Even as I type these first words, I have to stop to remove the stray hair that has fallen on my keyboard. And now another. And again, another. This will be a slow blog today. I might have a unique form of obsessive compulsive disorder that means I may not be able to bring myself to type on a laptop that appears to be growing a pelt.
In the shower this morning, I count ten little locks that have broken free. They’re swimming through the water around my feet, tiny escapees heading urgently for my Puebla plughole, perhaps aiming to start a new life in America before Mr Trump is inaugurated and starts building his wall.
Afterwards, I comb my hair. Bad idea. The ancient plastic blue comb quickly bristles with a fine filigree harvest of gold and silver strands. I knew this would happen. It’s why I let my trusty hairdresser Lino cut my hair quite short before I left, so that the chemo-induced hair loss would be less painful to my female vanity, as and when my hair decided to part company from me.
That hair loss doesn’t happen to absolutely everyone having chemo, or so I’m told. But it does to the majority, some two to four weeks after the first dose. Most will have some hair fall out for now, or little patches that simply don’t grow back for a bit.
It doesn’t have anything to do with whether HSCT will work for us or not, it’s simply that the chemotherapy drug targets all rapidly-dividing cells, including our hair follicles, some of the fastest-growing cells in our bodies, so for a little while, the hair dies off too. Sometimes it comes back thicker or curlier, or as my sister Susannah tells me cheerfully on FaceTime today, in her case greyer. I’d love to have curlier hair like hers, so perhaps there is some hope in all this shedding of my barnet.
Susannah tells me that she wore a short red wig, and kept another, longer wig in reserve. I have organised none of this as yet, believing (as ever) that the worst might never happen, until I look down and see the reality: that the wooden floor beneath my feet is looking back and bristling up at me, the wisps of hair illuminated in the Mexican afternoon sun.
Should I shave it all off? I ask Joy, as I peer slightly anxiously in the mirror, wondering what I will look like bald, and feeling a sudden haunted pang of empathy with the bald men that I may previously have scorned as an unsuitable match. If I did (and I cannot really remember) I am truly sorry.
Joy looks at me for a moment. No, she decides finally after scrutinising my skull with a nurse’s practical eye. Not yet. Your hair still looks OK.
I just don’t want to let it get to the stage where I look like one of those tear-jerking ads around Christmas put out by animal charities, showing sad cats with fur that’s matted and patchy with neglect and want. The sad cats that can only lie back in their baskets with terrified eyes, mewling piteously in the rescue home where they are nursed tenderly back to health with your timely donations. And one day, thanks to generous you, their fur will recover. I do hope that mine will too, though perhaps never to its earlier lengths or improbable colours.
As a cat-less cat-lover, I am a sucker for those ads. And I have been down to Battersea to see if I can help. But my flat in London has no outside space for a cat, so I am only half a proper spinster, for I have no cat. I never realised until recently that a female cat is called a molly, and that after she becomes a mother she is called a queen.
To me, cats are queens from birth. They simply demand to be waited on hand and foot, and will occasionally condescend to allow a commoner close enough to pet them. As I think we all know, dogs have owners, but cats have staff.
A group of cats, I learn from Mr Google, is called a clowder, though I have no idea if this is actually true. I always think of them as a yowl. And Mr Google and his wise friends tell me that female cats are “super-fecund”, and that each kitten in a litter can have a different dad.
It must be tough being a tomcat. You’d have no idea, would you, whether your girlfriend Molly down the road was dallying purely with you or perhaps with half the neighbourhood. And on the proud day that the litter finally arrived, you’d still be none the wiser, and all the other neighbourhood toms might gather round Molly too, pleased and proud, bearing little bunches of flowers and a slightly punch-drunk look. Because without ready cash or access to PawPal, it’s very hard to get your claws on one of those new-fangled gene-testing kits from 123AndMe.
And perhaps, as with humans, not always a good idea. According to the latest surveys, up to one in twenty five men – perhaps anywhere from 1% to 4% of fathers – are unwittingly raising a child that is not genetically their own. But does that matter? I am not too sure. The actual raising of a child, its upbringing, being there for them day after day and night after night, is the real work of being a parent, and shapes the child’s identity, even if the genes we inherit play a bigger part in shaping our health and our talents than perhaps we realised before.
Female cats are apparently pregnant for 62 to 65 days. Who knew? Probably my niece Ailsa, a wonderful vet who knows everything there is to know about animals, after many long years of studying. And drinking. She is also pretty good on cocktails too, and pretty much anything she turns her hand to.
Ailsa has promised to bomb my flat with disinfectant before I come home, so that no dangerous bugs can survive. She clearly must have spotted that area under the fridge, and perhaps the kitchen sink, that I never really did get round to with the bleach. I only worry slightly about her use of the word bomb in relationship to my furniture, but that may be my all-too-literal mind.
After seeing the explosive results of some real bombs, the word did not leave me entirely sanguine when applied to my flat, though a disinfectant bomb may be exactly what my red and white blood cells need to recover when back at home in a mere ten or so days time.
I do find that I become more literal-minded with age. Is this the brain becoming less neuroplastic, or me more grouchy? Is it MS, or is it me? When a friend criticises their teenager’s bedroom as looking as though a bomb has hit it, I have to stifle the wish to ask whether the windows are caved in, with glass smithereens littering the carpet, and whether there are bloodstains all over the floor. If not, then it probably qualifies as a mess but not a bomb-site. Words matter. Use them wisely, I might rant under my breath. But I say nothing as I am trying, in my older age, to be a better friend.
My flat – at least as I left it, before Ailsa’s final burst of cleaning – is perfect in almost every way, apart from being two floors up, and on top of a massively busy, noisy and smelly London main road, so that the fine black particles from the cars’ exhausts seep in through the windows and gradually bedeck the sofa and the curtains and the walls, turning the whole place a sadly unfashionable shade of grey.
But as seen by my balding self from Puebla today, my flat would be absolutely perfect – despite all of that – if it only had a little outside space – whether for a cat or perhaps even a small dog. And perhaps the chickens and sheep that I’d really rather like too, though my sister Susannah tells me that her chicken Luna is on a constant quest to escape, usually suicidally in the direction of a main road.
That lack of a garden in London is my one and only genuine regret, although everyone in possession of a garden tells me it’s a hassle and that I should be grateful to have a home that I can simply lock up and leave.
But then again, my friends who are parents have always told me I should be grateful to be child-free, as they then went on to have child number two, and then three and sometimes even four.
So I’m never quite sure what to believe, especially during the blissful English summer, when the friends with gardens who tell me not to bother having one sit in them on both of the sunny days, burning sausages on the barbecue and drinking Pimms, and having a heavenly time, while the friends with children still do seem to miss them once they leave for university at last.
Maybe as my hair recedes, I am subconsciously thinking of wigs and perhaps even channelling my own inner Marie Antoinette.
Perhaps I need to find a garden or my own little farm somewhere deep in the countryside. I once visited Marie Antoinette’s pretend farm, the Queen’s Hamlet, or Hameau de la Reine, in the park at the Château of Versailles a few years ago while working as a correspondent for the BBC in Paris.
I worked alongside Allan Little, a true hero among most foreign correspondents for his beautiful, brilliant scripts, scripts that would leave me sitting at my desk, head in hands, torn between envy, friendship and journalistic genuflection, asking how any human could write so well, so fast?
Especially one who’d had tucked away that amount of Chablis with his friend Scott only the night before?
Marie-Antoinette’s farm, a kind of Toytown scaled down version of a real farm, was built for the French Queen in 1783 near the Petit Trianon, and you can still visit it today. It is a place of utter beauty and tranquillity.
There you will find meadow-land, lakes and streams, and fragrant shrubs and flowers, and a cottage garden. As I wandered through it I thought of our longing for the pastoral, the bucolic, that lies just beneath the surface, even for a Queen. The desire for a green thought in a green shade.
The Queen’s fabled extravagance may have led to her downfall with the French people, but her taste in farms and gardens was exquisite.
Her taste in wigs, too – asking her hairdresser Leonard to add feathers and ever more extravagant touches, until wigs became the chief signifier of the moods of the ladies of the court, celebrating births, marking the sailing of ships, signalling availability or not.
And I realise as I think of her today that Marie Antoinette, the delicate, tragic grey-eyed princess bride aged just 14 (to her husband’s 15 at their marriage) brought in from the house of Hapsburg-Lorraine before she became the extravagant flaunting queen (Jean Plaidy in 1972 on Marie-Antoinette – still a brilliant book), may well have been one of the earliest victims of ‘fake news’.
There is little or no evidence that Marie Antoinette really did suggest that the starving French peasants who were without bread should eat cake, perhaps knowing – even as royalty – that for any French person to be without bread might lead to them becoming sans culottes: those without the fashionable silk breeches, the urban labourers who became the driving force behind the vicious Revolution.
When I think of Marie Antoinette’s fragile and perhaps slightly silly head being cut off in 1793 at the age of 37, just a few weeks short of 38, we need to remind ourselves as we worry about today’s revolts against the elites that we have been here before, often rather more brutally.
Democratic change at the ballot box, although uncomfortable and sometimes difficult, beats beheadings and riots, and the tricoteuses knitting one and purling one as the royal or aristocratic heads (with their hair no longer ennobled by their powdered wigs) fell into the basket.
According to Charles Lacretelle, a French historian alive in those revolutionary times, the still beautiful Queen went to her death with dignity. Sorrow had blanched her hair, he wrote, and she had cut off her own hair with her own hands.
I’m not sure what I shall do with my own hair as it continues to fall out as the sun goes down on the volcano tonight. Perhaps buy a razor, perhaps wait to have it shaved by someone else.
My own faithful hairdresser Lino is oceans away, and he’s already done one short cut for me, and I suspect that shaving heads is not his style.
He was (and perhaps still is) David Cameron’s hairdresser, as well as my Dad and WSM’s, and he has cut my hair since I was 16 or 17, and he was only a very little older than me.
I wonder tonight, slightly mischievously, about hairdressers through the ages, and what happens to them when their most celebrated clients are taken off in tumbrils to the jeering of the Tricoteuses. I assume that the ever-inventive barbers and coiffeurs from Marie-Antoinette’s Leonard to the present day simply find other ways to get ahead.
It’s not entirely clear to me what had happened to Leonard by the time his most famous client died, the man who had created her signature wig-style, Le ‘Pouf”. Though he did give his gilded client a short and feathery haircut just before she gave birth to one of her children, as her hair had by then begun to thin. So perhaps Lino might not look down on me too much if I make that request of him, although I am not sure that I can wait that long.
But back to the French Queen’s demise. Placed in a tumbrel, with her arms tied behind her, she was taken to the Place de la Revolution, the site today of many a French traffic jam altercation, though not caused by executions (yet). Alternately pale and blushing, she was jeered all the way.
Once there, Marie Antoinette ascended the scaffold with what this historian termed a firm and dignified step, as if about to take her place on a throne. At first, her head and body were thrown into an unmarked grave, though later she and her hugely-unsuited husband Louis were re-united in death and finally forced to spend more quality time together at the royal necropolis at St Denis.
What we wear on our heads and how we wear it has always mattered, signifying status, allegiance, tribe, worn for hygiene or for vanity. That can be hair, hat or a wig. Ancient Egyptians shaved their heads, then popped a wig on top to protect them from the power of the sun. So much cooler on those long hot Egyptian nights as well.
At the French court of King Louis XIII, the men wore their powdered wigs as a sign of status, and to emulate the king, Marie Antoinette’s father in law, who began to wear his own hairpiece to cover up his prematurely balding pate.
Just as the father lost touch with his follicles, so his son Louis XVI (Louis-Auguste) lost touch with his people, and he and his Queen paid a terrible price.
Although I learned in my four years based in France that the ladies who knitted, rather than lunched beneath the guillotine (perhaps they could afford no lunch) also produced some rather useful items, from stockings to mittens, as well as the famous red French Liberty caps.
As they knitted and purled comfortably beneath the beheadings (would they be the Tricoteuses Twitter Trolls today, or more the brides of ISIS?), these oh-so-domesticated ladies and their knitting were making hats for living heads. The Phrygian cap or liberty cap, the Bonnet de la Liberté, also known as the red cap or Bonnet Rouge.
When I think of La Liberte, Marianne, she who embodies the bloody and violent French tendency to revolution, I see her as she hangs in the Louvre, in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, painted for a later revolution.
Being French, the Goddess of Liberty has forgotten her underwear and is bare-breasted, but wearing a very pretty frock beneath her heaving bosom. As she leads the French people over the bodies of the fallen, whom she treats with a fine disdain, she brandishes the tricolour, flag of the French revolution and the nation still, with a bayonetted musket in the other. You don’t mess with French women, as all of us who have lived in Paris and battled for a decent table at a café, or to be served first in a shop, know. In Paris, Connie, Luci, Hortense and Audrey taught me that much, in a very short space of time.
La Liberté was the model for the US Statue of Liberty, as we sometimes forget. Thanks to Elizabeth Mitchell, the author of a book called Liberty’s Torch, I now know more about the struggles of her creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, to get Lady Liberty off the ground. She was originally destined for Egypt (I wonder how she would have fared? Would the Arab spring have been different played out beneath her blandly watchful democratic eyes?)
With Egypt not enthusiastic, Lady Liberty’s creator, the eccentric Frenchmen (of whom there are, grâce à Dieu, still many today) instead travelled to America to drum up support and subscriptions for his statue, because the French were proving a little stingy too.
In the end, it was the American newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer who broke the deadlock, printing the names of each and every person who donated so much as a penny to the cause. It also helped his newspaper sales. But he didn’t raise quite enough money for the finishing touch that Bartholdi so desired: to cover the Statue of Liberty from head to shining toe in pure gold, so she would glisten spectacularly to all the world from her home in the harbour of New York.
So, perhaps plus ca change after all. Just don’t tell the new President about that Frenchman’s plans.
Today, Lady Liberty will watch over the inauguration of the man with the golden hair. Sadly, I may not watch this moment of history being made, in our own era of Revolution, for I am fading fast.
As my hair falls out tonight, I notice that the bone thief has been in again and has stolen my bones, replacing them with rubber, not even bothering with the paste.
I have to go to bed right now, because I haven’t the strength to sit up.
Welcome to the land of neutropenia. Not quite as much fun as the land of Transylvania in the Rocky Horror Show, which Joy and I saw last night, although quite possibly with equally hallucinatory dreams.
One last thought, though, before I go. There was so much more to say on wigs, but the last word goes to Charles Dickens, that writer of instalments whose museum just two or three streets away from where I live I nod to in neighbourly greeting whenever I pass.
The Tricoteuses beneath the guillotine are a feature of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, but its opening line is very slightly different to the one we always quote.
In full, it reads much like our own age, in London and Paris and elsewhere:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
I suppose it also depends on which newspaper or news websites you read. But we have all been here before.
Perhaps next week I shall look into that wig. And find a razor. But only after a few days of nothing but sleep while the new stem cells quietly revise for their final exams on Sunday.