To put this event in context, you should know that on Saturday I had been to Ania and Rufus’s for a civilised evening of wine and cheese. The proffered baguette was turned down because a few weeks ago, in a spasm of self-loathing, I gave up wheat products. (I don’t know why. They hadn’t done anything to hurt me and nothing has really changed for me in their absence except that I’m a lot more difficult to cater for and significantly grumpier.) Anyway. Deliciously ripe, fragrant cheese was smeared over disconcertingly black ash oatcakes and we gorged happily for three hours or so.
To cut a long story short, it turns out that cheese does not line the stomach as well as you might hope. Or, in fact, at all. Hence my new theory that cheese actually acts as a lipidinous* pathway, facilitating the safe passage of wine from the gullet directly into one’s delicate brainal membranes. Sunday morning was BAD.
After the bladder issue had been successfully addressed, I crawled back to my room and waited for the bed to swing around again before leaping in and praying for death. There was a sheet of decongestant tablets on my bedside table with two tabs missing. I’d obviously mistaken them for painkillers the night before and pre-emptively gobbled them. Presumably that’s why, whilst feeling I might at any moment regurgitate water, wine and a selection of dairy products, I was at least enjoying startlingly clear nasal passages.
There’s a critical point during every really bad hangover, as I’m sure you’re aware, when the crisis suddenly passes and you find yourself able to contemplate a whole new existence away from your bed/sofa/toilet bowl. Sure, you have those little dips back into the hangover zone (or worse, the flashbacks into drunken zone: mine came at 2 p.m. when I mounted a Boris Bike at High Street Kensington and suddenly recalled doing exactly the same thing twelve hours earlier and pissed) but the blessed relief of feeling halfway normal again is almost worth the agony of the hangover itself. So it was with a newfound joy and tenacity that I got out of bed and into a lukewarm bath, making sure to keep my head above the waterline.
This was my first severe hangover in at least three years, and I blame Ania and Rufus. Not really. Well, not entirely. It was one of my first social outings in ages and I think I might have been trying a bit too hard. You get out of practise. It was the same at a wedding I attended the week before, where I knew only the groom and ended up getting so overstimulated that I locked into social mode and tried to make friends with everyone, all day, including the taxi driver on the way to the station in Bath and four blameless strangers on the train back to London.
Things have been a bit weird for the last few weeks. So weird that I haven’t even been able to justify beating myself up over not writing the blog. As I’m sure a lot of you are aware, Dalrymple HQ’s mum was seriously ill in hospital for a long while. Ah-ah! Stop. I don’t want your sympathy, and she certainly doesn’t.
A brief timeline for those who aren’t familiar with the story:
October 2010: Mum feels distinctly sub-par and displays a number of symptoms that lead to her GP putting her on statins for high cholesterol. Mum feels worse, loses a shitload of weight and (crucially) stops drinking. Alarm bells ring.
November 2010: Mum still feels shitty and so her doctor reluctantly takes her off statins. She feels much better almost straightaway, but still can’t quite stand the idea of drinking wine. Alarm bells jangle alarmingly loudly.
December 2010: Test results indicate that while all other functions are back to normal, Mum’s liver function is still getting worse. At Christmas Mum drinks one glass of Prosecco and looks ashen. We all get tinnitus.
January 2011: Mum has liver biopsy to investigate small, probably benign cyst in liver.
February 2011: Biopsy results reveal that small probably benign cyst is in fact large secondary adenocarcinoma. Primaries of this kind of cancer are most often found in the pancreas, stomach, lungs, breast, skin or ovaries. Mum has as little as three months or as long as five years to live. Tom leaves Manchester, I leave work, we all go to the pub and stare into pints (us) / lime and soda (mum).
Mid-February: Further tests comprehensively fail to locate a primary, or primaries. They are either hiding extremely cleverly, or my mum has deleted them. Yes, deleted them. A surgeon, Mr Jiao, says he’d like to have a bash at removing the liver tumour. We say yes, please.
A few days later Mr Jiao removes 70% of Mum’s liver, her gallbladder, and all but one of her bile ducts. He later reveals that it was the biggest operation of his career to date, that the tumour he removed was the size of his fist, and that while it been growing for up to ten years, it would have been inoperable given another three weeks. What’s more, the cancer wasn’t a secondary at all, but a very rare primary cancer of the bile ducts that isn’t normally diagnosed in the few people who get it until it’s too late. If surgery has completely removed the tumour, and subsequent chemotherapy deals with any stray cancer cells, mum could live to 100. In one conversation, Mr Jiao effectively hands my mum five years of life. Even she reaches for a calming drink before remembering and succumbing to acute post-operative digestive failure.
February/March/April: Mum is discharged from hospital for a tantalizing 12 hours before being readmitted on my birthday with septicaemia. She spends the next 5 weeks battling raging fevers and draining various fluids into bags, getting thinner, tireder, and more pissed off with every passing day.
One day, as I sat in the chair at the foot of the bed, mum piped up from her nest of pillows and tubes: ‘I think it must be terribly draining for you all coming here every day’. I scoffed. After all, I still had my allotted portion of liver and, more importantly, a basically functioning mother. Yet now she’s been discharged (hopefully for the last time), and things are getting back to normal, I can kind of see where she was coming from. The routine of getting up, going to work, going to the hospital, and getting home late to sleep was actually pretty knackering.
I was absolutely glad to be going to the hospital every day, would not have had it any other way, and, furthermore, will revert in a heartbeat if need be; but looking back I think it was getting to me more than I realised at the time. For a while it seemed that I was only ever on the tube, at work, on a bus, or at the hospital. I wasn’t seeing many friends or doing anything social except rehearsals, and even then I was often so tired that the notes sort of slipped around rather than through me.
There was one week in particular when people would ask me how I was (as you do) and I genuinely didn’t know what to say. I experimented with stock phrases like ‘I am a dessicated husk’, and ‘I’m sorry, but I no longer have a personality’, but this seemed to make people uncomfortable. I took the problem to Mum, who advised me to say instead ‘fine, thanks. How about YOU?’ Despite coming from a woman whose primary topic of conversation was then bile, this had a much better success rate.
I started having nightmares for the first time in years. Proper ones, of the kind that make you wake up sweating and crying and afraid to go back to sleep.
In the worst one, I stood in a bare room where the only furniture was a large double bed. The bed moved to one side to reveal a gaping hole in the floor wherein lay the most malevolent, evil presence imaginable. Though whatever dwelt in the hole filled me with dread, the dream me know that that only way to defeat it would be to run at it, screaming defiance. But instead of shrinking to nothing, as I expected, the hole gaped wider as I ran towards it. I stood in front of it as it threatened to swallow me whole, trying to scream for my dad – but my voice failed me entirely. I was totally powerless.
It says a lot about me that even my nightmares are incredibly easy to deconstruct. However, no time for that now. The day after the nightmare I decided that I would audition for a solo in one of my choirs. I worked really hard on it, and passed the audition. (The fact that there were no other auditionees was purely coincidental). I’ve been off alcohol and dairy for an entire week, the concert is tonight and the rehearsal begins in an hour. I have to go and learn some notes now.
Tonight I’m facing my fears, and Mum will be in the audience watching.**