Yesterday I saw a cormorant dive from a railway bridge, and come up with a fish. The fish was fat and silver and alive, and the cormorant held it delicately, like a lady holding a folded pair of gloves. And then the cormorant ate it, and it was gone. A train roared over the bridge, and then the cormorant was gone too.
I had never seen anything like it in London before, and I was thrilled to see it: something a little bit wild, a little bit raw and strange.
It was a sort of reminder that London is a wild place, too: that for all the skyscrapers and glass, the green places of London are varied and many, and that even the grasses and lichens that grow on tumbledown brickwork and abandoned lots are worth observing. They aren’t permanent: nothing ever is here, really. They have knocked down a building on the canal bank – East End real estate being too valuable a property to leave alone – and I think as I pass it about the ivy that was there, half-silver with graffiti, and the little birds (swifts, maybe, or only sparrows) that went in and out of the eaves there, and I wonder whether they will go in and out of the new building, too. I suppose not, and I feel a sudden pang of gladness that I sat, and I saw them, before they went.
And I’m glad, too, that I came out today and saw the cormorant. I’ve been walking along this towpath a lot this last week, up to the café in the park, along to the butcher’s and the lido, and home again, and it’s good to be able to notice things again.
The Tall Man is vocally composing an irate email to the supermarket about some improperly packaged bacon, and he looks up at me, and says, suddenly, “When I was dying. I thought I’d never care about anything like this again.” It’s nice to be able to care about stupid things. It’s nice to be able to care about little things. It’s nice to grab an old lipstick, with the battered casing and the chipped tip, smudged with use – unbeautiful, inexpensive, beloved – and smudge it on, and go out and walk, and to be alone.
Take yourself out for a coffee, and leave perfect lip-pink smudgy prints on the white china. Meet a nice dog. Write something self-indulgent. Draw!
There is something a little bit radical, I think, in how happy I am letting myself be when I am alone. For six months, the Tall Man has been my world, and I have wanted to be at his side for all of it. My phone has not been off for all those six months unless he and I were together in the presence of a doctor. I have felt guilty for sleeping, because I was wasting time I could be spending with him; everything I wrote was about him, and for him. Being alone was only a reminder of how things might be if things did not go well. And you cannot live like that. And we are starting, I think, to live again: live properly and reliably, with quiet bickering about laundry detergent and post-office parcel cards, even if just for a month or two, while he’s home, and clinically well.
I am telling you now, if somebody needs you: you are also allowed to need you, too. You’re allowed to need time to yourself, for yourself, and (furthermore) you are entitled to enjoy it. You are allowed to put on your old favourite lipstick (for me, it’s Bois De Rose, by L’Oreal), and your best boots (navy, suede, buttoned to the knee) and take yourself off for a walk, and you’re allowed to not call home for a bit. You’re allowed to sit and watch a cormorant dive, and the little birds go in and out of the eaves of a derelict building. You’re allowed to enjoy the crisp cold air – five degrees, today! – and you’re allowed to take deep breaths in, out, in, out, and remind yourself what it’s like to be outside and alone and alive. And you’re allowed to celebrate those things.
Take yourself out for a coffee, and leave perfect lip-pink smudgy prints on the white china. Meet a nice dog. Write something self-indulgent. Draw! Draw, even if you can’t – especially if you can’t. I have been trying to draw without taking my pen off the paper and my eyes off the subject: I have so far produced a lot of scribbles, and a shape vaguely recognisable (if you squint) as a long-nosed dog. It isn’t art: it’s meditation. You can’t hurry it. You can’t concentrate on anything but the world around you, and the pen in your hands, and the conduit that you are between the two. And you can’t, for the minute, concentrate on anyone but yourself. And that’s okay, too.
The seasons have been strange this year. Warm October, a brief flurry of driving sleet in November, daffodils above ground in December, and now the cold again, perhaps. It feels oddly fitting: our year has been all topsy-turvy, too. And there’s nothing to do but observe it, closely, meticulously, and respond to it as best we can.
This lipstick is called Bois de Rose, wood-rose. I have looked these up, and I think they are something a little like dog-roses. The colour is right, I think: when applied, it’s a sort of pale and dusky pink. The dog-roses should be growing by the canal this summer, as they have every year I’ve lived here: if you know where to look, they are entirely beautiful, not planted, not deliberate, just present and lovely as themselves. I know where to look, and although the seasons have been strange, and the year has been stranger, I hope this summer I’ll be there, and I’ll see them.
Maybe they will be there. Maybe they won’t. But I hope. I sit, and I watch the canal where yesterday the cormorant was, and I hope.
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.