We are out to lunch at a Vietnamese café in Islington, and my friend Melissa has presented me with a paper bag full of quinces. “Let me tell you the story of my quince tree,” she says, and she does: a quince tree that grew from a hacked-about hedge, and miraculously came back to life, and flourished, and grew, and has now borne fruit, and now she is giving the fruit to me, partly because the metaphor is too good to ignore, and partly because I am a cook, and she is not. I have never held a quince before: like medlars they seem like something from a fairy story, or a dream. (This is how I feel about pomegranates, too: I am always surprised by their presence in Sainsbury’s. They seem too good for supermarkets. Too strange, too beautiful. Too fairy-story.)
But you cannot buy quinces in the supermarket, and so this is the first time I have ever seen one in the flesh.
I am surprised by them, too: like greeny-yellow apples, only a little bigger, heavier, longer maybe. The skin of one is wrinkled and puckered (“The sin of Eve,” Melissa tells me. “I couldn’t resist picking it as soon as it was ripe”) and the three together in the paper bag give off an extraordinary scent. A deep, musky, almost too-ripe smell, and when I set the quinces in a bowl on the windowsill they perfume the room.
They please me so much, sitting there on the windowsill, that I find some apples (from my grandmother’s garden), and put them out, too. Then a little round squash, left over from Halloween, and a handful of little chestnuts. And a pomegranate, because I can never resist. And then the doorbell rings, and the postman hands me a long, thin, flat box. It’s flowers: pale gold roses, and the strange tall flowers called Peruvian lilies. Lilies of the Incas, in tightly furled buds that I can see already are deep pink and bright lilac and buttery yellow. I trim the stems, and sugar the water, and put them in the middle of all the autumnal bounty on the windowsill. The card with them notes, first, that they are from my friend Eleanor – “Just because” – and that they will open up over the course of the week, and last.
And so they do. John goes back into hospital. Chemo begins again. And at home, the flowers are blooming, and the quinces filling the air. It’s a long stay, this time, four weeks or maybe more. They are going to kill off his stem cells, and replace them with his own, harvested cells. It’s a little dangerous, and it’s gruelling. It will hurt. He may not be able to eat. He may not be able to drink. He may die. (We hope not.)
I have been dreading it: not so much for the medical aspect, for I trust his consultant and the nurses absolutely, but for his absence. The house, when he is not here, feels like either a sort of graveyard of our ordinary life together, or a hotel, empty, impersonal. Dead. But this time, I am prepared. We are prepared, I should say, because the last thing John does before he goes back into hospital is make my bed for me with all the Winter Bedding. "I want you to like being at home,” he tells me. “I want you to live in our home and enjoy it for both of us.”
The Winter Bedding involves a duvet under the bottom sheet, and a duck-down duvet with matching pillows for the top. It is immensely luxurious. We have, together, planned a series of small luxuries – the flowers from Eleanor, the quinces from Melissa, the Winter Bedding – to make this bearable. More than that: to make it as joyful as we can. To find whatever goodness there can be in such a time, and rejoice in that- which is, I suppose, the point of all the lipstick. A small and lovely thing that makes life worth having, when everything is difficult and stressful and sad.
The lipstick I wear most this week, gloriously, is called Quince. The brand is Bite, and the two words together delight me: Bite, in Quince. A satisfying little phrase. It is deep, bright, beautiful pink, the colour not of the quince fruit, but of the flowers. I roll it around on my tongue, and marvel at the coincidence: the lipstick arrives from America in a Jiffy bag, on the morning John goes back into hospital, the day after Melissa gives me the quinces. The lipstick itself is a gift from another brilliant friend, and I think, as I apply it in the cab there, of how lucky we are.
And I think of that fragment of Yeats: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.” I think of John, reading Yeats at our friends’ wedding, and I think of all our generous, glorious friends, all over the world, who have sent us lipsticks and flowers and love. So much love: I did not know how loved we were until we needed it most. And it is that that sustains us, and will sustain us, all through the long days. Love by the mail. Love winding its way across the wires, by phone and text and tweet. Love that comes by plane and train and Underground, love that comes rushing across the city after work to see John and stay with me and bounce contentedly on my bed and say with a sigh: “Your Winter Bedding is AMAZING.” (And it is.) And most of all, always, how much I love John, and he loves me, and how it is like something from a fairy story, or a dream: too strange, too beautiful, too glorious, and I rejoice in it utterly, and it is everything.
The nurses laugh at me every morning, because I am always falling over my own feet, tripping and almost-running to see him, with my bright pink mouth. I miss him every night. I miss him making tea in the mornings, I miss him grumbling about the washing up, I miss him shouting at Hell’s Kitchen on Netflix. I miss him, and so I run to him in the morning, and smear my lipstick kissing him. It doesn’t stand up to much kissing, this lipstick, but it’s worth it for the colour. Bright, brave, fierce and joyous: this lipstick is everything I want to be, and when I am wearing it I feel fully and entirely the depth and breadth of how very lucky we both are to be so enormously loved. There’s cancer, yes. But there’s also so much else. There’s just so much else, and all of it – all of it – is down to that old chestnut, love.
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS...
I’d never been much of a makeup person before last year, but strange things happen on the cancer ward. When my partner, the Tall Man, was suddenly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I found myself reaching for a battered tube of Mac Ruby Woo – part armour, part warpaint, all crimson defiance. This is a column about lipstick, and about caring, and about cancer, but most of all it’s my lifeline and it’s proof – for me, at least – that putting on a brave face is half the fight. Read my story so far here.