Sunday, March 25, 2007

Spring forward, Fall back

And then, all of a sudden, my Hidden Resources failed me.

I found myself on Saturday afternoon weeping into my lunch with Anna-mouse at my knee, handing me storybooks she thought might cheer me up.

This won't do, I thought. And spent the rest of the weekend trying to catch up with myself, which felt a bit like trying to catch up with the day after the clocks went forward last night - something which always confuses me.

It never sits easily with me that on something close to a whim, on a certain Saturday night in March each year we set our clocks one hour forward, and on a certain Saturday night each October we set them one hour back. 'Spring forward, Fall back' is the neat little phrase someone taught me long ago for remembering which hour went where, and when.

This weekend - whose principal theme has been 'To Chemo or Not to Chemo, that is the question' - I've been doing the same. Trying to spring forward to embrace a thoroughly unembraceable idea, and finding myself falling back in a heap. It's not a conversation anyone would want to have, let alone with their fierce, proud, beautiful mother.

And yet there Esme and I were (oh, once we'd been along to the Hospital Walk-In Centre in the drizzling rain to have a rogue staple removed from her navel which had managed to get itself overlooked) sitting together in front of her fire, as we've sat together so often in the past, discussing the unthinkable. I would hope never to go to the place of that discussion again, although even as I write I know I'm fantasising, because I will accompany Esme to her second oncology appointment next Friday. It was uneasy also because she and I did not entirely agree on her choice of proposed treatment, of which there are two: Really Horrendous and Slightly Less Horrendous (but still horrendous). Esme being Esme, she wants to go for the full shebang.

Perhaps it is good to be reminded, by these sharp moments, how very, very different each one of us is. How our body belongs to no-one but ourselves. How the way in which we choose to live our life, and ultimately the manner of our death, is a deeply personal affair.

And if I can only get this damn heart of mine to catch up with my head, I may be of some use to my mother in helping to ensure that this is so for her, too.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Man, Fish, Life

I knew that I would have to return to the man with the fish on his head.

I took Anna-mouse on an epic pilgrimage to visit Esme in her final week's stay at Denville Hall. My head knew that the journey (complete with pushchair, rucksack, assorted related toddler-paraphernalia essential to small person's well-being on long, fiddly journey with no easy changes) was a ridiculous one to make with one so small, but my heart knew that Esme needed to see her grandchild.

After lunch we made the same, slow perambulation around the grounds' perimeter as before, me finding myself frequently moved by the easy, gentle chatter between Rather Young Person holding Rather Old Person's hand.

Come on, I urge Anna-mouse, let's go and see the man with the fish on his head!

I find I have thought much about the man since I first saw him a couple of weeks ago. He has grown on me. The whole idea has grown on me. The idea that I have no idea why he has a fish on his head has grown on me. I've thrown out needing to understand and accepted the art for its own sake, and because the image, and the phrase, smack of the absurd.

I do not know the artist's name, though I have vowed to make enquiries and make it known here. There appears to be no plaque, inscription or signature. But we do know a little more about him. It turns out that the man with the fish on his head is there among the pine cones in memoriam to Michael Bryant, a truly fine character actor of the old school who died not so very long ago.

The odd thing is, I have worked with Michael Bryant. He passed on a wonderful piece of advice to me. It was the morning of our First Night, and we were having a last-minute rehearsal. Michael found myself and another young actor pacing the corridors and generally fizzing with First Night nerves.

What's wrong? he asked as he passed.

We told him we were petrified, nervous as hell, didn't want to make fools of ourselves.

He told us First Night nerves were an indulgence: it shouldn't be anything to do with ourselves.

You're here to serve the playwright, he said. It's not about you. It's about the play. That's what you're here for.

I think of this as I lift Anna-mouse up to trace the fish man's face. Lips, eyebrows, nose...she says the words clearly, slowly as she touches each feature with her small fingers. It is, of course, no surprise to Anna-mouse that there are statues of men with fish on their heads. To her, it is as quotidian as the day is long.

I remember him well, too, Esme pipes up: He kissed me in a taxi when I was sixteen.

You never told me that! I cry. Did you talk about it when you met again at my show?

Oh no I'm sure he wouldn't remember, says Esme, believing herself.

Oh I'm quite sure he would! I think, but say nothing.

Earlier today, I find myself pondering the man and his fish again. Esme is home now, we 'sprung' her on Monday, and on Tuesday we discovered that chemotherapy is her next cross to bear. Think of it as insurance, the soft-spoken consultant said.

Right now, my own insurance against the vagaries of life is buried deep somewhere in the happy knowledge of the man with a fish on his head. At this tired moment, he sums up for me both life's greatness and its absurdity.

And d'you know what? I love it. I love it: man, fish, life.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Shaggy Blog Stories

He did it! Mike Atkinson of Troubled Diva has compiled a book of Shaggy Blog Stories - amusing tales from the UK Blogosphere - in exactly 7 days. It went on sale at midnight.

To buy a copy, in aid of Comic Relief's Red Nose Day appeal, click the title link above and you'll be taken directly to the publisher's page - - who have agreed to donate all their profits to Comic Relief, too.

I love a great achievement like this, born of one individual's imagination, and propelled into being by energy, adrenalin and caffeine.

Now all he needs is for people to buy the thing, and we'll all be laughing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bus Stop

Yesterday was March 12th. I like March the Twelfths. This is why:

It was cold. It was nowhere near the Springtime I'd left behind in London. Cork city looked different to the city I was used to - greyer, for one thing; smaller, for another. But when the taxi man drove me from the airport to the city centre the day before, something about the river, and the painted houses lining it, gladdened my heart.

I remember the sun cutting across the water, and the Virgin Mary in her niche above the church doors as we crossed Christy Ring bridge up to the North side.

Salt of the earth, the Northsiders, the taxi-man said. Rough on the outside, but hearts of gold. A Northsider would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, he said (or at least, that's what I think he said: it was a nervy game of guesswork and intuition with the accent, in those days).

I was in Ireland on placement for two weeks only. Acting was failing me, and I it, so I'd taken a year out to re-train. Community dance. Exhausting, exhilarating. A turning point. (When they said It's placement time: where do you want to go? I said Ireland, without thinking. Everyone thought it odd but I insisted, I wasn't sure why).

The next morning, I was back on the North side again, trying out my teaching skills at an all-girls Catholic secondary. Coming out of the school mid-morning, after a staggeringly misjudged lesson on my part, I asked three yellow-jacketed workmen where the nearest bus-stop back to the city centre was. There was in fact a stop nearby, but they mistakenly directed me away down the hill, quite some walk, to a stop where a tall, sturdy young man was waiting a few yards away from the stop itself. I was two weeks off my 40th birthday, and very, very alone.

We waited apart for a little while and then the man sauntered over. Excuse me, I said, sounding terribly, terribly English, is this the bus stop for Cork?

He thought it secretly hilarious that I was asking for a stop to the county. I should have said Cork City, apparently. But it was the opening this shy boy had been waiting for. He was off, talking about this, that and everything - approximately one third of which I actually understood. But he was funny, and made the 20 minute wait for the number three bus fly by.

When it came we sat together. We talked easily all the way, but when we arrived he said a hurried goodbye, and rushed off the bus. I thought little of it, I was simply glad of a little company. Told a couple of people what a great chat I'd had. The Irish are so friendly! I said.

Five days later - St Patrick's Day - I went to watch the parade going by. It was cold and wet and I had noone to spend the Bank Holiday with. I went into the HMV store to shelter from the rain and found a spot in the window. And there I was, immobile, lost in thought, wishing the reason I'd insisted upon Ireland for my placement would reveal itself, when it did. The same young man walked by, looked up and saw me.

I heard him behind me before I saw him. Livvy, isn't it? he said.

And that, my friends, is how I met the Bim.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Bit of Comic Relief

The ever-pertinent Petite Anglaise has brought to my attention a Big Idea.

Mike of Troubled Diva is going to compile a book of funny British blog posts in the space of - wait for it - 7 days. He is compiling, editing and publishing them in that time, and all in the very wonderful cause of Comic Relief's Red Nose Day.

(For those who do not live in our showery climes, Red Nose Day happens here one day a year. Lots of comedians/ennes, aided by lots of members of the public, do extraordinarily funny, silly or embarrassing things to raise lots of money for people who are in great need, both here in the UK and in Africa).

Absolutely latest closing deadline for submissions is 6pm, next Wednesday 14th March. So if anyone is sitting on a whoopy cushion of an archive - this is your moment.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Spring Snapshot

Esme is resting on the bed when I arrive, the sun just brushing her toes.

The room is filled with flowers, many of them spring flowers; colourful tokens of sent love.

It is nice to have her to myself for a while. Because I am chief Visit Monitor, I know how many visitors are coming and plan to come. Only my brother is due later on this afternoon, but that will be a welcome doubling.

She suggests we take a stroll round the grounds before the sun goes down. We move in half-time, in tandem, her arm in mine. I fret about helping too much, then fret about helping too little. Then I throw her a glance and realise I should stop worrying. She is fine. She is enjoying the rare, clear Spring air.

It is exceptionally clear. It is as though the air were our thoughts, and we the air. Behind the Hall there is a field, bordered by trees, and through these trees a low, sharp March sun catches us as we walk the boundary path. We think we spot the Dementia Care wing through some bamboo fencing. Ah, said my father when he heard about it, that must be the saddest place in the world. But any wing of any Home is sad, in part. Even a Home full of retired thespians is a place where people have begun a process of exile from life. Esme's exile is self-chosen, and temporary, in order to return to life's fray.

We pause to sit on a bench before the round, sculpted head of a man with a fish on his head. Esme, who has studied art for years, says I like it. I, who love art but need to glean meaning in it, see only a man with a fish on his head, and say Mmmm. I make a mental note to ask someone about its meaning.

I hold one of my mother's hands. The skin is soft and translucent. Her hands seem slighter than they once did.

It's a strange time, you know, Liv, she says.

On the path back, she spots a pine cone and asks me to pick it up for her. I know that she will take it back to her room and put it in a special place, to look at, as she has done all her life with natural things - sea shells, pebbles, particularly beautiful leaves. I cast around looking for another.

What are you doing? she asks. I tell her.

No, just one, she says firmly. One is enough.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Exit Stage Left, Enter Stage Right

To Esme's delight, and everyone's astonishment, she was discharged from hospital this morning at 9am.

Eight hours later, following numerous visits by numerous nurses offering similar, sound advice; urgent phone calls to and from Denville Hall; a lesson in Not Mixing Drugs Up from the lovely Polish Staff nurse; and a lengthy, heartfelt blessing from Gloria, the evangelical black woman in the next bed (her plaster cast bore several Biblical references, and was signed by just about everybody short of God) - after all this, we get her out of the hospital.

It's a rainy, ordinary Monday night rush hour. In the car, though - my sister Hope and dear friend Tara, driving, in front, and myself and Esme under a tartan rug in the back - we are in high spirits. I hear Esme describe herself as 'euphoric' to a friend over the 'phone, and I know it's not just the drugs: we all are. This last weekend we've all shared a little handshake with death before running, giggling, out of the room. Heady stuff indeed.

After about an hour, and getting lost just a little, we find Denville Hall. We all fall in love. There is a large, older house and a modern wing seamlessly attached to it. The windows are glowing. It looks kind and warm. We find that it is.

A blonde, bustling woman in her fifties takes us up to Esme's room. As we near the lift, a small group of ageing actors drift out of the dining room and glide right by us.

Ah, now I know you, says Esme to a small woman with beady eyes. But I can't remember her name, she mutters to me, as if we were for all the world at one of the many First Nights we've attended together over the years. The two of them exchange smiles and give one another equally royal little waves.

I watch with love as Esme walks unaided, slowly and proudly, into the waiting lift. I feel a piece of the tension in my back, lodged like ice between my shoulder blades for weeks now, begin to slide towards the floor. For the first night in a long while I know I won't be worrying about my mother.

Esme is among her own.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Not This Weekend

So there she was in Critical Care, a few hours after the biggest operation of her life. They made three incisions: two astonishingly small, and one bigger one, to get the tumour out.

The nursing is one-to-one in the Critical Care unit; they take people there after the Recovery Room, when they're not well enough to go back to the Ward. Some people never do go back, I guess.

Esme's blood pressure is up and her right eye won't open after both her eyes were taped down for the op. (God knows why they tape them down - it's an awfully long way from the bowel, to my way of thinking - but hey, it was keyhole surgery and I'm in awe here, not complaining).

A woman visiting the patient in the next bay calls over Dava, Esme's feisty, energetic Australian nurse. There's some urgent whispering. Dava returns to Esme; the woman knows she has seen Esme a thousand times on television, but can't remember Esme's name. Could Dava please find out and tell her? Dava politely declines on grounds of hospital confidentiality, but Esme decides Dava can tell the woman her stage name, as it is different from the name on her hospital records.

Moments later, the woman appears at the end of Esme's bed. She just wants to say how very much she has enjoyed Esme's performances - and what was it she last saw her in again?

Esme squints at the woman through her one good eye. Having had nothing to eat or drink for more than twenty-four hours her voice is little more than a whisper, but she manages to name her latest show. The woman goes back to the very sick person she's supposed to be visiting in the adjoining bay.

Dava is called away to do something, and next thing Esme knows the woman is back, holding a notebook and pen. There are tubes protruding from both of Esme's hands. She has two drips, a drainage line for the blood seeping from her wounds, a catheter and an oxygen tube in both nostrils. Her gummy eye is weeping. The good eye glares in disbelief.

The woman obviously doesn't quite catch it.

Can you write? the woman asks.

Yes, croaks Esme. A pause. The woman opens the book for an autograph.

But I'm not going to, Esme says.

A day later, back in the Ward, she tells the story again, to each of her increasing number of visitors. I am perched on the bed, listening silently, joyfully, for the second or third time. It's going to become one of those legendary family stories, I can tell, better with each telling. My mother at death's door, stalked by an autograph hunter in intensive care.

I don't mind. I'm aware only of an intense sense of relief. Regular rushes of gratitude sweep through me. She's alive. She's recovering. She's not going to die. Not this weekend.