As it's World Cancer Day, a snippet of a work-in-progress

This is raw first-draft stuff, so please excuse any typos and missing moments. Anyway, it's part of a longer autobiographical piece about, among other things, cancer and its impacts in and on my family. And as the header indicates, World Cancer Day is as good a reason as any to start thinking about this again. And if it prompts you to donate a couple of quid to Macmillan Cancer Support along the way, so much the better. 

Thanks for reading


We were going for a curry. That was the idea. We hadn’t been to the Raj Mohal for ages, and it was Dad’s birthday. I can’t remember who had the idea. Anyway, there it was. A curry.

I got the call mid-afternoon. Dad had a medical appointment on his birthday. We’d been chiding him gently for a while now in our own different ways to go to the GP and get himself checked out. He’d been little on the forgetful side for a few years. Nothing dramatic, but it was noticeable, and he had been like that since way before Mum had died back in 2008. Then, it just seemed part of the getting old process, along with the arthritic aches he got in his hands and the blood-pressure medication that he’d been put on a few years earlier.

The forgetfulness had been more recently accompanied by unsteadiness on the feet. There’d been couple of tumbles that I’d known about, and probably a few more that I wasn’t aware of. Along the way we’d got Dad a walking stick, and after a few half-hearted attempts to resist adopting it, the stick and he had become somewhat inseparable. To some of his grandkids, he and the stick were as one. He liked having the stick brought to him. He took pleasure not just in the Octonauts stickers that decorated the shaft of the stick, but also in pointing the various Octonauts – Captain Barnacles, Kwazi, Peso Penguin and the rest of them – to other oldsters.

Stairs were becoming a part of the problem. The staircase at his house was an anti-clockwise winding set; wider to the left than the right as it went up. Not the easiest to navigate.

Worse, though, were the three steps up to and down from the door to the Boars Head pub.

We’d started going to the pub when I moved back to Louth from Grimsby in 2008. Moving back was part of the process surrounding Mum’s death. Louth was the right place to be; Dad needed some support and I could help with that better if I was closer to him. My younger brother was also in the town with his new wife and their firstborn. We’d muddle through somehow.

A new routine established itself. Sunday lunches up at Dad’s house, plus I’d go round at least one mid-week evening. Wednesdays or Thursdays, usually depending on football on the telly. One of us would cook something, and then we’d go to the pub for a couple of pints.

There are two pubs within easy walking distance of Dad’s house: The Brown Cow and The Boars Head. The Cow is the closest, so that’s where we went. Wednesdays were good in there. The pub tended to quieten down after a teatime flurry of trade about half seven, which is when we’d turn up. We’d stay for a couple of hours, and leave about nine thirty, by which time the place would be getting a little busier as folk came out for a couple of drinks before bed.

Wednesday night was a regulars’ thing. The same faces in their own orbits. Barry, who’d been there since early doors, and who would fuss over the Sun crossword. He’d have a carrier bag with four cans of Carling with him. These were for later. He’d leave nine-ish, like as not buying a glass bottle of lemonade for his wife - “Good lass, she is” – and sometimes with the takeaway fish and chips that the pub did, for his supper. Barry would keep himself to himself in the main, though would nick into conversations sometimes, especially if his bellowed South Yorkshire was invoked. Barry had a Sheffield Wednesday tattoo on his arm and, the way he told it, had pretty much single-handedly built the M62, the M1, Meadowhall shopping centre and the Tinsley viaduct. Barry drank Carling; three or four pints.

Barry left; John would come in. A dapper gent, retirement age, with the cropped precision of a weekly haircut that probably had settled into a preferred style sometime around him completing his National Service. Dad and John would needle each other about Manchester United. Dad would scoff at the big-city team, and about fair-weather fans. John would relish any and all of their successes.

Dad drank bitter. He favoured light, dry, hoppy ales. He seldom went over four per cent ABV. In the Brown Cow, Dad drank Adnams, though there was usually a guest alternative that would be just as acceptable.

He’d flirt ironically with XXX behind the bar, swap bits of local lore with XXXX who did a couple of shifts a week in there, and who’d been doing bar work in Louth since Adam was a lad. Landlord Nigel would…

The pub started getting busier; it was picking up a reputation for the quality of the food and the beer, and was being seen in town as a viable alternative to the more well-heeled town centre pubs. The Cow is a small place; it’s full when there’s more than a dozen people in there. At some point it became clear that Dad wasn't enjoying going so much. He’d chunter about the noise, about not being able to hear himself think. There was a TV in the corner showing Sky Sports or ITV if they had a game on. The telly had been upgraded from a perfunctory little flat-screen to something more dominant. This would have been in preparation for one of the football tournaments; maybe the 2012 European Championships.

Where we’d usually have been able to while away an hour or so picking through the local paper, this was less possible. Too many people, too much noise. The Louth Leader – which comes out on Wednesdays and offers the usual small-town diet of court reports, primary school class photographs and rumours of chain stores opening a branch nearby – would have to wait.

A decision was taken. Time to knock the Cow on the head for a while. One of us – I think it was me – suggested that we give the Boars a try instead. Heck, there was a sign in the window that said they did fish and chips for a fiver on Friday teatimes.

That was a done deal.

Half of Louth has their own story about the time they got kicked out of the Boars Head. It was once of those kinds of places. You either fitted in, or you didn’t. It’s closed now; the pub went dark in the summer of 2015. The building’s marked for demolition as part of wider improvements for the adjoining cattle market. We’ll get to that in a bit.

The Boars Head had been a pub for two hundred years. A solid, uncompromising bit of Georgian brickwork, it’s been open since about 1800, and is quite the oldest building on that stretch of Newmarket. The street name refers to the cattle market, which by now has been there for hundreds of years. The local council has been trying to move the market onto the industrial estate on the other side of town for years; they want to sell the land for supermarket development.

The Boars is where the farmers drank. The pub would open at 9am on Thursdays – cattle market day – and serve up Full Englishes and liver and onions to increasingly pissed-up country boys. The Boars was a Bateman’s pub; XB and XXXB were the bitters on offer. A cider. Sometimes a guest ale, sometimes not. Guinness came in cans. Pleasingly, there were both pickled eggs and onions available, and in a concession to the sweet-toothed, a box of Kit-Kats was always on standby.

The steps up to the door were no challenge; the same steps back down were always an issue for Dad. He’d be reminded of them on the walk down Newmarket. They would become, over time, a signal to him, and to others as well, of his slow decline. Like all such things, they were treated as a bit of a running joke, but nevertheless those steps didn’t just make him uneasy at times.

You had to earn your place at the Boars. Signwork outside said that this was a community pub. This was not intended as a welcome. A repository of good old-fashioned British insular bigotry of the old school, the Boars could be the stage for some remarkably reactionary views. The clues were there on the walls; the 2012 Red Arrows framed crew picture, signed by pilots and support staff. The Lancaster bomber pictures. The omnipresent Daily Mail on the bar, often as not underlined and annotated as though scripture was being studied by Barbara behind the bar. If she wasn’t checking the small print, she’d be on her laptop doing word searches or having some crafty bingo.              

Then again, the food was good. Plain, but good. The menu system at the Boars was simplicity. On Sundays, they did a roast dinner. Five quid. Pork or beef. On Fridays, fish and chips. Tuesdays there was a choice of curry or sweet and sour chicken. In the summer they’d do a salad. Vegetarian choice was you could have crisps or fuck off.

The Boars had kept its rooms; the place was subdivided into three rooms. One was reserved for meetings, a poky little cold alcove with a begrudgingly-lit coal fire. As it had the accommodation, all kinds of clubs and societies would meet here. The Film Club. The hospital radio people. The Green party. Dad remembered coming to union and to Labour Party events here in the 1970s. The room to the right of the bar  - wallpapered over with overlapping beer posters - was sometimes used by the Young Farmers for their fortnightly get-togethers, but as the gents was outside in an old public toilet that had been part of the cattle market before being annexed by the brewery, that meant that sometimes you’d cut through a talk being given to them by the St John’s Ambulance or whichever civic or charitable organisation was hitting them up for donations that week. Trailing cables for portable projectors were an ever-present hazard.

Clientele were local; faces from down the street. A couple of local notables. A boorish Alderman who fancied himself a raconteur. The fella that has the carpet warehouse. A former engineer whose principal topic of conversation these days was motorcycles of the 1950s and/or models of traction engines. We slotted right in.

As long as you kept the conversation off the political, and that wasn’t hard to do, the evenings went well. A cheap meal out, a bit of socialisation, some local innuendo, three or four drinks. Sometimes tongues were bitten; that was as rowdy as it ever got.

It was clear in the Boars’ that you were Barbara’s guests. Her house, her rules. Fair enough. Just don’t get her started on anything contentious.

Dad started to drink less. He’d never been a wild boozer at all, but he was having trouble with the sheer amount of liquid involved in drinking beer in a pub. In 2012 he’d have a couple of pints, and then switch to halves. He started to drop this back to having one pint first, then halves from that point on. As a point of pride, the half pint was poured into the pint; he never drank from a half-pint glass.

He started to dread leaving. Exiting a pub is an understandable traumatic experience for anyone, but those steps started to take on a mental life of their own. They represented something more than a means to ground level from the elevated floor of the pub.

Three steps. Painted red. Dad had difficulty judging distances. His depth perception was out somehow. He’d struggle on though and a way would be devised to get to the asphalt outside without tottering over. The steps would loom however.

The unspoken assumption was that there was something lurking in the background. Dementia. Alzheimer’s. That sort of thing. The kind of getting-on-a-bit illness one might expect.

Still, the symptoms were developing, and even Dad couldn’t put it off anymore. So off to the GP he went.

I’d made the decision to move back in with him late in 2011. Remote support was good, but it needed more than phone calls every other day and midweek and weekend visits. Besides, though in his 70s, Dad had been working, keeping a small business going. That business was unravelling.

At some point I started making lunches. Part of the routine teatime chitchat was the question – what did you have for lunch? – and sometimes Dad couldn’t answer. I wasn’t sure if this was because he’s forgotten it as his short-term memory wasn’t there, or because he’d forgotten to eat at all. 

New routines began to establish themselves. I’d put out breakfast things and his pills as an aide-memoire to have his Puffed Wheat and his blood-pressure stuff. Lunch would be in the fridge; I was making sandwiches for myself anyway, so knocking another round or two of ham-and-cheese was no hardship.

Dad had usually taken on midweek teatime duties, but these slid over to me.

It worked pretty well, though I found myself worrying about what Dad was doing in the daytime.

Once, he got conned. A bloke was poking around door-to-door and Dad got it into his head that this fella was from the landlord. The man seems to have jumped on the idea and let him think that. Somehow the conversation came around to buying logs for the fire for Winter and the fella agreed that he could have a load of wood brought round for fifty pounds. Naturally, the wood never came.

I don’t think he ever went into town and got lost, or anything like that, but the potential was there. Slowly, Dad’s radius contracted. He’d given up driving a couple of years previously when he’d got into the habit of taking right-turns at roundabouts. Sensibly, he saw that his focus was going, and that he couldn’t trust himself to concentrate behind the wheel of a vehicle.

I’d walk him into town sometimes. Sometimes we’d get the local town circuit bus; it stopped only a few yards from his house anyway. We worked out that walking either to or from town was fine, but doing both was too much. And besides, we rationalised, taking a taxi home from the town centre was only a flat two pounds fifty. Better pay that and have your shopping carried home for you than struggle up Aswell Street with a full bag.

There were intermittent contacts with various social services. Age UK arranged some things: handrails for the stairs as well as the steps up to his front door, a hydraulic lift for the bath. We signed up for an on-call service. He wore an alarm pendant to press if he fell that would a message to a responder.

The afternoon phone call on his birthday was a bit unnecessary. Yes, he’d been to his appointment, yes he had some news, no he wouldn’t say what it was over the phone. Right. The lesson in mystery received, the rest of the afternoon crawled by.

He’d had by this stage a couple of scans. An MRI and a CAT, if I remember right. The assumption remained that he’d copped for one of the above-mentioned conditions I associated with growing old.

It was a bit of a surprise to have him tell me that he had a brain tumour.

We went for the curry anyway.