Wednesday, 6 October 2010


In May this year, 16 months after having a mastectomy, I had an eight hour operation to reconstruct what had been taken away. It’s pretty major surgery, not something to take lightly, yet that’s probably what I did in the build up.

At the mastectomy stage, when all the cancerous tissue had been removed, they inserted a silicone implant which, whilst giving some shape, always felt like I was carrying a bowling ball around. It was so uncomfortable, heavy and hard as a rock. There had been problems of fluid retention and then scar tissue had made the area hard and lumpy. Subsequent radiotherapy had then caused the skin to contract and thicken, creating an even tighter feel. For me, the implant was always a temporary measure, and psychologically I needed to get rid of that too.

There were three options; to keep it and have no further surgery, to keep it and have rebalancing surgery on the other breast, or to have a full reconstruction. The latter was always my preference. I joked for months about looking forward to having a boob job and a tummy tuck, which is basically what it was, but in all seriousness, the results aren’t really anything like you’d see in any breast “enhancement” brochure.

The best bit is having a flat tummy. Two pregnancies of colossal size within my 5’ frame hadn’t done me any favours and no amount of exercising or toning would ever get rid of the loose skin. But that’s all gone now. An elliptical shape of tummy skin with all the fat attached (there wasn’t actually that much fat, so I was told) and a bit of stomach muscle which provided a blood supply, was removed. The two sides were then stretched together and sewn up and the belly button re-positioned. Sneezing and laughing were a bit tricky for a few weeks. I was worried I would perforate.

The lump of flesh was then basically transplanted to the chest to make a new more natural feeling breast. The implant was whipped out and the existing breast skin envelope cut and shaped to contain the newly positioned tummy skin. The transplanted tummy tissue, muscle and blood vessels were then fused to the existing blood vessels in the breast area. This bit of micro surgery is what took all the time. I was under anaesthetic for around ten hours.

Immediately after the operation, I was monitored every hour for about a day and a half. They had to check that the blood supply had taken otherwise the transplanted tissue would have died. To help it take, the breast, and actually the whole of me, had to be kept warm. I had a lightweight fleecy kind of hollow sleeping bag stroke airbag covering me. Constant warm air was pumped through it. I was boiling. And immobile; there were three drain sites – one each side of the tummy wound and one at the side of the breast, I was hooked up to a drip of morphine, to which my hand clung as I self administered. Then there was oxygen and the obvious catheter. All I was able to do was take sips of water through a straw which had to be positioned in reach of my free arm. Then there was the nausea and sickness. Then there was the hospital food, once I could sit up. I was extremely thankful to Jenni who brought me my stash of M&S food.

Two days after the op I was lifted out of bed and could sit up in a chair. The next day I was wheeled to the bathroom. The following day I was made to walk from the bed to the window. I was sent home two days after that. I was rather delicate. I had to dress the wound sites daily for three weeks with iodine strips and gauze and tape. It took about an hour every day. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything or do much really for a few weeks. My sister came down from Blackpool to look after me, and my nephew was also around to help out. The ex had the kids and also looked after me. My lovely friends visited and brought me food and, when I was able to move around a bit better, took me out for lunch. Due to the timely World Cup, I did as I had been told and rested up, which I think aided my recovery quite considerably. The good weather helped too. Four and a half weeks after the operation I had my first night out – my graduating friends’ degree show, which had always been a target to be the first night I would be able to have beer.

The new breast is now softer than the implant ever was but still more pert than the other side, as well as being smaller. There’s a big scar running all the way around. There’s still no nipple, though that will be formed in the next stage of surgery, hopefully quite soon. There is a difference in texture between the softer “tummy” skin which is sewn next to the thick elephant-hide-like radiated existing breast skin. This is getting less apparent though with time, and the shape seems to be settling down. But there is a bit of a crimpy look to it and I call it a Cornish pasty. The look of it may get better. But it may not. I am just happy that it feels ten times better than the implant did. The next stage is to have the other breast reduced and lifted to create some kind of a symmetrical look.

There’s no escaping the fact that my body has been maimed. There’s an absence. A loss. Two years’ worth of transience. I could let it get me down but I won’t. I’ve been lucky to have had people who have helped me in various ways to get over different stages and feelings. I will be forever grateful and know I will be able to move on from here.

All this has been due to breast cancer.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Keep checking.


Thursday, 12 August 2010

sorry, love

It had been a long night. Darkness was descending ever earlier these days, these final days of a soon to be remembered heatwave. At the edge of the city’s main traffic intersection the heat conserved by the concrete surroundings of Robert’s flower stall wrapped itself around the last of the day’s blooms. An evading sickly sweet smell quickened their fading beauty and limp notes of colour. It had been a busy night too. A night full of promises and lost love for his customers. Men. It was always men who bought from him. They would stop by in their cars, needing perfumed ammunition in order to carry out their various quests. On their way to make up. Or to give up. He had a few regulars too. He knew that these men, like him, had come to think of flowers as a stabiliser, a constant factor in their complicated lives. To them, flowers had a language. They spoke “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, and just maybe “It’s been a good day and I want to share it with you”. It all depends on who’s translating. Robert’s quiet demeanour seemed to encourage his late night customers to confide. He didn’t question, comment or advise. He just listened. They respected his priestly silence.

This humid night had brought a new customer. A short, overweight man in his fifties, his face damp with twin tributaries of sweat and tears, had appeared in the new gloom, stumbling, almost falling into the flower seller’s scent laden arms. A few hours before his arrival, when the evening was just beginning to fade, Robert had spotted him in the distance and had watched him. The man had parked his car at an obtuse angle, and looked to be in some agitated state, pacing up and down the pavement. He couldn’t be heard but he clearly seemed to be talking to himself, imploring with himself, his stubby arms up in the air. At one point he had got back into his car but remained stationary, immersed in his indecision.

Roses of all shades and tones were the offerings that night, their velvet petals having absorbed the last of the natural light were now switched on again, glowing under the sulphurous street lights.

The new customer had taken Robert by surprise. He’d been clearing the discarded stems and leaves from the pavement. His next job would be to select any decent remaining flowers to keep for the following day. There weren’t really any contenders tonight though. His stock was almost gone. Then this fumbling, crumbling man appeared at his side. He needed flowers. That’s what he said. He needed them, his voice quietly resigned. Anything would do, he said. Robert just looked at him and shook his head. But the man thrust his hands into his pockets withdrawing several notes, and, almost falling over, he waved them in Robert’s face. Demanding. Pleading. Anything. Please.

It’s too late. You can tell that. His last chance has gone. Flowers won’t help now. Whatever he’s apologising for, my few stems won’t make any difference. It’s too late. You can see that. Whatever has happened, it’s too late. But I’m glad I had a few left for him. And I couldn’t take his money, could I?

But now I don’t know. There’ll be nothing left to eat by now. He was so insistent. And then his tears. It’s good to be able to cry. I wish I could still cry. But that’s all gone.

Hasn’t it?

But he could see I was about to bin them. They were way past it. Wilting all over the place. But it was dark. He couldn’t see properly. He just had a determination. Flowers. Flowers were all he could see. He was in a bad way, and of course flowers mean sorry. And roses mean love. Sorry love. But it’s not always enough. I know that.

It’s not ever enough. I’m sorry, love.

This humid night had edged out an arid day. In the dry, midday heat, Mike had been stood in the squat shadows of his office building, smoking a cigarette. He’d got through quite a lot of cigarettes this week. It didn’t do him any good. He knew that. It was a chance and time to think though. That was a good thing, he thought. But he only felt uncomfortable standing there in his ill-fitting attire. A pastel coloured flowery shirt was too tight for this particular summer. His wife had thrown it out into the yard this morning along with a dysfunctional family of clothes. Every piece was a solitary vagrant; they didn’t live harmoniously together, had seen better days and were now homeless. And moreover, nothing was comfortable or suitable for this weather.

He stood in the welcome shade, his arm leaning against the wall, the relatively short extension providing a buffer to the heat radiating from the bricks. The shirt felt looser that way too, although the sweat was sprinting down his body. He wondered why, of all the shirts she could have thrown, why this one? He felt sure it had never been so tight. It was quite a few years old. He thought it must be five, six, even seven years ago now, remembering a happier, slimmer time by a southern coast. Yes, must be getting on for seven, he thought. It must be. Seven years. An itch crept down his outstretched arm.

The floral discomfort set off memory cogs. He’d been wearing this shirt that night at Joe and Stella’s, one night two summers ago it would have been. It had been an impromptu get together, the summer sun inviting goodwill to come and play amongst friends. That night hadn’t panned out as they had had anticipated. As he remembered, they had decided at the last minute to get together for a drink before deciding where to go out to dinner. They’d thought of trying out a new place, Italian it was, just down the road. That’s the kind of thing they used to do.

He remembered now, how that night Joe had been talking. Holding forth he was, which was odd, considering he was usually the quiet guy. The four of them - Joe, Stella, Mike and Lisa, his wife – had sat round the kitchen table. A half bottle of wine plonked in an ice bucket was placed in the middle and, for Mike at least, had turned into a focal point during the unusual monologue. As Joe’s words were floating by, he had watched as newly formed drops of water ran slowly down its metal exterior, tiny rivulets tracing an unknown route. That night was when their friendship started to melt too. He understood that now. At the time though, he had thought they were all happy, enjoying the spontaneity, the drinking. Enjoying each other. And he had never stopped to think why Lisa was so quiet that night.

Joe was a doctor, but a reluctant talker about all things medical. Usually. But that night he talked relentlessly about his job, about one of his patients that day. It had felt like none of them could contribute, to question or probe, to turn the monologue into a dialogue. It felt okay to let him spout off, get whatever it was he was trying to say off his chest. Mike had just poured more wine.

There was an intensity about Joe that night. But Mike had enjoyed seeing him like that. Animated for a change, instead of watching like he usually did, as if analysing every scrutinised detail. So that night, it was as if everyone was letting Joe have his moment, and left him to continue with his recounting. Well, that’s what Mike had thought at the time. That no one actually had anything to add. That like him, the women were happy enough to let the wine flow. Now though, now he could see that the signs were there. He wondered why he hadn’t picked up on them. But I was blind, he thought. Or blinkered. Maybe he had been aware of some stirrings, some stray glances, but he just hadn’t wanted to confront them. He’d always been a head in the sand man. Always the one to shy away from conflict. This was why he was finding it hard now. I’ve left it all too late, he thought.

His mind travelling, he realised now that Joe had been attempting to tell him. Or warn him? But I was blind, he convinced himself. Life was good then. Or so he had thought.

God this shirt is tight.
I must try and breathe.

It’s too late though.
I know that much.
Sorry, love.


Watching the gardener’s gradual progress he thought how tiring it must be. How satisfying though, to be able to see instant results of your hard work. That’s always good.

On this early evening in June the sky is hanging low, shrouded in layers that prevent the sun from breaking through. It’s there though, the sun, somewhere, the dense tiers of cloud closely hiding a surprising mugginess. From the motel window, this high up, he should be able to see pretty much the whole town and beyond its straggling outskirts. The distant fields and hills though are veiled in pale monotones. He likes his room. It feels safe up here overlooking the almost empty car park. His car is there, a shy vehicle in its space on the edge next to the trees, hanging back. Like a wallflower waiting to be asked to dance. The yellow lines demarking the vacant bays stand out in their loneliness, glowing teasingly like strands of sunbeams in the absence of the reluctant sun. So, he was the only guest, was all alone here too.

Glimmering through the haze, it’s a steady movement that had made him wonder about job satisfaction. A weary looking gardener is pushing a red mower up and down and across a sloping grass verge which separates the motel car park from the main highway. Backwards and forwards the man traverses the expanse of green. There he goes again. The mesmerizing repetitive motion makes his mind wander. Wandering, he thought. Is that why I’ve ended up here? Unlike the gardener who knows his route, he has less idea of where he’s heading. But he’s all too aware of where he’s come from. Of what‘s been left behind.

He wonders how long it will take the gardener to finish the plot. Leaning out of the window he can now see how the colour of the grass changes once it has been shorn, as if a paintbrush was attached to the bottom of the machine. Short clippings are deposited along the route. He can see them flying up in the air, propelled by the force of the sharp blades. He worries slightly that they will freckle the newly painted landscape, how they will dry out and turn yellow. A forgotten day comes to him.

She had wanted eggs. He’d only got ham. He hadn’t thought she might not eat meat. The green smell of hay lingered unhurriedly in the pink evening haze. Juice from her apple had dropped onto her freckled arms and he worried about the wasps again. They had been swarming lazily around one of the bales earlier. Up they rose, hovered and dived back down, their wings battling to keep cool.

He notices the mower has stopped, taking a bit of a rest. It’s a sweaty job, there’s no doubt about that. He kind of wishes he could go out there and talk with him, take him a beer or something. He places a cold bottle that he’s been holding to his forehead before taking a swig.

She had wanted beer. He’d only got one. They shared that one bottle that evening. They shared that young summer too, toiling the land, working in the fields, heads covered to shield the sun. He hadn’t wanted the harvest to end. But by then the fields had been plucked bare and the wasps were making plans to hide away.

The sun finally wins its struggle to emerge, like a hole appearing in paper under a magnifying glass, slightly singed at the edges. Then its abrupt searching glow starts to highlight sparse raindrops which seem to have come from nowhere. Interspersed with the stray grass clippings spitting into the air, they look like shards of warm icicles. The glinting spears could be mistaken for diving fireflies. Or wasps.

She had wanted to go. He’d only wanted to stay, his ambitions as hazy as the late September. He went with her though. Followed her, a wasp attracted to her sweetness. And now here he was. Ten years later in a familiar haze. And he’d only wanted to stay.

The gardener reaches the concrete verge. One last swoop and stops. Looking up at the sultry sky, he wipes his brow again, a mixture of sweat and raindrops this time. But he is smiling. He can see that he is smiling. Job well done.

once upon a time

I used to think that. Then it didn't work out.

Monday, 14 June 2010

the distance between

Staring out to sea
Across the bay lights flicker
Dusk creeps to night

Listening to the waves
Waves unseen

Waves carry words

Words that sail away
Towards glimmer and glow

those smiling eyes meet mine

No longer fixed on the horizon
Another twinkle

But it’s more than that

Those words

Then the waves
Carried them away
To the distant shore

Dancing on the horizon

Forever on the horizon

Sunday, 11 April 2010

much too young

One day I'll write something less melancholy. But, in the meantime.... today is my wedding anniversary. Or was, as I'm no longer married, or nearly no longer married. Almost divorced. Then will I have a divorce anniversary in years to come? Earlier this week I happened to be visiting the town where I moved to when I first got married. I lived there 3 years and left 20 years ago. So I got married 23 years ago today. Way, way too young. I parked the car outside my old house, our first home, first mortgage. So grown up. The house looked so small now. Memories grow, things were always bigger when you were a child. We were happy there. Most of the time. I think. We'd escaped our home town and were intent on developing an independent us. We became one unit whilst living there. Shrewsbury, Shropshire. My great grandmother happened to come from there, moving to Blackpool for work. I apparently take after her. It did seem like I was going back home the other day. More so than when I head west down the M55.

never, never, never, never, never give up