If you’d like to help Tall Man and other blood cancer patients, please donate your bone marrow in the country you live in, and if you have money, they’d love you to give it to Anthony Nolan in the UK or to Be the Match in the US.
– Lines On Marriage, Joel Brouwer
The poet Joel Brouwer says that marriage is not a story: I believe him. We were almost married, and that is not a story either. In our flat I keep finding scraps of paper with my notes, things I am amazed I ever knew: that, for instance, Scottish registrars will let you cherish and obey, but an English civil service must be entirely areligious; that elope to Scotland?! was once a feasible idea; that you can purchase a modest three-tiered cheese wedding cake for the sum of £75 from Waitrose, delivered anywhere, even Scotland.
I liked the idea — it made me laugh — of promising to cherish and obey my boyfriend, and I liked the idea of being worshipped with the body and endowed with worldly goods, and I loved the idea of promising aloud (as they have said for five hundred years here) that we were together for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
We thought that we had done all of those things, but it turned out that we had barely scraped the iceberg: we planned, vaguely, to elope in the autumn, and in the summer my boyfriend — my partner, my Tall Man, my heart — was diagnosed with a rare, elusive, and difficult to treat cancer of the blood. That was eleven days ago. This is not a story, but I am telling it to you as if it is, because it makes it easier.
(A note: you are going to have to forgive my tenses. It is very difficult to parse time in a cancer ward: the light remains clean and filtered, as does the air, and nurses come and go at every hour. The future is uncertain, the lights stay on all night. And it has only been eleven days: I am displaced, a thing out of time.)
Eleven days ago, I lived in Stepney, with my boyfriend. Stepney is a parish in East London: it is grimy, poor, and beautiful when you get off the main road. There is a church, and a farm, and a street of houses that survived the Blitz, on a blue cobbled street.
The past is a different country. He was a journalist. I was a writer. We were 25 and 22. It was July, and London was hot and clammy, and every day I went to the library to try and work on my book. Like all young women like me in East London, I was working on a book. It was a cookbook. Every day I cooked things, and my boyfriend would eat the things, and praise them. We went for walks, and to the pub, and to the local farmer’s market. We read a lot. We talked a lot. We had dinner parties, two or three a week, in the tiny flat (we all called it that: Tiny Flat, capitalised, like a city), and our friends would bring guitars and cheese and wine. We were very happy. (Pettiness, and mediocrity, which is life itself, and as long as you are with me I wish never to be cured..)
We were very happy, although there had been, lately, something uneasy there, some shadow at the edge of my mind. I suspected privately that I needed to return to therapy: I suspected that I was succumbing to a kind of paranoia, a particular and peculiar kind of paranoia that centred on my boyfriend, who was the centre of my world. I remembered vividly that a psychiatrist had once written “She deeply fears losing her boyfriend, with whom she has created an ideal home life”, and I thought that this was true, and I thought that this was the reason I believed (fully and entirely) that my boyfriend had cancer of the blood.
As it turned out, the reason I believed this was because he did. He did have cancer of the blood: a rare cancer of the blood, that begins at Stage IV, and that Wikipedia notes, gravely, as “generally incurable”. His oncologist tells me this is not necessarily true, but that it is so rare that he cannot tell us anything else.
What is not rare, according to the oncologist, is that a person close to the patient will somehow sense the cancer. Animals do it, he told me. Animals sense sickness, and sometimes people can do it too. You did. You must have sensed it, the oncologist told me, within days of the cancer manifesting in him. In our case, this happened around twelve weeks ago: twelve weeks ago his body turned on itself, eleven and a half weeks ago I saw that his body had turned on itself, and eleven days ago a routine GP appointment became a cancer diagnosis.
He went to the GP with a vomiting bug, and never came home to Stepney. We are not sure when he will. We think that he will. We hope that he will. Again, said the oncologist, we can’t really tell you anything, except that chemotherapy only works on two-thirds of the people with this cancer, and that for the one-third of people for whom it does not work, there is nothing further we can do. It is a very, very rare cancer. I am not telling you the name on purpose: I don’t want you to look it up. The oncologist told me I was absolutely not to Google. 180 people have had this cancer ever. 120 have successfully been treated with chemotherapy. Because of patient confidentiality, they cannot tell us how many of those 120 people survived further than that.
Two-thirds, or 66%, or 120/180. It is a B at GCSE. A 2:1 at university. My friend Harry tells me that if a team on Football Manager has some stat of 66%, they are unbeatable: I am clinging to this. And, I notice, it is the amount of Stepney that was destroyed in the Blitz.
I have been thinking a lot about this fact, this flip side chance to our own: I cannot decide yet if this is a good or bad omen. Stepney, after all, remains. Whatever else, Stepney remains, seventy years after the fact, and is (was? is) our home. There is, I told you, a row of houses behind our block of flats that survived the bombings, on a blue cobbled street. They are beautiful. I think of how Stepney endured, and I think of the people who lived here then, and what they endured, and how they did not know if they could. They were mostly women, I think, who walked these blue streets before I did. Mostly women, enduring.
In the days before, when the men went to war, and the women waited, the future was uncertain. Two-thirds of the parish destroyed: a two-thirds chance that your house would be the one gone, a two-thirds chance that your home would be the one gone. Not to mention, of course, the chance that your boy would go, too. Our chances of some kind of future are double theirs, and theirs half ours, and still they went on.
They painted their mouths with lipstick, and they painted their legs with gravy granules to mimic stockings, so nobody would think they had let their standards slip. They kept the standard high, kept the flag flying, kept the home fires burning. And they went on.
And so, I suppose, must I.
Their chances were half ours: they kept on. Our chances are double theirs: I must keep on. Every day, day after day, for as long as it takes, whatever it takes. They kept on. I must keep on.
So I do.
I have a friend, and her name is Caroline, and the first awful day (when we heard “cancer” for the first time), she met me outside the Tiny Flat with one bag of cheese, and another of cleaning things, and she said: Bisto legs, Ellabell. Bisto legs.
Bisto is an English brand of beef gravy granules. It is English food of the kind that everyone expects from English food: cautiously flavourful, substantial, heavy.
Bisto is primarily advertised — and has been since about 1910 — by the Bisto Kids. The Bisto Kids are two orphans in ragged clothes, raising their noses to the scent of beef gravy granules, and they sigh “Ahh, Bisto!” Dissolved, it is the stuff that women used to paint their legs with, when the war was going on, and you couldn’t get nylon for love nor money.
And what Caroline meant by Bisto Legs is this: paint your legs. Don’t let them see you can’t get stockings. Don’t let this make you less than you are. Find a way. Make a way. Keep on. Keep on keeping on.
This is the Bisto legs effect, then. Stockings straightened, lipstick on. Women keep sending me lipstick in the mail, and I wear it everywhere, and I wear it loudest on the cancer ward, because I want my Tall Man to think I’m pretty, and I want my Tall Man to know I want him to think I’m pretty, and I want everyone to know: we’re in love, and we’re young, and we can and shall endure. We shall endure with a stiff upper lip, and Dior: Fuchsia Utopia in my handbag, and Bisto legs, and chemotherapy waiting in the morning. For better, for worse, in sickness and in health. Always too early, or too late, but always.
Ella Risbridger writes chiefly about food for fun, books for love, and pretty much anything at all for money. Like everyone else, she is currently working on her first novel. Just to mix things up a bit, she is also attempting to make food/mental health blogging a thing. It's not a thing, but you can read it at eatingwithmyfingers.com anyway.