Saturday-Sunday 11-12 April: Of boredom, banality and boosts.
I wake up feeling suddenly bored with my whole predicament. After ten days, the novelty and drama has begun to wear off. Besides, the good weather has broken up and, as Maddy would say, it’s a typically ‘soggy’ April day, dark grey sky, driving rain and a strong wind. After a lovely lie-in and lazy breakfast together, Anna heads back to hers to do some chores before making for Balham to lunch with Kate, Tara, Maddy and her father, John, also an academic and also very interested in Palestine / Israel. While we have rather different perspectives on the issues involved, I respect his views; he, too, is outraged at being denied the chance to give his paper at Southampton. However, I decide not to go. I feel a bit tired despite my good night’s sleep and feel I’ve got to get on with the blog if I’m ever going to catch up with myself by Monday the 20th when, it seems, I’ll have all the medical news I (don’t) want to hear. Can’t be conveying the crucial news several days after I get it!
The day passes agreeably, despite the apparent loss of a cache of photos I’ll need to illustrate this blog from my camera while I was trying to download them. I spend ages looking for them, to no avail. Thank God Ben’s agreed to come round tomorrow. If anyone can trace their whereabouts, he’s the man. When I go to one of my local cafes for a break, Sylvia, the nice Portuguese woman who makes the coffees, asks me if I’m alright. I nod wanly. She presses me until I tell her truth. But she’s misunderstood. She tells me her father had kidney stones and they’re easy to treat. When I explain, she bursts into tears.
‘Wheat grass,’ she eventually leans forward and whispers, pointing at the bank of sprouting trays behind her, while various other customers scowl at me as I’ve been rude to her, ‘it’s very good against cancer.’
Later, while I’m sipping my latte, she brings me over a free shot. Christ, I think, appalled by its hideous bitterness, this is going to kill me, let alone the kidney tumour. Little wonder that when I’m leaving, she recommends mixing it in some strong juice.
‘I was going to bring you some, but you just swallowed it in one go,’ she smiles.
We all regroup at Anna’s and have a nice evening. Maddy has brought back serious booty from Balham, some of Tara’s old soft toys. They include a giant Piglet, a unicorn and a kitten, all the worse for wear but clearly much-loved in their time. At bed-time, I’m astonished that Maddy has chucked out all her Frozen ‘people’ to make room for the newcomers. A bit fickle, I’m thinking, but in fact she’s made a sensible choice. Piglet alone takes up half the width of her bed. So glad Tara didn’t have Eeyore, Tigger or Winnie the Pooh, or she’d be demanding a double bed.
During bed-time, my mobile goes. It’s Haim, my ex-Israeli friend and great comrade from the days I brought a Freedom of Information action against Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, to find out why he’d banned Haringey and Islington school-children from attending creative writing work-shops offered as part of the 2011 Palestine Literature Festival (see footnote 2 to the blog for April 02.) Haim was my chief witness during the three-day hearing; he’d spoken at the Festival but I hadn’t yet met him then. I got in touch after one of the headmasters affected leaked a letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews containing serious calumnies against him which I wondered if he knew about. Together with my other witness, we demolished the Education Department’s seven-man legal team’s utterly ludicrous attempt to portray us as a trio of anti-Semitic extremists. It was my introduction to the nefarious influence of Zionist lobbies at the very highest levels of government. However, because the story’s too long and interesting, I’ll reserve it for another blog when I have less to write about. Remembering how we met makes me realise, however, that I’ve already done some practical activism of the kind I mentioned earlier. The FOI action took over a large part of my life for nearly two years, ending only in late 2013. For the denouement, you’ll have to hold your breath – it’s genuinely funny in a sick sort of way…
What follows gives me a tremendous boost. Haim has read the opening chapter of my book on Palestine / Israel and is tremendously enthusiastic, insisting that it’s going to shake up the field. I know that as a good friend, he’s responded to my injunction to make no allowances for my illness. Having fought in Israel’s wars before seeing the light, I have always regarded him and his elegant wife Yosefa (who also did time in Israeli military intelligence, working for a while alongside David Grossman, about whom she’s pretty scathing) as examples of extraordinary integrity. They’ve suffered all manner of persecutions, including violence from Zionist extremists, for their principled opposition to Israel’s colonial policies. I’ve always been anxious that my research project has been trespassing into domains I’m simply not properly equipped to deal with. Now I feel vindicated. All the hard work over the first year and half of the fellowship seems to be paying off. I can’t express how much his call boosts my morale. So sod off, tumour, I mutter to myself as I hit the hay. Finishing the book is another very strong motive to keep going and see my most immediate enemy off.
We spend much of Sunday at the Bennetts, who’ve kindly agreed to be our witnesses at the low-key marriage ceremony we plan. Elena, highly accomplished in everything she turns her hand to, has already spent hours making some Ottolenghi vegetarian recipes (Anna’s veggie and I’ve pretty much followed suit in recent years) by the time we arrive. She has a beautiful open-plan kitchen in a beautiful house ‘betwixt the commons,’ as their area is known in local estate-agent parlance. They’ve recently moved there because of schools and the need for greater space, now their second daughter Lucia has arrived. It looks onto what I think is their master-piece. They’ve replaced the entire smallish and no doubt inevitably unsatisfactory patch of back-garden characteristic of the road with a Spanish-style patio (Elena’s parents are Spanish). It wouldn’t be out of place in a sultry corner of Seville. It even has dwarf citrus shrubs growing in tubs on the elegant tearracotta flooring, emerald splashes against the white-washed walls. As Tim points out, over one of his lattes, which rival anything I’ve ever tasted, even in an independent coffee-shop, such a space has many advantages over a lawn and borders: low-maintenance, quick-drying and it captures the spring sunshine where a conventional back-garden often seems to dissipate it in general sogginess.
Between attending to her Ottolenghi dishes, Elena manages to find time to cook a creamy pasta dish made with Philadelphia and other cheeses for Maddy and their daughter Isi. It’s so delicious that I have to ask for the recipe. Forget kids, it would be a feast for Anna and me. It’s a delight to see how well Isi and Maddy get along. Born a week after ours, Isi attended the same day-nursery until Anna sensed Maddy wasn’t that happy there. We found a much better (and cheaper) place, though that meant that the kids went their separate ways. Nonetheless, they’ve remained excellent friends and we make a point of getting them together regularly in the hope that this first friendship will endure as their longest. Now they’re absorbed in games involving Isi’s Frozen figures, sprawling on the patio to push them around.
The food is quite spectacular. Elena’s rendition of Ottolenghi’s spices (she buys them in Tooting and grinds them herself) is spot-on from what I remember of my single visit to Nopi, his place near Piccadilly. I haven’t had food so good, as well as clean- and healthy-tasting, for a very long time. This is something else to do over the next few weeks or months – expand my honest but limited range of cooking. I’ve found it hard to come up with more than simple vegetarian dishes since meeting Anna. Perhaps buying Ottolenghi’s new book will help me spread my wings.
After lunch, Elena retreats for twenty minutes to the patio, to catch her breath and absorb some Vitamin D (her bones have been suffering as a consequence of the birth of Lucia). I join her, while Anna and Tim look after the three girls.To my surprise, Elena tells me that she’s suffered in the past from malignant melanoma and undergone chemo.
‘What you have to remember, Bart, is that one in two of us, or just a little less, has to go through cancer.’
I nod, a little ashamed by my self-absorption over the last ten days. Despite myself, I force myself to listen as she takes me through what chemo involves. She makes it sound much less bad than I’d imagined. She had a weekly hit, which involved feeling chronically tired and weak for a couple of days, followed by a rapid return to normality for the next five. Being constitutionally vain, I ask about hair loss.
‘It happens,’ she comments, ruffling her thick mane with one hand, ‘but it soon grows back.’
Perhaps I’ll be proactive if it comes to that. Get my head shaved in a barber’s first, and choose some slick head-gear. A bowler hat like the one Maddy wore in the Transport museum, perhaps.
We leave at tea-time, eager to give them a little Sunday time to themselves after looking after us with such concern and attention. Anna and Maddy head off to Northcote Road to buy some summer shoes for our little one. Winter is definitely over, even if this strong sunshine probably won’t last. Later, I get a text from Yosefa, endorsing Haim’s judgement. I’m thrilled again, though the acid test will be the responses from those kind readers who don’t yet know I’m ill. But at least I’m getting over my persistent fear hitherto of being dismissed as a second-rate chancer. We all team up again at Anna’s where Maddy proudly shows off her new pink shoes. We have the remains of last night’s Lebanese take-away. Too kindly, Anna’s insisted that I keep the extra portions of the Ottolenghi meal which Elena pressed on us before we left, for my lunch tomorrow.