Friday, December 07, 2007

Playroom? Dressing Room? Tales from the Neanderthal Smugglers' Den

"But the room is too big." both my children declared - their excuse for persistently succeeding in destroying my efforts to tame their untidy bedroom. What was to be done about it? I plotted and planned, measured and sketched, then headed off to Firwood Timber, our local timber merchant.

Nowadays I think I'm probably just 'that quirky woman who thinks she can do DIY', but initially the men in the yard treated me with a kind of revered contempt. I did a small stint in a timber yard myself, as a cashier, not in the yard itself. My manager-to-be explained at interview that he would not discriminate, of course, but there was a horror story of a girl who had once worked there that had to be told. Not that I wanted to work in a cold, windy timber yard: a warm office shared with a lovely accountant will do quite nicely thank you.

So, the Firwood timber men got past the fact that I know my wood, mostly manage not to look too put out by their self-derived need to curb their language when I'm in there and will pretty much let me roam as free as their male customers. I even had a meaningful discussion with one of the chaps about different types of bricks once, but that was long after my first attempt at a big DIY job - a 'do or die' attack on the kitchen.

We had cheap, flatpack kitchen units and a leaky sink, the consequence of which was a gradual slide to the left as the screws lost their grip in the disintegrating chipboard, followed by a controlled crash as said units landed on the floor. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust and all that, the resulting pile was as flat as it had been originally.

If you have ever questioned the purposes of all those geometry lessons at school, let me tell you that rebuilding a kitchen from timber justfies the suffering. I reasoned thus: if I manage to pull this off I've got a new kitchen; if I don't I've got 130 quidsworth of fire wood. We had a coal fire at the time, so either way we wouldn't have lost out completely.

Back then I didn't own a single power tool, so the whole job, four cupboards, two drawers and a three metre work surface, was to be completed by hand. Norm Abram's a skilled craftsman, a master of carpentry, but with a workshop that is as well kitted as his I should bloody well think so too. What I'm saying is that my kitchen units are no work of art, but they're functional, hardwearing and still standing after ten years.

And so to my plan. The children were right. The bedroom was too big and they were too small. Perhaps reducing it in size was a good thing. My delivery of plasterboard and timber arrived and I fashioned a dividing wall that separated the room into a larger part, to be used as a bedroom, and a smaller area, henceforth to be known as 'The Playroom'.

The Playroom? THE PLAYROOM? Anywhere less playful I have yet to find, as it rapidly filled with stuff. Now, I would love to be more specific about the heaps and piles of tangled, messy, sticky stuff, but I wrote over a hundred thousand words last month. It's quite astounding just how much mess small people can make, and it would have been all well and good if their 'no longer too big' bedroom had stayed tidy. Admittedly this would only have been a relocation of untidiness, yet there we were, with two rooms filled with clothes, toys, snaffled bedding, a tent, books, pens, broken Christmas presents and so forth.

Annual clearout time. All unwanted toys and gifts in this bag. All the rubbish in that bag, and that bag, oh, and that bag too. Four trips to the recycling centre in a large MPV and those famous last words:

"Keep it tidy this time!"

"Thank you Mummy. We will."


My children have grown a lot since then and so has the mess they make. It's changed a bit along the way, I must admit, for now the stuff is not stuck together with glittery glue and paint. It's stuck together with lip gloss and nail varnish and all other manner of cosmetics that are not so easily removed as 'safe for children' products.

As they have changed, so have their rooming requirements. Now that original, smallified bedroom is occupied by one daughter, and we were ousted from our office to house the other daughter, hence the discussion of bricks and the presence of my computer on the kitchen table. Oh yes, we built a new office, or at least removed our own stuff and everyone else's from our garage in order to use it as an office, but it's another room to heat. So, why do I have to keep my computer on the kitchen table children? Because you created so much mess that you needed to relocate some of it to a third room.

About three years ago we 'Ikea-ed' their bedrooms. Good, solid Scandinavian tat at very reasonable prices, although you have to take the journey of Proserpina to get it. The Playroom became their dressing room, but it's never lost its original title. We built two giant chests of drawers and constructed a chrome dress rail, carpeted and decorated and there it was. All new and shiny. And tidy.

Then the stuff came. Unfortunately a leaky water tank destroyed the carpet, not that it matters when the floor isn't visible.

"But there's not enough light." they said.

We fitted lights.

"My drawers are broken."

I fixed drawers.

"The rail has collapsed."

I gave up.

Until today.

You see, they've been living in the same three school shirts (I have no idea how this works between two of them over the course of a week - maybe they take turns at having one or two shirts each) and yet they own at least ten shirts between them. I decided to go on a reconaissance mission for the missing shirts. That was two hours ago and so far we're up to five shirts in total, including the ones they're wearing.

I'm about to start the second bag of rubbish. There are two shelves full of shoes, even though their footwear diet is only marginally more varied than their school shirt usage. I've yet to embark on the chests of doom, sorry, drawers, and there's some very interesting clothes piling going on in the wall cupboard.

On the plus side I've found my long lost nail file, a couple of dozen coat hangers, three pillows, a cereal bowl and spoon, two flasks, lots and lots of pens and the floor.

I should really commend them though, for over the past year or so they are finally learning to control their mess. The Playroom is the last bastion of stuff and their bedrooms are, well, OK-ish I suppose. And they do appreciate it, especially as it's nearly Christmas, which means...

...they'll be needing the space for all their new stuff.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Oh No! Not Twittering. Anything but Twittering.

When I started this blog, I was adamant that it would not be a 'blog': hence the title 'de-blog' - a play on words that allowed me to connect my name to this log of my life whilst at the same time condemning the shortening of the term web log / weblog.

With this in mind it may be surprising to read that last night I received a ticking off for my use of 'ur' as instant message shorthand of 'your' in a writers' chat-room, and rightly so. Sometimes these things occur out of force of habit and it's one I wish I hadn't acquired. Modern methods of communication are obliterating our language and it seems that I, like everyone else, have succumbed to the necessity to 'get with it'.

This is not to say that I despise new technology; far from it, I appreciate the simplicity and immediacy of email, something I have had far more success in using than I ever did with traditional postal mail. It is a long time since I had penpals, who undoubtedly went on to find other English speaking people who could be bothered to write back. To those individuals I apologise wholeheartedly: it was nothing you said or did.

Instant Messaging has proved to be an incredibly useful tool also, for I am not so adept with the spoken word, as any of those who know me will testify. However, the key is in the name: instant messaging. I am as guilty as the next person of being so impatient that typing a whole sentence just doesn't seem instant enough. In context, it appears appropriate to shorten long and winding statements or questions to the shortest form possible, providing that doing so doesn't lose the meaning.

I can also appreciate the need for protocol and the shortening of many phrases has resulted directly from this. We no longer refer to web logs or electronic mail and I don't think we ever used the term 'inter-net'. We log on to MySpace, Facebook and liveJournal without a thought to the connecting of words in such a manner. It is customary to capitalise each word when writing it outside the browser address bar, but the names refer to domains where spaces are not allowed and hyphens are abandoned in the quest for the simple and easy to remember. With the billions of sites out there, the last thing any company needs is a domain name that could be mis-typed and direct the user to entirely the wrong place.

I didn't want a 'blogspot'; I certainly had no intention of creating a 'liveJournal'; I was signed up to 'MySpace' by my students and joined 'Facebook' under the duress of friends who were already there, in spite of the fact that it sounds like the kind of action one contemplates when finally comprehending a difficult to read text (a la 'headdesk': the act of banging head on desk in despair).

But today I hit the bottom of the well, mentally and electronically. I'd been awake with toothache until 3am, then slept for four hours after taking anti-inflammatories. Two cups of coffee and a shower later I still felt dreadful, so I stayed in bed, ate toast topped with leftover beans and watched a couple of pretty lousy Christmas movies on TV. When I eventually managed to drag myself downstairs at 1pm, I read Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror Blog, which is something I enjoy and it's on my iGoogle page, but today it was merely a means of passing the time before taking my daughter to the dentist.

At some point, considering the title of this post, I have to get around to writing about ''. The word itself is ugly and irritating: birds twitter when they wake us at dawn and we're not happy about it. Children twitter all the way through the TV programme we wanted to watch. However the verb is applied it carries negative connotations and I have yet to fathom why any website would wish to condone such a practice, let alone use the term for its domain name.

Last week some of my fellow novelists were "twittering about their progress" and I couldn't help but wonder why they were proud to boast this. Still, I took solace in the fact that the more discerning members of the electronic community tend to avoid twittering, and then Jeff Atwood's post referred to a friend's "recent twitter update". I concluded that if it was good enough for Jeff - well who was I to cast aspersions?

So I went to, where the buttons are labelled thus: 'What?'; 'Why?'; 'How?'.

What? I know 'what' twitter is and do my very best to avoid it in all its forms.
Why? because it's like the aftermath of a piece of grit under the eyelid.
How? I don't care how.

I returned to the Twitter homepage, where I noticed one final question:

What are you doing?

I don't think they meant it quite the way I read it.

Friday, November 30, 2007

BattleJesus, Nanoisms and Cat People

November 30th: it's a strange old day. The wind is starting to gust and darkness is descending, even though it is mid afternoon. In our family, Christmas starts on December 1st, with the tree and decorations in place on the first Sunday of the month. I have an extensive collection of Christmas socks, and tomorrow I get to wear the new pair I bought last year. There's no rhyme or reason to all of this. It's simply a case of tradition.

Every year, as I leave November behind, I feel a sense of something beginning. I love Christmas: the build-up; the preparation; the excitement. Yet today, for the first time, I am sad that November is coming to a close, for it is the end of my first NaNoWriMo. It marks the return to reality.

However, I have no intention of lamenting this event, for it has been the best thing I have done in a long time. I place it alongside my children and my degree in the sense of achievement and self I have gained from it. As the clock strikes midnight tonight, I will rejoice in having completed a novel of just over one hundred thousand words in length, that I am reasonably happy is a decent first draft. It took two weeks of writing and two weeks of editing. I like the plot, know the characters well and look forward to returning to the novel in a week or so to start my first real edit.

Contrary to the way in which NaNoWriMo was presented on Radio Four's Today programme, many skilled and determined writers take part and go on to finish their novel. Evidently, such an undertaking means that the end product is a little rough, doesn't quite make sense here and there, is subject to sudden changes in plot and produces some spectacular typos. There is a forum thread on the NaNoWriMo site that allows writers to share their novel bloopers, known as 'Nanoisms', some of which are incredibly funny to other 'Nanos', but probably not to anyone else. These things happen when a community comes together - the in-jokes and the sense of sharing something that no-one else is a part of. It is what makes NaNoWriMo special.

As I write this blog, I am keeping an eye on the Chat Room, where many writers are battling through the final hours of the month, teeth gritted, the finish line in sight. It is a well monitored, spam free place where conversation is positive, light-hearted and always encouraging. It is also where the bot known as BattleJesus (BJ to his friends) resides and it is his fault I am writing this blog in the first place, for he is programmed to time Word Wars (where Nanos compete to write as many words as possible in a set time), provide prompts and quotes to stimulate ideas and to make decisions based on a number of user provided options (how he decided I should write this blog). I won't miss the chat room as I won't be leaving it when today is done. Here I have made new friends and I anticipate that it will be fun to share with them in the build up to NaNoWriMo 2008.

I'm not at liberty to discuss cat people, other than to say that I have enjoyed reading other people's excerpts, as well as the one completed novel that has been sent my way thus far and I'm looking forward to seeing where the cat people end up in the edit almost as much as working with my own main characters further. I might even give them a sequel.

And so, I say goodbye to NaNoWriMo 2007, with fondness and a little sadness, but tomorrow is another day. I am grateful for the patience and encouragement that has been afforded me over the past month, for it has given my writing the jumpstart it needed. For now I lay down my pen, certain that when I next pick it up I will know what to write, and if I don't, I'll ask BJ.

Inner Editor returns, and isn't too pleased with what she finds. This is an abysmal post, lacking in both quality and quantity. Could do better. Go to the bottom of the class.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More Than Anything

As Steven Sondheim goes to great lengths to demonstrate, we really do need to be careful what we wish for. Wishes, like government policies, tend to bring about a whole heap of unintended consequences. The vast majority of my degree was spent dissecting past, present and future policy, and whilst I must confess that I am somewhat out of touch with these matters, I could still pick up any white paper and give it a good thrashing.

I don't want to wed a prince, find perfection, be rich beyond the dreams of avarice (too much Tom Holt). Evidently there are aspects of my life that I would gladly give up, others I would cling to with all that I am, because they are all that I am. I've read enough fairy tales and fantasy novels to know that the wisher's obsession pushes rationality aside. The outcome is predictable: she marries the prince only to discover that, if she's really, really lucky, he's just a bit of a misogynist, but more likely than not it will transpire that he bites his toenails, smells dreadful and has a fetish for cows. If only she'd thought ahead, planned a little before stating "I wish", then there would have been some smallprint in place to protect her from such eventualities.

And so, I edge towards my wish with a little hesitation.

Four days ago I began to write a novel. It was the 4th of November, and with a deadline of 50,000 words by the 30th of November, I was already behind by 6,000 words. As any past or present NaNoWriMo author will tell you (and you can calculate this for yourself), finishing the novel by the deadline means writing 1,667 words a day, every day, for the entire month. Therefore, by the end of today, I would need to have written just under 13,500 words to remain on target. In actuality I am almost halfway, with last night's word count standing at 24,018 words. I desperately wanted to reach 25,000 before I went to bed, but I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, and I mean that absolutely literally.

It's been four days of writing for around twelve hours each day, watching TV for an hour or so, then going to sleep around 1am, waking at 7am. This pattern is not new to me: I am well used to it, because I am a teacher and a web programmer, both greedy consumers of time. However, one of the more subtle differences between these and my current occupation surprises me, and that is that I have been able to break away for small periods of time, to talk to my friends or family, help my daughter cook or whatever else is required of me in my multiple roles in this life. What's more, I pause without begrudging the distraction.

The broader context is that I've been off work for two months, dealing with the persistent shifting between highs and lows, which has been terrible and unpredictable but not particularly extreme, all of it catalogued here. In the space of a few minutes I can go from optimistic planning of my future (just as soon as my head is working) to a sense of woe, for I am trapped in this existence forever.

Now, I'm certainly not going to lie and say that four days ago the mood swings came to an abrupt halt. I have been this way all of my life and it's not been an easy one. There have been times when I could have given up fighting, because of illness, love or finance. A colloquialism I especially like is 'on the bones of our arses' and this is precisely where we are right now. I'm writing, so my needs are simple: coffee and cigarettes. What I have in front of me now is the last of both of these, because people owe us and don't understand what 'we have no money' means. My children have rightly lectured me on spending the last of our money on these commodities. In the general course of life this alone would have me on my knees, punching the floor and screaming about the unfairness of it all. However, I am not.

Other trials have attempted to thwart me over the past few days and received the same treatment. I momentarily sense the downward slide, the impending doom, the misery that will accompany it. And then I say to myself "Write, goddamnit! You've got a deadline!"

For years I have proclaimed that I want to be writer, yet when I have the time to be this I am not. Instead I design a web page, create some elaborate code or produce a pile of educational resources that may or may not come in useful at some point. I lament that I have no time to write, a partial truth constructed by the other things I have used to fill the void. I dabble a little here and there, come up with ideas, write short prose, poetry, this blog, an introductory chapter or a preface, then I return to what I was doing under the guise that I must.
    And the words that fill these pages
    Won't bring in any wages.

There's no denying it. I have to earn a living somehow. If some kind publisher advanced me enough to settle my mortgage account I would still need to work to pay the rest of our monthly expenses, in the short term at least. When I say work here, I mean any wage-paying occupation that is not writing.

The smallprint: must pay a wage and must not come at the expense of family and friends. Please note that my dogs are part of my family.

I wish to write, more than anything, without further qualification. I can write to deadlines, I could be a working writer and not hate it. When I am writing all other things exist in their true perspective. Writing makes me happy, not the guilty part-time pleasure, or means of casting out some demon within, but real writing. Four days ago I didn't know these things.

Now, where are those beans?

Monday, November 05, 2007

NaNoWriMo: The New Black

No time to stay, I have a novel to finish.

Yes people, I have a new addiction, but this one is just perfect, for several reasons.

Firstly, I have been sucked into a void over the past few weeks, one where deadlines and dates have ceased to have meaning, no-one has been cracking the whip in my direction, or indeed when they have it's not been cracked hard enough. No deadlines equals no progress or achievement. That's shockingly how this cookie crumbles.

Secondly, I am a writer. There is a passion within me that just needs to put down words. Half the time I strangle my own creativity by being a petulant and indulgent self editor. Take that away and I go free-form, Beat, take the story where the story takes me. Admittedly right now that does appear to be into romance (uggh!), but who cares? Life is romance: love, sex, infatuation, lust. There's also some stuff to do with birth and death, biological functionality that we still somehow manage to romanticise.

Thirdly, I am feeling a certain joy that I haven't experienced in quite some time. It comes from freedom of guilt. "I'm sorry, but I have a novel to write." What more reason do I need not to wash up / programme that web site / worry about my day job? None, I tell you - no further explanation is coming your way.

So, a writer who needs deadlines and a reason to write. The solution: NaNoWriMo, short for 'National Novel Writing Month'. The deadline is the 30th of November; the novel must be 50,000 words or more. There's nothing to be gained from this, no prizes, publishing deals or other incentive. It was exactly what I needed.

Champagne took what seemed like an eternity to finish, and I read back on it, hating certain paragraphs, loving others, but always thinking that had I taken six months instead of six years to write it, I doubt it would have been any better or worse. Admittedly the word count isn't double within the NaNoWriMo remit, but even so. In two days I have written 10,000 words. At that rate I could, theoretically, complete a novel the length of Champagne in twenty days. It would be terrible, as is the one I'm writing, but nonetheless possible.

I have obtained a state of acceptance about what I write: it might be rubbish, but it's my rubbish. At times it stinks, so hold your nose and walk away. Me? I'm stuck with it and I must dispose of it somehow. That's what it's about, this writing thing. As Allen Ginsberg said, "It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public". My writing, wherever it may roam, is the private made public, what we really think, who we really are, behind the shirts, ties, uniforms, careful hairstyles and cosmetics.

Thank the Lord for NaNoWriMo - for now I have remembered who I am and what this whole fight was for. Still, I have 39,950 words to write in 25 days, so I best sharpen my pen. There are swords out there who still believe in the old ways.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Plaice in the Rain

"Fish and chips?"

"Yes. And a walk along the promenade."

It is impossible to eat fried fish and walk and talk all at once, in the rain.

"Just chips then? And a plastic fork?"

"OK. Chips. And a plastic fork."

The forks were wooden memories, then not now, but they, like all utensils, served their purpose for a walk along the promenade in the rain. Why people should choose such an occupation is not necessary to explain, for seaside towns, come hottest summer's day or bitterest January evening, maintain their promenades, like the sitting rooms of pretentious old ladies.

A lone, crazy golfer putted a par four in five or more and tilted his cap against the downpour. We waved our forks in his direction though he did not see. He moved on to Henry's upturned bucket, painted red and yellow now, usurped of prior purpose. We moved along, our chips resisted spearing.

A promenade is a piece of time, held together by parasols and begonias. It flowers in perpetuity: conceited blooms of April are replaced by tulips, dahlias, then chrysanthemums, planted by council workers who never return to admire their work.

The hotel shutters were all but closed, basements filled with warmth and rest, rooms loomed stark naked overhead.

We stopped at a bin, a tub on a stick buried to its knees in promenade concrete, and poured the water from our polystyrene trays. It would have been as easy to stop and poke them full of holes with the little wooden forks, but we chose to save them.

Somebody left a bar; someone else entered it. A waft of beery heat drifted our way. It was tempting but this was a promenade in the rain. Not even benches tempt a cessation of such activity, offering as they do only a promise of wet invisible paint stripes on pants and a glimpse of some promenader past before, consigned to small plaque.

By now the puddles had taken over most of the paving. We stepped over them, careful to avoid the cracks between the flags in some kind of misplaced superstition of luck falling to the strata below. The rain had made it inside our coats, making us giggle through chattering teeth. The warmth of potatoes is a limited lifespan. The plaice would have been welcome now, but it is impossible to eat fried fish and walk and talk all at once, in the rain.

Boats and swans drifted in and out of view beyond the shrubbery, blinding us with their brilliance against the background fading green to black of night. Junk beneath the lake, all of it manmade, invisible, impossible discarded stuff, mattered less than each drop of rain that fell.

We imagined a passing car as a horsedrawn carriage, loaded with courting couple and chaperone, all in period, boots and skirts and top hats and cravats. Another we transformed to a penny farthing before our eyes on the rainy promenade. Gas lights now sparked to life and made a glittery mess of the view.

The view: a seaside almost out of season; broken bottles; rusting cans; cigarette ends; drooping flora and a lone, crazy golfer.

"We should have got the plaice."

"I know."

It is impossible to eat fried fish and walk and talk all at once, in the rain.

"You were right."

We cast our forks into the lake and turned the way we had come.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Good grief; I'm British!

As I was waiting for the 'New Post' page to open I was contemplating possible titles for this post, and those that immediately came to mind all involved comment on this rain. Hence I have opted for a title that officially 'outs' me as one of those typically British sorts who talks about the weather when there is little else to make smalltalk of.

In my defence, British weather is perhaps somewhat more interesting than that experienced elsewhere on the planet. I am led to believe that the Innuit have a considerable number of words to describe snow. Likewise we have rain, downpour, 'cats and dogs', drizzle, spitting, persistent rain, 'wet rain' and, thanks to Francis Wilson, 'mizzle'. The list goes on. Similarly we experience all manner of winds and strengths of sun, as well as a spot of sleet, hail and snow from time to time.

The thing that makes British weather a talking point is its shear unpredictability, save for spring and summer bank holidays and my daughter's birthday, when it is almost certain that it will 'lash it down' for the full 24 hours. Whereas in most countries the weather can be predicted by season (summer means it will be blisteringly hot with little or no rain for several months, for example), the seasons mean little in Britain. Winter is usually coldest, summer warmest. The rest is up for grabs.

Clearly it hasn't rained for two months solid, but right now it rather does feel that way. Both of my dogs are soaking wet, dirty and smelly; the tumble dryer hasn't had a rest since we acquired it at the end of last year; the grass needs cutting, as do the hedges; my hair is developing a permanent kink and I am so fed up with my rear wiper getting stuck that on occasion I have contemplated stopping the car and ripping the damned thing off! Lucky me, however, to only have these small annoyances to whinge about.

Where am I heading with this? I have no idea to be brutally honest. There are so many rants wanting to be aired that in part I don't know where to begin, but professionalism stops me also. I think it is just the need for a change, even if it is only in the weather. Each morning I look out of the window and I think "Why?", then I move on to "How?".

Still it just keeps on raining.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I think I may have got my life back...

... although I am not sure yet.

Please take note that this is an honest account of my experience and sometimes the truth is harsh.

It has been almost two months since I found a small lump in my right breast, and less than an hour ago it was confirmed as being a polyp, not malignant and, as it was removed two weeks ago, no longer a threat to my physical and mental wellbeing.

I left the clinic, used the loo, left the hospital, turned my mobile 'phone back on whilst observing the beauty of a drift of bluebells in the hospital grounds and returned to my car, all the time thinking to myself "If I can just get out of this room, this hospital, get to my car, get home, then I will let the relief hit me."

This has yet to happen and so here I am, writing what Nige said I should have written from the beginning. Perhaps I simply need to metaphorically 'get it off my chest' too.

It began on a Sunday evening. I was sitting in bed and found the small lump during something vaguely resembling self-examination. It was really quite small, but definitely there. Again in bed, a couple of days later, or maybe as soon as the next day, I asked Nige if he could feel it too, and he said that he could. That was when my world first shifted out of orbit.

"You didn't want me to say that, did you?"

A conversation followed that involved the suggestion of leaving it a week and then making an appointment with our G.P. We went to sleep. We awoke and went to work, yet the only part of that day I remember was telling Paul when we were having our usual chat on MSN.

Fortunately I find myself propelled to sleep and work by stress, so I have, I think, performed both activities rather effectively, albeit from within my asynchronous reality. For the first few days I was only slightly out of phase: the G.P.'s confirmation of the existence of the lump (the size of a small pea) and all that followed granted me this full-on alternate existence.

I can not convey how wonderful and true Paul's friendship has been. I have been able to share with him some of my darkest thoughts, although I haven't told him, or anyone else, everything, and sometimes his kind reassurances inadvertently transformed themselves into warning flags. His initial assertion that the G.P. would have made an urgent appointment for me at the hospital if she was worried became the truth when the hospital telephoned to inform me that she had faxed a referral to them.

After visiting the G.P. I had returned to work - it was after the school day had ended - and I sat at a computer using music notation software for an hour or so before the first tears fell. I regained my composure and left school, a journey during which I reached my first major decision based on a number of possible, well-reasoned outcomes:

a) If it's nothing, then all is well, and I go back to my life. I make some big changes.
b) If it's cancer and it's advanced then I only have to manage a few weeks of this hell and it's over.
c) If it's cancer and it's not advanced then I have to find a way to end this without anyone realising it is actually suicide.
d) Perhaps I should just drive straight off the road now and it will be over and done with.

Needless to say I chose to drive home. A new chapter begins here.

I passed the days between G.P. visit and hospital appointment one in the usual fashion: sleep, work, repeat to fade, but with an occasional peak, well more than occasional, at online pages about breast cancer, breast lumps, procedures, statistics and advice. Some of the information was new; none of it was helpful. Having played the odds with cervical cancer and more or less lost out all the way until the end, I wasn't hopeful. I had concluded that if I could play the National Lottery with the same odds I would get five and the bonus ball at least twice a year.

Still, I sat in the clinic waiting area silently chanting "almost always nothing" and pushing out the echoes of "G.P.s can usually tell you if it is just a cyst", "I saw blood in the sample", "there's some swelling in your glands" etc. And yes, now I recall a weekend of repressed hysteria when it was Mother's Day (will this be my last?) and my glands hurt so much I was convinced I had advanced lymphoma:

"They didn't hurt till the GP said they were swollen!" Nige said.
"How have your sinuses been? Only when mine are bad my glands swell too." Paul said.

"OK, so it's psychosomatic", I thought. Ignore the glands and focus on the rest. Easier said than done. So, back to the clinic...

After a fine needle aspiration (rather painful), a mammogram (nowhere near as painful as the anecdotes of others implied) and an ultrasound scan, the results were inconclusive. The lump was too small, the cells were too few to say for sure, but there's an eighty per cent chance it's a simple cyst - a 'C3'. There go those odds again.

Appointment two: a different hospital and what was planned as a different procedure (biopsy) turned into yet another fine needle aspiration (extremely painful) with simultaneous ultrasound scan. Afterwards Paul and I sat in a coffee bar and ate food we didn't want, went to another bar and chatted about our concerns for the wellbeing of others then went home.

Appointment three: results are inconclusive; it has to come out. I was glad of the excuse of going to see Howard Jones live as a means of avoiding surgery on Friday the thirteenth without confessing to superstitious beliefs, although it has to be said that I had already left them far behind. This was no time for second guessing, wondering if putting it into words would somehow tempt fate. For when Nige rescued me after the first inconclusive result and suggested I document all of this, I tried, but I just could not. It was too much like writing my own obituary.

I think by this point I was so exhausted that I almost couldn't worry anymore. I say almost: at school we had been covering the psychology of health, so it was all pretty close to my experiences, which made those lessons the hardest to give. One of my students had broken up with their girlfriend, and I found a little solace in our shared misery. One night I sent him a reply to his MySpace bulletin titled 'Application to be my Girlfriend', offering for his consideration a (fictitious) incontinent, blue-rinsed, bingo-playing biddy. He replied with gratitude for my attempts at cheering him up and an apology for the relative unimportance of his plight. On the contrary, my friend: it is neither unimportant nor without purpose.

And so appointment four: day surgery. This is when a patient is admitted for the day, spends four hours reading the Daily Mail whilst everyone else is admitted, treated and lies on their beds recovering before said patient finally undergoes an hour of unconsciousness and probably ten minutes of surgery. I recall the poor snoring women, and the anaesthetist's entirely unnecessary focus on my being an overweight smoker. It has taken me five years to lose four stone, maintain the weight loss and extensively adapt my eating habits. Smoking comes next: if I survive this I deal with it. And if it's cancer please make sure I don't wake up.

There was a strange relief in having the lumpectomy. It was out, so it couldn't do any more damage and there was every chance that this time I would actually get the conclusive result that had evaded me, putting my life on hold for almost eight weeks. I amended my decisions accordingly:

a) If it's nothing, then all is well, and I go back to my life. I perhaps make some big changes.
b) If it's cancer and it's advanced then I only have to manage a few more weeks of this hell and it's over.
c) If it's cancer and it's not advanced then I can probably cope with radiotherapy. Chemotherapy and I have to find a way to end this without anyone realising it is actually suicide.


Finally, here I am. Appointment five has been and gone. The result is conclusive. I don't have cancer. I get to have my life back. I don't need to plan a get-out that will make sure the mortgage gets paid. I do have to reconsider my earlier resolve to quit smoking, which slipped further and further into the fading abyss that represented reality in my realm before today. I also have to address my dissatisfaction with my employers.

Apparently I still have to wait for my life and the rest of the world to re-converge, and I'm beginning to think it may never happen. I also believe that this has been life-changing, although not in an obvious way that would stand out to everyone else. I know what it is to really not care if I live or die, but I do care to live now. For Eileen and Kath, God bless you both for you were braver than I could ever have been and I will never know how you found the strength to fight to the end.

And I'll settle for never winning the lottery.


Within hours of finishing this blog post I received an email from one of my friends at school to tell me that we got five numbers on the Lottery syndicate! It's only £55 each, but as I add this two days later I can confirm that I have my life back - I am covered in tile adhesive...