Monday, 27 April 2015

Easy Money

I've been to a lot of creative writing events over the years and wrote this short story from the imagined other side of the fence. With only moderate apologies to Paul Morley...

Easy Money

The author swings through the glass doors of the boutique hotel. Boutique hotel in boutique town. Everything smells of middle class comfort. He's met by the volunteer, a cheery lady more accustomed to marshalling girl guides than marshalling the literati. She shows him to the room where he is to conduct the creative writing class.

The big dining table is a snug fit in the room and not at all what he had envisaged. When the literature festival organiser had emailed him and asked if he would discuss writing with a group of would-be writers he had imagined a cosy scattering of chairs where he could roam the room at will discussing the finer points and giving his views on the questions of the morning. Instead he is trapped at the end of the table whilst the delegates make their way to the empty spaces around him.

It's 11.00 and he must start, conscious that every eye is resting on him, waiting for his brilliant insight, examining his appearance - 80s journalist chic, black shirt, loose dark jacket, stubble and surprisingly manicured hands with which he conducts the class. He asks them to introduce themselves and each in turn gives him something they want him to know about them. 

There are three PR women - how could it be that a town with more tea shops than businesses and pubs combined can have so many PRs? There are a couple of older guys who have probably been sent out by their wives who want them out from under their feet whilst they cook Sunday dinner. But there are two students too - one who breathes her name so quietly: "I'm F..." it comes out so he is scarcely the wiser. Fay apparently. And there's a young man who wants to be a music journalist. Now here's something the author can understand, whose greatest moments were defining albums by angry young men for a music paper. But the young man's dialogue is smattered with likes and yunnos and he muses whether his written prose is the same.

Then there's Carol. Not 'Hi I'm ..." but "I am Carol". Big voice, big blond hair and a big bow on her big chest. She tells the author that her daughter is an actress - as if that has anything to do with the price of fish but she wants him to know. As if, "I'm not just another of these losers." Beyond Carol and F...there's a shiny-topped little man who wants to talk about poetry. Why is he here?

They all turn their attention back to him and it's 11.20 so he talks about how he started writing. Nothing personal, just the process as it was when he started, pens and paper, typewriter ribbon. He talks about music journalism and sees the young man straighten in his seat, already brimming with his own imagined  success. The author talks about the abbreviation of journalism, the fast-fix statements for a time-short reading public that wants its answers in grading systems and simple answers, not in the beautiful sentences the author wants to write. It's noon and suddenly everyone wants to talk.

They talk, not listening to each other but to their own voices, about the closure of book shops, about reviews so short they're scarcely worth the name, about kindles and second hand book shops and vinyl. The room is alive and the author leans back in his chair, relaxed, and discretely checks his watch. 12.20.

This is easy. He can sit and listen to them giving their opinions, but "my daughter is an actress, you know..." crackles him back to life. How did the music journalist from Stockport find himself here amongst the middle aged and middle class? He's written a book about the North but it isn't this North, this neat and tidy, doing something to occupy retirement North. His North is bleak and dirty, warm and brassy and this might be ... Surbiton.

One of the retired men starts a long ramble about the kind of people you meet on a tall ships cruise and he stops him, exerting an unexpected rein on the pointless chatter. He reads to the group from his photocopied notes. Gobbits of laudable advice about writing, mantras of authordom. They listen again, intently, jotting notes and names of suggested writers. Taking down their own homework.

Now it's 12.50. The author sighs the start of his wrap-up. He's completed the task, earned his crust, maybe sold a book or two and he can smell the pint foaming into a tall glass in the nearest pub. The class push back their chairs and start to file towards the door with thanks and goodbyes. He's released.  He gathers his papers, pausing to shake hands with the young man who wants to write about music. A few of the class want a few words with the author, the rubbing off of stardust, making the imagined connection and then he's away, into the genteel foyer of the hotel, scouting around for the young porter he had sen on his arrival. 

"Where can I get a beer?" he asks, hoping the rapidly intensifying sense of urgency is apparent to the liveried young man. The porter is well-trained and nods in the direction of the chintzy hotel bar.

"No. An actual pub," explains the author. He's got it. The porter gives directions and the author is on his way, delighted to find that a real pub, not a franchised, sanitised bar for the chattering classes, is a short step away.

He stumbles into the beer-brown gloom of the old-fashioned boozer and nods at the pump of his choice to the tired barman. Seldom was a pint so anticipated, so welcome. He hands over the coins and pulls the pint towards him, lifting it to his lips for the first taste to swill into his mouth and down his throat. He feels a hand on his arm. It is the small shiny topped man.

"I thought I might find you here. I'd like to read you some of my poetry."

Friday, 24 April 2015

Back in the Saddle again...*

On Saturday 9th May I am going to start the Acorn 100k Bike Ride. Not in the sense of firing a gun or similar combustion device nor indeed standing at the start wishing good luck to the assembled lycra-clad lads and lassies as they head off. No indeed, I'm going to pedal.

When I started this (I won't call it 'journey' - so X Factor, I always think) life-changing experience it was almost exactly a year ago. We were in Barcelona celebrating 30 years of marriage and we were having a fab time - walking, wine, tapas, sightseeing, wine, tapas, watching Rafa... more wine, tapas etc. In the shower on our last morning I found a lump and since then things have been ... well, different. 

Anyway not to dwell on that stuff, as I write this morning I am waiting for the nice nursey to arrive to give me my ninth herceptin injection of eighteen (yes, half way there, folks) and she will stay with me for a couple of hours until she is confident I am not going to have a fit. I think I would have had one by now if I was going to but Health and Safety demands etc... The injection is the size of a comedy injection - yes really! Think very big syringe here! But apart from a bit of dead leg and usually an attractive purple bruise on my thigh (disappointment for those of you who imagined the injection elsewhere to add to the comedy) it's all ok. 

The nice nursey always asks when she comes every three weeks carrying all her needle paraphernalia, oxygen etc whether I am taking any exercise as most patients at this point apparently think that walking the dog is demanding and start proper exercise at the end of the 18 needle-jabbing events. Hmm. In January I confirmed that I was walking the dog/dogs (depending on whether Milton, daughter's dog was in residence) twice daily. In February, I confirmed that I was now doing a little light gym work - why can I only lift 3k with my left arm? March, yes I am back on the tennis court but huffing and puffing like an old horse. Anyway it's now April and I am back on the bike! (Not sure what she'll have to say about this).

When I knew what treatment lay ahead last summer, I set out in my mind what things I wanted to be able to do during the process. First one was James and Georgina's wedding which coincided with the first day of proper hair fall-out. But I was there. Then I managed just one hour at the Acorn Million Pound Ball - or rather me and Freda, the wig. And the next thing is that I wanted to be able to start the Acorn 100k Bike Ride. And here we are, just two weeks away and I have done precisely 3 bike rides - might have done more up to this point but a) I fell off and b) tennis is soooo much more fun! 

So given the events of the past twelve months, I do not expect to get much further than Easingwold (17 miles) but I'm going to try. If there is any form of wind or precipitation - rain, hail, snow, plague of locusts, frogs etc - I will not even start. However in the event that I do, if you would like to support me, anything I raise will be split equally between Acorn and the Sir Robert Ogden Macmillan Centre at Harrogate Hospital. This list of conditions is way too complicated for JustGiving so if you are happy to support me just message me/comment/email me words to the effect of 'I'm In'. Then I will get in touch with you afterwards if I have managed to cycle.

Thank you!

Me in fitter years just starting the Bike Ride - waving, cycling and not falling off!

*Just in case you want to pick up on the musical trivia... 

Monday, 13 April 2015

"Hullo clouds, hullo sky"

The other day I was exclaiming about how delightful and entertaining the lambs in our field were when I heard one of the children (who are, of course, all adults now) say: "Uh oh, mum's getting weird again." Followed by "She's going to take a picture of the lambs and put it on facebook" with heavy sarcasm. Yes, I am coming over all Fotherington-Thomas.

For the uninitiated, Fotherington-Thomas was often heard to say "hullo clouds, hullo sky", loved all things girlie especially nature and was unfortunate enough to be at school at St Custard's with the dastardly but highly entertaining Nigel Molesworth.

All this happens in Down with Skool, How to be Topp and my personal favourite, Whizz for Atomms - which should be standard reading for children even now - though is not very pc regarding spelling.

Anyway after that long digression, I am loving the arrival of spring in an entirely Fotherington-Thomas manner. Last winter was the darkest winter in my world and back in the autumn, I did not expect, nor could I begin to imagine, the arrival of spring. In late summer, the garden had become not only the National Collection of Dandelions (so named by the singing, dancing doctor - thank you) but was beginning to look like the Amazon rainforest. The marvellous Andy who came to help us out and is even now painting my banisters (no, this is not metaphor for anything else!) as I write, machete'ed down the weeds, dug the beds, attacked the overgrown hedges and... planted my bulbs. Too ill and exhausted to have any input whatsoever, he asked me where I wanted the bulbs and I told him to put them in wherever. So I am looking at not only a brilliant display of colour but also a surprising one, with hyacinths and daffodils and, in due course, tulips, popping up all over the place.

And walking the hairy hounds every morning I am loving all the wild stuff as well. Last night when I tricked my beloved into going on a long walk as part of his stoutness exercises (thank you, Pooh!) I was exclaiming about violets and celandines, whilst he replied stuffily with "I thought this was just a short evening stroll."
So I am now completely going over to the dark side, becoming Fotherington-Thomas with no boundaries and I can't wait for the bluebells! Yes, children, mum is getting weird again!

And because I have had such fun (turning into Miranda now...) writing this, I am going to share with you one of the finest pieces of advice for all children made to write thank you letters by their well-meaning and well-brought-up parents. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Unexpected Phone Call

Last Friday I had an unexpected phone call. Not entirely unexpected but certainly someone I had never spoken to on the phone before. It was a very close friend of a very close friend - literally. By way of explanation, this is a close friend of my close friend who lives just down the road, except that her close friend lives a long way away. Over the last thirty years we have met perhaps half a dozen times.

The reason why the call wasn't entirely unexpected was because she has breast cancer. She is just hitting the wall that I hit last June and she is in a very dark and scary place. I want to help her. Listening to her tell me what had happened so far reminded me of the place I found myself back then. There's a bench at the bottom of our garden where I did a lot of crying, staring at the garden and wondering whether I would make it through to see it bloom again.

So I listened to her fears, the jarred information, the million anxieties and worries and I found myself right back there. And I wondered how I could practically help. So over the last few days I have tried to work out what words of wisdom have been passed to me that I can pass on. There is nothing original or even rare about breast cancer so all I can do is try to pass on the good advice that I found to be true and worked for me.

Firstly, try to divide the treatment into manageable pieces. It isn't manageable, of course, it is bloody but at the beginning I just thought that at best I am going to be ill for a year. My cancer buddy (my tennis partner and seriously top girl) told me early on that each step is progress. So going to my gp with my lump was my first step and going to the hospital my second. After that came the surgery and chemotherapy and so on, but my new friend is having these the other way round. And each round of chemo is another step. The timescale is incredibly daunting. A year of my life, I thought. But Julie who did my reflexology (of which more later) reminded me that I was not ill for the whole three weeks of the chemo cycle and actually the really hideous bit only lasts a few days. Suddenly the time seemed not so long.

The second thing which I was constantly told and had to learn the hard way, was listen to my body. As the most competitive (in every sense - even board games) person I know, pushing myself and my body is second nature. I know now that when my body says 'enough', enough it must be. I pay big time if I push myself too hard - even now.

Accept help. I'm not used to doing this, feeling that I should be the one helping and not the other way round. Friends and family will, I promise, be amazing and will want to help you. Let them. People will amaze you and they genuinely want to help. The fact that 15 trips to hospital in Leeds in January - a round trip that usually took a couple of hours - were all undertaken by my friends and my children and didn't mean that my husband had to miss work is a testament to that. And actually made the whole process quite jolly rather than utterly miserable.

Look after yourself. I was advised not to go to busy places - in my world this was supermarkets, shops, cafes, restaurants, trains, cinemas, theatres, big parties, church, rugby matches etc. Once chemo starts you need to focus on making sure you don't pick up any infections as your immunity will be zip. For chemo to continue and therefore for you to get to the end, you need to pass your blood tests. White blood cells rule, OK. Also drink lots of water.

Take the drugs you are offered for the side effects and don't be brave. I took anti-depressants (after I nearly became an axe murderer) and sleeping pills as well as the ones for nausea, diarrhoea and constipation as required. Try complementary therapies - who knows how reflexology works but it was the best hour of my week for several months.

Two hard ones here from a dear friend who has had poor health for most of her adult life. Hard to accept and understand but it helped me to get to grip with these. Ultimately you are on your own in this - everyone who loves you wants to help but this is your fight alone. Do whatever it takes to get you through. No one can do this for you. Your family and friends can only stand on the touchline and cheer you on.

The second tough one is life goes on. It took me ages to work out what this meant but it really means everybody else's life goes on. You will no longer be the centre of things in the same way - there will be births and deaths, parties and celebrations, holidays and work. But not for you. But you will be treasured by your nearest and dearest in the most wonderful way. I thought of myself as the pooh stick stranded under the bridge watching the other pooh sticks sail by. But it's not forever. Just for a while.

Offload. Find someone to talk to who can support you in this. I had my brilliant cancer buddy who shared a lot of the misery and sadness with me. I will be there for you in this if you want me. I also spoke to the vicar who was absolutely wonderful and it was somehow easier because he didn't love me and therefore telling him how utterly miserable I felt wasn't so hard.

There is so much more I could say but perhaps, like the treatment, one step at a time. I hope this helps with all my heart.