Saturday, 27 September 2014

Travelogue of a cancer journey


The last day of school. The mums stand around in knots, discussing camping, the weather, the holidays, the new ‘no-extra-holiday’ policy. I am with a few who are discussing the Big Forty. Yes, quite a few of us this year are turning forty. Which means we need to do something special. One suggests jumping out of a plane. Sky diving. The Dartmoor Challenge. Something big and daring. Something to remember for the rest of our lives.
I stand there, not really wanting to participate. I’m not sporty enough or daring enough to jump out of a plane. I’m planning a quiet birthday. No party. Probably just a meal out with friends. I have no idea that I too will do something very big, very very big for my fortieth.

The Unhappy Breast

It’s been a while that I’ve noticed something different about my left breast. The first time was when I finished breastfeeding my firstborn in 2007, my breast shrivelled up. I used to joke about it, how it puckered like a prune while the other one looked so cheerful. Breastfeeding changes the body, I was told. Slowly, she came around and stopped looking so sad. She geared up for the second round of breastfeeding. I found it odd that both of my babies never really took to the left side, always preferring the right one, leaving the left angry and envious once again. But this time she didn’t sulk in a corner. She decided to internalise, and soon there began changes within that weren’t apparent to plain sight.
Fast forward to 2014, and I am busy, so busy I don’t notice anything unusual. There’s the children to look after, the debut novel to polish and finish for publication, summer school teaching Chinese undergrads at Plymouth University and usual arguments with husband. But in the midst of all this, I notice my left breast has gone into a sulk again. Not a sulk, she’s quite upset. The nipple appears darker, sunken and puckered. There are no lumps. No matter how I poke and prod, I don’t feel anything. And yet, I feel her unease. I feel her anger.
So one morning, on my way to work, I call up the GP surgery. Of course I know I won’t get through. They are always so busy, and my class begins at nine. I give up and go to class. We are doing a project. We are discussing Scotland and cutting up cardboard boxes to build the Edinburgh Castle.
We eat lunch at the cafeteria. Chicken curry and rice. Naan and salad. Brownie. Very nice. I have to gobble my food so I can get my bus back home.

My bus is late. As I wait around, there is an urge from inside. Something inside is telling me to call the surgery again. I resist. I feel fine. The curry has made me feel warm and satisfied. The bus isn’t here still. So I make the call. I mention a lump so that I am seen to quickly.
Within a couple of hours, I am at the surgery. There’s a new GP and she examines me. She says she can’t feel any lump. There’s nothing untoward, but yes, I am right in saying this breast looks a bit different. It’s completely normal to have this differences. Breasts change with age. With motherhood. But she still refers me to the hospital. Just to make sure. Just to cross out any probabilities. Armed with the referral, I return home.
Abnormalities of the breast are looked into very quickly by the NHS. On my way home that very afternoon, I am offered an appointment at the hospital ten days later. It’s on a Friday morning. Damn, I think. I’m going to have to miss class. I’m also going to have to miss the full English breakfast provided on Fridays for the teachers and students of the summer school.
My husband will be away on an important conference the week of the scan. I don’t tell him what’s happening. My mother is here for the summer. I don’t tell her either.

Independence Day

The 15th of August. Such an irony that on India’s 67th Independence Day I am told such news that will take away my own independence for a while. Or for life. I’m not sure yet.
I make my way to the hospital on Friday morning. It’s a beautiful summer’s morning. The sun is shining. The sky is clear, and people are happy and smiling on the bus. I feel that’s a bit odd as it’s the bus that goes to Asda and to the hospital. Soon I am there. I dodge past the smokers who stand ceremoniously by the ‘This is a smoke free site’ and enter into the bowels of Derriford Hospital. I am no stranger here. I’ve given birth to my second child here. I've been to the fracture clinic. And visited the ENT with my firstborn. I admire the knitted patchwork quilt that has forever adorned the charity shop on the way to the lifts. The cafe smells good and reminds me again of the full English I have missed.
I have to go to the Primrose Breast Care Unit. I like that name. It sounds delicate. It also sounds sturdy, a place for survival. I know this from the abundance of primroses that grow through the cracks of paving at the front of my house. They survive in spite of my vicious attacks on them. It feels good to know this.
But still, I don’t feel anxiety. This is a routine test. I will come out feeling relieved. I will go on with the rest of my life. I even contemplate lunch with the students if I finish the examination early. The room is very busy this morning. Women of all ages sit around the comfy orange and green chairs. There are lots of magazines strewn across the various tables. Mostly women’s. I wonder how a man will feel if he has to come in for a check up. There is a man who’s come in. He looks worried, and he doesn’t have a magazine to disappear into. There is a lot of chatter, coming in and going out. Names being called. Some take longer to come out. Some come out looking like they’ve let out a deep, long breath and now rushing to catch up with their morning. Some come out in tears.
I wait. I want this over and done with. I flick through Good Housekeeping and remind myself to get lots of colourful cushions for the settee. They make a house a home, I’m told. My name is called. I always know when my name will be called because the person always comes out with a file, looks at it and hesitates. They probably say it once in their mind, by which time I know it’s me. By the time they stammer out a ‘Mrs B-Bh-’ I’m up and walking towards them. I feel sorry to give them such a hard time. My name is not easy to say even after a few drinks.
I’m seen by a breast surgeon. He examines me quickly and deftly. He marks a few circles near the nipple and says I need to go back and wait for the mammogram and ultrasound scan. I ask the nurse if there’s a long waiting period. She says yes, perhaps a couple of hours wait. While I settle back in my orange chair, the only man comes back out. He smiles at his partner and says its all clear. I feel happy for him.
Within twenty minutes I’ve had a mammogram and am ushered in for a scan. The ultrasound technician makes me comfortable and smothers cold gel on my chest. She peers into the screen and says there are no lumps. I exhale. But wait, can you see the little speckles all over the breast tissue? I look. Yes, there are tiny spots all over. It’s called calcification. It’s an indication of cancer or pre-cancerous tissues. She does a biopsy. Suddenly, everything’s changed. The C word has entered the vocabulary. I’m not enjoying this conversation anymore.
What do I tell at home? I ask. What should I tell my husband? He’s away and I don’t want to freak him out. Tell him the truth, the technician tells me. It’s serious enough. But yet, we are not sure until the results. She leaves the room, and the nurse attending cleans me up. A little white lie won’t help, she smiles. There’s no need to tell him everything now. He can’t do anything about it. I feel better. Yes, it won’t help anyway.
I wander back to the cheerful waiting room and hide inside a magazine. My eyes roll back into the head for a split second and I find myself trembling uncontrollably. This is unreal. This isn’t really happening to me. But it is. I square my shoulders and walk out the door. I don’t need to panic yet. The results are not out. It could just be pre-cancerous and that can be taken care of. I make my way to the exit. I meet the mammogram technician on the way out. She’s finished her shift probably. She walks beside me, and I can see she wants to hold my arm. Or pat my back. But she doesn’t. She tells me instead to sit down and have a cup of tea in the cafe. It’ll do me good. I nod and say goodbye to her. But I don’t stop for a drink. I just want to go home to my children.

Too much chocolate is a good thing

The days pass in a whirl. The university course is keeping me grounded, occupied. I don’t think much about my condition. I haven’t even cried since the time at the hospital when the nurse asked me how old my children are. When I said three and seven, she replied ‘oh, then we must take care of you and make you better.’ That’s when I cried, briefly.
We had planned a holiday with the family once my husband was back from India. Bristol Zoo. The London museums. Cadbury World. Battersea Home for Dogs. And then I get a call that the surgeon would like to meet us on the 27th with the results of the biopsy. So we need to cancel one of the places and go home a day earlier. Battersea is the unlucky one.
It’s a good holiday. I love London We do the Natural History Museum. Science Museum and a bit of the V&A. Not one to pose for pictures, I find myself taking a lot of photos with the girls, selfies even. I think I’m trying to keep images for the girls to look at later. Maybe I’m preserving pictures of myself when I am whole. I may not be very soon.
At the science museum, Miku drags me to the exhibit of the human baby and says in her usual loud voice, ‘mummy, that’s me in your tummy. When I was being born, I was peeping through your belly button and saw Baba. Then I popped out and flew straight out to him.’ Everyone smiles. I tell her to talk softly. They are fascinated by the container full of human blood. The dinosaurs are a bit of an anti-climax. The children don’t care about the bones. They like the ‘real’ one roaring and stomping at the end of the room.
London is great because there is such a huge choice of Indian food. After the educational and cultural hunger is satisfied at the museums, we rush to Southall to satiate the needs of the stomach. Dosas. Idlis. Indian Thali. If one has not eaten these delights, I urge you to do it immediately. I might even cook for you in exchange for lifts to the hospital!
Cadbury World is a chocolate lover’s delight. We gorge on so much chocolate that for that day we are oblivious of everything else in this world. We have to return to the hospital tomorrow. I suck on the spoon full of warm, melted chocolate. Life is so good today.

Mummy’s Lump

So we meet the surgeon on the 27th. She’s got the results and I’m afraid it isn’t so good. The tumour is definitely cancerous and because of the large size, a mastectomy is the way forward. Lots of technical terms fly about. I cannot make sense of anything. Grade 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. That’s what I have. Somehow I feel better it has a name. I wonder how I never got a feel of its present beneath my skin? Sitting there quietly all this time. What did it have in mind?
There is a date free on the 4th of September. I am offered it for the surgery. We say yes immediately. Just three days before my 40th birthday. At first, I am devastated. But then I think, what a lovely birthday present. A cancer free body for my 40th.  I think I am good at psyching myself, and I feel proud of myself.
There’s lots of phone calls and discussion at home. My 7-year-old can feel something is going on. We haven’t told the children anything yet. What do we tell them? I cry at the thought of breaking the news to them.
Ro is tearful and being difficult. I know it is playing on her mind. So my hubby gets the book Mummy’s Lump and we sit down to tell the children a story. It’s a family story telling session, with my children, my mother, my husband and me sitting together, eagerly listening to the story as I read it out.
The story is about a lump that grows in Mummy’s breast, and she needs to have it taken out. I tell them one of my breasts will be removed in a surgery in a few days time. Little one asks, you mean, they’ll cut it off and it can run away on its own?
Yes, it will be removed but it cannot run off.
Then who will take your tete? She asks, cuddling up to me. She squeezes is reassuringly.
Older one says, The tete man.
That’s a good idea. The tete man will take it away, and keep it safe.
Then there’s the one about chemotherapy and losing the hair. Ro is reassured because she knows about this.
So you will wear a scarf like X, and then when you are better, you will come back to school like her?
Yes, I say.
That’s alright then. Will you wear a wig?
Yes, I might.
What colour?
What colour would you suggest?
Blonde?
Red?
Orange?
Mummy, I want you to wear a different colour on every day of the week. Rainbow colours. (By now you should know who’s suggestion this is!)
By now, we are all laughing and imagining me in funny wigs.
But that night, as I tuck them into bed, Ro has a question she wants to ask, but can’t.
Mummy, are you going to -? Are you going to-?
I look into her eyes. No, sweetheart. I’m not going to die. I’m going to be alright, just like your friend. And I’ll come back to school.
I see the relief wash through her body. She closes her eyes and goes to sleep.

Come September

I have a pre-op assessment. The nurse says I am very healthy, and I find that such an oxymoron. I pass the tests with flying colours, and on the 4th of September, I am scrubbed and ready for my operation. We get to the hospital at 7am. The assistant surgeon meets me for a chat and reassures me my lymph nodes are fine, they’ll take only a couple out to test. He draws an arrow indicating which one to operate on and then we wait.
Finally I am called up. For my Indian folks, NHS is very different from Indian medical system. This is like a conveyer belt. Everyone is in a queue and we keep rolling from one procedure to the next. I am second on the list for surgery that day, which is good as by 9 am I am in, ready for general anaesthesia.
The anaesthetist asks me all sorts of questions, which he says is normal for them and weird for me. Like, what is my name? Are you sure I am the same person as my name? He asks the other nurses is she sure she is the same as on this form? I am made to point to my correct breast, they check the arrow. They ask me to sign I am not pregnant and again, indeed I am the person who needs to have the mastectomy of the left breast. Yes, yes yes. I am given a prick of the needle and then, I sleep.
When I wake up, I am aware I am probably missing a part of my body. There’s an oxygen mask on my face and a nurse by my side. I want to see my husband, who I know is pacing up and down some corridor somewhere and tell him I’m back. Soon, I am whizzing through corridors myself towards the recovery ward. It feels like a Formula One race, manoeuvring through tricky bends and all, and I feel quite motion sick.
I’m in a ward with three other women, and I am groggy, and want to sleep. But I cannot. I feel if I fall asleep I won’t be aware of what’s happening to me, I’ll pull off the drain, or some such thing. So I fall in and out of sleep. I’ve made a whatsapp group for my family and friends. I text them that although a bit asymmetrical now, I am fine.
I stay in the ward one night. And what happens there deserves a novel not a mere few lines mention on this blog. Two women on opposite beds discover they were opposite each other two years ago when they had their babies. They talk non stop throughout the day, trying to up each other on everything. They start with their medical problem, then their babies, then their partners and finally at midnight, when I am contemplating telling them to shut up, one of them says: I have a ghost in my house who sits on me some nights. My daughter can see him and it freaks her out.
The second one says: oh, that’s nothing. I have a poltergeist in my previous house. It flings my boyfriend’s training weights around the room and we have to dodge them. We’ve sold that house and moved to another one.
I lie back and listen. This is better than paying for TV.
Another funny coincidence. Most nurses on the ward could pronounce my name correctly. Bhattacharya is not easy to say. But did so proudly and I thanked them for the accuracy. They asked if I am related to Dr Bhattacharya at the hospital. I’m not, I say.
Much later, I get to know Dr Bhattacharya, and I jokingly thank her for making my life easier at the hospital. She says that one colleague of hers had got confused that she had been admitted to the ward and asked her how she was doing?
She realised there is another Bhattacharya around (we are a rare breed in Plymouth) and she wanted to come up and meet me. But I had already been discharged.

Bhattacharya has left the building.

Next ... As my mother thinks of each procedure as a stage, this is the end of stage one: The Surgery, Stage two is what happens after surgery and before the chemo. With a fortieth birthday thrown in for entertainment!



Sunday, 22 June 2014

Readings and Festivals in the June sunshine

Picture courtesy: Kalpana Bhattacharya, my mum-in-law :-)

Glorious June! Sunshine, and more of it. When I was invited to read at the Tagore Festival, under the trees, I stayed glued to the weather reports every chance I could. Would it? Wouldn't it? It was like hoping to win the lottery.

Which I did!

The sun came and smiled, and baked us nice and brown. And so my two readings went off well, not an umbrella in sight. Only sunshine and smiles!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

I was introduced to the Writing Process Blog Tour by my editor, Susie Wild, who has shared her process on her blog:
http://susiewild.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/writing-process-blog-tour.html . This is a great way to connect with writers and read about their writing process and other stuff, and then you can sigh and think, "Great, I’m not the only one who’s weird, or pressed for time", or even, "Hey, I’m just as fantastic as everyone else!"

Thank you Susie, for inviting me on the tour. Here are my 4 questions:

What am I working on?

It took me seven years to complete my first novel, The Normal State of Mind. I hated this question for seven years, but now it is my favourite one! I am working on the edits and finer points of the novel, for it will be published sometime later this year! 
Polishing my reading skills in India
I was in India recently, did a book reading in Mumbai, where I read my short story from the anthology, Rarebit – New Welsh Writing. In a way, I was preparing myself for the book launch of my novel, The Normal State of Mind. It’s good to work on reading aloud, facing the audience, calming the nerves and having witty and clever answers ready to go. It all takes a lot of practise and I am working on that!
I have just had an essay, my first foray in writing non-fiction, accepted by Riptide Journal. I’m looking forward to the edits and preparing the piece for final publication.
At the same time, I write short stories obsessively. I’m just polishing off a couple to be sent off to competitions.  Once all of this is done, I’ll work on trying to impress an agent. Who knows, it may take another seven years!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

What is my genre? I’m not really sure. A lot of my writing is inspired by my own experiences: travelling, immigration, the whole Diaspora thing. I like writing about women’s issues and society. Instead of focussing on the negatives women face, I like my female characters to have some fun. I like them to be spunky, outspoken and not downtrodden, sacrificial souls.

Why do I write what I do?

There’s no answer to this one. It’s like asking, why do you eat fish curry and rice with your fingers? Is there any other way to eat it? I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pencil in my hand. I wrote ‘poetry’ in serious green ink when I was six or seven. I wrote journals and diaries detailing every moment
Barbie Girl doodles
of my angst-ridden- forever- heartbroken teens. I wrote reams of letters to my boyfriend at sea. And then I wrote reams of letters to everyone in my address book when I married and set sail with him. I am an obsessive writer and an obsessive doodler of Barbie doll type girls. They adorn my journals and pages, these women with unrealistic eyelashes and legs. I write about women. I write about life. I write about food and sex. I write about love, and country. And separation. And reunions. I write about me, disguised in the forms of my characters. Their dreams. My dreams. Their beliefs. My beliefs. They all merge into one idea. I just write to express myself. Is there any other way to do it?
How did I choose the theme for my novel, The Normal State of Mind? I had an image in my mind. Two women wading through the Mumbai floods, trying to make it to safety. I knew I had to write about them. But who were they? I knew one of them was a widow, because she was crying as she passed by her husband’s workplace. And the other? I wanted to write about someone I didn’t know much about. Someone I wanted to know well. I got friendly with a lovely girl, who’s a lesbian, when I lived in Cardiff. She was struggling with the title of ‘lesbian’. She said she was a normal person. And that stuck in my head. I wanted to write about her. And the struggles she had to face. Then I thought about homosexuality in India. How did people go through life dealing with their identities in such a conservative society? I wanted to find out more, discover more about life. The diversity of life. And the definition of normal. Who defines normal? And who is normal? Certainly not me. I want to be special, and write about special things.

How does my writing process work?

My writing process has had two distinct periods: Pre-parenthood and post. The pre period was very unproductive, and basically I was a lazy writer. Great ideas, lofty ambitions, and an abundance of time. Result: Nothing. Post-parenthood: Sleepless nights. Baby blues. Feeding. Working part time. No time to spare. Therefore an urgency to write whenever I could spare some time for it. Result: Something. Writing was ‘me time’ as I couldn’t go out and do other stuff. And I was desperate for the ‘me time’. It kept me sane. And so I wrote. And wrote and wrote. Also, the times spent nursing, rocking baby to sleep, washing bottles, changing nappies, all helped with physical labour, freeing up my mind to think up all sorts! Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t neglect my kids! But motherhood really helped me focus and be constructive and good with time management, all that I was rubbish with before.
I now have two young girls, and finding the time to write gets trickier by the day. I write sporadically, as and when I get free time. That’s usually at night when the girls are in bed. But I’ve worked out a way that I can start on an idea of a story in my mind, and work on it mentally for days before I get the opportunity to actually write it down. I have to say though, Cbeebies is a good babysitter for an hour or so and sometimes, I can write in the mornings. When I have to work on edits etc I wait for when both girls are in school/pre-school and I ignore the housework and get down to it. It is a constant battle with finding time to write and do the housework etc. My house is not the tidiest. If you do wish to call on me, please do give advance notice, I’ll push the toys behind the settee and stuff the un-ironed clothes into the wardrobe.  

But jokes apart, I read a lot, listen to the radio, the news especially and the World Service. Ideas evolve from the day-to-day happenings. I don’t drive and use to my advantage, eavesdropping on buses.  Supermarkets, airports, markets, schools: there’s a story everywhere. I listen and watch and day-dream and imagine, and roll them all up and give them a spin in my brain, let them stew/fester/boil/steam for a while, and out comes a result. A story.

It is my privilege to introduce Romy Wood, who will be on the tour next week. 

Romy Wood: Romy is a recovering secondary school teacher. She has an MA in The Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing from Cardiff University and lectures in Creative Writing for the Open University. She writes novels because they are easier to write than short stories and poems. She drinks too much Coca-cola, likes to win at Scrabble and walks the tightrope that is Bipolar Disorder.Word on the Street is her second novel.  http://romywood.co.uk/






Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The year that was 2013

2013 was a tumultuous year for me. Lots of ups and downs and hopefully, I have managed to swim against the current to reach the shores of 2014, my body and soul intact. (Please note, I can't swim in reality, and that is a resolution to rectify in the new year!)

I’d like to concentrate on my writing year, which has been very fruitful and given me reason to believe in myself as a writer. I had the brilliant news in March that finally my novel, Crossing Borders, was accepted by Parthian books for publication next year. After struggling for years to find an agent or publisher, it was funny how the book was noticed by an editor through Facebook!

I had had a short story, Growing Tomatoes, published in Planet-The Welsh Internationalist in 2012. Someone read it and commented on Facebook. It was brought to the attention of the editor of Parthian Books, Susie Wild, who approached me. It was like winning the lottery! But it goes to show that editors do look around, and word does get around, and the more you write, the more you will be read. So thank you, Susie, for envisioning a future for my book.


I had short stories published in Litro, Thick Jam, Running Out of Ink, Tears in the Fence, The Lakeview International Journal and Penguin Unplugged. Thank you all. I was duly rejected by Mslexia, once again. Sixth year running. Thank you Mslexia, I shall not give up!

I had a very interesting experience of recording my own story, 'Growing Tomatoes’, for SouthWest’s Literature Development Organisation, LiteratureWorks. The voice in the recording does not sound like me at all! Another very different project was the wonderful Stories with Pictures, where Cassandra Parkin wrote a story, The Wrong Kind of Boy, for my image, and then I wrote a story, A study of a boy with an aeroplane, for a painting by Andy Winter.


But the highlights of the year have got to be the absolute highs I got for contributing to three anthologies, all launched in December.


The first anthology, Foreign and Far Away, an anthology by Writers’ Abroad, a community of expat writers, dedicated all proceeds towards Book Aid International , which supports education, literacy and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Total money raised so far: £525.00.


Stories for Homes was another great anthology I am proud to be a part of. All proceeds from this goes to Shelter, a charity for the homeless. The editors Debi Alper and Sally Swingewood did an incredible job producing the book and marketing it. I wasn’t able to attend the launch, but I could see from the blog and the pictures, it was a huge success. The contributors to the anthology also helped out with the promotions and sales with radio interviews, news stories, blog blasts, and the sales went up to an incredible £1,500 at the launch.


Photo courtesy: http://owainpaciuszko.com/2013/12/18/stories-for-homes-paperback-launched/

And lastly, Rarebit-New Welsh Writing was launched on 21st December, National Short Story Day. I went along to Cardiff to be a part of the literary tour. It was an incredible experience, joining fellow writers on a literary walk around my favourite city, warming up against the chill with mulled wind and Christmas cheer. Rarebit is Waterstones’ book of the month for January 2014.


Photo Courtesy: Daniel Tyte http://dantyte.com/category/happenings/


With a few more short stories in the pipeline for next year and the excitement of working towards the birth of Crossing Borders, 2014 already seems ripe with promise and a lot of fun along the way.


Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Book Blast: Stories for Homes

pic courtesy: Third Force News
I've been reading books on Homelessness of late, and am proud to be a contributer to the anthology: Stories for Homes for raising awareness and donations for the Shelter Charity.

Where I come from, in India, homelessness is apparent everywhere one casts an eye. On the street where I lived, generations grew up under a railway bridge. They ate, slept, lived and reproduced in that very space for years and years.

When I moved to the UK, I was shocked to see homeless people in this land of plenty. Wasn't this the country where the government helped out with benefits, so that no one ever went hungry? But obviously I was a naive newcomer and I am now a bit more knowledgeable!

Available on Amazon.co.uk
Yes, 80,000 children will be homeless in the UK this Christmas. And that is just the tip of the ice-berg. Homelessness is not just about not having a roof over one's head. There are related issues that come out of this tragedy: abuse, neglect, violence, hunger, vulnerability and death.

The charity, Shelter, works with the homeless and the community to rescue, spread awareness and educate people about this sad truth in society.

Stories for Homes, an anthology of short stories and poems by 63 writers and poets, was put together by Debi Alper and Sally Swingewood  as a small contribution towards helping out the situation with homelessness.

Artwork by David Vallade
To buy a copy would mean all the royalties would go straight to the Shelter charity.

The book launch will be at the Bookseller- Crow on the Hill on the 13th of December. Do buy the book, spread the word on social media, and remember, this is not just for Christmas. it would make a world of difference to somebody at a very low point in their life.


Monday, 9 December 2013

Review of Word on the Street: a novel by Romy Wood

WORD ON THE STREET, a darkly comic reflection on homelessness, life writing and dermatology.

I love a good, darkly comic book, so when I got Word on the Street by Romy Wood, I knew I was in good hands. It is a difficult subject to read, the premise is grim. It makes one feel guilty for ignoring the homeless
man shuffling on the street, pulling his mangy dog behind him. But the way Wood handles the theme; it makes the reader warm up to the strange mix of characters, their madness and their scheming ways. It makes the reader want to take Shona, the main character, by her shoulders and shake her hard.

Shona Davies works for a homeless shelter. She is, in her own words, stocky, chunky, porky and definitely not girly. A disease has broken out in the homeless shelters in Cardiff, and she is quarantined, unable to get out. She’s stuck in the shelter with a few of the homeless and her boss, Gloria, who is definitely not happy to be imprisoned with the vagrants she is supposed to be protecting.

There are a few memorable characters, such as Colin, who’s dog is dead but still lying in his doggy bed days after rigor mortis has set in. There’s utterly hairless Paul, with not a hair to his name, who does a runner from the quarantined shelter and is let loose into the city. Ffleur, beautiful sophisticated Ffleur, who is perhaps pretending to be homeless. What is her secret? And why is she latching on to Shona? Nain, Shona’s hypochondriac grandmother, who lives on tinned food and has a year’s supply of bleach in her cupboard. Shona’s mother, who did a runner herself and has a now-I-hate-you-now-I-don’t relationship with her family. And above all, Dan, Shona’s love, the journalist who wants to save the world from this pestilence that’s about to destroy everybody.

The story moves back and forth from the days of the quarantine and its aftermath to Shona’s time in a  prison hospital. The spread of the disease and the race to find its cure is swept up into a frenzy by the media and politicians use it as a ploy to gain votes.

We follow Shona as she struggles to face the true nature of the world. When faced with a calamity, true colours of people are usually revealed. We learn about her mental state and its destined path to self-destruction. We support her love for Dan and for her blind faith in him. But is it enough to make the world alright again?

Romy’s experience as a recovering bipolar person brings authenticity into the world of Shona and her actions and reactions. Her language is precise and self-deprecating, bringing to life the comic moments of politicians putting their foot in the mouth and the power of money talking. Cardiff, as the suffering city, is bleak and unsure. Bad things happen in the dark, afraid to show up the dirty facts in broad daylight.  This is a social commentary of the way things are, the society we live in. After reading it, will you ever look at a homeless person as part of the brickwork of the wall he shelters against?


It is a story of homelessness and disease. Of suspicion and vice. Of greed and selfishness. Politics. Medicine. Mental illness. And above all, love.

www.romywood.co.uk

Word on the Street is available from most online retailers and selected bookstores. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Mrs Jhaveri Investigates Part 5

She walked as fast as she possibly could. She’d have to get to the bottom of this. She changed quickly into a white sari and dashed to the Morgan’s home. People had already started dropping in. She saw Mrs Jones by the buffet table, helping herself to canapes.

“Hello, Mrs Jones,” she said quietly.

“Quite a gathering,” said Mrs Jones, biting into a smoked salmon blini. She wiped away an absent tear. “Who would have said we had gathered for a celebration a couple of nights ago?”

“True.”  Mrs Jhaveri wrung her hands together. Where would she get any clues?

“Did you try the canapes, Mrs…er… Mrs J?” Mrs Jones smiled.

“Oh no, thank you.” Mrs Jhaveri was shocked to see this gathering was more like a party. No mourning and wailing. No one in white clothes. She stood out in her Vanish Oxy Action white. People were giving her funny stares.

Well, who cares. In my country, one should wear white, she thought defiantly and went to find Mr Morgan. He was talking to the cleaning woman/cousin in the kitchen. Rather softly and urgently. Certainly not asking her to hoover the crumbs off the carpet, she thought. She watched them. They seemed to be arguing about something. The woman had her arms crossed and she leaned against the back door. Like a flash of lightening, an image streaked through Mrs Jhaveri’s head. The nurse… in the hospital… she used to stand like that by Mr Morgan’s bed every time they visited. Yes, yes…. Confused, shaken by her discovery, Mrs Jhaveri backed out into the hallway. She made her way to the shoe closet, and opened it. It was as if she knew it would be there.

A pair of cream coloured satin shoes, wedged in a corner, behind a pair of boots. They had not been there yesterday. They had been stuffed there today, after she had mentioned the shoes to Mrs Jones at the burial service. And who had been eavesdropping then? The cleaning woman. The nurse. Certainly not a cousin. Mr Morgan’s lover. The killer.

Mrs Jhaveri stepped back, trembling.

“Are you alright?” A man touched her shoulder, supporting her. “Are you alright, madam?”

“Yes, I am.” Mrs Jhaveri whispered. “I just found out who murdered Sian Morgan. I need to call the police.”

The man stared at her, then back at his salmon canapé. He turned pale and nodded. He led her towards the telephone.

***

“Mum,” Monica shouted over the blaring television. “You’re on telly.”

Rani squealed and positioned herself in front of the television. “Nani, Nani, you’re famous,” she chanted.

Mrs Jhaveri sat dumb-struck on the sofa. She looked at herself on the screen through narrowed eyes. She was talking to the news reporter in a high-pitched voice. It wasn’t her voice at all. It was all a bit much for her.

“Super sleuth from India,” shouted Monica, gleefully. “Mum, you’re a star.”

“So,” the reporter was saying. “How did you know who the killer was?”

“Well,” Mrs Jhaveri heard herself say. “I knew something was wrong when I heard Mrs Morgan had worn black shoes with her purple dress and pearls. That didn’t seem right. And then, the shoes were by her head, not on her feet.”

The journalist nodded. Rani clapped her hands and whooped for joy. The cameras focused on Mrs Jhaveri again. She stood stiffly and stared into the camera. She had that horrible fleece on. Mrs Jhaveri winced. She desperately needed a shopping trip if she was going to be famous.

The camera panned back to the journalist. He continued.

“Mr Morgan has confessed to the murder. He has been arrested. He and Miss Alison Smith, a nurse, connived together to kill Sian Morgan. They met two years ago when Mr Morgan had been admitted to the hospital after a heart attack. He was there for nearly a month and that’s where he met Nurse Alison Smith…”

“The bastard,” whispered Monica.

Mrs Jhaveri shifted uneasily in her chair. She shot a glance at Rani, but the child was staring gleefully at the television screen.

“They had an affair, you know,” she said quietly. “They fell in love when he was in hospital, and she would wait outside, hating us, hating Sian for being his wife.”

“Would you believe that?” Monica shouted. “Shameless old man.”

“Well, he did say he felt betrayed by Sian. She never wanted children And he did. And then when he met the nurse, there was a future there. She wanted to have his baby. It was a big temptation for him.”

“That woman is his daughter’s age, if he had one,” Monica said. “But why kill Sian? Couldn’t he just divorce her?”

“Yes. But greed came in the way. When Sian inherited her father’s money, the nurse thought that money would come into use in bringing up the child. Mr Morgan didn’t have money. Sian was the rich one. Probably that’s why he had to cook.”

“Oh-oh. It always boils down to money, doesn’t it?” Money chewed on her lip.

“Yes. So on the day of the anniversary party, Mr Morgan made that special mushroom soup for his wife. The nurse planned it all. And then they had the champagne for the party at night.” Mrs Jhaveri wiped her eyes. She couldn’t bear to think of her friend’s dreadful end.

“She literally toasted to her death.”

“Yes, that was awful.” Monica continued. “Just awful. The poison reacted when she went to the bathroom.”

“Yes, she was dying when the nurse … that spiteful woman, came up to her and whispered that she’d be in her shoes soon. And literally, took off Sian’s shoes and wore them. What a horrible thing to do. Sian died knowing the ghastly truth.”

“Didn’t Mrs Jones hear all this? I mean, she was in the loo as well.” Monica looked puzzled.

“Yes, she was. But she was too drunk to register much. Why, she even joked with Sian while she was dying. Silly woman.” Mrs Jhaveri shook her head. “Well, that’s that. The two of them thought they had managed to go scot free. Not knowing that Alison’s one stupid gesture cost them their freedom.”

“Yes,” Monica smiled and hugged her mother. “They didn’t know that Sian Morgan had such a clever neighbour, a certain Mrs Jhaveri, who did not believe a woman could wear the wrong shoes to a party.”

They laughed and Mrs Jhaveri hugged her back. “I am glad I found out the truth. For my friend, Sian. Alison Smith will never get into her shoes ever.”

“Amen to that,” smiled Monica. “So, who wants to go out for dinner tonight? Who wants to go out with a celebrity?”

“Me, me, me,” shouted Rani, jumping on the sofa.


“Well,” laughed Mrs Jhaveri. “Let’s go to that restaurant in Cardiff Bay then. Sian would have liked us to celebrate with her there.”

The End