Monday, 23 November 2015


I switched on my mobile at around 9 am and found a voicemail from my GP. ‘Please come and see me, I’ve made an appointment for you at 11.30 today.’ I gulped and put the phone down. This could not be good news. T drove me into Belfast and we sat in the waiting room. It was full of parents and babies.

The GP handed me the results of the CT scan and talked me through the report, at one point drawing a diagram on the page to illustrate the medical terms. The scan confirmed the lump in the right side of my abdomen. It was two inches in diameter, the size of a satsuma. I now needed a biopsy to test whether the lump was cancerous.

I walked out of his office, scan report in hand, and we went down the stairs to the street. T held my hand tightly. I had to concentrate hard on walking, my legs seemed very far away. We sat in a coffee shop and tried to absorb the news. She peered at my GP’s childlike drawing, strangely incongruous with the weight of the words on the page.

I began to recall my younger brother, who had died of cancer five and a half years ago. His tumour had been misdiagnosed and before it was treated had already spread. He lasted about nine months.

‘We’re in this together’ said T. I nodded and stretched out my hand across the table to her. We clasped. Our time of waiting had become harder.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015


I had a routine ultrasound scan on my abdomen three weeks ago. The two radiologists spent a long time investigating my right side, moving the sensor over the area again and again, asking me to breathe in and hold my breath. I wasn’t expecting such a going over. At the end, one told me that they had found an abnormality below my right kidney.

What sort of abnormality, I said?

A lump, he said.

I gasped.

He smiled nervously. We’re sending you for a full CT scan.

When, I asked?

With your history, he said, glancing at my notes, I think you’ll be called in pretty soon.

I went home. It was difficult to focus on anything other than my fear. I rang T.

We’ll get through this, she said, whatever it is.

I hope so, I said. I didn’t want to put down the phone. But in the end I had to. I reckoned the CT scan wouldn’t happen for weeks. And I didn’t know how I would get through this day, let alone all the others.

It is four and a half years since my cancer diagnosis. Then I was told that I had a one in three chance of dying within five years. That prognosis hung over me like a very dark cloud for several years. But I’d fought back and had turned the tables. This year I’d been doing so well and feeling fit and healthy again. Now the odds seemed to have turned against me.

I rang my brother. Try not to worry, he said.

Easier said than done, I replied. I’d been doing nothing else all day.

Don't worry, was the advice I was given most often. I became tired of hearing it. It felt depleting and seemed to add to my burdens. I spent a restless night.

In the morning I began to remember how I had found a way to get through the early dark days of cancer treatment. I broke each day down into parts. Then I organised something for each of those parts. I would do something, meet someone, and so on. It could be as simple as going for a walk: sufficient unto the day.

The night is a separate challenge in itself. But if you have filled your day then you will be tired and will sleep a while even if it is interrupted (as it surely will be).

None of this stops you having bleak episodes. They come unbidden. They come whenever they will. They can insert themselves into any moment. They come when something reminds you of the dark past. They come when something triggers a sense of loss of the future. They can always subvert the here and now. You just have to get through and beyond them.

This is a survival strategy. Like Ivan Denisovich, you do your best to get through each part of a day and a night. And then you do it all over again. And again.

In a week or so the appointment letter for the scan came. The date of the appointment was ten days ahead.

I kept on keeping on: living and worrying.

The CT scan has just taken place. And now I am waiting for the results. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Azure Coast

Between St Tropez and San Remo lies a coastline that is warm throughout the winter. It is also blessed with a famous clarity of light that intensifies colour. Over centuries it has attracted a series of visitors: invalids, the aristocracy, painters, writers, starlets and the super rich. T and I joined this odd list last week and found plenty to enjoy and much to bemuse.

We were staying in Cannes and made day trips to Nice, Antibes, Grasse, St Paul de Vence and Monaco. Every day was warm and most days were very sunny with clear azure skies and temperatures up to 25 degrees Celsius. The coast is very attractive, rocky bays girded with pines that back onto steep hills topped by fortified villages that rear up again to snow-capped mountains.

Ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege are commonplace. The Croisette at Cannes has palm trees and sand (both imported) with grand hotels and upmarket fashion shops. The marina has row upon row of large motor yachts, whilst the bay holds those yachts too big to be moored at the quay. These vulgar displays attract an audience of wannabees, imitators and hangers on with an associated bling industry that supplies their needs.

Yet there is also much that is genuine in the town. A large market filled with a cornucopia of fresh local produce: fish, meat, vegetables, herbs, cheese, fruit, spices, bread and conserves. Everything seems to grow well in this climate, including bananas. The narrow streets that surround the market are filled with small cafes, bars and restaurants. These are predominantly places for locals. We frequented Aux Bons Enfants, a great little restaurant with a fixed price menu that offered new dishes every day, depending on what they had bought that morning from the market – fantastic food at a very reasonable price. They had a small picture on the wall of Nicholas Sarkosy and Carla Bruni, who had once eaten there.

Most of the places we visited seemed to have this character: an ostentatious front that was focused on exclusivity and charging the highest prices, and a more genuine background, which you had to dig for, that was more local and traditional. In Antibes, the old walled town and its market was alongside the largest marina with the most expensive motor yachts on the Riviera. In Nice, the narrow streets of the old town with their captivating little church squares were below the grand hotels that were built on hillsides for the European aristocracy who, during the nineteenth century, set up court there for six months of the year. The exception of course was Monaco, a very exclusive tax-haven with a famous casino (the top floor of a beautiful opera house) whose raison d’ĂȘtre is wealth and privilege.

We enjoyed St Paul de Vence, a medieval walled town built on the crown of a hill, now filled with art and trinket shops and adorned with sculptures. Grasse, another hill town, was the traditional home of the French perfume industry and has a most interesting perfume museum. Our favourite place was the island of St Honorat, just 30 minutes by boat from Cannes but also a world away: we wandered through the pines, picnicked on the battlements of a fortified abbey at the edge of the sea and soaked up the warm sunshine. Soon we would be going home to cold and fog.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Play's The Thing

During October, T and I have seen a play a week. We’ve enjoyed being avid theatregoers. All of the plays we saw are featured in the Belfast Festival. They all have been very different in their approach and some have worked much better than others.

We started off with ‘The Night Alive’ by Conor McPherson at the Lyric. Despite the excellent acting, Adrian Dunbar and Laurence Kinlan in particular, and direction, a series of well staged exits and entrances to a scruffy bedsit in Dublin, I came away disappointed. The characters were all somewhat stock: the struggling antihero, his devoted best mate, the tart with a heart, the father figure, the threatening outsider. Too much time was spent building the two central characters, which we know anyway, and not enough on the development of the other characters who remained as sketches. The drama of their interactions suffered as a consequence. Conor McPherson is very good at dialogue and is an excellent director, but I felt there was a much better play straining to get out.

Next was ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ at the Grand Opera House, based on the book by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. I have nothing but praise for this play: a compelling story told from the point of view of an autistic teenager that is very well acted, an extremely innovative square set with spectacular back projection, fantastic sound and lighting design, and excellent direction that took us from the garden of a house in Swindon to Central London. No wonder this play has won a series of major theatre awards in London and New York. We rarely get touring theatre of the highest calibre in Belfast. Well done to the Belfast Festival for helping to bring the National Theatre here. The play was almost sold out a month beforehand and we only managed to get seats in the gods.

Finally we saw ‘To Break the Window of Opportunity’ by Campo at the MAC. This was experimental theatre from a pair of young Dutch performance artists: a spare set with a painted rear canvas of a desert with cultural icons inserted into the landscape, odd home-made wooden props that were brought onto stage and animated in unusual ways by the two performers, excellent sound design and no speech at all. It was like seeing a strange silent movie that presented a series of cultural rituals and then subverted them in interesting ways. I found it curious and stimulating. There were only about twenty people at the performance we attended. The play deserved much better than that.

It’s been a fine way to spend our weekday evenings, I came away feeling that we needed to do this more often.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Tour of Lough Neagh

Much beloved by eels, ornithologists and Seamus Heaney, it’s the largest freshwater lake in these islands. The lough measures 150 square miles, is up to 80 feet deep and mythologically was formed from horse urine. Oddly enough it provides around forty percent of Ulster’s water supply and is also used as a sewage outfall. There is a cycle route around it called the Loughshore Trail. After I began to cycle again this route lodged in the back of my mind as a challenge that I would one day like to have a go at. After six months of regular cycling and encouraged by our Indian Autumn, that day came.

The night before my attempt on lapping the lough, I went to stay at T’s in order to be nearer the start. I got up at 7am and put my cycling clothes on. Trouble was I couldn’t find my leggings. I’d forgotten to pack them. I wouldn’t be able to do the ride in just my cycling knickers, so I wolfed down my porridge and drove hastily back to my house. After toast and tea there I set off for Portadown and parked up at Tesco by the Bann. I began the ride just before 10, over an hour late, knowing I would be up against time pressures for the rest of the day.

It was another calm Autumn day and a light wind was behind me for the first part of the ride. I sped out past Drumcree and crossed into Tyrone by the footbridge at Maghery. I made good time to Ardboe (23 miles) and stopped beside the high cross for a break and an invocation to the spirits for success in my attempt. Up to now, most of the way had been on small back roads and tracks but near Ballyronan I came out onto a busy road and stayed on it until approaching Toome. Here I found even busier roads, with large trucks roaring past. I was tired, hungry and drizzle began to fall.

The main street of Toome (37 miles) has many empty shops but one good wee cafe, Grans. After wolfing down a fine bowl of stew with wheaten bread I had no real time for a rest. Happily the drizzle had also stopped as I headed on. The route turned into the wind but also onto back roads towards Cranfield. My lunch was weighing on me but I pressed on to Randalstown (48 miles) with its impressive stone viaduct and castle gate. Then the route was alongside the main road into Antrim, after some miles of air pollution there were attractive park gardens down to the lough. I stopped at the Loughshore Cafe (54 miles) for coffee and a scone. I was feeling pretty tired, it was 3.30pm and I still had over 30 miles to go. The sun came out and I pressed on.

From the cafe the route followed a narrow trail through woodland. But only part of me enjoyed the verdant scene, I was also worried about getting a puncture and my stomach was a little sore. Coming out of the woods near Greenmount, I went along another busy road and turned down onto backroads again that followed the shore to Ardmore. My stomach was cramping up. I stopped but found it hard to drink or eat. I made myself eat half a banana and take a mouthful of water. I pressed on. The cramps got worse. There was something definitely wrong with that scone.

Near Crumlin I headed along a busy road with homegoing traffic then down on backroads to the shore again. My guts were rebelling on me. Groaning, I stopped for a call of nature in a field near Portmore but it gave me only temporary relief. My stomach still ached and my lungs were getting sore. I stopped again at Bartins Bay, the light was closing in. After that I limped along, my sore guts and lungs complaining, especially on the hills. I got to T’s house just before dark, parked the bike and flopped into the kitchen. She had made a big meal for me. My stomach was so sore it was several hours before I could eat anything. All I could manage at first were rehydration salts. She had also bought me a splendid bunch of celebration lilies, they had a marvellous scent.

After our late meal I conked out and slept fitfully but long. The next day I felt reasonably well, ate a lot and did a gentle walk with T around Brownlow Park. I’d cycled 85 miles with 2300 feet of climbing at 11.7 mph. The ride around the lough had taken me 9 hours and I’d visited five of the six counties of NI. This was the furthest I’d ridden for ten years, I was delighted with myself.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Harvest

A sweet aroma began to assail my nostrils. Toast, I mused and continued searching the internet. The smell got stronger and more acrid. Something was burning. And I wasn’t making any toast. I leapt up and raced into the kitchen. The large pan on the hob was black at the edges. Apples, marrow and ginger were boiling madly. Making jam, I’d put the mixture on low. Then I’d completely forgotten it. And an unwatched pot always boils. I rescued what I could of the mixture and put it into a new pot. Adding more apples and ginger, I finished making the jam. It turned out bronze in colour with an intriguing smoky flavour. But there were only three jars.

This year the harvest has been late and not very good. We picked the apples from my tree three weeks later than usual. The tree only produced about a third of its normal crop. And many of the apples were pecked by birds (mainly magpies I think), hence their use for jam. Added to this, the blackberries in the hedgerow were also late and few were ripe enough to eat. Whilst there were plenty of fruits on the briars, most were still green or red.  Despite the relatively mild autumn thus far, we are still suffering the legacy of the coldest summer for twenty years.

In such a year, our early ancestors would have been worrying about how to survive this oncoming winter and praying to whatever deities they could muster to help them. Their norm would be to feast on the harvest of fresh wild food, getting as fat as they could. They needed these extra layers to help them through a winter of cold, dwindling food stocks and privation. These were not called thin times for no reason.  

I was reminded of this practice by reading an article about a modern day hermit who had lived unseen in a tent in the woods of Maine. He managed to get through the very hard winters there for thirty years by using this ancient strategy. As he didn’t want to be discovered, he did not build a fire. During the freezing cold winter he became nocturnal. To be active at night was the best way to keep warm; he could sleep during the less cold days. To go to sleep at night would be dangerous, it might be a rest from which you would never wake.

Despite living this hard life, the hermit never got ill. Although, when he was discovered he looked much older than his years. This sort of outdoor life leaves its toll on the body. Our ancestors invariably died young. Reaching your thirties would have been considered old age. I finish reading the article, turn up the central heating, switch on the electric blanket and snack on toast with home-made jam. Modern life is easy in comparison.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Double Dose

Last Saturday T went down with a bad dose of flu. After several weeks in school with hundreds of children she wasn’t too surprised to pick up a bug. Having only just recovered from a dose myself, I was well practiced at administering soluble paracetamol, vitamins and minerals, so I sprang into action. By Sunday evening she had become so ill she begged me not to leave her alone in her house. So I packed her up in my car and took her home to Casa PJ, stopping at Tesco enroute to replenish supplies.

I installed her in the guest bedroom and brought in whatever she wanted: bowls of soup, toast, bars of chocolate and fizzing concoctions of over-the-counter medicines. The next day I noticed that my throat was getting sore. Just a coincidence, I thought, as my system must have plenty of antibodies from my own recent dose. Unfortunately, her virus proved to be different to the one I had taken and by that evening I was laid up again with a new dose of flu.

With both of us ill in bed, who was to be the nurse? As T seemed to be the worst off, it had to be me. For the next day or so I struggled to make us meals and keep up the regular medications. It was exhausting and stressful to be nursing her and myself at the same time. Then, as I began to significantly worsen, she started to improve. So the nursing duties switched.

This dose of flu was much more intensive than the last. For several days I was laid out flat with a heavy fever, headache and bad chest. Going down the corridor to the toilet was a major expedition from which I would come back to bed feeling exhausted. T presented me with porridge laced with whisky for breakfast, soup for lunch and a good evening meal. As the intensity of her dose receded, she was left with a dry cough, bouts of sneezing and waves of exhaustion. After a few days feeling that I would never get better, I began to join her on the winding road to recovery.

I suppose I could have called her Typhoid Mary. But as they so rightly say, a friend in need is a friend indeed.