This is the life. Or it could be. In another universe where cancer is nothing more than a constellation in the night sky.
We’re sitting outside a bar overlooking a river in a small town in the middle of France. We’re here to visit Annie’s brother Rob and his wife Lesley. Rob’s prognosis has changed dramatically since we were last here in August (see an accident of life, September 2011). Although to look at him you wouldn’t know (he’s the tanned, smiling one in the photo). His PSA count¹ has been steady for sometime – less than 100 – but has now, in a matter of weeks, shot up to 1700. This is disturbing news. He survives on chemo and hope.
But for now we sit in the sun. It’s early April and so warm. The coffee is good. I could easily get used to this.
Rob and I have plans. We talk about a bike holiday business. The countryside around here (the Limousin) is full of quiet roads and cheeky hills. Nothing too taxing – just enough to earn that cool beer when the ride is over. My job will be to get people here – Rob will look after them once they come. That’s the plan; although we’re both familiar with the idea – best exemplified by Robbie Burns and his field mouse – that the best laid plans of mice and men do not always work out the way we expect.
Besides his PSA count, I notice another change since I last saw Rob. He now talks openly about when he’s no longer here. Not gloomily, but as a straightforward matter of fact. This will need doing, someone will have to do that …. that sort of thing; the practical stuff. Last time we talked it was simply alluded to; much like astronomers might talk about the inevitable demise of our sun – some event for the distant future. When he talks to people about his progress he will turn to me and say, “Well, you’ll understand this”. Knowing that I do.
And I share things with Rob that I do not share with others. My friends and I talk mainly about music, photography or bikes. This is good because I don’t want cancer to dominate my life. But I can’t escape it. Which is why I value Rob. We can talk about tumours and drugs and life insurance. We’ve become each other’s confidante. Like brothers-in-arms, we stumble into no-man’s land together knowing the other won’t flinch or become upset at what we find there. My next appointment with the oncologist is in May; Rob’s is in June. The internet will no doubt buzz around this time.
I recognise that this is hard for Annie. Her father had cancer and now her brother and husband are comparing notes. It seems an exclusive club. It’s not though. Anyone can join.
It’s a shame that it’s taken this poxy disease to bring Rob and me together. Although we’d get on well enough without it. I like my brother-in-law; he’s a big strong man full of humour and positive energy – always plans, plans, plans. In between sessions of chemo he has replaced all the shutters on his house and is now installing another bathroom. I don’t know how he does it.
Annie and I intend to return to France for a holiday in September. I mention this to Rob and his eyes light up – and I feel as if I’ve walked into a trap – especially when Lesley says “you can’t ask them that”. That which cannot be asked, eventually is; they plan a holiday in September and would we dog-sit for a week? Ah.
I am a dog-person. I like dogs; I have owned dogs and feel comfortable around dogs. Annie is not and does not. The ‘Ah’ at the end of the previous paragraph should signal that this is not a simple request to deal with. And not just for Annie.
Zac and Lola are Doberman Pinschers. Not just any old Doberman Pinschers – these are rescue dogs. In the vernacular of Social Services they might be described as having ‘issues’. Their excess baggage would generate a tidy profit for Ryanair.
The person who first said, “don’t worry, his bark is worse than his bite” had not met Zac or Lola. A bark is normally just a very, very loud noise. These dogs are capable of much more. Something primeval – think wolves in the forest. Even the bogeyman who lived under your bed when you were a child would probably crawl under the covers when he heard this. (You didn’t know there was a bogeyman under your bed? Oops.)
Lola, the older of the two, is the ringleader. She will start the trouble. After a particularly intimidating barking session, Zac will approach, head bent down and seek out a hand for reassurance as if to say ‘sorry’. Lola just stands and stares; can dogs be insolent? Annie has a particularly troublesome girl student, who, whenever asked to perform a mathematical calculation, will just look at her and say, “dunno what you’re on about Miss”. In a universe where dogs are taught maths, this would be Lola.
We cannot – and don’t want to – refuse Rob and Lesley their holiday, so agree to dog-sit. I remind Annie that dogs are pack animals; we, their soon to be pack-members, will need to establish a hierarchy that puts us firmly at the top. Although my vocal cords are still performing I do not have the power to issue commands or sound authorative. My bark is no worse than my bite – which is pretty ineffectual these days. Annie still has her teacher’s voice – so by default gets to be top dog.
On the way back to the UK, Annie and I stop in Rouen. It’s somewhere we’ve often wanted to visit, particularly the cathedral and the Monet paintings in the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
The weather has changed since we were in the Limousin – it’s now cloudy and rain falls intermittently.
But a hot chocolate in a small Tabac restores the cosmic balance and I still think this is the life.
Back home we have a brief period to recharge our batteries before dashing up the M6 for a family get together in Manchester. Annie has three sisters and two brothers (not all living in the UK) all with children – some with grand children – and we get together once or twice a year for lunch. We walk into the pub restaurant to find Annie’s mum surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. There are twenty two of us on this particular occasion. To someone who grew up without any close family around, the effect is astonishing. And sitting next to his mum with a big grin on his face, to our complete and utter amazement, is Rob – my brother-in-(The Queen’s)-arms.