I used to be able to swim a whole 25 metres underwater on only one breath. Took a bit of training over one summer in the south of France in a wonderful municipal pool. I’d swim a kilometre (that’s forty lengths) every evening and at one point I challenged myself to do a whole length underwater.

At first I’d take a deep breath, push off and after four strokes or so, I’d panic that I was running out of air and come back up to the surface. Gradually I got fitter and learned that I could do the whole thirteen strokes on one breath. When I had the confidence to slow right down, I seemed to flow with the water.

I’m resurfacing now, after a period of exhaustion, in that same panic at not having enough air in my lungs. I’m certainly not as fit as I was then, but the lesson is the same.

Slow down and take a deep breath.


Days like these

One  of the many infuriating things about serious illness is the lack of control over stuff you used to take for granted. Like how you will feel day to day. Mornings are never great; no more leaping out of bed to greet the new day, though if I’m perfectly honest it was never one of my best times.

I have good days and bad days, my illness has a good cop bad cop personality. On good days I can get one or two things done, eat well, go for a decent walk, read etc. Bad days are a huge effort of will to accomplish very much at all.

And then there are the ‘days like these’ when lifting my head from the pillow is like an Olympic sport. I get up and eat (have made sure I have a plentiful supply of the basics), make sure I have plenty of water and then mostly sleep and listen to the radio. This last week I’ve had four days when I’ve slept more than eighteen hours and not an ‘I quite fancy a nap’ sleep, but ‘if I don’t lie down, I’ll fall down.’ On those days I don’t go out for the paper, don’t get dressed, or even shower, just hunker down and wait for the next day.

It feels as though the days like these are a life sentence, but they do pass. I don’t exactly bounce back, but I have the energy to shower and go out.

And the upside is everyone tells me how well and rested I look.






Near death experience

I was due a visit to Mum in her nursing home and it coincided with her getting a very nasty infection, which left her burbling nonsense in French and very confused. She’d only just got over the vomiting virus which laid her (and me) low for a couple of weeks, so her immune system has taken a battering.

By the Wednesday, I was worried that she was going to die, so called in the parish priest to anoint her (give her the last rites). She kept her eyes closed but nodded at the prayers and even opened them to say the Notre Pere and receive Communion. She had a beatific smile all the way through.

It reminded me of being anointed in intensive care; I had the shorter version as I was knocking hard on the doors of eternity, but I remember it as being immensely comforting and a general feeling of ‘being ready to go’.

Thankfully the antibiotics kicked in with Mum and I realised she was getting better when helping her to eat a cheese sandwich, she refused the crusts. She’s never liked crusts.

A couple of days later, she was well enough for me to come home. I needed the rest; it took me a couple of days in bed to recover any bounce. I just don’t have the resilience I used to.

So Maman lives to eat custard another day.

Life as a rollercoaster

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks since my birthday, both very good and very bad. Not had the time or the energy to blog.

First week was taken up with a delightful few days in Northumberland with an old pal and his dog Eddie. We found a hotel that was both stick and dog friendly and it proved to be perfect. Just an odd breakfast arrangement – as soon as we arrived cold white and brown toast was plonked on the table. We ordered our breakfast which arrived almost immediately, as we were still eating our cereal. The young man stood there looking puzzled, so to put him out of his misery we let him put the plates down. Next morning we asked if we could have the (hot and wholemeal) toast with our cooked food, after we’d finished the cereal. Her politely agreed, giving us that “weird customer” look.

Northumberland is beautiful and we had glorious weather, while the rest of the country was under torrential rain. We relaxed, walked along the river, saw a kingfisher and a seal and had multiple cups of coffee in perfect cafes. Brilliant seafood on the quay at Amble, with the setting sun and diving swifts and cormorants.

And no visit to Northumberland would be complete without a visit to Barter Books in Alnwick . It used to be the railway station; the names of all who worked there from the nineteenth century onwards are inscribed on the wall. Now it’s the most wonderful second hand  bookshop, complete with cafe. The choice of books is astonishing, everything from ferrets to fountains as well as comprehensive fiction.

It’s also the originator of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ poster. Something that would come in very useful in the following weeks.


Great expectations (2)

It’s my birthday today and it has been a wonderful day. Got up and had breakfast and went back to sleep for a couple of hours before heading off for a massage. I go there regularly  and today had someone I’d not had before, a small delicate looking man. Turned out he had fingers made of steel and found every knot and twist in my shoulders and spine. I was so entranced that he had to say ‘hello’ twice to bring me back again.

Then a quick trip to a bookshop – emerging with only one book which is a record. Followed by a trip to a local cake shop for a blueberry brioche with the crossword. Looking forward to doing a bit of writing with a new gel pen and book a friend kindly gave me.

So a pretty much perfect day.

The odd thing is most people feel the need to ‘celebrate’ and if they know it’s my birthday, seem to think I should be doing more. Maybe involving balloons. So they ask me what I’m going to do. I find it easier to lie these days – meeting friends, going out later etc.

The real answer that I’m delighted to spend a whole day in my own company, thinking about the year that’s gone and the year ahead, seems to mystify many people.

One of the advantages of serious illness is that it allows you to do away with conventional manners. Just move along, nothing to see here but someone enjoying herself.

Great expectations

So I’ve finally given in and got a cleaner – it’s getting too hard to cope with cleaning  the flat myself, I can’t bend easily, my energy levels are low and I look at the carpet and think ‘time for another sleep’.  This after much wrestling with my feminist principles as I’ve never really approved of paying another woman to clean up after me.

But another few steps on the slippery slope of serious illness prove to be unexpectedly hilarious. My lovely elderly neighbour recently died and her housekeeper still looks after the place and regularly knocks on my door as she doesn’t like going into the room the neighbour died in. So we sit and chat, have a coffee and one day I asked her if she knew anyone who might want to do some cleaning for me. She volunteered immediately and as we’ve known each other for decades it seemed a great idea.

She turned up on yesterday like a whirling dervish of hygiene. Thought my hoover wasn’t right or my cleaning products come to that. I’d cleared up a bit and cleaned the bathroom and kitchen before she arrived and also shut the door to my office in case it frightened her.

She wasn’t impressed at all with my cleaning and tidying, ‘you can’t live like this, it’s not good for you’ she said,  in the tone of someone who needs urgent medical intervention. ‘I’ll come back for an emergency kitchen clean on Saturday before my holidays’. She’d been cleaning the kitchen for an hour, all surfaces now gleaming in a slightly menacing way.

I’ve been shopping for the missing cleaning ingredients, opening up a whole new vista of expectations.

‘We must tackle the papers too’ she says of the very small pile on my sofa. Door to the office will remain firmly closed.


Live music

Spent last night at a jazz gig in a local restaurant and it reminded me yet again how live music reaches parts of one that recorded music just doesn’t hit. The band were great musicians but also funny and clearly having as great a time as we were.

While they were playing I started thinking about the other live gigs I’ve been too and they all made me smile. My first was actually a pantomime in which Cliff Richard was appearing. My long suffering grandfather took me and my sister and also a roll of cotton wool which he stuffed in his ears for the musical interludes, leaving the excess hanging down to protest at the loudness of the music. But it had a weird Christmassy feel to it as well.

Then as a young teenager I went with some schoolfriends to see the Four Tops. Magical evening, full of style and yes we did stand on the seats and sing and scream.

During my year abroad in France, I was introduced to the revolutionary singer Francois Beranger, whose hard left politics perfectly suited the times, even if the evening did leave your ears ringing. We knew all the words to all the songs and sang them defiantly, each song dedicated to yet another oppressed group in a different part of the world. I still find myself singing his songs sometimes. Just googled him and discovered that he died some years ago and would be eighty now. How is that possible?

Living in Paris meant lots of gigs; we had to leave Ian Dury’s evening for fear of hearing loss but Elton John was in his extravagant phase and an extraordinary live performer.

Van Morrison, Bob Dylan both thrilled, the Gypsy Kings were marvellous at the Albert Hall. I was in a wheelchair with a broken leg and got in for free, with my mother as a carer. We were practically on the stage with a nurse in attendance throughout the performance.

Some years ago I took Mum to hear one of her favourite singers, Juliette Greco. She came on stage, her voice no longer as strong as it was but we didn’t care. Just to be in her presence while she performed her magic was enough. She loved us as much as we loved her.

The Nice jazz festival was always a favourite, the big names but also the old men and women on crutches or barely able to walk. But put an instrument in their hands and they were transformed, as were the audience, to a different time and place which pulled the heartstrings. Listen to this sax and understand how painful life can be. But we still carry on, because we have the music.

Musicals too – Mamma Mia, Motown had us singing and dancing in the aisles.

And then there were the ones that got away – Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen, Mahalia Jackson. You can see their live performances on youtube and get a flavour, but you don’t have the same connection.

Last night I realised too that the live musicians need us as much as we need them; the music is the bond that makes us all feel alive.