Thursday 31 December 2015

Two Years Hence

It slipped itself in between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, waved, smiled, winked and left. I gave a nod of appreciation, lifted an imaginary glass of champagne (imaginary because you know The Body That Got Cancer likes to keep a firm eye on its units and the bubbles had been flowing since Christmas Eve) and took just a moment, a quiet moment - I'm still not ready to dance on the tables - to say thank you.

With the 27th December came my second Cancerversary. I'm superstitious. I know enough to know that we can never dismiss the potential for secondaries or, indeed, that any of us can be complacent about the potential for a primary cancer to form, but I'm grateful for the relative peace and calm that my Two Year Cancerversary brings.

Last year I wrote about my first Cancerversary here. It was a cautious celebration in a sort of raw, new girl at school kind of way: knowing it should be fun but not quite ready to let down all my defences. This year I feel more settled in, comfortable, that I understand the post cancer diagnosis and treatment world into which I was plunged and most days I can cope with it quite effortlessly, thank you.

The Fear which I wrote about here, does still haunt me from time to time. I've had a few scares, just admirable vigilance on behalf of the medical profession, and although my style is to busy myself so that I have no room left to fret, the fear does nonetheless manage to settle itself in over the top of my brain sometimes and leak into my thoughts. It's not an undue pressure, nothing like the early days of The Wait and The Not Knowing, nothing like the fear of recurrence when chemo finished and for a few months after, but it's 'just there', in an annoying little tic kind of way.

So, from the position of being two years post cancer diagnosis, I would like to say to anybody who is further back on this rocky road than I am, it does get better and it gets a whole lot easier.

So much had happened since my first anniversary a year ago. Last 27th December, I hadn't even heard of the pioneering publishers, Urbane Publications, let alone submitted to them and here I am with Tea And Chemo published and Glass Houses on its way out of the door next June.

Most of my work was on hold during my year of treatments so I only really started back to teaching and editing at the beginning of 2015 and you know, I'd really missed the buzz of writers excited about their stories. My return to work this year has been a baptism of fire with the writing and promotion of Tea And Chemo to throw into the mix, plus the small matter of my final edits on Glass Houses, which we'll gloss over because I'm a little behind on those. But it's been wonderful to be back to full busy-ness again. Although sometimes I curse the stairs up to my office after dinner or at the weekend, cancer taught me, if I didn't already know, that sitting still doesn't really work for me.

This year other people I know have been diagnosed with cancer, some very young people in my online group have developed secondaries. Some have died from them. My heart breaks a little every time. Not for me, so far I continue to be one of the lucky ones, but because cancer is still such an enormous thorn in the side of human health. Great strides have been made in all areas of cancer diagnoses, cure and care but until we can take a pill to rid ourselves of cancer before it even suggests any danger, until we have 100% accurate diagnostic tests to take action before it dares to become a possibility, we must keep fundraising, caring and raising awareness.

This Cancerversary, in addition to the wonders of the medical profession that blasted the cancer cells and my family and friends who kept me sane and continue to do so, I'd also like to thank Matthew Smith, owner of Urbane Publications. Right from the start, when Tea And Chemo was a collection of blog posts and an idea, Matthew determined that Urbane Publications would also give every penny of profit to the three charities I was keen to support:The Haven in Leeds, The Sir Robert Ogden Macmillan Centre in Harrogate and the national charity, Breast Cancer Now.

If you are interested in buying a copy of Tea And Chemo, your purchase will help the three charities. If you are not interested in buying a copy of Tea And Chemo, that's ok, I need never know… but you could still give your pennies to one of these three charities and then you wouldn't feel half as bad :)

Meanwhile, I'm off to celebrate because it's New Year's Eve and the new year coming, the adventures we don't yet know, now that's something I really love to celebrate. Have a wonderful new year lovely readers, may 2016 be filled with life-affirming moments.

Saturday 12 December 2015

A Reminder

Seeking help from The Top
Because the Christmas Goddess crown is still sitting somewhere around my midriff and because I can't remember a year when I have been quite so ill prepared for the festivities which I can unfashionably say, I nonetheless adore, I thought I'd share this post with you. I wrote it a staggering five years ago and when I stumbled across it this morning, felt compelled to seek out the Christmas Crooners. Dean Martin's Silver Bells has been playing on repeat ever since. Phew! I even wrote some Christmas cards - only the ones for America and Australia, granted. 

Confessions of a Christmas writer

Not everybody likes Christmas starting in November.  I respect such frustration, understand the logic but don’t count myself among these protestors.  The anticipation, the decoration, the spendification just can’t start early enough for me.  I’m the dreadful mother who allows her children to play the Christmas CD in the car in September, actively encourages letter writing to Father Christmas and Mother Wrapalot in October and remembers she should have made the Christmas cake in November.  (I write Christmas cards two days before Christmas but that’s another story.)

It’s best when the children break up from school a week early so we can wrap presents together in front of Wife Swap USA, make another batch of mince pies as soon as the next pack of pre-rolled pastry has defrosted and play Winter Wonderland on the piano pretending not to notice the unintentional rhythmic alterations. 

I tend to have a tear at the school’s Nativity, even when I can only hear every second word and my own children have long since graduated.  There’s something just so appealing about a three foot Mary.  And I even like the slightly over zealous Vicar pleading with us to stop and think.

I like snowy walks with my family, meeting friends in the pub en route.  I like my presents, scant in number certainly, perhaps not of the highest quality but chosen so very much with me in mind.  I’m wearing those pink USB heated slippers now, for example, reluctant as I am to put on the heating when it’s only me in the house.

I even ‘get’ turkey; fifth day turkey, curried turkey. I read that 86% of people eat turkey only because they feel they ought. I read a tweet about eating duck instead.  I eat duck but I’m not so keen on it curried.  I like, no I love, people coming to stay, leaving late morning after two jugs of coffee and more chat after the chat and wine and food and chocolates of the night before, the children all playing dutifully on the Wii, still in their pyjamas.

Then it’s back to normality.  They all go back – back to work, back to school and I go back to my desk, to writing again from 11pm, to going to bed late and waking four hours later with a sense of foggy satisfaction about the volume of words written when the house was quiet.

I miss them all on their first day back: hubbie with his cold, eldest with her hormones, youngest with her scruffy old pinafore when I can’t coax her into one of the skirts which hangs pristine in her wardrobe. 

But I have to admit to a small smile as I wave goodbye to the last to leave at 8.45. 

And so I run.  I stuff the remaining breakfast items in the dishwasher, yank some sopping clothes from the washer and toss them over the drier, flick on the kettle, write a cheque for the milk, trip over the forgotten PE kit and make my way upstairs to my desk.  I switch on the computer - an unusual phenomenon caught as it is in a perpetual energy loop over the holidays.  I remove plastic heart shaped key rings, miniature playing cards, screwdrivers and whoopee cushions from my desk and replace them with 344 pages of A4 manuscript. 

After an hour or two I make tea.  I take a few pages of the manuscript with me to read through as the kettle boils and luxuriate in the lack of a call to find the recycled batteries, the guinea pigs’ spare water bottle, the Christmas cake.  After forgetting to eat lunch I set the alarm on my desk to 3.20 to remind me to return to this world before my children get home.

When they’re all back, I smother them with ridiculously large bear hugs.  I’ve missed them, you see, I really have – as much as I’d missed my writing over the past couple of weeks.

Friday 4 December 2015

Late for Christmas

I have lost my Christmas Goddess crown. Not that I ever really had it. Truly. I've never sent a Christmas card before the 23rd December and console myself that at least my card wouldn't be lost in the deluge of those arriving before Christmas from properly organised people. 3am on Christmas Day was when Mother Christmas finished wrapping presents when our children were small (Father Christmas there in spirit as he snoozed on the sofa) and the mince pies? Bought pastry and a jar of mincemeat have always served me well.

However, I have normally pretty much bought all the presents by the time that page on the calendar flips over onto crisp white snowy lanes and blue skies.

Not so this year. I have spent one day Christmas shopping with my Mum. It was great fun, but the amount of coffee stops was greater than the presents bought.

If you're joining me in your own Christmas tardiness (thank you for the solidarity), you might like to look at pages 40 and 41 of the gorgeous Christmas issue of Chase Magazine. Obviously, I wrote my pages a few weeks ago but fell in love with the books all over again when I saw my reviews in print. All suggestions for your Christmas shopping list, or even better, for your own present list, were hand-picked. I adored them all, even The Runaway Smile for small children (I always think that's a funny expression because you do get some very tall children who haven't yet seen the lofty heights of double figures, in fact, most children are taller than me by the time they reach their fifth birthday), which I wish had been written when my children were young.

Happy reading and enjoy the preparations! I'm off to buy some pastry and mincemeat.


Saturday 28 November 2015

A Week in Publication

Monday morning started on Sunday night, just as a reminder if I needed one that writers can often be found at their PC at midnight and, admittedly, relishing it. Although nothing as exciting as writing for me, I was catching up on admin from the day job.

No matter. My late night typing meant that I would watch the calendar flick from Sunday 22nd to Monday 23rd November, the day of Tea & Chemo's publication, and witness the Amazon Page flip from 'pre-order' to, Yes! Absolutely! Buy it now!

At one minute past midnight I clicked the link. I shrugged my shoulders: no change. Of course not. The day doesn't really start at 12.01 but at 9am. I'd check again in the real morning. I did. Having already checked at 12.30, and every few minutes thereafter, you know, just to be sure, until I finally wandered off to bed.
The next morning, publication day morning, I had a quick hospital appointment. It was no more cancer related than those pesky, potentially life-saving drugs giving me annoying side effects. Nonetheless, the irony of being back in hospital on my publication day wasn't lost on me.
And it transpired that I was to spend slightly longer there than anticipated. As I waited to be called, I heard the fairly earnest voice of a doctor directing a patient to, 'Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, that's it, well done.' I didn't like it. Nobody likes to hear other people unwell. But, ever the diligent writer, I forced myself to focus on tomorrow's talk which needed editing down from about three days in length to the requisite ten minutes.
More voices sounded and all of a sudden, a nurse rushed past, picked up the phone and called for the registrar to come immediately to the unit. I was worried for the patient now and also felt that I shouldn't be there, that I was intruding as the voices were just on the other side of a curtain.
Shuffling further back in my seat, I continued with my scribbles as inconspicuously as possible. And it was useful having no mobile or Wi-Fi signal at the hospital so that my page on Amazon had a break from my clicking for news.
A nurse explained that my appointment would be delayed. Of course. The other woman was much more in need of the staff than I was and besides, I was doing quite well with the rampant deletion of my drivel.
The same nurse ran past again. This time she called for the Crash Team. Now I was really worried for the patient. Moreover, other people arriving for appointments were being turned away. A doctor came to speak to me, asked if I wouldn't mind going to get a coffee and coming back in half an hour. Mind?  I took the stairs two at a time.
Ninety minutes after my appointment slot, I returned to the unit to the altogether softer sound of the same doctor's voice saying to the patient that if she ever came back to the unit, would she call first so that he could make sure he was on holiday, and with this I suspected the situation had taken a less sinister turn. The lady, excruciatingly apologetic, was discharged having recovered from her panic attack whilst having a cup of tea after her appointment.
I left the hospital two hours later than intended, happy I wasn't prone to panic attacks and slightly more confident that my talk might be over before tomorrow's bedtime.
My dentist's appointment followed suit, taking forty minutes instead of ten because my sparkly new mouth guard to stop me grinding my teeth at night (it's a long story) didn’t fit correctly and needed some re-moulding. By this time I was due to pick up my car from the garage. I'd taken it in for a new exhaust and it had emerged with a brand new set of ball bearings and four new tyres instead. Wholly necessary but more expensive. And the half an hour walk back to the garage was looking particularly uninviting through the pouring icicles.
Several times during the day I'd looked down at myself from above: oh, the glamorous lifestyle of a freshly published writer! And Tea & Chemo was still only showing as available to 'pre-order'.
Then came Monday evening.
Friends had organised a celebration in my local pub. With these people, in that pub, with the Tea & Chemo bunting, the Tea & Chemo cake and biscuits, my box of books (and people buying them) the cards and presents and excitement and abject giddiness, right there, in that moment, all the late night, early morning typing and the slap in the face rejections, were worth it.
Tuesday and D Day for the ten minute talk I mentioned. My brief was to inspire two hundred 14 and 15 year old students and their parents with my story of having a dream and going for it. Except these students were all award winners and I couldn’t help thinking that really, they should have been talking to me about hard work and achievement. The best, and only award I remember getting at school was for hockey: my half colours, note, not even the full ones…
It would be an accurate account to say I did a ridiculous amount of preparation for this talk. Engage a hundred teenagers for ten minutes, you say? The hours spent were directly proportionate to my fear. 'It's ok,' somebody consoled a few panicky days before, 'They'll all be on their phones.' That was what I was worried about. Actually, I had a ball. Nobody was on their phone and everybody gave me the courtesy of listening and many thanked me afterwards. Teenagers constantly, and usually, buck the stereotype I find.
Let's fast forward over a couple of days when Amazon still wasn't admitting to Tea & Chemo being published. Meanwhile, I was cursing webmail for not sending any of my e-mails over the previous two days, tantalising me with the first line of every incoming message yet refusing to show me anything else. And let's forget the hours, (was it days? It felt like days) spent in phone calls to the EE helpline, in the vain hope of cajoling 21st century speed Wi-Fi into our house as opposed to the dribble reminiscent of the nineties. Let's gloss over these days because then it was Friday. Joy of joys, finally Tea & Chemo was leaving Amazon's grasp and so many wonderful people were posting on Facebook that their copies had arrived. 
And then this:
Tea & Chemo ranked 10th in Amazon for Health and Fitness? From this point forward, I've been doing what I vowed I wouldn't do: checking Tea & Chemo's ranking every few minutes.
You know, it hasn’t been all tiaras and red carpets but, after a frustrating labour, Tea & Chemo has made it out into the world and yes, it feels every bit as sweet as I'd hoped.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Nope, it's gone

For anyone who's ever said, Nope, it's gone, or, Run that past me again, or, I didn't just say that, did I? and for anyone who's ever wondered why the tin of beans was outside the front door and the milk in the cupboard, a note about Chemo Brain. 
If you’ve ever had, or been around anyone who’s had, a touch of the Pregnancy Brain or its natural rite of passage: New Baby Mush, barely passing Go before it descends into Menopausal Mind Slush, then you are on the way to understanding the effects of Chemo Brain. Just magnify the lack of cognitive skills, difficulty in concentrating beyond the fourth word in any sentence and lack of recall for anything which happened say, over ten seconds ago, and you start to get the picture.
Experts aren’t sure what causes Chemo Brain, or if it’s even the chemotherapy itself – it may simply be the having cancer and any treatments for it - but it is recognised as a debilitating side-effect seen in cancer patients. There’s a good article about it on the Cancer Research UK website here.
I’m not your archetypal control freak. I yearn for those moments where I can take a back seat because somebody else has taken the reins. But I do like a certain control in my personal and working life. The moment my to-do list gets a little messy, it ramps up the stress levels. Chemo Brain certainly added a layer of stress to my life and I think that if you asked my children what the worst aspect of my treatment was, they’d say it was having a Mum who was away with the fairies. I couldn’t retain even the most simple of information – from whether I’d brought in the milk to where my children were.
And one of the most stressful things was, wait for it, the washing. Oh yes, when you can’t remember your teenage daughters having a pair of black skinny jeans to die for, let alone whether they were dry (or even if you’d washed them) and the party for which they must be worn was a few sweet hours away, it’s depressing. I was used to being on top of such matters, and being on top of those meant that I could concentrate on arguably more important things, such as work. In truth, every time my children flashed me that look of disappointment that I’d forgotten something, anything, again, it sort of broke my heart a little bit more. Maybe it was inter-twined with being a mother and having cancer treatment because when you have children (or a partner, friends or family), it makes you feel like you are a bad mother (or wife, friend, daughter or sister) sometimes. 
But please don’t despair. It gets better.
Almost the moment the other side-effects of chemo disappeared a couple of weeks after my final dose, I felt the fog lift a little, too. It would be wrong of me to pretend that I’m back to the old – skinny jeans you say? What colour? The black ones are in the machine as we speak, green ones are drying on the airer (I’d say two hours forty seven minutes and they’ll be dry as a bone) and the grey ones, sorry, still in the washing bag, we could spray them with Febreze? – ‘all-over-it’ mum. Cancer seems to lodge a lump of goo in your brain as its final (we hope) hoorah when it leaves. It’s a store for The Cancer Fear to be dissipated around the body whenever you cough, get a spot or have stiff legs, and dusts an annoying layer of fuzziness over all other thoughts at other times. I’m afraid hormone treatments, such as Tamoxifen don’t help either. Nor does a chemically-induced, premature menopause.
But none of that, categorically none, is a patch on Chemo Brain.
My advice? Be kind to yourself. It isn’t a failing; it’s a side-effect. It isn’t forever and life will feel oh so much better when it’s gone. There are strategies to help. Keep lists, lots of lists, and keep them by you at all times so that you don’t forget where you’ve put the list (!) Keep healthy too: the endorphins you release when you exercise are proven to improve cognitive skills and I certainly write better after a run. And water. I swear water cleans your brain. No scientific papers will back me up on this but I’ve experienced it myself regularly, so it must be true. Too much tea? The fog in my head is so heavy I can practically feel the weight. Glass of water? Instantly lighter. Try it, seriously, I think water is the ultimate medicine. And educate those around you. I think my children, even as teenagers, were too young to really understand what I meant when I said that I couldn’t remember. It was beyond their comprehension and life experience to imagine how this could be. But friends and family will understand and they’ll make allowances and even send you helpful text messages just to make sure you know where you’re supposed to be.
Chemo Brain isn’t as soft and cuddly as it sounds but, sixteen months post chemo, I can say with some authority that it does get better.
And remember, chemically induced or otherwise, you're probably not alone. 
I originally wrote this post for the Young Women's Breast Cancer Blog and you can read more about Sarah, its wonderful pioneer, here.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Chemo Brain

I was recently asked if I'd like to write a blog post about Chemo Brain. I would, I said. How many pages of examples of the ridiculous memory gaffs that have blighted my life since Chemo Brain took hold would you like?

Shall I stop at ten?

You'll be relieved to know that I haven't listed every example, in fact, I've only elaborated on one. I have written about the frustrations of Chemo Brain however, but also, that it does get better – honest.

I wrote the post for the Young Women's Breast Cancer Blog and you can read it here 

The blog was set up by the tirelessly grafting Sarah Perry who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the desperately young age of 32, eighteen months ago – not that she's let anything as trivial as cancer put a dent in her stride. It's a place for bloggers and particularly people who've never blogged before to post a piece. If you'd fancy writing something cancer related for the site, check out the site here. And you can contact Sarah here - she'd be delighted to hear from you.

On the subject of Chemo Brain, have I mentioned I have a book coming out soon? I *can't* remember (you see, it has its uses). The publication date for Tea & Chemo is Monday 16 November and it can be pre-ordered from Amazon  or direct from the wonderful UrbanePublications.

Exciting times! Thank you, as ever, to my wonderful readers. You know, you are where Tea & Chemo started :)

Friday 9 October 2015

Inspirational Age

I don’t wake up every morning rejoicing at being 40 winks closer to old age as I adjust my hairnet (no need for curlers, have you seen my hair?) and sip the tea brought to me via the Teasmaid. But I’ll take the lines that could fill an A4 ruled notebook and accept these legs won’t run forever, or that one day I’ll lock up my bike for the last time (just as long as it’s when I’m a hundred plus a few years, please) in exchange for a touch of longevity with a few of my marbles, friends and family by my side.

As well as a positive, go-getting outlook.

For that is what I have decided really keeps you ‘young’. This is what I’ve learnt from the people who I think ‘do old age really well’. There’s my 83 year old neighbour who is, to all intents and purposes, the church manager. Regularly she walks the mile to church at sun rise, to open up, sort out flowers, hymn books and harvest festivals, and then she stays to do the clearing up afterwards. The secret to happy ageing she says?

Have something to do.

Then there are the ‘widowed shoppers’ I met in Leeds. I wrote [here]  about their shopping list of red knee length leather boots and their disdain for the idea of a new man in their lives because ‘he’d be old,’ stated with an appropriate grimace. And their advice for happy old age?

Get out of the house.

Today I’d like you to meet Ruby. This 86 year old lady is a member of a group of writers who are all quite inspirational in themselves. The eight members met on a course years ago, set up their own group and have been meeting once a fortnight ever since. They’re written screen plays and short stories, some of which they’ve published in two anthologies. The second would make a great stocking filler and you can buy it here

The group have now decided that they shall each write a novel – in a year – and that’s where I come in as tutor.

Ruby is the oldest of the group by quite a few years but only in a cellular way. Her mind is as flexible and vibrant as the rest of them, and is certainly no less energetic than mine. And thus she doesn’t seem a moment ‘older’. In the latest session we were talking about character and I’d decided to do a personality questionnaire with the group. I asked them to answer the questions first for themselves and then ask the same of their characters. It’s a light-hearted way of ascertaining whether our characters are sufficiently different in personality and behaviour to the rest of the cast and, just as importantly, sufficiently different in character to the author because it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating a cast of, ‘mini me-s’. I’d been in two minds whether to conduct the session in this way. Personality quizzes and psychology are really the stuff of my generation and younger, something of an alien concept to some older than me. But I forged ahead – with an escape route if necessary.

There were no tears, an element of bemusement at times, perhaps, but no crossed arms and head shaking. Still, I asked how everyone felt about the session. Ruby said that she'd found it fascinating and admitted that at the beginning she hadn't thought she'd get to grips with any of it but she had, and more's the point, she'd enjoyed it. 

More’s the point, it never occurred to her not to give it a go. She wanted to see what it was all about.

And then she gave me some flowers, sweet peas, smelling wonderful, hand-picked from her garden, which she opens up to visitors a few times a year. She caters for them, too, three course lunches apparently. Of course she does!

Ruby is an inspiration to me. It isn’t her health so much, even though I’m sure she looks after herself but there’s also a huge element of luck and genetics involved in that, it’s more her drive, energy and can-do attitude. She, too, gets out the house and she, too, has something to do.  Forget surgery and hair dye, a sunny, can-do, not going to be beaten kind of outlook is how you defy ‘old age’, I reckon. 

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Mistaken Identity

I am a self-confessed hypocritical Luddite. My favourite soap box rant is generally in the field of technology and yet I use my new version of windows 10 (it’s ok, not sure I quite understand all the excitement about it) to carry out my work and much of my life. I blame my phone for stealing any potential spare moment and yet I have arthritis in my thumb from an over-use of texting.

And then there’s Facebook. It seems to me that the concept is brilliant, less so the actualisation, perhaps. It allows people to stay in touch without needing to turn up or phone. Speaking to each other has its merits, of course, but unless you’re going to find a platform and give a speech, you are limited to how many willing participants you can communicate with at any given moment. Use Facebook and not only can you tell all your friends about your holiday, but all their friends as well, if you so choose.

The great thing about posting photos online is that you don’t see people yawn.  I still cringe at the memory of my poor sister travelling over from America to stay with us. After settling her down on the sofa with a cup of Yorkshire Tea and a block of Dairy Milk, the fire crackling and the snow falling softly outside (ok, it was raining, it's a minor detail), we decided that now would be the perfect opportunity to show her the photographic evidence of our summer holiday, using our ‘new bit of kit’ (it was a few years ago): the television through which you could magnify your photos to the size of a small painting. Wonderful if you’re under ten, automatic soft focus would be kinder for anyone over 35. Said sister was stoic for the first 10% of the photos but after that the head began to nod and the eyes roll and as she really needed to stay awake until at least 8pm, all parties were unanimous in the decision to save the photos for 4 o’clock the next morning instead, when she had her jet lag induced insomnia.

So, I click on Facebook at the weekend, wander around, see who’s also frittering away their Saturday, and I see that ‘Tom’ - we’ll call him, ‘Tom’- is ‘at an event near you.’ That’s nice, I think, but what if Tom doesn’t want me to know that he’s at an event near me? Or, put it another way, if Tom wanted me to know he was at an event near me, I’m sure Tom could have told me. I was amused at the potential for misunderstanding that this technology could cause. What? You were two miles up the road and you never popped your head through the door even for a measly cup of Yorkshire Tea? 

I mentioned my amusement to Tom and he said that it was funny because actually, he wasn’t at an event near me at said time. Definitely not. In fact, if I looked on Facebook I would see photographic evidence of him in an entirely different place.

Oh! If ever there was a story to be written.    

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Attached to the Phone

It’s term time again which can only mean one thing: back to ironing on Monday and Friday mornings. I like a deadline so the deal is that I have to get it all done before 9am when I start work. It commences around 7 with brief interludes to push my children through the door and into the arms of the school bus, to load forgotten cereal bowls into the dishwasher, to put the washing on - lest I should have no clothes to iron in a few days’ time.

And to have a flit around Twitter.

I like Twitter because people can be very funny and in 140 characters they can be even funnier. It’s also where I hear about blogs and writing competitions – so I can even pretend it’s work – and where fellow tweeps share writing successes and woes which is the closest I get for hours, sometimes, to having a chat with colleagues at break. I also like to have a paddle around Facebook but we’ll leave that one there before you raise an eye at the suggestion that this may be something akin to work.

We got back from our summer holiday on the eve before school began for the new term. I love being on holiday but I also love coming home, even though it’s with a tinge of panic about getting back-to-it, that I’ve forgotten how I work and what I need to do. It’s a real life recurring dream for me. As is customary, I’d compiled my to-do list in the car as we left the airport. Who am I kidding? I’d been adding to my to-do list all holiday and this time I took out my pen to add some things that had needed doing which I’d already done and could thus be ticked off. (Some of you won’t understand this and I salute you.) The list had done the trick: no need to panic. The house was clean, only the aftermath of a seven week period of ironing on a need-only basis to contend with, the freezer was packed with food and the fresh stuff was arriving by those kind home-delivery people with their lively suggestion of substitutes just to keep life interesting.

Let’s just say, the stench which hit us as we opened the front door was not a dead animal (or family of, I’d decided, with one still limping to a better place, via the bottom of my bed), nor was it the entire contents of the ‘cycling drawer’, although we do appreciate that I have now washed every pair of gloves, neoprene socks and avoid-washing- unless-smelling-like-dead-animals shower-proof- jackets. No, after an hour of false starts, my husband was the unfortunate soul who discovered the source of the foul smell. We’d left the freezer door ajar all holiday; our rammed full freezer, boasting fish fillets after the lovely man from South Shields had paid his annual visit and persuaded me that forty packs of assorted flavours were much better value than twenty. There were a couple of blocks of stilton in there, too. 

I would like to say a public thank you here to my husband for launching into the first and by far the worst of the three all-over freezer cleans, including all the pipe work and the floor below where putrid fish juice had seeped.

And the home shopping delivery didn’t turn up.

Thankfully, if a little ironically, we’d bought fish and chips on the way home so nobody went hungry for this tale. And our milkman had delivered so we could have a cup of tea.  Lots of cups of tea. You see, there are perks to a by-gone age.

On holiday we had no Wi-Fi. Actually, we had a small allocation of Wi-Fi but my children’s Snapchatting needs, and thus desire for the holiday quota, was greater than mine. It meant that I had three weeks without the internet.

Now, I’m afraid that the freezer debacle with its laborious insurance claim and urgent need to buy fish, or the distinct absence of ironing fairies – I know, I know, I really should have done the uniform before midnight of the night before the new term – or even the time spent having a couple of coffees with people I hadn’t seen for years (ok, weeks) is not to blame for the fact that I am still chasing my tail (or should I say, ‘tale’) a week after our return. I’m afraid, dear readers, the cause is Wi-Fi, or to be precise: social media.

I’ve lamented before about the time sap that is this fairly recent phenomenon of our need to share and share again our lives, but being without social media on holiday was a different revelation this time. I had a wonderful holiday. But I actually missed my online communication.

Even though I didn’t realise it until I got home.

Partly due to my woeful hearing making phone conversation both for me and the poor person on the receiving end a little trying, but mainly due to living in a world where most people of my generation and younger are more likely to message than make a phone call, contact using the internet has become my number one way of keeping in touch. It’s a sad admission that I use any time I might have spent speaking on the phone, on-line, but other people are doing the same. Even if I wanted to go back to sitting on the stairs in the hall à la 70s, attached to a phone line via a curly wire connected to the cheese wedge on the wall, and when I was only on the phone, when I was 'on the phone', I’m not sure many other people would have the time or inclination to indulge me. 

When my Wi-Fi returned and I logged into Facebook and Twitter, read the funny little quips and personal messages, it made me smile. There is something undoubtedly reassuring about sharing online that your house stinks of rotten fish, your food delivery hasn’t turned up and you’re going to be here for the foreseeable because you couldn’t be bothered to do the ironing over the school holidays - and learning that you’re not alone. There is a certain comfort in knowing that even when you were away, you weren’t forgotten. And there’s something quite heartening about realising that a three week world without internet was fun, but only that. It wasn’t superior, just different.

I have a love/hate relationship with technology. I spend most of every day on the computer and am the most complaining and exacting of companions: how dare you crash? How dare you not allow me to ‘save’, you’re a computer, that’s what you do! Yes, I should learn how to use the new software but I don’t have time, so make it work anyway, if you wouldn’t mind. I always said I would happily ditch the computer and go back to letter writing and postcards, to queuing in the post office three days before deadlines to make sure my work reached its recipients safely, to sitting in the library with my amassed questions on post-it notes. And I probably would go back to this world, if everyone else would join me.

But the internet is here to stay and thanks to a period of abstinence, our relationship has deepened a little. I’m off to joyfully post this on-line, appreciating the seconds it will take to do it, whilst repeating the mantra that I will not complain about technology, that I will not have unrealistic expectations, that I will happily use social media but ONLY when I’m not working.

I have just removed my mobile phone to the hall.

How about you? Are you a technology lover or a fighter? And how do you manage your time?

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Summer Suitcase of Six

If I can catch you before you go on your holidays, and if you’re having one of those trips where you read an entire year’s worth of books in two weeks (apologies to those who are guffawing at the prospect, with small children tugging at their ankles, the lasagne smelling just a little too cooked and the nit situation propelling itself to top evening’s priority because they’re starting to bounce) you might be interested in my Summer Suitcase of Six featured in the latest copy of Chase. 

You can view the full article here, pages 80/81 which features:

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh: perhaps not your typical beach read but the plight of the brain surgeon as much as that of his patients had me hooked.

Close of Play by PJ Whiteley: a roncom for men and cricket-loving women. Really? It works! Try it!

Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes: very creepy, great twist.

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence: wry, touching sentimentality – my favourite kind of read.

Us by David Nicholls: very funny, brilliant observation which made me laugh out loud but it’s a little soppy, too.

Flight by Isabel Ashdown: another brilliant concept from Ashdown with page-turning characters and dilemmas.Chase have two signed copies of Flight up for grabs. Email Chase with your answer to the simple question here, before the closing date of 30 August, and you’re in with a chance.

Meanwhile, what should I be reading on my holiday - being at the pleading with the children to sit down with me, rather than the ankle hanging stage of parenthood -? Recommendations welcome, please!

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Glass Houses and Tidy Wardrobes

I write with some good news.

Finally, after two long years of good intentions I have finally sorted out my wardrobe – and the drawers. I’ve had half-hearted stabs at it before but this time I did A Proper Job. Phew. I feel the space. Charity shops in Harrogate are rejoicing. EBay has applied for more bandwidth.

But it isn’t that.

I have also cleared out the cupboard in the kitchen, cunningly disguised as a bench, filled as it was with an interactive memorial to my children’s younger years: un-sticky stickers, half-filled sticker books, solid pots of glue, dehydrated finger paint, lumps of tissue paper, defunct pens, plastic boxes with compartments in varying sizes - long since emptied, save for the odd pencil sharpening - pompons, half-made pompons, cardboard clothes with little tabs but lacking the bodies on which to hang them. And shoe polish which reluctantly had to stay.

But it isn’t really that. Although I will admit to lifting the lid every second time I walk past to admire my handy work.

I still have the small matter of the hooks to sew back on the blinds and some rejected bootleg jeans from the wardrobe cull which I can’t bear to part with, sitting in a pile waiting to be ‘skinny-jeaned’. Of course, the moment I’ve threaded the sewing machine, life will revert back to bootlegs (at last – with me not being of the six foot, legs which make a toilet roll tube look baggy - variety). The perennial, Sorting Out The Wi-Fi, is, of course, also on the list. I will not, repeat, will not use my blog to moan about my Wi-Fi. Suffice it to say, Orange say it works, I say it doesn’t.

Can you tell school’s out for the summer?

I’ve managed my fifteen minutes of fiction every day, bar one – a long story – and it’s proving both fun and productive. There's one little ditty, inspired by the silent passenger next to me on the train, which has morphed into 5,000 words and I’m starting to think it might make it into a novel. Exciting as that is, that isn’t what I came here to write about.

Glass Houses has been short-listed in the Retreat West First Chapter Competition. You can read more about it here. Although I am chuffed to little pieces about it, it isn’t really that either. Although we’re getting close.

Remember Urbane Publications, wonderful publisher of Tea and Chemo, due out in November? I blogged about my excitement here. Well, I am absolutely thrilled to announce that Urbane have also signed my novel, Glass Houses for publication in May 2016. We’re currently working on the cover and blurb. (I have to look behind me when I say that to check that it isn’t someone else speaking.) The idea of somebody beavering away to produce the cover of my novel just blows my mind. I’m impressed by the professionalism and dynamism of Urbane Publications, and also their book list. I also like to work with happy, enthusiastic people and this is how my contract came back to me. You can see why I'm thrilled. This is very good news, indeed!

I’ll be busy. We’re working on the final edits of Tea and Chemo now and Glass Houses will be edited at the end of the year. In theory it’s ready for the red pen already. But of course, I’ll have to have another peek before I send it off. I know what that means: a challenge to lose another 5,000 words. Some people constantly diet, I’m always trying to lose words. I apologise in advance if I venture back into recluse-dom for a while as I add, take-away, insert, amend and delete, stopping only briefly to marvel at my pristine wardrobe and sparse cupboard-cum-bench, and shake my head despairingly at the, ‘it’s not slow, no, really, it is,’ speed of my Wi-Fi.

But I’ll see you all at the launch :)

Thursday 16 July 2015

Fifteen Minutes

I haven’t written a word of fiction for six months. I’m not proud of it, not pleased about it, but there it is.

I’ve had the fairly pressing matter of my Tea and Chemo deadline to meet. 50,000 words of non-fiction are now with the publisher ready for its edit(s) and subsequent re-write(s) for publication in November - she says calmly, during a rare moment without checking her phone for the email from her editor together with its massacre of red pen, a hurricane of sighing and enough eyebrow raising to bring on a face-lift.

I’ve also been teaching, adding copious words of feedback to other people’s fiction and generally not sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. I’ve even read a tidy pile of novels, but no stories have left my own pen. I can’t remember any other period in the last fifteen years when I could say that I haven’t written any fiction for over a month, let alone six long ones.

This makes me sad. It also makes me feel a bit of a fraud: Try to write every day, I say to my classes. Exercise that writing muscle! Oil your writing brain with regular attention! It’s like the warm up before the event; means you’re ready to run a marathon as soon as you’ve tied your laces. Like anything, the more you write, the better you get. It’s like playing the piano, painting the skirting board, even doing the ironing – you weren’t born being able to do it.

Practise what you preach, my gremlins whisper.

As I watched my writing class put down their pens after their fifteen minute writing exercise today, something occurred to me. I already knew it, but seeing it played out so graphically in front of me was inspiring. I thought it might be useful to share this with you if you’re struggling to write, read, paint, phone a friend, apply for a job, complete course work, practise your serve or your music scales...

I noticed that when it comes to some things in life, fifteen minutes is quite a long time.

I’d explained the exercise to the six participants in the group. Pens and paper at the ready, I set the timer and off they scribbled. Meanwhile, I put on the kettle, gathered up the mugs from around the table, washed them up and set about making three coffees (one as it comes, one strong, one black), three teas (builders) and asked the abstainer once again if she was sure she wouldn’t partake in a beverage. Refusing a cuppa? Call herself a writer! I checked that my hand-outs were accessible for the next part of the session. They were. That took a good seventeen seconds. I handed out the drinks, rattled the biscuit box to remind participants of their whereabouts, answered a question or two on the exercise, returned the remaining clean mug of the abstainer to the cupboard, looked at the clock and told the frantic scribblers that they had two minutes left. Did I have time to use the facilities? Probably not.

My phone quacks very loudly when time is up which does tend to stop my scribes in their tracks, thus I can confidently say that fifteen minutes they were given to write and fifteen minutes they took.

How did they get on? Very well indeed. Even with a few moments at the beginning to gather their thoughts on how to approach the task, all had written more than a page of fiction. Some had written almost two. I have excessively large, illegible writing and even with my script, two pages means almost 500 words.

500 words!

There are only twice that amount in some short stories. There are only 40 times that amount in a short novella and only 160 times that in a short-ish novel. 160 lots of 15 minutes? That’s a novel in forty tiny hours.

It’s not true of course. Good novels, even first drafts of good novels, are certainly not written in forty hours, nor are the skills learned to paint a masterpiece or scales learned in one single working week. Chance would be a fine thing. We need to plan and think and practise and revise and totally change our mind and start again. But you see my point.

In fifteen minutes a day you could put on the kettle, wash a few cups, have a short conversation and make a few drinks. If you were a particularly succinct interlocutor, as was your opposite number, then you might slip in a brief visit to the toilet, too. But only that.

Or you could write two pages.

I’m not saying my washing up, tea making, snippets of conversation or even using the lavatory aren’t important to the very essence of being a happy, upstanding human being, but if we want it, really want it, there’s room in our life for both.

But, you cry, you fancy taking fifteen minutes out of your day to write a story like digging a hole and filling it in again? For writing read, two sessions of Seven A Day exercises, way too many press ups than are humanly possible, sketch a picture, do Sudoku, peel some veg, learn how to change a plug, how to use the sewing machine, read a couple of chapters, knit a few rows, mow the lawn, learn ten new words in a foreign language…

But here’s the deal: you have to be focused. Fifteen minutes is only productive if you devote it fully and unconditionally to the job in hand. Otherwise you won’t write two pages. Or sketch a picture. Or book your holiday. Otherwise you’ll just add your forgettable half-hearted attempts back onto your to-do list.

This was my last class for the summer. I have other work to do but teaching is my biggest commitment. I started my Fifteen Minute Fiction regime this afternoon. I wrote some of a short story which came to me when I was ironing months ago. It’s currently two pages of nonsense but hey, if I carry on tomorrow and the next day and the next, who knows what it will become?

So here’s my Fifteen Minute Regime: I have to write at least fifteen minutes of fiction every day. Even at the weekend. Even in a foreign country. That’s the only rule. My hope is that this daily fifteen minutes of fiction will be so engrained by the time the madness of the new term is here, that dropping it from my day would be as ludicrous as shunning the time it takes to make a cup of tea.

And that’s never going to happen.

So, will you join me? 

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Gone Dark Brown

It's not blonde.
I’m not sure this will be my most profound post ever but I feel an explanation is due for this:

I made a promise and I didn’t keep it. But I have a reason and I think it’s a good one.

Let’s go back to a school trip. I forget where we were headed, but sitting near me on the bus was one of those sweet lads who all the girls love but who never has a girlfriend. I remember his name but will protect his identity by calling him Sam. Goodness knows how we got onto it but in the middle of a conversation between a group of us fifteen year olds, Sam referred to my hair as, ‘mousey’. I was stunned. I’m not sure I’d ever really named the colour of my hair before that but, ‘mousey’? Really? Like those little screechy, smelly runt of a rat type things? Beautiful brunette, you hear, blondes have more fun and all that - and hey! Who needs brain cells if you’re constantly having fun? -  but never ‘mesmerising mousey’ or ‘mouth-wateringly mousey’ - more like ‘matted mousey’, perhaps.

He had a point.
Thankfully I managed to keep my horror to myself but it clearly left its mark. I can’t say I lost too much sleep over it during the ensuing years but it would be fair to say that if anyone ever asked me what my best feature was, it wouldn’t have been the colour of my hair.

So, fast forward, ahem, thirty years to my second lot of baby hair, when it had grown back just enough to potentially push off my wig and cause a scene. I had no choice but to go bare-head. I decided to have my hair coloured because, well, because I could. The result was a fairly dark brown. I liked it because it made my hair which you could measure in millimetres, look a fraction longer. That was in December.

Christmas was a memory, January had slipped by and February was as short as ever. March? March was wonderful, we went skiing in Slovakia, just the family, rearranged from a year before when we couldn’t go for reasons you know too well about. April? Well, April was seeing the beginnings of a fringe at last so finally, I was starting to look less like a rabbit in headlights, or rather, Hello! Here comes Jackie’s face entering the room. And then it was May. The dye was incredible. My hair was still dark brown. Not even a whiff of mouse.

In my post, I said I was going to go blonde because life was too short. I sat down with the hairdresser and discussed this plan. Why? She asked. Because life’s too short, I said. And I want to do something different and the only different I can think of is blonde, dark or red. Red isn’t good for me because it makes my skin look like I’ve just slipped out of intensive care, dark you’ve already done and thank you, isn’t it amazing it’s lasted this long and –

- When did we dye it dark? she asked. December, I said. December? She laughed. That’s not dye. The roots would be this long, and she held out her arms as if she’d just caught a big fish. That’s your natural hair colour.

I nearly fell off the pivoting chair. Rather than wondering whether my hair would grow back straight, in much the same way that straight haired people’s hair inherited the chemo curl, I should have been asking what colour it would be. The only thought I’d given to hair colour was to brace myself for it coming back grey. That seems to happen a lot. I have no aversion to growing old gracefully (as we all know too well, old is, oh so much better than the alternative) but the drugs have already thrust a *challenging* premature menopause upon me and it would have been nice to have been spared the premature grey, thank you. And I had. Not grey. Not even mousey. But rich brown.

Thank you chemo, that was very kind.

I drifted back from hair Utopia to hear the hairdresser saying that as my hair was thus now quite dark, the roots would be difficult, I’d be back ‘having them done’ in four weeks and as a former six monthly visitor to the salon, did I really wish to commit to the time and expense of that?

She’s a great hairdresser but I’m not sure she’ll be vying for sales woman of the year any time soon.

So, what did I do? I went as dark as I could. And actually, for the first time with my ‘new’ hair, I almost quite like it.

And the other promises? I’ve been better with my zzzzs, my prosecco units have been low - apart from last Monday - and *most* evenings I switch my phone off at 9pm. Honest.

Can you forgive me for forgoing the bleach?