Things I love 27: cherry blossom

The first house I remember living in had an ornamental cherry tree in the back garden. It was a prolific blossomer: brash and unashamedly pink. And it came out for my birthday! It was my tree. I mourned it when it had to be cut down – I’m not sure I’ve ever quite recovered.

I love blossom. It comes at my favourite time of year, when the world is full of potential. I love fruit blossom, obviously, but I also love the purely ornamental. There’s nothing nicer than walking round well-established residential areas in the early spring – places where the planting is purely for pleasure. Mock cherry, winter flowering jasmine, magnolias. Glorious.

And I love hedgerow blossom – the pale blackthorn giving way to rich and creamy hawthorn. Elderflower florets. An extravagant spilling of white.

My son and I talk about visiting Japan. Realistically, it’s unlikely I will ever visit Japan, but we can still talk about it. I have a fondness for Japanese art – a superficial westernised understanding of haiku and woodprints and ikebana. The knowledge that the space between things is as important as the things themselves. We like sushi and noodles and ramen. And it’s such a very different culture – I’d love to get a taste of it. I admire that love of transient beauty – it’s something I try to cultivate in myself. I am prone to clutter, to clinging onto things. Blossom season reminds me that everything changes, that things are here and gone – swift, fleeting delights. Impermanence is the rule, not the exception. Everything changes, and accepting that is so important.

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100 things I love 26: airport departure boards

Before this summer, when was I last on a plane? 2018 – a disastrous trip to Amsterdam for a friend’s 60th, when I managed to be so ill I barely left the extremely underwhelming hotel room. And before that…can’t remember. We’re campers, so we tend to do a road trip – and don’t get me wrong, I love a road trip.

Back in the day, though, I got a massive thrill from those departure boards. Yes, I was on my way to Dublin, but look – I could be going to Bangkok, or New York, or Melbourne, or Cairo, or, well, anywhere, really. Going There from Here – wow!

I love road signs, too. Not all of them, obviously, but in the south of Spain there’s one that says Seville, Granada, Cordoba – and what could be more redolent of southern Spain? You can smell the oranges on it. It’s a far cry from Manchester, Leeds, Wakefield. Mind you, I’ve just been up to Liverpool and I did enjoy the big signs saying THE NORTH-WEST. And I love the clarity of the MI: THE NORTH. THE SOUTH.

What I love here is the possibility. The thought that you could go anywhere. The thought that you could just drive north and north and north, past Yorkshire, past Northumberland, into Scotland, nothing stopping you but the North Sea. And in airports, even the sea doesn’t stop you. You could literally step out of a plane into a different hemisphere, a different continent, a place where you can’t even read the street signs, a city where the streets smell of heat and sesame oil, a city where everyone’s wearing fur-lined boots, a city that has no idea who you are or where you come from.

I missed all that. And I’d become afraid of going too far from home. And then, this summer, we flew to Italy. It was a difficult decision – flying is ecologically unsound, airports are tricky places – and then a stressful one, as we watched footage of people stranded in airports for days on end waiting for flights that had been cancelled and re-cancelled. We’d decided to fly because of the narrow windows between my treatments, and we didn’t want to have swapped days on the road and nights in provincial French hotels for hours sitting on the floor in a crowded airport.

In the end, it was fine. The flights ran smoothly, Italy was…Italy!…you know, amazing food, wonderful wine, fantastic architecture, the whole package – and the departure boards were still there, still magical.

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100 things I love 25: The Master and Margarita

I think my copy came from my dad. I have no idea why he had it – it’s not his kind of thing at all. And I picked it up in my teens, so it’s been with me for a long time. I can’t see a tram without thinking of it. If you know, you know. It fuelled my desire to go to Leningrad/St Petersburg – my dad refers to it at Leningrad (“refuse to kowtow to Putin”). Bizarrely, my father and my brother have both visited, and I haven’t – and probably won’t now. Odessa is another place I’ve always wanted to visit, and haven’t made it to. I guess that’s one of the things that books are for – to allow you to visit places you’ll never get to. And times you missed.

What else? Sunshine and warm apricot juice, and then that dark, glorious fantasy – and the fear of oblivion. The great, enormous, over-whelming fear of oblivion.

I had a postcard for a long time (and where did that come from?) that looked like Behemoth in human form. And, strangely, my first serious, rollercoaster boyfriend. I went to a fancy dress party as Margarita (at the ball, not naked on the broomstick) – and nobody knew but me. I forced my husband to read it, and he shares the love (thank goodness – would we be married if he didn’t? Who knows).

On our way back from Rome we met a guy from Costa Rica, who told us it was his favourite book. I’m not even sure how we got to that point in the conversation, but I immediately felt that bond you feel with someone who shares a slightly off-beat love.

I haven’t re-read it for years. I feel I should. I’ve read other Bulgakov in the meantime, but none of it is quite so glitteringly, darkly, wonderfully satisfying. If you haven’t read it, you should. You must. Go out right now and buy a copy, find yourself somewhere comfortable to sit, and read it. Go on.

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100 things I love: a good cafe

A good cafe should offer comfort. Maybe it’s raining, or cold – that damp, bitter cold that gets under your skin. There should be people in there already, but there should be a table free for you. The table itself doesn’t matter too much – maybe wooden, maybe red formica. The chair should be comfortable.

There should be coffee, obviously. Tea (though I probably won’t drink it).

This is not a tea-room. I do like a tea-room, but this is a cafe, and the decor doesn’t matter too much. A tea-room does sandwiches and cake. That’s lovely, but a proper cafe should have hot food. Savoury food. Possibly breakfast-based. Maybe chips? It may have condensation on the windows. It may do something surprisingly exotic – when I lived in London, years and years ago, I had a mild addiction to egg and anchovy sandwiches from a little Italian hole in the wall cafe.

I have a handful of local favourites: Cafe du Parc, which is all mismatched wooden tables and a very French green. It’s a bit of a cheat to call it a cafe – it’s definitely a Cafe. I’d be delighted to find it in France, so to find it in North Devon is amazing; the Rockpool is deep and dark and celebrates the surf at Westward Ho!. Chips and milkshakes and, well, just very good food and lovely staff; the Coffee Cabin – teeny tiny, quirky, fantastic coffee, and owners who make you feel like you’re their favourite customer; Market St Kitchen – it has a secret garden, and the soup is wonderful, and they do a great cream tea.

I’ve read in cafes. I’ve worked in cafes. I’ve talked and disputed and fallen in love in cafes. They are places where people come together, are nutured a little, and then move on. They are places that allow communities to form – the regulars. They shouldn’t be too fancy, they should be open to everyone in need of a hot drink and a bit of warmth. That’s the point.

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Update. You know, health and stuff. And food.

So, the good news is that the chemotherapy is holding the cancer in check for now. Next scan in a month.

The bad news is that the chemo is hard. And the worse news is that after this, when this fails, things will get harder. Eventually, we will have to make some very difficult decisions, and I’m not sure how to do that. That’s for the future, though. Right now, the cancer is being held and the chemotherapy goes on.

It’s hard. Not too hard, but hard. I have four or five days of lurking at the bottom of a dark pool, like a pike. I might well snap, so don’t ask difficult questions, like “what do you want for dinner?”. Or present me with more than one task or thought or idea at a time. Just let me read mild books and rest. Week two is not too bad, week three is pretty much back to normal. My new normal – a slower, plumper, less fit normal.

What’s the hardest thing? I think one of the hardest things is never quite feeling comfortable in my body. I’m losing a bit of sensation in my fingers and toes, and that feels weird. I have lymphoedema in my left arm, so my left hand can get very puffy – and that feels weird. I have a sore mouth. A dry, sore mouth. A mouth so dry that I wake up in the night and have to peel my tongue away from the roof of my mouth. And nothing tastes right.

It’s hard to describe, but if you drink tea AND coffee – and like both of them – you must have experienced the strange thing – being given a mug full of nondescript brown liquid and assuming it is tea (or coffee), taking a mouthful and finding that it’s vile, and then realising it’s actually coffee (or tea). At the moment, everything I eat is coffee when I was expecting tea, or tea when I was expecting coffee.

It’s really quite depressing, because I love food. And I just realised that I have reacted to this by becoming almost obsessional about food. This cycle I have read The Gastronomical Me by M F K Fisher (and had hard-core nostalgic fantasies about provinical France), Appetite by Nigel Slater, M K F Fisher again (With Bold Knife and Fork), and Towpath – which is a book of recipes and stories from a canalside cafe in London that I have, and probably will never visit. I have noted down recipes and planned meals and looked up local restaurants, and made a big lasagne for my wider family, all the while knowing that nothing will taste the way that I imagine it will, or even the way it smells.

My mouth is sore right now. I ate strawberries last night and had to push through the pain to do it. Generally, I can manage frozen fruit (grapes, blueberries, little cubes of melon, a bag of pineapple chunks), but fresh fruit is hard. Savoury is good. Salt is salt is salt. Nice and predictable. Bitter is cranked up to the max – and I generally like a bitter drink. Tea is awful. Coffee, so weak it’s an embarrassment, and mint tea are my hot drinks. Or just a cup of hot water, which is easier to drink than cold water.

And then, in the last three or four days before the cycle re-starts, I guzzle – coffee, cake, G&T, a glass of wine (though I’m now a white drinker, not a red drinker), all the veggie stuff that gives me stomach cramps in week two, spices, everything. Everything.

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100 things I love 23: Breakfast

I am one of those people who always wakes up hungry. Obviously there were times in the dim and distant past when I maybe woke up hungover and didn’t feel well enough to eat, but other than that, I NEVER skip breakfast.

Breakfast is a funny meal. It’s the most intimate meal of the day, eaten with somebody you’ve slept alongside. It’s when we’re at our most vulnerable, still cobbling ourselves together. It’s a meal where people crave familiarity.

But I don’t like cereal. I eat cornflakes on the very worst days of the chemo cycle because they have a bit of crunch and they go down easily, but other than that I wouldn’t bother with them. My standard breakfast is muesli, yoghurt, fruit, toast, tea. However, I will eat anything at breakfast. I like the strange, the exotic, the exciting.

My daughter is a bit of a breakfast girl. Brunch, maybe. She is rather partial to eggs Benedict – she’ll happily rustle some up. Coco Pops, she likes as well. We all love a breakfast buffet.

In Sri Lanka we had idlis, in southern Indai we had Kotha Parotha, in Thailand I had a kind of rice porrige with dried fish that I never learned the name of. Bring it on!

A Full English, obviously, is a wonderful thing. Ohh – a Full English with potato farls, which then becomes a Full Irish. Ohh – kedgeree!. A Continental buffet of meats and cheeses and cake – croissants – soft French bread to dip into a bowl of hot chocolate – pastries. Churros. Cold pizza. Honestly.

My mum used to do a proper Easter breakfast. Hot cross buns, dyed boiled eggs, an array of chocolate eggs. We used to spend Easter with my godmother and her family, and the pair of them once stayed up most of the night hand-making hot cross buns.

You know, I even like a hospital breakfast – a tiny bowl of cereal, some bendy toast and a plastic packet of marmalade.

Just after my first diagnosis we celebrated my husband’s 50th. I decided I had to delegate madly and unashamedly. We’d booked a place that had a few cottages and I appointed a breakfast monitor for each one. It was amazing what people brought – I particularly remember Sarah’s home-made muffins. I felt very loved that weekend.

Porridge. I’m never completely satisfied by porridge, but I do like it. The most decadent way of eating it is with cream and golden syrup, (obviously) – clotted cream if you happen to have some by you. In the Aran Islands we stayed in a guesthouse with a flamboyant proprietor who jazzed up our porridge with spices and raisins and it was a revelation. And in Finland we ate a different porridge made from a different grain every day of the week.

So, yes, my favourite meal, I think. I mean, it’s difficult.

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100 things I love 22: snow days

Ally ally aster, snow snow faster.

I’ve never lived with snow. It’s always been a short lived treat, a holiday destination, a gift. The excitement of watching it start, through the window at school. The hope of being sent home early! The hope of being snowed in the next day – is there anything to match that excitement? And the adventure of being sent home on the bus, and there being snow, and getting held up, and maybe having to walk home, and somebody having their PE kit with them and being able to put on a sweatshirt over your school uniform, and the world changing and rules disappearing…

Of course, snow features a lot in the photo album of our memory. In fact, in our photo albums we have mainly two kinds of weather – sunshine and snow. There’s a picture of me aged about 8 rolling a snowball that (in my memory at least) is bigger than I am. Even up in Yorkshire, snow only lasted a couple of days – never quite long enough for the novelty to wear off.

I’ve visited snow. Deep, white snow in Germany – and frozen canals and gluhwein and a very casual attitude to it all. And the weight of snow in Finland – snow that’s only going to get deeper until spring – snow that isn’t going to melt for weeks – snow that clings to trees, weighing them down. Snow that’s lit with dawn light until it’s let with dusk light. It was so cold there, you could actually see the shape of snowflakes, that crystalline hexagonal shape.

We took a ferry into Dublin one Christmas, the only white Christmas I remember, and the roofs were piled with snow. We sledged on a little hill up the road from my in-laws. We didn’t need to drive anywhere – it was wonderful.

I’ve been snowed in at home – and once I was snowed in at work – came off a night shift in A&E to find I couldn’t get home. I slept in a friend’s on call room, and then followed him home – him in a Landrover, me in my yellow, ugly duckling Renault 4. Snowed in at home, in this house, we had to walk to the end of the lane with a sledge for supplies.

But usually, a snow day is a one-off. A gift. A free gift, no obligations. A day for going out into the snow and getting cold – footprints in the lane, the black and white geometry of hedges, once a place where an owl’s wings had kissed the snow. – and then coming in to get warm. Hot chocolate. Toast by the fire. And the pandemic? I was privileged enough for it to feel like a snow day for a long time. A time when there was nothing much to do except get to know these young adults who were my children.

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100 things I love 21: soap

I love soap. Solid bars of soap. I just do.

Why? Well, it’s much more ecologically sound, for a start. And I like the feel of a brick of soap in my hands – though I hate hate hate soap residue on my skin. And it’s old-fashioned, it has a heritage.

I can remember several soaps. As a Brownie, we made bizarre things for the bazarre – bars of soap decorated with pastel netting and pinned in beads and sequins. It smelt overly floral. I bet they were really cheap – that’s not the kind of soap I mean. But scent memories are so strong.

Coal Tar soap is the smell of my grandparents’ outside toilet. That and Izal toilet paper. Imperial leather (did you leave the label on or take it off?) – until I did dermatology, and got warned off it because it’s very drying. Pears soap, with that slightly spicy smell (have some in the bathroom right now)

In India we had some sandalwood soap – from a little wooden shop that sold everything by the side of the road. It was a brownish colour, with a slightly grainy texture, but it smelled good.

Italian soap. I like the posh stuff that comes shaped like a brick. It takes ages to smooth those corners down, it’s almost too uncomfortable to hold properly. It lasts forever. It smells amazing, comes in a pretty paper wrapper. People buy it for me for Christmas and birthdays. But, in Italy I’ll happily buy from the local shop. I had one soap that “foamed like champagne” – and it really did – and one that was scented with citronella. Now I always take citronella scented soap on holiday as part of my anti-insect campaign.

I’m not an old lady yet, though I know soap is an old lady thing. It’s an everyday pleasure. I usually have a little stash of bars of soap – I like to choose which I’ll unwrap next. You have to appreciate those small pleasures, you should plan for them. They’re important.

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100 things I love 20: my DryRobe

This one is contraversial, I know, but you can call me all the names you like. I love my DryRobe, and I have one for Genuine Reasons. So leave me alone.

I have it for swimming. Or, rather, for before and after swimming – exactly what it’s designed for.

But also:

  1. It was a gift from my husband – my swimming partner. We’ve been swimming all year round for several years now. When we started, it was pretty much only us at the beach. There were a couple of other die-hards, but we were often the only ones in the water in skin. There are more and more of us now, but my husband remains pretty much the only man swimming. It’s a woman thing.
  2. It’s a local success story. We don’t have many international success stories here in sleepy North Devon, and it’s something to be celebrated.
  3. It’s blue.
  4. It’s so comfortable.

And, yes, I love huddling in it by the water, and drinking a cup of sweet, hot coffee from a flask on a winter day, but it’s also good for:

  1. Touchlines. (Oh, muddy rugby pitches and small boys)
  2. River banks. (Oh, rowing girls in thin boats gliding up and down the river)
  3. Frozen lakesides
  4. Star gazing. During lockdown, we would go out and look at the stars. A little line of us, on our backs, looking up at the sky. The kids in sleeping bags on a picnic blanket, me in my DryRobe. Looking for shooting stars.

It’s the coat I have in the boot of my car on days when it might just snow. I’ve walked round Morrison’s in it, completely naked underneath, after a spill in the river (yes, I thought I’d try rowing. No, it didn’t work out).

It’s mainly for swimming though. There’s quite a few of us at the beach. Some are dogwalkers, some are surfers, but there’s generally a handful of swimmers, all robed, like some bizarre religious order. We swim at Sandymere – it’s a long, shallow beach. It’s an effort to get out of you depth. I’m not a great swimmer – and the whole lacking eyebrows and eyelashes thing is a pain (when you don’t have them, you really understand why they evolved), but I bob about, I swim – canal stroke, my dad calls it – a slow breast-stroke, face out of the water. And I come out feeling ALIVE! – it’s my reset button. I missed it so much when I had a Hickmann line and couldn’t go in the water. And I can only do it at the end of my chemo cycle, and we like to get the tide right and….it’s complicated, but it’s great. I come out, red and tingling, and I put on my DryRobe, and I watch the other idiots bobbing about much more athletically than me, much more gracefully, and I really don’t care. I’m connected to my body and to the world in a positive way, and it’s wonderful.

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100 things I love 19: being driven through the dark

So, my husband likes to drive. I don’t, so much. I like to go places, I like the freedom of driving, but the actual driving? It’s just something you have to do. Whereas he gets immense satisfaction from getting the exactly right line on the bend, from being in the perfect gear, from judging his braking minutely. He likes the Zen of driving.

I like being driven by him. I love being driven at night by him. I guess it brings back memories of childhood – that memory everybody has of falling asleep in the car, of being carried into the house by a parent’s strong arms, of pretending not to have woken up. I’m prone to travel sickness, so sleep was a great retreat for me – and I’ve always been soothed by the sound of engines, and the vibration.

I like the sweep of lights from on-coming cars. I like driving under motorway bridges. I love the service stations that have bridges over the motorway – oh, and I remember eating in a service station cafe on a bridge over the motorway with my Granny and Grandad – I must have been at primary school – and thinking it was the most wonderful thing in the world.

I try to stay awake when he’s driving. It seems only fair – it seems like I should be helping in this joint enterprise of getting from A to B. But I often doze – that slip and jerk. The thing is, I feel so safe, with him there. His hands on the wheel.

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