by Izzy Rogers
I am in a DIY shop in Islington. I have been standing at the counter for around seven minutes. I cannot remember why I am here. In my head there is a blankness which doesn’t trouble me, but doesn’t comfort me either. I wait patiently for my memory to fire up, preferably before the next bus arrives at the top of Upper Street to whisk me up the hill, securely home to my empty bed and clean pyjamas. And a warm bath probably, now I have the night-time routine of a five-year old.
‘A screwdriver please,’ I say finally. A hint of triumph accompanies the uneasiness in my voice. ‘Or a little set, with one in, if you have one, with a hammer as well.’
This is my project: my get-better-soon project, my get-over-him project. And it’s going to feature paint which is bright yellow. You can’t not be cheerful in the face of a pot of English Yellow chalk paint, I have decided. And so this Saturday night – when I cannot go out for cocktails, or soothe my soul with yoga – I will stay home and paint, until I start to feel better and more like me again, after this strange time of minor tragedy and recuperation. But, first, some preparation.
‘And some sand paper, please? I need to just lightly sand off a chest of drawers.’
‘Ok, lady,’ he replies, ‘I give you a sanding block, that okay?’
‘Yes,’ I say, nodding, forever grateful that he understands what I’m saying, what I’m thinking. That it’s not a mass of words that make no sense strung into a sentence. These days, I can’t be sure before speaking that this is the case. But he knows what I want and he’s going to help me find it.
When the doctors told me that I had a brain tumour, they were to the point; selective; action-specific. ‘We need to remove it,’ they told me. ‘You’ll have a small scar behind your ear . . . and, you’ll be able to swim again after a few weeks, return to work eventually. It’s a straight-forward procedure.’ I stare at the mild-mannered registrar, so comforting in his properness, his humane Englishness, and wonder if I can trust him with my life. Nine weeks later, I emerge from hospital with a larger scar than promised, but I am back swimming in Hampstead Ponds almost on track with their pledged timetable.
While I am still admitted, I wake to find the tight head bandage is gone. It was mighty-useful for getting a seat at the pub. On a hot night in Bloomsbury, just a few days after major surgery, I had sat ensconced between my best friend and my lover – my favourite people in the world. I was flying high on morphine and ginger ale after stuffy hospital units, and felt like life might be alright again. Happily smothered in affection, I let them take my arm on either side to walk down the steps near the huge portrait of Lady Di as they naughtily returned me to the nurses three hours later than instructed. My cheeks flushed with the intensity of it all, the gratitude of being alive; how much I cared for them; the sharp realisation that this moment might not have happened had things gone wrong. Except that, of course, they would have mourned me, and I wouldn’t have had a clue.
A few weeks later – post-intensive care, post-hospital stay, and post-early recovery – I am intent on returning to London, having been fully mollycoddled by parents, godparents, family friends and ‘people in the village’. I get the train on my own. It takes until Stevenage for the horror to set in that I have not yet walked down the street without someone to hold my hand, hold me upright. I feel curiously adrift in my own body without any guide as an anchor. My balance is still questionable and, though I intentionally arrive to miss rush hour, King’s Cross is busier than I expect. I am forced to walk faster than I have done in a month. I am panic-stricken that a pedestrian is going to smash into me, and take me down carelessly, callously. I feel vulnerable to an extent I haven’t felt in half a decade – perhaps have never felt. Resolutely, I flick away a tear from underneath my eye and send myself to buy fruit in Marks & Spencer. The city is hot, full of people in vests, and I gawp at them through the window. As I rush to change buses at Camden, a woman calls after me, kindly picking up my dropped phone from the pavement. I am only half-capable of the tasks I am attempting but I don’t care. Two sets of flat keys – mine and his – clank in my pocket as I check their existence for the fourteenth time: it’s a long way back to the countryside and I’m not ready for a return journey yet.
“My cheeks flushed with the intensity of it all, the gratitude of being alive”
Routine tasks like shopping are still a novelty in this moment. In the early days, I had to lean on my mother’s shoulder and stop every few paces as pain shot through my neck and spine: a consequence of disturbance of the spinal fluid during the craniotomy, and the neck muscle cut open to allow deeper access. But now I manage it on my own.
In the short, confusing weeks I have been away – hazy afternoons spent propped up in large gardens, playing with the cat or dog, whichever arrived first – my real life, that I have created so carefully, has promptly unraveled. And so, my ‘straight-forward procedure’ doesn’t seem very straight-forward to me anymore: it feels like more of a headache than I had in the first place. My boyfriend has broken up with me. My flatmate is not talking to me, as a result of some nagging emails I sent in a sudden, destructive wave of pre-hospital nerves. My clothes are in different places to where I have always kept them, tidied away by my mother while I am passed-out on my bed on the day I’m released from hospital. Overwhelmed, heavily-medicated and fatigued from a week of ceaseless medical necessities, I sleep an entire night and day. She could be recording a multi-track album above my head and I would not be woken (usually such a light and sensitive sleeper).
I buy fizzy wine in Islington Tesco and peek out from my umbrella at the informality of the antiques market. Crystal glasses and dampish vintage books get packed away. I am shocked at how expensive everything is after the unaggressive, suburban retreat of my parents’ home. I tell myself I will find my paint brushes, but – in all honesty – am unclear as to their exact location or whether they are with me in London at all. And, as I struggle with heavy shopping in the cold rain, I think about painting things yellow until I feel better. I will tie a silk scarf around my sore head and pretend that it feels fine. And pretend that my heart is not broken in several pieces. All will be yellow, and I won’t mind that the furniture I am painting cost five pounds third-hand and will probably never be replaced. I will paint to forget that I will never afford to buy a flat, and the man that I adore doesn’t love me. I will wax my paint and drink bad wine, alone on a Saturday night, surrounded by ‘Get Well Soon’ cards and flowers from work. I will seal my hard work and forget that I am scared of what comes next.
‘Is that everything that you need?’ says the man in the DIY shop.
‘Um, yes, thank you. I can’t afford that set, I’m sorry, I haven’t got much money at the moment.’
‘Why?’ he surprises me by asking.
‘Oh. Because I just had an operation. I had brain surgery. It went well, I’m really lucky.’
‘Ahh, congratulations,’ he says. ‘So, what are you going to do with your new life?’
I blink and smile at him, unsure of what to tell him. ‘To start with, I’m going to paint. I don’t know what happens after that.’