I have always believed in magic.
Even as a grown-up I find it hard to shake. I try not to, but I find myself believing in ghosts, in curses, and in prophecy. In luck, in talismans: I carry a stone with a hole in it, just in case. I don't step on pavement cracks. I don’t walk under ladders, and I deliberately stop and make a fuss of black cats, so they’ll stalk between my legs instead of going either side: nobody seems to know which way a black cat walking brings you luck, and which way drags it off, and I prefer not to take the chance. I am adept at looking as if I’m brushing my hair from my eyes when really I’m saluting lone magpies; and I go through Maldon like nobody’s business, because I am both clumsy and superstitious.
It started with Matilda, of course, like it does for all bright, bullied little girls: the feeling that I was magic, and I was different not because I was plump and bookish and solitary, but because I was magic. I knew the world was wild and strange and full of things I didn’t really understand (rotational symmetry, divorce): why shouldn’t magic be one of those things? I had seen shooting stars; I had seen lambs being born. They seemed like magic. They seemed like magic to me. And so I believed, and I really believed. I believed in magic the same no-bother way I believed in gravity, or apples, and I believed (of course) that magic was my due. Matilda had magic, and I was like Matilda: magic was my due.
Harry Potter made it worse: I waited for my Hogwarts letter for years. I thought I’d probably be so magic I’d get to go early, so I started waiting when I was about eight. I’m still waiting, or a little part of me is: a little part of me is surprised every day that I have not yet come into my full powers. I believe, somewhere, deep down, that my actions will in some way influence the vast uncaring universe: that if I just manage to touch every third stone in the wall, John will get well; if I salute every solo magpie I see, John will get well; that if I never walk under ladders, and throw salt when I spill it, and fuss over black cats, John will get well.
It’s a control fantasy, of course: the desperate reachings of a person who feels always, perpetually out of her depth. The desperate reachings of a person who grew up, and found that the world was still strange, and still full of things she did not understand. I’m careful: I talk to my therapist, I meditate, I make myself stop doing it for months at a time. I’m chary of falling back into the OCD patterns and habits of my worst periods of anxiety, but deep down, I know: this isn’t that. This is something more fundamental: this is my childhood belief in magic surfacing at the time in my life when perhaps I need most to believe in something.
Just as the chemotherapy, mixed by men in white coats to a precise ratio of salts and poisons, is no more than alchemy, it seems to me that this transubstantiation of a squishy plastic sack of gold-coloured liquid into a second chance at life, is entirely magical
And the time in my life in which magic seems, more than ever, to surround me. I do not understand John’s cancer. I do not understand John’s treatment. I do not understand any of it, no matter how hard I try to follow John’s Wikipedia lectures on this drug or that drug. And yet, here we are.
By the time you read this column, we will (with God and a following wind) be in the transplant room. They will be spinning the stem cells (tiny, precious, beginnings of life) from John’s sister’s bones; they will be preparing to feed them into his. Just as the chemotherapy, mixed by men in white coats to a precise ratio of salts and poisons, is no more than alchemy, it seems to me that this transubstantiation of a squishy plastic sack of gold-coloured liquid into a second chance at life, is entirely magical. Presto change-o: a brand new immune system. His blood type will become hers. They will examine things in his blood too small to see; they will look at his insides without taking them out. Abracadabra, alakazam: is this really so different from magic?
There is a lipstick I carry with me always: it moves from handbag to handbag to coat pocket, and I am never without it. For three reasons.
First, this is a lipstick that goes with everything. It is a neutral; a base level. It is never unflattering, never too much, never too little. It’s a good lipstick. It smells a little like greasepaint, like being backstage: I wanted, once, to be an actress, and I have missed backstage ever since. I like it.
Second, this is a lipstick that changes when you put it on, from brassy gold to some shade of pink, based on the heat of your body and the pH of your skin. On me, it’s a delicate, subtle, rose-pink, flecked through and there with dashes of pure, light-catching gold. This is a lipstick that carries within it a small science, and I do not understand even that: I am happy to go with (as the casing, white and sturdy, says) magic. I carry it with me for that reason, too.
And third: it was a gift from a friend, a late Christmas present. A February present.
He came to Christmas dinner, and after all the gifts had been exchanged, he and his girlfriend exchanged looks, and he told me: “I bought you another present, but I didn’t bring it.”
“I thought you might think it was weird,” he told me.
“I thought you might think it was weird, but I bought you a lipstick: Caroline said you wanted a gold one, so I tracked this one down for you. I tried lots. I liked this one best. Is it weird?”
And I keep it with me for that: I keep it with me to remind me of Gavin, painstakingly wading through oceans of gold lipstick; to remind me of Christmas, when we were all together, and the air was full of singing, and the table was heavy with candles and roses and good food; to remind me of the thoughtful, easy generosity of our friends: these people who have carried us through this, unquestioning, uncomplaining, as constant as the Northern star.
And I think of our friends, and I think of all the strangers who have given so generously of their money and their love; all the strangers who tell me they are thinking of us, and praying for us, and hoping for us; all the strangers who have given their blood and their bone marrow and their time. Five people have told me, now, that they joined the register because they read about us, and that they are now a match to save a stranger. What’s that, if not real magic?
The blood of a stranger, willingly given: Voldemort couldn’t dream of that kind of power. Which, of course, is exactly the point. The realest kind of magic (as per Harry Potter, Matilda, and all the rest) is practical, everyday love. The kind that manifests as a lipstick, or as someone doing your washing up, or as a text “just checking in”. The kind that manifests as recommendations for books, and parcels of books, and laughter and not talking about cancer, the kind that manifests as turning up at your house with the things for dinner or a bag of expensive hand cream, the kind that manifests as a hundred tweets expressing love and solidarity.
The kind of love that starts as a hundred good wishes, and becomes a hundred £1 donations to the Anthony Nolan fundraiser, and transforms in turn to a donor, paid for in full, and in time becomes a life saved: it’s magic, it’s magic, it’s the purest kind of magic I know. A person can change the uncaring universe into a world that cares and matters: the ordinary is extraordinary: the fabric of our lives is shot through with gold.
And we are surrounded by it, and it makes it easy to believe: it makes it easy to believe in goodness, and in hope, and in luck; it makes it easy to believe that there is something worth going on for; it makes it easy to believe that this treatment (by a long chalk the hardest and most depressing treatment he has had yet) is worthwhile. Abracadabra, alakazam: I believe! I believe in the magic of lipsticks, in the magic of make-up and dressing up and the theatre and a mask. The magic of science and the magic of books and the magic of good friends and good strangers and small gestures; I believe in the magic of small things and the magic of hoping and the magic of loving people just as hard as you ever can. I believe in rotational symmetry, which I still don’t understand. I know it works when you do it right. I’ve seen it: just as I see the effects of so many small magics every day. Just as I don’t understand chemo, or a transplant, but the Anthony Nolan website is full of people for whom it’s saved their lives. I believe in science. I believe in medicine. I believe in magic.
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.