Vive la France

The night we arrived in France I started my period. I hadn’t had many before, I wasn’t clued in to the warning signs. My knickers were stained with blood despite the wadges of toilet paper I had stuffed inside. My exchange partner was a boy. There was no way I could explain to him what was going on, and when we got to his house, I declined dinner and went straight upstairs to my room. Once there I changed my clothes, but I had no pads and I burst into tears with the stress of it all. The mum asked me if I wanted to call home. They couldn’t figure out why I was so distraught and I didn’t have the words to tell them, or any inclination to share my stained underwear.

The next day we went ice-skating. I awkwardly hugged the edge of the rink, the gigantic sanitary towel I had found in the bathroom cabinet lodged between my thighs as though I was riding a thoroughbred. Then I saw the most beautiful boy. His hair was dark and glossy and flopped over his tanned forehead. He wore a rollneck sweater – they all did – and blue denim jeans. His skin was clear of teenage acne, but it was his eyes that compelled me across the ice. They were a light aquamarine, a pool I wanted to dive into and never come up again.

I’ve no idea now how I summoned the nerve or found the words, but within minutes we were kissing and we spent the rest of the hour at the rink together, pressed up against the damp wall or skating round holding hands. He skated backwards, his fingers linked with mine, our eyes locked together. My exchange partner, Davide, seemed sour. My new love was his cousin, and so we saw each other again during the holiday, but never repeated our passionate embraces. Patrick gave me a ring before I left, a light tinny circle indented with stars.

I wore it on my thumb and for many years it was like a talisman, a sign that good things had happened to me. I had been the girl who kissed the boy.

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Why do I leave it so late?

The sunlight cuts through the room like it’s slicing the air. I see the shimmering motes and in my half-asleep state I’m a child again, my mum telling me that those tiny specks of glittering dust are fairies dancing. “Not just my poor housekeeping,” she’d say, conspiratorially. I keep looking, cracking my eyes no more than a couple of millimetres, the veins and arteries  making dark wriggling worms inside my lids. This shining golden light of early morning feels so beautiful, peaceful. No one else is awake. I want to keep the spell unbroken. And, as though I am a child again, I make a wish. “Let me wake up. Let this all have been just a horrible dream.”

As the room dims I realise I’ve been holding my breath. The sun has gone behind a cloud. I’m no longer gazing at fairies, just dirt. Tattered curtains hang wearily and the cardboard taped to the windows has started to peel away. I roll onto my side and the sleeping bag I am in exhales a puff of stale air, like a last gasp from a corpse. I can smell myself and I don’t smell good. A can crunches under my body and my elbow knocks clinking bottles, glass skittles from last night’s mammoth session. And as I wake, I feel the itch kick in almost instantly. I look for my kit. The spoon, the needle, the bag of powder. It’s still here. My wish has not come true.

Flexing that muscle

The garden is longer than it is wide, with a path running up the right hand side. A weeping willow fills most of the left hand fence, the branches dangling down, tempting the children to Tarzan swing and maypole dance. It is gone four o’clock, already most of the grass is in shadow, but there is a small dappled place under the apple tree where Julie spreads out the blanket.

The blanket is a small orange rectangle. Moggy and bobbled, it has gone through two of her children already and was handed down even before that, but it is cosy and warm and that’s what matters.

She reaches into the black shell of the car seat and lifts out her baby daughter, who is curled and rounded like a pudgy kitten, her shock of dark hair soft and fluffy. She looks like a baby Elvis, with her spikey quiff and sideburns, as well as a cleft in her chin, a dimple, which some say is lucky.

The baby lies on her back, happily gazing up at the sky and curving round to grab hold of the toes of her babygro. She has only recently discovered her feet and crows with satisfaction as she caterpillars her way off the edge of the blanket. Her tummy muscles are not quite strong enough for her to make it onto her front, so she lies casually on one side, fixing the dog with a stern stare as he wanders past.

He gives her face a sly lick and settles on the blanket next to her. Clearly this has been laid out for him. His coat is white, black and tan. His ears and tail are down but they prick at the slightest twitch or ruffle in the trees around. He is the guardian of this patch. He knows what he has to do to protect this space and all the people in it. At the moment this little blob presents no annoyance to him, but it won’t be long before she is grabbing handfuls of ear and tail. He has seen it all before and will suffer it again with goodwill and patience.

Flowers in her blood

My friend Alice has flowers in her blood. Apparently, those flowers could be the key to everything. She explained that to me to today, as she described her shittily rapid descent into having cancer, and the slow clawing back that she is currently undertaking.

Sitting at my kitchen table, as she talked me through how a new experimental vaccination will help, I was transported back twenty years to when we first became friends at Sixth Form. I admit it, part of the reason I sought her out then was because I knew she’d be able to prop me up as I flailed through my Social Biology A Level, and that she did, explaining mitrochondrial powerhouses and veins versus arteries. I also became her friend because she was strong, independent and funny. There was no messing with Alice.

But cancer is now messing with her. Today she told me that this is one of the most surprising parts of being ill. As a clinical psychologist she is qualified to be kind, caring and understanding as she helps people to solve their problems. She has been taught how to do these things – she has the bits of paper that tell her she is good at doing these things, and yet here she is, forced to rely on her friends, family and partner to be kind. She doesn’t trust us amateurs to do it right. And it’s true, I feel as clumsy as a bear in oven gloves as I probe indelicately, trying to understand how she is feeling, so that I can empathise and repair and support.

But before we got to that bit, good old Alice listened to me as I blethered and burbled my way through the inane and tiresome occurences in my life. Recently I have been suffering from ‘the jealousy babs’. I’ve felt sulky and brattish and quite desperately disconcerted by where I find myself. I’ve been comparing my results with others and feeling I was coming up short. But being with Alice gave me the slap round the face I needed. Not from her, but from myself. Because Alice has been given a time limit. Where in my selfishness I tell myself that this stage of my life is temporary, just a thing I’m doing for a while, for Alice this stage might be the only stage.

As she accompanied me on Dull Mission of the Day (collect white clothes and bread products from As-dah) I wondered just how she is going to get through the next few years. Alice’s cancer started in her eye. One day the world just folded in half. A flipped up cinema seat, her retina was pushed forward by the mass of cells behind, within weeks her eyeball had been removed. The trouble with the eye, though, is that is connected to all those blood vessels, those pipes and rivers and streams flowing round the body. It took months to find out whether any of the cells had escaped, punted off downriver to take up residence elsewhere.

She was finally given the all-clear a few weeks ago, nearly ten months after she first went to the opticians, and as a result was given the go ahead to take part in a trial in Holland. She is one of 20 people worldwide who have had their blood removed, drip by drip, spun and examined for sticky flowers, and then drip by drip fed back in again. A vaccination is being made from the blood that’s been removed and this will be injected back into Alice’s body once a special crime-busting protein has been added.

The thing that pleased me most today

The thing that pleased me most today:

There is a small hole next to the waste water pipe. In the mouth of the hole is a piece of concrete, about the size and shape of a pumice stone. It balances there, strategically blocking the entrance to a tiny cave, a cavity in the wall of our house, caused by the removal of an outside tap. Why someone thought that we would no longer have any need for such a convenience is by the by, for the hole is now home to a family of great tits.

Because it is directly positioned under the kitchen window, I lose count of the number of times in a day I see the adult birds diving with red arrow precision through this tiny hole. After they departed the nest last summer, I considered moving the precariously balanced piece of cement, but decided against it. They have no trouble getting in and out and it means that the nest is safe from the prying beaks of strutting magpies and the dabbing paws of cats or foxes.

This morning one of the tits paused in his journey between apple tree and nest, perching casually on the rose bush just outside my window. A small grub was visible in his beak. I felt so pleased that he was able to keep his little family safe inside my wall. I like to go and stand in the garden, tentatively creeping nearer without damaging my flourishing rhubarb and emerging sweet peas and listen to the meep meep meep of the chicks in the nest.