Wednesday, February 27, 2008


From this...

To this...

All you need is two days off work, a few cans of paint, and a handy painting partner. Who is expressing his disgruntlement at such hard work by flicking the Vs at the camera. Nice.

Slowly, slowly, it all comes together.

Or should I say Pole, Pole?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Legal Once Again

R has been tending to my bike.

The CG is much neglected by me, tending to rust over the winter and look forlornly at shinier and bigger bikes at the lights.

R replaced my tax disc holder (no mean feat: they make these things so unthievable he had to take the old one off with an angle grinder - is a £15 tax disc really so desirable on the black market?), topped up oil, stuck a bit of instant gasket over the bit where the oil is leaking, refixed the front L plate and bought and fitted a new battery. Earlier last week he'd already fixed the clutch cable adjustor in place with cable ties (the bodger's friend) and fiddled with the electrics to fix the left indicator which was getting increasingly slow on the uptake...

So now, for the first time in months, everything on my bike works, all the time, and I'm properly legal again with visible tax discs and L plates both ends. Don't mistake me for a tax avoider - I had paid my tax - I just had taken to carrying the disc around in my pocket with me when I rode the bike because even the mighty Halfords didn't have a tool to fit the blasted tax disc holder.

(In fact, it cost me £15 to tax the bike and a further £18.95 to buy a new tax disc holder to put it in because the old one, fitted by the previous owner, was so stupidly designed.)

I'm now so legal and functional I went ahead and booked my test.

So I face the big bike test again on the 10th March. Well, the medium sized bike test that I can do on my own bike and still get to qualify on to big bikes after two years of holding the 'medium' sized license.

I was due to sit it last year on 11 April. But ended up being too busy getting cancer to sit it.

Lets hope I actually get to the test centre this year.

Monday, February 25, 2008

It's The Little Differences

I'm leaving the country in six weeks time and I've run out of my normal brand of shower gel.

So I've finally decided to use up those random little bottles of shampoo and shower gel you cannot leave a hotel without stuffing into your bags.

But in my case, they're not all from hotels. I've noticed a significant number are actually from private en suite bathrooms in the hospital rooms I have frequented over the last nine months.

I am a closet klepto.

And if there is a next time, maybe I can work my way up to a whole chemo chair?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The serendipity of freecycle

Certain people in London, or indeed, anywhere in the UK, are in on a little secret.

If you're one of life's natural cheapskates, or a fervent environmentalist who hates waste, then freecycle is for you.

An online newsgroup forum where people post messages describing unwanted items they want to get rid of, but just can't be bothered to slug down a charity shop. Or indeed, items that don't really get seen in charity shops but are still of value - old washing machines, boxes of left over tiles from renovating bathrooms, I even saw someone offering some unwanted Hob Cleaner the other day.

Anything and everything can be freecycled. It's a living example of the "one man's tat is another man's treasure' edict.

Anyway, back last November we got something slightly better than hob cleaner. We got a new car. Admittedly it would hardly be new by anyone else's standards but it was a year younger than my ailing Peugeot which was fast falling apart and needed a lot of TLC to get through it's impending MOT. The new(er) car, a Nissan, was being given away by its current owners as one of them had become a 'poor student' of the mature variety and had decided he no longer could afford the cost of keeping it on the road. We had told them about our love of old banger rallies and suggested that we would probably drive the Nissan until June (when it's MOT was up) and then take a couple of weeks off and drive it somewhere very far away. They liked the idea and all they asked was money for the tax disc and a photo of the car in some remote location when we eventually took it on its swan song trip.

So we took the Nissan off them, gratefully, and donated the Peugeot to two student rally friends who will weld and tinker it back to health and then drive it 9,000 miles to Novobirsk on the Russian/Mongolian border come August. As you do.

Since then we have had the job offer in Uganda come through, unexpectedly, so it seems our Nissan may yet be accompanying both my old Peugeot and R's old Peugeot to Novobirsk. So we may have ended up donating up to three of around 8-10 cars that will be going, which would be cool.

In the meantime, I'm packing up the flat and trying to shed a few excess belongings along the way. Old film cameras, random sketch pads, lots of worthy stuff I planned to better myself with and forgot about - you know the kind of thing.

One of the items I freecycled was a set of JVC Cordless Headphones. You plug the base station into the TV, or whatever it is you want to listen to, tune the headphones into the right frequency, and you're away. I got them myself from freecycle a few years ago when I had a lodger who liked to go to bed early, in a room, and I liked to watch TV late. Now there's no need to hang on to them so on to freecycle they go...

One of the first emails I got was from a woman who said she'd like them for her husband to use when he was watching sport so the rest of the family didn't have to tip toe around him. That sounded like a good enough cause to me, so I duly arranged a time for her to pick up.

I opened the door to her last night and the first thing she said was:

Hello Anne-Marie, how's the car?

I didn't recognise her for a second, but then the penny dropped. It was one half of the couple who gave us the car. How lovely was that?

(Though I can't help feeling we ended up with the better freecycle blag...)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

No secondaries, no problem

Two weeks ago I had what I can only describe in such parochial terms as 'an episode' with my eye.

My optician found a few irregularities - possibly things I'd had all my life, possibly things recently brought on by chemo treatments. They may have been responsible for the visual disturbance, they may not have.

(I feared, secretly, that the visual disturbance might have been provoked by some sort of secondary tumour pressing against the back of my retina. Madness, I know, but this is the way our ex-cancer patient minds work...)

So this morning I was circling Harley Street on the bike again, trying to find a bike bay with a space. Then, to a different number on the street from the one I've spent more time at than I care to remember, and up two flights of stairs to the eye specialist, a warm and funny woman called Sarah.

She peers and squints at me, and I peer and squint back at charts, flashing lights, flickbooks, whatever she throws at me.

She gets her eye-dropper out to give me something to dilate my pupils so she can see right at the back of my eye.

She hesitates for a moment, clocking for the first time the bike trousers.

Can you leave your bike here for the day and collect it again on your way home? These are going to affect your sight for the next six hours or so.

Bugger. No one had warned me about this.

The drops sting like hell and I go and wait for them to take effect. Twenty minutes later and I look like I'm Pete Doherty on a big night. My pupils are the size of saucers.

She peers and squints at me some more as I squirm against the headrest and stare into the torch. Then finally, her diagnosis. Or lack of one.

You have no secondaries, you have no macular degeneration, you have nothing whatsoever to worry about.

This woman knows me better than I know myself. She cuts straight to the bit I'm really worried about. The unspoken is spoken. No secondaries. Or at least, none pressing against my eyes...

She goes on to explain that what I experienced on that Tuesday a few weeks back was a migraine. Even if it's not accompanied by a headache, visual disturbances of that nature are definitely migraines.

And the headaches I do get, which are not accompanied by any visual activity, are also migraines. I always thought they were just really bad headaches and only ever referred to them as migraines when phoning in sick on one - a 'bad headache' just sounded like it wouldn't really cut it with the boss. It always made me feel terribly fraudulent, even though I genuinely felt rubbish, but it now turns out they were migraines all along.

And what's more I had one as recently as Sunday. I woke up with a dull headache that wouldn't go away and eventually got much more intense, to the point where I had to go and lie very still in a dark room and not speak or move. After 30 mins of this, on top of some Ibuprofen, it eventually started to lighten but the whole experience spanned about six hours.

Ha! I feel weirdly happy. For one, I have no secondaries. And now, when I get a migraine, at least I know I have a genuine need to go lie down and I'm not just being a bit feeble. Strangely, that's very comforting.

I felt so happy about life I ignored medical advice and rode my bike across town to work.

It was probably a stupid thing to do but turned out okay. But I did have to blink a hell of a lot.

Back at work I wonder why everyone is eyeing me suspiciously. Then catching my face in the mirror of the loos clarifies things. I still look like I'm off my face.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Penelope without the pitstop

In the course of packing up my house, I came across our application for the Plymouth-Dakar Challenge.

C, my very good friend, and I, were applying to take part in the original (and still the best, I suspect) old banger rally.

We were daunted by the fact we were girls, and knew little of cars, and also by the sheer intimidation of the idea of crossing the Sahara off-road in cars worth no more than £100.

This, I found, is what we wrote to persuade the organisers to let us in. Re-reading it made me smile and cringe all at the same time. I can't believe how flirty we were. Note also that the application was penned as if from C, given to the fact she works for Lonely Planet and we had hoped that this would help swing the decision in our favour.*

Could you benefit from two sassy** ladies who would dilute the heady cocktail of oil and testosterone that permeates the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge, make putty of the border officials, and still manage to fix their own car and beat you to the next stop?

Well, so could we...

Seriously though, we aren't far off the above description. I have travelled through some of the hardest of places. I've hitch-hiked across Western Tibet, sailed across Lake Turkana in Kenya, and travelled alone throughout South and East Africa. I've been in sticky situations, and I've got out of them.

But I've had to knuckle down and get a day job. Which happens to be with Lonely Planet so it keeps my traveller's gene happy. And while I can't get you a discount on your books I'm sure there is something I can do. Like apply to the LP Foundation for a donation to Gambian charities, for example.***

I've always longer to cross the Sahara but short of being forced against my will onto one of those overland trucks, the opportunity has not, until now, presented itself.

Anne-Marie is the finest companion you could wish for - funny, entertaining, and brilliantly practical. For many years she has organised annual canoeing/camping trips for our group of friends with the ultimate combination of military precision and a chilled-out attitude.

She is also an accomplished amateur photographer and should we be successful in our application, she hopes to document events and scenes along the way - warts and all.

She recently spent a year living in a small village in South Western Turkey so she has a good understanding of Islamic culture. Last year she travelled overland through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, crossing the world's highest salt lake in a 4x4, treading on alligator by mistake, and learning how to sand-board.

She has also dreamed of travelling through the Sahara. Her original dream featured Lawrence of Arabia but she'll settle for Julian of Devonia.****

The nuts and bolts of it? Extensive independent travel experience; Fluent French; Compass skills; At home in a tent; Ace drivers; Rusty mechanics (but we promise to complete a course before the Challenge); Skilled at culinary campfire improvisation; And just this side of slightly mad.

In short, we're Thelma and Louise with less histrionics, gunfire and driving off cliffs. Penelope without the pitstop.

We are the Pink Ladies.

Go on. You know you want to.

*We didn't need to worry about our application resting on C's employer status. Nor did we really need to work this hard at crafting such persuasive prose. I later found out that essentially, if you're an all-female team, you're pretty much in. It's such a male-dominated event that they need a few girls to balance things out.
**I can't believe we used the word 'sassy'. I hate that word. It sounds so try-hard.
***We did and they did. They donated £800 to the cause, and in total, we raised over £3,000 for a charity called Village Aid who specialise in sustainable aid for the most poverty stricken parts of Senegal and the Gambia. Later, the pink van ended up raising a further £250 at auction for a Gambian charity.
****This reference is a direct attempt at flirting our way in. The rally is organised by Julian Nowill, who I must point out is happily married (living in Devon) and never even came on the rally that year. Of course I did end up meeting my own Lawrence of Arabia. I met R on the edges of the Sahara itself. Albeit in a campsite built from breezeblocks that were masquerading as bedouin tents, and instead of a camel, he rode a 1951 Morris Minor with a novelty beer-drinking hat taped to the roof... but you know, it almost works.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


About time we did a hair update, though it's probably the last 'conscious' one I'll do as my hair is normal again. Not back to my kind of normal - that won't happen for a couple of years - but at least I don't feel like I need to excuse it's freakish shortness anymore.

So, here is where we were in mid December. Starting to fin up in the middle of my head but otherwise, still very pixie short... (but recently died so not a grey hair in sight).

And here is late Jan, looking a bit annoyed. But you can see the hair is longer, and more wayward with it.

And finally, earlier today, here's a shot of me looking like I've stuck my fingers in a socket. It doesn't normally stand up quite as shockingly as this, but if I don't tame it with wax this is what I look like.

I mentioned to R the other day that if i didn't watch out, I'd end up like Struwelpeter. He had no idea who I meant. Here's a picture to jog your memory but those with continental parentage will definitely recall this warped character who never cut his hair or his nails.

Battle of the agents

I have a lettings agent who was all over my flat. Thought it could fetch a lovely sounding monthly rental figure, was oozing admiration for 'how lovely' it looked and generally flattered the part of me that secretly believes one day I'll be in Hello, welcoming some sycophantic journo into my lovely home*.

Flights of fantasy aside, they've done frustratingly little since then. A viewing was promised today but cancelled at the last minute. Photos that I supplied on Monday were mislaid until Wednesday when it was decided they weren't in the right format for "the system". When I explained I worked with images all the time and all I needed to know was what format the photos were required in and at what resolution, and I could easily tweak them in a blink of an eye, I was roundly ignored and the lettings 'negotiator' was sent round with a camera to do them again (when, of course, the place was in disarray).

Three days after his visit he announces that they 'haven't come out that well' and could he come and take them again.

Come out that well?

We're in the age of digital and he's still talking about the dark art of room photography as if they've been in a dark room slaving over glass slides with silver bromide for the last three days. And in the meantime, however lovely my flat is, there are still no 'professional couples' in sight because they haven't seen the property details.

In a fit of pique at their general incompetence I phoned a rival firm. These guys are huge and corporate and I have been avoiding them rather in the same way you'd buy gnarled old oranges from the local shop instead of the decent juicy numbers from Sainsburys. But, needs must, and I can't afford to hang around.

He comes round the same morning, with ten minutes to squeeze me in. We race through my fixtures and fittings, speed through the valuation and the process. I'm an old hand at this deal making by now. Or so I think.

One final question: just what is their rate for lettings and management?

How much?

I am genuinely shocked. Mr Corporate Agent wants to charge me 11% for the letting and 6% for the management cost.

I am getting offered 5% for the let and 2.5% for the management by Mrs Local Small and Friendly but Perhaps Not Very Good Agent.

I beat Mr Corporate down to 9% plus 6% for management but he's not budging any further. He knows and I know that he could rent this place in a fortnight. I'm not even sure whether Mrs LSandFbutPNVG Agent will even get me any viewings in the next fortnight, but I send Mr Corporate on his way, saying No Way, until I at least need to panic about it.

I'm in a quandary.

Do I bend over and present my arse to the corporate guys to get fucked one last time before I leave this country, or do I hold out for the little guys and risk everything?

*I don't really believe this. But my head is easily turned by people who tell me I have taste.

Essential headwear for 2008

In the course of googling lion costumes (don't ask) I came across this item of fancy headwear.

One word. Why?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Invest in the best

I'm a sucker. But I'm looking forward to my reading list.

So here is the order i am now awaiting from Amazon. For thirty eight of our English pounds, I'm getting a mix of books that cover all sorts of aspects of Africa. From fiction to fact; from politics to biography; from Uganda to the DRC as well as vast sweeping views of the entire continent.

Herewith my reading list for the next few months:

1. The Last King of Scotland - By Giles Foden.

Recently gained fame as the film version, a tale of a doctor that got close to the Amin dictatorship and his experiences as a result of his relationship with the big man himself.

2. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo - by Michela Wrong

This correspondent's vision of Congo/Zaire during the Mobutu years is apparently quite a read. I may well have to take another look at Conrad's classic to remind myself of some of the comparisons being drawn here...

3. The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence - by Martin Meredith

Reviewed by the Spectator as 'A spectacularly clear view of the African political jungle'. I'm thirsty for that knowledge and understanding myself.

4. Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart - Tim Butcher

A travelogue through the heart of the Congo, worthy of the epic qualities of tales of 19th Century explorers.

5. Africa: A Biography of the Continent - by John Reader

Sounds like an epic task but an accessible read. Apparently spans geological pre-history and the formation of the continent; the ecology of the continent and the arrival of man; the developments of the black population; the formation of tribes and animist religion etc; white colonization, the slave trade, missionaries, gold and diamonds in South Africa; the scramble for colonies; and finally in this century, decolonisation and African nationalism. If he pulls it off in one book I'll be very impressed and much better informed.

6. Abyssinian Chronicles - by Moses Isegawa

A novel set in a tribal village during the Amin years in Uganda. On the Lonely Planet recommended reads for visiting this country and that's good enough for me.

The one that got away?

Africa - the collection of thirty years of images from Sebastiao Salgado.

I love his photography, I love Africa. This is a coffee table book I want more than any other. And they're even selling it at a massive discount on amazon. But very soon I won't have a coffee table. So what is the point? I shall just have to take my own shots instead and be happy with my own amateurish version...

And not forgetting...

I lay awake last night and title after title of books I have read on Africa kept popping up. I felt I had perhaps formulated the list too hastily, or at least, the list should allow for more than six. How to decide?

I don't know and I don't have time, but the other contenders would be:

Disgrace - JM Coetzee
Travels in the interior of Africa - Mungo Park
Dark Star Safari - Paul Theroux
The White Masai - Corinne Hoffmann
Don't lets go to the dogs tonight - Alexandra Fuller
The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver
Sahara - Michael Palin

And in the course of researching the list of the six I want to read this year, I have a shopping basket worth £75 sitting on amazon waiting for me to make my mind up.

All I can think is that I'll need to buy three at a time. Any more than that and I'll have difficulty fitting them into the luggage allowance if nothing else.

Oh, decisions, decisions.

The African Reading Challenge

I read a blog by a Danish woman called Pernille who has recently drawn my attention to the African Reading Challenge.

The idea is you draw up a list of six books you plan to read / have read that are about Africa or set on the continent.

I have two lists. One of recommended titles from books I have read over the last few years; one of books I want to read in the next 11 months (to complete the ARC under their rules).

So, looking backwards, but in no particular order of priority, my list of recommendations would be:

1. The Zanzibar Chest - by Adrian Hartley

Tales of a British journalist covering some of the messier wars and events on the continent. Eye-opening.

2. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families - by Philip Gourevitch

Tales of the Rwandan genocide. If you can read this without putting it down occasionally to take a break from the sheer horror, you are made of sterner stuff than I.

3. The Journey is the Destination - by Dan Eldon

A mixture of beauty and death, this collection of journal pages filled with photos, scrawl and scribble, momentos and notes from Dan Eldon, the young journalist that grew up in Kenya, was clearly in love with the continent, started a promising career in photojournalism and died in the Somalian conflict at twenty-one.

4. Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik - by Marie Javins

An antidote to all this death, Marie is a blogospheric friend of mine, who wrote a lovely book about her travels around the continent. It's light relief to counter the two above, but also a really good travelogue about the area.

5. Running with the moon - by Jonny Bealby

I stumbled across this because a friend recommended his Silk Road book and I thought I preferred the sound of this one. It's a travelogue based on his losing himself (and inevitably finding himself again) on a motorbike through Africa. Forget Ewan and Charley, this guy does it solo, with no support and even less money. It tapped into what I have enjoyed so much about the old banger rallies I've done, but at the same time sounded ten times more dangerous.

6. Half of a Yellow Sun - by Chimamanda Ngozi

I took this to India as a holiday read and it was a really beautifully written novel. Can't say any more about it as my computer is about to go to sleep and my power lead is elsewhere...

The list I want to read this year will have to wait until later this week as well.

Until then...

Car Porn

We've been working on car stuff recently at work. And despite the image, it hasn't been for Peugeot.

While I watch Top Gear and drive old bangers, I'm hardly what you might call a petrol head.

But I do get turned on by car porn. Close up, fetishistic crops of car parts and bits of trim.

The wet slick of shiny metal; the slow curves of a bumper; the ridged and rounded texture of a sidelight. And don't even start on the gear stick.

Cars have always been linked to sex. But some of the imagery is porn, pure and simple.

And I love it.

The Twelve Labours of Anne-Marie (cont)

Labour Two - Slay the kitchen and get rid of that godawful yellow; and Labour Three - Capture the communal hallway and tart it up

It seems that the imminent rental, or sale, of your property is guaranteed to have one effect: To give you the motivation to finally do all those interior decoration jobs that you have been putting off since you moved in.

So a fortnight or so ago I started on the kitchen. Sunshine yellow when I moved in, the colour had bothered me yet since I first moved in two and a half years ago I had not felt driven to lift a finger to replace it with something less, well, nineties.

Until now.

I have sanded. I have filled. I have taped up and covered all the cabinets and work surfaces and floor in newspapers and dust sheets. I have scrubbed and wiped down. I have cut in once with an undercoat and once in the top coat. I have rollered three coats of paint on the walls, one on the ceiling. I have bruised my knees by spending hours kneeling on unevenly lain ceramic tiles. I have shifted fridges and found long lost cutlery. I have balanced on one leg on top of cookers and draining boards to reach nooks and crannies I never knew existed.

So now the kitchen is a lovely cream. Which actually goes with the terracotta tiles (what were they thinking with yellow?). It has the unfortunate effect of making the cabinets look a bit dim and dowdy by comparison but overall it is far better.

So I was getting through my decorating tasks, I was making progress. But slowly.

The bedroom had taken me three days. The kitchen had now added another three. But when you have a full time day job, that makes three weekends. Coupled with spending a weekend in Hereford with your boyfriend every now and again and you have a recipe for taking a very long time.

Additionally, spending twelve hours a day decorating every weekend often meant that on Monday or Tuesday I'd find myself suffering another tender patch of tissue somewhere around my right breast or shoulderblade or rib cage. I'm getting used to them. They happen when I've been overdoing the sanding, or rollering, or some other repetitive action with my right arm (calm down boys).

So it came as a huge relief when R arrived in London earlier this week with a pair of overalls and a lot of spare time. In two days he has taken care of repainting the communal hallway, scuffed and tyre-marked by the guys from upstairs carrying their bikes up to their flat. He's also done the woodwork, painted the window, the two inner doors, the outside step and is close to having painted the bannister and the outside of the window.

So, all hail my new helper. Progress is being made. The agent is impressed, and the first people are being shown around.

I may yet get my flat rented by 1 March. But if you know anyone who needs a one and half bedroomed flat in Earlsfield for £1300 pcm ONO, then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

I can guarantee the paint will barely be dry...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thank God For Normal

Today, finally, I get a letter from the Professor confirming that my blood markers were normal for breast and ovarian cancer.

Though I pretty much knew this already, given his silence on the matter over the last ten days.

Remembering the "If it's bad news I'll call you" promise as I left his office, I had already acted on his silence and taken steps towards a new life and a new job. So it's just as well they came up normal!

I like normal. I welcome normal. I am normal.

Hurrah for that.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Thank you

For all your lovely comments and support.

I'm not sure how often R reads this blog (he gets enough moaning from me direct without having to read it in written form) but if he does, I'm sure he'll be blushing at some of your comments.

And thanks for the Yay! Africa! comments. We're certainly getting very excited. And even if Marie is trying to send business away from RC before we've even got there, I'll forgive her!

And yes I'll keep blogging.

The original reason I started this blog was to chronicle our move to Africa, and our experiences there. The blog, and life, got momentarily hijacked by cancer, but we're back on track.

And at this rate, running full steam ahead for the next eight weeks to get everything finished in time.

In the last 48 hours I've shown the first potential tenants round my flat, hosted dinner for a friend in order to discuss the logistics of how to attend her wedding in Derbyshire (which I really want to go to) when I will be living in Kampala (a mere hop, skip and a flight away), worked a day in the office, lifted a double mattress down the stairs and shoved it, somehow, into my car, driven to Hereford, wire-brushed and painted some rust on the car's wheel arches, and performed various other duties including polishing Rich's knob.

Really, I really did.

His doorknob.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Africa REDUX

Ladies on the road to Bamako, originally uploaded by annemariew.

My biggest regret about the last year, successful as its been in terms of treatment results, is that it ruined our plans for our great escape to Africa.

Rich and I were due to quit our day jobs, move to Uganda, and start a fantastic sounding job managing a backpackers' and overlanders' lodge in the middle of a national park, working for a wonderful sounding woman.

It was a dream come true and we spent weeks preparing to leave, not quite believing our luck.

Then, four weeks to the day before we were due to leave, I was diagnosed and everything changed in an instant.

It was heartbreaking to see our plans disintegrate so utterly, and we were flung into the madness and horribleness of treatment and operations.

As we were coming out the other side of all of this, and we started to see light at the end of the tunnel (not that sort of light - I'm not planning on seeing that sort of light for many years yet), we started to make enquiries again. Remind people that we still wanted to do this, one day.

Sadly, our ex-boss to be in Uganda was fully staffed up, and try as she might find a way to employ us alongside her existing staff (I told you, she was a wondeful sounding woman), there didn't seem to be a way she could justify it. We just had to accept that if we were going to get a job out there, we would have to start from scratch and find one with someone else.

The trouble was, the turnover on lodge jobs is very low - they only come up once every three years or so. And backpackers' lodges - the sorts of places we'd like to work - are surprisingly thin on the ground across Africa. The chances of something popping up were very slim. It was hard not to feel despondent.

Then, last month, a text message out of the blue changed everything. Again.


Still interested? Was she mad?

So here we are a few weeks later, and in about eight weeks time, R and I will be leaving England to go and manage a backpackers' and overlanders' lodge in Kampala, belonging to the same ex-boss to be as before (now once again, our rightful boss to be).

I tend towards the superstitious, putting too much faith in fate, but this really feels right. In fact, it feels absolutely meant to be.

And now I am in a position to come clean about this bit of news, other things emerge into the light and are suddenly easier to explain.

Like the sudden flurry of decorating (one bedroom and one kitchen down; a lot more to go).

And why the heightened paranoia about health? That's the worst one. I spent a week on cloud nine and have proceeded to worry myself into the ground every since. It's not so much the actual physical symptoms that get me so paranoid, it's more the pattern of superstition that has formed around these events.

Get offered dream job in Africa? Check.
Start preparing madly to emigrate? Check.
Announce to your long-suffering and patient and supportive colleagues you are giving up the day job? Again? Check.

So far, so very much the same as last year. But until today I've had trouble believing that that's where the similarities end. I keep expecting the rug to be pulled out from under my feet again, and for somehow, cancer to rear her ugly head.

My desire to go ahead with the plans to get out there has never wavered, but the paranoia I've been feeling over the last few weeks built to such a level I momentarily stopped having faith in the reality of actually going.

But today it feels like a cloud has lifted.

I've cleared up my immediate health concerns.

I won't ever be sure forever, but I'm as sure as I can be right now.

Because of this, I've been able to recently tell work about my plans, which has been a huge relief. And hopefully gives us enough time to replace me, without leaving them in the lurch.

And they were so incredibly understanding and supportive upon hearing the news that the whole weight of guilt-ridden "I'm a bad person for deserting them so soon after they stood by me" thoughts have been lifted from me.

So finally I am starting to have some faith again in this really happening.

Wipe the last twelve months.

Africa REDUX is on.

"Don't Give Up The Day Job" is finally giving up the day job.

And much as I love DCH, my life will be so much better for it.

Irish eyes are smiling...

P1020962.JPG, originally uploaded by naturalcourse.

Today I flew to Ireland on an Irish Airline. Yet it was staffed by Polish and Portugese, and the meeting I flew there to have was with an Englishman who worked for an American company. Where were all the leprechauns?

Well, there was one in the loos at Dublin airport. All of four foot tall, she was a tiny little thing but definitely in her 40s or 50s. And Irish. Well, if she'd had a beard she definitely would have been a leprechaun.

And there were more national stereotypes too, in the receptionist at the business I visited and the cab drivers and the airport security staff.

Why stereotypes? Well, they were all simply lovely.

Coming from London I'm used to cab drivers offering up either get a dismal grunt (if you're lucky) or a fascist diatribe about immigrants (if you're not) and the average receptionist is spending far too much time being cool to actually be actively nice to you.

But in Dublin they beam at you with genuine pleasure. And the how are yous are not mere habit or tip-seeking - they actually want to know. And then they beam some more. They wish you a pleasant day.

And they mean it.

Later on, I got back to Gatwick and got on the train back up to town. It was rush hour and I secured one of those little padded perches they now have in between the fast diminishing rows of real seats - the sort that's there to kid you that it's okay to be standing because your bottom still has a seat cushion behind it - albeit a vertical one.

At Clapham a man got on carrying two papers - The Guardian and one of the Free papers. He stuck the free paper above us on the luggage rack, a few inches out of my reach. I smiled and asked him if he was finished with it. He nodded curtly. So I stepped forward to pick it up. At which point he deftly manouevered his bottom on to the padded perch momentarily vacated by mine.

I wasn't quite sure what to do. A man had just stolen my semi-seat, albeit after donating me his paper. But that had been free in the first place!

But that's London for you. In Dublin they smile and wish you well. In London they'll steal the seat from under your arse.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

My friend Brian

I do hate those endless facebook requests from people who are just trying to "Find out who has a secret crush on you!" (I fell for that one) or "X wants you to take part in the name that movie quote quiz!".

X is not really that bothered about whether or not I take part in some stupid quiz. They're merely reacting to the fact that they need to tick a certain number of invitees and my name begins with A so I'm nice and prominent.

But today a friend begged me to buy a pet at some virtual zoo because it would earn her enough points to buy some pet food.

(What do people do with their time all day?)

But, she's come up trumps. Rather than merely be some facebook tamagotchi, this has real purpose.

Well, to be honest it is a facebook equivalent of tamagotchi but it has a HIPPO!

So, I adopted him and called him Brian. And bought him a natty moustache to wear.

As you do...

My Haikoo(SM) Zoo pet, Brian

Monday, February 04, 2008

Partners in sickness and in health

The whole dynamic between patient and partner is a demanding one.

I can never thank R enough for just taking all of this in his stride and being so brilliantly calming and positive about everything. His life got shelved by this whole thing too, and there was never a whimper of complaint. Apart from when he would say things like "If it wasn't for your right boob, we'd be...." but he was joking and our method of dealing with it all has needed lashing of black humour to wash it down.

And I know, from hearing about other people's experiences (both as partners and as patients) that it can't actually be that easy for him. And lately I've been trying to shelve some of the responsibility for dealing with me onto a few other shoulders, to give his a break. But he still soldiers on.

For one thing, he's always been very realistic about bringing me down to earth with some of my paranoias. If I'm convinced it's metastasised as cancer of the ankle, he's talking me down, sometimes gently, sometimes more firmly. But he's never ever been wrong (other than in the first instance of diagnosis, when I too thought it was probably benign, so that hardly counts).

But however firmly he sometimes has to bring me back down to earth, he always shows some degree of empathy, even if my fears are ludicrous. And if it's good news, he'll be happy for me, even if it was what he expected all along.

Which is why it surprised me when I saw a couple have quite a different experience at the hospital on Friday.

She was young with very long hair so my instinctive reaction was that she was there checking out a suspicious lump for the first time. I found myself hoping for her that all was alright.

She went into the Professor's office for the appointment before me, and left her partner outside. He started fiddling with his phone. A few minutes later, she bounded out, a smile across her face, and sat down next to her partner.

I'm clear! she announced, putting a hand on his lap.

He was still ensconced in his phone message.

I'm cancer-free and good to go for another year!

He grunted something inaudible in response, eyes still on his phone. Her cheeriness started to fade as it had nowhere to go.

It took five minutes before he sat up and paid some attention to the situation and that's only because they were about to leave and he was looking for a loo.

Now, I don't care how tough it has been on you matey boy, but please be at least slightly happy for your girlfriend when she sails through the annual test for cancer recurrence.

I mean, maybe they were a couple who had recently got together, maybe they'd just had a fight, maybe, maybe whatever.

I mean come on! Given how nervous I was feeling about my own impending clinical examination, I felt like smacking him for his indifference.

Waiting to exhale

A few days ago I was at the Professor's, at the beautifully named London Breast Institute, getting my boobs felt for the nth time, checking out some paranoid fears that had been building about recurrence. Which could have sent life generally, plus a number of serious plans that are forming, into a spin.

He thought it was nothing. But to reassure, or doublecheck, he brought forward the blood tests I will have done in March, at the year one anniversary of diagnosis. These tests would tell him whether or not certain markers in my blood were unnaturally high thereby suggesting a return of cancer.

He seemed particularly relaxed about life as he waved me off, saying he would write to me this week but the test results will be in on Monday and if anything was up, in both senses of the word, he'd be straight in touch by telephone.

So all day my mind has been looping back to the thought of my phone going, but the only call I've had on it all day was a friend who'd left her phone unlocked and 'remote-dialled' me with her handbag whilst I was in the shower this morning.

It's now nearly 6pm and I've not heard a thing. So I think I can relax now.

Which means I'm finally a little more health-confident.

And finally ready to do something which will send us on our way to healthier, happier lives.

More in the next few days - it's gonna be good.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Happy Birthday Kiki Dee

My little sister, six years younger than myself, is somewhere on an island in the Pacific turning 29.

It's weird. When it's your birthday and people you love are away, or you are away from them, you don't miss them. It's nice to hear from them but you're upbeat, doing your thang, having lots of attention paid to you, so you barely notice their absence.

I know, I've spent birthdays away before.

But today, I've really missed my sister. Possibly because it's just that she's the one that is away, and not the other way around, but I left the house this morning and could not stop thinking about her en route to work. The first song on my ipod reminded me of a gig we took our little brother to this time last year. The sun was shining. I would have been calling her to update her on my various bits of health shenanigans. But she wasn't there.

I even tried to text her old mobile number, to wish her a happy birthday, just in case she had turned it on to 'receive' any messages wherever she was. I sent a message. It failed to leave my phone and the error beep sounded brash and vulgar in the packed train carriage.

So happy birthday Kiki Dee*.

I can't send you a card, or a text, or call you. But I know you'll be having an amazing time, wherever you are.

*Not entirely her real name.

And now, we wait

The field tests on the eye went okay yesterday. But I have small lenticular opacities on my left lens, apparently. According to the optician it's kind of like a cataract, but a lot, lot smaller.

He reckons it may or may not be caused by recent chemo - without having any 'eye' history on me he can't be sure. His colleague reckons it's nothing to do with chemo, so there you go. You want someone qualified to give you a clear opinion but all you get is conjecture and disagreement.

Either way, with these opacities, it's not anything we can do anything about now. Well, you can get a cataract lens operation where they replace the lens, but it would be pointless at the moment given the minor trouble the left eye is giving me. Even if itnever gets any better, I can live with this.

But there is one test the guy did on which my response is bugging him so he has told me he is referring me to an opthalmologist to get it looked at in more detail... Apparently I hesitated on something called the Amsler Grid test. Which is what is designed to test any sign of macular degeneration - the thing I'd convinced myself that I had (at 4am Tuesday night/ Wednesday morning).

The opticians reassure me that I have nothing to worry about, that this is belt and braces. So we will see. After some wrangling with Standard Life about what my diagnosis was (hard when your opticians are only referring you because they don't know what your diagnosis is) I have an appointment with a Harley St specialist on the 20th.

In the meantime, I've been back to the Princess Grace to check out the new symptoms of the boob (puckering, tenderness, cording, swelling etc) and been given a clinical by the Professor. He suspects that all it is, is readjustment to normality after intense treatment. Skin and tissue do strange things after radiotherapy.

I'd be whooping the all clear if it weren't for the fact that despite his reassurances, he asked for me to get my blood markers taken today, instead of waiting until the end of March when I'm due to have bloods done in line with the scans etc due then. These are blood tests where they measure the level of proteins or antigens in your blood which may, or may not, indicate whether or not you have any breast or ovarian cancer present.

So I had a phlebotomist try and get to a vein deep in the crook of my elbow.

Tap, tap, tap.

No luck. He switched to the vein on my left hand.

Tap, tap.

My hand feels like it's about to get cramp I warn him. I've been holding a tight fist now for about five minutes.

He sighs and gives up, and moves the ratcheted elastic strap back up to above my elbow.

I'll stick with the one in your elbow after all, I think.

Eventually we have a vial of blood and it doesn't hurt too much. I recognise him from last March. He took my bloods the day after i was diagnosed. It feels a very long time ago.

I asked the Professor what would happen next. Do I call him, or does he call me? This pattern of dealing with non scheduled check ups is alien to me, I do not know the etiquette.

If it's bad news, I'll call you. If it's good news, I'll just write a letter.

I came in today looking forward to getting a definitive reassurance. A "Honestly, you're fine. Go home and stop worrying."

I didn't get that. I will hopefully get that on Monday, by the absence of a phone call.

I will be there, hanging on the telephone. Waiting for it not to ring.