Sunday, 5 November 2017

Store Dedicated to Cancer

Talk about London buses… I'm back again.  

Well, talk about London buses because I'm going to be down south next week at the launch of the UK's first retail store dedicated to people living with cancer, and their loved ones. It's the brainchild of Live Better With in collaboration with Browns and is based at Guy's Hospital Cancer Centre, London Bridge.

Honoured, is the only way I can describe being asked to attend the launch where I'll be reading from Tea & Chemo (any help choosing which chapter, gratefully received), participating in a Q&A together with Lucy O'Donnell, author of Cancer is My teacher, and signing copies of Tea &Chemo which will be available in store as well as from Live Better With online. 

And you're all invited! Please come and say hello, and bring some pennies because the shop looks gorgeous and there's nothing those clever people at Live Better With haven't thought of 😊

The store is now open Monday to Friday between 9 and 4pm and the official launch takes place between 11.30 and 1.30pm on Wednesday 8 November. Click here for more info. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Madness of Twins

I have two little sisters. They're not 'little' as such. They're 40-something and not even shorter than me – only my mum is shorter than me – but they are younger, so they shall be forever little to me. Anyway, they are also twins which makes them slightly bonkers. It always has done, and I've always found it fascinating. Even though they're grown and have families of their own now, the 'twinniness', as our older sister first coined it, hasn't let up.

They have this psychic thing. Granted, they shared a womb and a bedroom their entire childhood, some of the same teachers and of course, many of the same friends, so they're bound to be in tune.  And they look the same. Exactly the same. Having someone who shares every one of your features has got to bond you to them, right there, hasn't it?

But it's more than that.

They have had those weird unexplainable shared moments and shared pain, such as when one had a medical emergency in Italy and the other felt it in Wales, pre- mobiles, pre- even entertaining the idea of calling from abroad because it was way too expensive. They've bought the same clothes without realising and yet, somewhat surprisingly, they don't have the same taste.

The previous episode to make me gasp before this morning's, just-too-weird moment, was on the day of the launch party for Glass Houses. One was coming up to Yorkshire from the South of England and the other from South Wales. Both aimed to arrive 'around mid-afternoon'. Neither of them has tendencies to lateness – ahem, that's just me – but one is much more punctual than the other. The less punctual one rang the second, hands-free, to ask how she was getting on. Struggling! She was going to stop at the next services. How funny, says the first. It was exactly what she was thinking and she was only two miles away from being able to stop. Me, too! says the second. And they laughed at sharing yet another nugget of 'twinniness'.

Now, bear in mind that both sisters would join the M1 eventually but neither until the second part of their journeys and they hadn't discussed what time they'd leave their respective homes nor their ETA at my house. So when one says, Hang on a minute, isn't your registration '*$!"?~%'?, she wasn't expecting to see her (identical looking) sister at the wheel of the car immediately in front, now glancing in her rear view mirror as both stop talking and gasp because they are one behind the other, at the exact same time, on the exact same section of motorway, both craving a drink (and they're not like me, the kettle back on, the moment the previous cup of tea is gone) having set off from homes over 100 miles from each other. Well, that blew my mind.

But this, this is even better than that.

Today I get two pieces of post. One from each sister. They are lovely and I can happily report that all four of us sisters are very close, but we don’t send each other post every week. It's high days and holidays at most, so that in itself made me smile.

On closer examination, I see that one sister was rushing or multi-tasking when she addressed the envelope because it contained only my house number, street and the name of our tiny village. No town or postcode, let alone county. Consequently, the letter, a thank you for a present given in September, had taken a while to get to us. Although I must say, well done to the super sleuths of the Post Office and thank them for their determination as the letter had been to two other counties first.

Next comes the other sister's mail which is a Christmas card. This wasn't just any old Christmas card however, this had flashing lights and a picture frame type stand, because we both LOVE a bit of Christmas bling. We all send each other Christmas cards, and granted, of our entire family, barring perhaps one auntie, my Christmas cards are always the last to arrive, but still, I have never, ever in my 49 years on this wonderful planet, known any member of my super-sized family to send a Christmas card in October.

Something, some external force, and what I can only label as extreme 'twinniness' decided that this year, on that day, my sister was going to send me a Christmas card before Halloween and that card would arrive on the same day as a letter which had taken a very circuitous route to get to me.

This is the madness of twins.

And I think this is why a twin has crept into the first draft of my latest novel. This twin arrived unannounced and bears no resemblance to either twin in looks or temperament. And (s)he – no clues – may not survive the first edit cull, but for now, (s)he's amusing me. 

So, are you a twin? Do you have twins in your lives? Please do share your stories - I do love a good 'twin' story😊

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Spotlight Award for Tea & Chemo

If you held my hand when I had cancer, showed me it wasn't all bad -
If you sent me a message because you'd read a blog post and it had helped -
If you shared my posts, commented on Facebook, retweeted or liked -
If you told me I should have my blog posts published in a book…
… and said it again when I laughed.
If you are reading this now - 

Thank you!

Because of you I put on my big girl pants, thrust back my shoulders and submitted the idea for a book: It's Not All Bad, to Urbane Publications. And there we were, two days later, the husband and I, a year after my diagnosis and travelling to a cottage in North Yorkshire for a cheeky weekend away, when an email arrived from Matthew Smith, Publishing Director.  

He liked the idea, actually, he said, 'love'. He 'loved the idea'; I nearly smashed the windscreen with my squeal. 

And so it was that Tea & Chemo was born.

Without you all, the book would still be a figment of my imagination. And yet, here I am, very chuffed and rather stunned to learn that Tea & Chemo is the winner of the Live Better With's inaugural Spotlight Award for Best Cancer Book.

Please join me - the cyber bubbles are most definitely on me!

Monday, 23 October 2017

Don't tell me…

There's something you'd be wise not to say to me. I can bite my tongue if necessary, but would struggle to find an empathetic response.

It starts in September and is at fever pitch around now. It's the one about Christmas being over-commercialised.  

Of course it is. Of course it's sad that some people spend too much money and spend the next year paying it back. Of course it's obscene that we live in a world where some children's presents would fill a small garage and the next child is praying for a home. Of course we don't need the adverts which cost millions and oh, for the stores to give that money to charity instead. We don't need the shops to be selling stocking fillers before the clocks go back and to be buying each other duplicates of things we don’t need.

But we don’t have to subscribe to it.

We can just be together. That's still Christmas. In fact, go to church, have a special meal together because we all have the day off, raise a glass to absent friends (and to the wonderful people who do have to work on Christmas Day - the mid-wife, nurse and GP in my family to name but a few) and hug and laugh and play games and maybe give the odd well-chosen present and you know, all of a sudden, Christmas isn't so very different to how it used to be.

But if we choose not to spend Christmas with family and friends because it's over-commercialised, not to give even the smallest gift because it's got out of hand, and if we choose not to link arms around the piano, crooning alongside as a talented person bashes out Silent Night, simply because Christmas isn't what it used to be, then we should be dragged forthwith onto the set of A Christmas Carol.

Whilst I absolutely understand that for those who have lost people, Christmas can be so terribly difficult and my heart goes out to them, as far as abstaining because it's not what it used to be, I've always thought like this and the past few years have hammered it home.

Christmas 2013 and the hubby and I were waiting for the results which were to come on 27 December following my earlier tests for breast cancer. Apart from the two sets of parents, no one else knew we were waiting. It just felt the right thing to do. A couple of things had been said during the tests and in hindsight, it was blooming obvious the experts were worried but I think I probably didn't want to hear it at that time, that time being five days before Christmas.

I remember Christmas day vividly, our family all around, everyone happy, just doing their thing. It wasn't any different to any other year really: the hubby and the daughters begging me to exchange the traditional carols for some 'proper' music, secretly wondering if we might manage Christmas lunch before 5pm, some openly wondering if we might forego the walk, but all keen to play games and there were no phones in sight.  And I remember thinking, I'm so grateful for the 45 years I've had because I've had adventures and work I've always enjoyed, some achievements and enduring friendships and loads and loads of laughter but most of all, I love and am loved and that's all we need, and all we can ask, really. I decided this is what I would focus on if the news was bad - which it was.

I have a smile to myself every Christmas now about that, think yep, still here, still fortunate, still loving life. And you know, getting the diagnosis over Christmas time means I love Christmas even more than I did before :)

Today? Well, it's October half term in our house and for the first time EVER, not only am I saying I'm going to bake my Christmas cake tomorrow, it's been given its own special time slot, which means it might just happen. Wish me luck…

* Update *

*Update: I'd hate you to think I don't keep my word - and no, I never do the baking paper correctly but it hasn't proved a problem yet... Oh, and the baby one? Well, that's for deliciously cold November nights 😏* 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Misplaced Orcas and Worrying Bears

I was back with the so very lovely three presenters, Sue, Tina and June on their Girls Around Town show on Radio Newark last Sunday. We were talking Glass Houses - in theory - but we managed to start with silky soft voices which can't be raised, close encounters with stray orcas in Canada, aka killer whales, and beautiful bears foraging in barren undergrowth with their families which, although incredibly fascinating and the babies so gorgeously cute, were quite heart-breaking in their efforts to find an alternative to the salmon stock depleted by the 'wrong' type of farming. 

And then we went for coffee and cakes, OK, scones. But scones from Strays Coffee Shop in Newark which are very good indeed.

No, it is work, honestly...

With grateful thanks to Raymond Ip
for the photographs.
If you'd like to know what we did when the orcas got a little close, you can listen to the podcast here

And I do talk about Glass Houses and my Work In Progress: In The Taxi, or rather, what happened that windy night in Birmingham in November 2013...

If you'd like to find out more about the threats to survival of ocean salmon and the knock-on effect for the environment, it's explained well here.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Watch My Lips!

Hearing is not one of my strengths. I may have mentioned it before and it was certainly the subject of this post, when I spoke about the best Christmas present for people hard of hearing, and this one, written that glorious day when I became the relieved owner of my state of the art, blue tooth hearing aids. It was the day I realised that the seatbelt makes a noise when you pull it across your chest, that footsteps are audible and that when a car sounds terrifyingly close, it's probably happily zooming down an adjacent street, you've just got used to the level of engine sound which sends the message to your brain not to attempt to cross that road if you want to reach the other side.

I've also spoken about the glorious age of hearing technology in which we live and how I should be reprimanded when I moan about the negative impact of phones on our lives because, for me, the good side to the little beauties: messaging, emailing, social media and not least, bitmojis, as recently introduced to me by my eldest, far outweighs the negative effect they have on sociability and community. 
Who needs to hear when
you've got this up your sleeve?

Nonetheless, I can't pretend I am always upbeat about my lack of hearing. Being unable to participate in conversations when the environment is too much even for my amazing aids, or when, horror of horrors, they break (they are very tiny and packed with very clever technology so alas, they do need a little tlc fairly regularly) or somebody goes from whisper to full-on shout, accompanied by pained expression, with no warning of the escalation to come, so I just want to slink away, and when I'm struggling to work - then it gets me down.

Enter: a lipreading course.

Finally, after nine months on the waiting list, my first class was today. I was ridiculously excited about the life-changing, or at least, life-improving, potential for this. But I was also nervous. The stakes were high. I'd been told the art of lipreading is tricky and at the very least, I'd need to dedicate a year to this new skill, probably more. I was, and am, prepared for that. If it works it will be hours enormously well spent. But with such high hopes, I knew I'd be disappointed crushed if ten minutes in I had that sinking feeling that this might not be the miracle I'd hoped it could be. I'd also missed the first week of the course due to holiday and if I've got to be a newbie, I'd rather be a newbie amongst newbies.

So, after following Maps on foot to a street I already know but 'just to be sure' (I never learn), I made only two wrong turns and was still outside the classroom ten minutes early. Ten minutes early for me, is half an hour in punctual people's worlds. I was quite proud of myself; the extra ten minutes would allow time for me to meet the teacher, make payment and apologise in person for missing the first week. Not so, my class is full of punctual people. Only two students arrived after me and one of those had been stuck on a five mile stretch of the A1 for two hours. No matter, everybody smiled kindly, the teacher welcomed me several times and I settled myself in, making my first mistake before the lesson had officially started, by answering the teacher whilst rummaging in my bag. You'd think I'd know better. She asked the question again, and I realised the teacher's hearing was even worse than mine.

Quickly, I began to realise that I'd entered a meeting room unlike any other I'd ever been in. Everybody waits to speak; no two people speak at one time. If somebody doesn't hear, their neighbour softly taps them on the arm and repeats it to them, and everybody is quiet while they do. Nobody worries about saying 'pardon' – none of the 'two pardon lives' here, where instead of the third 'pardon' it's preferable to simply nod or shake the head (a scrutiny of the speaker's facial expression is a fairly reliable guide to which way to go), allowing the two or more of you to move smoothly away from the troublesomely awkward conversation – no, here, you can pardon all you like. No background radio, no noisy fans and the blinds, crucially, were drawn. I joke that if I could carry out my life in the soundproofed booth of the audiologist's testing centre, I wouldn't need hearing aids, and this room came a very close second to that. I should add that once comfortable, I found myself discretely checking out everybody's hearing aids – which is tricky as they're so tiny these days – so, let it never be said that I don't know how to party.

On with the lesson and we talked about barriers to effective lipreading and how to get around them, practised comprehension of a passage about the history of London's coffee houses with the teacher soundlessly mouthing each short sentence – I understood enough to know that it wasn't Starbucks who started it all - and practised the number six (it's the hardest to spot) as well as the 'ff' sound.

In short, in no particular order, this is what I learnt:
  • If I really concentrate, focus, clear my mind of the other rubbish, I can already understand a fair bit.
  • Ask your friends if they'll kindly let you sit with your back to the window in a restaurant so that you don’t have to wrestle with the light casting shadows over their faces.
  • 'Coffee' is easily mixed up with toffee, fluffy, muffly, wavy, banoffee, lovely and jiffy – but surprisingly not so much in context – which is comforting to know.
  • 'Coffee' looks very different to 'tea' and so you won't end up with the wrong drink, even if you can't catch who's paying.
  • Our teacher developed almost total deafness over the course of twenty years and communicated well through lipreading, until she had a cochlear implant a few years ago. It's wonderful to know she could manage but lipreading doesn't help you hear the birds or music, does it? This is one of those occasions where you have to love technology.
  • The first coffee houses grew up in London in the 1600s and by the 18th century, there were over 3,000 of them.
  • If you feel able, ask the person with whom you're speaking to remove sunglasses, a hat, hair over the eyes, perhaps their hand in front of their face, as these all affect your ability to lip read.
  • Charles 2nd didn’t like coffee houses because politicians gave away all their secrets chatting in them.
  • The art of understanding the spoken word through reading lips is written, 'lipreading' as opposed to, 'lip reading'.
  • Artificial light is better for lipreading than natural light.
  • Women didn't like coffee houses because the, 'new-fangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called "coffee" had transformed their industrious, virile men into unfruitful, babbling layabouts who idled away their time in coffee houses', or so said the Women's Petition in 1674. It made no difference and yes, that section was written down for us. Try me again in a couple of years on that one.
  • Certain people are easier to lipread than others.
  • I am by far the worst in the class. This is good because the others have been coming for months if not years and thus proof that it is possible to learn this stuff.
  • If you've been all-consumed with getting out of the door on time for your class and have thus forgotten about breakfast, none of the other students, nor the teacher, will hear your stomach rumbling and crashing around. 

So, did I enjoy my first class? Certainly. Will I be going back? Absolutely. Will I develop the skill to read what people are saying on the other side of the room?

Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it…??

Monday, 7 August 2017

It's the Timing

When I see that someone has a bucket list, my heart sinks.

It isn't that I don’t think a bucket list is a great idea, a positive goal, a healthy outlook, a wholesome, exciting way to spend time, and money, even. No, it's because nine times out of ten, the person who's written the bucket list has been given a horrendous medical diagnosis and my heart goes out to them.

The bucket list is great, it's the diagnosis I have a problem with.

So I say, go ahead, absolutely, have a bucket list! Fill it with things you'd like to do ranging from reading a book a week, to crossing Niagara Falls on a zip wire, if that's an ambition. No combinations of zip wires and waterfalls for me, by the way, I like to keep a foot or a wheel in contact with the ground at all times, don't care for pursuits which are too heavily dependent on the peaks and troughs of the environment. This might sound a little narrow minded but it is based on the experience of too many hospitals in too many countries, not to mention a few, but memorable, excursions over tiny ridges in howling gales when, I'm pleased to say, we've survived, only for my husband to say, 'When you look back though, it was a great buzz wasn't it?' And for me to smile sweetly and say, 'No, it wasn't.' Anyway, that's me, I digress. Bucket lists are about our own personal dreams and goals and my only problem with them is this.

It's the timing.

It's human nature. I get it. But all these things people say are true - we really don’t know what's around the corner. Disease is mostly indiscriminate. We've seen it in the news. From the most celebrated celebrities to our mum or our neighbour or our best friend, people get poorly. We could all get poorly at any time. One day you're at work, next day your meeting with your GP or the consultant to be told the results. And then it starts: the rest of your life. A different life. It doesn't have to be any less rich, truly. But it may be shorter than you had dared to hope it might be.

So why, at this point, do we strangely complicated species we call human beings, why only now do we first write the bucket list of things we need to do before we die? When time is shortened, when ill health may cut our income, when our weeks are punctuated with hospital visits and, let's be honest, the side effects of the treatments might not always make us inclined to climb Kilimanjaro, rather watch a day of films instead – which, by the way, if I had a bucket list, would be right up the top. I've never done it. I'd like to do it once.

I think we wait because we're generally selfless beings. We grow up with this admirable notion that we shouldn't put ourselves first. Everyone and everything (including cleaning the bathroom, paying the bills, watering the garden and that pesky thing called work… and that's before we even begin to consider our commitments to our loved ones) should be prioritised above our own wishes. We hope that one day we'll have more time, and then we'll have the luxury of putting ourselves first.

Being selfless is a wonderful trait. I'll go further and say that I'm not drawn to selfish people. Even a hefty dose of hedonism I struggle with a little, when family and friends are left at home, missing out to provide for the hedonist among them.

But since when is doing something you enjoy actually selfish? So long as it doesn't negatively impact on anyone else, I say it's nothing more than living a fulfilling life and rejoicing that you have life. I'd even go so far as to say that far from being selfish, living our lives to the full is being grateful for the gift of life and not taking it for granted. It would be rude not to…

So have a bucket list! Keep it with you, prioritise it, tick things off and add new items to it. Make it personal. Make it full of the things you want to do, not the things you feel you should do. But do it now!

Because none of us know what's around the corner.

I'm Going to be Here

I'm looking forward to being involved in Feva, the Knaresborough Arts Festival 2017, in its 21st year, on Tuesday 15th August at 7pm. Please join us for a Q&A and book signing, or rather, a big chat with a spot of wine. 
I sincerely love meeting and chatting with readers so do please come and say hello if you live anywhere in or close to these northern climes. 

And I had a great time here...
Many thanks to the multi-talented computer fixer, dad extraordinaire, all round funny guy, chef and photographer, Stuart Lawrence, for the photos from Newark Lit Fest in July. I had a giggle chatting with Cathy Bramley and Eve Makis to the lovely Tina Bettison and a lively, engaged and very knowledgeable audience. Thanks so much to all who attended.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


I had a scan coming up. I couldn't settle. I had acute scanxiety and thus it was a good job that 1. I'm not trying to hold down a job where I need to focus for a time span longer than four seconds and 2. I have a deadline for the first draft of my next novel in six small months. It's only a deadline to myself but it's a deadline I'm determined not to miss, nonetheless. A writing deadline is the best therapy. Writing is the singular thing in life where I totally focus and my mind doesn't wander. I don't half-heartedly plan the weekend whilst abstractedly pushing the mouse around the mouse mat, or fold clothes whilst stirring a sauce, the phone wedged under my chin. I am your archetypal multi-tasker (even though I truly believe that single tasking reaps way more satisfying results once you call time on the day's to-do's) except when I write.

No, when I write, I vacate my study in favour of the location of my characters and it's just me and them with varying degrees of excitement (they're behaving themselves, writing their own story and I'm enjoying it) or despair (they know what they want to do but just can't quite make it stick). My characters' world is not foolproof, but it is the closest I get from scanxiety.

I tell myself it's ridiculous. Having a scan doesn’t actually change anything in itself. There's nothing to say the cancer has grown, or moved, or is causing problems. I'm not in pain, in fact, my biggest ailments are through the side effects of the medicines striving to keep the cancer small, not from anything the cancer itself is doing.

As far as I knew.

And I guess that's the nub of scanxiety. It's amazingly easy to keep distracted, to enjoy life, make the most of not having so much work to do, say yes to coffees and not feel *too* guilty about going on holiday what seems like once a month at the moment. It's amazingly easy to feel that everything's fine, at least in this new world I've entered. Except, of course, when there's a scan in the near distance and you know it might rock your world, just when you were getting used to the new place. However much you rationalise that it's as likely that the cancer has shrunk with the change of treatments than grown, there's always the chance that the pictures, the meetings the experts have, the summaries your oncologist makes, might make it official that you've stepped a little further towards the place you don’t want to go.

And so, I could only hope, keep busy, and keep increasing the wordcount.

And now? The scan has been and gone and so has the follow up appointment with the oncologist. I didn’t post originally because I didn't want to pass on my stress but now that I've had the most fantastic news, I want to shout it from the roof tops: there is no change, not a glimmer, not a speck, no microscopic growth. We've had a tear, a drop of prosecco, a poignant lunch and now I'm back to the scribbling.

We live to enjoy another day. Life is good and I hope it's the same for you.  

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Something from Nothing...

Just a few...
I'd love to say that over the past few weeks of testing my children through their extraordinary stack of home-made flash cards for their A-levels and Year 12 revision, that I've learnt much about their subjects ranging from Klingon (sorry, I mean, Physics) to m=squarerootof 94061tothepowerof9-[c/theta&delta]minussomethingelseendingin'ta', to post-modernists and naturalists and how they disagree. No, I can't pretend I've learnt a single scrap of new stuff but admit that it's nice to finally be able to help my children with their school work for the first time since they were about three.

Nonetheless, this plunge into the most enormously far removed world of writing I usually frequent, has reminded me of a question which has spun around my mind for as long as I can remember. It's a strange question in itself for someone with such a blatant disinterest in science which lasted the entire extent of my school days - and some. It took me into my forties to generate anything like enthusiasm for understanding 'how it all works' and I blame my head-long collision into cancer for that as I do like to understand at least some of what they tell me.

You can't make stars from nothing.
So, the question is this: just where did the first cell come from? Yes, I know, the algae thing and the Big Bang and blackness and that Stephen Hawking stuff. But it's not that. It's the before the before, the very start, the absolute nothingness - where did that come from? How can something form from nothingness, how can nothing end up in a big bang? How was the ‘nothingness' formed? 

No one has ever answered that for me and although I believe in God the Spirit which guides us and *can* make us do the right thing, I don’t personally believe in God the Creator and certainly not as creator of the universe. But I admit that the theory of something forming from nothing, the scientific theory, isn't any more plausible to me.  

Is there anyone out there who actually feels confident that they can explain how nothing came from nothing? Or is this a question which is just too big even for the most brilliant of minds? 

Your thoughts are most welcome and meanwhile, I'd love to hear your questions, the ones you've never had answered - not that I'll be able to answer them, of course. Meanwhile, it's back to fictitious worlds and oddball characters for me. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

Naked Chance

I'm head down in The Taxi Ride, the current name for the first draft of my next novel which I wouldn't embed too firmly in your consciousness as it will last oh, anything from a week to a month based on my other working titles. They've ranged from The Tree House to Thrown Together to Lack of Charge and have all been summarily discarded already.

That isn't to say I'm not having great fun writing the story. In fact, my biggest frustration at the moment, due to my - albeit much pared down - work commitments, teens, exams and flashcards, the odd compulsion to hoover the house, catching up on a few years' of missed coffees with friends and family (that's important, right?) and err, going on holiday (I'll stop now before you craft the Voodoo doll) is that I can't spend every single minute on it. But that's first drafts for you. It's the wonderfully hedonistic feeling when the story flies from your fingers and the characters write themselves.

Fortunately, the book reviewer and popular blogger, Rachel Gilbey, kindly came to my blogging rescue and asked me to guest post in her Chances Fortnight. This is where writers talk about chances they've taken in their lives. Somehow my mind rushed to Ilse, the mother of adorable Andreas, the then seven year old German boy I was tasked to look after when I was an Au-pair. When Ilse chose to talk about her 'alternative' kind of holiday hours after we first met and when we were still using pictures to communicate as neither could speak the other person's language, aged 18 and not particularly worldly-wise, it was clear to me that my year off in Germany was going to be anything but dull.

We're also offering two signed copies of Glass Houses and details of how to enter the competition follow. The competition closes on 26 June. 

I hope you enjoy the read and good luck!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Entering a New World

The fear of the return of cancer is a most unwelcome, uninvited guest for anyone who's stared down this heinous disease in the past. Nonetheless, over the last three years since diagnosis, I've taken solace in the fact that my cancer, of the grade three variety, with its particularly nasty and fast working cells, was deemed to have been caught early. I tweaked my diet, got more sleep, kept up the sport, never missed a tablet and wished on every wishbone - this is one of those occasions where I can fully justify use of the word literally - literally ever since.

Still, it wasn't ridiculous to think that some of those irksome cancer cells might have put two fingers up to chemo, broken through the formidable defence of my lymph system (even when only three of my eighteen removed lymph nodes showed any sign of cancer having ever darkened their doors, it's that sneaky) and skirted past the barricade of white blood cells into the red stuff. They might have faced up to a year of infusions of Herceptin, and miraculously found the oestrogen they needed to breed, despite its big switch off by my daily dose of Tamoxibollox, sorry, Tamoxifen when my own body was struggling to find any oestrogen anywhere, and was clearly missing it so.

Nonetheless, when I celebrated my three year Cancerversary at Christmas, I was in a good place. I was working hard and enjoying it. Chemo brain mixed with Menopausal Mindmush was finally beating some sort of retreat - or perhaps I was learning to deal with it - either way, it had become less galling and a little more bearable. And I was finally tolerating Tamoxifen and an Easter 2016 hysterectomy a little better. I'd had two books published, one of which was a direct result of having cancer, and I had another novel in its infancy. Indeed the horrors of that initial diagnosis seemed oceans away from the babbling brook of my current life and I was daring to think that I might just be OK.

It was a new year and I had pins and needles in my hands. I wasn’t worried but my wonderfully caring husband is very good at pushing me to the doctor for anything unexplained.

The doctors also weren’t worried. But it wasn't Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and it wasn’t a side effect of Tamoxifen. Because it was unexplained, I was sent for an MRI scan to rule out disc degeneration in my neck.

After the 9.00am scan I skipped away from the hospital towards the gym, with my hospital take-out coffee, ticking off overdue errands as I went, sun on my face (no, really) snowdrops lining the path (yep, those too). Much as I adore teaching, I was thoroughly enjoying my cheeky morning off work.

Of course, I didn't know then that I was skipping into a new world. A suburb of Cancerville I'd had no interest in ever joining.

It was 3pm on Tuesday 13 March, the day after my MRI scan. I was at my desk preparing lessons, the hubbie was downstairs also working and our children were still at school. The phone rang. 'Doctor,' it flashed up. (And, 'This no. for appts,' because I have an inability to store a phone number without a story to accompany it.)

I'd had three MRI scans before this one for cancer related suspicions and all had been fine. Those results took a good two weeks to arrive in the post. The 'Doctor. This no. for appts,' only hours after the scan, made me brace myself to be told that I did indeed have a slipped disc. My poor friend has had two. The pain is horrendous and both times she had to have a scary, thankfully successful, operation to sort them out. A slipped disk also meant no running and with an acute addiction to putting one foot in front of the other, particularly over wooded paths lined with bluebells, I didn't relish this either.
A slipped disc was not the cause of my pins and needles which remain unexplained but unimportant. Another day I might have been relieved to rule this out. But I know people's voices when they have bad news. I think we can all hear the almost imperceptible sigh at the back of the throat, the intake of breath, the invisible, 'but' before the unfortunate person with the news shifts into the right position to get to the point of the call.

Fast forward three weeks, a bone scan, blood tests and a CT scan and there I am in the second appointment in my life where I shake and shiver as I grip my husband's hand, finding myself simultaneously watching over this poor couple in the oncologist's office who are being told that it's cancer. This time, it's secondary breast cancer in my bones.

I've entered a new world. My family have entered a new world and I wish we hadn't. I'm scared and I'm sad. But you know, I'm surprisingly not unhappy and I'm certainly not pessimistic about the future. Secondary breast cancer bone mets is not currently curable but it is treatable, often for a long, long time and it's getting longer. And the longer the wonderful medical people can keep us alive, the more time we have for them to discover something else around that corner.

I first blogged about cancer only two weeks after my initial diagnosis. This time it's taken me two months to come to the decision to post. I guess I needed to get my own head around it first, but there are two other reasons why it has taken me this long. The first is a concern that I would terrify people with a similar diagnosis of primary cancer to mine who'd previously taken comfort in me being a 'good stat', that I was one of the many to have a primary diagnosis and emerge a little battle weary, but otherwise 'free' of cancer and happy and healthy - as I certainly was, am, in fact. For the record, I feel great.

If you are in this group of readers, please try not to worry. I was just unlucky. Many more people with my original diagnosis won't go on to develop secondaries, than will. On a day years ago when I was all consumed by The Fear, I remember my oncologist saying that it takes time for us to learn to trust our bodies again, but time does work. He said that many more people with primary breast cancer don’t go on to develop secondaries than do. Please, if you take only one thing from this post, take that!

The second reason is related. I only ever wanted to blog about cancer in a hopefully informative, but certainly positive, way. I hoped I could calm a few nerves and put a metaphorical arm around the shoulders of patients and their loved ones who were a step further back on the rocky path of cancer, than I was. I desperately didn’t want to upset or spread fear.

But here's the thing. I feel I have to write because, once again, I think my experience might be helpful, calming even. All the time I feared secondary cancer which was, aside from my family contracting cancer, my worst fear, I would never have thought I'd have anything positive to say about it, nor that there could be any silver linings. And yet, in this relatively small time frame, I have found what others with secondary cancer already knew: I have discovered that I can still function, still be happy, laugh, joke, work and seriously play and this is what I want to tell you about.

And I will. But not today because this post is too long, even by my standards (!) Today, I'll simply say, please don't worry, I have no intention of going anywhere any time soon. I have way too many things to do and life to live, and you know, modern medicine is on my side. Today, I'll just say thank you. Thank you to everyone who has already given me so much love and support. I feel truly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life. And as I ended my first ever post about cancer the same is true now as then: It's really hard to feel down when so many people are showering you with love and caring. Love really is what makes the world go round, or should be anyway.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Lost Edit

I'm not prone to losing things – words perhaps, marbles certainly, but not actual 'things'. I'm far too obsessed with time wasting to be able to cope with 'looking'. Tick, tock, that clock goes, tick tock, another few seconds of valuable life spent in the futile search for a key, only to be repeated tomorrow. Nope, that's not for me. My key goes in my bag, maximum time spent on life – I quote (yes, I'm a joy to live with.) But sometimes, very occasionally, I lose something. Properly lose it – not, in the car, under a pile of papers, in a different bag, under a cushion, absent mindedly placed in the fridge instead of the cleaning cupboard, kind of losing it. No, proper losing, the, I am going mad type of losing.

The object in question? Half a ream of paper. The half is filled with scribbles and post-its and ticks and smiley faces. I have lost an edit, or more precisely, half an edit. The half with all the comments I haven't yet typed up onto the document, the half I've pored over for hours, the half which will have to be entirely re-done.

It isn't even my own writing. Although I'd like to be clear at this point, just in case the writer in question is reading this, the edit never left the house. It will appear again, of course, just as soon as I have re-scribbled the final remark which brings me back to the point when the edit first disappeared.

Meanwhile, I am cutting my losses and moving into damage limitation phase. The search has been officially curtailed at two hours and fifty minutes*. I have printed out a new hard copy but, ever the optimist, I will start from where I left off, kidding myself that the fairly-elves will flutter by, wink as they drop the offending missing extract into my lap and whisper, 'Hey, we enjoyed that,' moments before I finally admit defeat and re-commence editing the fated first half.  

*Now, when I say, two hours and fifty minutes, it isn't strictly accurate. Yes, my Saturday morning slipped between 10am and almost 1pm and I am no further on with this editing task, and a whole lot further behind. However, a few choice items did appear as I threw my study upside down and it would be a little misleading to pretend a few moments hadn't been spent marvelling in them. There's the photo – I have so few – of my half-brother and half-sister from over twenty years ago. One of them may have recently celebrated their 30th birthday, but I still think they're cute. And oh, how proud were we all of that snowman, standing almost up to my knees.

Next up were four packs of pen refills which had slipped inside a ruled notepad. I thought I'd bought a lot lately, but assumed I'd been working hard. There were the inevitable coins (although disappointingly, no notes, not even in the pockets of coats I found myself looking through which would barely hold a folded sheet of A4, let alone 250 of them) and a girl can never have too many emery boards, hand lotions and cuticle softeners, uncurled paperclips (it's a dreadful habit, along with chewing my nails when I'm really concentrating) hair bobbles, old diary pages (now shredded) new books - ahem – which I'd forgotten about (do NOT tell the hubbie or the authors) and chargers. I'd had a big cull in the summer, clearly not big enough.

And then I found this. I didn't find it exactly, everything in its place, of course, but I had forgotten it was there. There were letters from my school friends when I'd taken a 'year out' in Germany as an au-pair and they'd gone to uni while I was seriously questioning what I'd done. It's hard living with a non-English speaking family when, A-level in German notwithstanding, you're barely able to say your name let alone ask for theirs. Suffice it to say, the disconcerting beginning had been all but forgotten but thank you Helen and Rachel for cheering me up in the early days.

I did a couple of seasons of tour guiding 'in Europe' in my early twenties. (I wrote about life as a tour guide with no sense of direction, here) and some of the American holiday makers sent me beautiful, long and lyrical thank you letters after their trips. They were a short story in themselves, and remain mementos of a by-gone age I've long since discarded. I'm glad I kept them. Although incredibly touched by their efforts, I'm sure I didn't appreciate back then how precious they would grow to be over time.

There were even some letters to myself. I wrote a diary from the age of 13 which was wonderfully cathartic. I wrote it until, aged 23, I had a Forrest Gump moment, deciding that my diary and I had been through a decade of loves and loss together but suddenly, I didn’t want to write it anymore. And I never did. But sometimes, very occasionally, I'd write a letter to myself instead. They were how I found some calm in a few iconic moments in my early adult years.

I was flicking through some of these letters when I found a scribbled note on Mr Men headed paper which looked like a letter but was merely a few rushed bullet points. They were based on an exasperating experience I had getting back from Birmingham train station one day, and the people I'd met along the way. Those notes were all I had of an idea for a novel.

Until today.

I have since written over a thousand words and am seriously considering bringing the current manuscript I'm working on to an abrupt halt and working on this instead. My instinct is telling me to do this and my instinct told me to stop what I was writing once before and write Glass Houses in its place…

I shall leave it there for now but let's just say, far from a lost morning searching for my lost edit, my Saturday is turning out to be very fruitful indeed.

Although, forgive me, if I have just one more look in the 'edit in progress drawer.'

*Update* I scribbled this blog post down a few weeks ago. The edit is now done and submitted. The Lost Edit has still not returned. Meanwhile, there is a fault on my phone line and, unrelated apparently, we lost Wi-Fi for three days and four nights and all that precious time saved in not searching for missing keys was lost in a whiff of 'one-more-go-trouble-shooting'. Forget fairies, we have Gremlins. Or perhaps, ghosts. Maybe my 1890s house is creaking in protest against our technological world. I don't blame it. But that's another story.

What is another story, is that the Birmingham inspired novel has become all-consuming and I now have 15,000 words of the first draft under my belt. I cannot tell you how happy I am that the Gremlins stole my work that fateful Saturday.