There’s an envelope with a Birmingham postmark on the mat. I can just make out through the address window, where the letter inside has been folded, the word ‘latipsoh’. Quicker than Hercule Poirot can say “little grey cells” I deduce from the two clues – postmark and ‘hospital’ backwards – that this is the letter I’ve been hoping for from the Birmingham voice clinic. Unless it is some cruel prank from a backwards letter writer whom I may have offended in a previous life.
Sure enough, they have offered me an appointment in August. This is sooner than I expected, just 3 months from when I last saw Mr ENT. My expectations of this encounter are high – but it has its risks. Suppose it doesn’t work?
I mention to people who ask, that I just want a chance to talk to someone about the voice. If they can do something, then great – if not at least I’ll know and I can stop banging on about it. I say this in a relaxed, laid back way, which suggests I’m comfortable with either outcome. The truth however, is quite the opposite.
If they tell me that there is nothing that can be done and this is as good as it gets, then I am going to be disappointed. For the past three years I have let myself believe that – with a bit of luck – I can go back to the way things were, before the lung resection. That I can just walk up to the microphone and carry on from where I left off – as if the intervening time was no more than the usual 20 minute break between sets. But the experience of trying to get back on the bike should have spelt out clearly in capital letters that THINGS ARE NEVER GOING TO BE THE SAME AGAIN. Doh!
I met up with an old friend a few weeks ago and she asked how I spend my time now that I’m retired; what do I do each day? I recited a litany of things – some creative, others mundane – that I engage with. Or rather, could engage with if I got my act together. It occurs to me much later, that what really takes up my time is simply surviving. That is the 9.00 to 5.00 job, the rest is just frippery. Not a career move I’d have come up with by choice, but one that I now have to do to the best of my ability. No one wants to become an ex-cancer survivor.
Anyone who’s been through this awful disease will tell you that surviving is hard work. More often than not, we look fine on the outside, a picture of health – no hint of what lies beneath the surface – a chaos of sutured organs held together by the medical equivalent of duct tape and zip ties. Some of us will appear to breeze through this on autopilot, others will struggle, burdened down with discomfort and fear, like a latter-day Pilgrim¹.
And now I sound like Miss Haversham²; the naïve sense of optimism and good fortune that has got me thus far, replaced by brooding melancholy and bitterness with all my clocks stuck at 4.45pm³. Although to be fair, I have not let myself go in the hair and clothes department to the same extent as Miss H did. OK – so perhaps my jeans are now M&S ‘relaxed fit’ rather than Levi red tabs – but I am not sitting around in a 30-year-old tatty white wedding dress, wearing only one shoe watching the wedding cake gradually disintegrate; (plot spoiler alert – apologies if you’ve not read Great Expectations).
Annie has, on her iPhone, a recording I made over 20 years ago with my friend Alan. I’m singing and Alan’s playing a Steinway grand piano. Though I say myself – it does sound pretty good. She wants to play it at the clinic in Birmingham, and say something like ‘make him sound like that again’. This though, is an expectation just a little too great.
I know Annie is concerned that I am dwelling more on what I can’t do, rather than what I can do; she’s right of course and so I take advantage of the sunshine/lack of rain to help her in the garden. She points out that the peonies we’ve just planted need some water. I’m puzzled; we’ve not planted peonies. She tries again; “You know – primroses”. Another blank. I catch her mumbling – she’s working her way through a song, like someone who can only read by saying the words out loud. “Petunias!” Ah petunias. They do indeed need watering.
This happens every time that she forgets the name of this brightly coloured annual, much favoured for summer bedding displays and hanging baskets. I ask how she arrived at the correct name. “That old song – you know”. I do now. Like an old decrepit jukebox, the synapses in my brain eventually make the connection, pick out a recording by Tommy Cooper from 1961 and plonk it down on the turntable. The crucial line is “Mother’s just planted Petunias”. And now it’s in my head and I can’t get rid of it. Which is why, with a breathtaking lack of good taste, we find ourselves sitting in the garden shed on Father’s Day singing “Don’t jump off the roof Dad.” I wonder if they know it in Birmingham.