Ode to a breast, song to a generation
I only have one breast. Not a sentence I ever thought I’d write – but what’s surprising is how unsurprising it feels. I found the lump – tiny, lentil-sized – in the very bleakest part of lockdown, shortly after the infamous cancelled Christmas, the day before Trump stormed the Capitol (you remember these things). I was lucky: cancer caught early, no chemo or radiotherapy. But just weeks later, I’d lost my left breast. Perhaps the shock of diagnosis and fear of dying creates unnatural calm, but as I lay in the bath the night before my mastectomy – last bath ever with two breasts – I gave silent thanks to the one I would lose in the morning.
For keeping me company all these years, for feeding my babies and giving shape to my T-shirts, for its mysterious erogenous qualities and for sacrificing itself in what I hoped would be a life-saving operation for me. I opted for no reconstruction. Why replace an old friend with a dummy? My scar – flat, pale, pretty neat (thank you, brilliant UCLH breast surgeon Neill Patani) – is an almost pleasing souvenir, reminding me of a resilience that I didn’t know I possessed. And eighteen months on, my left bra cup contains a rather cute polka dot shape (washable at 30 degrees). I do pop it in to go to Marks & Spencer’s, but not always to answer the door to the postman. I’m still not sure what the etiquette is. Watch this space.
My dental hygienist admitted to me recently that she dreads sitting down with her other half to watch the start of a new series on TV. “He says he’ll give it one episode,” she told me, “and after that I can’t concentrate, all I can do is sit there and watch his body language.” I’m not saying it’s only men, but my husband applied the “give it one episode” (or, to be fair, three) rule to Lenny Abrahamson’s recent Conversations with Friends, adapted from the Sally Rooney novel. He found it too slow, too lacklustre and relentlessly unengaging, and gave up on it. And if the press is to be believed, he wasn’t alone.
I didn’t entirely disagree but continued anyway with the remaining nine episodes – and was so glad I did. Because, just like the novel, this was a slow-burning, ultimately captivating saga of emotional entanglement in all its youthful uncertainty and ageless messiness. Sometimes a series, like a novel, needs time to unravel, to breathe, to allow you to fall in love with its characters. Now I just have to test my staying power with one of his beloved political dramas.
Leap in the dark
My eleventh novel NONFICTION came out this month. It’s entirely a work of fiction, but I knew, of course I did, that the subject matter – addiction and families – would, in light of the response to my 2009 book The Lost Child, raise some eyebrows. One journalist called it “reckless”. “What were you trying to do?” another asked. But “do” is the wrong word. Yes, there are plenty of novelists who set out to “do” something, who write because they already know what they want to “say”. Many great novels are written like this. But there are also those – and I am one – for whom a piece of fiction is a dive into the unknown. I had no idea what this novel was about when I began writing it. Over five years, it went through many incarnations, some embarrassing, some frankly unpublishable, yet all of them so very necessary.
I did what I always do: I sat alone in a room and put one word in front of another and, as the work grew, assessed each line for truth, my truth. And if what I wrote contained the smallest zing of something real, if it scared me a little bit, I continued. I discovered long ago that writing is my way of throwing light on darkness, of making sense of the place I find myself in. I write in order to find out what I have to say. Reckless? Possibly. But my new novel is, among many other things, a genuine attempt to explore this mystery.
Kate Bush’s sublime 1985 song Running Up That Hill has made Number 1 in the charts – a triumph, but not such a surprising one for those of us who grew up with her genius. “I really like people to hear a song and take from it what they want,” said Bush recently – a comment which sent me straight back to summer of 1978 when, having finished A-Levels, I worked on a geriatric ward in a Nottingham hospital. I emptied commodes, spooned lukewarm mashed potato into elderly mouths, laid out my first corpse. But I also held hands and gazed into the eyes of so many frail and confused old people who had no one left to touch or hold them. Radio 2 played constantly and, as I started my 6am shift, the eerie strains of The Man With The Child In His Eyes would come on – “Ooh he’s here again” – and it felt like Kate was talking to me and me alone.