Sometimes, you get a message from the universe you can’t ignore. Mine was a cold. A really horrible cold; a filthy stinking cold that left me reeling. My throat hurt. My eyes hurt. My skin hurt. And when I stood up, I felt dizzy and exhausted. And I could not stop sneezing.
I don’t get colds. I don’t often get poorly. I am usually pretty sturdy, like a hill pony or a wheelbarrow.
But no matter how hard I tried to pretend this cold wasn’t happening, the cold wasn’t listening.
I couldn’t, I realised, go and visit the Tall Man: I couldn’t take a cold this utterly miserable into a hospital of vulnerable people. It wouldn’t be fair.
And in any case, “fairness” was all sort of academic: I had not yet mastered getting out of bed without feeling like I was about to keel over.
There didn’t seem to be any other option. I had to stay in bed. And so I got off the bus, and stocked up on Sudafed, and Nurofen, and Heinz tomato soup; white rice, chicken stock, eggs. A multipack of tissues. I raided Audible for comfort listening; and downloaded a dozen episodes of Desert Island Discs. And I went home, and got into bed.
I write this on my third day in bed, bundled unseasonably up in flannel pyjamas and an oversized Air Ambulance hoodie. (The ability to purchase Air Ambulance hoodies is the one upside to hanging around at the Royal London: they are incredibly soft, and I recommend them to you should you ever be hanging around at A&E.) I cannot tell you how much I needed this. It’s the longest time I’ve gone without being at the Tall Man’s side for this whole time, and it’s the longest time I’ve been away from Central London since before Christmas. It’s the most I’ve slept in all that time, too.
I have not been wearing any lipstick, although I re-commend to you the Lucas’ Papaw Ointment I wrote about so very, very long ago now, and the Lanolips 101 I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have any new magically helpful lip things to give you, this week; I’ve written about them all.
And this week, as usual, the column needs a lipstick, and I don’t have it. I don’t have it. I can’t give anybody what they need this week, except, perhaps, myself. And what I need is a rest
Outside my window a gull is wheeling and crying, and I’m thinking of the young gull that wheeled and cried outside the window of the Tall Man’s first room at Barts, two years ago this week. I’m thinking of the gulls we watched at the seaside this time last year; of how happy we were then, how hopeful. I have become fundamentally changed by these experiences. I reread the lipstick columns I wrote at the beginning, and I don’t really recognise the girl who wrote them. She seems so young to me; so brave and determined and young. She has so much energy for the fight.
Even giving this cold its exhausting due, I don’t have that energy any more. It has been a relentless couple of years, and I have written about it all as it happened. Practically live. I remember once filing this column from the chair by the Tall Man’s bed at 5am on a Thursday morning after an emergency readmission, writing about the sun coming up over London; more than once from a train and a tube and a bus. I have written, I think, about almost every lipstick shade and colour and brand; every style and every shop. I’ve written about blue lipstick and gold lipstick and vegan lipstick; expensive lipstick, cheap lipstick, chapstick, lip balm and the occasional rogue nail varnish. I’ve written about every lipstick I came across that worked for me (I have tried really hard to never go on about lipsticks that I didn't like. There didn’t seem to be much point).
So much has changed, in those two years, that it’s not really right to call this a column about lipstick and caring and cancer any more. For one thing, the things that happened to the Tall Man in the last nine months have not been to do with cancer really; for another, my caring has been of a very different sort; for a third, I think I have written – at least for now! – about all the lipsticks I love.
And this week, as usual, the column needs a lipstick, and I don’t have it. I don’t have it. I can’t give anybody what they need this week, except, perhaps, myself. And what I need is a rest: I need (at twelve noon, with the gulls wheeling outside, bare-faced and scrubbed clean and heavily dosed with Sudafed) to have a bowl of Heinz tomato, and to go back to sleep.
You’ll have noticed, if you’re a social media person, that I’m not really there any more. I’m not gone for good, but I needed the break. And I need the break from lipstick, too. I need to find out if I’m really a lipstick person, or if it was just a coping mechanism; what lipstick I might want to wear if pleasure was the goal of wearing it; what lipstick I might want to wear if it wasn’t, always, partly armour.
A change is as good as a rest, and it’s time for both; and so, next week will be the last of these lipstick columns. We’ll talk next week about the future – don’t worry, I’m not going away from The Pool for good either! – and about everything else, too. We’ll talk about lipstick and love and lymphoma, and what it’s like going forward under the shadow of two years of trauma. We’ll talk about everything. And I have a really, really good lipstick for that one. I’ve been saving it. See you there.
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS...
I’d never been much of a make-up person before 2015, 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.