor Bonney. As we went out my blouse fell off the bed and I asked him if he would pick it up. He said he was not allowed to. I asked Omar if he would get it for me. He was reluctant and said he would “bring it up later.” He also suggested that I should leave my bag with him.
There is the old tradition of Triage in A & E dating from the time on the battle field when quick decisions had to be made about who could be saved and who should be left to die. There was also a tradition in those times of the battle field scavengers, the Thenardier character who plunders corpses. I wasn’t dead yet or born yesterday, so I said a firm no and took my bag with me.
On our long, gloomy way up to the ward Omar spoke what sounded like Arabic to the man pushing the chair and they ignored me entirely. At one point we met a young man anxiously looking for the maternity ward. Omar told him to come with us as we were going there, which we weren’t, it was on another floor. Every word that came out of his flapping mouth was rubbish. I told him to find his way back to the entrance and ask again but the two men sent him out of a side door into an alley way.
In the cavernous empty lift they carried on their conversation and I felt as if I wasn’t there, which was lucky as I was uneasy with them and didn’t want their attention to fall on me.
Back in VB I was so relieved to escape from Omar. If I had been more ill or more naïve what might have happened to me by now? I think my pants and my purse would have been raided.
It was Saturday so most of the ward had been closed down, according to modern practice. I was happy to be in a side ward which looked quiet, with only two other beds occupied. As I lay on my bed I heard a familiar sound; a massive belch, followed by a long loud fart but without the half apologetic “Oof oof ” sound to follow.

The Entry to Hades

They kept me in for two days after the op. Not bad, it was only two days after the major hysterectomy when I felt very unwell and went home loaded with boxes of medication and syringes.
I quickly realised that I wouldn’t be able to take the paintings up to Piccadilly as planned. I would indeed be having a bed rest for some time. Alec, the handsome young editor of Private Banking Magazine who lives quite near, one of my few known neighbours, offered to collect the paintings on the Saturday lunch time and take them up to Piccadilly on his bike.

On Saturday 3rd September Alec didn’t get round to arriving until 3.15 pm. I had just realised that something was wrong; my abdomen had turned hard and looked bright red. I had a fiery pain, and then decided that none of this was happening. It must all be due to constipation. As I opened the door to Alec, I had to admit that I wasn’t feeling too good, it couldn’t really be denied. Then I felt blood running down my legs and saw large spots of it on the kitchen floor.
He went into Boy Scout mode – rang an ambulance, made hot sweet tea, for me as well as him, pressed a towel onto my middle. I had put on a loose summer dress I’d bought to go on my Cunard cruise to New York, for his magazine. It was the only thing to hand and I saw the blue pattern gradually turn dark red. The ambulance arrived within an hour. They were very nice, calming and efficient. By the time we set off it was too late for the paintings. Alec didn’t come with me in the ambulance but I didn’t mind as I was so glad to be going back to hospital where they would sort this out. Of course I didn’t realise that first I had to pass through the Hades that is A & E.


I made the dismal walk up to the operating theatre, which looks like a well stocked garden shed. I shed tears standing there waiting for it all to begin, remembering before, that whole scenario of big op, going home alone, diagnosis of cancer. Things I don’t want to remember at all. A doctor in his plastic cap ignored me while a nurse said, “Don’t worry. Lots of ladies cry.”
Well not me. I am not one of those ladies; I just didn’t want to be there again. I could have walked out of course, but I’d signed the form and I was brought up to be a biddable girl.

I woke up with the morphine bag attached and realised that the cut had followed right up the scar from the hysterectomy. It was just like before. I decided to lie back and enjoy the morphine and forget the rest.

I recognise one British nurse from Northern Ireland who was there before. After the first op, I used to wake up and see this line of people with frozen faces at the end of my bed. That nurse used to be in a dark blue uniform and hat, a bit like a life-guard and she used to glare at me as if I had just been accused of child murder. Now she was in a different uniform and seemed deflated somewhat. Perhaps there had been a coup d’etat of some kind; the ward was certainly different. Most of the nurses had hardly any English but they were much friendlier than before, and slightly older, more experienced.

I got up and pottered to the patient’s room with the TV for lunch. I enjoyed having lunch with the other women; a few of them from other parts of the ward were English, most with returning cancer.
We all sat playing with our food, like children, pondering: “Is this fish or is it potato? Where is the fish in this pie, can you spot it? Figures from 200 hospitals just released show that one in twelve or nine million hospital meals go back uneaten. This wastes about £22 million a year. All that money and they can’t even serve real potato or fresh veg.
When I was first in hospital in New Cross near Wolverhampton in 1980 they had a whole shiny kitchen, it probably looked like the VB ward. They cooked food on the premises and had their own nutritionist who had quite high prestige. I made a remark that there was not enough wholemeal bread, and I was told by a nurse that the nutritionist would be coming to see me as a result.
She was a young woman, very intelligent and she appeared at my bed and questioned me about my opinion of the food. After that I always got wholemeal rolls. Good Lord how things have changed!
I suppose we had M Thatcher just after that, the woman who invented soft scoop ice-cream by pumping it with 30% more hot hair, went on to be the great champion of rubbish food. Under Maggie everything started being outsourced, no more cooking in hospitals, or schools, and eventually not in many homes either. I wonder if she realises that she brought about the death of basic British food.

An elderly Indian woman sat with us. She gestured that she’d had a hysterectomy years before, but didn’t know the word for it. When the lunch trolley arrived bearing its cargo of packet fish pie and yogurts, she demanded her food without a please or thank you. That annoys me – so I said “please,” for her.
The person doling out the slop probably didn’t mind, as she was Thai or Philippine and didn’t have any English either. The Indian woman looked at me and smiled. After her lunch she suddenly bellowed for a nurse. I asked her why she couldn’t just walk by herself using her Zimmer frame. At this she got up and did just that, trundling off on her rickety legs. I felt like Alice in Wonderland reproving exotic creatures. She liked me though and we always sat together. Although she didn't have any of what are now called "social skills," i.e. manners she was good fun.
As the delivery of food and drink was intermittent, I went to the kitchen and got some orange juice for the Squaw. She looked baffled, probably thinking I was an enemy as I had groaned loudly about her horrible eructations.

I returned to my bed with its blood spotted sheets. It was changed frequently, everything seemed very clean, but the wound was leaky. I felt anxious and alone. Back in 1980, perhaps because I was so young, I felt quite cosy and protected in hospital. I could chat to women around me; I had visitors from my family of course, my friends and my parent’s friends. We were not far from my home village. A woman working in the hospital, who knew someone who knew one of my mother’s friends, sent down a flower arrangement for me in a small bowl. I remember looking at it and wondering if people would always be so nice to me? An echo of the future perhaps. I always remember that moment, feeling rather indulged and insecure about it.
That was long ago, I am now in that most unwanted category; the middle-aged woman, unless you happen to be a well liked wife and mother of course.
Hospital seemed like a dead halt, a void. It’s wasn’t just that there were so few English speakers, but there was nothing going on to bring in some of the outside to alleviate the bleakness; no trolley coming round with newspapers and sweets, no jolly volunteers bringing you a whiff of the life still going on. To get a paper you had to hope that you could find a nurse who could understand enough to know what you wanted, and that she would be kind enough to get you a paper when she was having her break. There were no chaplains either with their little cards bearing spiritual advice and psalmic verses. There were no radio attachments either, I should have bought in an I Pod, which I don’t have.
I had a nagging worry about visitors, like a prickly hedgehog lodging in my brain; I had told a few people that I was going in, but only for a small op, now I felt very alone. I also needed someone to give me a lift home. I could have been very grown up and just got a cab but I so wanted someone to offer me a lift.
I was worried about my cat and the food in my fridge. I had done a big shop but not sure how long it would be before I could shop again.
While the other beds were surrounded by relations during the day, as a lone, single English woman, my friends were working and I only got visitors at night. There was a lot of hoo-ha about finding someone free but eventually two ladies from my church agreed come and collect me. I was very grateful but I had this horrible certainty that modern hospitals are not good for single people. What I suspected in 1980, had happened.

Back in the International Health Service

Back to what I now term, from honest observation, the “International Health Service.”

The op for a repair, a hernia caused by the original op, was to be done on August 31st and I expected to be up and about by Saturday the 3rd in time to take some paintings of mine to the Discerning Eye competition up near Piccadilly. I got into the show at the Mall Gallery last year, and I had three paintings finished, framed and ready to go.

I thought it would be a small op, as it seemed like a small hernia. It annoyed me a bit, a slight bulge in the swim suit, a slight ache when I was standing up for a long time at parties.

This repair job meant a short spell back in the Victor Bonney Ward – well it’s not called a ward now, they’ve got some other name I think, and it does not resemble a ward that you would recognise; neat lines of beds with nice covers, lines of bedside closets topped with flowers, juice and cards. VB resembles a high-tech kitchen in some giant factory.

The first thing I noticed as I took up my prone position as a patient, or as they are now called, clients, was that I was the only English person there. That film, The English Patient, couldn’t be called that these days as the title is almost obsolete. Opposite was a young pregnant woman half Chinese half African, in for a suspected appendicitis. Next to me lay a thin pregnant girl from Bangladesh with bad morning sickness. Opposite sat a Rumanian gypsy woman aged about sixty, cloaked in a blanket, sitting upright and with a set expression on her face which made her look rather like a squaw. No idea what she is suffering from as she hadn’t a word of English. She had a translator by her bed most of the day and a large mound of relations at night, but the nurses couldn’t even get her to indicate where the pain might be.
Her only word was “Ka ka,” and when her relations were not about, she had her own tone language composed of noises – belching loudly with a wide open mouth, breaking wind and between these, “Oof, oof” noises by way of saying she couldn’t help herself.
Sometimes for the nurses trying to examine her she’d make a keening, whining noise which I used to hear when Roma gypsies were begging with babies on the underground and outside Harrods.
At night her relations don’t want to leave and the tiny Philippino nurses tried to shoo them out. I didn’t think they’d go. The girl next to me said there had been a fight the night before and security had been called to remove them. A Polish nurse appeared and persuaded them to leave. As they left the ward one of them had picked up the word, “bye bye,” and said it over and over in a kind of high mocking tone. Hidden behind my blue curtains it sounded as if we were haunted by the malevolent ghost of old Harry Corbett.
The next day I met my first Brit when I received a visit from a hearty woman anaesthetist in a track suit, and began to realise that this might not be the small op I thought. She asked if I wanted an epidural “to get some pain relief on board.”
Like someone who fears an exam, I started asking everyone, “This will be OK won’t it, and it’s only a small thing, isn’t it?”
You might need to give yourself a bed rest for a week after this,” a nurse told me. I couldn’t believe that would be necessary. I was still picturing a little key-hole wound.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Year Has Gone By

September 29th. Exactly a year since I finished chemotherapy.

Dr Arguwal at Hammersmith Hospital told me cheerily, yes, with a grin on his face, that the disease would return, “Within two months to a year.”

No sign of it yet – I see his fat face crushed under my foot like the Devil.