Metal Mama and Me

Metal Mama is the affectionate name I have given to the mammogram machine in Hereford County Hospital.  Mysterious and rather noble, she maintains the throne in the X-ray room and no one has yet challenged her supremacy.   She is unyielding, dispassionate and cold to the touch. She stares in stoney silence as you stand before her, watching your every move with an air of feigned patience. Then  she takes your breasts in her metal hands and squashes them each in turn.  Occasionally, she’ll whisper to the radiologist that you have cancer.    So would you be surprised if I tell you that Metal Mama and I are as good as mates? 

When I first met up with her a year ago I did not know what to expect.  I did not know I had cancer, I did not know that despite Metal Mama attempting to crush my breasts I would not actually feel pain.  I went in to the palatial chamber fearful and naive.  Metal Mama did nothing to allay my anxieties, and in fact she may have made them more acute.  She was too shiny, too perfect, too supercilious by far.  And that metal gleam of hers highlighted my own mortality.  The fact that I had to remove my bra and T-shirt was a huge ordeal back then.  It did not occur to me that Metal Mama and her radiographer side-kicks have seen hundreds of shapes and sizes passing as women.  But there was so much I didn’t know then.  Almost exactly a year ago.

To be perfectly honest I was not relishing my reunion with Metal Mama today.  I remembered her hard stare, her cold grasp, her chilling verdict.  She held my fate in her steely hands, and she always will do.  I cannot think of her without some part of me shuddering.  Today I had my trusted  hound Trudy with me and she  accompanied me into Metal Mama’s chamber.  She had a sniff around the regal feet, but decided that the bin in the corner smelt more interesting so pitter-pattered off in that direction.  Thanks Trudy!  I  faced Metal Mama alone whilst The Hoover hoovered quietly nearby.  Unlike me, Metal Mama was no different from last year.  She was still iron-hard and ice-cold, no-nonsense and no-frills.  Yet as she was no longer a complete stranger I felt relatively at ease.  Today Metal Mama and I had an understanding. 

I smiled at the fact that today I was able to stand topless before Metal Mama without blushing scarlet.  When you have breast cancer, one thing you quickly learn is that you have to order your inhibitions to move aside and shut up.  I have learned to forget that it is me with no T-shirt on. Me automatically goes to the back of my head when I’m in a hospital environment.  Metal Mama could have told me that a year ago.

But it does not pay to be cocky.  Last year each X-ray courtesy of Metal Mama was painless (albeit slightly uncomfortable).  Today’s experience therefore came as a shock.  When Metal Mama clamped the breast which has undergone surgery and radiotherapy,  I nearly shot to the ceiling with the pain that sliced through me.  But it was short-lived.  Metal Mama’s hugs are never longer than about 30 seconds, thank God.     Four hugs (two on each breast) and she’s usually done with you.  And here came the second unwanted surprise of the day.  Metal Mama took my offer of friendship literally.  She spat out one of the X-ray images and called me back for one extra hug – the one that hurt most of all. 

Last year I received Metal Mama’s verdict the same day, as I was seeing the Consultant straight afterwards.  This time I have to wait between a week and ten days for the results.  It’s quite weird knowing that Metal Mama knows already if I’m clear of cancer or not.  She has my image imprinted on her mechanical brain.  I’d love to be able to meet her for a drink in Wetherspoon’s and get her to divulge the results after a triple Vodka.  Then Metal Mama might roll along Commercial Road spilling all her secrets throughout High Town.  I have a picture of her crashed out in a metal heap, turning up for work later with a thumping hangover and being fired for breaking the code of conduct.  But she’s far too professional.

Back to reality.  I’m all set for an impatient ten days, wondering what Metal Mama has seen and what she will tell.

Video of a mammogram http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mammogram/MM00639

Information about mammograms and breast cancer http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/type/breast-cancer/about/screening/mammograms-in-breast-screening

Breast Cancer Care Charity http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/

Dogs or Antidepressants?

I have not tended my Blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for a decidedly dark cloud to lift from my mind.  It is taking its time – so much so that I have decided to wait no longer.  This time of year has always stirred up a malevolent host of demons in my world.  The darkening evenings actually seem to suck the life out of me, and I feel myself sinking into hopelessness.  Real sink or swim stuff.  Yet here I am, still alive enough to write.

When all is well I throw myself into daily life  – making plans, embarking on courses, committing to dates and appointments, acting on ideas.  Then depression strikes and within days all my excitement has died.  I can feel the demon’s claw seizing my spirit and attempting to strangle it.  Suddenly I cannot go out, I want to shut myself away from my friends, I lose the motivation to do the simplest tasks, and slowly things begin to fall apart.

So where does Trudy fit into this?  My black and white choice is to find somebody to look after her while I wallow in misery, or to stumble onwards and continue caring for her myself.  Unable to part with her, I’ve chosen to keep things as they are.  The upshot is that I have   to continue with a daily routine for Trudy’s sake.  That means getting  up at the usual time to feed her and take her outside for her “busy busy”.  More often than not I meet a neighbour and we spend a few minutes engaging in chit-chat.   Having a bouncy Labrador makes it impossible to hide away from the outside world.   Thanks to Trudy, the skeleton of my normal routine has remained intact. 

I have learned to lower my expectations during times of low mood.  My current goal is to survive this rather bleak period and to continue to look after Trudy – not because I have to, but because I want to.  The love I have for Trudy makes me glow inside, and even when my mood is dark and I can’t feel the warmth from that glow I know it’s still there.  When Trudy bounds over after I’ve popped out for a few minutes, I can feel the glow stirring, and it gives me hope.  Trudy is a gift, and the bond we have is a gift.  Being on the receiving end of the unconditional love which just spills out of Labradors is very precious. 

One of the great things about dogs is that they are so tangible.  Trudy’s warm, soft fur has an instant feel-good effect – and that’s before I get to the silky ears, and the wagging tail.  Research has proved that stroking animals can increase the levels of serotonin in the brain.  In addition it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and decrease pain.  This is why there is an increasing number of Therapy dogs being assigned to hospices and retirement homes.  In fact when I have visited such places myself in my capacity as a Speaker, I have witnessed the positive effects that Trudy has had on some of the patients.  Trudy is synonymous with Life.  Just being around her makes life livable.

Perhaps her ability to inject humour into my bleakest moments is the thing that strikes me most.  If Trudy wants to play hide and seek with items from my laundry basket, she won’t take no for an answer no matter how depressed I feel!  And the fast-beating thump of her tail has such an upbeat rhythm that my mouth smiles without me even thinking about it.  Then there are the numerous feats of Labrador mischief that prove to me how priceless Trudy is, and before long I realise that I’m actually glad to be alive.  Sometimes I surprise myself by my own spontaneous laughter – thanks to Trudy.   Trudy ignites hope inside me, and hope is what stops people from drowning.

So despite the waves of gloom which permeate my days at the moment, I have the means to stay grounded, focussed and connected with other people.  When I’m in the park with Trudy, fellow walkers see the hurtling Labrador before they see me.  Even when they notice me and we strike up a conversation they are unaware of my inner struggle.  This in itself is a true bonus.     Antidepressants can set right the chemical imbalances in your brain, but having a dog like Trudy is a reason for living and thriving.  Merely wanting to look after a dog takes your thoughts away from your own troubles.  Actually having a dog reduces those troubles to the bare minimum.   Trudy’s role as a Guide dog at this time is secondary to her therapeutic role.  The very fact that she gives me so much makes me determined to do what I can for her.  This has prevented me from caving in on myself.

Trudy provides me with so much more than freedom and mobility.  I know she understands me as I do her, and it feels like we’re joined together by something magical.  She is not just part of my life, she has become part of me.

 Hetty is Britain’s first dual Guide dog and Seizure Alert dog http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/news/uks-first-dual-guide-dog-and-seizure-dog-graduates-with-new-owner/

Children with autism and OCD benefit from assistance dogs  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/giving/11DOGS.html?_r=2&partner=TOPIXNEWS&ei=5099

Therapy dogs in Psychiatric services http://drdeborahserani.blogspot.com/2010/10/therapy-service-dogs.html

My Phoenix will not let me die

I am not a particularly outgoing person, and three years ago you would have had to drag me into a room full of people.  Social ease does not come naturally to me.  Yet I have learned to present a confident persona largely as a result of my role as a volunteer Speaker.

When I trained with my Guide dog Trudy in 2008 I received the “Qualifying Pack” which all rookie Guide dog owners are given at the end of training.  One of the leaflets in this pack gave details about becoming a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs.  Something stirred inside me and I wondered if I would be any good at it.  After all, I had started out at University wanting to be a Teacher.  I love the art of language, and to me a string of well-chosen words beats any fireworks display.  This  drive to express myself and communicate passionately with others left me in no doubt that I would end up being a Classics Teacher. 

But it was not to be.  Twenty years after my arrival at Oxford I found myself dwindling in a nursing home, afraid to be seen in public, unsure of who I was.  Losing my useful vision at the end of my first year as an undergraduate was the end of my world.   The disappointment of having to abandon my degree  left me in tatters, and I lost all hope of having a life.  The grief I felt took over my mind and dismantled my thoughts.  I was unable to function, and thus began my default career as a psychiatric patient.  I  seriously thought that I would never emerge whole again.  

But after many struggles which spanned twenty years I did emerge.   Somehow I reached the peak of the mountain, and my reward was Trudy.  Training with a Guide dog had been my dream since leaving Oxford.  I knew that a dog would free me from the confines of sight loss, so I had to get myself back on track.  At the time I did not anticipate that it would take so many years.  But Trudy was worth the wait.  When I trained with her I had been a resident in the nursing home for seven years, and never envisaged leaving.  Trudy literally led me out of the front door and showed me the world outside. 

So the leaflet in the Qualifying Pack renewed my sense of purpose and gave me direction.  I moved into my own flat and began to seize every opportunity to rekindle the life which had so nearly died inside me.  Could I really be a Speaker?  Why not!  I was extremely apprehensive, for my mental breakdown had stolen my confidence and given me a morbid fear of strangers.  Yet I knew that if I didn’t seize this chance I would probably never feel fulfilled.  I reasoned that even if it was disastrous, at least I would have given it my best shot.

I expected to have some training in Public Speaking before I was let loose on the public.  However this was not the case.  After registering as a volunteer for Guide dogs, six months later I received a phone call requesting me to give a talk at a nearby village Primary School.  I cannot properly describe the terror which took hold of me as the appointed day grew closer.  What was I thinking of?!  Me! The semi-reclusive blind woman with a cleft palate speech impediment, giving a talk to a schoolful of kids!  I always struggled being part of an audience, so how was I going to address one?

The dire scenarios tormented me for nights on end, but I forced myself to go through with it.  When the day came I was relieved to find that most eyes were fixed on Trudy throughout my talk.  I was speaking during Assembly to 90 children,  but thanks to Trudy the dreaded “spotlight effect” did not take hold of me for long.  When I finished my talk the children plied me with excited questions, and I felt so elated that I almost soared into the air.  I was alive and free! This first talk was sixteen months ago, and now I am averaging about three talks a month.  So in a very round-about way I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a Teacher.  The topic of Guide dogs is easily as thrilling as Classics. 

As I have grown more confident, my voice has ceased to vibrate uncontrollably as I’m speaking.  I forget that I have a cleft palate which affects my pronunciation of certain consonants.  Somehow I have learned to project out of myself, and the audiences I speak to rarely get to see the quaking nervous wreck inside the Speaker.  I would not say that every talk I give is a success.  Recently I came home convinced that my public speaking phase was over, and that I would never have the guts to speak in public again.  But I guess the Phoenix within me won’t let my courage die forever.  This week I gave another talk in Hereford, and thankfully I hit the right note with the audience.  The buzz from a well-received talk fires up your soul and you leap into the clouds feeling literally on top of the world.

One of my favourite books is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Zorba’s dance epitomises the phrase “Carpe Diem” – seize the day.  His love for the moment and the simple pleasures of life, together with his incredible passion for music, has always struck a deep chord within me.  Zorba knows what it means to be free, and is desperate to teach others the essence of freedom.  One day I shall visit Crete and when I get there I will dance like Zorba.  Sometimes it pays to leap out of your every day life and risk the unknown.  Uncertainty gives rise to adventure, self-discovery and possible fulfilment.   If it all goes wrong and you find yourself heading over a cliff-edge, then you can always turn round and go back the way you came.

I Love Aylestone Park

There is a park in Hereford which is four minutes walk away from my flat.  This park comprises two large fields/meadows, a canal, an orchard and a gravel path which snakes its way round in an irregular loop.  The trees are fairly sparse so it always feels breezy, and on a day like today there is a good chance that hat-wearers would go home hatless.  Over the past few months I have become indebted to this open space known as Aylestone Park.  As I feel the wind seize my hair by its roots and flutter against my face I can’t help feeling moved, for I am in no doubt that I am in the presence of something beyond words.   This presence stirs, and seems to manifest itself in the tumbling wind.  When I stand still in Aylestone Park I feel bonded to nature, I feel humbled by the elements, I feel mortal, I feel free.
Simply by rooting myself to the ground I am reassured.   The earth still breathes and moves beneath me but my feet are still.  My mishmash of worries becomes lighter, and my restless spirit starts to calm.   Hope revives herself within me.  I love this park because it has not been unduly tampered with.  There are no landscaped flowerbeds and no ornamental ponds guarded by stone goddesses.  Humans have their rightful place, as does the long grass, and the scuttling mammals.  Dogs bound everywhere, sniffing out the mole hills and splashing in the canal.  Some people find Aylestone Park “boring” because it is themeless and its only “facility” is a large car park.  But to me this park is freedom itself.  Just planting myself in the lower field and allowing the wind to absorb me breaks open the ties which bind my spirit.  I feel so fortunate to have such freedom.
Trudy my Guide dog adores this park.  It gives her freedom too, as here is where she sheds her harness and tears around being a Labrador.  This time of year she goes scrumping in the orchard and I’m often showered with leaves as her snout sends them flying into the air.  All I can hear is the rustling of twigs and leaves as Trudy pursues the myriad scents which arouse her snout.  She befriends two or three pet dogs every time we visit, and eagerly joins in their games.  If I take her to the canal she throws herself into the brown-blue water and doggy-paddles back to me snorting like a pig.  The snorting is even louder if she’s carrying something in her mouth, and little jets of water spurt out of her nostrils.  Sometimes a regular group of dog-walkers whom I’ve nicknamed “the Labrador Convention” arrives at the canal and Trudy mingles with the black, yellow and chocolate Labradors teasing and chasing them.  She steals their frisbees and dives in after their treats.  She is in Labrador paradise.  When it’s time to go Trudy pretends not to hear the whistle and I have to use all my cunning and skill to lure her back to me.  Even with her smelly water-logged fur I am relieved when she comes lolloping back.

We amble back home through the tall stems of prickly grass, Trudy is usually munching weeds or thrusting her snout into the hedgerows.  Before I put her back on harness we often stand for a few more minutes savouring our freedom.  I turn my face towards the wind and feel it tussle my hair.  I inhale its freshness and allow all my anxieties to melt into the air.  They disperse like paper petals.  Trudy has a final nose-dive and then drums her tail against my legs ready for the four-minute stroll home.  I never leave the park with an ounce of stress or fear lingering.  This magical place renews and invigorates me.  It makes life seem even more precious, and I arrive home eager to make the most of everything I have.

How correct is Political Correctness?

“A man cannot be politically correct and chauvinist too”.  Toni Cade’s “A Black Woman” (1970) is the first printed reference to Political Correctness in this sense.  In fact,  Political Correctness was deliberately developed as a political tool by the US political parties in the 1970’s.  So how has it changed our society, and is it time for Political Correctness to be modified or put back into context?

In the UK Political Correctness has greatly influenced our terminology and language.  In many ways this has had a positive effect.  Terms previously used to describe disabled people or those from ethnic minorities are now rightly recognised as unacceptable.  It seems almost inconceivable that when I was at Oxford in 1988 I was called a “handicapped student” by the authorities.  As attitudes have changed, so has the law.  The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and subsequently the Equality Act 2010 have made it illegal in the UK to discriminate on grounds of race, disability, sexual orientation or gender.

Unfortunately Political Correctness has been interpreted so rigidly by some Corporate and Management organisations that it has often led to resentment and ridicule.  An example of this is the infamous case in 2002 when the Home Office Minister of the time, John Denham, was criticised by the police for using the term “nitty-gritty” because it apparently alluded to the slave era.  This was during a debate in Bournemouth at the Police Federation conference.  Apparently police could face disciplinary charges for using this term, and some rank-and-file officers stated that the rules around language were a “minefield” and at times inhibited them from speaking.  This type of high-profile incident always sparks off heated debates about free speech and censorship.  Ordinary people often feel annoyed that corporate regulations and government mandates inhibit free speech.  The Big Brother State is repellent to most minds, and the majority of people have strong opinions about what we should and should not be allowed to do and say.

Following a Channel 4 programme Dispatches in February 2011, in which the term “kaffir” was discussed in detail, Nesrine Malik wrote an interesting article about where to draw the line between the right to exercise free speech and the need to ban inciting and offensive language.
She states  that “language informs our attitudes as much as it reflects them”.  It is certainly true that the words we use influence the way we act towards different groups of people.
But Political Correctness filters into our everyday lives in other ways too.  Because many people are afraid of causing offense, they are often reluctant to approach a disabled person or to discuss controversial issues surrounding sexuality or race.  This can make it harder for people from diverse groups when they’re out and about.   Political Correctness has inadvertently created an invisible barrier which in effect is socially divisive.  I have encountered a whole range of attitudes throughout my life.  I have a cleft lip and palate which affects my speech and appearance, I am visually impaired and have used a long cane as well as a Guide dog, and I have experienced mental health issues which in the past have earned me labels.  I am relieved that nowadays people tend to think about what they are saying rather than coming out with expressions such as “handicapped” or “nutter”.  But it seems to have gone to the other extreme.  Many people are nervous about asking me questions.  This sometimes makes me feel quite isolated.   It has become acceptable for people to lower their eyes and move away rather than to confront a potentially awkward situation.   In this sense, Political Correctness has become a convenient concept for the general public to hide behind.
I would like to see rigid Political Correctness replaced by tact and sensitivity.  Basic awareness of other people and their feelings would go a long way towards improving social attitudes.  But even more importantly, open discussion and debate about controversial topics would break down many unnecessary barriers.  In my view, assumptions cause far more offense and problems than simple questions.   If someone asks me, “Do you need a hand?” or “How much can you see?” I am more than happy to answer, and I think I speak for many visually impaired people.   The problem occurs if that same person assumes that I don’t need any assistance because I’m with a Guide dog.  Then I can be stranded at the side of a busy road for minutes on end.  Yet I have lost count of the number of times people have told me they walked past because they did not want to cause offense by asking if I needed help.

Political Correctness has led to laws which uphold the rights of those with diverse needs.  But the down side of this is that many people from minority groups are more alienated because people are afraid to ask questions or make conversation.   Now that there are anti-discrimination laws in place, is it time to challenge the rigidity of Political Correctness and put it back into context?  Political Correctness is no justification for the human race morphing into ostriches with our heads permanently buried in sand.

Guide Dogs Week 2011

It’s Guide Dogs Week 2011 (1st – 9th October).  This has got to be one of my most active weeks this year!  My volunteering for Guide dogs has taken on a slightly manic aspect.  I find myself skipping breakfast and flying towards the bus stop with a grumbling Trudy who, like me, is not wired up to deal with early morning starts.  As we sit panting on the bus Trudy’s noises of discontent gain her the sympathy of our fellow passengers.  I smile haplessly and hope we won’t miss the stop, which is a frequent occurrence.

Luckily this week has been good so far as regards buses.  No memorable food crimes have been committed by the hoovering hound, and nothing untoward has happened.

It’s a difficult time for fundraising.  Spare cash is almost non-existent, so standing in a supermarket or Town centre with a collecting bucket is not as profitable as it was this time last year.  Charities are all competing with each other for scraps from the master’s table.  Some will inevitably not survive this barren period.  But this does not make fundraising any less rewarding.  For one thing, I am extremely fortunate having Trudy to help me.

When we are doing street collections we are not allowed to shake our buckets or ask people to donate money, so it can be quite disheartening watching a stream of people pass by seemingly oblivious to the fact that we are there.  Trudy however, does not have to abide by any such rules.  She locks onto the eye of a passer-by and draws that person towards me, begging him or her to donate to the cause.  She rolls onto her back and folds her limbs in half just asking for her tummy to be tickled.  Many people cannot walk by a prostrate Labrador who appears to be in the grip of sublime rapture.  When Trudy does her fundraising roll (as I’ve dubbed it this week) my bucket sings with coins!  Of course I explain to people that I have never trained Trudy to do this, but it is a fantastic fundraiser!  Trudy laps up the compliments like a cabaret artist.

So although the totals are down, the rewards have not diminished.  Bucket collections have always been characterised by fits and starts.  Just as my legs start to go numb and my back aches to distraction I become immersed in conversation with a friendly person, and the coins clink into the bucket which is extremely invigorating.  From somewhere, a new wave of energy emerges and I can finish my two-hour stint.  (As I’m with Trudy, I’m only allowed to do two hours at a time – which is just as well, as Trudy’s head would become bald from all the patting and stroking).

As charities are being hit hard at the moment, it’s even more important to keep up a high public profile.  It means working harder, but getting noticed increases your chances of raising funds.  This is one of the many reasons I love being a Speaker for Guide dogs.  Word of mouth is a very powerful fundraiser.  I think it helps people to relate to Guide dogs the charity if they can see an actual Guide dog and listen to the personal experience of a Guide dog owner.  Trudy loves being the centre of attention and as she’s such a vocal dog she usually makes the audience laugh at some point, which helps me no end!

For instance when I tell people that it costs approximately £49,000 to train and maintain each working Guide dog – Trudy often agrees with an expressive groan, as if to say “Because I’m worth it”.  I’m so lucky to have such an ally.  Trudy makes my talks real, and interrupts me which keeps them “live”.  I never lose sight of the fact that if it wasn’t for Trudy, I would never have become a volunteer and a whole chunk of life would have been missed.

My quest is to raise funds for more Muttleys to be trained as Guide dogs, and as the charity receives no government funding I think I’m in for an awful lot of bucket collecting….

http://www.justgiving.com/Claire-Rush0

How to Feel Totally Free in Two Minutes

One day last week I experienced  what it is like to feel totally free.  Free from worries and concerns, free from everyday life, free from my body.   Although it was  not an outer-body experience as such, I literally did soar into the sky.

The Black Fly is a ride in the small(ish) amusement park  at West Midland Safari Park in Bewdley, Worcestershire.   This impressive man-made structure gave me the gift of pure freedom.  Some people may consider The Black Fly to be their ultimate nightmare.  It rears up into the air, spinning and tumbling in all directions at lightning speed.  A metal clamp is all that holds you in as you’re offered up to the gods.  You become pin-sized and insignificant as the die is cast to determine whether you live or die.

Whilst clamped inside The Black Fly for the second time I tingled with the thrill of abandoning myself to Fate.  If I were to die there and then, I reasoned, it would not matter.   All my fears surrounding cancer and its implications vanished.  I genuinely felt that whatever happened to me was immaterial, for I was truly and tremendously happy.

The screams of my ride-mates sounded shrill on either side of me.  As we raced with the wind, the wails of terror and excitement were tossed into the air.  I could feel the wind’s coat-tails fluttering against my face.  I inhaled and felt utterly intoxicated.  .But unlike my ride-mates I did not feel the need to scream.  In fact I was  paralysed –  not through fear, but ecstasy.  I wanted to stay there forever.  If only I could trap those two minutes in a jar and replay them for the rest of my life!

The world was far below me, continuing its relentless grind.  I really had no desire at all to go back to it.  I felt removed from reality, almost invincible.  Who needs illicit drugs when such an incredible buzz can be gained from a theme park ride?  I am now an adrenalin Junkie, and I’m intending to feed my addiction in a few weeks with a return visit to The Black Fly.

Having said that, the buzz which shot backwards and forwards through my entire body was not simply due to an adrenalin rush.  I honestly felt as if all my worries had been lifted away from me.  All I had to do was to sit back and let the huge metal pendulum hurl me through the air.

As I twisted and dipped over and over again, I was only vaguely aware that I was still me.  If it wasn’t for the ear-shattering screams telling my brain I was still among humans, I might have begun conversing with Angels.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_NRlcU5pqY

Underground, overground…..

Not many people agree with me when I wax lyrical about the smell of the London Underground.  For me the combination of hot rubber, industrial detergent and all manner of human odours is strangely comforting.  Yes, I do like it.  What I struggle with is the fat slug of passengers clogging up every inch of space from the ticket barriers to the platforms.  Somehow you’re supposed to find a hole in the slug’s body and dive through it to the other side, as if your life depends on it.  If you happen to misjudge this move there’s a risk that you’ll get swallowed up into the slug’s huge digestive system and end up being spewed onto the wrong platform somewhere far away.  Timing is crucial when you’re negotiating the London Underground.  One false move and you find yourself being swept along in the wrong direction, feet flailing, arms flapping, heart sinking.
As a visually impaired person, dodging the giant human slug in the Underground is a heart attack in the making.  Last week when I attended the Guide dog of the Year Awards I had to face the beast head on.  Luckily I was accompanied by a travel-wise mate.  Having a savvy mate by your side is a fantastic help, but if you add a hoovering Guide dog and an overloaded rucksack with wheels that don’t wheel – the best made plans crumble into chaos.  My rucksack with the dodgy wheels was kindly adopted by my companion for the duration of our London trek.  All I had to do therefore, was to steer The Hoover.
We would have been fine had it not been for the aforementioned slug of tourists and commuters.  This giant beast wedged its great body between us numerous times, which left us frequently calling to each other desperate not to get separated forever.  Trying to listen for directions with a hoover-in-harness eyeballing every grain on the ground was no mean feat.  Our stress levels quickly peaked.  The effort of remaining calm whilst being swept away by a perpetually moving monster would test the nerves of the most accomplished traveller.  “Where are you?”  I’d call.  “Over here – in front of you!” was the disappearing answer, and we’d be lucky to reunite within the next five minutes.  We lost count of the number of times we had to hunt down an unoccupied space and simply “take stock”.
Another major bane was escalators.  Those massive metal mountains which move up and up and up…!  Guide dogs cannot travel on escalators because of the risk of their paws getting trapped, so every time we encountered an escalator we had to hunt for a London Transport staff member.  This was not straightforward.  When I lived in London in the early 1990’s there was no such thing as Help Points, so it was mere chance that my mate came across a circular white disc at Euston fitted with Help and Emergency buttons.
We didn’t expect any joy when she pressed the Help button, so when a disembodied voice answered our SOS call it was extremely heartening.  London Transport staff were mostly very helpful once we’d located the Help Points.  But there appeared to be no logical system as to their whereabouts, so searching for Help Points became a quest in itself every time we chanced upon a dreaded escalator.  And once the offending escalators were halted hundreds of steps needed climbing.  There was a moment at Oxford Circus when my companion sailed by on a parallel escalator (there has to be some perk for being the luggage carrier!), and I was seriously beginning to wane.  The steps seemed to be endless, and my legs were growing heavier by the second.  As she passed by she called out to me “Come on Claire!” and somehow I found a spurt of energy that I didn’t know I had.  I’m not sure if Trudy felt more tired than I did, but her front paws were definitely sagging by the time we made it to the top.  It might not have been so bad had we not had to repeat this exercise at least ten times!
On our second day we decided to be tourists and visit Buckingham Palace.  Green Park was possibly our trickiest tube station, but we did not know this when we hatched our plans over breakfast.  Puffing our guts out ascending Green Park’s stationary escalator might have seemed worthwhile had the sky not decided to empty its latrine bucket over our heads just as we exited the station.  Playing the tourist in London invariably gets you soaking wet – as we discovered the hard way.  London rain is hard, relentless, back-stabbing, rib-jabbing pain.  It  literally penetrated our bones as we traipsed through Green Park,  vaguely taking in the scene of mounted Police and majestic trees.  I decided to give Trudy the chance to have a free run despite the fact that we were almost drowning.  A group of excited Japanese tourists pelted past laughing at the force of the downpour.  We were unable to share their merriment.
Trudy was dashing about with the bells on her collar jingling in time to the rain.  She seemed oblivious to the cold shards of silver being hurled from the sky.  Herein lies the sorriest part of my tale.   Trudy used her freedom wisely and performed a “busy” on the grass as we neared Buckingham Palace.   I dutifully pulled a bag from my pocket in order to deposit her offering  in the nearest bin.  All the while the rain was continuing to assault our bodies and we were hunched over double.  I turned towards my rucksack with the dodgy wheels and expressed concern that it might look “unattended” while we were retrieving Trudy’s “busy”.  At this point I  wondered where the “busy” actually was, for it had seemingly disappeared.  In fact it had not disappeared at all – it was under my shoe.  This was quite possibly the lowest point of our London experience.  There was a poignant moment of despair and self-loathing,  but once my shoe had been washed in a series of puddles the hilarity of the situation took over.  Laughter is truly a great medicine.  Hence we were able to reach our destination, Buckingham Palace, where we lingered for about thirty seconds.  The rain was still venomous, so we decided to head back towards the shelter of Green Park station.
As we neared the station we came across a Marks and Spencer, and the prospect of a sandwich tempted us in.  Dripping pools of water onto the floor we took refuge behind a huge pillar in order to try to organise our sodden belongings.  Trudy, who was hoovering up crumbs,  shook her waterlogged fur all over a smartly dressed lady .  If that smartly dressed lady happens to be reading this, I apologise on behalf of my soggy hound.  Throughout the watery chaos we were  being watched by a store detective who must have labelled us  “suspicious persons” right from the moment we entered.  Against the odds, we did manage to buy a sandwich and that kept our spirits afloat as we headed back towards the mayhem of Green Park station.  Many escalators, steps, platforms, crowds and near-heart attacks later, we were sitting on the train at Paddington about to start our homeward journey.
Hereford and London are two vastly contrasting places.  When you’re in Hereford, London seems magical, exciting, buzzing, and alluring.  But once you actually hit that heaving hub of humans, the magic fades into unease, and slowly that unease changes to all-out panic.  After just 24 hours of city strife I was longing for the pure oxygen and grassy hills of Herefordshire.  Now as I sit at my desk I smile as I remember pouring over Tubeplanner early last week.  It is a great online resource for would-be Tube travellers, but memorising the stops on the Bakerloo line whilst sitting in your living room does NOT prepare you at all for the brutal reality of the London Underground.  Having said that, I have not ruled out another trip at some point in the future!

Relief: a brief update

I’m happy to report that my visit to the hospital on Wednesday did not bring me bad news.  I was told that radiotherapy can continue to affect the treated area for some considerable time.  My reaction is not common, but thankfully it looks as if it’s not cancer-related.  Most of me feels very reassured by this.  I can finally relax knowing I don’t have to undergo any more treatment.  Yet there is still an anxiety inside me which persists.  Somehow I just can’t accept that the cancer has gone, or that it won’t return.  I wonder if there’ll ever be a day when I feel totally free from cancer.