Feeling much better on Friday, I decided to head down to Londontown at the weekend for an impromptu overnight trip to see some family and bid farewell to a fond friend heading to New York. (And who could blame me for wanting to head to the capital, given the glorious weather forecast?)
Two weeks after my first chemo session, my immune system is still fairly low so I have to do everything humanly possible to avoid getting infections and jeopardising the rest of my programme of treatment. This means avoiding crowded places, children (who may have had contact with chicken pox) and having to ask people not to come and see me if they’re not feeling 100% shipshape. Cue paranoia central.
Saturday afternoon my mother packs me off with some homemade flapjack, stuffed full of walnuts and apricots (apparently great for chemo patients), my high-tech ear thermometer and my Chemotherapy Record Book, complete with hotline number to be shown to my friends should I be taken ill far from home. Finally, she hands me a wad of cash and insists I get black cabs everywhere to avoid the cramped, germ-infested haven that is the London Underground. (The cash advance is not because she thinks I don’t earn money of my own. No, she just knows I am a born cheapskate who will always use the lowliest form of transport available if there is any money to be saved in the process. Forcing me to take her own money is the only way of ensuring I will get taxis).
I also stuff one of my wigs into my bag, petrified my hair will choose the one night I’m spending away from home to start falling out. (It didn’t – I still have my pixie crop).
With a last-minute check that I have my hand-gel dispensers on my person, she waves me off from the familiar platform at Wakefield Westgate station. The doctors have insisted upon the importance of avoiding infection, but not to the detriment of living one’s life, so I’m happy about heading to London, even if my newfound hygiene pursuance scheme is putting me in danger of getting OCD.
I have purchased a first-class train ticket so that I can have a spacious seat and lots of room to myself, with fewer people and less chance of germs than in regular class. First class on East Coast trainline also has the added advantage of unlimited free tea and coffee, sandwiches, biscuits, crisps and WIFI access, so I’m virtually in my element when, an hour into my journey, the train conductor announces we have stopped because there has been a fatality on the track. (Non-Londoners, be not alarmed – sad as it is, it is not a rarity for people in England to kill themselves on train tracks, in fact it happens several times a week up and down the country).
Everyone in first class is in a remarkably good mood and, rather than the usual tutting and eye-rolling one would see on the tube when a similar announcement is made, there is conversation among passengers and one woman quite rightly reasons, “Someone’s having a much worse day than I am.” The sunshine puts everyone in a good mood and, during my journey, two different train staff stop to talk to me – an American male in his fifties or sixties, who tells me he likes my earrings (“They’re so cute!”), and a young Yorkshire lass, who voluntarily gushes out her thoughts on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (“It made me cry!”) (See, I told you it was a conversation-starter!)
There is something about a countryside train ride on a bright, summer’s day in England – the journey did me a lot of good. Granted, it took three and a half hours instead of two, but I wasn’t in a hurry and I will get 100% of the fare back under the delay compensation scheme, so everyone’s a winner!
Finally, I arrive at King’s Cross station. Ah, London is glorious, London is home.
Within half an hour of being in the Big Smoke, I find myself in the Groucho Club. Not the kind of place you’d usually find a humble Huddersfield lass, but hey, friends in high places and all that. I settle in at the bar and order a thirst-quenching lemonade. I’m out for dinner and a few social drinks and as much as I don’t mind not drinking, it’s hard to find inventive things to order when you have to remain tee-total – there are only so many cokes, lime and sodas, and elderflower cordials one can drink. After a certain point, even on a 30 degree summer’s day, one’s thirst becomes quenched.
The Kiwi barman is therefore amused when I ask whether it would be possible for him to do me a ‘non-alcoholic espresso martini’.
“Um, that would basically just be a milky, cold coffee in a cocktail glass – pretty gross,” he mutters, bemused. That’d be a no then.
I check the non-alcoholic cocktail menu. On a normal, non-chemo day, the Dark and Stormy is one of my favourite tipples – basically anything with ginger beer is a winner (and it’s perfect for chemo-induced sickness) – so, as soon as I see the Dark and Placid, I’m sold.
“Dark and what?!” the barman says, one eyebrow raised. Oh dear. Nobody’s ever asked him for that before..
Fast forward to Sunday morning and I’m killing some time on Oxford Street before meeting friends. Mildly obsessed with the British flag and with the ability to spot a potential Facebook cover pic a mile off, I stop to take a photo of this Union Jack outside the John Lewis department store. As I do so, a little Iranian man, who is also photographing the scene, bounds over to ask me if I’d like a snap of myself with the flag in the background.
“No thanks,” I say, immediately realising he is dying to have his own photo taken. He nods profusely when I offer to take the pic, then takes the camera back off me, visibly delighted with the snapshot.
“Thank you, you are very special,” the beaming stranger exclaims.
“No problem,” I say, happy to kill a bit of time and have a bit of human interaction with a friendly foreign tourist on a beaming summer’s morning. I begin walking away from him but he matches my stride, strolling alongside me.
“Where are you from?” he asks. That old chestnut!
“England,” I reply, because he thinks only a foreigner would be taking a picture of the British flag. “Where are you from?” – the question he is practically salivating to be asked.
“Tehran,” he says, and grins from ear to ear as I tell him I have one Iranian friend. He then proceeds to tell me how the people in his country are wonderful but the government is entirely screwed.
I humour him for a little while longer, perfectly happy to entertain a nice man who just wants to chat when I have nothing to do of a Sunday morning before meeting my girlfriends. (In my old character as a sprint-walking London City worker I may have sorry-can’t-possibly-stop-to-talk shunned him, but my new post-cancer persona dictates that one shall be chillaxed and unstressed at all times and never – god forbid – in a hurry.)
After a little chat about how he wants to be a property developer (or at least this is what i assume he means by “taking old house and making new”), I make my excuses and start to veer off into the nearest Boots, bidding him farewell.
“Oh,” he stops me, “are you on Facebook?”
“Um, yes,” I say, obviously not revealing that I also work there and have a very public blog for all to see, “but I don’t really want to…um…”
He gets the hint.
“Can I give you my details then?” he pleads. “It’s just that I don’t have any friends here and I try to make friends in England.”
“Ah, go on then,” I concede. There is never any harm in taking someone’s deets, I reason with myself.
As he starts to open his satchel, I look left, then right, then left again, jut checking nobody is emptying my bags while I focus my attention on this sweet, smiling man. They aren’t. We British are so skeptical and untrusting.
I look with anticipation as he pulls out his little policeman-style mini notepad, expecting him to start writing out his Facebook name.
But no! He tears off the first sheet and hands it to me. It is a ready-made sheet of paper with his full name, email address and mobile number. He must have a whole jotter full of these little sheets just ready for friendship-striking occasions in the middle of central London. Bless him!
I fold up the sheet of paper and place it in my bag as we part ways. We Brits just don’t ‘do’ making friends with perfect strangers in the street. I wish my new friend well.
On the way to meet my pals later, I have just entered a black cab when I realise I’ve forgotten to take my temperature and I’m about to enter a restaurant and won’t be able to do it in there.
“Now, you will remember to take your temperature, won’t you?” Mum’s voice echoes in my head.
There’s nothing else for it. I’m not sure my London cabbie has ever seen a passenger use a big white beeping tympanic thermometer in the back of his taxi before, but there’s a first for everything.
I’m safely back in West Yorkshire now, pixie crop in tact, so far infection-free (touch wood) and resting for a final week before chemo round two. The travel-therapy did me good.