Thursday, 29 April 2010

On guard.

Houston, we have a problem. I’ve got cocky. Not in a peacock-feather, thinking-highly-of-myself way, but cocky with cancer. And I can’t believe I’ve let it happen.

Yesterday I wasted an entire day getting wound up about when I was going to wash my hair. It was one of those not-enough-hours days when even having a piss needs to be scheduled, and where you huff about typing angrily, kicking skirting boards and slamming doors like Kevin The Teenager. Not that I need a busy day as an excuse to pout about having to wash my hair, mind you; frankly I sulk like a good’un whenever it needs doing. Which, when you think about my recent hair-history, is beyond ridiculous. Apparently, without realising it, I’ve gone from longing for a head of greasy hair to wash, to wishing I didn’t need to reach for the shampoo. And it’s bloody dangerous ground to tread.

The same happened with my MRI scan recently.
‘It won’t be pleasant,’ warned The Curly Professor.
‘Bah, I’ve known worse,’ I said blithely, more concerned about the MRI information sheet that read: You might want to bring a tape to listen to during the scan. ‘Marvellous,’ I thought. ‘Looks like I’ll be having my scan in 1985.’
Even when I arrived at the reception desk, I was more interested in the playlist on offer than the procedure itself.
‘Perhaps you’d like to choose some music to listen to during the scan,’ suggested the nurse.
‘Ah, yes!’ I chirped. ‘Can I give you my iPod to play, then?’
‘Um, no,’ she said. ‘We don’t have the facilities. But I do have a list of our music if you’d like to pick something?’
She pointed to a laminated card on which I saw the words Wet Wet Wet and Phil Collins.
‘Jeez,’ I thought, squinting at the list, ‘perhaps I was right about 1985.’
‘Tell you what,’ I conceded, handing it back with a wink. ‘I’ll leave the music up to you.’

Aside from the MRI doing nothing to assuage my hatred of ABBA, it should also have served as the first warning of my cancer-cockiness. Much like the time I headed to the hospital to get my initial biopsy results, I yet again showed up more concerned with what I was going to have for my tea than the appointment ahead. I hadn’t even nearly considered the possibility of spending the rest of the day in tears, just like I hadn’t considered the possibility of telling my family that I had breast cancer. When the bloody hell will I learn?

The MRI was like being regressed. (If, indeed, regression is usually done to the sound of Chiquitita.) Because, while the scan itself was new enough to me, the preamble was eerily familiar. ‘This might make you feel a bit fizzy in the nose,’ warned the nurse as she flushed my cannula, finally relaxed after spending 20 minutes coaxing out the same vein that was used to administer my chemo drugs.
‘Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck,’ I chanted to myself, my brain scrambled with ways to stop the inevitable, like trying to stifle a sneeze. But before I could find a solution, there it was: that uncomfortable, detergent-like feeling (I still can’t decide whether it’s a taste, smell or merely a sensation) that marked the beginning of chemo every third Friday. The same feeling that’s left me with a lightning-fast impulse to retch every time I smell even the tiniest hint of bleach, mildew remover or car windscreen cleaner. And the very moment it hit, I damn near puked all over the nurse’s apron. It was a horrible, unwanted reminder of what could potentially be around the corner, like being visited by The Ghost of Chemos Past.

But despite that warning, I dare say I’ve even got a bit cocky about the results. I saw Mr Marbles again recently to talk, among other things, about my inability to wait for test outcomes without stabbing tube commuters/tripping up pensioners/strangling small children, and he sent me off on my way with a few coping strategies to see me through. But so far I’ve only had to use one. 

‘Perhaps I’ve just become so strong from dealing with The Bullshit that not even the anguish of waiting for test results can get to me any more,’ I reasoned to myself. It’s the same kind of logic I used to employ as a child, when I’d regularly convince myself that perhaps I had the ability to predict the future, was able to fly or possessed a superhuman pain threshold. But of course none of those things is true. (Or is it…?) I can’t take to the air any more than I can go twenty minutes without wondering what my MRI results will be. But I still reckon that – so far, at least – I’ve dealt with it better than I had expected.

I’m glad I’ve picked up on the cocky signals, though. Because, glorious as that '80s-playlist-concerned, personal-hygiene-shirking interlude may have been, I don’t want to spend too much time with my guard down. I’d rather remain optimistic of receiving clear scan results but equally prepared for the worst. And I can’t do that while I’m brazenly swaggering through life as though The Bullshit never happened. Hell, I’ve spent long enough evangelising that a cancer diagnosis is a change for life (not just for Christmas) that it’s time I took my own advice.

I suppose it’s just a natural reflex, really; not wanting to be caught unawares by The Bullshit. It’s a defence thing. After all, we each have rehearsed routines when it comes to our insecurities, right? Whether you’re ‘trying to grow an extra layer for the winter’ when you’ve gained weight, ‘still auditioning for the part’ when you remain single, or ‘waiting til Clooney’s off the market’ when your boyfriend won’t propose, we’re all guilty of making excuses for our anxieties. And none more so than the girl who’s spent the last year telling everyone how much she likes having short hair, when in fact she’s only keeping it cropped to avoid tempting fate. And, um, lengthy shampooing.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

After the party.

‘I’ve been tricked into reading a Mills & Boon,’ said my mate Eoin in a text earlier today. ‘This book of yours is a love story about you and P.’ Without wanting to blow my own horn (actually, sod that; I’d happily toot the Trumpet Voluntary when it comes to my marriage) it’s not the first time I’ve heard it said. (Mind you, Eoin is the first bloke to have pointed it out, the big soft sod.) And to me, hearing my book called a love story is as much of a compliment as people saying they’ve enjoyed my writing.

I’ve been asked about P a lot in the interviews and conversations I’ve had since The C-Word launched, and rightly so – because as well as the lead male in my life, he’s also the lead male in my book. People have asked whether The Bullshit has made us stronger (I don’t think so; we were an impressively tight team in the first place), whether I’d have been able to do it all without him (yes, but purely because I’d have had no other choice) and what it is about me and P that works so well. That last question is a tougher one to answer. It’s like trying to pinpoint why Brian Clough and Peter Taylor made the perfect double-act, or why Lennon and McCartney were so prolific (yep – that is the high regard in which I hold my relationship). In truth, though, I am aware of at least one secret of our success: P has a rather brilliant way of telling me to shut the fuck up.

Now, I can be a bit of a bolshy cow at times. And generally, when there’s something niggling away in my mind, it tends to manifest itself in narkiness towards P before it actually makes its way out of my mouth in a more dignified fashion. Like before chemo, when I’d yawp at him for the way he read the newspaper, or prior to my last surgery, when I chewed at him for the way he shut the blinds. In fact, I was doing it even before I could use The Bullshit as an excuse – and never better than on the day after our wedding.

The morning following our nuptials was fine – lovely, in fact. Hand in hand, we headed down from the bridal suite as man and wife for a gorgeous breakfast, met by well wishes and knowing winks from our guests. (Little did they know, the bride had ruined the need for her sexy Rigby & Peller ensemble with a series of tequila shots bought by the groom’s mates. The way I see it, if you’re sober enough to consummate your marriage that night, you’ve not had enough fun at the wedding.) Later that day, we packed everyone off with a cupcake and a kiss and stayed at our beautiful venue for one more night with the plan of having a romantic evening in, drinking champagne in our Jacuzzi bath and reminiscing about The Best Day Of Our Lives over a lovely dinner. Only it didn’t quite work out like that. Because I, for reasons known only to myself, spoiled it by throwing an almighty strop.

It was a combination of factors (your honour). Brides of the future, be warned: the day after your wedding is one helluva comedown. The depressant qualities of booze play their part, I imagine. And there is, I suppose, an argument for brides not drinking whatever is thrust into their hand throughout the day. In reality, though, P and I were at the best party we’d ever been to, and we were damn well going to enjoy it as much as everyone else there. Then there’s the normal-clothes factor. I don’t care what outfit you’ve chosen to wear the day after your wedding – it could be a diamond-encrusted robe or a Gaga-esque bodysuit – compared to the exquisite gown of the day before, you’ll suddenly feel so ordinary that you might as well be wearing your pyjamas. And of course there’s the lack of sleep. Because however tired I felt after a day so exhaustingly fun that no amount of wedding planning could have prepped me for it, I went to bed so wired that I physically couldn’t shut my eyes. Add that to the simple fact that your wedding is o-v-e-r, and I’ll wager that I’m not the first bride to have thrown her tiara out of the marital bed 24 hours after saying ‘I do’. I’m less likely, however, to put money on all grooms handling it as well as mine did.

How poor P lasted through an afternoon of sporadic cartoon sobbing I’ll never know (perhaps his Blackberry-Googling was for annulment lawyers instead of cricket scores?) but by early evening he cracked. And I can remember the exact whinge that did it.
‘What the bloody hell is up with you, woman?’ he asked, his eyebrows furrowed so low they were practically a moustache.
‘My dress! I’ll never wear my dress again!’ I wailed.
‘Don’t be daft, you can try it on whenever you want.’
‘But I’m not the bride any more!’ I snivelled. ‘Now I’m just a wife with a credit-card bill!’
‘I’ll never be a bride again!’ I spluttered, ignoring his comeback.
‘You bloody will be if you keep this up,’ P barked. His lack of a jovial tone snapped me out of my melodrama with a Derren Brown finger-click, and my snivelling came to an immediate halt.
‘You,’ he shouted, ‘are being a fucking nightmare.’
He was right; I was. And so I stopped. Just like that. No further conversation necessary. No guilts, no soul-searching, no deconstructing, no clipped answers, no funny moods. Just shut up and move on. And I bloody love that about my husband.

It’s a tactic he had to call into play again last Friday night – the evening following The C-Word’s launch – which was funny, given that I’d told my folks over breakfast that it felt suspiciously like the day after mine and P’s wedding. There were undoubtedly parallels – my family were with me, I was wished luck, sent cards, given gifts, there were cupcakes… And it’s fair to say that I’d been looking forward to my book’s launch with almost as much excitement as our wedding. (Hell, The C-Word had been in the planning almost twice as long as our wedding.) And then, of course, there was the day-after comedown played out in front of P. Only this time it wasn’t sobbing that I needed to be told to shut up about, but panicking. Panicking that I’d not spent enough time talking to the friends who made it out to the launch. Panicking that I’d made a gin-fuelled tit of myself in front of my publishers. Panicking that The C-Word’s fanfare would fall flat on its face if it only went on to sell six copies. Panicking that those six people might not respond to it. Panicking about the looming pressure of the Difficult Second Book.

‘You need to pack this in,’ said P, thankfully less forcefully than he’d needed to after our wedding. ‘You need to enjoy it for what it is. Especially given how hard things have been for us over the last couple of years. And now the book’s out there, you need to be grateful for a bit of normality.’ That was the magic word to snap me out of my narkiness: normality.

It wouldn’t have worked the day after our wedding, mind. Sheesh, if P had told me back then to be grateful for a bit of normality, I dare say there’d have been death by bouquet in the bridal suite. But what I didn’t know as that naïve, overemotional bride – but did know as a first-time author – was that the normality that came next would be every bit as glorious as the fanfare that preceded it. And when it comes to a book launch as enjoyable and a wedding as spectacular as ours, that ain’t half saying something. Mills & Boon, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Don’t rain on my parade.

My Dad has become obsessed with my Amazon Sales Rank. Remember how I told you he’d call me every time there was a new comment on here? Well now it’s every time The C-Word moves up (or down, as it goes) in Amazon’s chart.
‘Quick one,’ he’ll say, opening our phonecall.
‘Yes, Dad,’ I’ll say, knowing full well what comes next.
‘What’s happening on Amazon?’
‘With what, Dad?’ I’ll reply, as though there was a possibility he might have been talking about Beverley Callard’s Unbroken or Season One of Glee.
‘Well this morning the book was at 4,357.’
‘And now it’s at 639.’
‘Well that’s brilliant, isn’t it?’
‘Well yes, but don’t get excited. I’m sure it only accounts for, like, 10 books or something.’
‘Oh,’ he’ll say, dejected. ‘But what about the price?’
‘Well this morning it went up from £5.99 to £7.99.’
‘And now it’s back down to £4.99. What’s all that about?’
‘The thing is, Dad, Amazon are pretty much a law unto themselves.’
‘But what does it mean, Lis?’
‘I DON’T KNOW, DAD!’ I’ll snap. ‘I’m trying not to think about it!’
‘Just wondered,’ he’ll chirp, as I cringe beneath the guilt of my short temper.

See, I always expected that my releasing a book would have a strange effect on those dearest to me. Hell, most of them are characters in The C-Word, ferfuckssake, which is a weird enough reality in itself, even aside from all the daughter/sister/friend/wife-as-cancer-patient shizzle. But never could I have imagined that the release of my tome could have the potential to turn my old man into a clone of my Grandad. And not even Grandad as in his Dad, but Grandad as in his father-in-law.  

My Grandad was, it’s fair to say, a card. Actually, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn by saying that he was a bit of a legend round our way, known across Derbyshire not only for his successful stint as a county-cricket secretary, but also for his short temper (what can I say, it’s hereditary) and resolute cantankerousness in his role as a local umpire (AKA The Grumpire). But while those were the things for which my Grandad was mostly famed, I remember him for altogether different reasons. Most notably, his enthusiasm for each tiny thing that me or Jamie ever did. (The same goes for my Nan, of course, but until Dad starts baking ginger biscuits and blushing in the presence of handsome young men, I can’t really make that comparison.)

When Grandad was into something, he was REALLY into something. Every April, he’d dig out his slide rule, graph paper and pencil to calculate exactly how many points Derby County (plus every team within 12 points of them) needed to guarantee safety. Whenever I danced in the local pantomime as a kid – yes, ha ha, I was in pantomimes as a kid (oh no I wasn’t!) – he’d pull out his typewriter to script gloriously biased reviews to send in to the regional paper. And every Sunday morning, come thunderstorm or howling blizzard, he’d be on the sidelines of Jamie’s football games, screeching tactical advice to clueless 11-year-olds and loudly chastising referees for wrongful offsides. Grandad was nothing if not fanatical – but never more than when it came to his grandkids.

And so lately, given The Book Stuff, I’ve spent even more time than usual thinking about my Nan and Grandad (who – thoroughly deservedly – The C-Word is dedicated to). Because, with a grandchild-worshipping history like that, can you imagine what levels of adoration they could have reached with the help of Google, a loose grasp of social networking or a curiosity for Amazon sales ranks? Well yeah, actually, I can – because my old man has demonstrably taken on the mantle. (Again – the same, of course, goes for Mum – ginger biscuits, blushing and all.)

Naturally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And, blimey, I’d be a cold-hearted ruiner of a daughter if I didn’t allow my parents to bask in my good fortune after such a long period of Bullshit-induced shitness. But my occasional clipped tone when met with their enthusiasm can’t be helped. It’s just the sheer weirdness of all of this. My folks might have got their heads around it, but I definitely haven’t. Shit, I’m still getting my head around The Bullshit itself, let alone the book based on The Bullshit.

I’d like to preface this by saying that I am (as anyone following me on Twitter will be shoot-themselves-in-the-head aware) SO FUCKING EXCITED ABOUT HAVING WRITTEN A BOOK THAT I WANT TO BE SICK. But I’ve got to admit that a part of me is still c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e-l-y  f-r-e-a-k-e-d  o-u-t by the reason I’ve been published in the first place. Because, however hard I try to be 100% proud of the book I’ve written, every time I look at that lovely cakey cover, there remains a tiny percentage of niggling association that reminds me of the reality: I have had breast cancer. And that’s not all. I’m also nervous that, by writing a story with a happy ending, I’ve foolishly tempted fate prior to my MRI scan next week. So not only am I petrified about that, I’m utterly pissed off at myself for allowing that terror to tarnish a time when I’ve got so bloody much to grin about.

But if there’s one thing I can do better than most, it’s turn pissed-offness (see – born writer) into kick-ass. I may not have any cancer in my body to fight right now (at least I bloody hope I haven’t) but that doesn’t make this any less of a competition. Because, present as that niggling association of cancer-reality may be, I’ve worked really sodding hard to turn The Bullshit to my advantage – and tomorrow marks the occasion on which I’ve finally cracked it; when I can finally say that despite the shit-bucket I fell into, I’ve come up smelling of roses. And by ’eck, that’s something I want to celebrate – with ten times the enthusiasm of my old man. So if beating The Bullshit one more time is what I have to do to keep it from pissing on the chips of my first book’s release, then that’s a fight I’m willing to take on. And I don’t think you’ll need my Grandad’s slide rule and graph paper to work out who’s more likely to triumph.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Never mind the bollocks.

‘Well, dear, I’m in tears,’ said my great aunt after reading the extract from The C-Word in last weekend’s You magazine. (T-minus seven days to release! Did I mention that all the cool kids pre-order their copies online?)
‘Oh no, don’t cry!’ I pleaded.
‘It just made me realise how many little things there were that neither of us talked about at the time.’ (This aunt, if you recall, is the one who was receiving treatment for a different cancer at the same time as me.)
‘I know,’ I said. ‘And it’s the little details that make you remember it all more acutely.’
‘But it’s a wonderful piece,’ she added. ‘Is that what the book is like, then?’
‘Now there’s a question,’ I thought. ‘Do I pretend my book is in the vein of the squeaky-clean Mail on Sunday extract she’s just read, or do I come clean that it’s more along the lines of Viz?’ I opted for the latter.
‘Well, no, not really,’ I admitted.
‘Oh? How so?’
‘Well, um, let’s just say that the language in the book isn’t exactly Daily Mail appropriate.’
‘Ah. Of course,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry, dear, I’ve warned everyone.’ (Everyone, I assume, meaning her soon-to-be-offended WI friends.)

I had a similar exchange with my 11-year-old niece on Facebook, after she updated her status to read: ‘Just read Auntie Lisa's article in the Mail on Sunday! Her book looks brilliant! I'm gonna make Mummy buy a copy!’
Ooh heck. Time for Auntie Lisa to step in.
‘Aw, that’s ace!’ I commented. ‘I'd better forewarn you about the book though – my language isn't always becoming of a lady…’
‘That’s ok,’ she replied. ‘Mummy is gonna read it before I do to make sure it’s suitable.’
‘Yup. It definitely ain’t,’ I thought.

I chewed over the swearing issue a lot over the weekend as I sat, cerveza in hand, reading my Stephen Fry book in the Spanish sunshine. Would people be offended by the liberal peppering of expletives in my story? Might it detract from people’s enjoyment? Should it come with an 18 certificate or a parental advisory sticker, like a Trainspotting DVD or a Wu-Tang album? And then, like a shining beacon of profanity hurtling excitedly over a well-mannered plain, leapt the following words from the page before me: 'arse-mothering, fuck-nosed, bugger-sucking wank’. Wow.

‘Bollocks,’ I thought. ‘I’ve been out-expletived. Here I was worrying about whether I’d offend readers with the occasional “motherfucker” when all the while I should have been more concerned that my small-fry swearing is positively Watch With Mother when compared with “arse-mothering, fuck-nosed, bugger-sucking wank”.’ You see, I pride myself on my swearing. But after reading those glorious, composite, Fry-penned curses, it was time to admit gracious defeat.

It should be said that I don’t come from a sweary upbringing. The most that Jamie or I could get away with at home was the odd ‘bugger it’ or ‘sod off’ or the McFarlane-family-patented ‘buddy owl’ (thanks to my mishearing of ‘bloody hell’ as a toddler). Even a sneaky V-sign would elicit one of those looks. And so this, I guess, is the post that my parents never wanted to read. (That said, both Jamie and I did our work experience at Dad’s company where, on separate occasions, it was revealed to each of us that our old man’s office-confined alter-ego had the potential to be crowned the Jedi Grand Master Of Swearing. Let’s just say that our work experience taught us a lot more than how to use a fax machine.)

See, I happen to think that swearing isn’t a flaw, but a skill. (I don’t care how prim you are – you can’t read ‘arse-mothering, fuck-nosed, bugger-sucking wank’ and not be impressed.) Hell, I don’t see why it shouldn’t even be on your CV, if it’s something you particularly excel at. Funnily enough, a magazine job interview I once had ended with the following exchange:
‘You swear, right? Cos here, we swear a lot.’
‘Ha, you ain’t seen shit yet,’ I said tentatively.
‘Fucking brilliant. The job’s yours,’ said my new editor.

Having honed my swearing skills during a career in journalism, I refute the oft-stated argument that swearing is no more than a lazy vehicle for those whose vocabularies are lacking. Because, to me, writing is about moving people. And writers – at least in my case – write in a way that would move them if they were the reader. That’s not to say that I’m moved by swearing in all its forms. (A childhood spent on Derby County terraces taught me that. Let it be said, ‘fookssake, refer-fookin-ee, are you fookin blind or fookin sommat’ does not a quality swearer make.) No, I’m moved by appropriate context; by clever timing; by punchy emphasis. And whether or not that involves an expletive is, to a large extent, beside the point.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that the odd piss, wank or fuckshitbollocks somehow makes my writing better. Just that sometimes, there is simply no better word. Like this post from June 2008. When I got the second stage of my diagnosis, discovering that my cancer was stage two and invasive, I didn’t call the subsequent post ‘Fuck’ because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. (Believe me, I can ALWAYS think of something else to say.) I did it because, at that time, nothing said it better. (So imagine the shitstorm of expletives when I found out that my cancer was, in fact, stage three.)

And so, making excuses for my potty-mouth with the people I know it might offend is one thing. But my official line – to anyone other than my great aunt or 11-year-old niece – is that I make absolutely no apology for the swearing in my book. Especially given its subject matter. Because, shit, when a cancer diagnosis suddenly lands in your lap like a giant, steaming, life-changing turd, what else is there to do but drop a few F-bombs?

When my auntie was diagnosed with The Bullshit earlier this year, she asked if I had any tips on getting through it.
‘Yep,’ I answered blithely. ‘We’re going to need to teach you how to swear.’
‘Well I do just want to scream “oh bloody hell!”,’ she replied.
‘Nope. Not good enough,’ I said.
The next day I posted her a card to accompany all the other get-well messages on her windowsill. Except the greeting on mine wasn’t ‘Get Better Soon’, but ‘Fuck It’. Which, when it comes to the arse-mothering, fuck-nosed, bugger-sucking wank of The Bullshit, is – I think you’ll agree – a fuckload more appropriate.