I'll level with you: this is not one of the world's greatest nail varnishes. It's slippery and thin and it takes, like, four coats to get that colour – but, oh, what a colour! It's like spring and sweet wrappers and the bell to get the bus to stop. It's like being fifteen and doing your nails with your best friend's highlighter at the back of the class. It's a real, true, Disney ocean of a turquoise; a printer-ink cyan; an artificial-mermaid mock-turtle aquamarine. It's a tiny escape; a little liberation.
I needed that, this week.
The same way I needed my mum (to whom I was, in true teenage fashion, absolutely horrible); the same way I needed to go and crawl onto my best friend's sofa and bitch; the same way I needed, urgently, to leave the hospital and buy some sparkly earrings and a new nail varnish. I think part of me was just sick of being grown-up, this week: sick of the whole business of it. I know this now, intellectually; at the time, all I knew was that I needed to get out, and I needed to go and kick around in Boots and Topshop and Accessorize for half an hour, and browse through sparkly earrings and day-glo nail varnishes like nothing else mattered.
So I did; I made some excuse to the Tall Man and his visitor about needing to run an errand, and practically legged it out of the hospital.
It's not that it's been a bad week, exactly. I think it might actually have been a good week, as far as that goes. The episodes from last week turned out to be – we think, and for want of any more evidence – a couple of fainting fits, which nobody was that worried about; the dip in the platelets turned out to be a side-effect of the drugs; the headaches turned out to be a side-effect of anaemia which turned out to be a side-effect of the drugs. Nobody seems terribly worried about any of it, which is always the best way for doctors to be.
It's all going in the right direction, if slowly – and we heard, this week, that there might soon be a space at a neurological rehab centre who have accepted the Tall Man as a likely prospect. This is a totally, unqualifiedly brilliant thing.
He needs desperately to go somewhere where the real work of getting well can begin. I am starting to lose my faith in hospitals as a place where people get better; the best you can hope for, in here, is to become less sick. This might seem like semantics, but it is, nonetheless, true. And so to go somewhere where the focus is – we hope – on exercise and fresh air and going out to lunch – where the ceilings are high and the floors are polished old wood and the whole force of the enterprise is directed towards a full and complete recovery – is just what he needs. And it's what I need, too.
At this rehab centre, the Tall Man will have assistants and physiotherapists and he will be busy – and this bit is crucial – most of the day, every day. I will be able to back off a little bit; maybe pick up my own work. See a friend. Go to the gym. Swim. Walk. Breathe. This is necessary for both of us, but it's also scary: it's a huge change, and relinquishing control like this is not something I'm very good at.
I don't do it, really: not with my work, not with my cooking, and certainly not with my very sick boyfriend. But there isn't a choice this time. I can't give him the support he needs – and I can't go on like this. I'm too tired. I'm losing it, just a little bit. I have bitten all of my nails down to the bloody quick: the kind of nail biting where the mere flicker of a salt and vinegar chipstick against a ragged cuticle feels like cruel and unusual torture.
My hands are a reasonable barometer for my mood: I have always taken things out on my hands, and my fingers, and my nails, and my cuticles. Lately, they have looked more than a little ragged.
I think this was why I needed the nail varnish. I needed to have control over something; to fix something broken with something bright and new and easy. I needed to make something better. I needed to make me better. And I needed – in a very small way – to practice doing something for myself, to practice stepping back. And so, I did.
I don't know what the Tall Man or his visitor thought I was doing, but I knew: I was fulfilling a whim, because life is short, and life is hard, and sometimes you need a perfect green nail polish. Sometimes even the most battered and bruised of bitten-back nails deserve to look a little bit lovely.
The nail varnish is an easy choice: the green is the perfect colour, it is a fiver, and I want it. For a long time I was uneasy about greens and blues for nail varnish, and I could not have told you why: I never saw one I liked, or it seemed wrong for me, or it seemed too jarringly artificial. Too teenage. Somehow it works today.
In Accessorize I choose a pair of earrings shaped like flowers: fake diamonds, fake pearls, fake silver. "Real shell", the cardboard backing says, proudly. I am utterly charmed. The cubic zirconia studded around the flower's stem glitters unabashed under the artificial light. They look like something you might find in your grandmother's jewellery box: real proper costume jewels. I want them. I need them.
And so I hand over six quid in damp, palmed pound coins (I'm doing the thing properly, and paying with pocket money), and repierce my healed-over ears on the street corner, under the street light. I yelp a little bit, but nobody notices, and I look at myself in the mirrors in the window.
I feel – what's the phrase? – I feel like a million dollars. I feel like a movie star. I am wearing a jersey dress I rescued from a friend's rag pile, because I thought I could live with the soup stain on the collar (I can), and boots with a hole in that have seen better days, and my earrings are reflecting and shining and refracting light all the colours of the rainbow, and I have a green nail polish in my bag and I feel like a million dollars.
And I have been away a whole hour, doing nothing; I sometimes get away from the hospital for something serious, something sensible like an urgent work call or a brief brisk walk or a meal when I haven't eaten, but I don't ever just leave just to potter about. I don't ever just leave because I want to buy myself treats. I don't ever just leave because it might be fun to do something else. That's not how this is supposed to work. I'm supposed to have left that kind of selfishness behind at the back of the classroom; the back of the school bus. I'm not supposed to use my days for this kind of thing, but here's the real kicker: I am a significantly nicer person when I get back to hospital.
We have a significantly nicer time. I am less snappy, less tearful. I file off the jagged edges of my poor nails, and paint them (coat after coat) with the bright green. We play a game on the iPad, and I perch on the edge of his bed, swinging my legs and admiring myself in the reflection of the dark window. I have embraced my inner teen, and I feel better.
I'm still scared of the prospect of stepping back. I'm still nervous about relinquishing control. But I am starting to see that it might, also, be kind of nice – for both of us.
(I don't expect the nail varnish to last long, for a fiver, but it does: it barely chips, sets to a shine, and days later my nails feel strong, and sturdy, and green as the ocean.)
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.