It is the dawn chorus outside. Half past four in the morning. Katze is awake but humans are asleep. So I thought I would bother you dear readers instead.
Thing is, I have hit a teensy low.
I plucked the Lung Nodules out of the back of Ferdinandos’ mind and popped them into Google. You see, my cousin Jeanie had put a comment on my Nodules post. It said ‘Sorry about the nodules, Hester.’ Hang on, Jeanie is a nurse. She must know what the hell nodules are all about. And if she’s sorry about them that means they are not good.
Within minutes of investigating lung nodules I became convinced I don’t have long. Any lung nodules are 40% likely to be malignant. Mine are more likely as I already have cancer. And radiation to chest area as a teenager? Not good. And Metastatic Disease, which is what this would entail for me, is not curable, only treatable. It kills many people.
Another worrying thing was that every time the main symptom came up for metastatic lung cancer it was ‘shortness of breath’. I have had shortness of breath. Well, more like shallowness and rapidity of breathing. At night.
Fred says two little 7mm nodules wouldn’t make me short of breath. He also says I’ve probably had the nodules for years, and they are probably due to a tiny injury from having the lung drained when I was young. Kind Fred. Although he was reluctant to pick Bash up from a party because he wanted to watch the football. It was only when I boohooed ‘Bash doesn’t want a ba-ha-hald mother with a stu-hu-hu-pid hat on picking her up,’ that he realised I had got myself into a bit of a state.
Have been awake most of the night softly singing ‘We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun….’ and, a bit louder ‘Goodbye Papa, it’s hard to diiiiiiie, when all the birds are singing in the skyyyyyyy….’ I mean, Mets means Stage IV. I thought I was Stage 2. I could handle Stage 2. It would be a bit sudden to have to zoom up to Stage IV.
The thing is, life is sweet to me. I have dear memories of our planet, as do we all. You can skip the next 24 paragraphs if you can’t stand the idea of a brief run-down of my lifetime memories. I know it is self-indulgent but I want to note them down just in case the lunglumps kill me.
Age five, we rowed a little boat through the reeds in our ‘mango swamp’ on holiday in Achmelvich, Scotland. We would visit all our Scottish cousins. Sometimes we went for lunch at Auntie Jean’s which was very posh as Uncle Bill was a General and they had a butler. Age six I visited Great Granny in Jamaica and guzzled unlimited warm mangoes from the tree. I remember camping in the Dormobile by a crisp cool lake in Switzerland eating the fish we had caught. I made a first friend, Jenny Young, who made me realise that jeans were better than dresses. At home we always had entertaining lodgers: Sandy, Miriami, Carmen and Anna, Natalia. I remember Auntie Lindesay playing the piano while I read Ferdinand the bull with Uncle George. I can see my brother Fergus, in the garden at Barton Road, serving us up the first asparagus he had managed to grow.
I flick through memories like in a flip-book: the cottage in the Highland village of Badluarach where we found Kimmy, our little dog. Singing along to Abba songs and The Boom Town Rats’ ‘I don’t like Mondays’ with my brother Pete on piano. A train trip to Nancy to stay with La Famille Brancher to learn French. My first ride on a small black pony when we were staying in Newcastle with the Hovendens. Fergus watching ‘Roots’, showing me anti-vivisection leaflets and helping me prepare my Health Food talk for school by making me declaim again and again Yudkin’s ‘Sugar is a Pure, White and Deadly Poison!’ I remember him going vegan, cooking Mugi Miso and Apricots Hunza-style, training to be an athlete.
I have a whole mental flip book from our time in Bristol: the view over the city from Upper Belgrave Road, crazy-steep hills for biking, my thumb being hit by a hockey stick and the nail falling off, the mad drunken loon who burst into the house when Pete was playing the bagpipes. My dad told him to get out or he would call the police. ‘Fook the Fookin Police,’ slurred the man. Our cat Pushkin was killed on the road (not a good memory.) I ran on the Downs with my sister and Kimmy, and spent weekends out in the Mendips with Georgina and her lovely eccentric family, the horses Firefly and Edward, her pony Silver and donkey Bertie. I would take the train to Yeovil to spend a week in a caravan with Darylle, stalking poachers in the middle of the night and galloping bareback through woods smashing our knees on branches.
Then there was Cambridge again. I cycled across a frosty Midsummer Common with my friend Hermes, she on her cool mauve racer, me on my square red bike. Latin. Science. Maths. French. English. Thank God for Mrs Findlay. She would walk into the class and read us out loud the first chapter of a really good book, like The Day of the Triffids, for example. The bell would ring and she would go. That was it. We would all go and find a copy of the book so we could finish it.
How could you forget interrailing with Nellen? Our first brush with Greece. Ios, the party island. Conking out on the deck of ferries in our sleeping bags. Then on my Gap Yah I split the time between Chamonix working as a waitress in a creperie and Greece again to learn Greek when I lived with lovely Yolanda, Lia, Yiayia Yola, Elza and Maki in Halkidiki.
I went to Oxford to study French and Modern Greek. I loved it down in the bar with Jon, Tom, Dave, Jim, Duncan, Aziz, Becky, Christina and Hanna. I accidentally knocked on Fred’s door up Cowley Road, looking for someone else. He invited me in for a cup of tea. We stayed up all night talking.
I asked Fred if he wanted to go to Greece with me. He said ‘Yes’ before asking ‘How are we going to get there?’
‘Erm, we’ll have to hitchhike,’ I replied.
Fred spent a lot of time catching lizards on dusty roads. We were slow. It took us five and a half weeks to get there. When we got to Greece we sat in Igoumenitsa in a cafe. Fred walked over the road and felt a tractor with his hands. When he came back I asked him why he had done that. ‘Just checking it’s 3D,’ he said. We crossed Greece to Halkidiki to see my Yolandoula. It only took us three days to get back home. You learn the tricks of the trade. Less lizards, more progress. Only get dropped off at service stations. Keep talking to the lorry drivers so they don’t go to sleep and drive you off the cliffs of mountainous northern Greece.
OMG what about the time in Amsterdam when Fred found he had a mouse living in his pocket as we had been living on bread and cheese? All the druggies living in our very cheap lodgings thought he was hallucinating when he said he had a mouse. Until it ran out of his sleeve. Then they freaked out.
So back to the flip book: a siblings’ trip to Scotland for our grandparents’ Golden Wedding, and stopping off at the beach at St Abbs on the way home. The bells heard from my room in Oxford. French novels, Greek poetry, Divinity Road for the second year and naughty chillums in Billy’s room. Playing backgammon with Hanna.
We went to see Ferg in a play in Windsor where he was a gardener for the Queen. Black’s Beach in California, boat trips, road trip to Mexico, tequila guns.
Ferg’s coffin being carried out of the church. Just awful. I will have to tell you more about this another time.
My third year in Thessaloniki with Annika, Anastasia, Angie, Audrey and Dino. This was a hugely tricky time as it was just after Ferg died. We ended that year with the discovery of Gavdhos, an island where you don’t have to wear clothes and you mould into the Juniper bushes and become part of the landscape. After four months of building dry stone walls and playing Bally Bally with Taki and Giorgo I felt a bit better and Fred realised he needed a library and went to Edinburgh to study Computer Science. Back in Cambridge in our mid-twenties we moved into number 207 Mill Road, painted flying teapots on the walls and held a Party of Special Things to Do with Wozzie, Barney, Bella, Cheryl, the strangely named Abigail Rainbird Tripp and the crazy gang including Ziggy and Dylan who gave us Zappy dog.
We hung out in The Empress and The Jubilee drinking bitter and playing pool. I experienced a short and doomed career in PR but liked fundraising for Emmaus UK even though with all the junkies it got a bit intense and I ended up with not a few homeless people sleeping on my floor. Then came moonlit explorations of Wandlebury at night with Oddly when she was a puppy and then we were living up the Roman Road in a Bedford CF van. The fire-throwers would be heading off to bed at six am just as Fred was adjusting his tie in the wing mirror to go to work. Fred did learn to juggle fire and five balls during that time though. Oddly got bonked by two naughty gypsy dogs in a bush and gave birth to two fabulous puppies, Funnily and Strangely. I thought ‘If that little dog knows how to have puppies, then surely I know how to have a baby.’
‘Shall we make a little Alfie?’ I asked Fred.
‘Yes’, said Fred. He had had a revelation one night. It was that he did not have enough responsibility in his life. Within a year the poor chap had a baby, a wife, a house and a little later a new job in London.
Thank God for Francoise’s yoga for pregnancy. That started everything off well. Chloe was born in hospital. She looked very strange to me, like a little misshapen alien. I was in shock. I wanted to tell my mum that she had been born. ‘There’s a phone up the corridor’ they said. I pushed her very slowly in her little bassinet thing. ‘Mum,’ I said, ‘it’s a girl. She’s called Chloe.’
‘Oh!’ exclaimed my mum. ‘Is she the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in your life?’
I looked again more carefully. ‘Erm, actually, mum, you know, she really is!’ I said. It was instant, just like that. I loved my baby. Which made it all very simple. Plus she went to sleep for three months which helped. Fred’s mum Irene absolutely loved Chloe. She came over when the baby was four days old and just held her and looked at her for hours.
Tabby was eight days late. She chatted to Gwanny and Gwampa when she was only twenty minutes old. She wanted ding-dings all day and all night. She would craftily wrap her fingers in my hair while I was feeding her so I could not slip away without waking her. She was very funny and skilled at twizzling round in her bouncer.
Nellen, Levi and I walked up flowery tracks, breastfed our babies, made soup and toast and tea. This is Levi with Nellen’s baby Olive.
I played high Cuban flute in a London salsa band with Annie. (BTW careful if you play high flute because my old flute teacher Howard, now Hridrayamati as he is a Buddhist, tells me that flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal thought that the high notes drove a lot of players mad.) Fred looked after the girls while I rehearsed. This is Fred’s idea of childcare:
Chloe started play school. Fred’s mum sadly was diagnosed with bowel cancer during this time and died too quickly for anyone to understand what was going on. Fred’s sister Gwen and I both experienced an intense dream of her, strong and healthy, on a bus with flowing skirts and the children on her knee. Isn’t that strange?
Then when Chloe was four and Tabby two we moved to New York for a two-year stint. I cycled round Central Park and went shopping at Zabar’s with Karen (who is a chef on Good Morning America – you tend to meet the most incredible high-flyers in New York). We swam in the pool on the roof of our 44 floor building, and learnt to rollerblade and did illicit dancing in the park fountains with artist Michelle who painted the crying woman on the piano and the African children on the drum.
Really sadly, Great Granny was in an accident in her car during this time and died a few days later in hospital. I couldn’t go to her funeral as I was too pregnant and recovering from an op. She never met Alfie who was born in a jacuzzi in a birthing centre on W13th St.
We spent weekends in Bear Mountain at Tabby’s teacher Janine’s little log cabin next to a bubbling river. We discovered the beaches of Fire Island. Annie came to stay and took me to Cuban night clubs to dance salsa. We flew to San Francisco to stay with Michelle’s mum. Michelle showed us round town and took us to Yosemite.
Flip flip flip. I painted abstracts with babies a lot as it was one thing that kept Alfie happy. We found our house in Bishops Stortford and knew it was the one. Bashi was born in a pool in front of the fire at six in the morning. The dogs went outside to bark the news to the world. The neighbours’ kids came in bearing gifts on their way to school, three from next door and three from two along, like the shepherds and the wise men. We have a wonderful photo somewhere of Fred’s Grandmother, GreatNan, smiling down at newborn Bathsheba.
I sang to babies and the babies sang to me.
Seven months later we went to Maisons Laffitte, France, again for a two-year stint. These memories make me laugh: on impulse, seeing a tall woman with two old dogs and a funny purple hat walking home with her daughter, parallel to us, I told Chloe to run over and invite them to her birthday tea party. Turned out she was from Colorado. We ran out of glasses at the party, so by the time we went onto beer, we were drinking it out of a kiddies’ plastic tea set. Janet went to find a wine glass. She looked inside at my tip of a house. There was a hoover by the door. ‘Is that an art installation?’ she asked. I knew then that she was going to be my friend. Her husband David turned up with six bottles of wine so we carried on deep into the night. They went home forgetting to take their dogs Crow and Boingo with them. We phoned them in the morning and said ‘Did you forget anything?’
Janet is sometimes a great help. In a fit of doubt I asked her if I should take the leap and adopt two ponies from the riding school which was closing down. She chuckled: ‘You’re asking someone who comes home with a goat in the back of the car!’
‘And goes back and gets another goat the next day,’ added David. ‘And then those goats have babies…’
This is Janet and me visiting Penel in Strasbourg:
Another night in France Fred nearly castrated himself on a small bendy tree. He raised an old bed frame above his head to smash it for firewood but then started staggering backwards. We witnessed his face making incremental steps towards a look of serious panic before the tree eventually popped out from through his legs. The resulting impulsion knocked him over and the bed smashed anyway.
Flip flip. We brought the ponies back from their stables in France and turned them out into a meadow full of buttercups. Bash wore princess dresses for a year then, aged three nearly four wore her school uniform all summer (bleeeesss) even at Mangey Cottage in Glen Esk – she was that excited to be going to school.
I can still see my little flute pupils making their mummies weep as they played ‘Walking in the Air’ at our Christmas concerts. I started as a helper at RDA. Alfie started writing his little books.
Then my friend Arulesh’s daughter, Anjani, was killed in a car crash in Sri Lanka. This was the most awful blow. I understood because of Ferg. We cried and cried for months and months. I got Treacle for them as a dog was the only thing I thought might help. Arulesh and I walked very slowly round the fields of Dane O’Coys with the dogs and talked about life and death.
We will never forget Hockerill teacher Mr Ullman’s revelatory exchange program which sent Chloe and Tabby to Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Romania, Hungary and Rwanda. This led to funny times with exchange students from all over the world – Miyuki from Japan making origami swans at the breakfast table stands out. Miyuki brought her friends round to play ping-pong in the big room. I asked them all if they would like to go to visit the ponies. They piled into the Transit van and all started exclaiming in a mixture of horror and delight and taking photos of all the hay, head-collars, dog leads and rubbish on the floor of the van. The ponies took one look at them and their flashing devices and galloped off snorting.
We all cried when we dropped Miyuki off at the coach in the Hockerill car park at six am, because I said as I hugged her ‘See you soon, Miyuki,’ as you do. And Alfie said, ‘We won’t see her soon, Mum, because she lives on the other side of the world.’ But Ha! Next October, Alfie is going to Japan and will be able to see Miyuki. (He will have to take new pictures of the inside of the car for her, so she can see nothing has changed.) So it wasn’t soon, but it won’t be never neither. We thank Mike Ullman and his legacy for that. He died from cancer not long ago which gutted everyone.
We have picked blueberries and dived in lakes with Annika in Sweden. We bought half of a narrow boat with Barney. Alfie learnt to play some stringed instruments:
There was Allycats, Operatics, Young Actors Company, Craft Ensemble. Arulesh gave birth to a baby boy called Anish, and later a baby girl called Ishani. Claire and I started a book group in the Half Moon pub. I started Iyengar yoga with Lorna. Fred drank with the DONS and took Alfie to football as he was goalie for the Stortford A’s. We returned to New York for Alfie’s tenth birthday to show him where he was born.
My friend Beth visited from France for an unforgettable marathon drinking sesh in the Half Moon. Through Margeret’s pottery classes we discovered Pete Lemer’s underground studio. And then there was Jammy Dodgers, the Musical, written by Chloe!
Tabby was on Eastenders as Lauren’s friend. The girls dressed up every year to go to the opera with Aunty Lindesay and Uncle Peter. I trained to be an instructor with RDA. We became roadies for Chloe’s band Pandora’s Box. We took plays to Edinburgh twice. The dogs and I started up a new Friday walking group with Phoebe, Sally, Debbie, Louise. I accompanied Chloe to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music and as we stepped out of the cab I knew it was the right place for her. Amidst these snapshots there are thousands of others, some not so good, some, of course, quite awful and scary. Each one can be clicked on to open the full story, sadly not on here, (yet!) but in my mind.
Thinking about all this mass of stuff that is my life, I see that really I have probably almost lived long enough. (You spotted the ‘really’ ‘probably’ and ‘almost’ qualifying that sentence!) You can pile a lot of excitement into 46 years. However, until a couple of years ago, I often felt overwhelmed and too busy. I wouldn’t mind having a couple of decades of calmer time to be an instructor at RDA, coach my flute pupils till I am sure they will never give up, reflect, read, drink gin with friends and wallow in Greek waters.
Oh, my, I have remembered a pivotal moment: while we were in New York, a friend of mine, Terri, turned up on my birthday with a book for me about writing. It was called ‘The Artist’s Way.’ She said ‘You said you wanted to write a book, so this will help you begin.’ I was very touched that this woman whom I didn’t even know that well was taking my desire to write more seriously than I was. Coincidentally I received in the post a book from my friend Sarah in Saffron Walden. It was called ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding.’ The two books together fuelled the creation of my book ‘A Breast of the Times‘. Writing became important.
My Aunt Lindesay just sent me a copy of a five-year-diary that Great Granny at age 39 kept from the years 1948-1953 when she was living in Ladysmith Road, Edinburgh. It starts when Lindesay was 14 and my dad 12. It is a fascinating read. Great Granny is gone, but she’s not gone, as you hear her voice and feel her spirit clear as day.
So, what am I saying? I don’t know, I’m in a state, I tell you. What is important to us in life? Education. Stopping cruelty. Making change. My sister would say revolution. Creating with a view to leaving something behind? Fundraising for important causes. Helping others. That does reduce the pain and anguish. But now others are having to help me. (I admit they always have been helping me: people felt they had to, because I had lots of babies and was messy. Thanks for that.)
I am in less of a state now. Typing out my life has been therapy. Soz for being soz. Now I should just start tidying up all the mess I’ve made. I’ll tidy and Chloe will clean.
BTW Diabetes Newsflash: at Tabby’s eventual teen diabetes clinic on Thursday at Addenbrooke’s this clever-looking chap with an impossibly quiet voice told her she has been injecting double the slow-release insulin she should have been for the last three months. She’s reduced it by half on his instructions. Her blood readings have shot up though. We are trained to have ketoacidosis-fear so are WUZZED.
Exciting Newsflash: Alfie’s best mate Alex Patton has been selected for England Rugby Trials. Wowzer. We are thrilled.
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