Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Welcome to the Church of the Storms

Yesterday I went to Malina's funeral. It was one of the most beautiful I have ever been to. The sun rose into azure blue sky and after the usual rush getting children to school, I picked up a Mermaid friend and headed west. We drove past starry yellow gorse and stone towers, crumbling remnants of Cornish tin mines, towards the Lizard peninsula. The service was held at St. Winwaloe, a church that looks like it's been carried by some supernatural force and set down amongst rugged coastline and sand dunes on a whim. A church has been on this site since the fifth century. It's only separated from the beach by Castle Mound, a rocky retaining wall. As you walk into the churchyard, a sign reads: Welcome to the Church of the Storms.

I've only known Malina as a fellow breast cancer patient and Mermaid, so it was wonderful to hear all about her life before we met. Walking away from the church, I left behind my image of her wearing a headscarf and nursing her swollen body. My friend is a talented musician, a pianist and soprano with the gift of perfect-pitch. I can hear Malina and her sister playing Gabriel Fauré's Morceau de Concours and I can see the ornate fifteenth-century woodcarvings, the roof beams, the light pouring in through stained glass. The waves are crashing on the rocks, and the sand martins are calling from the eroding cliffs. I can even hear the sounds from the farm up the road. What a glorious life. Listen.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Back to work with ol' Sawbones

I've been distracted from working on my book lately. Filming the documentary about Mermaids and a string of sad events, including Malina's death, have wrong-footed me. Yet, apart from needing to let events sink in and come to terms with a new reality, taking time out from your work is so important. Not least because having a rest can give you a fresh eye when you go back to it. "Give your brain a vacation", says an article I've kept from years ago. And I've found that when I let go of the creative process, the project finds its way back of its own accord.

The book is back on track thanks to Sally Frampton, a medical historian at University College London. She took part in the documentary and during filming she asked me if I knew about two trainee surgeons in The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens's serialised first novel. I didn't, so as soon as I got back after filming I found it on the Kindle and started to read it. Dickens calls the men "a couple o' sawbones", which I find deliciously telling. I won't say too much about it because I'm having lots of fun working the characters into my book. They may be truly revolting, but they've got me back into the swing of things, and I'm rather fond of them now. Back to work then, Sawbones!

Conviviality at Bob Sawyer's
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
May 1837
Steel Engraving
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham at VictorianWeb

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Daffodils for Malina

On 8 March 2012, Malina Bowman, a fellow Mermaid, wife, mother and friend, passed away at St. Julia's Hospice in Hayle. The hospice is next door to the hospital where we had our surgeries and is a poignant reminder to me that, despite our modern age and so much knowledge at our fingertips, we have such pitiful control over cancer. It continues to mystify; it is still, as Fortune magazine described in 1937, "The Great Darkness". The proof is on Malina's blog, an honest account about her sometimes positive, sometimes gruelling experience with breast cancer: missoestrogenpositive.blogspot.com.

A few weeks ago, I visited Malina's house and took her some soup. She was struggling with the irrevocable truth that her disease was progressing despite everything she had tried to reverse it. It was terribly hard to focus, even for a moment, on anything joyful, but I felt that I needed to try. I needed to find something that would give Malina some respite in the darkness. I thought about Barbara Kingsolver's High Tide in Tucson. She says: "In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon." I went out and returned a few minutes later with a bunch of daffodils. That was the last time I saw Malina.

I want to support the work of the amazing people who have spent their days nurturing her and guiding her family through this terrible sadness. On 18th March - mother's day - my sister Aimee and I are doing a fun-run, dressing up as a bunch of daffodils and running three-legged, to raise money for Cornwall Hospice Care. (If you would like to donate, my justgiving page is here.) Malina was bags of fun and I like to think Malina (who among her many talents loved performing in pantomime) would get a kick out of watching us camp it up in our panto-inspired, home-made daffodil suits.

For you, Malina.
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