I want to tell you something, this week, that's more important than lipstick. It's trite as anything, and it's probably twee, but I need to tell you: go now, right now, and tell your people that you love them.
Tell them everything you'd want them to know in case of emergency. Tell them even if you feel stupid doing it, or you aren't sure they feel the same, or if it feels like you only just told them. Tell them now. Tell them again.
This sounds like something awful out of Love Actually: I can only say that it is my only consolation in here. The Tall Man knows everything I would want him to know. It's Christmas, and I could not bear it if I thought there was even an ounce of doubt in his mind: I love him, and I am here, and I am not going away. I am here. I will make this place our home for as long as he is in it, because he is my home; where he goes, I go, where he stays, I stay. He knows, and it is my one comfort.
I haven't got a lipstick for you this week. Not a new one, anyway: I've been wearing that Charlotte Tilbury Bond Girl I wrote about in an old life. It felt, somehow, like a friend. I wore Charlotte Tilbury Amazing Grace a lot last spring, and the copper casing is familiar and good and true. And it goes with everything. More often than not, I've been wearing lip balm instead, to try and combat the air-conditioning dryness – and more often than that I haven't worn any lipstick at all. I'm sorry. That's not how this column is supposed to go. None of this is how it was supposed to go.
I am sitting in a chain coffee shop, thinking (again) of the lipstick I planned to write about, two days before Christmas Eve. I might have written about my mother-in-law's cat, or the roaring fire, or the pork pie with our names on it that we'd ordered. I might have written about planning the Tall Man's stocking. And I would have written about this lipstick called Mistletoe, by Bite, a proper, bright Christmas red. My friend from America sent it to me, a day or two before the Tall Man got sick. I never even took it out of the box, and can't quite bear to, now. It feels all wrong. This is all wrong. I slipped somehow into a parallel universe, and can't get home.
I felt that way the night Trump won and the Tall Man was in hospital following a seizure: this is all wrong, this wasn't how it was supposed to go. Somehow I fell between the cracks, and ended up in here. Somewhere out there, John and Ella were quietly pleased with a Clinton win; somewhere out there, they were reading the papers and making coffee and going for a cold walk across Hampstead Heath. Somewhere. It's strangely comforting; it isn't scientific. Somewhere, in some possible universe, John and I go on, untouched by cancer, in whatever form this latest twist might turn out to take. I hope they're happy, those versions of us. I hope the versions of us who got down to the South Coast – who are wrapping presents and playing with the cat and wearing Mistletoe lipstick – know how lucky they are. I think they do.
I always did, you see. I always felt that I had found, by some miracle, the one thing in the world that made me peaceful and glad, and it was the Tall Man.
It's still him, of course. He's still here. He's breathing, and mostly stable, and they are trying so hard to find out what's wrong and whether they can fix it. But it isn't quite the same, and I miss him. I miss being able to come home to him; I miss being able to ask him where the batteries are or what he did with the tweezers or whether he agrees with this Rogue One review. I miss him for stupid things, like that, and I miss him for big things, like the Christmas tree. We haven't got a tree this year. I couldn't do it on my own. I miss him.
The Tall Man knows everything I would want him to know. I love him, and I am here, and I am not going away. I will make this place our home for as long as he is in it, because he is my home; where he goes, I go, where he stays, I stay
It's mad: I don't find myself crying about things that make sense- the illness, the loneliness – but I do find myself struck dumb at tiny, almost-imperceptible things. Those batteries. Realising his phone number has slipped out of my "Most Recently Dialled" list. Not having someone around who remembers what time things went in the oven. All of those can bring me to my knees, in a kind of physical shock: how can this be? How can this be happening at Christmas?
I have just, writing this, had to put my face down on the coffee-shop table because I was crying too much too type any more: I can't even tell you what set that off. I think it was someone walking past with a bag of shopping and a Santa hat.
It is so strange to leave a sterile ward where you've been sitting at a bedside accompanied by the soft hum of a pressure mattress and the persistent beep of an occluded IV, and come down and out into Have A Holly Jolly Christmas and a world full of reindeer sweaters. It is so strange. It is like a nightmare: nothing makes sense, like in a dream, and things happen one after the other without recognition or pattern.
I still don't really know how to write about these things that are happening, and the Tall Man still isn't here to read things for me. He's having an MRI scan, which will tell us (we hope) whether there are any changes, good or bad, to the illness (whatever it is) that's taken so much from him. We still don't know what it is, can you believe that? We have no idea what's done this.
Or rather, we have ideas, but no confirmation. There are certain signs that the ideas are right, but then again, that might not mean anything. He is too unwell yet for them to carry out certain tests, and so it's all a complicated system of guess work and trials. Maybe things are working. Maybe they aren't. He is trying so hard. I am so proud of him, I tell him every day, and I hope it sinks in: some things get through, and others don't. I hope that does. I hope he knows anyway. That's all I've got, this Christmas: the hope that he knows. That he knows enough to want to fight, however hard it is, and come home to me one day.
And so – however much I cry in Pret – I try not to cry on the ward. Just like always. I try to be someone I remember; someone who is stable, and comforting, and can be home enough for both of us.
I buy blue jeans and stripy jumpers, because they feel safe, like home. I put on my perfume: I have this ludicrously expensive body lotion that nonetheless is my constant companion. It smells of cut grass and fur collars and the Sunday papers. How can I put this? You know when you find the perfume and you think: that's me? This is me. You have one, I think, and if you don't you should: a scent that makes you – even briefly – happy. A scent that makes you feel like you. This is mine, and the Tall Man stirs his head and smiles a little when I wear it. Even now. That makes me cry, of course. I told you nothing makes sense.
I can tell you to work at being happy. I can tell you to notice things; to hold onto your people, this Christmas. Tell them you love them. Tell them how much they matter
And I try not to cry, and I try to go on: I try to be someone who is soft in a stripy jumper, and sings off-key when she's working. Someone who smells familiar, and constant. Someone who stays.
I bring in photographs of the people and things the Tall Man loves; I bring in tiny treats he's always liked; I make myself sing while I wash up the tea cups, so he won't think I'm scared. I don't want him to think I'm scared. I want him to think that I will – as I have always done – make the hospital home. I am trying to be a home, all by myself.
My tub of the expensive body lotion is almost empty; I think, given that I won't buy a Christmas tree, and I won't buy fairy lights, or heat the house, I might buy another. It's a baffling expense. But the world is baffling, and hard, and this makes the Tall Man smile a little. And it makes me- if not smile, then at least feel a little more like myself. And that matters, too.
I can't tell you any Christmassy good tidings; I can't bring in the fairy lights, or the tinsel. I haven't got any jollity. There is absolutely no holly. I can only tell you, in a way my 16-year old self would nod appreciatively at, that "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.”"
I can only tell you to take pictures; even if you hate being on camera. Even if you think you're fat. Even if you don't like your nose. I wish I had more pictures of the Tall Man and I. I would love them even if I looked fat with a weird nose. You might want, one day, to remember being happy.
I can tell you to work at being happy, because you might need a stock of it at your back some day. I can tell you to notice things; to try with the people around you; to hold onto your people, this Christmas. Tell them you love them. Tell them how much they matter.
I don't think 2017 is going to be any easier, really. I don't think the world is going to go back home and settle any time soon. And so it's important, this last one. It might be the only thing we have to fight this all with: this web of human affection and understanding and connection that binds us, person to person, and stretches, bit by bit, across the world.
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS...
I’d never been much of a make-up 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.