Promises aren’t always kept

Jenny Diski

Almost every day since I began writing these pieces I get a letter or an email from someone who has read or remembered and liked my work; they talk about the recent pieces about my cancer or my memories of my teenage years and my relationship with Doris Lessing, my older books, fiction and non-fiction, something they’ve read or remembered. They’re remarkably kind (my paranoia wonders, but I fight back the idea that the LRB’s editors hold on to the ones that are not so positive). They are well meant, offering as solace the people ‘out there’ in the real world who have enjoyed my work, and they hope that I will be well and that I will continue writing. One or two suggest I prostrate myself (an inevitable image here of Audrey Hepburn face down in the stone-paved aisle) and pray to the Holy Mother of Jesus, who will cure anyone who asks and believes in her. Even a Jew? Why? A gratuity. A gift given freely, regardless. And yet Mary Mother of Christ doesn’t really give freely – she wants you to ask and for you to believe in her. Not quite gratuitous. Others offer pills or potions that the medical establishment has overlooked, but which in the right doses (always either huge or minute) are KNOWN to cure all kinds of cancer, as attested by people whose lives have been saved by enough fresh carrot juice to sink a submarine. There aren’t any negative or abusive messages. That rather alarms me. I’d be sick to death of me by now. The weird medicines are all offered with the best of intentions, though best of all are emails that simply say: ‘No need to write back, I just want to say I hope you stay well as long as you can, and that your writing has meant a lot to me.’ Of course I reply and say thank you as often as I can, because I’m genuinely grateful to receive such messages from strangers.

But, in all honesty (which always seems to trump good manners), I’m not genuinely grateful at all. Not in that dark place where I am a naughty, angry child. I can’t feel genuinely anything much because that train left the platform before I knew it was there, or I slept as it stopped then started off again without a thought for its sleepy passenger. There is supposed to be a psychological state at which we all have to arrive and where we rest or make a final effort before we can receive our certificate for having done right. Perhaps I was asleep when the shards of glass dropped from the playful cherubims’ hands and fell arbitrarily into the eyes or hearts of some but only some. Broken mirrors falling through the sky, to change the hearts and minds of a few people so that they can see only the bleak side of anything good or innocuous. I really can’t get away without finding myself in the fairy or hobgoblin stories. That must be my sliver of looking glass, reflecting a place where everything is not what it seems, a world of my own making, of tickling death and then hiding between my own legs, as one hid behind one’s mother’s in shame or anxiety. Goblin. Hobgoblin. There once was an ugly duckling. There was a promise for those who saw the world as it really was. But promises aren’t always kept and I can’t tolerate unfulfilled promises. My head is full of dark, terrorising tales, you will have noticed. Collected or made up on the spot. Can there be any more stories left? Always, into perpetuity. The stories never run out, especially the ‘real ones’, the ones that actually happened and press forward impatiently awaiting their turn, like elephants’ teeth. When the teeth run out – the ones planted before birth in the world – the elephant starves to death. The wicked cruelty of nature. Always another trick up its sleeve. Some of us will suffocate, some will starve. Some will spend their days waiting for the end of the story. I guess some people don’t. Certainly, I doubt that elephants fret about the way the end will come.

*

And then, after the daily busyness of radiotherapy, there was nothing. Or at least it was amazing busyness for me, who can remain contentedly indoors, staring, for weeks on end. Now there was nothing else on the menu. Nothing new, anyway. Food still tasted foul and bitter, I was still tired enough to sleep an extra four hours a day. But the treatment was over. It would take three months to finish its work inside my body, then a scan to see if anything had happened. If the placebo effect works for one in three people (there’s that ragged seaman again, his bird rotting, rotting, rotting around his neck; why won’t someone do something?), the odds were good for me, though better if I had received a non-placebo and perhaps I had. I just had to trust my luck. There’s the problem. I don’t trust anyone, not their shy words of good intent, not their commiserations, not their active and proven medication. I know too about the nocebo effect, where medically active drugs don’t work on a third of patients who are told they are taking cornflour. What could anyone give me that could definitively improve my health? And what is my health when most of the unwellness came from the treatment? I’ve got the place surrounded, Mr Earp. And there’s only one piece of magic left if faith is left out. Love, there’s love. But if I arrived on earth without a capacity for faith, when right now, with a death sentence tattooed on me, I simply can’t find this faith they talk of, that easy answer to the terror of death and dying, how the hell am I going to place my trust in love, mine, his, the spirit of the planet? ‘Whatever love means’ to each entity that uses it, it’s time they used it. Or teach me how. See, as soon as you slide off towards the easy answer – trust in me – you start to sound like a feeble-minded prince with nothing to do. Anyway, it’s a little late at 68. Quality of life. Well of course there is. But right now I can’t see them holding me down like ballast. I could even take a small lie or two at the moment.

I’ve got no apparatus to throw over myself as I make the swan dive. I’m just out there, alone without even anyone to lie the truth to me. Carried on the wind, swinging on a breeze, but entirely alone.

So after nearly a year (let’s leave be the six months of depression and the changing of medications before the machine checking on the pulmonary fibrosis also found, by accident, a tumour in my lung), after this boxing match of a year, Onc Doc was able to tell me that his chemo treatment had at least stopped the growth and movement of the lung cancer (‘Though we can’t know for how long’), while the lifetime’s allowance of radiation in a month they shot though me had greatly worsened the fibrosis. It would now most likely be the fibrosis – for which there is no cure, only a slowing of progression – that would kill me.

For how long? This uncertainty is difficult. Perhaps a year, the younger, more relaxed Doctor Fibes told me. But then that caution: of course we can’t be sure. I might get an infection; just a minor thing without a properly functioning immune system could escalate into pneumonia. More deadly. Of course they can’t, they’re working with statistics taken from studies made years and worlds apart. We’re back to square one. Everyone is different, we can’t make that kind of judgment. The answer is – with the new drugs, if they work on me – ‘perhaps a year’. But then again …

I’ve never been really ill, apart from those sweaty children’s infections it’s best to get over and done with. I don’t exactly feel ill now. I’m trapped in a mesh of steroid effects. I’ve been put on them to stall the damage done by not having used steroids with the radiotherapy. They may slow down the infections, but have hideous side-effects; within three weeks of taking a ‘very moderate dose, of the weakest steroid they make’, my weight had shot from eight stone to eleven stone. Fat that feels as if my body has been stuffed with some alien gel settled in particular places. My face and body have rounded. Cushing’s syndrome. The shock I get from an ill-advised glance into a looking-glass trembles down my spine. No one has ever seen me fat before. But it’s necessary and the doctors don’t consider fatness important compared to three months’ more life. This is because they are men in suits or neat women who have not taken steroids themselves. It’s like a punishment. But for what?

In addition, the steroids, or something else, keep making me totter and fall, at home, in the street, so I can’t get beyond my front door without someone to help me along. Every sitting down and standing up is fraught with the danger of another fall and another break. The Poet (it’s so good to call him by the name I gave him when nothing was wrong) has to help me dress and go up or down the stairs. It’s about as tough on him as it is on me. I was fully of the opinion when the cancer diagnosis was first made that he had the worst of it, but since trying to haul myself up from the ground after getting out of a taxi – only after a few long minutes did the driver get out of his seat to help me up – my opinion is changing. I am the old lady falling down and lacking the muscle power to get up. One of the most humiliating conclusions you can come to about yourself: it won’t get better (although the ‘fatness’ is water retention). But now, providing I don’t look at myself in the mirror in the hall, I begin to see (as in feel) that it doesn’t matter so much. As I write there is a world refugee crisis. I’ve never had to cope with that. That little cancer in my lung, and the growing forest of fibrotic alveoli will kill me, but something would have. Please, a real plea, not to speak to me, or anyone else, of ‘bravery’. I need to be told the story in which it doesn’t matter, a story of the millions who’ve died already. Of the millions who are to die and live in terrible conditions. And yet I still tell the doctor and hospice nurse both conversationally and on a signed living will that I want to die easily, not an agitated death. Imagine all those millions who have never been given that choice. Not that I suppose anyone but a masochist would choose the agitated death. Just enough of a coma so I can wave a weak goodbye and let them get on with their lives. That’s hard enough to do. My God, people like me have been given lives and choices no other generation has ever had. I wonder why. I’m speaking, of course, of a white, Western cohort which the generations on either side quite rightly resent. What the hell did we do to deserve to have it so easy? Nothing. On one side the 20th-century wars, then in gratitude free education, housing, a long state-funded playtime that went on into our thirties; then the next generation where it all has to be paid for. The vital welfare state that is concerned with hearts and minds rather than outcomes and value for money. But for fuck’s sake, get it back, kids. Fight for what was our right. Get angry.

*

I am interested in understanding how it comes about that in spite of my upper body’s intention to go one way, my legs go in quite another direction, so that I scuttle about trying to get both parts of my body to pay attention to each other. It’s something like finding oneself on a frozen lake without skates or experience. Again the docs and nurses don’t seem to address this new difficulty in my life. I ended up yelling ‘Help!’ the other day, stuck three stairs from the middle landing, when I knew the house to be empty. And it seems like the bad vibes are spreading. (How right to have had that cliché all the while for when no other cliché will do.) Almost everything I do goes wrong or is unsightly (I was already assured that my hair wouldn’t fall out, so there’s that: Rapunzel, just on my way up. Oh, do stop moaning. If you don’t let your hair down, what can I do?). My hands tremble, making me look as if I’m continually one over the eight. I feel I need an exquisite silver necklace with the words ‘I’m not mad, I’m ill’ engraved on one side, and ‘Ouch!’ on the other. In other, practical ways, I’ve done it right. I thought of these monthly essays straightaway. Who knows when they will finish, but in the meantime they give me some thinking and writing to do. Enough, but not too much. Should I find myself hanging by my teeth I’ll just declare the end the winner and bow out gratefully. If that pneumonia gets me unexpectedly, I’m sure someone will let you know. No hymns, please. Except, maybe Janis Joplin’s ‘Ball and Chain’.

The time I have left is roughly in sync with the original pot shot. A year’s treatment gives me between one and two years. And still I only feel deprived at not watching the grandchildren, two of them now, become their own people. For now, they remain delightful, a special medicine whose main side-effect is a painful sadness, the cure for which is to forget about the workings of time. For the rest, apart from occasional terror of extinction, it seems reasonable enough, if the contented coma I’ve been promised actually happens. The terror is not, of course, occasional and contentment doesn’t come into it. Where am I going? Nobody knows. Can I come with you? Aye, bye and bye. There is a kind of excitement. This, that I’ve never done, already done but previously, in a different form, an absolute otherness, nothingness, knowinglessness. That everyone has done, will do, world without end. The ending, and the world going on, going about its daily business. A world without me. To have known but not have any apparatus to know with. The excitement of a newness that is as old as the hills. My turn.

And the terror. I’m reading accounts of undertakers, crematorium workers, seeing a counsellor once a week who has spent ten years working in a hospice getting people ready for death, not doing the other thing of helping to continue and improve their lives. I spent a few days in the local hospice, really to give the Poet some respite. One day a woman in a nearby room was crying out, calling without words, moaning in unending misery. ‘What is the matter with her?’ I meant apart from the obvious. The nurse was in my room taking my blood pressure. ‘Oh,’ she said calmly, ‘she’s not ready. She hasn’t thought enough about it and now it’s very hard for her.’ That’s how I imagined dying. Being ready or not. Between a trembling of horror, and the quiet of sufficiency. I wanted help with that. To deal with absence, the coming of nothing; it begins to make sense. But I’m haunted by the 1950s – I’m living then, which I hardly did – until I get into bed and sleep again. Is that the dead haunting the living, or the living haunting the dead? It’s happened several times now, always getting time wrong, looking out for my mother (to hide or seek?), finding the Poet as ignorant as I am about where to find or hide from the dead. But at least he knows what day it is, or whether it’s day or night. That’s a comfort. But what clot-headed dreams I have. How inelegant, how miserably concealed. And how strange that they come with me for the rest of the day or night, live around my shoulder, like the disgusting foxes that rested around my mother’s neck. The 1950s, just after a war had ended, the children of a new era, the children playing in the bombsites of something that has never been imaginable. The Blitz, the sirens, the rubble. Born two years later and only a few bombsites remaining. Thrilling for us, warnings about all sorts of things to our parents. We got the butter and the best of the rationed food, while we played and listened to their stories, too incredible to believe. Our children, at least in this country, with no tales of war to tell; only music and clothes. Infuriating and a blessing for our parents, who had experienced the abyss staring back at them. I suppose their memories must have hung around their necks like stinking albatrosses, only for their children to turn out themselves to be an abyss gazing back at the next generation. Is it catching? Whose 1950s was I living?

*

A long time ago I’d concluded that there was no point in my life if I wasn’t to be a writer. ‘The Point’ was very important. It still is. All I can manage to say when I’m deep in my underground terrain is ‘What’s the point?’ Only earning my living writing. I had the ridiculous, chaotic childhood and had grown up. Nearly twenty, yet I still wasn’t a writer. Or nearly twenty yet I still hadn’t written anything. A few ghastly poems, bits and patches I’d banged out on my typewriter, as if having written the first paragraph it would get on with it and write itself. Actually there’s a little truth in that. But from a young girl on, writing and being a writer was the only way I could think of to be, the only way to balance the down side of the seesaw. Why the hell had I had those greedy, self-absorbed, terrifying parents if it wasn’t to have something to write about? It wasn’t exactly superstitious, nor overtly religious (now one and the same thing). It was a matter of what I had been given and why. What to do with it. That also sounds superstitious, so perhaps I thought that something out there was weighing and balancing. Weirdly it was also somewhat true. Looking back, I see a frantic childhood and young womanhood and then in my late thirties it was the time for the lion to bed down with the lamb. Inside me and in the world outside. How calm that sounds. Actually, it sounded more like: WHAT THE FUCK DID I HAVE TO HAVE ALL THAT SHIT FOR?

But also, and incoherently, why hadn’t I had an interesting childhood? Essential for writing, surely. Come from somewhere else. A triple-A childhood that conformed. That surely was a writer’s background. All the people I’d read, and the people around Doris’s table, had travelled, or worked their way out of the working class to be passionate about … I wasn’t even clear which class I belonged to. Not working class exactly. Certainly not middle class, because that was what my mother reached for so desperately. But I was convinced that those who wrote had had lives that could be written about, interesting lives. And I hadn’t had an interesting life. Yet, at the same time, the only answer to the miserableness of most of my childhood was that I ought be a writer. Long before I’d ever heard of Doris Lessing, Bourne and Hollingsworth, the bins, psychiatric units, borderline personality disorder (and I never have found out whether it was the personality that was disordered, or a crack in the wall of personality that threatened to flood my self into nowhere if I didn’t keep a hold on it. I think that BPD was really a diagnosis meaning a young woman who didn’t do as she was told and they didn’t know how to deal with it). Anyway, before all that stuff, I’d wanted to be a writer. I think a journalist, because it was exciting and you only had to describe what was happening. I told myself stories, but I never wanted to write them down. They were like computer games for me to act out all the characters. Later it was a novelist, when I realised that novelists lived exactly as I wanted to live. At home, with a couch to sleep on when I lost the thread, and a beloved typewriter. Lunches and literary parties, not so much. Fame? Maybe. My finished book in its jacket in a bookshop window. Yes, but something told me it wasn’t a satisfaction that would last for long. One look, pleasure and then Oh Christ what about the next book? Or most simply a writer alone in a room and a couple of inches of typescript. Looking at it, half-done, two-thirds finished. I did that. Lying on the couch with a cigarette and half closing my eyes to see enough of the manuscript waiting to grow.

What actually happened was two or three years of London at the peak of the 1960s, living in Covent Garden when it was still a fruit and veg market, open all night, the sweet, rotting smell of damp fresh greens coming up to the flat where I lived above the grocer’s stall down at street level. Get a cup of tea and a chat any hour of the day or night from the van down the road, and all the drugs you could keep in a large jar of jelly beans. We smoked hash all day and into the night, injected methedrine, which was wonderful until you started to come down and discovered a side of depression darker than you’d ever dreamed of. We listened to Bob Dylan and the Velvets, wandered into each other’s rooms and beds, reading ancient texts, sharing joints and the latest weird science fiction. There simply wasn’t time enough to get to the end of a sentence by Henry James. We lived on allowances from our parents, or in my case, from my saviour (she didn’t see me anymore, because I was a lost cause, but the allowance continued), and also on state unemployment benefit, or sickness benefit. It was so easy to be a layabout and read Sartre, it was as if they wanted us to do it. All the while they shouted at us, how we looked, the dangerous things we did, locking some of us up in prison, but it was as if the older generation were playing its part with less conviction. With one hand they threatened to send us to bed without any supper, while with the other they gave us the wherewithal to live the life we were leading. We, our generation, were playing cops and robbers. We read the Mahabharata, let in a little light pulp into our druggy lives. Word went out, the fuzz were busting in Covent Garden. All the drugs went down the loo and someone took charge of the hoover to get rid of bits of hash on the floor. Kids playing games. Except that some went to prison for a year or two. Not me. Then the methedrine got to be too much. I had to stop it, and while I was at it I might as well cut out the acid and barbiturates, all of it. Cleaning out the old cupboard, with all its bottles and boxes years out of date.

Somewhere in all this time, that is, from leaving Doris’s in 1966 – or 1967 or thereabouts – and 1971 (my timing is extremely approximate, though not as approximate as it would be if you were to ask where I was this time last week), somewhere in that time I spent about four months in the North Wing of St Pancras Hospital, the psychiatric ward that took in all the emergency crazies and found them somewhere they could be treated for whatever ailed them. Round about the time I arrived, my shrink at the Tavi insisted Doris come immediately and escort me to the hospital and how could she let me walk around in such a precarious mental state? One side of the hospital was being given a lick of paint and it was officially announced that patients could make free with filthy walls and large tubs of paint while the other side of the unit was being fitted out. Art therapy didn’t take. The walls remained filthy and colourless except for the lintel over a door from the large patients’ sitting room into a small side room, where someone had written in dripping blood red ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Her [sic]’. Then chaos. I wrote a story about the haunted other side of the hospital. Who can tell the painters from the patients?

It was here that I was put into a barbiturate sleep and then had to be hauled out of it when they discovered that I was getting barbiturate poisoning. It was also where my friend Me Amnesiac, a middle-aged man who had lost all his life except the present, played poker with me and we planned to go off together and live in a flat. This had two outcomes. In the first place they found out his name, and that he’d left his house somewhere up north with a large chunk of cash to pay the rent and was found wandering in King’s Cross Station, where he ended up in the unknown strays department with no money. His wife and daughter came to visit him. He didn’t remember them but said they seemed very nice. So our plan was out and I found myself dumped by a man for his wife. The other result was that he became the amnesiac professor in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (a novel by Doris) with whom the Olympian gods toyed; he became Doris’s seafarer endlessly at sea. There was a young girl in the hospital he was taken to. She stood out because she didn’t wear knickers under her short, short skirt (remember, nothing new under the sun). Doris gave me a copy of the book and said she hoped I didn’t mind her using ‘my’ character like that. I said no, but I could imagine writing about him myself, if I ever became a writer. I suppose the fact that she got on with it made the story hers in some way.

*

The harmless quietness of the time after drugs, sex and rock, when I was teaching wayward children, interrupted the narrative. A couple of weeks ago, my nice hairdresser down the road had washed and dried my hair, and I went out the back way, where the Poet would pick me up and take me home – a couple of hundred yards back up the street, but I was too wobbly and wary to do it on foot, alone. Suddenly, while waiting for the Poet to arrive, my legs behaved impossibly and I crashed face down and lay in the concrete and gravel knowing that my forehead had been really cracked. I wondered if I was dead, and then decided that if I was wondering I was probably still alive. So after a moment resting with my face in the gravel, I shouted ‘Help! Help!’ at the top of my voice. Luckily the Poet drove up, saw me lying face down, and managed not to run me over. It turned out my bellowing for help was about loud enough for a passing ant to hear. The Poet got me into the car and off we went to spend the next eight hours in A&E. The next morning I had a stitch in my forehead where the gravel had made a sizeable hole, and two enormous black eyes, like the mask of Zorro. ‘Can you count back from twenty to one?’ the student doc asked, checking whether I had damaged my brain. I said ‘Yes’, which I thought should be enough to put an end to this affair. But she insisted that I go through the whole rigmarole. I may have sung it, just to keep it interesting. To say that the side-effects from my meds have let me down would be the worst ever joke. But the hell with it. My legs let me down. So here I still am starting the next week with just the one stitch, a bump the size of a pigeon’s egg, a deep hole in my forehead, and a pair of black eyes which in the right light look like water spilled over petrol. And my wrist is all shaken up, the same wrist I broke last time. Oh well. Worst, my clean hair was caked with blood.

And now the new pills have arrived, delivered mysteriously by a courier in a van because they’ve been passed by Nice for hospital use but not for GPs or pharmacists. It takes three weeks to get up to my full dose while the steroids go down at the same rate. O the mind, mind had mountains; cliffs of fall … Still, in a few weeks I will be off the steroids, which made me a balloon that the Poet had to hold on to to stop me floating away. Not that I’m in a very floaty form in my present state. Will I get back to a proper weight? I have to eat lunch, so I can have the pills three times a day, which is not my idea of a proper life. I’m a snacker. And no grapefruit. Normally I wouldn’t give grapefruit a second glance, but I feel the desire coming on. I think I’ve done something to my left knee because I can’t put any weight on that leg without wailing, but the nice doctor prodded and pushed, and deduced from the ows and aies that it was probably just bruised. I’m back to taking the stairs one at a time. Blessed grandson and tiny granddaughter came on Sunday. ‘Granjen why are you so slow?’ ‘All the better to …’ Oh, I am so sad not to be seeing more of their growing up.

*

I lived in bedsitters and hospitals for the year or so after my spell in the North Wing. I can’t understand it. Just the thought of some of the places I lived and worked and shivered in makes me tremble with depression, but I was young. Eventually they had a bed for me at the Maudsley, where I settled in nicely for nine months. My best friend (whom I didn’t yet know) was waiting for me (whom she didn’t yet know) with a virgin game of Scrabble, set out on the table between her and the empty chair she was waiting for someone to sit on. I sat on it immediately. We played pathological games of Scrabble. She was mad as a rat, but she says it was me who was mad. Well. She has become a poet and I’ve become me. The Maudsley our alma mater. We were very bad girls, in the very bad girls’ side of the ward. At the other end, the good girls resided. They played Cliff Richard and one actually announced herself cured of an inability to walk without lurching from one side of the street to the other by going to the Billy Graham razzamatazz and him putting his hands on her. Ach, Billy Graham where are you when you’re needed? We took Cliff off the record-player and put Hendrix on. It’s funny how things fall out.

As for heartache, we – S, let’s say, and me – took turns and looked after each other. When there was a hump in the bed under which a poor girl lay, we (she or I) sat at the end of the bed protecting her (or me) from the nurses shouting: ‘Come on, get out of bed.’ There was a gentle kindness and fierce craziness in Ward 6. I want to write an opera about it, S and I working together (most of our recollections are very similar), but we won’t. The heartache passed, but we knew it was there. We got heartache holidays. When I cut myself, S came with me across the road to King’s College Hospital, to make sure I was being treated properly. Hopeless, as it turned out: as soon as she saw blood dripping from my wrist she fainted and they thought she was the patient. They put sticks in her mouth to stop her from biting her tongue, while I shouted that she had just fainted and if she woke up strapped to a stretcher, she would really go off her head. I waved my bloody razored arm at them to show what the situation was. In any other generation this would all have been strange. It wasn’t strange to us. Funny, sometimes, but not strange.

When Doris met with my consultant he told her that my depression was due to my not being in a real relation with her, and that I felt I couldn’t behave the way most adolescents behaved with their real family, knowing there would always be a reprieve. Doris returned fuming and told me this, finishing: ‘You don’t feel you can’t say anything because you’re not my real daughter, do you?’ The double bind was familiar to me from reading R.D. Laing and others, so I sat on the edge of my bed and said ‘No’ as insincerely as I could manage. ‘Of course not,’ Doris said, ‘the man’s an idiot.’ We – that is, Doris – had reached the end of the ‘psychology is everything’ phase, as Sufism arrived and seemed to her to lock all her former passions together, neat and tight as a Rubik’s Cube.

You can read the next instalment of Jenny Diski's memoir here (and the first one here).