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Leslie Chesterton in F.W. Woolworth’s (Belgrade Road, Leicester, 19th November 1942)

My Grandad, excluded from the draft on account of his flat feet, was a searchlight operator in London during The Blitz. Typically stationed on the tallest buildings in the city, a team of three operators would turn an arc of clarifying light across the night sky, reaching for the glimmer of nose, tail or wing that would announce the bombers’ arrival. It was unglamorous and dangerous work. Fighters, at the leading edge of a run, would strafe the light’s wide eye to protect the camouflage of darkness.

Worse than that, my Grandad used to say, was the feeling of hopelessness when his lights found the targets but the gun crews did not. ‘There was a hum – then a low whistle as the bombs and parachute mines came down. My light caught them for a second and then you lost them and closed your eyes for the bang’. Some of the operators followed the incendiaries’ descent as accurately as they could. They hollered down to the people on the streets who’d not found cover. But their shouts were lost in a thunderous crack and shudder; they could only watch as fire swallowed terraces, businesses, empty squares, and burst ragged heat over the slow unfortunates still running for shelter.

After moving to Leicester, Grandad became a ticket collector on Midland Red buses. A bright, mathematically gifted child, he’d been denied a grammar school education because his parents could not afford the uniform. The management at the bus company recognised his feel for numbers and put him in the office to help out when accountants came in for the annual audit. ‘Make the numbers stand up’, he was told.

On the night of 19th November 1942 my Grandad had just come off duty. There was little cloud, no rain, and the winter moon was on the wane. He decided to walk home from the bus depot in central Leicester to his council house in Knighton Fields Road East. Grandad had stopped, as he always did, at a flower stall to buy a burst of colourful flowers for his wife, Christine. He headed on home towards the west of the city.

At around six thirty he passed F.W. Woolworth’s on Belgrade Road and decided on impulse to buy some small gifts for his two daughters: Anne wanted a skipping rope, Christine a toy cat. He was at the counter when a hum found its way through the clatter and bustle of the tills.Then came the long, low whistle and my Grandad was shouting and running towards the back of the shop, grabbing as many people as he could, fleeing from the front window and all that glass, all that heavy glass; and he was some two thirds there before the bomb connected with the pavement outside and sucked in the everyday world and blew it out in a million dark fragments.

The front of F.W. Woolworth’s was vaporized instantly – erasing the polished main counter, the ‘pick and mix’ sweet stand; and the Christmas decorations just erected. And the milling customers (the talcumed pensioners, bustling parents, and school children with high tinkling voices) were gone without a moment’s notice, replaced by a fierce burning space.

The explosion had reached the back of the shop where my Grandad lay. It’d toppled clothes racks, blasted fragile china from the displays, and dislodged expensive leather shoes. ‘A man’, my Grandad said. ‘A big man was blown twenty feet across the shop and lay concertinaed across a field of pots and pans. His legs had snapped back to his head, like this…’

My Grandad got unsteadily to his feet. He ran his hands over his private parts, legs and face to check he was whole. The eyebrow on the left side of his face was gone. The index finger on his right hand was broken and would never be supple again. ‘But I was me. I was me.’

Then through the amber light of the fire he saw the St. Christopher necklace. Scattered from the jewellery display, it was just a cheap and dreary trinket. But my Grandad, Leslie Chesterton, made a deep fist around the thin, tarnished silver, and waited for help to come. He prayed and waited for rescue from the blackened, booming world.

© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.

A voice at the top of the stairs

In June 1999 Uncle Pete developed a dry, persistent cough. He sucked on throat sweets, took supermarket cough medicine, but still the cough remained. By the end of the month he went to his GP – mostly at the insistence of Auntie Carol whose sleep was being disturbed night after night. The GP put a cold stethoscope to Pete’s chest, and after a brief listen diagnosed him with a chest infection. Uncle Pete thanked him, took his prescription to the local chemist then went home. That night he and Carol held a party for friends and family to celebrate their Ruby Wedding anniversary.

Throughout July the cough intensified – a dry, rasping hack that made eating and drinking difficult. Uncle Pete sucked on more throat sweets, and took more cough medicine. By the end of July he went back to his GP, expecting another course of antibiotics. The GP listened to his chest more intently this time. ‘Do you still smoke?’ he asked, moving his stethoscope across the chest and back. Uncle Pete smiled ruefully and nodded. Later he told me the GP kept pausing, tapping his chest, listening, and pausing again. The GP prescribed steroids and requested a chest X-ray from the local hospital. That night Carol and Uncle Pete wrote thank you cards to everyone who’d given them a gift for their wedding anniversary. Three bottles of champagne still cooled in the refrigerator. Two delicate crystal glasses (a present from my parents) stood at the centre of the dining room table surrounded by a flock of congratulation cards.

The next day Uncle Pete walked the short distance to the local hospital for the x-ray. As he reached a gentle incline the tightness in his chest intensified. ‘It felt like I was being smothered by heavy blankets’ he would tell me later. X-ray taken, Uncle Pete went home for a late lunch. He helped Carol with the washing up then went upstairs to do some paperwork. Later that afternoon the phone rang. When Auntie Carol answered it was the GP. His voice was tight: ‘I need to see him this afternoon. The receptionist will confirm the time.’ Carol called up to Uncle Pete in his office. His cassette recorder was playing (country music again) so he didn’t hear her. Auntie Carol went upstairs and entered without knocking.

When the technicians had examined Uncle Pete’s X-ray they found his left lung had collapsed. Dark, undefined masses crowded around the right lung. An urgent CT-Scan took place at the Leicester Royal Infirmary the next day. ‘I could see the faces of the X-ray people through the glass’ Uncle Pete said. After the scan he jovially asked about the results. ‘Too early to say’ was the reply. ‘Your consultant will discuss the results with you.’ Uncle Pete had played cards for years, firstly during National Service then later with friends and family. ‘I know a bad bluff we I see one’ he said to Auntie Carol later that night.

Two days later the consultant oncologist delivered the news: Uncle Pete had advanced lung cancer that had metastasized to the major organs. Extensive chemotherapy would prolong his life by three months; four at the most. Uncle Pete listened quietly before politely turning down any further treatment. He walked back through the hospital car park with Auntie Carol. He turned his Nissan Sunny into the thin, mid-morning traffic; they were home in under twenty minutes.

Uncle Pete died three months later. He was 63 years old.

It was from Uncle Pete that I learned how pleasurable smoking could be. Posters at school warned you of the dangers (Superman using his x-ray vision to show us a pair of disease ravaged lungs!) but it was only when you got up close to a nicotine addict that you saw how easily it would be to start – and to go on smoking Marlboro after Marlboro until a ripe old age. Uncle Pete would stroke the top of a new packet before delicately unravelling the outer cellophane. There were the bright white stubs partially hidden by the gold wrapping. Then the wavering flare of a match. I would watch his body respond and relax as the nicotine entered his system. Head back, eyes closed, he exhaled a miasma of smoke towards the ceiling. ‘Heaven for me’, he would say. ‘Heaven’.

Every family, however close and loving, has different attitudes and experiences that rub and spark against one another. My parents loved Uncle Pete but there was always an undercurrent of disapproval. The chain-smoking was a big, black mark for my Mum – she’d been a nurse since 21 and her time spent caring for emphysema and cancer patients had left her no philosophical room for manoeuvre. She used every trick in the book to get him to stop: ‘I don’t want my sister to end up alone, Pete’; ‘your lovely wallpaper has been stained yellow again’; ‘think of the big holiday you could have if you saved the money you spent on those things’. Uncle Pete would smile apologetically and offer everyone another round of coffee, a second piece of cake.

But it was his attitude to sex that made my parents really dubious. Uncle Pete was unashamedly and unapologetically an admirer of women, especially the unclothed variety. He read The Sun every day, had a Page 3 calendar on his kitchen wall and a collection of Electric Blue videos secreted away at the back of his video cabinet. He proudly showed me these when I reached thirteen. ‘Like to see one?’ he asked before a sharp look from my Dad stopped him in his tracks. I blushed and inwardly thanked Dad for stopping him but I’d been excited to see them too. This open, and in some ways innocent view of sex had been inculcated into Pete’s daughters. Both had boyfriends relatively young. Both gave off the confident scent of experience that was embarrassing to my brother and I.

Shortly after I’d finished university (and brimming with self-righteousness), I tried to show Uncle Pete the error of his ways. ‘You see, the feminists say that Page 3 models demean women, make them into objects purely for the gratification of men’. Pete looked baffled at this, went into the kitchen and returned with his calendar. ‘Even Miss December?’ he asked sweetly, beginning to tease me now. Even Miss December, I pointed out. ‘It’s really not PC, Pete. And it can’t be nice for Auntie Carol’. He thinks about this: ‘But your Auntie Carol got me this one. Who’s for more coffee and cake?’

Shortly after his death my Mum and I found some pictures of Uncle Pete from the late fifties. Fresh out of National Service, his ebony hair greased back, a bright white cigarette tucked behind his ear, you could see what the ladies (and eventually Auntie Carol) saw in him. Shortly after the photo was taken Uncle Pete joined a big insurance firm and began selling policies door to door. ‘The ladies loved him’ my Mum remembered. ‘It was the dark, handsome suit, his shiny hair and infectious laugh. He was always generous with his cigarettes – he didn’t like to smoke alone.’ I wondered how many of these clients became conquests. As if reading my mind, Mum chipped in: ‘He did like ladies, always liked ladies, but he never cheated on Carol once they were married; I just know that. I would never have married Pete but I respected him.’

The company Uncle Pete worked for was eventually taken over by a conglomerate. A new breed of salesman, uninterested in clients but compelled by bonuses, started to push his generation aside. ‘Reptiles’ he called them. Uncle Pete was always more interested in the person than the product, he loved the feeling of extended family he clients gave him. Eventually in 1992 the inevitable happened: Uncle Pete was offered early retirement and he reluctantly accepted. ‘It’s beaten me ‘ he said. ‘I hate pushing people to sign on the line. ‘And’ (gesturing to his cigarette) ‘there’s only so many of these you can smoke in a day to reduce the stress.’

‘Only kiddies play with little sticks – real money or not at all’. It was winter (I remember the gas fire stuttering from the November wind) and Uncle Pete was showing me the finer points of Pontoon or ’21’ as he preferred to call it. He saw cards as a serious business and to play with match sticks was undermining to both him and the game. One look at his face and I knew he wasn’t joking – I unzipped my wallet (‘looks like a purse!’) and took out three pound notes. ‘No limit’ he said gruffly ‘and I’ll be banker’. He’d played with the same deck since the early fifties; the cards turned and flicked effortlessly in his hands. ‘Watch the cards and remember’. He beat me easily, of course, and after only an hour I’d been wiped out. No more money, my pleading eyes said, but he didn’t return my winnings. They’d been lost in a man’s game and there were no second chances. ‘Next time’ he said, ‘watch the cards and remember’.

I finally beat him a year later – he chuffed my cheek and put another fiver into the pot to swell my winnings. ‘You tell your Mum and Dad there’s another good card player in the family’. My parents would have given me my winnings back, would have engineered victory to spare my humiliation. But not Uncle Pete: you were beaten again and again and again until you learnt to be the better man.

‘He wants to see you, will you come? I know it’s difficult after what you went through last year’. I closed my eyes to find the words. Auntie Carol had called to tell me he was now back home. All the blood tests, CT scans, and terminal words had fallen away. Just Uncle Pete now, in bed, waiting to see how it feels when your body loses hold. ‘Of course, I’ll come – he was always there for me.’ He’d been one of the first people to visit me after I’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996. He’d chuffed my cheek and said simply ‘Spooked you, I expect?’ I nodded, fraught with tears. ‘Now where’s that coffee and cake?’

When I’d moved into my small Loughborough flat in 1997 Uncle Pete had been one of the first to visit. He brought me some spare chairs from the garage and an Edwardian trinket box that I’ve kept to this day. ‘For your keys – I’m always losing the buggers at home’. He’d known my parents had objected to my moving out, that they thought I was in too fragile a state to cope on my own. I was still having monthly CT Scans and blood tests, waiting to see if the cancer would regress. But if I hadn’t moved out then, I never would have. I would’ve lost the courage to build a life of my own. Sometimes, when everyone would understand the reason for you not doing something, for not asking anymore of yourself, it’s a sign that you must do it. I think Uncle Pete saw this and quietly admired me for it.

I last saw Uncle Pete at beginning of September 1999, two weeks before he died. I hugged Auntie Carol at the door and handed her the marigold I’d brought with me. ‘That’ll brighten the place’, she smiled. ‘He’s been an angel, never complains, you know. Go on up.’ Uncle Pete lay in the front bedroom, facing a large window that looked down on the street. The net curtain had been taken down to give him a better view. A black oxygen tank stood to his left; a small table, on it a drink of water and packet of cough sweets stood to his right. And above him, in lieu of a crucifix, was tacked a lusty Page 3 model – ‘all tits and teeth’ as Uncle Pete would say.

‘It’s a bugger, innit?’ he said. I held his hand in reply – it was firm and warm as usual. ‘I got out into the garden on Sunday, just for a bit. Sat on the seat and watched the sparrows and thrushes. One took bread from my hand, just like this.’ He mimicked the action. ‘I’d go out again if it weren’t for these bloody ribs’. He gestured to where the cancer had begun to invade the bones of his rib cage. ‘Those ciggies – played Russian roulette with them and lost. Hear you’ve got a girlfriend, got a picture?’ I took out a picture from my wallet – we’d been together all of three months but it felt good to be with her, like there was something to build on. ‘Pretty blonde, eh? Lovely figure.’ A wink then, a squeeze from his hand.

In the street below I saw a postman finishing the last of his round, a young mum unloading the groceries, two young boys circling each other on bikes. Half an hour passed and the view below began to dim. ‘Time to go’, Pete said. ‘And look after that girl of yours.’ His eyelids were falling and I left him part asleep.

So it surprised me, halfway down, to hear a thin voice drift down from the top of the stairs. ‘Have a good life, Stephen. Don’t worry about me’. I turned to reply but Auntie Carol was already at the front door, opening the silent house onto the street. A dry kiss, then I was back in my car. I looked up at Uncle Pete’s bedroom window but could make nothing out, not the still oxygen tank, or the glamour model smiling out into the last light of day.

Uncle Pete taught me how to play pontoon once. He taught me that if you stick at it you’ll eventually win more games than you lose. And he taught me that being uncomplicated isn’t the same thing as being unsophisticated. Most of all he showed me bravery unbound – in all its power and silence.

© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.

A first toe in the pool

Yesterday I took my two year old daughter swimming for the very first time. I’d done this for my son Tom when he was the same age and wanted to do as much for Lucy. Preparation is everything: you must plan, plan, plan before any tiny toes break the surface of the water. Water proof nappies and swimsuit secured/fitted before we leave? Check. Water wings inflated? Done. Little pink towel packed? Absolutely. Estimation on how long I’ll be there before tears get the better of curiosity? Twenty minutes, if I was a betting man…

A short car ride later (Lucy knows something new is coming and repeats ‘Where we goin?’ like a mantra) we arrive at the pool. In the changing room I unbuckle Lucy’s bright red shoes, undo the stiff buttons of her dress and gently tease her slender arms through the mouth of the water wings. ‘Lucy go swimming?’ I say. ‘Fun, fun’. I see excitement and trepidation swirling over her face in equal measure. What response will she settle on?

It’s the noise she registers first. Leisure centre, echo chamber. The din washed up by the full size pool is intense, pitched a notch below screaming. A hundred voices climbing and merging into one cacophony. Taking her swimming on the weekend could be a silly school boy error. Too busy, too loud. Lucy pads on little feet to the changing room door. She stoops to listen, her mouth becoming pursed. ‘Lucy and Daddy go in little pool’ I reassure her. ‘Baby pool, all warm’. I scoop her up, pull back the stiff lock of the cubicle, and start plodding across the sticky tiles.

Two small but insistent hands cradle my neck. A head beneath my chin. Is this the beginning of tears? Not yet – Lucy knows a trip out with Daddy means fun and she’s willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. After all, my reputation as a purveyor of good times reached an all time high with Legoland. With relief, I realise she’s trying to block out the rampaging noise of the big pool. I stroke her hair to reassure: ‘Baby pool, Lucy. Baby pool’.

A sharp tun to the left and we reach the training pool. The row is less overpowering here. Instead of older child hysterics there’s the gentle fluting of toddlers; I hear a satisfied gurgling as their tiny frames meet the warm, welcoming water. Lucy concedes a quick peep out from under my chin. I don’t force her to look out but sit gently on one of the wooden benches facing the pool. Half shy, half excited, it takes her a few minutes to find the courage to look. ‘Water! Water!’ she says, uncertainty leaving her face. And I suddenly know this is going to go well.

A tiny, fragile hand in my hand. We reach the lip of the chlorinated pool and Lucy arcs her foot like a ballerina, toes finding the water first. ‘Warm, Warm!’ Laughter lights the way and we descend the steps confidently with no hesitation. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ and beautiful hands feather my face, a thank-you caress. And then the sun finds us through the tall window and catches light the water around her. Come sparkles to the surface and dance for Lucy, Lucy.

© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.

The house where Paul used to live

Every August I take my little boy to stay with my parents in Kibworth, Leicestershire. This was the tiny village I grew up in before leaving for university at eighteen. After this it became a place to go back to rather than ‘Home’.

Tom loves to explore the village so when we visit we do a tour of all the children’s play areas. The swings and slides that I played on as a child have long since been replaced by 21st Century climbing frames, whirling wheels, ladybirds you can sit and rock on, and vinyl stepping stones. Rather than hard concrete, the ground is covered in a benign, soft matting that cradles the careless toddlers who climb too high or swing in too extreme an arc. But they are in the same location as the places we used to play in. The same trees blossom year on year and let fall their foliage once the autumn comes.

Only a short distance away is the railway bridge. The signal blinks from red to green and I hold Tom high so he can peep over as the trains whizz by underneath. Just as my Dad did for me when we walked the same path in the late seventies and early eighties. He cries ‘Again! Again!’ but I’m obviously not as patient or resilient as my Dad and I prize him away with the promise of sweets from the newsagent.

After Malteser’s and Smoothies we walk the length of Church Road- and come to St Wilfrid’s Church at the apex of the hill. Tom cranes his head to take in the lightening rod perched on top. I tell him it’s to protect the church from the harsh hands of thunder storms. He’s fascinated by this. ‘Thunder goes bang, bang!’ he yells again and again. I try to tempt him into the church but he refuses. Instead we wander amongst the gravestones, walking a haphazard circumference around the grounds. I’m disappointed he doesn’t want to go in. Inside is where I was christened. The day was opaque with heat and my Uncle Jock unwrapped me from my christening gown and took me home in a nappy and vest. It was in St Wilfrid’s where I played recorder at Harvest Festival time. Twenty nine-year-olds faced outwards from the knave and blew shrill tunes into the air: ‘Feed the Birds’, ‘Sky Boat Song’, ‘Earth Angel’. In front, our music teacher Mrs Powell conducting with a seriousness you did not question. Beyond her, the round, pleased faced of the parents, clutching programmes printed on orange sugar paper.

We turn left then and head up the cul-de-sac to my parent’s house. Before that, the little traffic island, anchored to the road by grand chestnut trees. Every autumn we’d race down here on our Raleigh bikes and harvest the conkers, polished to perfection inside their seed pods. The three of us (me, my brother John, my friend Paul) filled our pockets to perfection and carried what we could back home. So well stocked were we that the conker fights lasted into the dark nights of January. We’re not in the conker season so I can’t show Tom what I mean by ‘conker fight’. But his eyes spark at the idea of hard objects on the end of a string being bashed against one another. He’ll find out eventually that when a conker breaks the dark heart of the seed is exposed.

And just before my parent’s place we reach the house where Paul used to live. My best friend until the age of eleven. In the summer holidays we raced our chunky bikes around and around until our chains broke under the strain. We visited each other’s houses on the bright excitement of Christmas morning. His toys were my toys and vice versa. A communion of sharing. But at high school we slowly drifted away from one another. Suddenly our shared past became an embarrassment, a target of ridicule for scornful eleven-year-olds. I wondered (as we all must wonder) whether his memories of our shared childhood are full or fragmentary. Does he still remember turning the bright, heavy toys in his hands as I sometimes do? Does he remember the shrill laughter as we tried to mend a puncture in the front wheel of a bike (with a cheap repair kit not equal to the task)? Or has adulthood made these memories so distant, so far from what the mind’s eye can see, that they might as well have happened to someone else? I wonder.

A bored scuffling from Tom – he’s eager to get home to watch children’s television. I watch him for a moment scraping the dried mud from his shoes on the edge of the kerb. Then I take his small hand and round the final bend before my parent’s house. How many times have I rounded this corner in years gone by? Was I holding my Mum and Dad’s hand, jabbering about my day at school, or pushing my tired bike home after a day of messy play? These last few steps before home – as familiar to me as the colour of my eyes, the curving of an ear or the mute rhythms of my own heart.

Recently, and to my surprise, these memories have become more slender and less easy to conjure. This happy childhood, the memories of which I always kept close, is slipping from my grasp. Is it because, as you think less and less like a child would, as you become stiffened by the realities of adulthood, these memories see you as undeserving and take flight, denying you the harbour of recollection? I want Tom to feel the exquisite, untainted happiness you can only feel as a child. I want to make him tingle with the raw excitement and pleasure of it all before the march of years dim the sky and he enters the clumsy and confused world of adulthood.

One memory has been spared though, blessed in its definition. A Wednesday before Christmas, long, long ago, and the Kibworth Band make their way up our street. Snow is not falling but it will soon. At the sound of ‘Away in a Manger’ we climb the stairs to our parent’s bedroom, open the window, and let the carols of brass sift through the room. John is sitting on my Mum’s knee. I’m cradled by my Dad. For some unexplained reason my Dad turns off the light, perhaps to leave every sense tuned to the music? An amber street light on the curtain. Then ‘Silent Night’ begins. And I am held tight and feel love and happiness overpowering. And then snow begins to fall on the house where Paul still lives.

© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.

Everything’s Afterwards

Over 2000 men are diagnosed with testicular cancer each year in the UK. In 1996 I was one of them. Nothing has such a profound and lasting impact on you as a cancer diagnosis. It is the bluntest and most powerful force you will encounter in your life. It speaks brutally and lastingly for itself.

Let’s be clear that I was one of the lucky ones: my tumour was relatively small and I escaped the extensive chemotherapy handed out to the other patients on the oncology ward. But it was the defining event of my life – everything that followed I saw (rightly or wrongly) through the prism of that experience. I was 21 when I was diagnosed and some sixteen years later I’m starting to see how the experience twisted my life out of shape, what it took from me and the minor things it gave.

Pre-cancer you are mostly all mind. By that I mean your moods, wants, feelings, desires dominate your waking time. Your body is a quiet, unobtrusive vessel that transports you from one event to the next – a walk to the shops, tennis in the park, a job interview, a first date. From your point of view, Mr/Ms Body has always functioned well and always will. Your health will always be robust. As we grow older, of course, we start to understand that this is not the case – backs start to ache, arthritis interrupts, and grey hairs invade. But for most of us, most of the time, we are all mind, especially when young.

When cancer comes it violates this perception, unmendably and without remorse. I was standing in a lukewarm shower in the month of February 1996 when my left hand brushed against a small lump on one of my testes. The hot water tank still gurgled. I could hear my family still laughing and joking in the living room. Stray cars still buzzed up a distant A road. But the profoundest thing had just occurred: my body had turned against me. Cell division (once so benign an activity) had become a thing of fear. I turned the shower off, dried myself slowly, all the time telling myself not to worry. I checked again – definitely a small but persistent lump.

I was standing where thousands of cancer patients have stood before me – at the beginning of realisation. Lots of cancer patients talk about ‘an icy hand’ on their shoulder at this moment of discovery. I think it’s less a fear of the illness but a horrible realisation that the control you thought you had over your life is completely illusionary. You begin to sense the blunt and persistent truth that we are all at the mercy of biology, of genetic tendencies handed down to us from relatives long dead. Our life of the mind is made of straw.

It was certainly this lack of control which scared me the most. The true meaning of your personal destiny is starkly revealed – it depends not on how well you do in exams, what jobs you get, who you fall in and out of love with. The true meaning of destiny is now decided by a team of oncologists, radiographers, and nurses, all professionally trying to isolate and eliminate an unwanted occurrence of cell change. All you have to do is lie flat and still on the surgeon’s table; not to move as you pass under the huge Polo Mint of a CT scanner. Part of cancer’s cruelty is how it de-personalises you.

My surgery took place in November 1996. All the ultrasound scans pointed to an abnormality that needed immediate investigation. ‘I’m very concerned’ were the words of my urologist. He was right to be. Under the microscope the cancer proved to be aggressive and without knowing how far it had spread my surgeon (a little unwisely in the opinion of my oncologist) started speculating on the odds of recovery. They were on the low side.

The CT scan was done and I had to wait seven days for the results. Waiting is part and parcel of the cancer patient’s life. And it’s the thing that can break you in the end. Waiting for CT scan results; waiting outside the oncologist’s room for your annual check up; waiting to see if the phone rings on Monday because that’s the day the blood tests for tumour markers come back from the lab. Waiting for your life to begin again or waiting for your worst nightmare.

The first big wait of my ‘cancer career’ came at the end of November 1996. I waited in a mixed cancer clinic with other people waiting. Waiting, wanting it to be over but dreading everything. Waiting for the nurse to come in and call your name. Waiting as the oncologist asks you to sit down, examines your notes and makes a pronouncement. Waiting before wondering at the sight of things changing. My own news was good – the cancer hadn’t spread to the blood cells. I needed monthly check ups and three monthly scans. Most cancers return in the first year. More waiting then but at least the starting point was positive.

And as grateful as I was for this news (and I was VERY grateful) I started to fall apart. Everything that had happened because of the diagnosis bore down on me – losing my funding for my higher degree at Hull University; losing my girlfriend who couldn’t cope with what was happening to me; losing my self esteem and confidence. These were the surface sorrows but underneath I was coping with the huge existential shock cancer delivers. Bad things can and will happen to you. Just because ‘you are you’ doesn’t spare ‘you’. ‘You’ didn’t know it before but you are really adrift on a freezing sea of probability and risk that your actions are powerless to change.

This is a stark revelation and one of the major causes of depression in young cancer patients. I didn’t cope well with it. I was terrified, angry, teary, elated, and passive in equal measure. I started seeing the oncology counsellor and was prescribed powerful anti-depressants. At the very least the sessions gave me an outlet for the endless, overwhelming fear. Whether I’d have reacted differently if I was older is open to conjecture. When you’re twenty-one this revelation is just too big a morsel to swallow. It takes a life time to digest and you never really get over the frightening implications.

Like most twenty-one year old males I was preoccupied with girls and sex. Testicular cancer strikes at the core of your male libido and I was convinced I’d be impotent for life. The surgeon warned me about the possibility of erectile dysfunction and offered me a ‘false’ testicle to help preserve my body image. At the time I was preparing myself for the real possibility of several cycles of chemotherapy so politely declined (no more surgery please!). But I was desperate to avoid the impotence.

It wouldn’t be honest to say I was stoic in the months that followed. I clung to my parents desperately and never wanted to be alone. Every month I was convinced this would be the month the blood test showed elevated tumour markers (a sign the cancer has returned). During my second ‘routine’ CT scan the radiographer thought he had spotted an abnormality and injected dye into my veins to make sure. It was an innocent blood vessel but each scare was like the creak of thin ice underfoot.

But slowly the months move forward and with the absence of bad news you regain a sliver of confidence. You think maybe, just maybe, you’re going to get through this. You still distrust thinking or talking about the future. Bad luck is not to be tempted in. But gradually the months become years until a decade’s worth of clear blood results pile up in your oncologist’s folder. When I was discharged in 2006 I wanted to cry with relief but nothing came. The experience had left a deep and permanent divide in my life – the pre-cancer ‘me’ and the person for whom everything’s ‘just afterwards’. That person had been conditioned by a decade’s worth of anxiety and didn’t cry easily.

And the big question for those of us who are lucky enough to survive (and we ARE lucky!) is how do you live your life? What reaction and attitude is equal to the blessing you’ve received? All the cliches crop up here: ‘savour the moment’, ‘live life to the full’, ‘never let life get you down’. But cancer survivors (like everyone else) are at the mercy of life’s stresses – they have bills to pay, careers to build, children to raise. And sometimes the sweet blessing of survival can be a burden. Why are you getting stressed about the car breaking down? Why can’t you just walk out the job you hate? Why can’t you do all the things facing death should give you the freedom to do? And the unspoken fear underneath it all: what if IT comes back? This would be the ultimate measure of how you’ve spent precious years of good health.

Each person has a different way of dealing with life ‘afterwards’. And what about me? The cancer certainly made me less anxious about how others perceive me – I became bolder with jobs and more confident around the opposite sex. Not ‘wasting time’ became the relentless mantra of my twenties. I never forgot the creak of thin ice underfoot. But from the vantage point of my late thirties I can see the anger at the unfairness of my diagnosis masqueraded as confidence. It got me jobs but it was borne of an unhealthy energy.

As the songwriter Tom Waits once sang: ‘You can’t un-ring a bell’. The stark awareness of your own mortality that comes with a cancer diagnosis is freeing in some respects, yes. You worry less and try to ‘live well’. But you are forever cast out of Eden. Once you know, you know. One of the biggest sadnesses of my life is that I wasn’t naive for longer. Twenty-one was very young. I do wonder what different choices I’d have made if I’d lived my twenties without this thing called cancer walking a few footsteps behind me. I’ll never know what it’s like to go out into the world with a young person’s heart, and to live unencumbered dreams.

© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.