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Short story: To Venus and back on the number 8

Rowena Macdonald is an author who lives in Bow. Her first novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe, was published in 2017. The following is a piece Macdonald wrote for Bus Fare, a book of collected writings about London buses.

Back in the mid-nineties when I was at Sussex University, which was full of Metropolitan kids who spoke in Mockney accents, my friend Liz and I – both provincialites, from Southampton and Wolverhampton respectively – privately sniggered about the fact our London friends bonded over bus routes in the capital – ‘Oh, the 38, yeah, know it well, mate,’ – ‘The 134 to North Finchley – yeah, used to go on that bus every single day, get on at Archway up to Muswell Hill’. It was yet another example of Londoners’ boastfulness and smug assumption that the world inside the M25 was intrinsically more fascinating than the world beyond.

Fast forward to the early noughties. I had moved to London and now realised that London bestowed a glamour on mundanities such as bus routes. Only locals knew bus routes, not tourists, so it was insider knowledge. At that point, I was lodging in the basement of a single mother’s flat in Camden and so poor I couldn’t afford the tube. I got to know the number 24 very well and it was more exciting than the 501 from Wolves town centre. I caught it from Mornington Crescent Station, opposite the old Black Cat cigarette factory, and it trundled down Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, around Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall and past the House of Commons, where I got off for work. A thoroughly iconic journey from start to stop, freighted with the weight of history and world famous places on postcards.

Fast forward another six years and I had moved to the East End. It took too long to commute to Westminster via bus and I could now afford the tube. For a long time I rarely got buses.

In January 2017 I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I am now in remission but almost exactly two years ago, I started treatment. It began with six weeks of radiotherapy at Barts Hospital every weekday. I went on sick leave. Cancer became my new job. Every morning for those first six weeks I put on a carefully composed outfit and full make up and waited at the bus stop on Roman Road for the number 8 bus to take me to through the City to St Paul’s, where I would alight and descend to the basement of the hospital to the radiotherapy unit. The unit was like a semi boutique hotel. A reception desk with flowers and charming lipsticked women. A lounge with magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and artwork by Turner Prize nominees. Low lighting from lamps on coffee tables. Comfortable sofas. Amazingly, it was NHS. I felt lucky to be having treatment at what was clearly a flagship radiotherapy unit. I also felt lucky that Barts was in an upliftingly posh and historical area – near the site of Bartholomew Fair of Ben Jonson fame, opposite Smithfield Market, surrounded by all the ancient guilds and churches of the City. I even passed the Bank of England on my way there. I was not being treated in any old hospital, I was being treated in the oldest hospital in Britain still on its original site. It had been there since 1123, since the reign of Henry I. A hospital with an ancient London pedigree, although the consultant told me they had the newest and best radiotherapy machine in the country. The machines were in rooms assigned with planet names: ‘You’re going to Venus today, Miss Macdonald.’ I went most often to Venus.

During one appointment, I asked the consultant if Venus definitely had the best machine, as I wanted to make sure that I was absolutely on the best machine. He burst out laughing: ‘All the rooms have the same machines.’

‘OK, but it’s just you said before you had ‘the best machine’ in the country – ‘machine’ singular.’

‘No, they’re all the same.’

‘You definitely haven’t palmed me off with a lesser machine?’

‘No, you are definitely on one of the best machines. Did you think you’d been given one with only half a battery or something?’

During my first appointment with him, my consultant told me I would be cured. The terror of death lifted immediately and although the year of treatment ahead was a harrowing prospect, I was able to view it as an unpleasant job with a time limit. I dressed up each day for this job because I refused to be a shuffling invalid clad in comfortable but unflattering invalid garments. I admired the woman I met in the radiotherapy unit who wore a different, stylish outfit each day. She had throat cancer. ‘I used to be a TV director,’ she said, ‘and now look where I am. This isn’t me, you know.’ I knew. We had entered the parallel world of the seriously ill. I’d entered it far earlier than was fair. She’d entered at a more appropriate age but she still didn’t want illness to overwhelm her identity.

The best healthcare practitioners see beyond your illness to the real person. The consultant was one of these. He asked about my forthcoming novel, my real job and my daughter. I was so grateful for his kindness and expertise that I considered asking him to my launch, until a physio friend explained it would be against his professional ethics to socialise with patients.

It also seemed important to maintain high standards of grooming because the number 8 passed through the City, past ultra-soignée women marching along Cheapside with garish health drinks and auras of success. London has always kept me on my mettle when it comes to clothes and it wasn’t going to stop now I was ill. The women’s magazines were right: you had to put on your war paint before you went to battle. It was a form of control when life was unsteady. Luckily, bowel cancer chemo does not cause hair loss, so I didn’t look like a cancer victim. Actually, I did not look ill at all. Friends exclaimed how well I looked, clearly expecting me to be like a memento mori. Strangers were never going to give up their seats on the number 8 for me. Often I did feel ill though. Nauseous and weak. Particularly on the way home. Radiotherapy, coupled with chemo pills, was exhausting. I had to sleep for several hours every afternoon. The effort of the half-hour bus journey was sometimes like walking up a steep hill in horizontal rain. I couldn’t afford taxis though and with my depleted immune system I didn’t want to go on the tube. The bus – probably spuriously – seemed cleaner because it was above ground with a throughflow of air. Plus it took me practically door to door. Also, now I had nothing else to do but be ill, I had time to enjoy the journey. Roman Road into Bethnal Green Road, E Pellici, established 1900, the market stalls selling vegetables and clothes, barrows, actual barrow boys, the Bangladeshi grocery where I’d been given a cute red plastic basket, which had once held lychees and now held my daughter’s toy tea-set, Shoreditch, hipster zone, the TEA building, once an actual tea warehouse, now a bar/café/creative whatever, Boxpark, shipping container shops selling £5 doughnuts and £500 trainers – were we in the end of days? – kids hoping to be stopped by style bloggers, the homeless sleeping under the railway bridge as the bus turned into Norton Folgate, masters of the universe on the sharp corner of the RBS HQ smoking and vaping, the office block with the enormous tank of tropical fish behind the reception desk. Who had the job of feeding the fish and cleaning the tank? Did the firm employ a dedicated fish wrangler or was there such a job as a freelance fish wrangler especially for offices with enormous fish tanks? We really were in the end of days, although I would take Leah there to look at the fish as it would be cheaper than the London Aquarium and she would appreciate the fish more than the office bods.

If there were no seats left on the number 8 I asked healthy-looking people to give up theirs. I took a perverse pleasure in explaining why. ‘I’ve got bowel cancer and I’m going through chemotherapy.’ The pleasure came from shocking people out of their complacent wellness. Death is in your midst. Despite my apparent health and relative youth, I am diseased. Cancer is happening right here on the number 8 bus. In the midst of mundanity – even mundanity glossed with London glamour – is suffering.

In reality, the real suffering came later. Those six weeks travelling back and forth to Barts in the spring sunshine came to seem like halcyon days compared to the later real horror of intravenous chemotherapy and major bowel surgery in the less rarefied surroundings of the Royal London in Whitechapel but, at the time, I was cocky, I was doing cancer really well, turning up to my new job on time every day with a positive attitude. I was brave. Everyone kept telling me so, which was an ego boost. And I hadn’t succumbed to wearing tracksuit bottoms.

‘For many people cancer will be the hardest battle of their life,’ warned the Macmillan leaflets in the radiotherapy unit. At the time I thought, pah! many people are clearly wimps – if this is my life’s hardest battle, bring it on.

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Frederick O'Brien

Fred is a writer and researcher with a background in sustainable development. His research has featured in The Independent, the Evening Standard, and the New York Post, among others.

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