It is deadline day. Donald Trump is president. The Tall Man has been in hospital for nearly eight weeks. My favourite nurse is leaving. I have somehow forgotten to eat anything. And my period is due.
Inevitably, I am crying.
I am crying, mostly inconsolably, on the floor of the Tall Man's bedroom on the ward. This, you'll remember, breaks the most important rule of all. But I can't help it: I am just too sad. I cannot do this any more. Not one day, one hour, one minute more can I do: I am sick of this. I am sick of fighting and sick of trying and sick of always looking on the bloody bright side. I am sick of hospitals and doctors and symptoms. I am sick of cancer. I am sick of sickness. I want to go home, and I want to see my friends, and I want to go out for dinner, and I want to wear something that isn't jeans, and I want so many things I can't have, and I am so terribly, terribly tired, and I have cried so much my face is sore to the touch. The Tall Man is trying his best to comfort me, but let's be honest here: he is also crying, just a little bit.
He's doing so well, and in a way, that makes it harder: every day we get a little closer to what we used to have, what we should have, which is each other, and every day ends with us apart, me solitary in a cold flat, and him surrounded by nurses in a too-warm ward high above the City. And it'll be eight weeks, on Tuesday. Eight weeks, including Christmas and New Year, and a brief flurry of snow. It seems very unfair, and that's why I'm crying.
But you can't cry on the ward. You never get time, for one thing. I look up at the clock, and realise the diabetes specialist will be in shortly, and – oh god – the art therapist too. Physio should be here already. And so – of course – I pull myself together. I get up, and I pull my shoulders back, and look at myself in the mirror.
I've looked better, I have to tell you: my face is red, my eyes are red, and the scar under my eye where I ran into a table aged two is glowing bright white against the puffy pink skin.
So I dig through my bag, and find concealer (good), but no lipstick (bad). I pile on the concealer, painting myself a different colour, and keep digging.
Eventually I find a lip liner: I don't recognise it, and it doesn't look like mine, but it'll do. It's a sort of coral, if coral were red, and it's exactly the same shade as the orange stripe on my favourite jumper. I outline my lips (good, very good; even in this state, I can recognise a good lip liner) and am briefly stymied by the lack of anything to fill them in with.
Fortunately, this particular lip liner comes with a dinky brush attached to the other end. I solve the problem by blocking my lips in with the pencil, like a child filling out a colouring book (this is what we in the trade call a "call back"; see last week's column for details), and dip the dinky brush into a pot of paraffin-type stuff that's been left on John's bedside. It's either for sore lips or sore elbows, and although I can't work out which from the packaging, it looks alright.
Miraculously, it works. I think it works, anyway. You can still see the scar, but the redness is soothed a little. I'm just contemplating whether the whole thing is ridiculous, and I ought to just wash my face and be honest about it, when my favourite nurse passes by.
I read every day of how hard people are trying; of how fiercely people care about protecting this funny blue-and-green little planet and the funny little people on it; I see it every day, in here and out there. And it's hard, when you see that, not to hope. Just a little bit
"WHOA," she says, coming in, "ELLA! SOMEBODY came to hospital in the GLAMBULANCE today!", and I grin in spite of myself. We're going to miss her, the Tall Man and I: you don't realise until you're in here how much of a difference it makes to have a nurse who makes you laugh.
"Right," I say to the Tall Man, and the nurse, "What should I write about today?"
The Tall Man mimes putting on lipstick. "Same thing as last week," he says, drily.
"Nursing pay!" says the nurse. "There's a debate on Monday in the House of Commons about making nursing pay fairer. Write about that. We could use that."
"I could use that," I tell her. I climb into the big chair, and open up a document, and start writing. And reading, and researching. She's right. It's on Monday 30th January, and it's about the cap on nurses' wages that means that, in real world terms, the pay of nursing staff has fallen by 14% since 2010. Nurses work harder than almost anyone I've ever seen: they do everything, really. They administer the medicine; they are the ones you call in a crisis; they are the ones who pick you up when you fall down. And they make you laugh.
There's a form, on the Royal College of Nursing website, to ask your MP to consider attending the debate. I think it's worth a go, even though I'm not a nurse, and so I sit and fill it out, before I start writing. I've been writing to my MP a lot, lately, and sharing as much as I can about ways to effect change in this new, scary political climate. Americans, call your representatives; UK people, call your MP; march; sign petitions; support journalists doing their best to cover terrifying stories with as much truth as possible. Do what you can.
Despair isn't an option, in here. Not for long. And I don't think it's an option in the world, either. We're all sick of it. I know that. It feels like the sky is about to fall in; that this really might be it; that there's nothing we can do, and no hope. But indulging in hopelessness is a luxury that none of us have: not on the cancer ward, and not in global politics. It is unfair. It's all unfair. And that's why we fight.
We have to believe there is a way forward. We have to believe that there exists the possibility for change. We have to believe, and we have to try, and we have to pick ourselves up off the floor however many times it takes.
And I come back here, to write these columns, week after week: eighteen months almost of weeks where I thought I could not do one minute more. And, you know, I did it. I am doing it. And so are we all. I read every day of how hard people are trying; of how fiercely people care about protecting this funny blue-and-green little planet and the funny little people on it; I see it every day, in here and out there. And it's hard, when you see that, not to hope. Just a little bit.
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.