The Hospital Tree

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This was the last poem to be written. The first – On First Visiting Maggie’s West – was written in early spring, this last poem was written in December. One of the threads running through the poem references Dante’s Divine Comedy: people appear as ‘in limbo’ and Reception, an island positioned between the revolving door and the world of the hospital proper, like the island mountain of the Purgatorio. Reception is not the only ‘triage post’ that visitors encounter. People living with cancer will come to at least one more reception and then wait for blood to be taken, wait to see a doctor or nurse, and wait again for treatment or a prescription. Patients said it often took most of the day, and some therefore made an initial visit for their bloods and a second visit for any treatment. The hospital clock seems to echo this sense of uncertain time – it could be telling the correct time (but isn’t); it’s clearly not telling the correct time; it is telling the correct time but only momentarily. When Di visited there was a temporary exhibition on the ground floor which featured mythologised forests. It seemed to echo the Divine Comedy, the Poet famously being lost in a ‘dark wood’ and staff and patients observing forests of bureaucracy that caused endless waiting and uncertainty. Di was the only one looking: Imperial Health Charity curates an excellent art collection, accredited by the Arts Council.

Another thread alludes to the mutualism between trees and mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi join the roots of individual trees to the roots of others, facilitating a subterranean network of information and despatch. Similarly the porters and other key workers who bring food, drink, oxygen, medicines etc. and without whom the system can’t function, connect up the different floors and departments. Unlike the clinicians we see they are often invisible.  On a mundane level the visible/invisible appears in the painted arrow pointing towards A&E which is easily overlooked. Amongst the hawks wheeling above it, peregrines are visible at times.

The Christmas Tree
caged for Health and Safety
casts a spectral blue
over the souls that huddle and smoke
under the Hospital clock
that’s always out of time –
low watt Christmas cheer
in the face of austerity,
though none of the faces here
show the meekness of Tiny Tim.

The dim beacon
stands before a bridge
barely perceptible
which staff, patients, relatives,
cross as those in limbo
heading for crisis
or opportunity,

Under their feet
koi fish
barely perceptible
turn a slow pavan
to Fortune’s pipe
amidst occasional litter.

Ambulances back out of the bay
like horses from a livery yard,
the lower level of the building extending
like the wings of a grounded plane,
the inconsequent clock
driven perhaps by a higher power
that likes a joke
as once in a while
time lost or time gained
turns out to be
time present.

The multi-storey tower
jigsaws the sky,
untrodden balconies
grey on grey
bracket themselves against the cloud
that bulks and drips and bulks again –
a roof for gyring hawks
that screech their own alarms
above the arrow of A and E.

Once through the revolving door
light is electric,
unsparing of shadow
or moody contemplation.

No country for the aimless,
Reception’s purgatorial post
propels the lost to purpose –
a rapid-fire of wheels and feet
past the artwork
there’s no time to look at
and the consolation of Costa
to the infernal lifts
that never wait on the ground floor.

Forced to a standstill though you are,
the place is alive as the forest floor.
The comings and goings
of those who serve the nation’s health
behind trolleys, clipboards, hospital beds,
in uniform or out
a constant traffic unremarked.

Like the roots we do not see
they hold the thriving crown,
agents of exchange
they are the ground-force
of our air.

Magic Words

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Di never knew when references would be deemed too personal until she returned the poem, and levels of acceptance varied widely. In the first draft of this poem, Di included Holly’s father’s stage name as a magician and the name of the show her brother had worked on. However Holly found this too personal and requested she make the references ‘‘more generic.” Di was afraid she would object to the mention of her own name, Holly, which would mean a total rewrite but here she raised no objection. The second draft was accepted, but then her father intervened, wanting a correction regarding his title at the BBC, which Holly passed on apologetically (see Per Ardua ad Astra regarding similar family interventions).

Holly referred to herself as a “metastatic breast specialist nurse”, shorthand for metastatic breast cancer specialist nurse. Her observation about it being an exciting time to be working in the field resonates with citations ‘People Like You’ researchers received to technical, biological and computational developments in this service which have informed our understanding of personalised medicine in the project.

Holly, like many hospital staff, was a great traveller (see The Possibility of Joy and the reference to an imperial workforce in Everyday Heroines).

Bright as the berry
that gladdens the heart in winter
she appears as if by magic –

Magic is in the family.
Her father, a retired broadcast journalist,
has taken up the art
beloved by Dickens.
The voice that once was heard
on BBC radio
now charms the listeners with the Magician’s patter.
Her brother, a writer,
works the magic of theatre.

Holly’s magic
performed on the ward, in the corridor
or on the end of the phone –
catching the women where she can –
serves a higher office.

As a metastatic breast specialist nurse
most of what she does is talk, she says.
“I want them to feel they can pick up the phone to me
and there’s someone to give them answers.”

Sounds straightforward
but of course it isn’t.
Especially when the question is
How long have I got?
uttered courageously
in dread of the answer.

In her first two months
she talked to one hundred and twenty patients.
If she gets a smile
at the end of the conversation
it’s a success.

She tells of a woman in her late forties
diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.
She’d been well for years.
Fearful for her family and herself,
she is enraged
it was not detected earlier.
When she and Holly have finished talking
the woman gives her a big hug.
“A little win,” says Holly,
eyes like sapphires.

In her
the father’s, the brother’s, gift
is a tool for healing –
words that lift the spirit, charge the soul.
“There’s no point giving people treatment
if they’re not going to go away and live life.”

She looks young
but “feels much older.”
Beneath the youthful gaze
a well of loss.
At fifteen her friend dies,
at twenty-eight her husband,
the love of her life.

He had Hodgkins Lymphoma –
a curable cancer.
It took him anyway.
Now she wants to give back.

“It’s an exciting time
to be working in the field.
Advances are being made all the time.”

Reassuring to those who ask
the unanswerable
How long?

She does yoga, loves to bake,
is a gargantuan traveller –
counts forty-seven countries already.
“I find people fascinating,”
she laughs,
though watching her new partner,
a Scouser with a Scouser’s brass,
being interrogated by Israeli Security
was one of the scariest experiences of her life.

Panama and Palestine score high
but Cuba is her favourite
for “the liveliness of the people.”
And perhaps because
in their openness
she feels an affinity.
“I’m basically an answer yes person!”

Each day
she and her partner are together
is cause for celebration.
“Life is short.
You need to grab it with both hands.”

Time likewise.
She flicks me a smile
and heads off to the ward
as the legendary Brownie.

In Scandinavian lore
Holly is planted near homes
to prevent lightning strikes.
Though she cannot stop them
like her Nordic namesake,
to those struck she is a force.

Vital Conversation

Read by Clive Llewellyn
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As a fellow Brummie, Di immediately identified a likeness. She shared knowledge of local references and also some personal connections. Her brother had attended the same school as the sitter (King Edward VI Camp Hill). Her Dad had spent time in the cancer ward of The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, like the sitter’s father. Her Dad, an engineer had also told her about the Lucas Factory, a former car battery plant where the sitter’s father worked.

The sitter found himself in a peculiarly delicate position regarding his professional and personal life. Although spared treating his father, he is still both doctor and son and his on/off switch necessarily limited. Here the father – and potential patient – causes his son, a doctor, to fulfil a promise and this son becomes an epic traveller (for the impact of a father’s story on that of a sitter see also Per Ardua ad Astra).

The ‘hive of cancer genetics’ suggests an interest in epigenetics as well as genetics (see More Than One Life).

When Di gave back his ‘written portrait’, the sitter emailed:

Loved it Diane 🙂 Wouldn’t change a word. Longer than I thought it would be.

He has since left Charing Cross.

He’s a Registrar
Oncology Registrar
used to people not understanding
or misunderstanding
what that is.

“People don’t realise
Registrars are doctors.
Often they may be the one
who does the op
with the Consultant standing by.”

He talks with an ease
others have to work at –
a love of Life
wanting conversation.

As an Oxford Undergrad
studying plant biology,
he soon realises loving plants
is very different
from researching them.
“They don’t talk back to you!”

And so
dismissing a life in the lab,
he considers his options –
teaching or medicine.

He knows he’d make “a rubbish GP”
but chooses medicine –
looking to “stretch his brain”
with cellular genetics.

“The medical profession
teaches you life is fragile,”
he observes.

But he’s not one to pass up a challenge –
swims with manta rays in Fiji,
escapes near death on a dodgy bike in Bolivia
and does a three hundred mile bike ride
from Leicester to the Peak District
to fundraise for his PhD benefactors -–
four days “in perfect weather and lycra!”

But perhaps his biggest challenge comes
when his Dad is diagnosed with kidney cancer –
a Birmingham man
with a rare Masters in Soldering and Management
who turns around the failing Lucas Factory.

The father’s admitted to the Q E –
one of three hospitals
where his son’s doing his medical training.

the son
at Wolverhampton
is spared
the father’s journey.

“If you can’t do the on /off switch
with the emotions you do pathology,”
he asserts.

But later,
when a woman with kidney cancer
is treated with Immunotherapy
and gets the all clear,
his father’s ghost rises up
to meet him.

For a moment
the bright notes
glad as a Vivaldi Gloria
are muted.

Before he died
his father made him promise
to travel once he’d finished,
know the late-flowering
that took him
in early retirement
to Kilimanjaro
and the Inca Trail.

Brightness returns
as he tells me
what happened next.

Six months later
he slips on the ice
carrying lumbar puncture fluid.
Holding the precious cargo aloft
he goes down and thinks
there’s more to life than this!

He swaps Brum for Taronga
and relocates
to the north coast of the North Island –
“as close to the Riviera as New Zealand gets.”

He has friends and colleagues,
loves the food, the Pacific quiet,
but when his sister has a baby
he comes home,
drops anchor.

Anchors are important.
“I like having family and friends,”
he says,
keeps up with old school pals
from Camp Hill days.

True to his promise
he’s travelled, loves it –
Peru and Bolivia, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya,
Australia, Fiji, South East Asia, Europe,
are charted territory.
But sooner or later he returns to port –
Birmingham and London
twin immutables
by which he sets his compass.

In his Dad’s factory
he stripped down faulty units
for South American travels.
Now Oncology is the goal.
“I have a plan,” he says,
the gaze sure.

on an allotment in Birmingham
a mother
a father and a son
build a hive together
enjoy Birmingham honey.

the swarm,
the father,
are gone.
But the mother remains
in her care for the environment,
while in the hive
of cancer genetics
the son engages
in a conversation
vital to life
as bees

Everyday Heroines

Read by Susan Aderin
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Clinic 8 is the main and very busy oncology outpatient’s clinic at Charing Cross Hospital. For a short description, see Day et al (2016) (see also White Rose). The bringing in and sharing of home-baked cakes, biscuits, breads and the like is an everyday occurrence among hospital staff and visitors to Maggie’s. Sharing becomes a kind of mutualism that keeps everyone going (see Knights of the Oblong Table and the note on ‘mutualism’ in The Hospital Tree).

For a previous generation of Irish nurses and an earlier view of the stratified, imperial workforce in the NHS, see Melissa Llewellyn Davies (dir.) 1986 documentary, Nurses: The Team on B6.

Many of the hospital staff are epic travellers (see Magic Words) and some of this travelling relates to cosmopolitan connections among them.

“You get hit,”
she says.
“When you ask how are you?
and they’ve had bad news
sometimes they cry in front of you.”

She’s been working in Clinic 8
for two years now,
taking patients’ bloods, urine,
calling them to the Consultant.
“The stories you hear..
Makes you think what would I do?”

She holds me in her strong gaze,
warm, generous,
rooted in earth.
Says simply:
“You cannot be working
and cry every day.
You’ll cry forever.”

She’s learned resilience –
in Palliative Care at St Charles
and, pregnant with her son,
caring for her mother
when she’s diagnosed with cancer.
“If you are not strong enough inside
you will break down,”
she says firmly.

But still.
Those who face their mortality
with no family round them
pierce the vital armour.
“Sometimes we cry,”
she says,
the blunt truth a blow
I don’t see coming.

It is her mother
who encourages her to do nursing,
tells her she has the power
to intercede on the patient’s behalf,
give voice to the voiceless.
“There’s nothing you can’t do,”
she insists.
“You can do it!”
echoes her Dad.

But she wanted to wait
till the children were older
and chooses to do
Health and Social Care Level 5
over two years
because she has a job
and a house to run.
She’s almost finished.

‘It’s all to do with management,”
she smiles,
prepares her children in advance
so they can prepare themselves.
They wash the dishes, hoover,
but meal times are golden.
“It’s important I cook for them.”

Jollof Rice is a favourite –
even her veggie-hating boy can be tricked
into munching plant life
when it’s hidden in the dish.
Frying is out, but she understands
their palate is different and will change.
“Once in a while they can have McDonalds,”
she grins.

Every year she takes them to Paris
where her father,
a high ranking army officer,
once made the family home.
In his retirement he’s gone back
to Ghana,
does his best to lure them over.
She speaks English, French,
and thanks to him
bits of dialects from all over Ghana.
“I’ve been places.”

The Asante ancestry
shines in the fine bones,
the elegant weave sculpting the head
in the likeness of a goddess.
I am in awe.
“I have a good hairdresser,”
she laughs.

They are a team of six
with two nurses and a manager.
One of the team
whose picture looms large
in the corridor
brought in a banana cake
to share with staff and patients.

I met Marcia,
looking for Florence
who was on lunch break.
She asked me my business
and satisfied I had good cause,
instructed me to sit and wait.
Not wanting to cut short a lunch break,
I protested –
then did as I was told.

She laughs when I tell her this.
Marcia, she says,
cannot tolerate nonsense.
If you offend her you deal with it
“Patients need to see us working together,”
she affirms,
“free spirits moving around.”

Nursing is in the blood.
She was named after her Dad’s auntie –
a nurse in Ghana –
their namesake an icon
of the Nursing Profession.
Her elder sister is a Community Nurse.

They do not share the status
of  The Lady with the Lamp
yet follow her dictate of hard work,
their acts of compassion unsung.
They are like many others
who answer the call
everyday heroines.

More Than One Life

Read by Flaminia Cinque
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At the time of writing, the 2020 London Marathon had not yet been called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor was the sitter a professor: he was awarded a Chair subsequently in 2020 for his work in epigenetics. Epigenetics means above’ or ‘on top of’ genetics. It refers to processes that modify gene expression but do not change the DNA sequence. Most definitions stipulate that these modifications are heritable (see Vital Conversation).

“I’ve had three lives already,”
he says
fixing me a macchiato freddo.

Coming from “a long tradition of baristas”
he makes a professional brew
despite the modest machine –
a far cry from the bar in Rimini
where his first life began
twirling the baton bestowed
by his Great Grandmother
amongst the fashionistas of the day.
“My hobby was Uni in Bologna.”

He’d have preferred to study architecture
but his mother vetoes the choice,
declaring for medicine –
a nurse herself.
Sadly for her it’s the year
of Dolly the Sheep
and he opts for genetic engineering.
Riding the wave of R&D
provoked by the EU ban on antibiotics,
he writes his thesis on pig nutrition.

His second life is spent
in the realm of Animal Science and
cowboy hats –
Purdue University, Indiana,
where the crew of Apollo 11
chewed the cud later digested
in Zero G.

Its the back of beyond.
But once he’d left
he decides
“it was not a bad place to be”
and returns.
Come mai?
He flashes a Mastroianni grin.

And so
he sashays back to Purdue
and four years of Epigenetics
with a sideline teaching tango
to students and seniors –
milonga not Strictly.

He does a post doc in Michigan –
“scientifically a waste of time” –
as subprime mortgages
leave Lehman Brothers bancarotta.

His third life begins in New Hampshire –
“a bubble of rich hippies.”
He meets his half Sicilian
but “very British” wife
in the Dartmouth Medical School Building
by the ice machine
getting ice for their experiments.
Ten years later, back for a seminar,
he photographs the iconic machine.
“Life histories start always from
the weirdest of places.”

She’s an exchange student
in need of a room,
he has a house.
Ecco fatto!
“First she lodged in my house then in my life,”
he laughs.

Well, not entirely –
first he had to convince her
he wasn’t gay.

He relates this in full lycra –
a sporty invitation to camp.
“It’s the look!” he protests.
“Perception and reality are not the same thing.”
He’s in training for the London Marathon
never run before
though kicks a football.

Beneath the lycra
tattoos lurk.
A lizard-like creature mounts a forearm.
Inked in Indiana
it’s a “doodle” of his own design.
It echoes the aboriginal art of Australia –
a place he might have lived
if it weren’t for arachnophobia
and the offer of London.

On his other forearm
the daughter of Alphonse Mucha gazes
Draping his left shoulder
Klimt’s Hygeia.
On his back Hokusai’s Wave,
The Fighting Temeraire on his chest.
Terror from behind,
the final port of call ahead –
the body speaks prophetic
to the first time Marathon runner.

In the cramped office
a supersize computer screen surfaces
like a giant turtle,
in back a sticker:

I am a DAD.

His son’s photo is on the wall
under the fauve swirls
from his niece’s paintbrush.
He’s a happy boy,
who can strum Wimoweh on his ukulele –
a mini-me version of Dad’s guitar.
Together they watch Ted cartoons –
Schrödinger’s Cat no challenge
for the quantum world of a two year old.

“It doesn’t matter
what he does as long as he thinks critically,”
he declares.
Then, hearing himself, grimaces
as if Il Dottore had appeared on the scene.

Behind the elegant horn rims
the eyes dance.
The professorial beard
is “the lazy man’s answer to shaving.”
But without the beard,
he reflects,
he’d “feel like a bartender again.”

After six years at Hammersmith Hospital
his fourth life –
Research Professor –
is upon him.
Best not shave.

White Rose

Read by Flaminia Cinque
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The white heraldic rose is a symbol of The House of York, and has since been adopted as a symbol of Yorkshire as a whole. The House of Lancaster is represented by a red heraldic rose. The rose is also the sitter’s favourite flower, as she shows in the gesture recalling her Yorkshire childhood (see also Per Ardua ad Astra for the telescoping of past and present).

Conversations with hospital staff as well as volunteers often revealed close personal connections to cancer in their own lives or in a relative or friend, which they feel inspired them to choose this work (see The Possibility of Joy).

Italicisation references a past conversation that is recalled.

“Yorkshire is God’s Country!”
There’s no trace of Yorkshire now –
except for the echo
of a white rose
in the immaculate complexion,
the quiet loveliness.

As a girl
she scoops up the petals
in the grandmother’s garden
outside Hull,
adds water for scent.

Laughing, she dabs behind her ears
once more in the moment
walking the familiar terrain –
the old shed, the bird bath, the fruit trees –
where she and her brother would hide.
“It was like having an outdoor house.”

The family cross the Pennines
and the White Rose turns to Red.
In Manchester in the 60’s and 70’s
she’s sent to convent school.
“I just rebelled!”

Now home is London
where she walks her dog in the local park –
a Standard Schnauzer
“who thinks she’s human.”

Like all animals
when her owner becomes unwell
she knows.

After three years working as a volunteer
she is herself diagnosed.
The stealth-tumour finally shows up
in a colonoscopy.
There’d been no signs,
nothing in the blood,
she just felt tired.

The time she’d spent
working in the Hospital
helped her cope, she says,
prepared her for her own journey.
But still.
The year the cancer takes
brings lostness.

she wants “to be normal” again,
returns to the tea stand,
a subtle and knowing presence
where lone souls find succour.

Seeing a woman on her own
emerge from her consultation,
she’s prompted to ask
Do you want a hug?
The woman, who’s just got the all clear,
doesn’t hesitate for a moment.
“More than anything I want a hug!”

“Cancer can give you that sense of being brave,”
she observes,
“I don’t want to be sterile.”

Post chemo
the head of hair’s still there,
but the blonde has morphed.
She sees it as an opportunity
to say who she is –
and also save money.
The new tones of silver and grey
are beguiling as moonlight,
give a touch of Versailles
to the blue-green eyes,
mermaid pools.

She has a flair for colour and texture,
partnered prints and colours for Mothercare.
The designer’s gaze now falls on gardens,
advising on flower and shrub,
probing the full spectrum of possibility.
“I’m not a minimalist,” she laughs.

Except when it comes to shopping.
Cancer taught her to question every purchase –
a lesson not forgotten.
The new kitchen houses a legion
of recycling bins.
“We’ve become so throw-away.”

She’s always worked on Clinic 8,
a non medical presence
who will listen.
“You build up associations with people.”
But even after six years
it’s hard not to be affected.
Seeing women in their twenties and thirties,
some with newborns,
makes her sad.
When she’s finished
she has to take
“a deep intake of breath.”

Beneath the pulse of Clinic 8
loss and lostness are constant,
an elegiac strain that underscores
the rapid announcements to rooms.
She fetches her coat.

the tea trolley
fades into the wall.

The Art of Medicine

Read by Chris Barnes
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Finding a window in the sitter’s diary proved quite tricky. Communication was established through his secretary until he intervened himself to arrange a ‘sitting’. He is like other oncologists and health care staff in many respects and health care staff in general, but, as an artist, he identified to some degree with the writer. They both belonged to the group of artists (which seeks to be outside distinctions of class and social status) and his circle of friends included actors and other arts practitioners. Later in the conversation, the sitter specifically notes a group of ‘people like us’ (General Practitioners) who deal with suffering on the front line. He speaks of himself by reference to his children, who are like him in some respects but set on different paths. Other sitters, in contrast, spoke of themselves by reference to ancestry (see Per Ardua ad Astra).

People Like You’ hosted a series of Science Cafes at Maggie’s (2018-2019) with Kelly Gleason, CRUK Senior Research Nurse on the topic of Personalised Cancer Medicine (see Detectives). The sitter’s presentation detailed a twenty-year odyssey to develop a drug with his long time colleague. He acknowledged that a lot of cancer treatment can be virtually intolerable even as it holds illness at bay. Only through trial and error do oncologists and their patients discover who can and who cannot tolerate different regimens.

The effluvium
of the common cold
is about him.

“Dealing with dying people
makes you weary,”
he says
with disarming frankness.
“I try to look for ways of amalgamating
the science I do with painting.”

A life-long practice of painting
and a passion for research
restore the senses and spirit
dulled by forty years as a cancer doctor –
a synthesis of the Apollonian
and Dionysian
at odds with the modern view
of Art and Science
as polar opposites.

Like the double-edged arrows
of Apollo,
drugs have the power to heal
or bring devastation
on the houses of his patients.
Etched on memory
are “horrific scenarios.”

Yet the pictures on his phone –
belying the breadth of the canvas –
are not medieval graphics from Hell.
Figures dance a red roundelay,
rest in a symphony of quiet curves.
The “useful” vanishes
in a world of magical realism.

To allow for this,
make time
for family and friends
and the final tranche
of the camino from Seville to Santiago,
he goes from five to three days a week,
obeying what is “spiritually good.”

In the Science Cafe at Maggie’s
waiting his turn
lip on knuckle
he is Rodin’s Thinker.

with a performer’s nous
“gets in there” with his audience –
explainer, explorer, examiner,
humanising data,
telling of mischievous drugs
dancing a pharmaceutical jig,
the need to empty friendly pockets
to raid the genetic arc.

“In Science you have an idea
and spend the next fifteen years
finding out if it’s right,”
he sighs,
envies friends who are
actors, writers.
But the oncologist’s zeal

he offered to set up
a self-help group for doctors
“the armour to deal with suffering.”
The response was dismal.

He has four children
he says
and none of them
are taking up medicine.

A boyish grin
breaks the composure
of the gaze
like an escaped photon.

French Connection

Read by Siobhán Nicholas
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Cancer patients attend East 6 for chemotherapy. Finding a quiet space in the hospital for conversations was always a challenge. Di waited in the corridor for Clementine, one of the Senior Sister’s ‘adopted daughters’ (see Woman of Heart). The Senior Sister, who had recently had her own ‘sitting,’ offered them her office. Clementine, like Emma (Fragments and Curveballs), belongs to a set of those with the same name. She talks about her Gallic parentage but presents it in relation to mythic rather than kinship ‘ancestry.’ (In Fragments and Curveballs connections are grounded in Germanic more than in Celtic landscape and legend).

Les jeux sans faits translates as The chips are down.

She comes
bringing the light
with her.
tang of orange
pulled back from the pale brow
that puckers softly
in reflection.

Patients remind her
she shares the name
of Churchill’s wife,
but she has more in common
with the heroines of Celtic myth.

Away from East 6
the bright gaze settles.
She leans back,
unfolding her story
like a map of legend.

Her Mum is from Normandy,
her Dad is Breton.
They married in the house
of an aunt in Brittany.
“The smell of that house is my childhood,”
she says, recalls
the morning bakes of the boulangerie,
summers of boules.
Despite “rubbish weather”
the sea-shaken land has her in its thrall.
“I love winding the window down
and taking it all in.”

The family tree
leans westward –
Gallic meets Gaelic
in an Irish grandmother.

A branch reaches North Africa
where her mother is born
and lives for seven years.
“Morocco has a place in her heart,”
says the daughter, yet to know
the mother’s heart-land.

But in her name
the ghost of a connection –
North Africa is where
Frère Clément,
monastic gardener extraordinaire,
creates the fruit that bears his name –

She “kind of fell” into Nursing.
First she wanted to be a Paramedic,
live the dramas of Casualty,
but it didn’t work out.
Then she didn’t get into the Uni
her friend was going to.
she goes to Oxenbrook.
Turns out
the Nursing training’s “amazing.”
So is Oxford.

There’s more.
She joins a History Society
and makes a new best friend
who introduces her to a male friend
from Solihull.
Les jeux sont faits.
She marries the Midlander.
“Definitely fate,” she grins.

Another twist of fate
returns her to the hospital
where she was born
to work in elderly care.
She’s punched, bit, kicked and sworn at
but remains true to her name
which means in French
mild and merciful.

“I loved looking after people with dementia well,”
she says,
emphasising well.

Her rite of passage however
comes not with the Elders of St George’s
but in the Acute Medical Unit –
mental health, physical illness,
End of Life, Type One Diabetes –
a world of patients in crisis.
“That’s where I really became a nurse.”

She’s been at Charing Cross
three and a half years now.
Soon she’ll be leaving East 6
to go one floor down
to Oncology Research –
“a different kind of patient contact.”

It’s been hard saying goodbye,
though she won’t miss Magic FM’s
tragic tunes.
Some patients have been coming to the Unit
as long as she has.
“You build up this relationship,
chat about each other’s lives.”

After Nursing
History is her passion.
She’s fascinated by the stories of places,
the old photographs, the human narrative
from the local perspective.

In the future,
when she’s been to Australia
to see her brother a few more times,
speaks the fluent French she knew as a child,
has a garden
and a cat,
she won’t be history.

The patients and staff whose lives
she touched
will remember her –
compassionate, present,
her smile irresistible
as Father Clement’s beloved
easy peelers.

Woman of Heart

Read by Siobhán Nicholas
Return to Poem

At the time of Di’s residency, the way to the main cancer outpatients’ clinic had been re-routed to avoid dangerous leaks from the roof. The power outage that is mentioned was one of many, indicating a crumbling real estate that is held up almost physically by its people. At your first visit to the chemotherapy unit, you have a long one on one meeting in which you receive a great deal of information about possible side effects, schedules and what to do if you are unwell. As the sitter describes working with her buddies and ‘adopted daughters’ (see French Connection), she also offers advice to those considering a career in chemotherapy nursing.

A feis is a traditional Gaelic arts and culture festival. It’s commonly used to refer to Irish dance competitions.

The heart of the face
tells the heart within –
generous, grateful,
open to Grace.

There’s a touch
of Bette Davis glam –
brunette curls
frame eyes
rose mouth
pink beatitude.

In the corridor
they come thick and fast –
the queries, the questions, the asks.

She parries with aplomb,
seeking to turn the situation
not to advantage
but win-win.

“We’ll lock the door,”
she says
returning with the tea.

Time with her is a definite win.
This is a woman for whom
talking about herself
is a guilty pleasure.

Born in Oxford,
at the age of twelve
the family return to Ireland
and the family farm –
three summers spent
in Galway’s boggy beauty
where hard graft permeates
soil and soul.

“Eaten alive” by midges in the bog,
she lifts the peat, piles it to dry,
stacks hay, milks the cow.
“The hardest thing!” she declares
tugging on the stubborn udder
in the hospital corridor.

She comes to healthcare
through her mother,
an Auxiliary in St John’s Ambulance,
at eighteen begins at Charing Cross.
She’s worked in Cancer Services
for thirty-three years now.

The badge says Unit Manager
but Senior Sister she agrees
has a truer ring to it –
“rolls off the tongue.”

is “a physically and mentally demanding place to work,”
she says.
“We are the last pit stop. We end up picking up the pieces here.”

To her this is predictable.
The unpredictable however
also happens.
When I came to introduce myself
there was a sudden power outage.
All hands on deck. The ship held fast.

She’s full of praise for her hardworking crew –
“It’s bang on from 9 am till the last patient leaves.”
Warns novices
“You have to want to be here. It’s not for the fainthearted.”
Then, with a smile inviting as a peat fire, adds
“You’ll always remember your chemotherapy buddies.”

Seeing her team
“develop and grow on their journey as cancer nurses”
is a gift that needs to be nurtured.
“It’s important to keep their spirits up, inject positivity.”
She thanks them daily, includes the admin staff.

The practice of gratitude
goes beyond hospital walls.
She’s moved to thank all those
whose contribution is often ignored –
like street sweepers.
“That little thank you makes all the difference,”
she reflects,
then, laughing, confesses to being
a fully paid up member of the litter squad.

One thing she regrets
is not having time to talk to patients.
“The demands outweigh the resources.”

But for the pre-treatment consultancy
she’s there.
“Whoever we look after here,
I don’t launch into this and this,
I ask their name, say tell me about yourself,
build up that rapport.”

The bright gaze is still,
Nobody wants to be there.

At home in Middlesex,
she has a rescue dog, three cats,
and a bedroom with over a hundred trophies.
The trophies belong to her daughter,
an Irish dancer who leapt and tapped her way to the top
from the age of four.

Mother and daughter
“shared Premier Inn rooms round the world.”
In 2014 she danced Figure, Cèilidh and Solo
in the World Irish Dancing Championship in London.
Her brother it seems had no desire to step into
Michael Flatley’s shoes.

The days of rushing from ward to feis
she recalls with an energy
that powers her still.
She loves cinema, theatre,
and in her middle years
has discovered “the cruising life.”
The islands of the Caribbean, fjords of Norway,
are just for starters.

Son and daughter have their own lives now,
but maternal duties are not done.
A host of “adopted daughters”
are in her care –
witness the lively huddle in
East 6.

They are drawn to her
because she understands –
cats, dogs, hair, hormones
and hard work,
patients, nurses, families
and fellow travellers –
she is a woman of heart.

At the Bottom of the Pyramid

Read by Lin Sagovsky
Return to Poem

This is the first ‘written portrait’ and it is a group portrait – Molly, Sanela and Jess were Di’s first ‘sitters’. They were meant to be four but Lottie was not available. A thumbnail sketch of the absent Lottie leads the three women to talk about themselves (see The Three Musketeers). By calling them ‘journeywomen’, reference is made to the historical meaning – a skilled worker who has completed their apprenticeship – and their part in accompanying others, which, in turn, becomes part of their own journey. The three women inhabit their professional roles and bring them to life as they ‘go beyond’ their job description to be with patients in difficult circumstances. For example, treatment of prostate cancer can cause incontinence as well as impotence (see An Occasional Inconvenience, No Joke).

Joan Hunter Dunn alludes to the heroine of John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song.

On the walls of the workspace
four images:
a white bird sits atop a hippo
sharks patrol the deep
a chameleon waits
a female walrus.

Three – a legacy of Lottie’s crew –
speak of teamwork
the need to adapt.
The walrus is Molly’s choice.
“She spends 30 percent of her time with her girlie friends,”
she explains.
Intrusive males beware.

A quartet minus one,
the women indicate the desk
where absent Lottie sits
threatening veganism.
She started when the team was in its infancy,
has a Masters in Science Communication,
sporty, a climber.

The absent one brings movement to the room,
prompts the three to stories
of travel, relocation, escape.

“I’m from a nomadic family,”
says Molly,
discretely barefoot in the office.
“My biggest challenge is itchy feet.”

In sea-nymph green she speaks
with eye and hand,
the open gaze fresh and bright
as the Dorset air she misses,
framed by intelligent specs.

The family roots twist and knot
in a land of forests and bears
she does not know.
Wanderlust is in her DNA –
she’s sailed the Galapagos,
backpacked the East Coast of Africa,
blissed out in Sri Lanka.
Kilimanjaro calls,
the unknown Canada of her ancestors,
a house in wild Scotland.
London was not the plan.

“I was always the gypsy of the family,”
says Sanela.
She leaves Croatia,
lands in London,
thinks oh my god
and twenty years are past.

Her youthful looks are not to be trusted.
“She gets nice facials,” says Molly, incredulous.

Sanela laughs,
but beneath the radiant surface
the trauma of War,
the injustice, the missed opportunities.
Home is bitter-sweet.

Business-like, she critiques
her responses,
analyses the inner demons.
“I probably ran off from all that.
I made that step. It was friggin’ tough.”

Like Athena from the head of
war-like Zeus
resilience has sprung.
But it’s a “life-long project.”

A shot of sunlight hits her profile,
shows a forest sprite
or Kodak blonde.
“I miss the food!”
she exclaims, brightening.

“I just miss the sun!”
says Jess,
half a world away.

In the Philippines
where everyone knows how to swim
and all the books are in English,
Jess gets her education.
But she’s the youngest of four
in a Chinese family
where the boy is the star.

And so
by the age of sixteen
she’s gone,
leaving the brother to his cleaning company,
the sisters to work for Dad,
to Bristol Uni, London,
and “the healthiest office ever”
where no one’s eating crisps
all the chocolate’s dark
and there’s even a juicer.
Oh my god she thinks.

But the athletic cut of her pants,
the black ballerina pumps,
talk fitness.
Straight as a larch,
she’s a Taiwanese Joan Hunter-Dunn
swishing the shuttlecock with aplomb
in Middlesex.

In vain she attempts to play down her skill.
“I just speak Mandarin, Filipino and English.”
The room explodes.

In Taiwan
she studies life after cervical cancer,
confronts the myths
of her mother’s generation –
If you have surgery sex means death.
But no surgery more often than not
means a cheating husband.
“The Chinese community is not very open.
The younger generation’s got Google.”

London taught her loneliness.
She’s married now,
but seeing her older patients suffer
wants to engage.

“People like us play a big social role,”
says Sanela.
She treasures the time spent with older men
living with prostate cancer
and the shame of asking for pads.
Embracing their gaucheness
was a privilege, she says.

who’s worked in breast cancer
more than the others,
echoes their mind.
“I have a good amount of time to connect,”
she says
not looking at her watch.

“At the bottom of the pyramid”
four journey-women
bridge the gap between clinic and lab
with learning and heart.
In the office adjacent is Kelly,
more sister than boss.
“A five person team!”
they chorus.