I wake up early today, and watch the morning mist slowly encircling Popacatépetl until the volcano is visible no more.
As I stretch my legs in bed, I notice that the old stiffness in my calves and thighs is back. My brain feels fuzzy too, wreathed in its own invisible fog again. The numbness is back in my fingers, and the intermittent pain in my arms, along with my old familiar – the crushing fatigue that I had almost, blissfully, forgotten. Sore, scratchy, sandy eyes, too, despite a good seven hours of solid sleep.
So this is what people mean when they talk of the roller-coaster ride after a stem cell transplant. The niggling worry – will it work or won’t it? Should I already be feeling better? Am I doing the right things for my new immune system? Am I normal? Or at least, normal for MS and HSCT.
Why are my MS symptoms back today with a vengeance, while some others here are already enjoying immediate benefits from their stem cell transplant? Is this the crash after the steroids? I am now sleeping through the night again, with none of the more vivid steroid dreams, or the hourly awaking.
So maybe the strange titanic energy that seized me sometimes over the past few weeks, despite the chemotherapy, was a chemical energy that is now dissipating fast.
Perhaps that was why I was too tired to write anything at all yesterday, laying slumped on the sofa for much of the day. The goddess Mnemosyne from Greek mythology has deserted me, and with her, the river I drank from to refresh my memories of the past. Her acolytes would have known to drink from the River Mnemosyne and not the River Lethe, which dead souls sipped from so they wouldn’t remember their past when they were reincarnated. Perhaps I have sipped the bitter waters of the Lethe instead today by mistake.
The Greeks considered memory so essential – and the telling of myths or stories – that Mnemosyne was revered as a building block of civilisation, for the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, that create us and shape us and mould us through life. Memory sculpts us and hones us, and purifies us to our essential selves. Without memory, we are no longer ourselves. Dementia takes away the person that we love. They no longer know themselves or us; their lives lived in a permanent, frightening fog. And MS has made many of my own memories foggy, so that even some of the best times lie shrouded in the mental mists.
In the fifth century before Christ, the goddess Mnemosyne was worshipped in the cult of Asclepius that formed in Ancient Greece. Asclepius was the god of medicine: that vital god who could heal the sick. It was for him a family business, just as it is at Clinica Ruiz today.
Asclepius was a fecund god. His daughters were Hygieia, or hygiene and cleanliness, Iaso the goddess of recuperation, Aceso, the goddess of healing and Aglaea, the goddess of beauty, and Panacea, my favourite, that goddess of the universal remedy, which in my case is hot, milky, sugary tea, that drink of the gods.
I think of the beautiful daughters of that god today, often. Every time I wash my hands or squeeze more antibacterial gel all over my fingers and palms, as if I could generate my own heavenly force-field of cleanliness to ward off any germs while my new immune system grows in strength.
You will still recognise the rod of Asclepius today. It is pictured on almost every pharmacy sign, a universal symbol: the staff entwined with a snake that remains the symbol of medicine and healing.
This morning, I go with my nurse Joy to see our own modern equivalent of Aclepius here in Puebla, Dr Guillermo Ruiz, to interview him for a BBC Radio 4 documentary that I am making about stem cell transplants, and the science behind them.
His father founded the Clinica Ruiz in 1920, and he, his brother and his son form three of the generations of Ruiz here. Their business is healing, and they do it well. The clinic is spotlessly clean, and the staff endlessly patient and helpful, never rushing and always willing to answer questions, however basic or complex.
I ask Dr Ruiz if I should already be seeing benefits from HSCT, and tell him I worry because I haven’t – yet. Or at least, I did straight after the chemo, when my head cleared and my energy went up, even as I spent hours feeling nauseous or vomiting. At least for the four chemo days, I managed to be sick with a clear head.
Dr Ruiz is avuncular and reassuring, and tells me that between 15 – 20% of stem cell transplant patients will see immediate benefits after HSCT. But for most, the main improvements will come at between 9 – 12 months after the transplant. So October or November or December. That would be a Christmas present I could treasure for the rest of my life.
So I am not unusual, and the old MS symptoms may come and go for some time. And of course, I don’t know yet whether I will be among the lucky ones for whom the stem cell transplant works to halt progression, and perhaps even reverse symptoms. All I can do is wait, hope and pray. And encourage the stem cells to grow and prosper, and build up their armies to defeat the insurgent disease.
And of course, I shall treat my new immune system with the greatest of care. It will only be fed the healthiest food (with the occasional exception of Jaffa Cakes and perhaps a very rare chocolate digestive), and it will never ever smoke a cigarette again. Although I am very much hoping that it will one day like champagne or prosecco or Sekt again, as the rest of me is rather fond of bubbles.
As Joy and I leave Clinica Ruiz and emerge into the bright sunshine, I feel immense relief. I haven’t done anything wrong. The last blood tests this week showed that my new stem cells are indeed working to rescue the old immune system battered (intentionally) by the chemotherapy and to create a new immune system that works. I just need to be patient.
But I am not a patient patient. Boarding school taught me the art of waiting from the ages of 10 to 17, but I still crossed off every single day of term on a tiny countdown calendar until I could see my parents again.
If I could, I would travel today to say goodbye to Popacatépetl, but the journey there is several hours, and Joy very sensibly counsels against. So I ask if we might go instead to see the world’s smallest volcano. It’s in the nearby suburb of Cholula, and Joy indulges me with a smile and a wave to a passing taxi.
When we get to the volcano, I try not to laugh. I don’t want to offend the Cuexcomate volcano, but it is tiny. Liliputian. Minute. OK, so it’s bigger than me, but as volcanoes go, this is a tiddler. It is, says the poster next to it, just 13 metres or 43 foot tall, its diameter 23 metres or 75 feet. And the name comes from the word for bowl.
We climb up the staircase and peer inside. You can climb down a staircase to the very bottom of the crater. But my legs are so jelly-like today that I don’t trust myself to climb out again, and it might be embarrassing to have to call out the Cholula fire-brigade to rescue me from inside the world’s smallest volcano.
So I peer down for a long time instead, and try to imagine what it must have been like for the people of Cholula in 1664 when Cuexcomate was formed as an offshoot during an eruption of Popocatépetl himself. Finding yourself living next door to an unexpected volcano, however small, must be quite disconcerting.
As beer drinkers will know, 1664 was also the year that the Kronenbourg brewery was formed in Europe by Geronimus Hatt in Strasbourg. The Hatt family remained brewers for some eight generations, with a Hatt at (or should that be on) the head of the company until 1977 or so. A random fact that has lodged in my random brain from a trip to Strasbourg to cover the history of wine and beer in the region while I was the BBC correspondent in Bonn. Why do I remember that, when I was locked out of my BBC account recently because I couldn’t recall my current password?
Today, the little volcano sits quietly, obediently, in the sunshine. It is inactive and lets off no steam. It is now a tourist attraction outside a school, although the playground is quiet and equally inactive. Joy tells me the pupils always have the last Friday of the month off.
So what of Cuexcomate’s rather more active father, Popocatépetl? His legend is mighty, and has inspired poets and writers through the ages.
His name means Smoking Mountain. And the volcano I wake up to with such excitement here every morning is not alone.
Popocatépetl – almost 18,000 feet above sea level – sleeps next to his great love, Iztaccihuatl or Itza. Her name means ‘white woman’, and she is tipped with a white cap of snow, even in this gentle January warmth.
While Popocatépetl stands tall and triangular like the child’s drawing I remember sketching as a seven year old, when we learned about volcanoes in primary school (is that why I came to be treated here? Perhaps nothing is random after all – this was always my favourite volcano, his very name mimicking the puffs of smoke and ash that he regularly exhales).
But Itza – with her four peaks – is said to be a sleeping woman, with each peak representing first her sleeping head, then her chest, then her knees and her feet.
Aztec legend has it that the two volcanoes were once human, and deeply in love. They were the Romeo and Juliet of their day. He was a brave young warrior, and she was a princess. They wanted to marry, but her father demanded the young Popocatépetl prove himself first in battle against the enemies of their tribe.
So as any young romantic warrior would, he sets off to do battle and to prove himself, and is victorious. But a jealous rival sends back false news (not such a new story after all) that Popocatépetl has been killed. Back at home in her palace, his princess dies of a broken heart. When the young warrior returns home, he discovers that his one true love is dead.
Stricken by grief, Popacatépetl carries his beloved’s body high up into the mountains and builds a funeral pyre. There he tenderly lays down her body on the pyre, and then his own, lying next to hers, so they can be together in death.
Seeing this, the gods are touched, and decide to show mercy. They turn the human lovers into mountains instead, so that they can rest together for eternity. Together at the dawn, and together at the going down of the sun each day.
And there they remain to this very day, Popocatépetl watching jealously over his sleeping princess, with our warrior sometimes smoking and grumbling gently, for his princess sleeps on long after the dawn and into the day, while he waits for her to re-awaken.
Tonight at sunset, we who have lived long in the shadow of our own unpredictable MS gathered on the rooftop one last time. We paid our respects to the real volcanoes, which have dominated our horizons and my dreams for this past month, and to drink a little champagne or beer.
I celebrated our last sunset with one very small bottle of Coke, and I do hope that my adolescent stem cells won’t object.
Most here are couples, from the UK, America and Norway, as well as Marion and her mother Ann from Kenya. Most of the patients are women, for we have the dubious global honour of forming the majority of those with MS. For the most part, it is their husbands or in one case, a father, who have accompanied them here, and I’ve been struck each day afresh by how tenderly these carers care for their patient, just as Joy has done for me.
Tomorrow, Joy and I shall say our farewells, as she goes on to look after her next patient.
Over the past month, Joy has become a friend as well as my nurse and constant companion – and the maker of the best guacamole I have ever tasted. I shall miss her. But I know we shall stay in touch.
For the other carers, their job is not yet done. Like Popocatépetl, they will watch over their lover, for as long as it takes, and throughout the highs and the lows of the coming months, watching tenderly for signs of a reawakening to health.
In the afternoon tomorrow, just before sunset, we shall gather again to go to Mexico City to fly back home, scattering over continents, yet united in our hopes and dreams.
I feel strangely reluctant to leave. This quiet flat has become my home, and my companions on the roof tonight my stem cell family, to whom I am bound, if not for eternity, then at least for the rest of this life. We share a rebirth-day, after all.
Only they truly know the hopes and the fears that we have had in common for this past month, and perhaps from the moment of diagnosis. The nervousness ahead of HSCT, the broken nights and the psychedelic steroid dreams. The discomfort of the PICC line, that small serpent in the chest that helped the sweet healing chemo poison to flow into our veins. The unspoken worries and the knowledge that some of the biggest challenges still lie ahead.
And only they will truly understand the disquietude of the months to come as we go home, and wait and hope, and see if we can cross together from the Kingdom of the Sick back to the Kingdom of the Well.
This morning I woke up and looked in the mirror, and there on top of my head appeared to perch a fluffy chick, as if for all the world a tiny duckling had become separated from its mother and had – overnight while I was fast asleep – sought sanctuary on my head instead.
From the dressing table, I could swear I heard my hairbrush give a rich, sardonic chuckle. The brush is elderly, and has seen good service, but hasn’t been used once in the past two weeks, and is clearly sulking. There has been no need for it, and it is suffering an existential crisis.
The hair on my head that hasn’t managed to make its escape down the plughole, or into Katty’s vigorous daily sweepings, has morphed into a patchy duckling halo of white and yellow, some 2mm in length.
Today I have worn a scarf around it to keep my head warm. Although the sun is shining on the volcano today, the flat is not yet warmed through, and nor am I. I spend much of my day asleep on the bed or the sofa, daydreaming of the stem cells inside me starting to form their strategy for the war ahead.
They’re working out their units and their command structure: who goes where to do what, and how best to tackle the multi-headed insurgents of MS that hide in every corner of my body.
The scarf is fine and soft to the touch, of such beautiful shimmering green material that it feels as though my head and neck are swathed in a silken meadow. It arrived as a wholly unexpected gift today, from a friend’s mother, who thought I might need a boost. I’ve never met her, but the kindness of her gesture touched my heart, just as it warmed my head and neck.
I asked my friend how her mother knew that such a gift would be timely and welcome. “She’s just motherly,” she replied. “She knows.”
Most people are blessed with one mother. Quite a few have two. Only the very rare manage three. And I am among them.
One of my very earliest memories is of sitting on a staircase aged around three in our house in Sutton in Surrey, mulling on the word ‘adopted’. I knew it applied to me and that it meant that I was special, loved and chosen. It was a big word, and I didn’t really understand what it meant, but I knew just the same that I didn’t need to worry. It was simply one part of what made me, and something that I could figure out later on.
And somehow it didn’t bother me for years, or at least not until after my adoptive mother died when I was eleven. And then suddenly I had a sense, growing more urgent every year, that I needed to find my natural mother before it was too late.
To thank her for having me (I had been brought up to be polite and send thank you notes, but I had no name or address to send one to), and to say how grateful I was that the woman who had given me the gift of life had chosen the hard path of having me and then giving me up for adoption so that I could have a stable childhood and two loving parents, able to give me all the love and care that a child needs to grow and to flourish.
So, late in the last century, early one morning in the autumn of 1990, I set off to find my natural mother. Or perhaps, unnatural mother. For what mother gives up her child at six weeks old, except in extremis, a mother pushed to the edge by that very act of becoming a mother?
This was in the age just before the world changed irrevocably and a girl could set off with a battered suitcase, a scrap of paper and a sunhat, on her own, bound for the other side of the world. I was 23.
It was an era in which there were no mobile phones, no internet and no way in which to helicopter parent over your departing child (at least not that I knew of, although even by 1986 I do remember that Apple computers had just begun to change the world).
I set off for Australia via Heathrow to track down my natural mother, even though I didn’t know her name or where she lived. Or how old she was. Or if she was alive, or dead, married or single, happy or sad, or whether she’d be remotely interested in meeting me. All I knew was that if I were her, I would want to know the end of the story, or at least what had happened after the last cuddle or the last look before I was taken to a new and unknown home.
All I knew for sure was that I was adopted in Sydney at St Anthony’s Home for Unmarried Mothers, because my darling Dad pressed a small hand-written piece of paper into my hand with its address on before I left home that morning, with a kindly smile, saying ‘you might want this’. He and my WSM waved me off with their blessing, and instructions to write when I got there.
I had somehow inferred from that that he knew what I was doing, but perhaps not. So I travelled blithely onwards, assuming parental blessing for the very specific odyssey that lay ahead.
It wasn’t that I needed or wanted a different family. I did not. I loved and love mine with every living fibre of my being. The Wyatts and the Barons are my flesh and blood, even if they’re actually not technically my flesh and blood at all. But they are my family, my tribe. The family that chose me, raised me, loved me and love me still.
And I have not lacked for parenting. Wendy, my Wicked Step-Mother, the WSM has been a mother to me for the greater part of my life now, since I turned 15 or 16 (I am bad at dates, because they involve numbers), so for some 35 years. She is the WSM who cooks the best ever turkey for Christmas and Chanukah to feed the returning five thousand, and who makes the best chicken soup in the world.
Not to mention her turkey curry, which gets better with every passing year. One day, its fame will spread, and Heston Blumenthal will come asking for the recipe and be bitterly disappointed to find that there isn’t one. It is, like some of the best music, poetry and plays, an improvisation, that reaches its zenith around December the 27th every year.
That same WSM taught me that women can work and be mothers at the same time, and that art is not a luxury but an essential. Oh, and that painting one’s nails and putting on your best face in the mirror with lipstick and make-up is not vanity, but an essential part of being a well-groomed woman in this world.
I confess that Wendy won my heart in an instant when I was a teenager in Berlin. On one visit, around my birthday, she came bearing a Mary Quant make-up set, a shiny black treasure trove containing a magic rainbow of eye-shadows and lipsticks in all the jewel colours of Aladdin’s cave. This was the artist’s palette with which I began to create my teenage self.
I’m not sure that the slathered in make-up stage particularly delighted my Dad. Fathers never think their daughters need any make-up, perhaps fearing that it might be used to enhance their powers of attraction, which no teenager realises actually lie in their youth and the natural blush of a slightly chubby cheek.
Throughout my life, my darling Dad has been my rock and my anchor, a charming, personable yet slightly mysterious diplomat with the sharpest mind allied to the funniest jokes and the worst (best) puns. And great hair: still abundant and luxuriant, like the white of a dandelion blowing gently in the field, even at 85. And a lot longer and thicker than my veneer of duckling’s down today.
Though Dad did set us the most appalling example for most of our childhood by smoking and loving it, even as he hacked and coughed his way through packet upon packet of Silk Cut, with one cigarette permanently burning in the ashtray, and sometimes another in his hand dropping ash.
And always, in memory and indelibly inside in my heart and my soul, is Annemarie, my late Swiss mother, who showed us what love meant in every meal she cooked for us, in every hug and every favourite bedtime story told at night, even as my eyes could barely stay open as I forced myself to stay awake for the happy ever after that I knew would come.
Her love was in every fold of my clothes as a child, in every stitch of the jumpers that she knitted, in every carefully-ironed sheet that wrapped me in its starchy embrace at night. It was manifest in every hug, in every kiss for a scraped knee.
So did I need another mother, when I was already 23? Perhaps not. But I did need to know where I had come from, and more about the genes that had helped make me.
I was then in another liminal phase, no longer adolescent, but not quite adult yet. A student for five years, fresh from a year at City University with a post-grad in journalism, and soon to start a job at the BBC.
But in between I had four months or so in which to solve the mystery of my origins, and find out what had happened in 1967 (and, technically, in 1966).
My biological parents must have got together, I worked out, just as the world’s first vertical jump jet, the Harrier, was introduced, the year that the Hovercraft went into service across the English Channel, and just after England beat West Germany 4-2 to win the 1966 World Cup at Wembley. There must have been many babies conceived that month in England as well.
But my origins lay further afield. In 1966 in Australia, the severe drought that had affected much of Queensland and rural New South Wales had finally broken, and somewhere in its three million square miles that year, my natural mother and natural father had met and without quite meaning to, had created me.
The first month in Australia flew by. I had to get a job to support myself, and bumped into a friend from school on a Sydney street and another in a café, so at least I had somewhere to live – at Potts Point, overlooking Sydney Harbour, albeit from a distance. I took the sofa-bed in the living room, because it was cheaper. Then, walking down another street, I met my old employer from Alfred Marks, who found me a job as a receptionist, and kept on employing me, even as I took time off to do my research.
All I needed now was my mother’s name. In those days before the internet, finding people was harder, and St Anthony’s no longer existed in its old form. A kindly woman at that address said the hospital might have some records, but when I went to Crown Street hospital in Darlinghurst, they said the records had been burnt in a fire. But someone remembered an archive of duplicates, and a week later, I sat down to read the two brief pages that summarised who my mother was.
Irena, it said, had been the daughter of Polish immigrants, who’d arrived in Sydney on a ship from Europe after the Second World War. She had an older sister Sonya, and was 5’7”, brown-haired and hazel-eyed.
My natural mother was brought up Catholic, and was just 16 when she became pregnant, and 17 when she gave birth. Irena liked “good reading” and jazz, and hoped to become a teacher. In a brief section on “biological father”, it said that Alan was Protestant, 6’2” and had a pilot’s licence, and was the drummer in a jazz band.
But there I had reached a dead end. No surname, and how many tens thousands of immigrants had arrived in Australia after the war, seeking a new life away from the ruins of Europe?
I wrote articles for the newspapers, asking for anyone who knew of my mother to come forward. I went on TV to discuss adoption, at the time a subject much in the news as the Australian government debated changing the laws to remove the veil of secrecy that had surrounded the adoptions of my generation.
And as a result, one evening I was invited to a party hosted by an Australian MP. With the confidence of at least one glass of chardonnay, I began chatting to a friendly chap about my dilemma. How was I to find this mother of mine, so near and yet perhaps beyond my reach?
“I’m the chief registrar of births, deaths and marriages, so maybe I could help,” this miraculous man said. “I can’t tell you her surname, but I can look up your birth certificate – the one you’re not allowed to see – and tell you if it’s there or not.”
The next morning I rang him from my reception desk at a tedious accountancy firm, which provided me with a free telephone and enough rent for my sofa-bed.
“Have you found my birth certificate?” I asked him.
“Yes, I have it in front of me,” he said.
“What does it say?”
A long pause.
“You know I can’t tell you – it’s against the law.”
“I know her first name is Irena. Could you tell me the first letter of her surname?”
“And the second?”
“And the third?”
“And the fourth?”
But my Scrabble hand was now full. The chief registrar of births, deaths and marriages was not willing to betray a single letter more. Hmm.
“What does it end with?” I asked.
“It sort of ends in –ski, but it’s not quite –ski,” he said enigmatically.
We chatted a little more, but I knew that those four or five letters would be enough.
After another month of searching through public libraries, voting cards and shipping records for New South Wales, I thought I had finally found the family I was looking for.
Only two families fitted, and the most likely ones, the Niedzwieckis, had travelled over to Australia around the right time, though it was slightly later than Irena herself had recalled.
In fact, the shipping records I finally tracked down showed that on February 21st, 1950 the Niedzwiecki family had left Delmenhorst Staging Centre in Germany “for further emigration”.
On March the 7th, 1950 they sailed on the ship “Amarapoora” from Naples in Italy to Australia.
But where had they gone? Another week of combing through the electoral registers of New South Wales by hand, until finally I found them in Werris Creek. There for every year until the year of my birth, when they had moved. But why, and where to? And where was Irena now?
Fate kept on happening, as the writer Anita Loos put it in one of her books. I can’t remember whether it was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. (She did say that “it isn’t that gentlemen really prefer blondes, it’s just that we look dumber.”)
A friend I had made in the course of my quest knew I had come to a dead end, and carried on the search through the phone books of Australia. She rang to say there was an Anna Niedzwiecki in Brisbane, and that perhaps she could be my natural grandmother. Would I like her to call the number and find out?
I would, and she did. And it was indeed Anna, my natural grandmother, who said that Irena would be home from work after 6pm, and that I should call back then.
So I did. The next day, I quit my job and got on a plane at Sydney airport, bound for Brisbane, and the mother I had never really met.
I was in a daze, wondering if I was doing the right thing. Arguing with myself, back and forth in my head. It was right to go. No, it was silly. So close to finding what I’d always hoped for, but so nervous about what I might find.
But I do remember the landing – the lights of Brisbane brighter and brighter, stretching on for endless sprawling miles, like a neon promised land. Somewhere down there, my mother was waiting. The mother who gave me up when I was six weeks old, and disappeared, leaving no memories, no keepsakes. Just her genes and a question mark carved deep into my soul.
I sat at the back of the plane, and as everyone else got off, trailing baggage or talking excitedly, I watched. And waited. I couldn’t move.
What if I didn’t like my mother? What if I didn’t recognise her? She had a lovely low rich voice on the phone, the first and so far only time we had spoken the night before. But what on earth was I doing?
I was thousands of miles from home, about to meet a stranger. And I’d packed in my job after a one hour phone call with my mystery mother.
For what? To excise the question mark, and all the ones that lurked beneath. Where did I come from? Who was she? What did she look like. Why had she given me up? And did she ever wonder about me, her child, in all those long years?
Yet now that I had landed in Brisbane, I wasn’t sure that I should be here at all, nor that I’d necessarily like the answers to my questions.
I had heard some of the answers on the phone, when Irena finally came home and I could call her.
That day of waiting had been endless. Her number was written on a piece of paper that was now scrunched and damp from handling. I had scrutinised it endlessly like a talisman that could decide my fate; held it close in my hand like a prayer bead and wondered and worried at it in my mind.
At last it was 7pm, and I sat by my bed as I rang, the door shut tightly against the noise of my flatmates. When Irena finally picked up, the voice at the other end of the phone was warm and deep, husky with nicotine and good humour. I liked her voice immediately.
Even on a crackly phone line, the one word ‘hello’ had an upward Antipodean inflection and a big smile behind it. Though it was a shock to hear a broad Australian accent. I hadn’t worked out that my mother would sound quite so Aussie.
What do you say to your mother when you call her for the first time? What do you call her?
“Hello, it’s Caroline.”
And there was a pause.
“I think I’m your daughter.”
And after another pause, the reply.
A smile in her voice.
“Yes. I think you probably are.”
And then came a long laugh at the sheer oddity of the situation, and I could hear her light a cigarette at the other end of the line and take in a deep lungful of smoke.
Another pause. I didn’t know what to say. This was my mother, but the questions that had burned in my mind for so long deserted me.
“You sound so English!” she said. “So proper.”
“Tell me about yourself,” my mother said. So I did.
“Well, I’m 23, I’ve spent the last three months looking for you, and the past twenty three years wondering about you. I’m going to train to be a journalist at the BBC in January. I’m 5 foot 7, blonde, blue-eyed. Not very slim. More curvy. I had a wonderful childhood and a lovely mum and dad and…” And then I stopped, wondering if talking about my parents might upset this new-found parent.
But it didn’t. She wanted to know all about them. So for the next twenty minutes I told her about my life, my school, my adoptive mother’s death from cancer when I was 11, my beloved Dad, and a précis of university life, and my American, recently ex boyfriend, Karl.
Irena sounded happy to listen, with the odd puff of smoke audible at the other end, and murmurs of interest, and then a comfortable silence when I finally stopped talking. All I could sense was a crackle through the curly telephone line, an umbilical cord between Brisbane and Sydney, and a warm glow that now somehow connected us after 23 years apart.
And then she answered the question that I hadn’t asked but that had hovered unspoken behind this call. Why give me up for adoption?
“I wanted you to have a good life,” she said, slowly, “and I knew I couldn’t give that to you. I was 17, and just too young.”
She was a teacher, she said, at a secondary school, and before that she’d been a primary school teacher. And when she found out she was pregnant, she was 16, just 17 when she gave birth.
“Are you married? Do you have any other children?” I asked her, curious but also worried that I might be intruding on her life, into a family that knew nothing of her first child, and at the same time oddly worried that I might have siblings who might not welcome such a revelation.
“No – only you.”
We talked for a long time. Irena was easy to talk to, with a warm voice and easy manner. A good listener.
Irena had moved back in with her own mother Anna, to look after her when Anna was ill. Irena never moved out again. So at the age of 40 she was living back at home. It was a bungalow in Tingalpa, a suburb of Brisbane, and her mother Anna – known as Mamma – was better now.
It sounded to me rather more as though Anna might be looking after Irena again.
I described my search for her, and how I’d spent months talking to journalists, and speaking on talk shows in case she was watching, because the law in Australia barred me from knowing my natural mother’s name.
She had seen none of it, busy at work and with helping her sister Sonya, looking after nephews and her niece Alison in Brisbane.
But she was so, so happy that I’d rung, Irena said, and that I’d persisted when it all seemed to be in vain. She had tried to find me too, she said, but had no idea where to start.
“So will you come to meet me?” Irena asked, almost shyly, after we’d talked for an hour or so.
“How about tomorrow?”
“Yes. Can you meet me at the airport?”
“Yes. But my sister will have to drive. I lost my licence for drink-driving last month. This hasn’t been an easy year.”
I laughed. I rather liked this irresponsible mother of mine.
“See you tomorrow. I’ll call with the time of the flight. Good night.”
I’d asked Irena on the phone how I’d know it was her at the airport – how would I recognise her? She’d said that she and her sister would be waiting at arrivals, and that I would know them by their noses. Hers was long and pointed at the end, and her sister’s was quite noticeable as well. Irena said that she had long dark straight hair, and her sister’s was bobbed and blonde.
I had half-thought that my mother was joking about the noses, but she wasn’t.
When I finally got off the plane and walked slowly through the door to arrivals, there they were.
Unmistakeable. Blonde and brunette, side by side.
The brunette slim and girlish, wearing olive trousers but no shoes.
The blonde rather more formally dressed.
The girl with the long dark hair was my mum, and she looked more nervous than I did. And she was so ridiculously young. She didn’t look old enough to be my mother. Her sister Sonya next to her was more composed.
Suddenly, I felt a wave of incredibly English reserve wash over me, and went over to them, hesitantly extending my hand and trying to disentangle my hair, which had got caught up in my backpack.
Irena took one look at me, and enveloped me in the tightest of hugs. She smelt of sweet perfume and cigarettes, with just a hint of white wine. I hugged her back, for twenty-three years’ worth of separation.
There was barely anything of her. She was so skinny. And so young. When I pulled away, I noticed that she had tears in her eyes and a broad smile.
Somehow she wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all, and I had no idea how to feel.
“Shall we have a cigarette?” she asked.
I’d waited for this meeting for 23 years. I’d never quite believed that it would ever happen. And when it finally did, it felt odd, unreal, as though I were waking up under anaesthetic, numb and unable quite to feel my limbs or speak, or swimming underwater to some still distant shore.
It was wonderful to meet Irena at last – the phantom of my dreams, the Polish mother that I’d wondered about for so long. Yet I was also completely numb. While Irena and Sonya cried, I felt a British reserve envelop me.
Then Sonya hugged me too, and took photos, and suddenly we were all talking at once. About the journey, how warm it was, about anything at all apart from the bizarreness of travelling halfway around the world to meet a woman whom you didn’t know, who’d given birth to you 23 years before and who had never seen or spoken to you again.
As we left the airport, Irena and I reached simultaneously into our handbags for a cigarette, lit it, and laughed. Outside, the air was hot and steamy, by this stage of November well into an early Brisbane summer. The November bugs swarmed around us, and the heat trickled down my neck.
We found Sonya’s car, and Irena and I sat in the back. She held my hand, and smiled, but the numbness didn’t go away. We made polite conversation. About Irena’s job, about Sonya’s four children – my cousins. So there were cousins too?
Yes, Micah, Alison, Simon and Joshua. A good Catholic family. Sonya went to church, Irena didn’t, but sometimes accompanied Anna, her mother, known to all as Mamma.
I kept stealing glances across at my mother as the lights of Brisbane flashed by.
Were we really related? She was so girlish, still a flower child of the 60s, her long hair a glossy black, the lights outside giving her a madonna’s halo. She hardly looked old enough to be a mother at all.
There was, though, a hint of sadness about her, beneath the smile. It was a smile that looked as though it could sometimes hide a deep melancholy, masked behind that wreath of smoke. Her nose was indeed long, with a bump at the end of it, and she looked not one bit like me at first glance.
But then after more surreptitious glances, I noticed that the oval of her face was similar to mine, and as we sat in the car in a moment of silence I looked at her hand. I recognised it. I held it up against mine. We both looked at our hands. Each was exactly the same, palm mirroring palm, finger on finger. The same long fingers, the same slightly spatulate ends. Every finger met and matched as we held them up together, and Irena scrunched her hand around mine and held it tight. Her strong square nails were just like mine. Identical.
And then we compared feet, hers still bare, as I kicked off my shoes. They were the same, too. Toes the same length, gap between big toe and second toe just the same. Big, strong, peasant’s feet, made for walking barefoot through the fields, and for Irena, even tonight at the airport, going barefoot in town.
And as she spoke, a warm melodious caress of a voice, her laugh and her timbre were the same as mine .
Yes. I’d come to the right place, I thought at last. This really was my mother. I hadn’t, somehow, been sure until that moment. There was no proof, no certainty, I had no documents to prove it.
But hands and feet don’t lie. Nor voices. Irena was undoubtedly the mother I’d been searching for, although not quite what I’d expected.
A slightly fallen angel, perhaps, rather than a Madonna, but real, my own warm flesh and blood. And I was undoubtedly the flesh of her flesh, returned in equally unexpected form, perhaps not what she had expected either, this polite, plump and proper English girl.
And then after an hour or so, the car finally stopped, and I could see that a tiny figure of a woman was waiting outside a little house at the end of the pathway.
She had grey curly hair, and a kind face and a hesitant smile on her face. She looked nervous, too. She was in her 60s, and wore a flowery dress.
“That’s Mamma,” said Irena. My natural grandmother, Anna.
Mamma looked from a distance just like my adoptive mother – petite and with grey hair and a gentle expression. And when she turned to look at me and spoke, it was with the Polish accent of her childhood, mixed with Australian, but not much. It reminded me of my late mother’s Swiss accent when she spoke English; a voice I hadn’t heard in so many years.
Mama held out her arms to me, slightly uncertainly, and took my hand in hers.
“I’ve waited for this moment for 23 years,” she said.
“I’ve prayed for you every single day of my life. I’m so happy that you have come home at last.”
And with that she burst into tears, and so did I.
Inside, the bungalow was neat and clean, and bursting to overflowing with mats and ornaments, dolls, rugs, and trinkets on every surface, and a big television in the corner. Dinner was cooking and it smelled delicious. Mama had made pelmeni and meatballs, summoning up a big Polish feast in her little kitchen.
Irena headed for the table in the kitchen, and made straight for a bottle of vodka on the sideboard nearby.
“We must have a toast!” And someone found shot glasses, and poured cherry liqueur with vodka for all in generous quantities.
“To the lost, who’ve come home!”
“To the lost – and the found!”
And again a babble of voices, asking questions about my other family, my childhood, my adoptive mum, as Sonya and Mamma tried to serve dinner as we drank and talked. And talked and talked. So many questions – a lifetime’s worth.
But there was one I’d not had an answer to.
“Who was my father, and what was he like?”
A long silence.
“You don’t need to know about him!” said Mamma, emphatically.
“He was no good.”
I’d laughed when I’d seen the form Irena wrote, aged 17, to give to the nuns at St Anthony’s home for unmarried mothers. It was the ‘non-identifying information’ they had given me when I turned up to ask for my mother’s name.
They couldn’t give me her name, they said, because it was against the law. But the teenage mother – my mother – had been asked for information about the father of the baby – my father – and written that his name was Alan. He was, she wrote, the drummer in a jazz band, 6’2”, slim, Protestant. And feckless.
I’d liked the sound of both of them on paper, and was by now utterly intrigued by the word ‘feckless’.
As it turned out, the teenage Irena was absolutely right. Her instincts were correct, although they hadn’t stopped her falling in love with the handsome, feckless Alan. The 19 year-old drummer in a jazz band with his own private pilot’s licence had not, she sensed, been mature enough to enter into fatherhood, though he was clearly keen on the early part of it.
“Did you see him again?” I asked, by now emboldened by the vodka.
“Not after I had you, no.” And now it was Irena’s turn to burst into tears.
Tonight, I am lost in memory again, and the sun has long since set over the volcano. There is so much more to tell of this story, but I am tired, and my stem cells are demanding sleep so they can continue to gather their resources for the fight ahead. Tomorrow is a day of rest, so no blog, to allow the stem cells some time for thought and strategy.
Today, I was finally granted my exit visa from Neutropenia. I’ve been stuck there since Thursday, and had been hanging around impatiently at the border from around Monday onwards, as the border guards were being quietly unhelpful.
It’s a familiar situation for anyone who has ever worked abroad in difficult places, or indeed in foreign news. I remember the most uncomfortable day or so that I spent at one border post between Iraq and Jordan, in the time when Saddam Hussein was still very much in charge of Iraq.
I had been in Baghdad as the correspondent doing bureau cover for the BBC for a month or so over Christmas and New Year 1998, at a time of high tension between Saddam Hussein’s government and the west.
His government was apoplectic with the American and British military alliance that was flying Operation Desert Fox, a major four-day bombing campaign on Iraqi targets from the 16th of December to the 19th aimed at ensuring that the UN no-fly zones over Iraq held, and that the Iraqi leader could not use his remaining air force to bomb any of his own people, or indeed anyone else.
My boss Malcolm had rung me up in his usual laconic style a week or so before. I was the BBC’s Bonn correspondent, but there was not much of a story in that small town in Germany that month.
“How would you feel about going to Baghdad for Christmas?” he asked.
My heart sang. I could see swimming before me, as in reality I looked out over the dull misty rain in my garden overlooking Bad Godesberg, the gold souk and the spice market in Baghdad. The place would be full of the exotic smells of nutmeg, cinnamon, and the sweet tobacco smoke of the shisha pipes outside the cafes, mingled with the exotic undertone of the lack of decent drains across much of the Middle East. It might also be full of bombs and bullets, but I didn’t think too hard about that. I was 31 and keen on adventure.
On my bookshelf at home was a battered, powder-blue copy of Baghdad Sketches: Journeys through Iraq by Freya Stark, published in 1932. I’d wanted to go there ever since. Stark was one of those indominatable women who are probably more fun to read than to marry or be friends with.
She was a British-Italian-Polish-German explorer and travel writer, whose two dozen or so books (if you can still find them – mine came from a musty second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road of the sort that are rapidly being driven out by clothing and café chains) charted her travels through the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Born in 1893, Stark had received a copy of One Thousand and One Nights, and thanks to childhood illness, spent much time in her mind travelling the Orient, and decided later that she would do it for real, deciding first very wisely (something I had signally failed to do, unlike my gifted BBC colleagues Caroline Hawley, Frank Gardner and James Longman) to first learn Arabic (and in her case, as well as Persian).
By 1931, she had already travelled to places in southern Arabia that few western men had ever ventured. Later, during the Second World War, she joined the British Ministry of Information, and helped create a propaganda network called the Brotherhood of Freedom, aimed at persuading Arabs to remain neutral or even to support the Allies. Freya Stark died in 1993, just five years before her book made me want more than anything to see the Tigris and the Euphrates for myself.
Lost in reverie, I said nothing, and my boss Malcolm must have interpreted my silence for doubt.
“It would only be for a month. Have some time to think about it. Don’t rush. It’s a big decision, as it could be quite dangerous given the politics at the moment. Call me back in 10 minutes or so and let me know.
And Malcolm put the phone down. My mind was already made up. Nothing was going to stop me going to a city that had been one of the jewels of the Arab world. Even its name sung an exotic melody, a compound name of Bagh (god) and dad (given by). Translated, it was a town called God’s Gift, and at Christmas 1998 it sounded exactly like God’s gift to a young journalist keen to show what she could do.
And, as it turned out, the real correspondents, the ones who knew what the were doing, Jeremy Bowen and John Simpson were keen to get home for Christmas. So God’s Gift it was for me that Christmas, and Malcolm was gruffly delighted when I called him back a mere three minutes later to say so. My parents less so. Who would eat my portion of turkey? Given the appetites of the rest of my family, I wasn’t quite so concerned. Journalistic selfishness won v daughterly duty.
I packed my suitcase, travelled to London, and discovered that Malcolm also wanted me to take an enormous Christmas hamper from Fortnum and Mason for the BBC staff in Baghdad. They were mostly at least nominally Muslim, but generally quite keen on food and other treats in the UN sanction-blighted days under Saddam.
My darling wicked stepmother, aka WSM, was aghast when she saw the amount of luggage that I planned to take. A huge backpack, the F & M hamper, which was the size of a healthy seven year old and just as heavy, and another suitcase.
It was worthy of William Boot, the hero of Scoop, or indeed of Freya Stark herself, who horrified one of her guests after her wedding reception at St Ermine’s hotel in Victoria as she helped her to pack for the later-in-ife honeymoon and spotted Stark’s selection of peekaboo underwear.
So I unpacked on the floor of my parents’ living room, just to prove that everything I was carrying was vital. Microphone, radio kit (rather larger in those days), plenty of spare batteries, sensible clothes, desert boots, sunhat, sunscreen. Towels, teabags, small iron for shirt so that it wasn’t crumpled on air. Adapters for the plugs just in case. We were nearly at the bottom of the bag now.
And then quite unbidden, out popped my black stiletto shoes, my velvet black party dress, and a rather splendid black basque and some lacy bras and knickers.
My WSM’s eyes nearly popped out. There was a long silence.
“Why are you taking a black basque to Baghdad?” she asked, in a tone of incredulity.
Er. Because. Because I was 31 and unmarried. Because Baghdad was an exotic place that deserved exotic undergarments. And because it was Christmas and New Year at the location of the biggest news story of the year, which meant that there would undoubtedly be a lot of hard partying in between much hard work.
The basque and party dress came with me, and some of the duller shirts stayed behind in London.
I was delighted to find on arrival at God’s Gift that I had been right all along. I entered the Al Rasheed hotel in Baghdad, trying not to tread too heavily on the face of US President George H W Bush that was depicted on the tile mosaic in the entrance hall (the soles of the shoes, and in particular walking with the dirty sole of one’s shoes over someone’s face is a serious insult in the Arab world, as you can imagine). And saw that already in the lobby that everyone who was anyone in the world of journalism was gathering there, in a blizzard of boxes and self-importance.
Most delightful and unexpected of all was the team from the Sun, journalist and photographer both dressed as Santa.
“Why are you dressed as Santa?” I asked them as I began the lengthy process of checking in.
“Because we have come to Iraq to give the children of Iraq their Christmas presents, which they would otherwise not get under Saddam Hussein,” answered the photographer laconically. Or as laconic as you can be wearing a Santa hat in a hotel lobby in Baghdad.
“But isn’t this a Muslim country? One that therefore doesn’t celebrate Christmas?” I asked, suddenly uncertain of the one fact that had lodged solidly in my brain about Iraq in all the reading I had done for the past intensive week of preparation.
Nobody likes a clever dick trying to ruin their story.
The Sun photographer and his journalist shrugged. They certainly were not going to let a mere detail like that spoil their Christmas splash. And they didn’t.
I think they were on pages 1 – 5 in full Santa mode that Christmas, delighting the orphan children of Baghdad shown to the Sun team with great delight by Saddam Hussein’s press minders, who could sense a propaganda coup.
The rest of my month in God’s Gift was an eventful one, in many ways, but that is definitely a story for another day, as the sun has long since set over the volcano here, and I am tired.
On the appointed day in January at the end of my stint in Baghdad, when the grown-up correspondents were due to return from their families and their Christmas holidays, our bureau driver, a personable young Kurdish Iraqi called Dylan, took me as far as the border, driving the 800 kilometres for hours through the desert with barely a stop en route, except a brief one to the service station loos, where the smell proclaimed that something had recently died and was still there, gently rotting in the heat.
I’d watched as we drove west up Highway 1, and Fallujah became Ramadi and we took the fork in the road near Ar Rutba and headed due west. The dawn melted into midday, and the towns and cities receded, the desert changed colour and the towns petered out into the occasional crumbling mud-brick dwelling, and then into no human habitation at all.
I’ve always loved deserts. Their infinite variety of colours. The life that lives just beneath the parched surface. The occasional human intervention that you know will sink beneath the curling dunes within decades, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
From the multi-coloured sands in the Painted Desert in Arizona to the harshest deserts of all in Afghanistan, to the tufty sand, stone and scrub of Al Anbar province in Iraq, these are places that leave time for thought and contemplation, impossible in towns or even in my very own green countryside of home.
The skies over deserts are bigger and they are better. Clearer, and cleaner with air that holds no noise and little scent. With nothing at all to get in the way of the feast for the eyes that the generous desert offers you at night, as unthinkingly as a small child gives you their laughter, or unquestioning love.
In the desert, the stars and the Milky Way, and the very universe above are laid out magnificently just for you and your private contemplation at night (and that of the other privileged few amongst us seven billion or so tiny pin-pricks on the planet below).
After a minute or so, the stars really do start to twinkle, the Milky Way shimmers as if in a dream, and the occasional shooting star streaks through the sky like a Hollywood actor destined for insane levels of fame followed by an early death.
And you realise as you look at the heavens above with a secret thrill just how inconsequential your own problems are in the face of a universe that has existed for more than 13 billion years before you, and that will endure, inshallah, for many more.
These stars, this heaven, survived without your help, or your to do lists, or your frantic planning and organisation, or your constant thinking about the next story already when you’ve barely finished the one you’re on, and they will survive for many millennia after you, and without you.
Night had not yet fallen, although it was threatening to when Dylan and I arrived at the rickety border post some eleven hours after we set off. I knew that my permission to leave the country and all my papers were in not merely in good order but in that most excellent state of bureaucratic perfection that can only exist in an absolute dictatorship. The BBC’s staff at the office in Baghdad had seen to that with lengthy cups of tea and perhaps a little more at various Iraqi ministries.
The Ministry of Information, an institution that had clearly modelled itself on George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in the flourishing Baghdad of the 1950s, had made sure of that. My copious cups of tea with the press secretary, discussing the woes of the world, and the appalling state of his gout, and the wonderful carefree time that he had once spent in London, had also ensured that I knew for certain that my papers were in the best possible order.
But the middle-aged Iraqi Colonel with the Saddam-alike moustache who appeared to be in charge of this particular border post (which on that day was the only one that really mattered to me) was a man who visibly enjoyed the power he so corpulently wielded.
He toyed with us awhile, as we sat and had a cup of hot black tea, with what tasted like three spoonfuls of sugar, and no milk. I looked around the room outside his office. Dispiritingly, there were four or five other journalists there, at least three of them from Japan. They looked as dusty and weary as we did, but with rather more worry etched on their faces.
“How long have they been here?” I asked the Colonel, whose English was impeccable, nodding at the all male group outside. He took a long and thoughtful sip from his steaming glass cup before he answered, and his face took on a positively cherubic air, with an expression that managed to mingle delight, smugness and regret without disarranging a single facial feature.
“Two days.” A pause. Their papers are not in order,” and he shook his head in sorrow, that smile still in place.
My heart sank. I urgently needed a shower, a working loo and a good sleep. And to get out of Iraq and then home as quickly as possible. In that brief month, I had fallen utterly in love with what I’d seen of this place and its people, but a month of being followed constantly by our Ministry minders had begun to prey on my nerves. As did the knowledge that if the political situation changed suddenly, so might my chances of going home, impeccable papers or not.
I looked at the Colonel, and asked him if he smoked.
“Yes, I do. But cigarettes are terribly expensive here,” he sighed. And clapped his hands for another cup of tea.
“Might I, as a gift from my esteemed country to your esteemed country, and as a mark of the pleasure that I have enjoyed as a guest here for the past month of President Saddam Hussein’s government and the Iraqi people, dare to offer you some of the excellent Marlboro Red that I have with me? I am about to give up smoking, so these 400 cigarettes are no longer of any use to me,” and I gave him my best convent boarding schoolgirl smile.
“This is the last packet I shall smoke, so please, do not be offended if I ask you to consider the rest yours.”
The Colonel looked rather pleased, and his jowls rose as his smile widened to lose the element of sadness, and instead express a gentle delight at the kindness of foreign travellers.
“That would be very kind, and I can’t say I have any objection.”
I gently slipped the Marlboro red from my backpack, and sipped at my tea, which was now cool enough to drink with greater pleasure. Then I decided to risk offering him a cigarette there and then, so we could talk outside where we couldn’t be heard.
The Japanese journalists sighed heavily in the main room as we passed by. They were too polite to push the point, and sat in bewildered resignation, as they had done for two sunsets already.
Over the first cigarette, as we watched the desert sun go down, I pushed too soon, thinking that 400 Marlboro Red had been sufficient lure for the Colonel.
“My papers are in order, so I assume that we can go now, before sunset?”
The Colonel shook his head with what seemed almost like real sorrow.
“No, they need some more scrutiny, and we’ll have to call Baghdad to make sure. But it’s past five, so there won’t be anyone there to ask until the morning.”
Desperation began to rise in my heart, and despair too. But I turned the conversation to other matters.
“Are you married, Colonel, and do you have children?”
The Colonel beamed.
“I have five children, and my wife is a marvellous mother. I am very lucky. Though of course, life is difficult here,” a small verbal nod to the myriad difficulties of life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where death and torture were just as likely to be the results of years of public service as a gold watch, a medal and a portrait of Saddam Hussein in his best hunting outfit, or a Saddam clock, with the very centre of it Saddam speaking on a bright pink telephone.
I waited for the Colonel to carry on.
“My wife spends all our money on the children, and she has very little to wear. She is forever longing for new dresses. But it is not possible on the wage of a Colonel.”
And he looked out into the middle distance, a sigh mingling with the smoke of his cigarette.
“Forgive my ignorance Colonel, but how much does a dress cost in Iraq these days?”
“Oh, it can be up to a hundred US dollars for a good one,” he said, still looking hard into the middle distance, as though it might betray a clue to the vagaries of family finances.
“And how many dresses does your wife long for?” I asked.
“She really needs at least three, as hers are getting quite old. But of course, that is well beyond my means,” and he lit up another cigarette.
As he continued to stare into the middle distance, and the sun finally darkened to a glow on the horizon ahead – in Jordan, where freedom lay – I silently opened my money-belt and made a quick fingertip check. Yes. $300 US dollars was my exact emergency fund. This would be a risk but it was one worth taking.
“Colonel…” I looked at him intently. “You seem like a good family man. Would you be immensely insulted if I left a very small token of my profound respect for all Iraqi women here, as represented by your wife. Just a little something for those dresses, as a gift from a grateful guest of your country? It is all I have, but I would be honoured if she would accept it, from an English sister.”
“Why,” he said, eyes widening in apparent surprise. “That would be very welcome indeed. My wife would be most grateful. She’s always liked the English, even if I’ve always told her that you can’t trust them in this part of the world.”
He curled his hand so quickly around the dollars that I didn’t even see where they went.
But as we went back inside, he nodded to Dylan, who was waiting nervously indoors, and to a junior border guard, who brought over our confiscated passports.
Back in the Colonel’s office, our exit was now be a mere formality as the passports were stamped, and we headed back to the car. We passed the Japanese journalists, whose heads lifted as their jaws dropped in indignation.
“What the hell did you do to get out so fast?” asked one.
“Ask the Colonel about his wife and her wardrobe,” I said, with the smile of the Sphinx, and Dylan and I drove off happily towards the darkening skies and to freedom in Ammam.
I shall never forget the Iraqi Colonel and my liberation at the border that day.
Today’s liberator at the border was far kinder, though he’s cost rather more. Dr Guillermo Ruiz, the head of Clinica Ruiz, and eminent haematologist and HSCT expert was the man who liberated me from the land of Neutropenia today. Tall, with an air of eminence mixed with genuine kindness, he shook my hand before he sat down and opened my notes.
And at 12.25 on this 24th day of January 2017, he looked down at my white blood cell count and declared himself delighted. My bone marrow was working perfectly, and my neutrophils were up. I was at 10,000, well within normal range, and out of neutropenia. My blue face-mask could come off at last, and I walked out of his office as delighted as any student on graduation day, after their lack of study and last minute revision has somehow won them a miraculous 2/1.
My new stem cells, those lazy medical students, the ones who were supposed to be studying for their final leucocyte exams before they finally gathered more soberly in my bone marrow and my veins to come and escort me out of Neutropenia today had just been dozy. They probably had been lingering down the pub or having a lie-in, just as I fondly remember Teresa and Ann, my fourth year housemates at University, doing for much of their medical studies.
I don’t know why it was, certainly for our generation, those teetering on the brink of 50 or already slipped over its jagged peak, that medics were among the hardest drinkers. Why not engineers or we poetic, slightly more effete students of English? I took a combined honours degree with German, and the language students definitely partied harder. Perhaps they needed to exercise different parts of the brain, just as learning a new language does.
I know that learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain. MRI scans by scientists in recent years have shown that taking up a foreign language has a visible effect on the brain, leading to growth in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language, while also rewiring the connections in the brain.
People who speak more than one language fluently have better memories, and it’s thought their brains may well compensate better for any damage, perhaps because they’re used to making different connections across the brain. Some studies even suggest that Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia are diagnosed later for people who speak two languages rather than one, so that studying and speaking a second language may well help our brains to stay healthier throughout life – at whatever stage that second language is learned.
I still silently thank my parents to this day for bringing us up bilingual in English and Swiss-German, and later German, an unearned inheritance that may for many years have fought off at least some of the damage inflicted by MS as it attacked my nerves and brain, as I sought to perfect my German, better my French, and learn at least some Russian. And this month, gather enough words in Spanish to get by.
Sometimes, the sheer number of words floating around in my head have left me groping for the right one in the language of the country I am currently in, and brain fog has made it much harder to learn. And sometimes, I think, those fragments of language and belonging (or not belonging) to several cultures and countries have left me a strange hybrid creature, hovering in the borderlands of every country in which I live and work.
But today, all I know is that my stem cells have got a move on, and are busy in my system at the start of their new lives.
After the consultation with Dr Ruiz, the stem cell sisters of Group 1 were taken back to the chemo room, this time to have Rituximab piped in to our veins. It is a drug that should also help kill off any remaining rogue B cells, the ones that have also been attacking me over the years by mistake.
Lupita, a nurse with gentle brown eyes and a equally gentle way with needles, pierced my left hand, my Clinica Ruiz stigmata ahead of my planned resurrection to good health, and began the last infusion. The room was peaceful, happy. It was our last treatment here. Some three hours of sitting down in a somnolent peace with my new stem cell family: Anne, Charlotte, Marion and Laila and their caregivers. Joy sat next to me, as patient as ever, and brought a can of hot fruit tea.
For I have been tired today, far more tired than for the last three weeks. I hadn’t realised how much the early chemo had cleared my brain, nor how the steroids that went with it had given me more energy than I’d had in years. They may have caused some other problems (my bottom is much better today, thank you). And I realise today that I hadn’t even felt the ghastly fog of MS settling on my brain like the mist around Popacatapetl in the mornings for two whole weeks.
But today it was back. Along with aching knees, electricity buzzing up my face, and a back that hurt like hell. It was as if that mist of brain fog and fatigue had settled in this morning soon after I woke up, like the Scottish drizzle on every new year that I’ve spent in Edinburgh, and it showed equally little sign of stopping soon.
Inside me now, I know, a civil war is raging. I am out of Neutropenia, thanks to the doctors and my stem cells springing into life. My USD gift at the border here was enough to get me here and out of Neutropenia. But while this battle is won, the war for me is not yet over as I try to find the exit visa from the Kingdom of the Sick.
I’d thought of my stem cells this afternoon, as I lay in the chemo room, as individual Roman gladiators playing to the crowds as they speared each rogue cell in triumph. But tonight I realise that it is not the right picture.
This is a far bigger civil war, with insurgent fighters lurking in every cell, and an enemy so cunning that it has hidden in my every cell and organ for more than twenty years, re-emerging for a skirmish just as I thought it might have given up the fight.
It will take far longer to defeat it than my 28 days here in Mexico, and patience and cunning will be required in equal measure. Perhaps for a matter of years. HSCT does not necessarily work immediately but over the course of the next two years. Even the full effects of the Rituximab may not be felt for another 16 to 24 weeks at a cellular level – another four to six months.
This is much more like the conflict in Afghanistan, its roots every bit as deep, and its warring tribes keen on the fight. Indeed, the MS seems as eager to do battle as a proud young Pashtun warrior being told what to do by the young beardless British lieutenant who has just arrived at his village bearing the solution, agreed by the sages in Whitehall, for an end to the conflicts that have riven and bloodied its parched soil for centuries.
My weapons in this war within will be gentle ones. Subversive, even. And unusual for me. Rest, sleep, good home-cooked food and sunshine for as long as possible. No stress, no massive deadlines, and being kinder to myself and to my new immune system. It is only a baby, and I must spoil it like one. Shower it with love, and kindness. Enjoyment, good books and catching up with friends. And spending time with family, once I’m out of quarantine.
Today, the Freya who made me smile was not Freya Stark and her Arabian adventures, but my own very first great-niece Freya. She is slightly, though not much, older than my stem cells. Her photo, sent by her proud grandmother Penny, shows a slightly tired and pissed-off baby, who doesn’t like the camera at all. Freya is not amused today.
She had to pose for her first passport picture at the age of a little over a month. Perhaps she too, will become an explorer of deserts, or push the boundaries for women in the future in other ways. Her name derives from the Norse goddess of love and fertility, so maybe she will become a midwife who does her work with the same passion and dedication as her aunt Trini, who delivered her.
Or she may simply work hard and do well like her mum, my niece Carly, whose achievements at work owe as much to her sunny disposition and charm as to her stubborn determination and tenacity.
As long as Freya is happy, and healthy. As I go to sleep tonight, I shall contemplate the wonder of my nieces marrying, having babies and growing up.
And I shall dare to dream tonight, thanks to Joy’s lavender under the pillow, of living a long and healthy enough life to see young Freya’s children, too. And to become a great-great aunt. Or certainly, a better aunt than I have been in the past.
First, though, I must win the war inside me. A friend told me today to think of Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist who wrote the Art of War, as I fight my own internal battles.
He sent me some quotes:
The Art of war is… a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. It is governed by five constant factors: the moral law, heaven, earth, the Commander, method and discipline.
The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.
The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.
By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.
These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.
According as circumstances are favourable, one should modify one’s plans.
So that’s clear then. My campaign to leave the Kingdom of the Sick needs a clear plan of attack, and a strategy stretching out beyond the HSCT here at Clinica Ruiz. I shall start to prepare it in the morning with the help of my best and brightest stem cell lieutenants.
I just hope they don’t turn out to be as bright as Baldrick in Blackadder, and that these cunning plans succeed.
But as I sit at my maps and work out my strategy (and as for any modern Army, a good power-point presentation will probably be my first port of call), I may blog rather less in the coming days.
Though we shall see.
Tomorrow is another day.
I woke up in a field of lavender this morning after sleeping the sleep of the dead. All the way through, from midnight to 8am, just as I should. Bliss and joy.
I open my eyes to Joy herself bearing one of my very last Filgrastim injections, aimed at stimulating my dawdling stem cells to do their stuff and my white blood count to rise. She wields it, as ever, with a professional glint in her eye as well as a warm smile, and injects it with no pain for me whatsoever.
Like any line of work, there are some people who just do things well, and with love, efficiency and precision, and some who don’t. Joy is one of those who does.
And I realise, of course, that the field of lavender is not real, nor part of the field of Elysium in the fragment of dream that still shrouds some part of my mind like the mist around the volcano in the early morning as I awake.
The field of Elysium in which I have been slumbering in my dream appears to be the same one that Russell Crowe stands in, as the (fictional Roman) hero, Maximus Decimus Meridius, in Gladiator, the Ridley Scott film that made me weep deliciously with sorrow and satisfaction in the year 2000, as he is reunited with his beloved murdered family after death.
Did you know, by the way, that the Japanese symbol or kanji for grief is the two symbols meaning ‘sadness’ and ‘resentment’ put together? I learned that from the Guest Cat today, a book that I liked, but a lot less than I expected to.
This Elysium of my dreams is also a place of crystal streams and gentle winds, and it is Joy who sent me there for the night, by putting lavender oil on a tissue under my pillow so that finally I could sleep.
Joy is indeed the daughter of Elysium, or at least she is in the German poet/playwright Friedrich Schiller’s Ode To Joy, although of course he never met my Joy, and he was talking about the Divine (although his Ode is still an absolutely stonking one, even if the EU only wanted Beethoven’s music as inspired by Schiller’s Ode, and not Schiller’s words for its anthem.)
Elysium or the Elysian Fields were first the ancient Greeks’ concept of the afterlife, the paradise that the heroic and the very good would live in after death, to enjoy (another) blessed and happy life. Some argue that the very word Elysium comes from the Greek for to be “deeply stirred” with joy.
The key to Elysium being a successful Paradise is not just, of course, that the saved and the blessed must do no earthly toil or labour, so that their hands stay soft and their nails pristine, but that they can rest and watch as those who are not so fortunate labour away nearby.
Pyschological experiments have shown that when given the choice between receiving a gift of a larger sum of money (say £100) while your neighbour gets say £200 or receiving a smaller sum (say £50) while your neighbour gets £25, the vast majority of people will go for the smaller sum. Beggar my neighbour. I think that random fact came from Richard Layard’s excellent book on Happiness, though I have no memory whatsoever as to whose experiment it was.
And we homo sapiens are happiest when we know we earn more than our colleagues or our neighbours.
A few years ago, it was reported that a salary equivalent then to around £50,000 a year of our finest British pounds was the sum needed for human happiness – worth rather fewer of my fine US dollars since Brexit, but it’s been good for my brother Sam and his firm because they export.
And it was Sam who came with me here to Mexico and went with Joy to do the first supermarket shop for me while I unpacked – thank you Sam, because I have a vague memory that you are not so keen on shopping – so the exchange rate is swings and roundabouts, really. And I kept on finding interesting things in the larder today that Sam bought on that very first day.
Sam, if you are reading this – why a tin of cheese soup? What was it about it that caught your eye? I never even knew that there was such a thing. Though I suppose I might try it before I leave.
Earning more than USD $75,000 a year apparently bestows no greater happiness on the recipient, while earning less leaves some needs unmet. The Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s survey found that happiness rose in line with salary, but only up to that US $75,000 a year limit.
Kahneman, working with Angus Deaton (an economist at Princeton rather than the very similarly-named one who doesn’t present Have I Got News for You any more) wrote that: “Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.”
And in a not remotely shocking revelation, it also turns out that the emotional strain of negative experiences, such as divorce or sickness, are exacerbated by being poor. While many other medical studies have found time and time again that higher status protects our immune system.
That I do understand. To have control and agency over your own life, to be the author of your fate, is key. That is the true luxury, much more than the mere possession of money: to be able to control your fate as much as you can, and protect those closest to you from the worst of the slings and arrows. And to have something that gives meaning to your life, be that your family, friends or your faith, your work, or a book you need to write, or research you need to complete.
Pondering that, I look up Daniel Kahneman’s biography on the Nobel Prize website, and read spellbound the opening details of his autobiography there, a story every bit as gripping as his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”:
“I was born in Tel Aviv, in what is now Israel, in 1934, while my mother was visiting her extended family there; our regular domicile was in Paris. My parents were Lithuanian Jews, who had immigrated to France in the early 1920s and had done quite well. My father was the chief of research in a large chemical factory. But although my parents loved most things French and had some French friends, their roots in France were shallow, and they never felt completely secure. Of course, whatever vestiges of security they’d had were lost when the Germans swept into France in 1940. What was probably the first graph I ever drew, in 1941, showed my family’s fortunes as a function of time – and around 1940 the curve crossed into the negative domain.
I will never know if my vocation as a psychologist was a result of my early exposure to interesting gossip, or whether my interest in gossip was an indication of a budding vocation. Like many other Jews, I suppose, I grew up in a world that consisted exclusively of people and words, and most of the words were about people. Nature barely existed, and I never learned to identify flowers or to appreciate animals. But the people my mother liked to talk about with her friends and with my father were fascinating in their complexity. Some people were better than others, but the best were far from perfect and no one was simply bad. Most of her stories were touched by irony, and they all had two sides or more.
In one experience I remember vividly, there was a rich range of shades. It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m. curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others – the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers.
As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting.”
As a journalist, I can only agree. People only very rarely say what you expect them to say, and you can usually tell manufactured quotes in a newspaper: they never sound quite eccentric enough to be the real thing – apart, obviously, from the one thing that absolutely every neighbour says about the next door neighbour who turns out to be a serial killer: “He kept himself to himself”. I assume that few serial killers, apart from Hannibal Lecter, make particularly good dinner guests.
Over the summer, at perhaps my lowest ebb, a good friend suggested I read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written after Frankl survived imprisonment in Auschwitz. By then, I knew I couldn’t continue in my old job with my health in its current state, and it felt to me as though everything I had worked for over the past twenty five years was collapsing, with nothing (as yet) to take its place.
Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychotherapist, as well as being a survivor of the Holocaust.
Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, is written with simplicity, directness and grace, and explains how it was that some people managed to survive the death camps even in the darkest circumstances imaginable – and not just to survive, but to find meaning, and a reason to continue to live.
I shall never know quite how my natural maternal grandfather, Jozef Niedzwiecki, managed to survive his years as a Polish political prisoner in Auschwitz.
In January 2015, when we reported on the anniversary of the liberation of the death camp, I went to look up Jozef’s records.
The kindly archivist at Auschwitz found me three or four, and laid them out in front of me. But even as I read them, I could not find a way to comprehend how any human being had managed to live or work or sleep for even a few minutes at night in the intense cold and cruelty of a Polish winter, let alone go on to have a life that was notable for its sheer normality. At least on the surface.
Jozef’s eyes in the black and white photos are hooded, and his face betrays no signs of joy. He survived, and never spoke of Auschwitz again. I have no idea what kept him alive, or gave his life meaning through those years for – as it turned out a few summers ago – he abandoned his own young family after leaving Auschwitz.
Instead of returning home after the liberation, to be reunited with his wife and three young children in what was eastern Poland and is now Ukraine, he instead headed west, to Germany, where he met my natural grandmother in a refugee camp, had two children out of wedlock, and then emigrated with his new family to Australia, leaving post-war Europe – and his old family – behind.
Did his new wife Anna, my natural grandmother know? I am not sure. Probably not. But who knows? Many people after the war left secrets behind, and began new lives afresh. As Kahneman says, people are endlessly interesting and complicated.
Jozef became a figure of some rectitude. Known as Joe to his Australian colleagues, he was a man of few words who worked hard as a fettler on the railways.
In an age before the internet, simply disappearing, creating a new life, was rather simpler.
And it was only two or three years ago that any of this emerged, when Jozef’s daughter Maria got in touch from Ukraine with my Aunt Sonya in Australia to say that she thought they might be half-sisters. Maria is now around 80, Sonya at least a decade younger. It turns out that they are indeed half sisters.
But when they met up for the first time, what struck me most was that Jozef had given the daughters of his second marriage the middle names of Maria and Jadwiga.
The names of the daughters from his first marriage that he had abandoned.
So Jozef had not forgotten the children of his first marriage. But he had allowed them to live on only in name in his new life.
Maria and Jadwiga never saw or spoke to their father again, after they saw him being taken away by the police on some unspecified charge.
And Jozef never got in touch to find out how they were, but returned all the Red Cross tracing packages that arrived from Poland to Australia (his first wife must have had an inkling that he had survived and emigrated) to sender, marked ‘addressee unknown’.
Maria recounted the story of the last time she had seen her father, as we sat together in a small restaurant on the border of Poland and Ukraine. She looked at Sonja, held her hand, and began to cry.
“You are my sister. But you lived the life that I should have had,” she said, and wept again.
Yet we cannot live that way.
Envy eats the soul away. I have (almost) managed to train myself not to envy people with designer goods or anything quite so shallow. Neither Manolo Blahnik nor Gucci stir my desire any longer, though I admit I’d be hard pushed to turn down a Hermes Birkin bag if you offered it to me quietly as we stood together on the highest mountain overlooking the desert, with you offering it in exchange for me jumping from a pinnacle and relying on angels to break my fall.
I like to think that I’d say no, but in my current weakened state, I am not sure.
But I do envy people who take for granted their good health, who use it up with insouciant ease without even realising how precious it is to be able to lift first one leg and then another, and do that all while talking as you walk.
And I absolutely have a rich dark emerald seam of envy in my mind, somewhere quite close to the golden seam of memory and the shifting sandy layer of forgetfulness, that lights up like kryptonite in a Superman film when I sit with people with proper learning, a really proper education and expertise.
Not my shallow, journalistic butterfly mind that picks up not terribly useful facts like the tiny Berlin sparrows at my favourite café used to peck and pick the breadcrumbs up from under my feet at the book-lined café on Fasanenstrasse.
There is something about a sparrow. Why is it that they have survived so well in Berlin, but not in London? Perhaps it’s our pigeons, cockney thugs that they are. On Trafalgar Square at night, there must still perhaps be sparrows trying to sleep, as George Orwell once tried to sleep on a cold night there while being ‘down and out’ before he was moved on. In his case it was by the police. In the sparrows’ case, it will be the bigger pigeons who sidle up, fluffing up their feathers so they look even bigger than they already are, with menace in their dark eyes, and a knuckleduster hidden about their plumed person.
“Ere young sparrer,” they’ll ask. “You paid your dues to the Krow bruvvers yet, and if not, why not?” And the sparrer will cower, find a ha’penny from somewhere buried deep in its plumage, fling it at the pigeon and fly off as fast as its tiny wings can carry it.
But why is it that I write of joy and envy today, as the sun goes down over the volcano?
I think it’s because I’m the last and only one in my group today to still be in neutropenia. I could feel it as I lay on the sofa again listlessly for most of the day, idly reading and then falling asleep. I could feel it as we watched The Crown tonight (the episode called Pride and Joy, which Joy enjoyed, and so did I. Prince Philip really is terribly handsome).
And I can feel it still, even as I know it is time to go to bed to sleep properly. I shall see if Joy has popped the lavender behind my pillow again, for I need the sleep.
I am happy for the others whose immune systems have recovered more quickly. Really I am. But that worm of envy is definitely in there, too, somewhere, and I can only hope that by tomorrow, my sluggard cells will catch up.
I shall find out by midday today, Tuesday, whether I have at last emerged from my neutropenic state, and if I have, I can have the final drug infusion of Rituximab, which should wipe out the remaining B cells that have gone rogue.
And in the meantime as I lay my head upon the pillow, Maximus Decimus should feel free to pop over from the other side of the Elysian fields for a chat tonight, although I am quite sure that his first wife and children will gaze on most disapprovingly.
Today, I have lain fallow all day on the sofa. My main contribution to the universe so far on this sunny January day in Puebla has been to moult. Over everything.
First my pillow, then the shower, then all over the sofa. And now, I notice with a shudder, my afternoon cup of tea. Oh, and the keyboard, which is producing really quite a fetching pelt, now that I’m getting used to it.
The floor in the flat, despite Katty’s best efforts earlier today, looks like the hairy aftermath of a mass shave-in at a barber’s shop.
Despite that, and the good high priest of the blood Dr Priesca telling me that I am still – still? – in neutropenia, I have been in good spirits all day. Yet increasingly, in the back of my mind, I am aware that my stint under the volcano is coming rapidly to an end.
That is both good and bad. Before I came, I wondered how I would get through this month.
Although I knew I had done my research, the uncertainties ahead of time are always there, not least when the gods of the medical profession are (more or less) united in telling you either not to do it or that it won’t help you. It is hard to stand up to that, and make up your own mind, so ingrained is our deference to medical opinion (in some cases rightly so, but as in all fields of human endeavour, there are quite a few rubbish opinions out there too).
But for me, unquestioning deference to medical opinion, at least on MS, is at an end. If there is one thing, and one thing alone, that dealing with MS has taught me, it is – in the immortal words of the American scriptwriter William Goldman – that ‘nobody knows anything.’
He’s talking about the movies, and the fine art of predicting hits, always important when tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars are riding on a film.
And he goes on to say: “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
I can’t remember if he said that in “Which Lie did I Tell?” – a book I loved (though it makes you realise that you probably don’t want to be a screenwriter after all, AND that somebody stole the title you always wanted for your journalistic autobiography) or one of his many others.
But with MS, as with so much in medicine, the truth is pretty much the same. Nobody knows anything or everything. No doctor, no nurse, no GP and no specialist can tell you with 100% certainty where your MS will end up, or which drug or treatment or HSCT will work best for you without good old trial and error. They can use their expertise and experience to work out where to start and where to end, but nobody will know for sure how you, you unique collection of mind, cells and soul, will respond.
Will you end up unable to walk or look after yourself by the age of 60, or be more mildly impaired? Might you just squeak on by with a few minor disabilities, but nothing so bad that you won’t be able to deal with it? Nobody knows anything, experts or not. They can tell you the figures, and the probabilities (there’s a very useful graphic by Professor Gavin Giovannoni on his blog about the MS curve from years 0 to the bitter end. It certainly spurred me on to look for treatment that might halt progression quickly).
And as with anything in life, even the most life-changing decisions, you need to weigh up the facts, the odds and the options, talk to as many people as you can, sort the utter total bollocks from the facts (and it is amazing how many people will tell you utter complete rubbish, even those with the best of intentions, with all the authority of Moses) – and then in the end, you will need to sit down and decide for yourself.
Or stand up and decide for yourself. Just don’t let yourself be talked down by people who ‘know better’. They don’t always. And they don’t have to walk in your Birkenstocks because you can no longer walk in heels or even normal flat shoes. And I say that with no disrespect to Birkenstocks, which have helped me continue to walk, along with Hussein Eshref’s osteo and Jyoti Patel’s chiropody and podiatry.
Last year, I was told that because the course of my MS had started out “benignly” some years ago, medical experience suggested that it was likely to carry on that way.
Er, no. As I lay in bed last summer unable to work for twelve weeks, with double vision and such dizziness that I could barely get up, benign is not the word in the dictionary that I would have picked out.
But then I realised, as I saw more doctors and nurses over those summer months, that in fact, in the end, making me better was not up to them. It was still up to me. I had by then given up smoking, drinking, going out most evenings, and pretty much all the things that had until then held this ageing pile of cellular scrap together. Done all the things I could to take control. And yet, it wasn’t working.
Like the victim of a witch’s curse or a voodoo spell, I had mentally handed over responsibility for my health to the medics when I was diagnosed with MS in November 2015. The people in white coats would know best, I thought, what to do for me, now that they had finally managed to agree on a diagnosis.
But they didn’t. The drug I was given seemed to prompt the worst relapse I have ever had as it started to kick in. And as I slowly and very cautiously (with one eye blanked out by my eye-patch to silence the double vision) went to the relapse clinic last summer, I finally located the urology section, run by the wonderfully-named doctor Dr Panicker. As I have never met or seen Dr Panicker, I am not sure that this isn’t a hospital in-joke, but there you are. It may just have been destiny.
The young nurse in Urology kindly measured my bladder volume and capacity, and with great thoroughness investigated how my bladder was faring (very unhappily since it gave up champagne, thank you, although my liver says frankly it was quite relieved, and my wallet has thanked me vociferously every single day), I had a sudden epiphany.
The irritating urgency/hesitancy combination that is one of the very common gifts granted to a body by MS really can be a bugger, leaving you planning every trip, outing, holiday or day at work around how far away the loo might be. About 30 seconds to a minute away seems to be the best distance.
I know that the nurse meant to be kind as she finished scribbling her notes and looked at me with a big, warm, encouraging smile as I prepared to leave the small antiseptic room.
“Next time you’re in, we’ll teach you to self-catheterize, and then you’ll be right as rain,” and she gave another perky smile, as you do to elderly patients who are clearly coming to the end of their useful lives, and bid me a good day, and went on to tend to her next patient.
I walked out into the thin London summer sunshine in the park outside the clinic, and sat down on a bench. I didn’t light up, as I’d already given up smoking by then. But I really really wanted a cigarette. And possibly a double whisky. If there was a loo near enough. Self-catheterize. Next year.
Not far from me were some of the other patients from the hospital in their electric wheelchairs, the only real option for those with the most severe mobility problems and spasticity. Not all would have had MS. Some are treated there for Parkinsons, others for rarer and extremely uncommon diseases of the brain.
I looked over at the man whose head was now bent so far forward over himself that he could barely see where he was going, yet who managed to control his chair with a tiny steering rod. And to the woman of around my age whose daughter was wheeling her rather less fancy chair around the garden, pointing out all the things she could no longer see for herself, as it was obvious from the descriptions that her eyesight had gone.
Self-catheterise. Next year? I was already walking with a stick. And my eyes remained extremely unreliable. As was my hearing. Though at least my sense of taste had come back (and with it some of the weight I’d lost). But next year? So soon?
I sat and pondered, and looked at the roses, a riot of cheerful colour that would scent the whole square on a warmer summer’s day. And it occurred to me as I sat in the park that afternoon that nobody at that hospital (as far as I was aware) – not one single person – expected me to get better. Ever. Only at best to stay stable, but most likely get worse.
Because they had told me I had MS. Not just a word, but a life sentence.
A chronic lifelong condition, according to the NHS, and NICE, and the UK’s disability legislation, for which I remain truly grateful because I am really not, at the moment, able-bodied or indeed able-brained nor able to discharge a full day’s work five days a week of the kind that I so blithely used to do for seven days of the week without even thinking about it. As grateful as I am to BBC News, who have been sterling employers and my absolute rocks, who listened and agreed to support me in my somewhat-difficult-to-explain-to-an employer-decision to have HSCT and entrust my innards to Clinica Ruiz in faraway Mexico. Thank you, James, Keith, Jonathan, Gavin and so many others).
As I sat in the park pondering, without a cigarette or whisky or even the 2017 equivalent, the skinny latte, the less obedient side of my brain whispered to me – hold on a minute.
Even as the expert doctors and nurses suggested that recovery beyond a certain point from this latest relapse was unlikely, my rebel brain (the bits not infested with new lesions) began to speak louder (in capitals, like the female TV boss I once had whose bollockings only ever came in mad capitals)
BUT THERE IS A CURE, or as near as dammit.
Those people in that busy hospital, the experts and administrators with their endless waiting lists, and schedules and all their years of experience, they didn’t actually offer the stem cell transplant treatment that I had read about recently and seen on Panorama and had thought idly might help me.
So of course they didn’t think that perhaps I might get better. Why should they? Most of their patients probably rarely did, just as oncologists in the 1950s would have had to have their deathbed speech rather more off pat than oncologists and haematologists today, who have far more options in their medical toolbox before they must these days tell families “there’s nothing more we can do”.
So as for getting better from MS – that bit was up to me to sort out.
And that day, without all that much further ado, my decision was made. I wanted a stem cell transplant ahead of my fiftieth birthday. My present to me: a new immune system. And I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything, even that bright red bicycle for my fifth birthday. And thank you beyond anything that mere words can ever express to everyone who helped me on the road to this birthday present.
From the Facebook groups on HSCT and from reading medical research papers (not that I understood everything, but I got the gist), and meeting first Mindy Watt and then so many other kind and generous veterans of stem cell transplants who gave me the benefit of their own experience, I discovered that in fact, there really were people out there – real people, men and women with normal lives that had been radically changed for the worse by MS – who seemed to have had their MS halted in its tracks by HSCT, and who had begun to regain their lives, and their futures.
And sometimes better than halted. Symptoms reversed, at least in some areas. And for a very lucky few who did HSCT early enough, in all.
We can quibble about what you’d call a cure and whether perhaps it might be better to say that for up to 70 – 80% of people after HSCT for at least the first five years, their MS is ‘in remission’.
But I shall never forget how my heart leapt after speaking to Mindy that first day. It was, it suddenly seemed, entirely possible to do something that my GP and Mount Sinai, my neurologist, were telling me was not do-able.
To help myself (with the help of my family, friends, and work – and Clinica Ruiz) to get rid of MS, or as much of it as possible, via a treatment that might be expensive (if the NHS won’t take you on as a patient) and a little unpleasant. Oh, and it might well cost me my hair and six months of recovery period afterwards.
That seemed like a pretty good deal.
Kind friends and even members of my family worried about my decision on my behalf, quite possibly (as far as I could gather) envisioning midday shoot-outs in a hot and dusty Mexican border town, during which my organs would be stolen to order and my family contacted for the ransom, while Donald Trump built a wall specifically around my clinic or my very bedroom brick by brick as I was trying to recover, while the sombrero-wearing locals would force feed me the entire coca crop of South America for breakfast, before sacrificing me on an Aztec altar to the whoop of tequilas being downed to some quite bad Mexican drumming. I exaggerate, but really and truly only a very little.
Yet everything I had read, heard and seen for myself on the web and in meeting people who’d been there and knew it well, suggested that Puebla was rather a nice place, and the Clinica Ruiz exceedingly good at what it does.
With 21 days of HSCT treatment at Clinica Ruiz behind me tonight, I can safely say that this latter is the case. Unless, of course, they’re saving the ransom and the kidnapping and the coca crop for later on, or they’ve taken several closer looks at my organs and realised that they really are the organs of someone who has worked at the pub-face of journalism for 25 years and are thus of no use whatsoever even to the world’s most incompetent organ-thief.
I’ve rarely met doctors whom I thought were more dedicated to what they do (or who seem happier in their work) or administrators so cheerfully efficient. Indeed, administrators who know your name as you walk through the door. Maybe that’s just private medicine, but actually no – it goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced at any hospital in the UK, France, Germany, Russia, or anywhere else that I have sought answers over the past 25 years as to what ailed me.
Nor indeed had I ever met a nurse or caregiver before who was so genuinely keen on nursing and giving care as Joy, who has gone well beyond the necessities of nursing to being a super-nurse, even calling a nutrition expert last week to find the best possible diet to cure my stuttering, halting innards. And thank you for asking, the constipation is indeed getting much better as the chemo recedes further into the rear view mirror, as it were.
But my stem cells, oh my stem cells. You wonderful young things, what on earth are you doing? Where are you? Why am I the only one in my group still officially in neutropenia this Sunday night? My blood count is heading in the right direction, but perhaps at 49 and three quarters, none of my cells are doing their work as enthusiastically as they did at 29, even the very youngest of them. Come on lads, get a move on.
And speaking of work, I have lain not just on the sofa all day, but fallow for some 22 days now, quite possibly the longest consecutive period of days without writing a despatch or doing a live broadcast of some kind since I joined the BBC in January 1991.
Not entirely fallow, if you count this blog, but I realise now that perhaps I should at some stage around the age of 40 or 45 have taken a sabbatical of some kind.
Many of my friends have taken maternity leave (and before anyone points out that having babies is not a holiday, and is exceedingly hard work, with no paid overtime, I am well aware of that. I have many wonderful nieces and nephews whom I love to bits and dote on as only a spinster aunt can. And I can still remember just how knackered their parents looked when I happily handed the squalling young thing back to them with a smug, auntly smile.)
But maternity or paternity leave usually does involve time away from the office and from work, albeit attending to the night and day needs of someone else. But at least someone smaller and cuter (and quite a lot more adorable than the news desk) in whose continuing survival you generally have a direct and clear-cut stake.
And I mean that with no offence to our lovely intake editors, who are beautiful inside and out. Just not when they call you after midnight, or before 7am. Or on Saturdays, Sundays, your birthday, 3am, and just as you have been reunited with your boyfriend after three months apart. And no, when you rang to ask me if the story on page 3 of the Guardian was important, I think you answered your own question when you mentioned page 3. If it’s not on the front page, it really isn’t worth waking me up for.
I don’t yet know what I shall be when I grow up again, when the mid-HSCT caterpillar that I am today finally decides to take flight (thank you, Stan) or what skies I’d like to take to when I am well again.
And I’ll try not to think of the Canadian caterpillars in the hat-boxes that Sam and Tid and I sought to keep safe as they transformed from grubs into glories. Not nearly enough survived though we did follow all the instructions from our nature book. I think some might actually have hatched into clothes moths, with which my father has long been strangely obsessed.
And nor did Twiggy, my stick insect, survive my care. The one and only pet that I ever possessed who was truly my own, in Bangor in that eternal summer of 1976.
That damned stick insect is probably responsible for my own lifelong lack of motherhood. She died on me after just 10 days or so. She was always thin, and then Twiggy just stopped eating one day, and no amount of fresh hedge would tempt her. I can see her jam jar now, as I came down the stairs that morning for school, realising with a truly sickening lurch of the heart that Twiggy was no more. I had killed her with my neglect. Or my overfeeding. Maybe she hadn’t wanted that much hedge after all?
Though perhaps it was the Convent of the Sacred Heart’s sex education that was truly to blame for my child-free state. It was brutal. I arrived at school at the age of 10, and thank goodness, on the very first day, Kate Neely hissed at me and pulled me aside in the corridor.
“Come into the library. We need to talk.”
She was tall, willowy and lissom, with the blue eyes of a Siamese cat, and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.
We sat down in the library, which smelt a little musty, as if decades of literary mould had rubbed off on the air, which couldn’t help but pass it on to us. I looked at her nervously.
“You are the youngest in our year,” said Kate, cat’s eyes narrowing. I nodded. “And I am the second youngest.” I nodded again.
“So this is my duty. Do you know the facts of life?”
I looked blank, thinking perhaps it was a book I hadn’t read, or a list of something that I should have brought with me to school – like the baffling ‘bed-jacket’ that Mum and I puzzled over for weeks. What on earth was a bed-jacket? Turns out that because we’d lived on the continent where they had central heating that worked and actually produced heat, unlike the institutional central heating of England in the 1970s, and grown up with those funny foreign big windows that not only let in light but also sealed properly, we had absolutely no need for a bed-jacket and therefore not a clue what it was. Why, oh why can’t the English make windows that seal properly? This has been an issue since wattle and daub, and frankly it’s not getting any better, despite the promises made by the ads at the back of the Sunday Times magazine.
In the end, Dickins and Jones supplied us with a pale pink woollen bed-jacket, as well as the elbow-length white gloves that I needed for Mass on Sundays and Wednesdays, and the three white cardigans for Mass, as well as four shirts light blue for summer, four shirts yellow for winter, two navy blue skirts, dressing gown and copious navy socks (MUST BE embroidered with CASH’S NAME TAPES: Caroline Wyatt 411.)
I didn’t like to admit to Kate that I had no idea whatsoever what she was talking about. So with all the earnestness that a ten year old in a blue pinafore could muster, she began to draw stick people on a piece of paper.
The boy stick appeared to be attacking the girl stick, as far as I could see.
“Right, this is what the Dad does when he wants to make a baby, and this is what the Mum does. He has this pointy bit, and she’s got a sort of inside pointy bit. And when they get together, they kiss for a bit before his pointy bit goes in hers. And then after nine months there’s a baby. I think it comes out of her pointy bit.”
I was shell-shocked. Why on earth would people do something like that? I’d noticed that my brothers had pointy bits, and that I didn’t, but they seemed to use theirs to go to the loo. And surely it would be unhygienic in the extreme for God to have made them dual-purpose tools.
But I didn’t let on to Kate. I was 10, I was the youngest in the year, and I was absolutely determined to look sophisticated.
“Oh THAT. Yeah, of course I knew that. Known about it for years. But thanks anyway.”
I think Kate went on to have lots of lovely children, and clearly she did finally clock how the pointy bits worked. Me, I discovered the finer points when the nuns showed us a grim 1970s film of a very hirsute couple doing natural childbirth. Ruskin would most certainly not have approved of the lady in the film, or indeed the gent.
And I have never ever, before or since, seen a horror film like it, with all the blood and guts and gore and the wobbly 1970s cine-cam on the crucial arena for the full however-long the labour took to happen. It is a miracle, a positive miracle that I have ever been able to hold down a relationship after that film. Though perhaps that was exactly the deterrent effect the nuns were after. Thanks, sisters.
Clearly, it didn’t deter many of my fellow convent girls from founding large and happy families. Although thinking about Kate Neely’s remarkable cat’s eyes and Marilyn mouth, nobody has ever bettered the late President Francois Mitterand in his double-edged compliment about Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister – that she had “the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”, although some sources suggest he initially said “the eyes of Stalin”.
The mad Roman Emperor Caligula makes for a much better quote, though, and judging by the eyes in the marble head of Caligula in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, I’d say he definitely meant Caligula.
And I say that in a most supportive way. Margaret Thatcher was my childhood political heroine (and for much of my adult life as well, even if she did go a bit Caligula by the end).
Although listening to the results of the 1979 election under my bed-sheets at boarding school resulted in a three hour detention when I was caught and (most unfairly and without due process) sentenced by the nuns to three hours of writing lines, Margaret Thatcher had that one night offered an utterly revolutionary and life-changing lesson to this then 12-year old: that a woman – a WOMAN! – could be elected to run the country.
By the age of 12 I had already had my two main ambitions quashed. At nine or so, I had announced to my parents that I would like to be the first female Pope. I was at that stage going through quite a devout phase. My mother and father very gently told me that wouldn’t be possible. We were Roman Catholic, and the Pope could not be female.
I had a back up plan. This was 1976, remember. I would, I announced, in that case marry Prince Charles, and ensure that Mum and Dad could both live happily ever after at whichever palace they preferred. There was a slight and uncomfortable pause over the breakfast table at this announcement, and not the happy gratitude I had expected from my dual parents/subjects.
“Darling, you’re Roman Catholic, so you can’t marry Prince Charles. It’s laid down by law that the Monarch can’t marry a Catholic any more.”
Oh. So at the age of 9 or 10, all my worldly and indeed otherworldly ambitions had been crushed. What else was there left to do but become a journalist? At least nobody (generally) tells you that you can’t do that on the grounds of race or religion or gender.
But back to Caligula, because what we know of him today has come from the unreliable pen of the Roman ‘sleb biographer Suetonius. He could well be seen as antiquity’s very own tabloid press, as he wrote the Lives of the Caesars, or perhaps in today’s terms, a celebrity blogger, creating copy in which a pithy headline or a catchy quote was worth more than any number of the more tedious and perhaps accurate words from the more earnest historians of the day.
Though I seem to remember very vaguely down the decades from my Latin teacher Miss Lucas that Suetonius himself relied on a daily papyrus newspaper, the Acta Diurna or Daily Events, set up by that first great newspaper magnate, Julius Caesar.
(All together now, the Gladiator Song: “I’m the bodyguard of Julius Caesar, the man with the nose like a lemon squeezer” as we all used to sing in the car on the way to our holidays. * do see the end for the full lyrics…)
I have just looked that newspaper’s name up on Dr Google to double check, and Dr Wikipedia confirms it too, as do many other sites, so my memory is perhaps getting sharper after HSCT.
And certainly, my brain this sunny Sunday in Mexico feels a lot less full of cotton wool and random Magritte clouds than it used to, not to mention the old pipes that may or may not be pipes, or indeed the melted clock that Salvador Dali left ticking in there, even though I told him to come back and take it home with him. Mind you, Joseph Beuys always refused to return for the felt suit he left in there around the time I lived in Berlin, claiming it would compromise his integrity as an artist. But Beuys will be Beuys.
The Acta Diurna was distributed in locations in Rome and around the Baths, with the motto: publicize and propagate.
Like the more downmarket of its successors, it used low-grade papyrus, so nothing of it remained for us later journalists to peruse. Quite possibly it became bumf even at the time.
And like all its successors (at least until the internet began to specialise us down our own little funnels and rabbit holes of special interest groups, all busy narrow-casting rather than broadcasting, and preaching to the already converted or groups of people all very cross about the same things, who keep telling each other how very cross they are about it all), the Acta Diurna kept gossipy Romans current on everything from births deaths and marriages (or matchus, hatchus and despatchus) true crime, gory deaths, suspense-filled trials, taxes, the price of food, what the current Imperial family was up to…
“Ooh, did you SEE what the Empress was wearing on Friday? Wasn’t that Ralphus Laurensis, that blue garment? And what DID the Vestal Virgin think she looked like? Anyone knows that red, white and blue military stuff is not a good look at the Emperor’s coronation. Ooooh, and did you SEE that red tie? Someone has to tell Caesar/Pontifex Maximus that he’s gotta tone it down a bit soon, or none of those Senators are going to take him seriously at the Uranus temple on Capitoline Hill.”
Oh, and the Acta Diurna also did astrology. So very, very similar to The Sun or Twitter, or any number of modern newspapers and magazines.
So as a journalist in 2017, I say thank you to the Consul Julius Caesar in 59 BC, for ordering the Acta Diurna be posted at temples, in markets, and in all public places.
Caesar, you helped me find a mission in life, and forget my deep sorrow at not being able to be Pope or Queen. In journalism, I found a meaning and a passion that I had never felt in any other job, and that includes the many long months as a receptionist for Alfred Marks, even in sunny Sydney, though I think the money for temping may actually have been better then than journalism is today.
However, it remains true that I have singularly failed to propagate in anything other than the journalistic sense, although I have been mother to tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of despatches and reports, though I am not sure how useful many of them have been. Entertaining, some of them, like the drunken Russian coming home from a good Friday night with the vodka who got his todger stuck to the metal pole of a bus stop in Siberia in minus 50 while having a pee to offload some of the booze.
He was well and truly stuck by the foreskin, and as the minutes and then hours ticked past and frostbite started to threaten, our Russian hero was rescued by the quick wit of his slightly less drunken friend who returned to the bus stop with a kettle of hot water. We agonised for a full day in Moscow, me and Chris Booth, what exact word the Radio 4 bulletin at 1800 might find acceptable for penis. Boringly, it was penis. But they ran the piece, and men across the UK winced in sympathy with their Russian counterpart at 1828 that night.
Clearly as an adult, I’ve now worked out that nuns are perhaps not the most reliable experts on sex and pregnancy, and that I should not have let myself be put off all forms of human intimacy at the age of 14 by their film (although one of our most delightful nuns used to open her seminars by announcing that ‘today girls, I could leap into a whole bed full of men!” I wonder if she is still a nun today? She was lovely, and we all told her with the immense sophistication of those who know nothing, that really, sister, you ought to go and try it, and see what it’s like. Oh, and report back and let us know!)
In achieving my ambition to become a journalist, after I finally gave up on taking up residence in either the Vatican or Buckingham Palace, I have to say thank you to my wonderful friend, mentor and journalism tutor Linda Christmas, who took so many young journalists under her wing.
I was on her first course of periodical journalists at City University in 1990, and since then, she has taught more titans of journalism than I have moulted hairs over the flat today. And that is a lot.
We skyped today, and she asked me about the reference to Novalis in yesterday’s poem by W H Auden. And I had to admit that while the name rang a distinct bell, I could not remember, and was not sure if I had ever really properly known.
Thanks to Dr Google, we refreshed our memories.
Novalis was the pseudonym and pen name of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772 –1801), poet, author, mystic, and philosopher of Early German Romanticism.
He was born in the Harz Mountains, where I once had the worst ever break-up with a German Boyfriend, when the GB asked if I could remember the woman he said he hadn’t slept with. I said I remembered her well, for she had been in his bed when I got home that evening. The poor woman had not, as far as I could see, got any clothes on, and very much appeared to be underneath him, if memory serves me correctly.
GB did insist at the time that she was only there sheltering from the rain, and that it wasn’t at all what it looked like, and that I had an unnaturally suspicious mind, doubtless inculcated by the nuns.
As I wanted to believe him, I thought to myself that it had been quite a dark and stormy night, and his flat was quite warm and cosy, so clearly a girl caught out in the rain would automatically have managed the five flights of stairs and no lift for a bit of shelter that damp evening.
Anyway, the GB continued, over our romantic dinner in the Harz Mountains, the woman that he hadn’t, absolutely cross his heart and hope to die, promise, hadn’t slept with had just had his baby, and the court had ordered him to pay for it.
And the court’s DNA test had confirmed that the miracle baby of the woman who had had such urgent and pure need of shelter from the rain was indeed his.
So could the GB borrow some money from me to pay the woman (whom he had indeed sheltered, as was his Christian duty, and a little bit more) the first few instalments? Er, no.
Though I have to say, I still sometimes think fond thoughts of the GB. Without him, my German vocabulary would never have come on in such leaps and bounds, nor my ability to swear like a navvy in at least one foreign language, a deeply satisfying skill. And I am grateful to both Kate Neely and the nuns for ensuring that while I might have fallen for the GB’s smooth talking once, I knew not to fall for it a second time, not after DNA evidence.
Anyway, back to the Harz mountains of Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg in 1772. He grew up to study law, and attended Schiller’s history lessons. He then got involved with the salt mines, and went on to study everything from mining to mathematics, chemistry, biology, history and philosophy.
Taking the pen name Novalis, he began to write on everything from art to religion and science, drawing everything together in a Romantic Encyclopaedia, and developing the fragment as a literary form of art long before Twitter had thought to do so.
His quest was the bringing together of science and poetry, something we do far too little of today, and his life’s works were based on the idea that education was the most important thing in the constant human quest to create a new Golden Age, for all mankind, and not just in the lifts at Trump Towers or at what will soon be rebranded The Golden House. Much classier. It will be bigly when it is golden, a lot biglier than it is now.
Novalis also thought to come up with a new concept of Christianity, faith, and God. Being an over-achieving German poet, author and thinker, he of course wrote hymns as well, hymns that fused darkness and light, day and night, and life and death in that typical Romantic style. And it was of course Novalis who came up with the “blue flower”, the symbol that later became the emblem for German Romanticism. And he features, most importantly, for today’s gentle readers, in Penelope Fitzgerald’s last novel, The Blue Flower.
This Balding Flower is now off to bed. Joy has long since turned her light out, and is, I hope, fast asleep and not lying awake worrying about me.
I am not worrying about me, as I reckon those stem cells will in their typical English lad way get around to doing things as they hit the deadline and realise that you can’t spend all day every day in the pub.
As I pull off my woolly cap tonight, most of the fur on my head has come off with it. I shall be a egg-head by tomorrow. In looks if not in brain. Goodnight.
CHORUS of the Gladiator Song:
I’m glad, glad, very very glad
I’m glad I’m a gladiator
Ancient Rome, that’s my home
Fried fish shop by the old Hippodrome
I’m glad, glad, very very glad
From my helmet to my toes
My old Dad was a Roman glad
And he gave me his Roman nose
1, 2, 3, 4
Ever seen a fellow like a Roman candle
Bloke who never let his braces dangle
Gladiator bold and furious
Runs round Rome with a spirit so furious
I’m in the bodyguard of Julius Caesar
He’s got a fizzer like a lemon squeezer
My names Marcus diddle-I-darcus
Permanent address is Rome
Round the Coliseum we go marching
Wearing dickies that are needing starching
Watched by Nero, he’s our hero
Sits up there with a belly full of beer-o
All day long he keeps on fiddlin’
Fingers diddlin’, always twiddlin’
We must please him, if we tease him
Throws us in the lions den.
I had a fight with a lion called Nifty
Mangy old bugger with an eye so shifty
Rorus chorus, he rushed for us
I shoved my Trident up his anal quarters
Gave that lion such a fair old beating
Found his haemorrhoids need treating
Oh what a din!, Oh what a win!
Everybody thumbs up YAH!
Julius Caesar had a motto
Only remembered it when he got blotto
“Null secundus orus randy ”
He was a bugger on a pint of shandy
On his banner was a naked dancer
Three French letters and a mounted lancer
He can’t fool us, got no tool, us
Lost it in the Ides of March
Marcus Anthony, the dirty shitehouse
Lost his medals in a Rome red-light house
Woke in the morning, very solemn
Couldn’t see the end of his Roman column
The favourite sport of Roman rogues is
Two pink gins and off with their togas
Shagnus Magnus, any old bag does
Oh what a Roman wreck
We went on holiday to old Pompeii
Can’t say that we enjoyed our stayee
We insured against Jupiter pluvius
We forgot about bloody Vesuvius
off we buggered to Herculaneum
Wife got a rock upon her cranium
Oh what a shock, bloody great rock
So we buggered off back to Rome
They were a funny lot the Ancient Britons
Look at ’em twice and they’d have kittens
As you’ve read in “Di Bello Castie”
How we were poisoned by a Cornish pasty
We lost Marcus to a fair young Druid
Who injected him with priceless fluid
With his arse full of woad, he croaked like a toad
So we dumped him in the Edgware Road.
It’s hard to express a smile when a thin blue paper mask covers your mouth and nose. My Spanish, like my hair, is sparse. And the hair that falls onto my keyboard today is short, less than 2cm long, as if a grey and white calico cat had briefly graced my laptop with her presence, before sighing in displeasure at the paucity of human vowels and slinking off.
So I try to tell Katty with my eyes alone how grateful I am for what she does to keep the germs and the bacteria at bay. I hope that my stumbling gracias, and the extra crinkles around the edges of my eyes, will make that clear.
The thoroughness with which she disinfects my bedroom floor, and the shower, and now the television and the remote control, before moving on to the kitchen with her ever-present mop touches me. The way Katty cleans is beautiful. I know it is her job and that she is paid to do this, but she does it with such ineffable care, the same care that Joy puts into being a nurse. It isn’t simply what she does. It is a part of who she is.
Though Katty’s bleach makes me cough, and coughing hurts my tender bottom. But I forgive her for that, for she is one of the many things protecting me against infection as I lie on the couch today and accept my nadir.
Or at least, I would like to. Yet I have reached a new stage in this process of becoming. This patient is feeling impatient. When will my zenith come? And is it anything like a zephyr? I don’t think the wind howling like a banshee around Inspiralta today is a gentle westerly breeze. It sounds much like the north wind, threatening my sunny, sleep-starved reverie.
I awoke last night with ferocious regularity, after reading myself to sleep at 11pm with Murakami and his “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”.
Mainly because Atul Gawande on Mortality felt slightly too close to my missing bones (although well worth a read – we don’t think about the possibility of death enough while we are still alive – really, we don’t) and I had already finished A A Gill’s “Pour me, a Life”.
While A A Gill’s final book is beautiful, and brilliantly written, we all know that it does not end happily ever after but with mortality’s gaze held, returned and finally accepted, and Death the unwelcome early dinner guest at the door, long expected but come far too soon.
I have higher hopes for Murakami. As usual, his hero and heroines have their mettle tested in their odyssey through a nightmarish other-worldy hell and back, be that here inside our hero’s split consciousness, or deep inside a well, or looking for your wife’s lost cat, or at the end of the world, before surviving to make eccentric Japanese love in a small white flat and later eating well and drinking beer cold from the fridge, and perhaps smoking a cigarette while listening to jazz. The hero almost always does the cooking. Does Murakami cook, I wonder? His heroes are almost as obsessed with food as me.
Though they’re rarely as obsessed with sleep. Sleep is my obsession.
At midnight, I awoke. And at 0200, and at 0400.
And then at 0558, according to the baleful red eye of the digital clock that glares at me throughout the night.
Finally, at 0613, I give up on sleep and make a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar and bring it back to bed, snuggling up with Murakami and enjoying every twist.
The very best thing about having MS is that you can read books again and again and again, and only very rarely remember correctly what happens in the end. It must be a bit like childbirth, though without the (hoped for) happy outcome.
I have tried hard over the years to think of MS as a gift. To re-frame the illness, as the jargon has it. To try to see it as a blessing that has allowed me to travel to and live awhile in another land, the Kingdom of the Sick, just as I once went to live in Germany and tried to learn the language fluently for seven full years, or to France for the four years during which the French occasionally let me mangle their vowels without wincing, or even the three years spent living and working in Russia, where the Cyrillic alphabet would regularly flounce away from me without warning during my language lessons, like a disappointed Russian girlfriend flicking her long red hair and flaunting her Louis Vuitton handbag as she does that jello-on-springs walk in perilously high heels across the icy Moscow pavements but never falls.
I did manage to learn the alphabet, and enough Russian to order food and taxis, and just enough to ask in interviews in Chechnya and Ingushetia whether the Russian soldiers had first raped or buggered your daughter before they murdered her.
That was the fate of Kheda Kungayeva, a young Chechen girl, who caught the eye of the wrong man, a Russian colonel. That is a longer story for another day, but still, her fate and her family’s fortitude stick with me even tonight, here in the calm of the flat in Mexico, for I have spent the afternoon asleep on the couch, and Joy has magically, quietly re-appeared.
Cyrillic itself of course was formalised by the 9th century Byzantine theologian and missionary St. Cyril and his brother Methodius, clearly a good man to have onside while creating an alphabet. The idea was to be able more easily translate Greek religious texts into Slavic. Nice one, both of you.
And the contemporary Russian alphabet, if I remember rightly, has a beautifully symmetrical number of letters, 33, two strong-man moustaches up-ended side by side, flexing their muscles. President Putin must be delighted.
But within Europe itself, something that began with the wish to unite and spread learning and culture (and religion) has ended up dividing us – yet again. As religious, cultural and ethnic divides were not enough for frail humanity, we even divide up along alphabetical lines. My B is a V. Therefore my B is better than yours. My Orthodoxy is better than your Orthodoxy, or my Catholicism. And which Patriarch would you like? Take your pick. And do you face east or west? You have to choose. Are you Christian or Muslim or Jew? What sort?
But why? Can’t we face both ways, or mix it all up, as the Byzantine empire itself once did, until the Ottoman Army stormed Constantinople. Please note: Istanbul, not Constantinople – and if you need cheering up today, just watch They Might be Giants at:
On May 29, 1453 Mehmed triumphantly entered the Hagia Sophia, that still awe-inspiring building in Istanbul (not Constantinople) first a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal Basilica, then an imperial mosque, and today, still, just, a museum. Emperor Constantine XI died in battle that fateful day, and the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire was complete.
We filmed in Istanbul not long ago, with Christians who hid their faces and their names, scared or already certain they would be ostracised at work and elsewhere for their religion. How can this be our world six centuries on?
Such things hinge on such small (it seems at the time) decisions. In Russia, in 1919, after the Revolution, some suggested that to be truly modern, the Cyrillic alphabet should go, to be replaced with the Latin, resulting in harmony from sea to shining sea across the whole European land mass, from Vladivostock to Ventry, not to mention from Minsk to Pinsk, where my natural maternal grandmother grew up.
Actually, that grandmother, Anna Niedzwiecki grew up in the village of Stetycrevow but my keyboard won’t do the right vowels. Hers was an idyllic Polish Catholic childhood, growing up in a small village surrounded by silver birches, in a little wooden house amid the Pripyet marshes.
That was before the Nazis came to take her away as slave labour to a farm in Hamburg. Anna was one of the luckier ones. She lived to tell the tale, and bear my natural mother and aunt in a tented refugee camp in Germany in the 1940s, in the self-same town, Braunschweig, from which I used to catch the British Military Train to Berlin in the 1990s for my holidays from boarding school.
Back to Anna, though. Although the girls in her village and many others were taken away to provide the unpaid workforce for German or German-occupied farms and factories, most were not (intentionally) killed.
But in the nearby town of Pinsk, where she and her family would go as an occasional treat, the population in the 1930s was some thirty thousand people, the vast majority – probably 90 per cent – Jewish.
After the Nazis came, killing 10,000 people in one day after they’d been rounded up in the Pinsk ghetto, the town was a lot less Jewish, and a very different city. Although without Pinsk, there would have been no sky-blue coat for Melania Trump to wear for the inauguration of The Donald in the US on Friday.
For the parents of Ralph Lauren, born Ralph Lifshitz, were Ashkenazi Jews from Pinsk, Frieda and Frank Lifshitz. Frank had been an artist and a house painter there, but they had the inspired idea of leaving, so young Ralph was born in the Bronx in New York City in 1939, well away from the massacre there of 1942. Without Frieda and Frank’s foresight or the luck they made themselves, no sky-blue coat at all.
And of course, Pinsk was also the birthplace of the Polish journalist and man of letters (and so much more) Ryszard Kapuściński, who melded poetry and prose to produce journalism of such limpid greatness (I never knew that limpio was clean in Spanish until I came here, and discovered Katty) that I bless Pinsk for its bounty and the late Ryszard for his work, though not his vowels.
Today, Pinsk is a pretty(ish) town in Belarus, best known for having been downwind of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. When I think of the Nazi troops surrounding my grandmother’s village, which I do on some days when the wind comes in from the north, and the bone thief reminds me that he is still holding my bones to ransom for another day, it reminds me all too strongly of the villages in Chechnya, and the things that happened there, in our very own century, within my lifetime, at the hands of troops whose alphabet was written by monks and whose literature is adorned by writers from Chekhov to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Sholokhov and Turgenev to my secret favourite, Mikhail Bulgakov.
I felt sure as I lolled on the sofa in the refracted warmth of the Mexican sun this afternoon with Haruki Murakami that he, too, must have read and loved The Master and Margarita, and perhaps even this:
“But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid.”
Murakami’s hero finds himself in the Town that has no shadows. His own shadow, like all the others, is brutally cut off when he first arrives in the Town and left to die by the Gatekeeper, the shadow weakening every day as it lies coughing in the damp dankness of a smelly prison.
But our hero’s shadow fights back, and decides that he and his human will not suffer the same fate as everybody else. They will defy this dark prognosis and escape. But first the shadow must persuade his owner that escape is desirable from a Town that has no death, no ageing, and no war or pestilence, because nobody there has a mind.
Sometimes, as our hero slowly loses his mind, the Town seems a desirable place to be, not least as he slowly starts to fall in love with the librarian, who furnishes him with the unicorn skulls whose dreams he must read every day. People are content. There is no death or dying. It is a town quite literally without shadows.
Our hero’s shadow, weakening in his cellar prison, must persuade his former owner that he is right, in this urgent speech:
“First about the mind. You tell me there is no fighting or hatred or desire in the Town. That is a beautiful dream, and I do want your happiness. But the absence of fighting or hatred or desire also means the opposites do not exist either. No joy, no communion, no love. Only where there is disillusionment and depression and sorrow does happiness arise; without the despair of loss, there is no hope.”
Thinking of the Nazi forces entering Pinsk, or my grandmother’s unspellable village, my mind segues back to Kheda Kungayeva and her fate. It haunts me still some days, even on this sunny afternoon beneath the volcano, though her tormentor, the Russian Colonel, is dead now too, his decaying body perhaps a breeding ground for worms that may already have violated him in similar ways.
I had to cut my Russian lessons short to travel to Chechnya to cover that story, much to the disgust of my Russian teacher, who suspected me of a lack of diligence. She was absolutely right. Though today, I’d rather think about the Cyrillic alphabet slinking off in a huff during my Russian lessons, wiggling like Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot”, than the realities faced by so many Chechen families in those long years of war that turned their bombed apartment blocks into a frozen Beirut.
Of course,“Some like it Hot”, made in 1959 but set in 1929, remains quite possibly the most perfect film ever made, especially the entrance of Marilyn Monroe and her wiggle as our flawed but sympathetic heroine Sugar Kane Kowalcyk. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, hulking great big men dressed in drag, pretending to be Daphne and Josephine, watch Sugar in awe as she makes her way onto the train. They’re trying to pretend to be female musicians so they can escape from the gangsters they’ve witnessed committing a crime similar to the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.
“How’d they do that? It’s like jello on springs”, gasps Jack Lemmon in awe, as he watches Marilyn sashay her way past, while they trip and struggle with their stilettos.
Its director Billy Wilder got out of wartime Europe just in time, too. Born in Austria, he started his screenwriting career in the 1920s. But he soon realised that the rising Nazi party would mean him no good, and moved to Paris, and then by 1933 to Hollywood. And without that serendipity, most of my very favourite films would not have been made.
But am I to be here forever, trapped in the Kingdom of the Sick thanks to the war in my body between immune system and nerves, as Murakami’s hero appears to be trapped in the Town, where people see and value things differently?
Or can I make the choice to defy my fate and start afresh, make a new life, leave my MS behind, however difficult that process is. Perhaps, if all goes well tomorrow when the new stem cells start their work, I can one day begin a new life in the Kingdom of the Well, perhaps initially as a refugee, with permission to remain stamped in my passport to begin with, as my new identity is not quite fixed and may not be certain for several years to come?
I have learned some things from living with MS. That in the kingdom I still inhabit, a day spent walking without a stick is worth any number of Gucci bags. While a day or even half a day without brain fog is the equivalent to winning the lottery. And a day when the fatigue does not darken your brain and body for most of the day makes you a lottery billionaire. And the rare days when you can feel your fingertips AND your toes is like actually finding and possessing the Holy Grail without having to watch the Da Vinci Code first or read Dan Brown’s dialogue.
I have tried to see the positives in the ‘gift’ of MS, for I am Pollyanna-like in many ways, and ever the optimist. But not in this. In this endeavour, I have failed. So in the end last year, I decided I would have to try to return this MS back to sender, and try HSCT, a stem cell transplant, rather than mutter my insincere thanks and try to hide the unwanted gift, like a box of polonium stacked at the back of my cupboard, as it slowly contaminated every square inch of me and all I possessed, including my mind.
Why did one GP not think my mind was worth saving when I went to ask for help at her surgery so many years ago? When I told her that my mind was fuzzy, clouding over like an English day in May, and that all my energy was gone, as if someone had turned the lights out in my brain, she scoffed. And told me I should do ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ to deal with what she assumed was a mix of anxiety and hypochondria. Dear Reader, I do not suffer from anxiety and never have, and I say that with no pride. I simply don’t. In normal times, I sleep like a navvy. It’s only the chemo or the drugs that are keeping me awake now. And perhaps the sore bottom.
Later on that same GP prescribed mindfulness, rather than an MRI scan to see what was happening inside my slowly fracturing brain.
As if by lying down, and being mindful of the money she was saving the NHS, I could find my shattered mind again and make it whole. Perhaps by saving the £750 that she would have had to spend on a scan, that GP in some ways saved me from the gift of an earlier diagnosis of MS, that evil spell, but it also kept me from the drugs that might just have helped had I had them sooner.
Gifts should be like the first one that I remember receiving. In Ottowa, on the day that I turned five: on the doorstep, a bright red shiny bicycle from my parents for my birthday. I knew what it was, even when it was wrapped up. It was a hard present to hide.
As I opened it that sunny day (and for once, and one time only, I know the exact date: it was April 1972) my heart almost burst with pride and joy, despite the little white stabilisers fixed to the back wheels that betrayed that I was too wobbly at first to ride this terribly grown-up bike without.
It was that day the sum total of everything I ever wanted in life, because I took for granted, lucky me, parental love, two protective brothers, an au pair I liked a lot, and Chrissy Berry, my brown-eyed pixie-faced Canadian best friend.
My brother Tid, the brother with the endless patience, who could make a doll’s house with his own hands, or fix a bike, or paint the Cutty Sark (not to scale, though), or make an Airfix model fly, helped me to learn to ride my bike.
First, he’d give me a hand up to the saddle, where my short chubby legs would have to stretch to reach the pedals. And then, gently and slowly (and to his credit, even forty five years on, resisting any brotherly temptation to just push hard and see what happened) he’d nudge me on my way as gently as a fisherman of old setting sail from the shelter of a harbour and into the boundless sea.
And wibble away I would, quite often the whole way up the street, until I was so confident that the stabilisers could come off, and I could wobble to wherever I wanted, within reason.
At least, I could until the day – perhaps a year later – that I came off my bike, whether nudged by a car or my own overconfidence, I can’t remember.
But I can still remember the crazy veering of the sky as it turned the wrong way round, to somewhere it really shouldn’t be, blue at the bottom with black at the top, as the hard black tarmac came up to meet my small blonde pigtailed head.
Then, blackness, blessed relief for a while. And finally waking up in my parents’ bed, alive, bruised, with knees and elbows a little battered by the gravel, and unable to see.
All around me a velvety blackness, with only the tiniest suggestion of a glimmer of light to my right, where I knew that the window was.
This was not a comforting darkness. It was the darkness of the monster that lived under my bed and would reach out his hands to grasp my five year old feet if I got up to go to the loo in the night, unless I muttered incantations to keep him away, or took my teddy bear Muschi with me for protection.
I don’t know what the monster under the bed in Ottowa did during the day. Perhaps he slept, or went to terrorise children on the other side of the world. He only came out at night, after Mum had turned off the light, or Dad had finished reading me a bedtime story.
For a day or so, I lay motionless in my parents’ vast bed, as my small battered body recovered. Cups of tea were brought and held up to my lips, and I could hear hushed adult voices, and feel heads poked around doors as I dozed.
Sometimes, I felt Mum’s hand holding mine, squeezing it tight again and again. And then, perhaps on day two or three, the world went purple and was visible again. Thank God, I could see. I wasn’t going to be blind forever.
Canada was a wonderful place to live, in our yellowy-brown two-storey house on Lennox Street, which we decorated with coloured lights around Christmas time, in celebration that lit up the winter darkness. Was it in the district of Richmond? I don’t remember, and it doesn’t matter now – its name is not important; only the essence is.
I saw Lennox Street with a child’s eye view when we moved to this enchanted land from the suburb, or perhaps the town, of Carshalton in Surrey. Carshalton suffered from the comparison. It did not have snow that crisped together crunchily so high in winter that to walk through the latest snowfall to school was to be an Arctic adventurer, battling your way valiantly through the snow and ice that came to above your head, albeit holding on to Delia’s hand for safety.
Delia was our family’s au pair by then, a wonderful English girl who had come with us from Carshalton; sweet-natured, red-haired and freckly, always with a ready smile.
In the back garden we had a climbing frame and a weeping willow that protected us from the fierce summer heat. And perhaps a slide, though that could be wishful thinking. Perhaps I only wanted a slide. No, I can see it now, glinting silver in the summer light of memory.
We had a silver birch tree too, in our front garden, which meant that when my natural grandmother Anna said to me in 1999 that the one thing she was homesick for when she left Poland for Australia was the silver birch, I knew exactly what she meant.
It is a friendly tree, a tree that gives and asks for nothing in return, its bark like the parchment or the palimpsest on which we may choose to write our fate anew, and listen to our shadow when he tells us that it is time to escape from the Kingdom of the Sick – but that we must do it now, today, before it is too late.
As the wind howls around Inspiralta, I wonder if music will help soothe the beast outside and the memories that today I can’t escape. I am in neutropenia still, though perhaps now on the way out.
I haven’t wanted to listen to music in many months. My kaleidoscope brain has been too fractured to take in harmony, and the shrill constant whistle of the tinnitus detracts from any pleasure. But I did bring my iPod with me, more in hope than in expectation. It is now a very old iPod mini, with a cracked screen, attached to a tiny speaker shaped like a small black mushroom. I turn the iPod to shuffle and press play.
Up comes Van Morrison, and Bright Side of the Road. Shuffle likes him, and chooses Did Ye Get Healed. Has my iPod been reading my blog, I wonder? How the hell does it know? If it comes up with Girl at her Volcano by my all-time favourite female singer Rickie Lee Jones (though her debut album, Chuck E’s in Love is far superior) I would not be surprised.
No, it definitely has been reading my blog and looking at the photos too. The next song is: “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon.
I turn the volume up and enjoy the melodies in a way I haven’t been able to for years, enjoying every beat and turn.
And suddenly the air is filled with one of my favourite songs – Walking in Memphis, by Mark Cohn. The most perfect combination of music and lyrics, about his pilgrimage to Memphis, and to Elvis’s Graceland.
And the best line of all, after he is asked to duet with a famous gospel singer – she says: “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?”
“And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight.”
Many assumed that meant that this song-writing gospel-music-lover must have been born again. But no, he was still Jewish. And a lover of gospel music. Not just the one identity, but both folded into the same person. We are not binary. We do not have to choose between, the either or. We can combine multiple selves in one.
“To me,” Mark Cohn said of his own song, “that line could have only been written by a Jew. It’s such a Jewish line, and I love that.”
The melody is haunting, but it is the words and the sense of place that mean I come back to it time after time since I first heard it many years ago. For it has that sense of an awakening within it, a rebirth after hard times.
As Mark Cohn said of his biggest hit (and very first song), the real visit to Memphis that inspired it was one of those trips where “you’re different when you leave”.
Perhaps this trip too, for me. Tomorrow, my new stem cells should finally have shaken off their hangovers, and get down to work, according to Dr Priesca, a man who knows about blood.
Like any new parent, or week old baby (for in this case, as far as my new blood is concerned I am both parent and child: both my own progenitor and the beneficiary of my own beneficence, not excluding the benevolence of God, nature and Clinica Ruiz, and perhaps the local plumed serpent God too, as I’d hate to upset him.)
Suddenly, I am swept without warning back to my earlier pleasure in music. For the first time in a long time, its notes don’t make me cry, or overwhelm me with emotion. It is just… music. Yes, some of it makes me feel happy, and some of it sad. But none of it makes me want to, need to, have to curl up and sob helplessly for no reason, apart perhaps from the lesions on my brain.
Whatever this treatment has done so far, this has been a magical afternoon, even if it turns out to be no longer than Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings. Although I am hoping for a longer stint of recovery than they were blessed with.
Sacks is my all-time favourite neurologist, another son of Jewish immigrants, who became known as the poet laureate of medicine for his accessible, brilliant neurological case studies: of people whom he never, ever forgot were also first and foremost human beings.
For all too brief a time in the 1960s, he helped re-awaken from their slumbers the victims of the 1920s epidemic of encephalitis lethargica with the new drug L-DOPA. Sacks himself died in 2015, though not before he had written at least 15 books, and helped popularise the understanding of the marvels of the brain.
Perhaps his sympathy for his patients was partly thanks to his own prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, which may have led to his own shyness, even though he didn’t recognise the condition until middle age.
It meant that he could not recognize people (or even sometimes his own reflection in a mirror) when he looked at a face, a condition that’s believed to result from both genetics and maybe a lesion in a part of the brain structure called the fusiform gyrus, also believed to be related to the condition synæsthesia, in which people may perceive a letter or number to have a specific colour. Or, for others, a number or day of the week might have a precise location in space, as if the sensory wires of the brain had become crossed.
Oliver Sacks believed that the brain was a thing of wonder, able to heal itself and change far more than many of his contemporaries (or indeed his successors) in the neurological world thought. I too, believe that given this chance with my new stem cells and HSCT, the modern miracle treatment, my brain can and will heal itself. As long as those hungover stem cells get a move on tomorrow and wake up.
It is late, and Joy is trying to go to sleep, but restless, and wondering when I am going to go to bed, ahead of the morning’s blood test and filgrastim injection. So I leave you with this thought.
The 1976 edition of Oliver Sack’s book Awakenings is dedicated to the memory of the poet W. H. Auden, with an extract from Auden’s poem The Art of Healing, written in memoriam for his friend who was a doctor, or perhaps his doctor, who was his friend, David Protetch MD, and the full poem reads as follows:
Most patients believe
dying is something they do,
not their physician,
that white-coated sage,
never to be imagined
naked or married.
Begotten by one,
I should know better. ‘Healing,’
Papa would tell me,
‘is not a science,
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.
Plants, beasts, may react
according to the common
whim of their species,
but all humans have
prejudices of their own
which can’t be foreseen.
To some, ill-health is
a way to be important,
others are stoics,
a few fanatics,
who won’t feel happy until
they are cut open.’
Warned by him to shun
the sadist, the nod-crafty,
and the fee-conscious,
I knew when we met,
I had found a consultant
who thought as he did,
yourself a victim
of medical engineers
and their arrogance,
when they atom-bombed
your sick pituitary
and over-killed it.
is a musical problem,’
so said Novalis,
‘and every cure
a musical solution’:
You knew that also.
Not that in my case
you heard any shattering
discords to resolve:
to date my organs
still seem pretty sure of their
For my small ailments
you, who were mortally sick,
prescribed with success:
my major vices,
my mad addictions, you left
to my own conscience.
Was it your very
predicament that made me
sure I could trust you,
if I were dying,
to say so, not insult me
with soothing fictions?
all contend with a nisus
One day you told me:
‘It is only bad temper
that keeps me going.’
But neither anger
nor lust are omnipotent,
nor should we even
want our friends to be
superhuman. Dear David,
dead one, rest in peace,
having been what all
doctors should be, but few are,
and, even when most
of our biased affection
and objective praise.
If I can find a doctor like that (I hope my part-time and very lovely GP will be there on my return, for she is like that doctor) to supervise my aftercare, and a haematologist who can give me the Rituximab and white blood cell count interpretation that I shall need on return home, then these new stem cells will be lucky indeed.
As I go to bed tonight, I shall ponder the beauty of sleep, and hope that I am tired enough to sleep through to sunrise at least, even though for much of the day I did lie as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, summed up my hopes for tonight.
Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.
As I look out of my window this morning, after another night of broken sleep, a young man is standing in the entrance yard downstairs, peering intently at his smartphone. He bends himself into the shape of a question mark as he interrogates its tiny screen intently.
I look outside again after I have my shower and watch more hair fall – this time in handfuls – before its tries to gurgle its way down the plughole – in vain, for there is too much of it now.
The man is still there downstairs, quite oblivious to the world, or the sunshine, and even to the car trying with admirable patience not to knock him over as it reverses.
I fear for homo sapiens. Homo erectus, upright man, is already long since dead, but if our own species carries on like this, we shall definitely de-evolve. Or the robots who take over from us will decide one day that the kindest thing to do is simply to switch us off for our own sake, and replace us with something more sensible. We are so frustratingly irrational, illogical, and so much more frighteningly vulnerable than we realize.
Some days it seems a miracle that we survive at all. Humanity continues against all the odds, and completely despite itself, not forgetting the daily attacks on us by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine and death.
As I emerge from the shower, I wonder idly whether John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic and the foremost public intellectual of his day, might approve of me today, for it is not just the hair on my head that is falling. My locks have been entirely unlocked, and appear to be escaping from every single inch of me. I am a damsel in dis-tress.
Ruskin is believed by many to this day not to have consummated his marriage with his stunning young bride Effie Gray because (it was whispered at the time and ever since) he hadn’t realized that women had pubic hair, so accustomed was he to the smooth pulchritude of classical statuary, and recoiled from his beautiful young wife in disgust for six years until the marriage was ended.
The real story, though, may be rather different. The two married in 1848, after the then 29-year-old Ruskin – already known for his first two volumes of the influential Modern Painters – fell in love with Euphemia Gray, then aged just 19. They had first met when she was a child of 12, and he wrote the King of the Golden River for her, later wooing Effie with letter after letter proclaiming his undying passion.
But the marriage itself was miserable for both, and was finally annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, leaving Effie free to start afresh with her husband’s protégé, the painter John Everett Millais.
So what went wrong? Ruskin’s own explanation of why he didn’t fulfil his marital duties began much salacious speculation over what might have gone wrong in the marital bed. He wrote that it:
“may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”
Effie ignited more speculation with her words in a letter explaining that John Ruskin had finally told her his “true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April” – their wedding night.
Robert Brownwell tells his version of the story in the book Marriage of Inconvenience, describing Ruskin as a fragile, bookish, precocious only child, and depicting Effie as a lively and flirtatious girl, and most certainly not an intellectual equal.
According to Brownwell, Ruskin’s first proposal to Effie was not accepted, and it was only when the Gray family was threatened with penury through ill-advised investments that a match with the wealthy Ruskins suddenly seemed like an excellent idea.
Brownell suggests that when Ruskin realized that his new bride did not love him in the same way, and that this was really a marriage of convenience, he was too scrupulous a man to have sex without sensing real love on Effie’s part too.
And while Effie may not have been able to consummate her marriage, she was certainly becoming the object of much admiration elsewhere.
In the end, the painter Millais provided the ideal way out. Effie was modelling for him as the soldier’s wife in his painting “The Order of Release”. My interest in her was sparked when I bought the postcard of that painting at the Tate gallery a few years ago, and wondered at the austere yet handsome woman’s face. I hadn’t realized it was Effie, the woman with the most famous pubic hair in the British Isles.
It was Ruskin himself who threw Millais and his wife together, by inviting Millais to join them on holiday to Scotland in 1853, renting a cottage and leaving his wife alone as much as possible with the man she termed the “extremely handsome” Millais.
And thus was Effie manoeuvred into starting the annulment process that would liberate both from their miserable marriage. Two doctors testified that she was still a virgin, and by the following year, the marriage was officially over.
Effie’s marriage to Millais, on the other hand, was thoroughly well-consummated, producing eight children, at which – after the last one – she suggested ‘basta’ – enough. But what a way to serve that dish of revenge. Not just cold but icy. Go, Effie, go.
Others have since suggested that Ruskin’s love of Effie when she was 12 burned rather brighter than when she was a more mature and less childish 19. And it is true that Ruskin never did marry again, although he had the consolation of the arts, becoming perhaps England’s greatest critic and social thinker of his century. So maybe he didn’t do so badly after all, though his friendship with Millais did rather suffer.
Myself, I am feeling more like Millais’s Ophelia today, drifting, drifting, drifting, down the river of Neutropenia, my hold on rational thought quite gone, my mind wandering and floating un-anchored, un-womanned as my body weakens.
I am pale and bone- and blood-less, and the bone thief has ransomed my bones for at least another two days. The bearded high priest of the blood, Dr Priesca, tells me at midday today that my neutrophils are now at just 400 or 0.4, which means I am officially almost without an immune system.
I am as vulnerable as a newborn, though rather bigger. I may cry less, but my bottles and cups still need sterilizing. And in many ways, I am just as needy, though considerably less adorable, in the same way that a newborn baby’s nappy arouses joy at his or her production, the older adult’s fuller nappy provokes disgust.
I lay awake through much of the gentle Puebla night last night, still with the window open (for what is the point in shutting it, when the bone thief has already been?) waiting until the light began to creep over the volcano that I watch from my pillow day and night.
And then, when it was almost a respectable hour, I called pathetically from my semi-slumbers to Joy at 0638 for a cup of tea, because I was too weak to get out of bed.
I am English, and find it hard to explain to Joy the way in which tea is not just tea. It is not merely a drink. And I do not drink it in the morning merely out of habit. Tea is also love. It was what my Mum (when I was a child) and sometimes my Dad and my WSM (it was the only way to rouse the sluggard teenage me) and occasionally my brothers (on especially kind days, and sometimes on holidays now), and later on my boyfriends, brought to my bedside first thing, without which the day cannot begin.
Like Molly the cat bringing in a mangled bird to lay at James and Tony’s feet in silent tribute, a cup of tea in bed is to me a sign that I am loved and wanted and treasured. On their visits to me, James and Tony both make fantastic tea, just as Joy did for me today. It is all the tribute that I shall ever need.
I have taken my tea the same way since around the age of five. Strong, but milky, and with one sugar. And I shall take my tea that way until I die, even though I did once try to skip the sugar. But the cup of tea no longer tasted like love any more, but bitter somehow, like the relationship that I knew was over when the cups of tea in the morning came grudgingly, and then not at all.
Please treat me kindly today, because if you don’t, I may just break. Or dissolve into a thousand million fragile pieces of flesh and blood. Though probably no bone.
I am, says Dr Priesca, at my nadir.
He looks me in the eye and intones solemnly: “You have no more defences”.
I wonder how he knows. I do feel rather frangible today. Perhaps even friable, as I sit in his quiet office, Joy beside me. And my mind wonders if I am perhaps through some accident of time really at an Aztec ritual at the temples at Chilula. There, the stone altars are awaiting their blood sacrifice, the drums are pounding, and the crowd fanning out beneath us, thrilling with equal horror and delight to the sound and the smell and the thought of the blood that will be spilt to seek favour with their plumed serpent god for the greater good of the tribe.
And then my fragmented brain returns, and I look more closely at Dr Priesca’s figures for my full blood count on the paper in front of him. They look spookily like my bank account a month after payday, all heading downwards precipitately towards zero.
The drums in my head stop, and the eager Aztec crowds are silenced. And it emerges when I ask the haematologist more about my nadir that it has a specific meaning in chemotherapy in reference to blood counts, particularly the white blood cell count and the platelets.
It still means a low point, but in relation to the effect of chemotherapy on normal cells that divide rapidly – such as the hair, the lining of the mouth, the intestinal tract and the blood cells.
That would explain my tender gums, my prickling scalp and my aching guts (who knew that a colon could ache? Or the roots of my teeth?) And I won’t bore you with the stranger sensations in my bottom. Suffice to say I’ve never felt anything like this level of discomfort before in that particular part of my body, although we’ve all worked for one at some stage in our lives.
Today is my very own Apocalypse Now, a film I last saw (and enjoyed hugely, if a little squirmily) in a movie theatre erected by US forces inside Saddam Hussein’s former Palace in the Green Zone in Baghdad, not long after the invasion of Iraq.
Watching it there, with proper popcorn and a can of real full-fat Coke, we emerged blinking from the fictional shootings, deaths and bombings of another era, to the real-life happening-now-in-a-whole-new-war of US military helicopters buzzing through the cloudless azure of the Iraqi skies like a plague of locusts, and the next day to filming more real violence on the streets of Iraq.
Colonel Kurtz is not a fictional figure. I am sure I met and interviewed him there in Iraq, or once sat next to him on a flight, like the US sergeant I shared a different Coke with on another dark and starry night at a secret airbase somewhere outside Baghdad as we waited for our helicopter to come in.
His opening gambit was an unusual one. “I hate them Eye-rakis. The only good Eye-raki is a dead Eye-raki.” I wondered if he had perhaps just seen the film himself, but no, he was in deadly earnest. “I’ve killed more of ‘em than you can possibly count up.”
And then he burst into tears, and told me that he’d learned that day that his wife was divorcing him and might well take their three children. He had by then done several tours of Iraq, and she said the children barely recognized him any more anyway.
I went to look for a coffee for my Sergeant Kurtz, but by the time I got back, he was no longer up for conversation. He was sitting rocking back and forth very gently next to his backpack full of heavy kit, staring at something in the distance that I couldn’t see. He didn’t look up at me at all as I set the coffee down beside him.
A few minutes later, the helicopter I’d been waiting for shuddered its magnificent steely dragonfly self gently onto the runway, and with a shout and a flashlight shone in the general direction, it was time for us to go. We were on our way to see the Brits in Basra that day, though we didn’t realize that we would be there – or almost there – for one of the oddest episodes in British military history, Operation Charge of the Knights. But that really is a story for another day.
Back to my own personal Apocalypse Now. Today, my body and I have gone through the worst of the napalm stage, and survived through most of the intervening drama, and we are now getting on towards the rather ambiguous end, when Willard finally makes it to Colonel Kurtz’s compound.
Kurtz has clearly gone insane, seeing himself as a god. And yet he still welcomes Willard’s arrival – despite knowing he has come to kill him. Kurtz – Brando – is mesmerizing and worth all the sweat, agony and the grief he caused Francis Ford Coppola on set. And as Willard drops his weapon, it’s clear he is taking on the new god-head himself, perhaps as a kind of resurrection of Kurtz. In our endings, our beginnings.
At the moment, my remaining mature blood cells are living out their end of days. My veins are choc a bloc with Colonel Kurtzes. Mad suicidal old bastards. The old white blood cells have lorded it over my veins for quite long enough, laying waste to my myelin with their napalm bombings and lack of understanding of how my body is supposed to work.
They don’t speak my body’s language, or recognize my myelin nerve sheath is me, so they must now die. And according to Dr Priesca, these blood cells do know that the end is nigh. He doesn’t add that for my blood cells today and tomorrow and maybe Sunday too, the Book of Revelation is all coming true. That may be because he is not a man given to high drama, unlike my drugged up sleepless post-chemo self, but rather a doctor given to patient, scientific explanations of the utterly fascinating and nonetheless miraculous facts about what new blood can do.
Thank God for Dr Priesca, and the gentle biochemist, and Dr Ruiz senior, and above all for my nurse Joy, who is quietly watching Mamma Mia on the TV behind me, and giggling to herself as Pierce Brosnan serenades Meryl Streep. She’s made me lunch of soup, and I try to teach her about the joy of Marmite, because it seems that the daily ritual of tea drinking has been a success. Joy now joins me regularly for a cuppa at 4pm. But it seems that Marmite is a taste too far, and I concede defeat, although Joy can now say she is ‘knackered’ with perfect ease and intonation, and most importantly of all, ‘I’m just popping to the loo’. I consider my work here to be almost done.
Back to the battle for my body and my blood. The four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or maybe Willard have come for me at last today, death and pestilence streamed gently, lovingly over the course of five hours on four separate days into my veins by the Clinica Ruiz through that suspicious serpent slithering into my chest. That tube enabled the Horsemen’s cylaphosphamide-coloured horses to trample my blood cells into their last remaining days and hours without any sign of remorse.
My old blood cells, the ones who’ve spent their lives attacking me (adios fellas! Hasta la vista, or maybe not) are today circulating in the last chance saloon, with barely time to say a fond goodbye to their loved ones, or to instruct the young stem cells on how to turn off the burglar alarm or where granny white blood cell hides her jewels (in the freezer – but why? She thinks that the rougher blood cell burglars from down the road don’t know that granny always hides her valuables in the freezer, regardless of which country or even which continent they’re on? Even the bone thief knew where to find me without any problem, and I came all the way to Mexico.)
So, my mature blood cells are in their end times. On Sunday, the high priest tells me, my new stem cells may start to work. I do hope so. And he tells me that they need take no final exam. They are born knowing their destiny, with an absolute assurance as to their job, their fate and their worth. So that settles it. My new stem cells are all boys.
But in which case – where the hell are they today? I suppose like all other young and immature medical students on a Friday night, they’re down the pub. No wonder they won’t be sober and up to any real work until Sunday at the earliest.
I enjoy the way that Dr Priesca talks about blood and what the stem cells will do. He talks about it with passion, because he loves it, and is fascinated by what the blood does, and what he can do to use our own stem cell potential to help us get better. No wonder the theologians of previous ages argued about transubstantiation for so long. The turning of the bread and wine into the body and the blood was a divine mystery, just as the stem cells that may save me for the rest of my life are too, opaque and mysterious to me in their ability to change from something unseen in the bone to a new immune system that might actually help and not hurt me. Of course, they are taking their time and dawdling a little too thoughtlessly for my liking. But then again, they are definitely boys.
Dr Priesca tells me that my blood counts will return to a reasonable level within a few days, and to more normal level within just a few weeks. And crucially, to a level high enough by the end of next week to fly home. To fly home!
But I’ve only just arrived. How can it be time to think about packing up and going home, when I’ve not seen Popocatapetl close up yet, or been able to have the full Mexican meal, or do any of the things that I really would like to have done, but the chemo and the blue mask and the lack of an immune system forbade?
Instead, I’ve spent much of the day on the corduroy sofa or in my bed, channelling Joan of Arc, albeit with rather less hair on my head than Millais paints her with in her dashing blood red skirt, and her gleaming suit of armour on top, sword laid before her, with her eyes raised in supplication to heaven, the source of the strange voices of three saints in 1425 telling her thirteen year old self to stand up to the English.
I truly hope that Michel Barnier, as he negotiates for Europe on Brexit, won’t be hearing from them any time soon. Thanks to Joan’s voices (were they saints, or were they hallucinations, brought on by adolescence and extreme stress, and her father’s attempts to marry her off?) poor young Joan was condemned by her own priests as a heretic and by the English as a witch, and burnt at the stake by the English in Rouen at the tender age of 19 in 1431, a virgin martyr.
Somewhat unforgivingly, the Cardinal of Winchester called for her to be burnt a second time, and then a third, with her cinders to be thrown into the Seine. It took a long time for Joan of Arc to be declared a saint – 1920 – just in time to become an icon and a national symbol of the cause for the French Resistance during the Second world War.
And more recently, St Joan has become an icon for the Front National in France, allied to the cause of the Le Pens. Though I must confess that when I met and sat down with Marine le Pen to interview her for the first time at her family house in St Cloud some years ago, I was unexpectedly impressed.
Here was a woman who could out-smoke me ten to one. Even her voice was gravellier than mine, and mine has always had a certain gravelitas, like the bastard child of a packet of red Marlboro mixed with a peaty Scotch whisky drunk double on the rocks late on a cold night.
Though I have given up the cigarettes now, and I think so has Marine. And I shall certainly not be running for the French presidency. Truly, the English and the French have always had a rather unsettled relationship. Did they conquer us or did we conquer them? And will our Entente Cordiale of these two old frenemies hope to survive Brexit? Stay tuned.
One last segue for today into relics. The strangest relic, and the most unholy one I ever saw, was at an exhibition in Russia in the year 2000, which included a fragment of what the organisers insisted was a fragment of Hitler’s skull.
It was a claim rejected by most experts in other nations, but we went to film it for the BBC nonetheless. There was a certain gruesome fascination in looking at that cracked sliver of pate and contemplating what Europe and the world might have looked like now had Klara and Alois not got together one dark Austrian night exactly nine months before Adolf’s birth on the 20th April 1889.
But I digress. Again. By this evening, and the delicious soup that Joy places in front of me for supper, I am rather more the Joan of Arc of Jean Seberg, or even (though not facially – I just mean the final hairdo) Milla Jojovich in the 1999 film, notable mainly for her luminous performance.
Though no critic ever slammed that film quite so pithily as the NYT film critic on the 2015 release of a film about Effie Gray and her disastrous marriage to Ruskin.
“The cinematic equivalent of a Brazilian wax”.
That was it for me. I read the review and never did go to see the film, which (after my inadvertent Mexican chemo wax) I now rather regret.
Luckily, nobody is planning to burn me at the stake today, nor divorce me over my hair. But as liberals across the world over tear out their hair strand by strand with indignation on the day of the Inauguration of President Donald J Trump, my over-achieving self has inadvertently (and without thinking too long or too hard about it) trumped them all.
I have all had the remaining hair on my head shaved off in one go, in the full knowledge that most of the dawdling follicles were secretly planning a later escape.
So I am now rocking the imprisoned Polish peasant look (that’s not a racial slur – my grandparents were imprisoned Poles from the working classes, so there is a family history there). You could also term it the early Victorian workhouse aesthetic, or the chic Parisienne collaborateuse after the war look. It was done quickly, thanks to Anne and Phil’s borrowed clippers and some surprisingly gentle shearing by Joy.
So effective and quick was it that by the time I sat in Clinica Ruiz watching a man with longer and stranger (and certainly more orange) hair than mine take charge at the White House on Fox News, I had not a single tress left on my head that was longer than 19mm, or 1.9cm. That’s three quarters of an inch to you, Dad and WSM.
I heard the pundits discuss the meaning of Trump’s line “we are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people,” which some of those less enamoured with his rise to power took to mean that he was channeling Bane, the villain in the Batman film The Dark Knight Also Rises.
But enough of that. The night is rising here, and it’s dark outside. Popacatapetl sleeps and grunts occasionally to his sleeping wife beside him, breathing out small tendrils of white smoke as he snores. She made him give up the cigarettes years ago, because of his explosive cough, so he took up the cigars instead (only the best Cuban ones, mind) so that once a year, around Christmas, he can still truly set the sparks flying as he lights up with relief, and breathes out a proper skyful of clouds.
And from here beneath the volcano, this damsel-without-tress is off to sleep.
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.
I sleep each night with the window open just a crack, as I do wherever I am. Here, it lets in the gentle Mexican night air that swirls around my fragmented steroid dreams. Since coming to Puebla, I awake in the night punctually every two hours. As regular as clockwork (unlike my internal plumbing).
It is the steroids, I am told, that are responsible. I’d never taken them before, so had no idea, refusing them at each relapse because for some stubbornly masochistic reason I wanted to know exactly how my body felt, as it slowly, painfully recovered on its own.
My normal night’s sleep is usually unbroken, some seven and half solid hours cradled in the arms of Morpheus, occasionally as I age with a brief gap for waking and a sip of water after the first cycle of sleep and before the second sleep kicks in.
At least that is how it has been since this liminal stage of mine began, my slow descent into in-validity, since I stopped being a correspondent for the BBC, and laid down (at least for now) my responsibilities to a hundred or more different programmes for radio, TV and the web.
For the first time since 1991, I no longer had a title, a place that I needed to be, a distinct responsibility. It was strange and deeply unsettling, though also a relief. At last I could sleep, and simply be, rather than do, and tend to the many troubling symptoms that meant I could no longer walk, read, speak or see as I used to.
Over the unbroken years of constant filing stories for each, from the age of 24 to the age of 49, I used to think of all those programmes as my naughty surrogate children or the bad boyfriend blowing hot and cold who could (and did) call at any time of the day and night, especially now in this age of 24 hour news, seven days a week.
But most often, of course, the bad boyfriend preferred to call urgently, unpredictably at 0543 or 0015 when I was fast asleep in bed, and always at weekends.
Since last September, then, no more chilly 0530 awakenings at home in London to sit in my still-cold living room in pyjamas and a dressing gown, waking up the ISDN line that would patch me through to speak to the Today programme or World Service News, live and uncut, and desperately trying to make a cup of tea in time for the caffeine to jolt me into wakefulness during the two or three minutes of the correspondent interview before me.
Since last September, no more being called away from of dinner with friends to be told that the 10 o’clock TV news urgently ‘needs’ a live. Sometimes, by the time you got to the studio, they no longer needed it quite so badly. But by then, dinner was done.
It’s not been easy coming off that drug – the pull of adrenalin and adventure, never knowing what was just around the corner, pitting your wits against the opposition, and spotting the story first.
It was fun, exhilarating, challenging in all the best possible ways, and never, ever dull. And for my 15 years or so based abroad as a foreign correspondent (and another seven covering defence, and the two reporting on religion and ethics, all based in London) it was both a vocation and a way of life.
I did not work for the BBC. I was married to it. I was its correspondent. And its correspondent was me.
The vows the BBC demanded of me when I joined in January 1991 at the tender age of 24 were not quite those of a marriage, nor indeed the poverty, chastity and obedience that must be vowed on the way to becoming a nun, though ITN certainly pays better than the BBC.
But there are undoubtedly some similarities with becoming a nun for women in our trade of journalism, certainly for many women of my generation and before working as foreign correspondents.
Few men will ever want to date you, because you’re liable to rush off for work unpredictably at any minute. On his birthday, for example, or at Christmas. Or most unforgivably of all, to cover an earthquake in India just ahead of the most expensive holiday the two of you have ever booked to introduce him to your natural mum in Australia.
Nor, as a foreign correspondent, will you be enormously sympathetic to your other half when they call you desperately upset from London to complain about the crowding on the tube and their terrible day at the office. On the day that you are filming somewhere in the Middle East, talking to a family half demented with grief after their child has been killed in a bomb, and to a bright and promising young man desperate to leave his war-plagued country for a better life, but who can’t, and who in just a few months time will probably heed the siren call of the militants, because if he can’t go on to study at university, then why not?
Listening to the muezzin call the faithful to prayer from the minarets in that desolate place, it is hard to empathise with your other half, and his problems of the crowds and the smell on the tube, and the boss who was nasty again that day.
I know now with the grace of age and hindsight that I should have been more sympathetic. And that for him, that terrible day was his whole world, and it was collapsing around him.
If I had been a good girlfriend, I should, would have been there, or at the very least muttered sympathetic, soothing words, and hurried home instead of tarrying for another week of interesting stories that would give me a glimpse into the fascinating otherness of people’s lives. But I wasn’t.
I was and am a bad girlfriend, married faithfully to the BBC for a very long time, only dallying with my men before returning to my husband’s embrace, although we may now be heading towards a period of couples counselling to sort out the balance within our relationship.
Yet as a foreign correspondent, when you contemplate what most people on this earth must go through every single day to feed, clothe and house their family, without our western comforts or our safety net, what so many must do to avoid being bombed, maimed or shot at, your sympathy with your partner’s first world problems such as crowded tubes or recalcitrant bosses is much reduced. Knowing that in much of Iraq or Afghanistan, whole swathes of Africa and Asia, no job means no food.
Even here in a relatively prosperous part of Puebla today, a man with no arms is standing in the middle of the road begging from the passing drivers, as Paco and Tony take us in the van to the clinic. I warm to them both as I see them gently hand some money out of the window into the pouch around his neck. They do it quietly, unobtrusively. It isn’t a gesture for show. Rather than simply drive on like most, Paco and Tony stop and do what they can. I sit for the rest of the journey pondering what makes some people good and others evil. And why it is, as the King James Bible so beautifully puts it, that the wicked so often flourish “like a green bay tree”.
But that’s not my theme for today. We all know the world is a tough place, and that humanity survives despite itself. And that mankind (and womankind too) will continue to be born, laugh, love, multiply, suffer, sicken, eat, prosper, pay taxes and die. And hope to recover from constipation. And MS.
Despite all the bad news, things are actually getting better for mankind, even if much of the western world (like me and my stem cells) feels as if it’s at one of its own liminal stages, still in the process of re-shaping itself, and not quite sure what it is going to become.
But no, today it is my own bones that interest me, not chewing over the bones of politics, of Trump and May and Brexit. My digestion is bad enough as it is.
Last night, with my window open, a thief must have slithered in unseen, because when I woke up at 08.14 my bones were gone, replaced by rubber and paste.
I got up for a pee and went straight back to bed, dizzy with the lack of anything solid in my legs and arms, or head. I’d drifted off quietly to sleep at midnight reading Haruki Murakami’s “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”, nodding off at just at the stage that our hero has his eyes temporarily stabbed to become a Dream Catcher. So a little bit of me wondered as I searched through my brain for any connection whatsoever with bone or sinew whether I was still asleep in Hard-Boiled Wonderland instead, where many strange things happen and are taken completely for granted.
But no, I think I am probably simply heading inexorably into neutropenia, a kind of soft-boiled slumberland. My white blood cell count is down, and at midday I’ll see the consultant and find out by how much. The kindly biochemist came at 08.30 today to suck more vials of blood from my veins, and they’ll be analysed fast, the printout due at 12.00 to show me where all those neutrophils and basophils and others have got to.
To meet the biochemist halfway this morning, I decided to get back out of bed, and stood up on what I’d like to describe as shaky, faun-like legs. But they are in fact, at 49 and three quarters, more like a mamma elephant’s legs, matronly and solid on the outside, but with increasingly dry and crinkly skin, sporting patches that are a little worn, like the battered legs of a much-loved but elderly family table that has seen good service over the years. Although the table legs of course will never have to face the ignominy of its nails slowly turning a fetching shade of ivory year by year.
Still, no one will ever be allowed to hunt me down for my toenails once the global ivory bans are truly in force, and hopefully Jyoti Patel, the best chiropodist in London, can continue to hold back the worst of the rot, as she has done with enthusiasm, dedication and vigour for the past five to seven years.
I love people who do their jobs well, with a true passion and perfection. Or far better expressed in the German, ‘mit Leib und Seele’, with body and soul, or perhaps with heart and soul, as a German chef once told me were the things he cooked with when I had asked a much more banal question about his ingredients.
I know that the skin on my legs today is that of a pachyderm because I saw a mamma elephant close-up once, before the mysterious alchemy of the years through which I appropriated her grey and crinkly legs. It was the autumn of 1999, as we snuck up to observe a family of African elephants in the Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, on my one – and so far only – safari.
There, I learn that an elephant family is up to ten animals, led by the oldest, largest dominant female, a little like the families of yore before birth control took hold.
Or indeed my own famil(ies) in which, while the males may in theory be the main breadwinners, it is the females who actually rule, sometimes with one irritated twitch of an ear, a stern glance or a warning swing of the trunk summoning almost immediate obedience from the smallest calves to all the other adults with nary a word gainsaid.
The trip to Tanzania was a once in a lifetime holiday, organised by my BBC friend Tira, the sister of our Berlin cameraman David. Tira was, and is, a multi-lingual polymath who’d gone to work in Africa.
The continent had entered her blood, and that year she was based in Tanzania, able to swear fluently in Swahili with insouciant ease. She almost visited me here in Puebla this week, as she journeyed past on the way back from visiting her mother in Mexico – a mother who at 91 is still vibrant and beautiful, and fending off would-be burglars with vigour.
For two of the best weeks of my life, we (Tira, David and some other friends) drove through the national parks and the plains, eating at night in the shade of the thick, cooling canvas of the tents, going to sleep to the lullaby of the frogs and the nightjar, and imagining with a thrill that the footsteps padding so quietly outside might be lions or leopards. Hoping that they might come near but not too near.
One day, we got to within some 30 metres of a dozing leopard, half-asleep in a tree, one leg slung lazily in front of him. We stopped the engine, but it was too late. He was awake and aware of us. Slowly, unhurriedly deciding whether or not to be disturbed by our presence, he opened one eye. His tail twitched. For a good thirty seconds or so his piercing golden-green gaze took us in as we stood in silent wonder, as still as children playing a game of statues.
No threat, the leopard eventually decided, baring his teeth in an exaggerated yawn. Adult humans. Probably too big to eat. And anyway, he had no tin opener with him in the tree big enough to open that steely can of Land Rover that the humans seem to have been packaged in, as they sat observing him so rudely.
And perhaps with that thought, the leopard closed his eyes again and slumbered on, dreaming instead of delicious impala and the tasty crackle of gazelle.
Another day on safari, and a different volcano to the one that I admired here again this morning. That day in September 1999, we drove to the Ngorongoro crater – the largest un-flooded and unbroken caldera in the world, some 20kms across, 600 meters deep and 300 sq kms in area.
I had a strange and constant sense since landing in Tanzania from Berlin that I had somehow come home, although I’d never been before. A sense rooted somewhere deep in my bones and my blood that this lush and fertile land really was our birthplace, in a landscape as warm and welcoming as a room with a rocking cradle in front of a freshly-laid fire.
I had read even before I went that at Olduvai Gorge over many decades, paleo-anthropologists had found hundreds of fossilized bones and stone tools dating back millions of years, so that they could show that humans evolved in Africa. One river-bed there is estimated to be two million years old.
Louis Leakey and his wife Mary spent time there pushing forward the study of human origins, later uncovering the well-preserved fossil of a foot that showed arches, giving credence to the theory that hominins walked upright.
I knew it. I had a clear sense by 2010 that I was getting ill when the arches on both my feet fell precipitously, suddenly, from any form of grace, pushing me into an excruciating bout of plantar fasciitis. I should have known that it was a sign that I was beginning to de-evolve. It was all that the best bone man in north London and perhaps the entire world, the osteo Hussein Eshref, could do to keep me walking. But somehow he did. Without him, I doubt that what remains of my bones today would ever have made it to Mexico.
Anyway, Mary Leakey and her son Jonathan later found another form of hominin: Homo habilis, or “handy human” because he could use tools. All this a full two million years ago. Strange, because a man who knows how to use any power tools properly without botching the job remains an enormous catch in 2016.
Clearly, homo sapiens is but the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and as a species we must be on our guard not to de-evolve too much.
The strangest thing that happened on that safari in the wonderful year of 1999 was driving through the middle of the Ngorongoro crater, miles from any form of human habitation, and hours since seeing any other vehicle.
The hippos and the scavenging hyenas were gathering warily at the watering hole at sunset, each animal tribe allowing enough space between species to stick to a wary truce, and we humans were on our way to watch them.
In the distance, a dust trail golden against the setting sun drifted into the air, as another Land Rover filled with tourists drove towards us on the same road.
On the top and waving madly – she had good eyesight, that girl – was a familiar figure: my best friend from our Berlin teenage years, Cathy Wigmore, and her new husband Steve on their honeymoon.
I’d had absolutely no idea that they’d be on the other side of the world on the same day as me, in the same volcanic crater, on the same road, all of us thousands of miles from home, in this stunning cradle of humanity.
I shall never forget that moment of strange serendipity in the birthplace of our ancestors, and the sheer unexpected delight of seeing my now late and much beloved friend in one of her happiest weeks, fizzing with life.
I have here not a single photo of that safari, though they must be yellowing in an album somewhere in my living room at home. But that one single blissful year was a pivotal one. Life could have gone any one of which ways for me in 1999, a year filled with more forks in the road than any motorway pile-up of cutlery delivery vans could hope to achieve.
During it, I had returned safely from Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad that January, taken my natural grandmother Anna back to her birthplace in Pinsk in Belarus in April and inadvertently left her behind there, survived aftershocks from the massive Turkish earthquake, frostbite at the Norwegian train crash, doorstepping the relatives of the dead in the Concorde plane crash, and most importantly of all, had fallen head over heels in love with Peter that summer.
In the spring, I’d also survived the US Air Force trying to kill me on that hillside in Albania, and the unintentional efforts of Malcolm, my revered boss, to carry on their work by asking me to hotfoot it to the town of Prizren in Kosovo after the first BBC contingent had gone in, even though I had no car, no translator and no helmet.
At a meeting that I didn’t attend (I’ve never liked meetings, much to my cost), it was decided that the men at the BBC house in Kukës would do the rufty-tufty thing and go into Kosovo first, under the protection of German NATO troops. They were the BBC’s alpha male warriors: Jeremy Bowen, Clive Myrie, Jeremy Cooke. I couldn’t really argue with that. Each had more than earned his spurs and his place in the pecking order.
It had been decided that while they would cover the potentially dangerous, photogenic and headline-making military stuff (at least if they could beat Kate Adie, Mark Laity and Matt Frei to the bulletins, as the other BBC team went in from the south with British troops), the Kukës girls (my camerawoman Susan Stein and I) would stay behind and focus on the refugees, and perhaps later go into Kosovo with them.
As a plan, it all made perfect sense. The official BBC convoy left at dawn behind the first German troops to set foot on foreign soil since the Second World War as part of the NATO contingent. I covered the departure for radio and the reactions of the refugees.
The plan was going fine until my boss Malcolm called, his deep tones booming all too clearly down the sat-phone.
“How soon can you get to Prizren?” he asked, always one to get straight down to business.
“Not sure,” I mumbled, wondering how this might be possible at all when the outgoing BBC team had borrowed my safety kit, my translator, my car and my driver.
“I don’t mind how you get there, I just need you there now. The correspondent there needs a break from the constant lives for News 24.”
Hmm. What to do? In a decision that seemed eminently logical at the time, I decided I would hitchhike into Kosovo, so packed in a few minutes and took my backpack with me to the border.
Sue was rather saner, and said she would stick to the original plan and stay put. The refugee story would be big over the next few days and she’d be needed there.
As I stood at the checkpoint at the border with my big khaki backpack, I did notice that the sky was beginning to darken. Ominously few vehicles were going along the road into the area that was still part of an active warzone. The single cars or trucks that passed me by shook their heads and drove on as I tried to thumb a lift, including one German armoured vehicle, with whom I pleaded in my best Berlinerisch and with my biggest smile for a ride.
Eventually, one of our own BBC local drivers, by the nickname of Curly, was sent up by Sue to see how I was getting on, and whether I wanted to give up and come home for dinner yet.
Rarely had I been so pleased to see a familiar face. Curly and I had no common language, but I looked at him, pointed at the road ahead, and raised both eyebrows with an imploring smile. He gave me the thumbs up, and with a big grin bundled my bag into the back of the car, and off we drove.
I put on my flak jacket, but he had none. And what I had forgotten was that there might still be rather angry, not to mention drunk and not yet disarmed Serbian troops on that road. And what I didn’t know was that very same day, on that very same road just a few hours before us, two other foreign journalists had indeed been abducted and killed.
My danger sensors, never the most sensitive pieces of equipment thanks to my eternally optimistic belief that all will somehow be well in the end, did begin to kick in when I glanced at the petrol gauge and realised it was heading towards empty. And that night was starting to fall. As I noticed the gauge, the car itself began to stutter, and three Serb soldiers stood up and advanced from out of the darkness of the kerb where they’d been slumbering with a bottle of something – and their weapons still loaded.
I began to stuff my BBC ID and papers from my trusty bag deep down into my boots, where my heart was currently sinking. We were well aware that the BBC was not the flavour of the month in Belgrade nor here. Curly – whose homeland this was, before he’d been driven out of it as a refugee – began to sweat, and look at me in dismay.
I had all but mentally accepted our imminent and quite possibly painfully unpleasant demise when the German Army intervened. The lieutenant in the armoured vehicle who had refused to give me a lift had, it emerged, been driving slowly ahead of us, too far ahead to see. As he first passed the Serb troops, he had slowed to a crawl to monitor what they planned to do.
As he saw them advance on our car, gesturing at me to wind the window down and get out, the German lieutenant began to back up his armoured vehicle slowly, his gunner training his unarguably bigger weapon at the Serbs. Size matters in war, and his big German gun won the day.
As I saw this miracle in progress, only rarely in life have I felt a warmer wave of utter, blissful relief. We were still alive, and we were going to survive the day. The soldiers gave the Germans a disgusted look and slunk back to lie on the roadside and have another drink.
In the car, limping on through the gathering darkness behind the good Germans, Curly and I crawled slowly, eeking out our very last drops of petrol, and at last made it into the old town square in Prizren, where the ancient Mercedes gave a shudder and ceased to move.
The BBC producer there, Kevin, was busy next to the satellite truck, talking on what was then the latest model of satellite-phone – something the size of a telephone box.
“What took you so long?” he said with a grin.
You bastard, I thought, and went to put on my make-up so that I could do the next live broadcast, and more importantly, so that the senior correspondent could eat his dinner in peace.
After 25 years working in broadcast news, I remember almost all of the stories we’ve covered. Even some of the best quotes. And always the mothers and the children. But it’s the near disasters and the sheer outrageous fortune of surviving your own and your colleagues’ stupidity that are the stories that stick most in my mind as I ponder my despatches from beneath the volcano.
And despite the darkness of so much of the news, amidst the war and the death and the wounds, the starvation, the earthquakes and the plane crashes and train crashes, of which there were many in 1999 and all the other years, there have always been glimmers of light.
The kindness of some people to one another, even in the darkest times, the humanity of so many refugees who have nothing left but their hospitality, inviting us into their tent for a meal of whatever they can find to put together, in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya or Ingushetia and so many other shattered lands.
My main memory tonight of the bitter years of war in Helmand in Afghanistan is not of the fighting, or the patrols. And not even of the heart-stopping, excitingly visual, adrenalin-searing fire-fights, but a brief afternoon I spent drinking tea with an Afghan farmer’s wife.
It was a rare spot of luck that I was with a female interpreter and the wonderful BBC camerawoman, Julie Ritson, which meant we could be allowed in to her compound, where strange men were completely forbidden.
The farmer’s wife was a few years younger than us, though not many, and looking at the rough mud walls of her compound, and the lack of electricity or running water or books, I had expected to feel a little sorry for her and her tough life.
We had trekked some way through fields to meet her, and it was hot. We were dusty and sweaty in our heavy flak jackets and helmets, carrying many kilos of camera and radio equipment. Wearing a light and colourful cotton robe, she welcomed us in, and introduced us one by one to her ten children, ranging in age from 15 to almost one.
Then she made us tea and fresh flat bread, and questioned us closely.
Does your father know you’re here? She asked us. Yes, we said.
And your brothers? Yes, them too.
They let you come here alone? In those heavy jackets, with all those strange men with guns? They’re not your family, are they, those soldiers?
Yes, indeed they did.
And did any of us have a husband or children?
No, not yet, we said. And maybe never.
By the end of our cup of tea, as the sun was setting, the fire-fight somewhere outside had finally finished. We had to get back to our rather bleak desert military camp in a ruined Afghan compound. And as we left, it was all too abundantly clear that the farmer’s was the one who felt sorry for us.
Her life may have been limited to her compound and her children. Yet it was a life she clearly loved. She had everything there around her that was important. It wasn’t shops, and it wasn’t possessions or even books or films. There was no TV, no radio, nothing, just mud and straw and brick and love. Ten happy, strong and healthy children playing chase in the red dust.
Her husband was a good man, said the farmer’s wife, and he didn’t beat her – and her children were all healthy – and so was she. Her mother in law was decent, she said with a smile, and as farmers they had enough food. She would have liked a car, but only the very rich had them, so why worry?
So, she had everything in life that she needed, and there was nothing whatsoever that we could bring her the next day that she might possibly want. Though we were very welcome to pop in for another cup of tea and entertain her.
She stood, waving us off, and looking at us rather pityingly as we hoiked up our heavy camera kit and walked off into the sunset and back to our camp, stepping slowly and exceedingly carefully to avoid the hidden booby traps laid so regularly by the Taliban.
The next day Julie and I were travelling with British soldiers from the village of Pan Kalay in a heavily armoured vehicle when our vehicle stopped, as the one ahead had a problem.
In the distance on the road ahead of us, an impatient white minibus was hooting his horn for us all to get out of the way. The Afghan minibus taxi was driving like a maniac, hooting his horn, clearly in a desperate hurry. Our Mastiff was immovable and took up most of the road. So the Afghan taxi-driver veered off the safety of the tarmac road to overtake us and onto the desert dirt to our right.
A second or so later, an enormous heart-stopping bang.
And the shout on our radio ‘man down, man down’.
Julie and I looked at each other. What had just happened?
We craned to see through the tiny back window, and could just make out the scene.
A roadside bomb hidden beneath the dirt laid earlier by the Taliban to blow up British troops had gone off just a few metres behind us. But our vehicle, the Mastiff, was fine, and so were we.
It was the Afghan minibus stuffed to bursting with passengers of all ages that had driven so crazily past us off the road that was turned in milliseconds into a red mist, tiny pieces of engine shrapnel crazily bursting down through the air.
Our vehicle was quiet as the soldiers we were with awaited instructions.
We didn’t film the debris or the human remains as the young British men quietly, professionally cleared up the scene as best they could, evacuating the survivors to the hospital, and clearing up the remaining pieces of flesh.
We found out later that almost an entire extended Afghan family on their way to a family wedding had been killed, and that only one or two of the smallest children survived.
To my guilty relief, it wasn’t our Helmand farmer’s wife, as she was still there the next day. And to my guilty joy, it wasn’t us either, though it could so easily have been.
The sunsets here in Puebla sometimes remind me of Helmand, where the light has an other-worldly quality I’ve rarely seen before. As do the majesty of the mountains. Night is falling here on Puebla again as I sit at the dining room table, and the flat is quiet. Joy has gone to bed.
My bones feel stronger tonight, as if the thief has just as quietly returned them to me while I was unaware, perhaps while I snoozed this afternoon cradled in the languor of the warm corduroy sofa.
Although the high priest of the blood, Dr Priesca says that my neutrophils are, as expected, down. Now at a mere 1,400 or 1.4 whatever the unit is.
So by tomorrow, he says, I shall be fully into neutropenia and should spend the day on the sofa if I can, doing nothing at all. The new stem cells, he reckons, should have worked out their aims in life by Sunday, and been encouraged by their parents to leave home and begin their new jobs then, as long as they pass their exams.
So on doctor’s orders, I shall do nothing all day this sunny Thursday, unless so plagued by memory and the desire to write while the brain still works on this frequency that I have to blog again.
There are so many stories, and so little time.
We shall see. Goodnight.