Wednesday 30 December 2009

Don’t stop believing.

As we left my parents’ place in Derby earlier this week to drive back home, Mum stopped P and I on our way out. ‘Oooh hangonhangonhangon,’ she fretted, her slippers skipping hurriedly across the kitchen floor. ‘I almost forgot. I saved this for you when I cooked the turkey.’
‘Oh, um, ta,’ I said, accepting the greasy, V-shaped bone and holding it up to Ps line of sight with a raised eyebrow.
‘I know you weren’t here for your Christmas dinner,’ Mum continued, ‘but I thought it was only right that you two should have the wishbone.’
P and I winked at each other as Mum turned back to the fridge, then held it between our little fingers, closed our eyes as we wished (mine longer than his – lately my wishes have become less simple desires than contractual requirements with sub-clauses), then watched as the bone snapped on his side.
‘Who won?’ he asked.
‘Er, I dunno,’ I mumbled, trying to remember whether wishbone-winning was more Christmas cracker than short straw.
‘Let me see. Where did it break?’ questioned Mum, parting us from our pinky-grip and peering over to assess the situation like a boxing referee. ‘Ah, P’s side,’ she concluded. ‘Then it’s your wish, Lis.’

‘What were you wishing for?’ P later asked from the driver’s seat as we approached the M1.
‘What, seriously?’ I frowned.
‘Yeah, tell me.’
‘Do you really need to ask?’
‘Well, y’know, it just took you such a long time, is all.’
‘That’s because it had three parts.’
‘Yes, love, three.’
‘What about?’
‘I think you know full well what about.’
‘What, health?’ he queried, neatly sidestepping the c-word.
‘Yeah, course.’
‘All three?’
‘In a roundabout way, aye.’
All three were about health?’ he accused.
‘Kinda, yeah. Two were about straightforward health and the other was about the career thing that the health thing played rather a large part in,’ I answered awkwardly, adding to my requests of the universe with the hope that paraphrasing a wish doesn’t render it invalid. ‘Look, love, if I tell you exactly what I wished for it won’t come true, right?’
‘Ah, okay. Right,’ he agreed, getting back to something far more important on Five Live.

P didn’t need to ask what I’d wished for, of course. Nobody needs to ask. Because The Bullshit saw to it, from the moment it pulled up in my drive, that whenever I’m tugging on a wishbone or blowing out birthday candles or wishing on a star, it’ll be pretty bloody obvious to anyone in the immediate vicinity what it is that I’m after. (Dave Grohl in a broken lift. Obvs.)

Frankly, throughout my life, I’ve done pretty well out of wishes. I passed my GCSEs and A-levels, got into the postgraduate course I applied for, married the man I loved and saw to it that Derby County won the 2007 play-off final. Hell, who’s to know whether I’d be writing this post with a real left tit and a ponytail, had I been wishing not to get breast cancer all these years. But meh, whatever. If I had hindsight that sharp I’d probably have decided against that shellsuit.

From spending a bit of time with the ’rents over Christmas, though, it became clear that I’m not the only one with wishes as transparent as turkey stock. On Christmas morning, P and I sat on his folks’ sofa, polishing off bacon sarnies and the best part of an M&S chocolate biscuit assortment (surely the adult equivalent of a selection box) while we waited for his Mum to get back from church. In our house, going to church was never a feature of Christmas day – hell, of any day – but there’s nothing unusual, of course, in religion being as much of a 25 December tradition as new socks and heartburn.

P’s family aren’t, I suppose, what you’d call staunch Catholics. Of all the Lynch mob, I think there’s only actually his Mum who goes to church and, certainly for as long as I’ve known her, those visits haven’t always been that regular. Or, at least, they hadn’t been until I was diagnosed.
‘Mum’s started going back to church,’ P said, puzzled, putting down the phone as he nudged aside my sick bowl to perch on our bed. ‘I think it’s helping her.’
‘Then that’s a good thing,’ I reasoned. ‘We all need to cling onto whatever we can to get through this.’ (The Bullshit had a tendency to occasionally turn me into Yoda.)
‘She’s praying every night,’ he continued. ‘And she’s lighting candles to ask God to help you get better.’
‘That’s nice of her,’ I nodded. ‘But it’s probably a bit late for his help, eh?’ I said, gesturing to the dressings on my chest with the nod of a balding head.
But flippant as I was – am? – about the role of religion in Stuff We Can’t Control, I was grateful for P’s Mum putting her healing efforts into something so unscientific.

As the wishbone story makes clear, my Mum has different unscientific beliefs. Where P’s Mum has religion, mine has superstition. Where P’s Mum says a prayer and lights a candle, mine salutes lone magpies and tells you off for putting new shoes on the coffee table. And where P’s Mum has a crucifix on the wall of her landing, mine has a PG Tips monkey on her kitchen shelf. A monkey that, for as long she’s had it, I’ve beheaded on every visit to Derby, pushing its ears down beneath its shirt in the not-very-grown-up equivalent of scrawling ‘Lisa woz ere’ on her worktop. It’s an age-old prank she’s come to expect, like pressing the spare doorbell and watching as she answers the front door, or shifting the letters of her festive NOEL decoration so that it spells LEON. I’ll distract Mum with doorbell-ringing or tea requests, then mischievously shove my thumb down the monkey’s neck, forcing its head into its belly. Twenty minutes later she’ll scream ‘Liiis!’ followed by ‘that’s cruel’ or ‘put him right’ or ‘imagine if I did that to Piglet’. (She’s right, mind, I’d have the bollocks of anyone who assaulted Piglet.)

But just as P noticed that his Mum stepped up the church visits after my diagnosis, this week I noticed that the PG Tips monkey on Mum’s shelf remains headless. And when I thought about how long it was since I last assaulted her soft toy, I realised it had been well over a year. Over 18 months, even. In fact, I hadn’t decapitated that monkey since the week I was diagnosed, and Mum – contrary to what she would have done prior to The Bullshit – hasn’t pulled his head back from out of his shirt.

Call it superstition, call it religion, call it what you like. Whatever it is, it’s gratifying to know that, by doing the daft, irrational little things they believe in, the people who matter are doing whatever they can to help keep me Bullshit-free... touch wood.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

The hat-trick.

On P’s phone (the one you’ve not been able to call him on for months, not the BlackBerry that barely anyone has the number to – not that it annoys me or anything, gawd no) is a photo of the two of us that’s set as his wallpaper. The photo in question was taken a week after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, two days before my mastectomy, on an open-top bus tour around London, as part of a take-our-minds-off-surgery day that P had arranged. It’s a lovely photo. It’s one of those turn-your-phone-around-and-take-it-yourself jobbies, where the only way to get both people in shot is to hold it way above your head – simultaneously guaranteeing a flattering, cheekbone-enhancing angle. The same trick that anyone born after 1990 uses in their Facebook profile pictures (but, for this generation at least, without the padded cleavage, boypants and cropped vest).

In the photo, P looks jovial and relaxed. (Which is saying something, given that having his picture taken makes him feel about as comfortable as Dame Kelly Holmes in a cocktail dress.) In fact, we both do. We’re each clinging onto the remnants of the tans we caught on our recent holiday and, were it not for the honking great cold sore on my lip (whose presence, I kid you not, I first felt during the appointment in which I was diagnosed), we’d look the perfect picture of health – all shiny hair, rosy skin and pearly teeth. But more importantly, despite the news we had been forced to digest, we look happy. Mostly, I expect, because neither of us had a bloody clue that what was about to come next was going to hit us harder than the bus we were sitting atop ever could. (And probably also because I was rather enjoying wearing a favourite pashmina which I’d later foolishly scissor to pieces in the hope of turning it into a headscarf.) But that’s not the point.

My point is that this past weekend, on the King Of Work Trips in which I was sent to Paris to review a swanky hotel (pfft, the hardship), P and I took another photo of ourselves. Though captured in a different city, it was another snapshot of a similarly lovely, unapologetically touristy day in which my husband and I snogged our way around a stunning capital, just like we’d done back in June 2008. Back then, we were newlyweds in honeymoon phase, enjoying what time we could in the knowledge that our Days Of Fun would soon be numbered. This weekend, we were newly-ish-weds who’d settled into our marriage, enjoying what time we could in the knowledge that we’d once not been able to do so.

And while in the first picture, I had lovely long locks, two real tits and a scarf I hadn’t ruined; P had fewer grey hairs and a T-shirt I hadn't shrunk in the wash; and we each shared a naïve sense of things not being as bad as they seemed, I’ve got to admit – the 'after' photo is my favourite. Grey hairs, a fake tit, short hair and added wrinkles there may be, but that photo – and the lovely, normal world in which it was taken – is testament to a marriage that's stayed so gloriously unruffled in the face of The Bullshit.

So, with this post, I wish my P a very happy third anniversary. If I had a choice between three cancer-free years of an average marriage over the same of our wonderful, wonderful time as man and wife – even with all the bullshit that The Bullshit has given us – I’d take the latter every time.

Oh, and P – I reckon it might be time to change the wallpaper on your phone, love. And get it fixed while you’re at it. And start giving folk the number for your BlackBerry. And pick those socks up from your side of the bed. Well, three years of marriage gives me the right to step up the nagging a bit, right?

Thursday 3 December 2009

Nice and cool.

At school, we were taught about acronyms by taking each letter of our names and using the string of initials to choose the adjectives that best described us. Our form teacher then read them out to the class, while we collectively envied Tak Tran for having such a short name and giggled at David Derbyshire for beginning his with ‘debonair’. (Have you ever met a debonair 13-year-old?)

I was goofy little Lisa McFarlane back then and, if my memory serves me correctly, the adjectives I chose were: loyal, impatient, silly, ambitious, modest, cool, friendly, amiable, reliable, light-hearted, accident-prone (I really struggled with the As), nice and enthusiastic.

I don’t think there’s anything hugely ground-breaking in that; they’re pretty much the first adjectives that would spring out of any early teen’s mind.  (Or, in the case of ‘amiable’, spring out of a pocket thesaurus.) Generally, I don’t recall a lot of what I was taught at school (hell, I’ve got an A-level in German and don’t remember a word of it), but this lesson has stayed with me. And yes, anything English-language-related was often better than breaktime for me, but in this case I suspect my impressive memory is more to do with one of my adjective choices: cool.

I’ve spent as long as I care to remember striving to be cool. And it’s taken me even longer than that to realise that, in fact, I’m anything but cool. Because cool, as I’ve finally figured out, isn’t actually about subscribing to Grazia, having a dedicated iPhone pocket in your Marc Jacobs tote and wearing an Obama ‘yes we can’ pin on your Julian Casablancas-inspired blazer. Nah, cool is an attitude; a state of mind; an ability to stay stoically unruffled, whatever the situation. Cool is Jay-Z opening a controversial Glastonbury headline set with Wonderwall. Cool is knowing how to walk in six-inch heels. Cool is stifling a grin and staying composed when you’re offered a payrise.
I ain’t cool.

‘And you’re travelling alone today?’ asked the airport check-in guy earlier this year.
‘Yup,’ I answered.
‘Well there’s good news – your flight is full, so we’ll be offering you a complimentary upgrade.’
‘That IS good news,’ I enthused, slapping my hands flat onto his desk. ‘Brilliant. Smashing. Nice one, cheers, thanks.’
‘And you’ll be able to use the executive lounge before you board.’
‘Really? Wow. Are you sure?’ I gushed.
‘Of course,’ said a smirking Check-in Guy, demonstrably entertained.

I’ll say it again: I ain’t cool. Cool would have been to say, ‘ah, thank you’ and waltz off into the executive area with an air of I-do-this-all-the-time nonchalance; not to skip cheerily up to the lounge desk with a McDonald’s take-away in one hand while texting ‘HA! UPGRADE!’ to my kid bro with the other.

I couldn’t even manage to be cool at Derby County this weekend, when our folks took me and Jamie along to watch the game from the directors box, as part of the auction prize they successfully bid for at my Super Sweet 30th. My usual spot for the match is several rows behind the directors box, up in the stands with the paying supporters who don’t have the luxury of a leather seat or cheese and wine at half-time. And every time I’m at Pride Park, I sit and watch who’s taking their places beside the directors, mouthing ‘you jammy bastard’ into my Bovril as they walk up the steps, all imperturbable in their local importance. I, however, hopped up those same stairs grinning like a tipsy loon, elbowing my brother as I went. ‘Padded seats! We’ve got padded seats! And a free programme! And isn’t that Frank Lampard’s dad? Mum! Look! That’s Frank Lampard’s dad!’ Even less cool was then having the audacity to shush Mum when she started shouting commands at the midfield.

And then there was yesterday’s meeting with my publishers.
‘I loved your post on telling Smiley Surgeon about your book,’ said one of the team charged with selling The C-Word into bookshops.
‘Ha yeah,’ I snorted. ‘It all came out at once – I just couldn’t say it calmly.’
‘Just like you can’t be cool right now, you bloody great dork,’ said the voice in my head.

The voice is right. It’s not just in front of Smiley Surgeon that I act like a goon. Granted, I save my most exceptional levels of goondom for him, but still – it seems my uncool rears its embarrassing head around pretty much anyone I’m trying to impress. When my publisher talked about moving the publication date forward, I squealed and clapped my hands. When the marketing manager talked about competitions and discounted offers, I stuttered my way through an emphatic agreement. When the publicity team mentioned contacting Women’s Hour, I tittered like a 12-year-old who’d just been passed a pencil-drawn willy at the back of maths class. Because, you see, it’s especially difficult to be cool about something so enormously exciting.

And so I’m sorry, 13-year-old me, but I’m giving up on cool. (At this point, I suppose, it’d be cool to declare that uncool is the new cool, but I don’t think even I’m uncool enough to pull that off.) You might have thought you were pretty awesome in your beaded Doc Marten shoes, baggy T-shirts and that bloody awful silver star dangling from a long bootlace around your neck, but believe me, your relentless pursuit of cool just isn’t worth the chase. And yeah, adolescence might seem like a cruel trick designed to continually catch you at your most goofy – and in many ways, I guess it is. Which is why I hate to break this to you, Lisa Mac: your thirties aren’t much different. But, by heck, there ain’t half a lot to be uncool about.